Black figures of the old west: Isiah Mays & Benjamin Brown

This is Isiah Mays and Benjamin Brown. On this date in 1890 they each won the Medal of Honor for their involvement in one of the more celebrated events involving the buffalo soldiers. The Wham Payroll Robbery of May 11, 1889.


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Major Wham was an army paymaster. His company delivered wages to troops at Forts Thomas, Grant, Apache, and at the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.
The Southern Pacific Railroad delivered $45k in gold pieces to Wilcox in the Arizona Territory. The first delivery was $17k to black soldiers stationed in Fort Grant.
On May 11, 1889, Wham and eleven black soldiers set out for Fort Thomas with $28k. Two of those men, Sgt. Benjamin Brown of C Company, and Cpl. Isaiah Mays of B Company, were the top two non-commissioned officers of the escort.
When they were about 15 miles from their destination, they had to travel through a narrow gorge. Fifty feet tall rock wall on one side, low ledge on the other. As they entered the gorge, a black woman passed them on horseback and rode away.
They continued on and found a boulder blocking the road. Wham ordered the men to move the boulder. Sergeant Brown and other soldiers attempted to do so but discovered it was wedged into place and couldn’t be moved.
Realizing something wasn’t right, gunshots rang out from the ledge above. They started taking fire from their rear. It was a crossfire, they were trapped, three black soldiers were injured.
They retreated to a dry creek bed that offered minimal cover and began to return fire.
Major Wham later reported that the outlaws were approximately 12 white men. He estimated the gunfight lasted for over 30 minutes. The outlaws fired almost 500 shots. Eight of the eleven black soldiers were wounded. Sergeant Brown was wounded twice, in the abdomen and arm.
Cpl. Isiah Mays went for help. He crawled then ran for three miles to Barney Norton’s Ranch. Upon arrival, ranch hands took Mays to Cedar Springs so a message could be sent to Fort Grant for help.
Due to their poor position, the outlaws made off with the gold.
Barney Norton and his cowboys arrived after the gold was gone. They carried the wounded men to the hospital at Fort Thomas.
Within 12 hours 1,700 men, including soldiers, Indian scouts, deputy U.S. Marshals, sheriffs, and detectives, were searching for the robbers.
Remember the black woman riding out of the gorge before it all went down? Her name was Frankie Campbell and she was a suspect. Her testimony was inconclusive and it was never proven whether she participated in the robbery or not.
Major Wham’s report after the robbery had great things to say about the black soldiers. He wrote that he had, “never witnessed better courage or better fighting than shown by those colored soldiers…, as the bullet marks on the robber positions today abundantly attest.”
Wham requested that Brown and Mays receive Medals of Honor and recommended Certificates of Merit for eight others. The awards were approved on February 1, 1890.
Brown’s citation read: “Although shot in the abdomen, in a fight between a paymaster’s escort and robbers, did not leave the field until again wounded through both arms.”
Brown suffered a stroke in 1905 and was admitted to the U.S. Soldiers Home in Washington D.C. He died there 5 years later and was the third black Medal of Honor recipient to be buried in the home’s cemetery for soldiers.
He still had a bullet from the 1889 gunfight in his body.
Mays had a hard life after the Army. He left the Army in 1893. He had a hard time finding work and worked as a laborer. In 1922 he applied for a federal pension. He was denied. He was committed to the Territorial Insane Asylum (now the Arizona State Hospital in Phoenix).
At the time, the hospital’s patients were the mentally ill, had tuberculosis, and the poor. He died in 1925 at the age of 67. He was buried in a paupers grave at the hospital cemetery with a headstone etched with a number.
In March 2009 he was disinterred and cremated. On May 29, 2009 he was interred in Arlington National Cemetery with an Army honor guard.

Isaiah Mays

Information for this post was taken from different sites online and, most notably, the book Black, Buckskin, and Blue: African American Scouts & Soldiers on the Western Frontier by Art T. Burton.

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