The Powder River Kid

Powder River Kid


Back in the day, when Montana was a rough and tumble place to live, there was one man named Samuel M. Russell, better known as the Powder River Kid, the fastest gun in the Northwest. Sam had left home in the 1870s, at the very tender age of about 13, to go to Texas for about eight years. There he started his reputation as a good cow puncher before traveling north to Miles City, Montana, where his sisters had settled with their families.

He was well liked by most and proved his worth as a cowboy on several outfits, and also enjoyed practicing quick draw shooting. 

During the 1880s and early ’90s, Sam’s reputation grew as a fast gun. While in the Powder River country, he got his nickname of the Powder River Kid. At that time, this area was well known for frequent gun battles, and Sam’s nature led him to become the counterpart of “Billy the Kid.” 

By 1892, Sam ended up in Billings with other cowboy friends, and had gone to Lottie Miller’s place in the red light district. 

Sam was a little smitten with one of the girls, so when fellow cowboy Harry Turner, who was a stranger in Billings, started quarreling with one of the girls and was beating her, she screamed for help. 

Sam realized that it was “his girl” and immediately came to her rescue by going up to Turner and hitting him over the head with his revolver.

Turner turned around, a bit stunned by the blow, and grappled with Sam to get his gun. The gun discharged and Turner slowly fell to the floor. 

Sam and witnesses claimed it was in self-defense, and a knife thought to belong to Turner was discovered on the floor close to him.

You might say that the moral is, don’t take a knife to a gunfight!

Now, Turner was a cowboy in the Miles City area and was known as a very quarrelsome man. It was thought that Sam and he had had run-ins before the incident at Lottie’s. 

Sam left Lottie’s place quickly, but Billings constables went after him. They found him on a ranch near the river bank and he surrendered to them.

Well, the Powder River Kid went to trial and was sentenced for murder in the second degree. 

The judge made Sam an example because there had been a case of murder six months before this one, and the murderer had been sentenced to 20 years on that account. The judge stated that since this had not deterred murder in Billings, he sentenced Sam to 25 years in the state pen.

Powder River Kid

Sam started his prison sentence on October 8, 1892 at Deer Lodge Penitentiary, which back in the day was overcrowded and was tough. Warden Conley believed in his prisoners working off their sentences, and decided to tear down the 12-foot wooden fence that surrounded the prison and put up a grand four-foot-thick sandstone solid perimeter, and also build a new cell log house to address the overcrowding of the prison.

Also at that time, the warden started a prison work camp where the prisoners would live and be “hired out” for both public and private work. The program was very successful, and those inmates that did well enjoyed more freedom with no chains and no cells.

Meanwhile, Sam’s sister Lucy Russell-Hill had started a campaign to get her brother pardoned.

In the end, most of the elite and powerful in Miles City, including ex-judges, attorneys, merchants and even the Governor of Tennessee, the Honorable Benton McMillin, wrote Montana’s Governor Smith to have Sam pardoned. There was even support from prison contractors to release him. Governor McMillin knew the Russell family and Sam when he was younger.

Governor Smith pardoned Sam on December 18, 1900, eight long years after he entered Deer Lodge Prison. 

The Powder River Kid decided to settle down in Helena and became a barber with his own shop in 1901. 

In Elmer Keith’s book Hell, I Was There he writes about his friend, Samuel Russell, the Powder River Kid. Keith was instrumental in the development of the first magnum revolver cartridge, the .357 Magnum, as well as the later .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum cartridges, plus being an author of many books and magazine articles. Keith also developed a new lead bullet design which is now known as the “Keith type” bullet. 

Through Keith’s writings, we learn that in his earlier years, Sam was a lookout for faro and poker tables in saloons throughout the Southwest. 

“I used to go in and get a haircut and Sam would pull the curtains down, get out his guns and give me lessons on quick draw work. He used a holster in his hip pocket and carried six rounds to one side of the muzzle of the gun, exactly fitting the pocket of his pants, and the butt of the gun was to the right. He would slip his hand in under that gun and come out with it as fast as I ever seen, and he was very accurate!”

Note: On Sam’s prison card, it states that he had had both arms broken and that they were crooked. This just might be why Sam used the hip pocket for his holster. 

There are stories of Sam getting into trouble at times. When he did not drink, he was the most responsible and friendly person, and everyone liked him. But Sam had a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde type of personality, according to newspaper articles of the time. 

Mr. Hyde came out when he was drinking, and many would say to stay clear of Sam on those times. 

One time, Sam was in the saloon playing poker in the back, when a big man called out he was buying everyone a drink, step up to the bar. Well, Sam didn’t hear him at first and turned around to ese what was going on. The big man said to him, “Come on, you little s.o.b., I mean you too.”

Sam said, “Say it with a smile, mister, and I’ll be with you.”

The big guy said he wouldn’t, and Sam told him, “Mister, I never took that from no man, I won’t take it off you! I am unarmed but I’ll be back.”

Sam left to get his .45 and the bartender told the big guy he was in trouble now. The big guy said he wasn’t worried; he pulled his gun and watched the front door. But Sam didn’t come in the front, he came in from the back. When the back door creaked open, the big guy turned to shoot, but Sam was quicker on the draw and shot him through his right arm and through his body, and down he went. 

Sam got three years in the pen for that one and the judge kept his gun! 

Sam was well known to have collected through the years many gold pieces and gems, and even had articles printed on his being the best and most beautiful collection of old gold coins and jewelry in the whole Northwest. 

The Powder River Kid was quick to temper and drew his gun with lightning speed and accuracy and down his adversary would go. He knew many outlaws and fast guns in his lifetime, and called them by their first names. 

Sam claimed to be a distant relative of Wild Bill Hickok, which has not been proven, but one thing that seems to be true about him is that he was pretty darn honest about what he would say.

He knew famous outlaw Jim Cummins from the notorious Quantrills Raiders in the Civil War, and then Jim rode with the James-Younger gang after the war. Sam stated that he was really surprised that Jim died before him since Sam had been in many gun battles through the years and had escaped death too many times.

In the late ’90s and early 1900s, he knew Diamond Johnny, who was famous for his diamond ring of 3 karats with 2-karat diamonds on the side, very flashy. Sam swore one day if he could find some fine diamonds, he would have one made for him. Diamond Johnny was sentenced to 20 years in Leavenworth following a conviction on a white slavery charge. 

Later on in years, Sam did find some fine diamonds and had his ring made, which was a match of Diamond Johnny’s ring. The diamonds were a bit smaller than the doorknobs that Diamond Johnny had, but friends and acquaintances admired that ring and stated that it was finer than the bigger ring. 

Sam was also a musician and played the banjo for friends, and he collected canaries. 

He loved his pet dog that he had for almost a decade. When he and the pup were walking by the Great Northern depot, a woman accidentally hit the old girl.

The woman was beside herself, but Sam, with hat in his hand (he was well known to respect a good woman), told her with misty eyes, “Madam, you have done me a favor. The old girl was getting weak. I was just a thinkin’ I would buy some chloroform and put the dog out of her misery. Don’t feel bad. I’m glad she died instantly.”

Samuel Maider Russell had a stroke in April of 1928 that left him partially paralyzed. He closed up his barber shop for good and went to live with his sister, Mrs. Lucy W.D. Hill, in Miles City. 

Quote: He knows guns from A to Izzard and is rated as one of the quickest men on the draw in the West. His eyes are still as bright and clear as those of a boy. In the cow camp or on the trail, he could sling a rope with the best of them. And friends still maintain Sam can ride anything from a grizzly bear toa range critter!

"His sympathy was always with the down and outer. He always saw the good in men and women that the world called bad, and many a good story of heroism and generosity he told concerning women who played a man’s part of the up building of the west and to whom he ascribed much credit."
Billings Gazette
, Saturday, April 28, 1928. 

On December 10, 1929, this picturesque character of old Montana, Sam Russell, the “Powder River Kid,” passed away. 

This is just a small glimpse of the life of Samuel M. Russell, my great-great-great-uncle. There are many more stories of his life through newspaper articles, though too many to put down in this story. 



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