Poe, John William (1850–1923)

By: H. Allen Anderson

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: April 28, 2019

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John William Poe, buffalo hunter, lawman, and businessman, was born in 1850. During his youth on his grandfather's farm near Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky, he was impressed by the novels of Sir Walter Scott and became possessed with a desire to seek adventures out west. Accordingly, in 1870 he left home and made his way to Missouri, working as a farm hand and with a railroad construction crew. He traveled from Kansas in the company of Dan Hudson and arrived in 1872 at Fort Griffin, Texas, as a center for commercial buffalo hunting; Poe worked briefly on Jim Barton's ranch nearby. Among other occupations he and John C. Jacobs trapped wolves for pelts to sell to the government commissary at Fort Griffin. In 1873 Poe and Jacobs formed a buffalo hunting partnership. By his estimate Poe killed twenty thousand buffalo. The partners hunted until 1878, when Poe became town marshal at Fort Griffin and was commissioned a deputy United States marshal. These positions were good training for him as a peace officer because of the number and variety of crimes at Fort Griffin.

In 1879 Poe became a deputy sheriff at Fort Elliott in Wheeler County and continued as a deputy United States marshal. In 1881 the Canadian River Cattle Association employed him as a detective to help end the lawless activities of Billy the Kid (Henry McCarty) and his gang. In March of that year Poe went to White Oaks in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he met county sheriff Patrick Floyd Garrett. Garrett made Poe a deputy sheriff, and when shortly thereafter McCarty escaped from jail, Garrett and Poe searched for him. After some three months, Poe received a tip that McCarty was at Fort Sumner, and he and Garrett, together with Thomas L. McKinney, another of Garrett's deputies, rode there. On the night of July 14, 1881, Poe and McKinney accompanied Garrett to Pete Maxwell's ranchhouse, where Garrett shot McCarty. Later, Poe was instrumental in securing an indictment against Pat Coghlin, a shady New Mexico rancher accused of hiring assassins to murder neighbors who were scheduled to testify against him at his trial in Mesilla, New Mexico, for cattle rustling.

Aided by his reputation as a law enforcer, Poe was elected sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, in 1882. The next year he married Sophie Alberding. The couple lived for a year in Lincoln, then in 1884 moved to a ranch southwest of Fort Stanton. After resigning as sheriff, Poe moved to Roswell, where he engaged in the mercantile business with Smith Lea and W. H. Cosgrove. In 1887 he accompanied Lea to Argentina to seek out a location for a cattle ranch, but he later decided against the venture. Poe founded the Bank of Roswell in 1890 and the Citizens Bank of Roswell in 1900. During this time he became a charter member of the Roswell Masonic lodge and also served on the board of regents of New Mexico Military Institute. During World War I Poe was fuel administrator of New Mexico and served two years as president of the New Mexico State Tax Commission. He died at Roswell on July 22, 1923, and was buried there in South Park Cemetery. The Poes, childless after the death of their newborn son in 1884, enjoyed traveling and made several tours abroad. After Poe's death his widow wrote several books about their overseas travels and in 1936 published Buckboard Days, a biography of her husband. Much of this book deals with Poe's adventures as a buffalo hunter and peace officer in West Texas.

Leon C. Metz, Pat Garrett (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974). John W. Poe, The Death of Billy the Kid (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933). Sophie A. Poe, Buckboard Days (Caldwell, Idaho, 1936; rpt., Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981).


  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Law Officers

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

H. Allen Anderson, “Poe, John William,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 20, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/poe-john-william.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 28, 2019