Cullen Montgomery Baker was born in Weakley County, Tennessee, probably on June 22, 1835. The family moved to Cass County in northeast Texas in 1839. Cullen grew up to became a hard drinker, quarrelsome and mean-spirited tough, but managed to marry Mary Jane Petty on January 11, 1854. Just nine months later he killed his first man. Baker spent considerable time hiding out at his uncle’s farm in Perry County, Arkansas. After Mary Jane died on July 2, 1860, and Baker had murdered a man in that state, he returned to Texas. The Civil War allowed him to escape justice yet again.
Baker joined the Confederate army on November 4, 1861, at Jefferson but quickly deserted. On February 22, 1862, he joined Company I of the Fifteenth Texas Cavalry at Linden but remained behind when the regiment marched through Arkansas that summer, discharged due to illness. He felt healthy enough to marry Martha Foster on July 1, 1862.
Free from the rules of the regular army, Baker apparently turned to guerrilla activity in Arkansas, but he was in reality a simple brigand, preying upon everybody, regardless of wartime sympathies. When peace returned, Baker and his wife briefly settled in Cass County, where Baker attempted to earn a living in the ferry business. Martha died on March 1, 1866, and, by most accounts, her death deeply depressed Baker; nevertheless, he proposed to her sister, Belle Foster, two months later.
But Belle married Thomas Orr, a schoolteacher and later a prominent community activist and politician, and he and Baker became bitter enemies. Somewhat later, the Union Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau came to the area, and Baker focused his attention upon harassing and killing employees of the bureau and their clients. In December 1867 Baker also wrought havoc upon Howell Smith’s family because of their alleged “unorthodox” relations with the black laborers they employed. He was wounded, but the local citizenry and the army failed to capture him. Baker returned to the Reconstruction scene again in mid-1868 as the leader of various outcasts and killers. He and his group are credited with murdering two Freedmen’s Bureau agents, one in Texas and another in Arkansas, and numerous black men and women, all the time eluding the army.
When his gang disbanded in December 1868, Baker returned to his home in Cass County. There a small group of neighbors led by Orr, whom Baker had earlier attempted to hang, killed the 34 year-old desperado and a companion on January 6, 1869. Legend has it that the whiskey Baker drank was laced with strychnine. Orr collected some of the reward offered for Baker.
Baker may have had links with the Ku Klux Klan. Although he began his killing long before that organization appeared, he abetted the Klan’s rise to prominence. As an obstacle to federal Reconstruction, he became notorious in the Southwest and even drew the notice of the New York Tribune. He received the nickname “Swamp Fox of the Sulphur” because of the area where he grew to manhood. Although he was not the legendary quick-draw artist some have maintained, writers have made much of Baker’s prowess with a six-gun, his harassment of the United States Army, and his defense of “Southern honor” during and after the Civil War. Others see him as a mean, spiteful, alcoholic murderer.