Life in the Old West

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Toughest Idaho lawman may have been Rube Robbins

Arguably, the toughest lawman in Idaho in the latter days of the Old West may have been “Rube” Robbins.

Robbins, actual name Orlando Robbins, came to the Boise Basin gold fields about a year after the rush started there. He was in his mid-20s and looking for adventure. Adventure found Rube — or he found it? — in 1864 when he became deputy sheriff in Boise. The small town of Boise and the surrounding region was polarized between the North and South as the Civil War ragged to a close, mostly to the East.

One of the great stories about Rube told in True Tales and Amazing Legends of the Old West,” published by the editors of “True West Magazine,” happened on July 4, 1864, shortly before he became a town deputy. A strong contingent of Confederate sympathizers vowed they would not let any Yankee sing “The Star Spangled Banner” that day.

Being a strong Union supporter, Robbins walked into a barroom crowded with Confederate partisans, stepped up onto the billiard table to get everyone’s attention, drew his two pistols as he glared out at the crowd, and began to sing in a deep baritone. He finished the song alone, then holstered his pistols, hopped off the billiard table and left the saloon untouched. No one made a sound or raised any objection.

Rube filled the 1860s and ’70s with one exploit after another told and retold by awed Idahoans. He gained a major reputation as a deputy sheriff for being able to fiercely pursue and arrest all sorts of villains, from gunfighters to horse thieves and bank robbers. He was a colonel in the Idaho militia and gained a reputation as a successful scout and Indian fighter. In August of 1882, shortly before Robbins’ 46th birthday, he chased and captured the outlaw Charley Chambers in a 13-day, 1,200 mile adventure.

A search for the entry about Robbins on the Boise Idaho Pioneer Cemetery website summarizes his career and his importance to Idaho history. Among his duties, Rube spent 25 years as a deputy U.S. marshal and served variously as traveling guard, work foreman, and warden of the Idaho State Penitentiary. He also served terms in the state legislature.

How good was Orlando “Rube” Robbins as a lawman, and how impressive was this lawman’s reputation in his day? The tribute at the Pioneer Cemetery website quotes this about Robbins from an early state historian:

“He was feared, yet respected by every bad man and ‘gun-fighter’ who ever sojourned in Idaho, and it is doubtful if any officer made more arrests of that class than he.”

Orlando “Rube” Robbins died of a heart attack on May 1, 1908. He was 72 and was working actively as a traveling guard for prisoners many years his junior at the time of his death. He never lost a prisoner.

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