A 110-year-old Colt .45 single-action Army revolver has recently been donated to the Chickasaw Nation by a prominent Chickasaw family. The iconic American pistol is on display at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
The nickel-plated firearm was purchased in 1904 by Chickasaw citizen Holmes Willis. It was handed down through three generations of family before being donated by Willis’ great-grandson, William Holmes Willis.
The weapon, in good shape for its age, is adorned with pearl-handled pistol grips, a nicety that would have set the purchaser back a few extra dollars in 1904. The gun is also engraved. Such detail was rare on a typical weapon sold in the period.
Holmes Willis was a businessman and owned two general merchandise stores in the Kingston, Oklahoma area, according to research conducted by Cultural Center historian Mason Cole. Mercantile shops were the norm in 1904 and would have sold items ranging from ammunition, to coffee, groceries and tobacco.
According to Holmes Willis’ obituary, he was a cattle rancher and served as superintendent of Chickasaw schools. He moved the family to Kingston shortly after statehood and remained there the rest of his life. Willis’ business acumen led him to form Holmes Willis and Co. Inc., with two of his sons and a son-in-law.
In a 1976 reprinted article in The Texoman, Willis and his partners were praised as a “credit to Kingston and Marshall County. They are without a doubt merchants of which we are justly proud for their fair dealings and progressiveness.”?Articles went on to say of Willis, “he was a national figure and the state of Oklahoma never raised a better man, morally or in a business way. His good deeds are as numerable as the cotton stalks in and around his old home and his name is revered by young and old.” The Texomanreprinted articles first published by The Kingston Messenger in 1908 and 1917. Willis was a descendant of the Love family, which enjoyed particular influence among Chickasaws.
Then-Chickasaw Nation Gov. Douglas Johnston and Willis were politically closely connected. The latter was appointed head of the Chickasaw Commission in 1901 and worked with the Dawes Commission to close tribal rolls and seek an equitable process of allotting tribal lands to Chickasaw citizens. He also helped secure land allotment grants for Chickasaw children born after September 1902.
It is believed the Colt .45 was one of two purchased by Willis as a matching set, probably as protection for his businesses. Relatives do not know what happened to the second weapon, but his great-granddaughter, Joy Herron, believes it is one of a set.
“Relatives have sent me pictures of a gun, and (the make and model) do not match,” Herron, of Mississippi, said. “I believe the gun was one of a matching set but I can’t find out where the other pistol went.”
The gun was donated to the Chickasaw Cultural Center, Herron said, because the family is Chickasaw. Holmes Willis was 1/16 Chickasaw and was her great-grandfather on her mother’s side of the family, Herron noted.
“He [William Holmes Willis] wanted the gun to go somewhere to be appreciated and admired,” she said. “He didn’t want to auction it.”
While the elder Willis died in 1914 and is buried in Kingston, the gun continued to be handed down through generations of family.
“It is a very nice weapon and has a lot of engraving on it,” Herron said of the weapon, made famous as the “Peacemaker” since it was introduced to the public as a “Model P.”
It was purchased in bulk by the U.S. Army in 1873. It was the first military pistol that fired cartridges instead of utilizing black powder, ball and percussion cap. The black powder weapons were common in America just prior to, and immediately following, the Civil War. The Colt .45 was a revolutionary design for its day.
Cowboys called the weapon a “thumb-buster” since the thumb had to be used to cock the hammer thus rotating the six-shot cylinder after each cartridge was fired. Retail price for the weapon in 1904 would probably have been about $45, according to the website Armslist. The website had a 1904 .45 caliber Colt on sale for $4,000.
It was the Army’s sidearm of choice from 1873 to 1911. Even after the Army abandoned it, the love affair between it and the general public lived on. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, public interest in the weapon was resurrected by those who enjoyed watching television horse operas such as Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Rifleman and Bonanza.
Today, it is the weapon preferred above all others by western re-enactors nationally.
The standard barrel length was 5.5 inches. However, fictional Gunsmoke lawman Matt Dillion’s pistol had a 7.5-inch barrel which he drew with ease to dispatch the bad guy in opening credits on the mega-hit TV western, the second longest running primetime television show in history with 635 episodes.
Little history of the Willis weapon survives. As far as anyone knows, it was never used in a gunfight or battle, Mr. Cole said. However, its unique place in Chickasaw history makes it iconic and it is proudly displayed in the Holisso Center.