One of Frederic Remington's classic Western paintings was inspired by the 1889 Wham payroll robbery.
One of Frederic Remington’s classic Western paintings was inspired by the 1889 Wham payroll robbery.
The career of Army paymaster Maj. Joseph W. Wham was approaching its inglorious conclusion in 1894 when he was court-martialed at Vancouver Barracks.
The New York Times noted in its coverage of the trial that “Wham’s career in the army has been interesting.”
It started with his 1861 enlistment in the 21st Illinois Infantry. Wham served under Col. Ulysses S. Grant, who’d been an officer at Fort Vancouver in 1852.
Perhaps the most interesting turn took place in 1889, five years before Wham’s court-martial in Vancouver.
Actually, “epic” might be a better description of that incident. It featured a Wild West shoot-out, stolen gold, a controversial court case and two Medal of Honor awards.
In 1889, Wham (it rhymes with “Tom”) and his escort detail were in the middle of a payroll run in Arizona Territory when they were ambushed. After a 30-minute gun battle, the bandits escaped with $29,000 in gold and silver coins.
The money has never been found.
… Or has it?
A local man is wondering whether part of a buried trove of gold coins discovered recently in California is part of the Army payroll stolen 125 years ago.
Maybe the FBI can figure it out. Tracy Phillips said he and his sister have talked with federal agencies in California and Arizona about the 1889 robbery.
However the saga of that California gold cache turns out, the tale of the former Vancouver soldier and his long-lost payroll is a great story. That’s certainly what Phillips thought when he first heard about it in 2009 at Arlington National Cemetery.
Along with family members, the Washougal resident was visiting the grave of his nephew, Sgt. John Kyle Daggett. The Army Ranger died May 15, 2008, after being wounded in Iraq.
While members of Daggett’s family were paying their respects, another commemoration was going on nearby. It was the burial of the remains of Cpl. Isaiah Mays. Born a slave in 1858, Mays enlisted in one of the Army’s all-black units. Known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” they served throughout the West — including a company that was sent to Vancouver Barracks in 1899 for a 13-month assignment.
Mays was buried in 1925 at a state hospital that had once been the Arizona territorial insane asylum. In 2009, Mays’ cremated remains were buried at Arlington, with military honors in keeping with his status as a Medal of Honor winner.
“They told his story,” Phillips said, and that’s how he heard about the payroll robbery.
Then earlier this year, “When people were talking about the gold find, it clicked,” Phillips said.
On May 11, 1889, Maj. Wham was transporting a strongbox loaded with $29,345.10 in gold and silver coins in an Army ambulance. He was escorted by nine soldiers on horseback and two infantrymen in a wagon. On the way from Fort Grant to Fort Thomas, they had to stop when they found a tight spot on the road blocked by a huge boulder.
When the soldiers tried to roll the boulder away, gunmen who’d been concealed among rocks above the roadway opened fire.
An unexpected fight
In a 1999 presentation to the Arizona Historical Society, Larry Upton had an extensive account of the robbery, as well as the subsequent investigation and trial.
The bandits probably expected the black soldiers to flee at the first volley, Upton wrote. They didn’t even bother to cover their faces.
But most of the soldiers found cover and returned fire.
After Sgt. Benjamin Brown was shot five times, Cpl. Mays took command. Finally, with eight men disabled, Mays ordered the soldiers to retreat to a nearby creek bed. The bandits then emerged from their ambush positions and took the strongbox.
Remarkably, none of the soldiers was killed. Mays, wounded in both legs, hobbled and crawled to a ranch 2 miles away to raise the alarm.
Eleven men were arrested. Seven were tried for armed robbery, including Pima, Ariz., mayor Gilbert Webb. Since the bandits didn’t wear masks, robbery victims identified several defendants as the attackers. Other witnesses testified to seeing some of the defendants along that stretch of road earlier, as they might be if they were preparing an ambush.
All seven were acquitted.
Upton didn’t think the stolen gold wound up as a lost treasure: “With all the suspects set free, this would seem doubtful,” Upton wrote.
But there aren’t a lot of other long-lost gold shipments that have been suggested as possible candidates for the California coin cache.
Dates on some coins in the California treasure trove showed they were minted several years after the robbery. Still, somebody bold enough to hold up an Army payroll detail could have pulled off a few more robberies in the ensuing years and added to his stash.
In Wham’s words
Wham provided a first-person account of the incident in his report to the U.S. Army’s pay department; it was reproduced in a book by Frank N. Schubert, “Voices of the Buffalo Soldiers.” In Wham’s report, he recommended Brown and Mays for the Medal of Honor.
Mays was a corporal in Company B of the 24th Infantry. “That was the same unit that served at Vancouver Barracks” in 1899, said Greg Shine, chief ranger and historian at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
None of the names of the Buffalo Soldiers in that 1889 escort detail match the men in the 24th Infantry who were at Vancouver Barracks a decade later, Shine added.
So Wham was likely the only person in the Army payroll detail to serve in Vancouver, and that didn’t end well. Wham was court-martialed for what the New York Times called “irregularities in his personal affairs, involving non-payment of his debts.”
It wasn’t his first court-martial. In 1890, Wham was one of four officers charged in Tucson by the War Department with defrauding the government in their payroll and quartermaster duties.
Maybe that was why — as the New York Times reported in its coverage of the Vancouver Barracks trial — Wham hadn’t been able to get his paymaster’s bond renewed. At the end of its story, the Times wrote that Wham had been appointed a paymaster by Ulysses S. Grant on the final day of his presidency.
It was Grant’s name that Wham invoked in his 1889 report on the payroll robbery, as he recommended Mays and Brown for the Medal of Honor.
Wham wrote: “I was a soldier in Grant’s old regiment during the entire war, and was justly proud of its record of 16 battles and of the reflected glory of its old Colonel, the ‘Great Commander,’ but I never witnessed better courage or
better fighting than shown by these colored soldiers on May 11, 1889.”