Life & Family Ties of Gunman Mart Frost

In the 1860s the Frost and Coates families of Little Lake engaged in a running feud that culminated in a shootout outside Baechtel's Store on election day, 1867. The gun battle lasted but fifteen seconds. One member of the Frost family lay dead afterward and five Coates men perished. Twenty-two-year-old Martin Frost dispatched Abraham, Wesley, and Henry Coates with bullets from his revolver.

Martin Frost, known to friends and family as Mart, was born in Daviess County, Missouri in 1845, the ninth of ten children born to parents who stemmed from Tennessee. Mart's father, Elijah Frost Jr., had come to Missouri in the 1820s. The family was well situated when an onslaught of Mormons moved in during the mid-1830s, Church of Latter Day Saints founder Joseph Smith proclaimed a spot in central Daviess County, Adam-ondi-Ahman (often shortened to Diahman), to be the location Adam and Eve settled after being banished from the Garden of Eden and that it would be a meeting place for righteous people just prior to the “Second Coming.”

In August, 1838, a candidate for the state legislature gave a speech in Gallatin, the Daviess County seat, in which he warned Mormons not to try to vote and called them “horse thieves and robbers.” The Mormons were largely pro-abolitionists, while most of the rest of the local populace was pro-slavery. Words turned to violence in what came to be called the Mormon War of 1838. Twenty-two people were killed, Joseph Smith was arrested (though he soon escaped to Illinois), and almost all the Mormons were expelled from the county and the state.

The Frosts eventually left Missouri for California. They arrived in Little Lake around 1860 and almost immediately started feuding with the Coates family, northerners, throughout the Civil War and up until the fatal showdown in 1867 (Read more about the details of that fateful day in the May 2012 AVA issues).

Mart Frost stayed clear of gun play and the wrong side of the law throughout the 1870s, but one of his nephews did not. The one Frost killed in the shootout with the Coates family was one of Mart's brothers, Elisha. His widow died less than three years later, leaving two daughters and five sons. One of them, Elijah Frost, got into one legal scrape after another in the 1870s, including a stint in San Quentin for horse stealing. Elijah earned an early release in 1878, but no sooner had he returned to the Little Lake area, he took up with two young hooligans, Abijah Gibson and Tom McCracken. The trio perpetrated a series of minor crimes that went on and on into the summer of 1879. They stole eggs, then chickens, geese, harnesses, and other livestock. They shot off their guns in the middle of the night and when one farmer complained about a petty theft they burned his barn.

On the first night of September, 1879, the threesome were finally arrested with stolen property in their possession. There was no jail in Little Lake, so the accused were guarded in a room within Brown's Hotel. In the wee hours of September 4th, the guards were disarmed by thirty or so masked men who took McCracken, Gibson, and Elijah Frost to a bridge just north of Willits and hung the offenders off the side with ropes from a nearby well.

No one was ever charged for the lynching, but among the murmured rumors concerning the vigilante justice was the accepted story that the lynching was led by Elijah's uncle, Mart Frost (The lynching is told in more detail in the September 27, 2017 AVA).

Less than two months later, though, Mart was among those recruited by Deputy Sheriff Jeremiah “Doc” Standley for a posse hunting the “Mendocino Outlaws” who had murdered two innocent residents of the town of Mendocino. Mart actually moved side by side with Doc Standley in affecting the first arrest in the case. However, Mart appeared to take to the drink so much in the ensuing year that in October, 1880 he drunkenly accosted Marshal Jamison in the bar of the People's Hotel in Ukiah. When he spotted Jamison at the barroom door, Mart grabbed the officer's coat and dragged him into the center of the room. He shouted at Jamison that if he was present to make an arrest, he (Mart) would kill him. Jamison talked calmly to Mart and got him to sit momentarily, but the noted gunman leaped back to his feet, vowing that no lawman could make him sit. Jamison rose slowly, saying, “I can't stay seated with no one to talk to at an empty table.”

Mart drew his revolver, but Jamison was just as quick. Not on the draw, but the Marshal sprang upon Mart so fast and shoved the barrel of the revolver downward so forcefully that when the trigger was pulled, the round penetrated Mart's right boot and embedded in his heel. 

In 1882, Mart was involved in a peculiar part of local history when he witnessed the shooting death of his cousin, Ben Frost, on Observatory Hill, several miles east of Caspar. The shooter was alleged to have been a horse belonging to my great-grandfather, John Robertson. More on the matter in those May 2012 AVA articles.

Three months later Mart shot one of his sisters in the finger with a Winchester. No charges were filed. Meanwhile, tempers flared between Mart and one of his nephews, Jimmy (brother of the lynched Elijah). Matters came to a boil over a section of land both uncle and nephew claimed for themselves. On December 28, 1883, Martin and his friends Andreas Hamburg, Charlie Bean, and Alf McCabe rode to the house of one of Elijah's sisters, Sarah McKindley. Arriving around four in the afternoon, Mart dismounted and was greeted from the kitchen doorway by Sarah. “I hope you and the boys will not have any fuss here.”

The “boys” she referred to were Jimmy Frost and his younger brother, Taylor. Jimmy stood near a well with a pistol held behind his back. He called to Sarah to keep herself and her children inside.

Mart strode close to Taylor and said, “You are the cause of all this trouble.”

“No, Mart, I am not.”

“You are a damned lying son of a bitch.” Mart screamed.

“By God, you are another, “ Taylor shouted back.

Mart reached for his Colt revolver, but Jimmy brought his from behind his back and fired. The round pierced Mart's left ear and exited three inches behind his right. He dropped dead against the platform of the well.

Jimmy Frost mounted his horse and rode directly to Ukiah, where he gave himself up to deputy sheriffs. When one of them asked if Mart had drawn on him, Jimmy responded, “If he had, I wouldn't be here to tell it.”

He was charged with first degree murder and tried during the second week of July, 1884. His defense was simple: he fired to defend his brother. The jury bought it. Mart's older brother, Isom (variously spelled as Isham, Ishom, or Isum) didn't agree with the jury and he wanted revenge.

On April 10, 1885, Jimmy Frost and his brother Dave, along with Andreas Hamburg and several other men rounded up sheep in a corral owned by Hamburg in Scott's Valley. Jimmy walked a sheep backward by pulling its hindlegs all the way inside the corral gate then rested his arms on the fence. A moment later he gasped, “Jesus Christ, I am shot.” Blood poured through the chest front of his work shirt.

Jimmy drew his Colt .44 revolver and gazed toward one of the men in the corral. “Did you shoot me?”

He spun around and spotted Hamburg, Mart Frost's old friend. Hamburg saw the drawn sidearm and fled behind the side wall of the wool shed. Dave Frost noticed the blood covering his brother's shirt and presumed Hamburg had shot Jimmy. Dave turned his revolver toward Hamburg and fired twice. Both shots hit and he fell, fatally wounded.

Jimmy fired at another man, fleeing through the pen. One of his rounds caused a shoulder wound, but nothing more, though he kept on firing at others in the area until he ran out of cartridges. He slumped in the dirt, begging for someone to help reload his gun. Dave mounted Hamburg's horse and galloped away. Jimmy expired on the ground by the corral.

Local newspapers reported the shooting this way. Sheriff Standley arrived on the scene the next day, commencing a thorough exam of the witnesses as well as the scene. He found the bullet that killed Jimmy Frost stuck in a fence post, determining that it was of a larger caliber than any of the revolvers on hand at the corral. Standley also placed a long straight stick in the hole in the fence post. From this he calculated the bullet's trajectory. Climbing to the top of a nearby ridge he found disturbed, freshly broken twigs, and a limb cut by a knife. A limb cut so that a man positioned there would have a perfect firing line to the corral below.

Sheriff Standley had known the Frosts for years, particularly Isom, and also knew the ins and outs of the intra-family feuding. He had Dave in custody for killing Andreas Hamburg and the lawman was convinced Isom had done the shooting of Jimmy, but he needed more evidence. He had one of his deputies tail an Isom confidant, Ed Jewell, all the way to Marysville. There the deputy helped Jewell get roaring drunk, whereupon the local police arrested him. Standley traveled to the Marysville jail to perform an interrogation.

The Mendocino County Sheriff made it clear that he knew Isom was behind the murder of his nephew, Jimmy, and that Jewell would be charged as an accessory. With a promise of leniency, Jewell told Standley that Isom had come to his place almost immediately after Jimmy's demise. Isom's horse was lathered and the only weapon Jewell saw was a large bore rifle. In addition, Isom told Jewell what he had done.

Standley departed Marysville for Tehama County. Isom had reportedly gone there to herd sheep for the summer. The sheep rancher told the sheriff that Isom had driven the flock into the mountains in Trinity County.

Doc Standley proceeded on horseback fifty miles or more up Cottonwood Creek, through hilly terrain, and on to a camp on Hayfork Creek. He found an empty cabin, but filled with evidence of recent occupation. The sheriff tethered his horse to graze and sat himself down to wait.

An hour or so passed before Isom Frost walked toward the cabin, his rifle slung over a shoulder. He didn't notice Doc until he'd nearly reached the door. Standley stood and said, “What'n the devil are you doing here, Isom?”

Startled, Isom extended his right arm, as if to shake. The sheriff grabbed that arm with his left hand and drew his revolver with his right, saying, “Give me your gun.” Followed by, “You are under arrest for the murder of Jimmy Frost. Are you going to make any kick?”

“How can I. I've nothing to kick with.”

Isom went along peacefully. He was tried in January of 1886. After five days of testimony, in which the man who accompanied him to the ridge top overlooking the sheep corral gave precise details regarding Isom's rifle shot, the jury convicted him on a first degree murder charge and sentenced him to life imprisonment at Folsom Prison.

At Dave Frost's trial for the killing of Andreas Hamburg the defense provided a simple theory: Jimmy had shot Hamburg, not Dave. With other testimony from Ed Jewell that Hamburg had offered to pay people a $1,000 to kill Jimmy, ten men out of twelve voted for acquittal and the jury was hung. Dave went free and no further charges were filed against him for the killing.

(More on the Frost clan at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

2 Responses to "Life & Family Ties of Gunman Mart Frost"

  1. George Hollister   January 5, 2019 at 9:20 am

    Malcolm always does a good job. There were many who were good with their guns in those days. I think more so than today.

    Reply
  2. Brian Frost   September 11, 2019 at 9:30 pm

    It’s amazing there are any Frost’s left today! Sounds like we all killed each other off. Good writing, thanks for the history.

    Reply

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