Cullen Montgomery Baker (1835–1869)

Cullen Baker was one of the most notorious outlaws in the United States in the period following the Civil War. Following the end of his service, the former Confederate soldier along with a variety of followers preyed upon people of all ages with indiscriminate fury. Some termed Baker a psychopath, but whatever the label, he terrorized Arkansas and the neighboring western Tennessee and eastern Texas regions, claiming numerous helpless victims. His reign of terror only came to an end when he was killed in January 1869.

Cullen Montgomery Baker was born in Weakley County, Tennessee, on June 22, 1835, to John and Elizabeth Baker. The family moved to Texas in 1839, ultimately settling in Cass County after Baker’s father received a grant of 640 acres from the Texas Congress. The young Baker soon became a hard drinker and was widely known for his mean spirit and quarrelsome ways.

He is said to have briefly reformed after he married Martha Jane Petty, who lived in Arkansas, just over the border with Texas, on January 11, 1854. However, that fall, after whipping a boy nearly to death, Baker left the scene and went to confront one of the witnesses. Baker then shot the witness multiple times before leaving him lying in front of his house. The man died a few days later, the first of Baker’s many victims.

Baker and his wife appear to have lived in Perry County, Arkansas, at the home of his uncle (his mother’s brother) for the next two years. In May 1857, Martha Jane Baker gave birth to the couple’s only child, a daughter whom Baker left with his in-laws in Texas after Martha Jane died in June 1860. He returned to Arkansas, still a wanted man. Not long after his wife’s death, he murdered another man whose wife had criticized Baker. In July 1862, Baker wed for a second time, marrying Martha Foster, who had no idea that he was wanted for multiple counts of murder.

Not long after the Civil War began, Baker joined the Confederate army. There are reports that he shot and killed at least three African Americans. At the same time, there is little information available about his wartime exploits, although it appears that by 1864, whether by desertion or discharge, he had left the army and joined a group known as the Independent Rangers. While it was supposed to be a group that pursued and captured Confederate deserters, under Baker they were a band of marauders who took advantage of the elderly, women, and children left behind, intimidating, raping, and robbing the innocent victims.

Baker continued his lawless ways in the final year of the war and afterward. One incident that sealed his image as a lawless psychopath was what came to be known as the Massacre of Saline. Leading a group of Rangers, he sought to track down a band of Arkansans who were fleeing the state for a better life out west, an act he saw as unpatriotic. Baker and company caught up to the group as they crossed the Saline River in the Ouachita Mountains. When the group refused to turn back, Baker shot and killed the leader but promised that he would kill no one else if they turned back. However, after the group had recrossed the river, Baker and other Rangers opened fire, killing nine other men. Not long afterward, Baker killed four African American Union army soldiers after they stopped him in a saloon and asked for identification.

Going back and forth between Arkansas and Texas, he teamed up with a range of others to form gangs that wreaked havoc on civilians and soldiers alike. Reflective of postwar tensions, his attacks on Union soldiers and sympathizers made him a hero in the eyes of some, but his overall record makes clear that politics were far less a reason for him to kill someone than whether they simply angered him—for whatever reason. In the eyes of some, Baker was a forerunner of the outlaws and gunslingers that would come to characterize the post–Civil War “Wild West,” but others saw a more vengeful and psychopathic mindset.

The killing rampages continued for the rest of his days. The list of killings that he and his various gangs committed have little rhyme or reason. In the end, he and his top lieutenant, Lee Rames, fell out, and except for one ally, “Dummy” Kirby, the group abandoned Baker and went with Rames. In January 1869, Kirby and Baker retreated to Bloomburg, Texas, where he—along with Kirby—finally met his demise.

How exactly it happened remains a source of dispute. One version has Baker and Kirby being poisoned when Baker’s father-in-law and friends laced a bottle of whiskey with strychnine, and after Baker and Kirby drank it and died, their bodies were shot to reinforce the act. Another version alleges that a local man who was romantically involved with Baker’s wife Martha led a small group that ambushed Baker and Kirby at Martha’s home. While neither story can be taken as definitive, in the end, both stories have Baker and Kirby dying at the Foster home on January 6, 1869, their bodies riddled with bullets and then dragged through town.

Baker is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Jefferson, Texas.

For additional information:
“Cullen Baker—One of the West’s First Bad Men.” The History Junkie, (accessed May 19, 2023).

Johnson, Boyd W. “Cullen Montgomery Baker the Arkansas-Texas Desperado.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 25 (Autumn 1966): 229–239.

O’Neal, Bill. “Ex-Rebel Cullen Baker Was a Post-War Murdering Madman.” HistoryNet, November 1, 2019. (accessed May 19, 2023).

Weiser-Alexander, Kathy. “Cullen Montgomery Baker—A Very Bad Man.” Legends of America, February 2020. (accessed May 19, 2023).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School


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