By Chris Bunton
“There seems little room for doubt that the desperado, who was recently killed at Pinckneyville, the particulars of which, our local correspondent of that town, has heretofore furnished our readers, was the real “Sam Hildebrand” of Missouri notoriety”—Du Quoin Tribune, April 11, 1872
Sam Hildebrand was born on January 6, 1836 at the family farm in St. Francois County, Missouri. He went to school for one day, and hated it. He cussed out the teacher and went home, where his father gave him a choice to work the farm or go to school. Sam chose to work the farm, and threatening to send him to school was the only discipline he ever needed.
At the age of 19 he married Margaret Hampton, and built a homestead near the family farm. The Hildebrand’s had raised hogs for many years and left them to run wild. New settlers to the county laid claim to the hogs. This set up instances of fist fights, lawsuits and attempts to destroy the reputations of the Hildebrand family, according to Sam Hildebrand in his autobiography.
At the beginning of the Civil War in South East Missouri, men loyal to the Confederates would steal horses and sell them to the South. A cousin approached Sam and wanted to swap horses. Sam did so, but later realized the horse wouldn’t pull a plow, and traded him. It was then discovered that the horse was stolen. The local Vigilance Committee, which was nothing more than vigilante groups, swore to kill Sam and his brother, calling them southern sympathizers, and horse thieves. But, the vigilantes were also motivated by earlier vendettas in the county.
Sam and his brother hid out in the woods. One night Sam was hungry and cold, and went home. He was ambushed by the vigilante group, and barely escaped. He later returned to move his wife and five children. His brother attempted to join a Northern Militia unit. But, was identified and turned over to the vigilantes who hung him.
According to Hildebrand the vigilantes were given a commission to drive out or destroy anyone who was considered a southern sympathizer. The vigilantes with 80 union troops attacked Sam’s new house. He escaped, but was shot in the leg. The troops burned his house down leaving his wife and children with no shelter. Sam lay in a ditch, swearing vengeance upon the vigilantes and the Union that supported them.
Sam then traveled to Arkansas where General Jefferson Thompson of the Confederacy made him a major, over a unit of guerrillas. Guerrillas or Bushwhackers, during the Civil War were viewed as criminals. It was their job to harass Union forces, steal provisions, and punish Union sympathizers.
Sam went back to St. Francois County and proceeded to kill every one of the vigilantes who had hung his brother and made his wife and children homeless. In retaliation, the remaining vigilantes and local Union forces, drove his mother from her home, and burned it down. They also murdered his uncle and two brothers.
Sam continued his personal war in St. Francois County while at the same time waging guerrilla war from Arkansas. His men raided Union camps, ambushed local leaders, while robbing Union supporters, and military supply trains. It is estimated that Sam killed 80-100 men with his rifle “Kill-Devil” and put notches in the weapon for each one.
When the war ended, He stated in his autobiography; “I was annoyed beyond all measure by the reflection that the war had suddenly ceased before I was done fighting.” He had only killed a portion of the Vigilance Committee that had murdered his family, and did not want them to get away with it. Sam wanted to continue to fight, but his wife talked him into accepting a parole on May 26, 1865.
He rented a place in Arkansas and began to farm again. In 1869, he moved to St. Genevieve County, on the border of St. Francois County; his home. This caused the surviving vigilantes to get nervous. They contacted the governor in order to get rid of Sam. There was a bounty placed on his head and the New York Times of July 3, 1869 states the amount was $10,000 which caused men to hunt him down.
He was wounded in an assassination attempt, and escaped to a relative’s house where he was surrounded. He shot his way out and a manhunt ensued. The governor even called out the militia to hunt for him.
After escaping, Sam traveled the south with his family. In 1870, he dictated his life story to two journalists who wrote his autobiography. It is said that his wife died sometime after that in Texas. Sam then moved to Pinckneyville, Illinois with his children and earned a living cutting wood.
Sam had this to say about his acts; “I make no apology to mankind for my acts of retaliation; I make no whining appeal to the world for sympathy. I sought revenge and I found it; the key of hell was not suffered to rust in the lock while I was on the warpath.”
There are several stories regarding the death of Sam Hildebrand. Most stories however place Sam in a saloon in Pinckneyville, where he got into some trouble. The Du Quoin Tribune states that Hildebrand was arrested for violating an ordinance. He was “tried and fined for the same, that He was then, taken in custody by the officers for an assault with intent to kill.” It was at this time that Sam fought to escape and pulled a knife, stabbing Deputy John Ragland in the leg. Ragland then shot Hildebrand in the head. Sam Hildebrand died on March 21, 1872.
The body was identified by his only surviving brother William. Deputy Ragland spent several months recovering and it is said that he had a limp for the rest of his life. He moved to Benton, Illinois. Then, moved to California, where he died. It is said that he only received about $1500 of the reward for Hildebrand.
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Bio: Chris Bunton is a Writer, Blogger and Poet from Southern Illinois.