The history of the event that spawned the legend is as hazy as the newspaper reports of it back in the day. Yet it shaped the life of a young Oklahoma lass and indelibly imprinted her name into the lore of the West. The question is, though, did she go on to shop her man? We’ll perhaps never get to the bottom of that – but thanks to Rusty Young her notoriety lives on with his musical tribute.
Here’s what we think we know. At some date in 1879 she was was born in the town of Ingalls in her home state, initially a member of a dirt poor family. Her mother later remarried a prominent town citizen and that changed her circumstances, if not her wild ways. The stepfather was probably the reason her name was erased from the official and press reports of the incident at the time – that and her youth.
Rose Dunn had several elder brothers – sources are vague on the exact number – but by the time their sister attained teenagerhood the boys had strayed to the wrong side of the law. They were hanging out with a gang of ne’er-do-wells at a secret hideaway by a river on the outskirts of town. Rose spent time with them there too, learning how to rope, ride and shoot – and by all accounts becoming more than proficient at all three, thus adding to the legend. Some of these skills were surely required in order to survive the ordeal that lay not too far ahead of our Rose. Soon her brothers decided that the other side of the tracks just wasn’t advancing them very much at all financially. They left their crim pals to join the side of justice, becoming bounty hunters. Rose stayed on. The gang by now numbered a half dozen or so and was being led by the Doolin Brothers. This motley crew later became known, in the endless list of banditry existing in the Old West, as the ‘Wild Bunch’. The reason Rose did not stray from them too is that, at fifteen, she was now very intimate with one of the rogues, George Newcomb, better known as Bitter Creek. She supplied him and his cronies with all the victuals they needed from the stores in her burb as, by now being wanted men, it was in their best interests not to be seen there in broad daylight.
We know not what bought them out and about on the streets of that Oklahoma town one September day back in 1893. But ride in they did, only to be corralled by a posse of thirteen US marshals waiting for them. The resulting gunfight became known as the Battle of Ingalls. Bitter Creek was wounded very early in the shoot-out and from her vantage point Rose could see he was out of ammo, making him vulnerable in the extreme. She was able to get a rifle to her man enabling him to continue the fight. Exactly how is a moot point. All evidence comes from eye-witnesses recalling the ‘battle’, long after the event, so verifying it all is difficult. One source stated she simply dashed to his side, relying on the fact that true gentlemen would never shoot at a woman, let alone a young girl. Another, there on the occasion, stated she was trapped in an upstairs room of the OK Hotel, lowering the rifle down by a bed sheet, following herself by the same method. There seems to be some evidence she may have defended her lover by returning fire herself. All recollect she was vital in allowing BC to escape the scene, despite his wounds. Two deputies were killed, but most of the Wild Bunch escaped, albeit with several carrying lead. They headed to their riverside refuge where Rose nursed them back to health. Soon after Rose became disenchanted with life on the run – either that or her ardour for her man cooled – so she returned to the family home in Ingalls. Was Bitter Creek pining for her so much that, despite the $5000 dollar reward on his head, he decided to pay her a visit – or did he have revenge on his mind? We don’t know the reason, but her brothers were waiting to ambush and as he dismounted his stead, they shot him dead. From this has emerged the notion that Rose knew he was coming and betrayed him. The bounty was duly collected. Did she share in the reward? Again, it’s not recorded.
For the rest of her days Rose kept her role in the affray to herself. She’d had enough excitement for one lifespan and desired a less frenetic existence. She went on marry a local politician, became a respectable law-abiding citizen, dying far away in Washington state, aged seventy-six.
She, however, lives on in the ethos of the Wild West, carrying attached to her name that of the river on the outskirts of her town- the hiding place for the Wild Bunch. For all time she’ll remain the Rose of Cimarron. But how did her legend spread?
In 1915 a Bill Tilghman gave the story to a newspaperman and it was he who gave the tale its first airing in print, based on Bill’s recollections as a former lawman. His tale was included in a slight compilation of such yarns entitled ‘Oklahoma Outlaws’. Over subsequent decades the saga was rehashed in many publications, but it took until 1952 for the real life Ms Dunn to become linked with the legendary Rose. This was down to some skilful detective work by author James D Horan in preparing for his tome ‘Desperate Women’. Hollywood came calling and tried to track her down, but she couldn’t be found. No Facebook, etc, back then! The movie version of the ‘Rose Of Cimarron’, tale that eventually emerged, had no parallel to the events centred on Rose and Bitter Creek. But, of course, we have the song.
The members of Poco, along with the likes of Gram Parsons and the Byrds, were prominent in the early days of West Coast country rock genre that reached its peak with the Eagles. A constant in their ever-changing line-up, right till 2013, has been Rusty Young. Back in 1973, on tour in Oklahoma, Rusty picked up a publication that featured the story of Rose and her deeds in days of yore. On that basis he crafted the tune in her memory – a tune that became his band’s signature song.
Those of you who know this scribbler well also know my adoration of Emmylou Harris. In 1981 she covered the song on her ‘Cimarron’ album. When she left Warner Brothers, in the nineties, the honchos there released a cobbled together collection of some of her country classics, including the Young penned tune. This album, despite it being a mishmash, still stands up well, including, as it does, such chestnuts as ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, ‘Queen of the Silver Dollar’ and ‘The Sweetheart of the Rodeo’. But to me ‘Rose of Cimarron’ is the stand-out.
The song takes us back to the day when ‘…the misspent lead was hitting in the streets like a hard rain on dusty ground’ and Rose Dunn, at only fifteen, staked her claim as a true legend of the Old West. Think of her as you click over to YouTube to check out Poco’s original version, or when having a listen to Emmylou’s take on it. Both are classics!
Lyrics to Rose of Cimarron = http://www.lyricsfreak.com/p/poco/rose+of+cimarron_20109666.html
YouTube – Poco = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dd8Yj1Zqkc
YouTube – Emmylou Harris = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blIFNGcJ4XY