A Dangerous Dandy

John King Fisher, known in his adult life as King Fisher, was born on an unknown date in October 1853.  His parents were Jobe and Lucinda Warren Fisher.  Jobe was a cattleman who owned and operated two freight wagons. Lucinda died when King was still an infant; his father later remarried a woman named Minerva.  At the end of the Civil War, the Fisher family moved from Collin County to Williamson County, just outside Austin, Texas, and a short time after that, Minerva also passed away.

Jobe Fisher relocated to Goliad, just west of Victoria, Texas. There, the Fisher’s were joined by Jobe’s mother, who helped her son raise the children.  As in many cases in early Texas, John Fisher had a rough childhood. As a young man, he was restless, handsome, popular with the ladies —and he associated with a rough crowd.  Around 1869, Jobe sent his son to live with his brother James.  Two years later, King Fisher was arrested for horse theft and was sentenced to two years in prison.  Because of his youth, however, he was released later in the same year.


John King Fisher

After King’s release from jail, he began working as a ranch hand.  Incessant raids, lootings, and assaults directed toward Texas ranch and farm families by Mexican bandits led to King’s participation as a member of local sheriff’s possés.  He enjoyed this kind of activity, and he began to think of himself as a fast gun. His attire became somewhat ostentatious [1]; he carried ivory handled pistols, and with time he developed proficiency with sidearms.  In time, King Fisher began to associate with known outlaws which engaged in frequent rustling forays into Mexico.  As in one of the never-ending stories of crime life, the gang squabbled about how to divide their spoils.  More or less to emphasize his own point of view, one of the irate outlaws drew his pistol. In the gunfight that ensued, King Fisher shot the outlaw and two of his accompanying bandits.  Being the winner of this disagreement enabled Fisher to take charge of the gang, and over the course of several months, the Fisher gang killed seven more Mexican bandits.

King Fisher purchased a ranch on the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. The ranch was right on the border with Mexico, perfectly placed as a base of operations in Texas and Mexico. Still, King rarely perpetrated acts of violence or theft against other Texas.  He preferred raids into Mexico, whether in retribution for Mexican raids into Texas or simply because the Mexican ranches were easy pickings, I don’t know.  What I do know is that this was a time of constant raiding back and forth between Texas and Mexico, a time of common place murder and mayhem, of looting and raping, and to the victor go the spoils.

In these days, there was not much law in South Texas.  Settlers, feeling ignored by state and county authorities, began to organize themselves somewhat in defense leagues—or, if you prefer, rival gangs.  All this really accomplished was increasing ill-will between Texans and Mexicans, and among Texans themselves.  The situation made it difficult for the Texas Rangers to establish lawful authority over South Texas.

The arrival of Leander H. McNelly in South Texas changed the foregoing situation.  Ostensibly, Captain McNelly’s focus was to quell the activities of Mexican bandit leader Juan Cortina, but at the same time, McNelly realized that King Fisher was also part of the problem.  McNelly led his rangers to the Fisher Ranch and arrested its owner.  McNelly didn’t want to take Fisher into custody, so he sat him down and made an agreement with him.  As a result, Fisher’s frequent raids into Mexico ceased and, whatever it was that McNelly told him, Fisher soon retired from his outlaw ways.  He became a legitimate and lawful rancher —the word lawful having a somewhat subjective connotation.

Fisher King never lost his edge with a side arm.  In 1878, an argument developed between Fisher and four Mexican vaqueros.  Fisher clubbed the first man with a branding iron; then, as the second man went for his gun, Fisher drew his own pistol and, shooting straight and true, killed the man instantly.  Fisher then spun around and shot the other two men, who evidently did little more than set themselves on the corral fence.  It was the kind of stuff one might find in dime novels of the time [2].

Fisher may have been a gentleman rancher, but he was never quite the good boy his grandmother hoped he would become.  He was arrested on several occasions for public altercations, several of these involving local lawmen.  On one occasion, he was charged with “intent to kill” —charges that were dropped when no witnesses came forward to tell what the knew.  In spite of being a hot head, he was well liked in South Texas.  In 1876, Fisher married Sarah Vivian; together they had four daughters.  It was time for King Fisher to settle down.

In 1883, Fisher served as acting Sheriff of Uvalde County.  During this service, he was called upon to investigate a stagecoach robbery that allegedly involved Tom and Jim Hannehan. He trailed these men to their ranch near Leakey, Texas.  Fisher wanted to question them about the allegations, but they resisted his arrest. Fisher shot and killed Tom, and the smarter of the two, Jim, surrendered.  Having taken Jim Hannehan into custody, Fisher discovered the stolen loot and returned it to the rightful owners [3].

San Antonio 1885

Jack Harris’ Variety Theater was in the rear of this building

In 1884, King Fisher traveled to San Antonio on business.  There, he came into contact with his old friend Ben Thompson [4].  Thompson was somewhat unpopular in San Antonio owing to the fact that he’d previously killed a popular theater-owner named Jack Harris.  A feud over that killing had been brewing between Thompson and friends of Harris—which is generally the way feuds work.  On the evening of 11 May, Fisher and Thompson attended a play at the Turner Hall Opera House.  At around 10:30 p.m., they went to the Vaudeville Variety Theater.  Local lawman Jacob Coy sat with them.  Thompson wanted to see Joe Foster, also a theater owner and a friend of the departed Harris.  Foster was also one of the fellows harboring a grudge against Thompson. Thompson set up a meeting with Foster’s partner, Billy Simms.  Simms directed Thompson and Fisher upstairs to meet with Foster.  Coy and Simms soon joined them in the theater box, but Foster refused to speak to Thompson.  Fisher noted that something was amiss.  Simms and Coy stepped aside; as they did, gunfire erupted from another theater box. A hail of bullets struck Thompson and Fisher.  Thompson fell on his side, and either Coy or Foster approached him and shot him in the head. He died immediately.  Fisher was hit thirteen times, but got off one shot, wounding Coy, and crippling him for life.  Foster, while drawing his pistol for the coupe deGrasse over Thompson, managed to shoot himself in the leg, which was later amputated.  Foster died shortly afterwards.

San Antonians, ever known for their peaceful nature, demanded that a grand jury investigate the shooting, but no action was ever taken.  San Antonio police and the local prosecutor showed very little interest in the case and it, along with Fisher, was laid to rest [5].  Fisher was 30 years old.


[1] He was known to wear a sombrero with a gold braid, embroidered vests, silk shirts, and crimson sashes.  His most famous trademark was a pair of Bengal tiger skin chaps.  His silver mounted two-gun holsters sported ivory handled pistols. He also wore silver spurs mounted on silver bells that always announced his presence nearby.

[2] A reporter named Carey McWilliams once said that he asked King Fisher how many notches he had on the handles of his guns (denoting one kill for each notch).  Fisher is said to have replied, “Thirty-seven, but not counting any Mexicans.”

[3] For years after King Fisher’s death, Tom Hannehan’s mother traveled to Fisher’s grave, built a fire above it, and danced around singing chants of one kind or another —proving where the Hannehan brothers obtained their wackiness.

[4] Ben Thompson was an Englishman who immigrated to the United States in 1851.  He was a lawman and a gunfighter.  He once explained his success as a gunman: “I always make it a rule to let the other fellow fire first.  Now, if a man wants to fight, I argue the question with him and try to show him how foolish it would be.  If he can’t be dissuaded, why then the fun begins but I always let him have the first crack.  Then when I fire, you see, I have the verdict of self-defense on my side.  I know that he is pretty certain in his hurry to miss. I never do.”

[5] After Fisher’s death Deputy Sheriff Tom Sullivan of Medina County was asked his opinion about Fisher and Thompson.  After giving the question a measure of thought, he said, “They called King Fisher and Ben Thompson bad men, but they weren’t bad men —they just wouldn’t stand for no foolishness.”


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Captain John R. Hughes

Hughes JR 001

John Reynolds Hughes

As with many a young man in the mid-1800s, John Reynolds Hughes left home at an early age to find his own way in the world.  He was but fourteen years of age.  At the beginning of his adult life, he led the life of a ranch hand —or as some today might say, that of a cowboy [1].  Initially, he worked on a cattle ranch near his home in 1868, but eventually an invisible hand pulled him further west into the Indian territories.  For four years, he lived among the Choctaw and Osage nations, and then he moved on to the Comanche Nation in 1874.  He traded for goods and commodities near Fort Sill and became friends with Quanah Parker [2].  After living for six years in the Indian territory and a brief time working as a hand along the Chisolm Trail [3], Hughes bought a farm near Liberty Hill, Texas and entered the business of raising horses.

In 1886, the 31-year old rancher discovered that a number of his horses, and those of neighboring ranches, had been stolen; he wanted them back.  He set out to find the men who took them.  After trailing the thieves for several months, he finally located them.  Some of these men he killed, others he turned over to authorities in the New Mexico territory.  He returned the horses to his neighbors and resumed the business of his ranch.  By now the word was out that John Hughes was not a man to trifle with.  This reputation brought him to the attention of Ira Aten [4] of the Texas rangers.

In 1887, Hughes accompanied Aten in the pursuit of the murderer Judd Roberts.  The two men located Roberts, who when confronted by Hughes and Aten was killed in a gunfight.  Based on Aten’s recommendations, John Hughes was subsequently recruited by the Texas Rangers.  He accepted his commission at Georgetown, Texas on 10 August of that same year and was assigned to Company D, The Frontier Battalion [5].  Company D was located at Camp Wood [6] and tasked to patrol the border area between Texas and Mexico.

Hughes JR 004

Texas Rangers c. 1893 Captain John R. Hughes seated far right

After Texas Ranger Captain Frank Jones was killed in 1893 [7], Hughes was commissioned as the Captain of Company D.  He quickly gained the reputation of a relentless pursuer of outlaws, demonstrated after Jones’ death when Hughes led his company in tracking down the killers, most of whom were of the Olguin family.  Based on information provided to him by undercover agent Ernest St. Leon, Hughes tracked down 18 suspects and either killed them in shootouts or by hanging them from the nearest tree.  In fact, Hughes reputation was such that not even the infamous murderer “Deacon Jim” Miller [8] wanted to tangle with him.

Hughes JR 002

Captain Hughes, post-retirement

After Hughes’ retirement in 1915, an author by the name of Zane Gray approached him for an interview.  Hughes and Gray got along well enough.  The result of this meeting was a Zane Gray book titled Lone Star Ranger,which while fiction, was modeled on the exploits of John Hughes and the Rangers of Company D.  Other books soon followed: The Border Boss, by Jack Marin (1942), Trails and Trials of a Texas Ranger, by W. W. Sterling, Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, by Bill O’Neal, and The Law Comes to Texas, by Frederick Wilkins.  Many western enthusiasts today believe that John Reynolds Hughes was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger character that found its way in to early films, a television series, and a remade modern film of the same name.

Hughes never married; by the 1940s, he was in poor health and most of those who were closest to him had already passed away.  At the age of 92, Hughes was living with his niece in Austin, Texas.  He committed suicide on 3 June 1947.


[1] The term cowboy, when used in the 1800s, was meant as a pejorative since cow boys were believed to be toughs, bullies, gunfighters, back-shooters, or men of ill-repute.  The good guys who pursued this line of work were simply called “hands,” ranch hands, or trail hands.

[2] Quanah Parker (1845-1911) was the last chief of the Quahada tribe of Comanche.  He was the son of Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker. He became a major figure in Comanche resistance to white settlement and in the tribe’s adjustments to reservation life.

[3] The Chisholm Trail was the major route out of Texas for livestock between 1867 and 1884.  The cattle trail played a major role helping Texas recover from the economic effects of the American Civil War.

[4] Ira Aten died on 5 August 1953 at the age of 89-years.

[5] The Frontier Battalion was composed of six companies of Texas rangers (each company having 75 men).  The battalion was formed in 1874 to protect the frontier of Texas.  Camps were established at locations along the entire frontier area with pony riders maintaining continual communications among them.

[6] Established as a US military outpost in 1857, Camp Wood was located on the Nueces River near the present-day town of the same name.  The purpose of the outpost was to protect the San Antonio-El Paso route and the Rio Grande Valley from Indian raids.  It was also near the ruins of Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz. Camp Wood was named for George W. F. Wood.  After the Civil War, Camp Wood was periodically used as an outpost by the Texas Rangers.

[7] Texas Ranger Captain Frank Jones, Corporal Kirchner, Privates Tucker, Aten and Saunders, and El Paso County Deputy Sheriff Bryant attempted to serve an arrest warrant on Jesus-Maria Olguin and his son, Severio, for cattle rustling.  The Olguin clan were known outlaws and lived in the “no man’s land” on Pirate Island which was situated in the middle of the Rio Grande River between Texas and Mexico across from El Paso County.  As the lawmen approached the small village of Tres Jacales, they observed two Mexican riders flee toward the village, dismount, and enter an adobe building.  As Captain Jones and his men approached, gun fire erupted from inside the buildings and from surrounding brush. Jones was wounded in the thigh and fell from his horse. He straightened his leg out and continued to return fire.  Private Tucker came to his assistance, but Jones ordered his men to save themselves.  Seconds later he was riddled with bullets and died.  Jones was 37-years old.

[8] James Brown Miller (aka Deacon Jim) (1861-1909) was a professional killer, said to have murdered 12 people during gunfights and assassinations.  He was called Deacon Jim because he regularly attended the church, did not smoke or drink.  Having assassinated a popular former US marshal, Miller and three other men were lynched in Ada, Oklahoma by a mob of highly irate town citizens.


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El Pistolero

Karnes County TXThe date was 12 June 1901.  Karnes County, Texas Sheriff W. T. Morris (whom everyone called Brack) and a deputy were investigating the theft of a horse.  The sheriff’s inquiry led him to the Thulemeyer Ranch outside Kenedy, Texas.  Arriving at the ranch, Morris encountered two Mexican tenant farmers —brothers named Gregorio and Romaldo Cortez.  Not being able to converse in Spanish, Morris depended on his deputy to act as an interpreter.  The sheriff, having learned that Gregorio had recently obtained a horse, sought to question him about it.  Gregorio was asked (by the deputy) if he had recently acquired a caballo (stallion).  Cortez replied no, but he had a yegua (mare) … a word that the deputy did not understand.  Morris and his deputy conferred for a few moments.  After this short conversation, Morris suddenly drew out his revolver; Romaldo immediately went for his gun.  Morris shot Romaldo, wounding him.  Within a split second, Gregorio drew his weapon (in self-defense) and shot Morris, mortally wounding him.  The deputy pushed Morris into their buckboard wagon and made a quick withdrawal back to town.

Gregorio took his brother inside their small cottage and turned him over to his woman for care, and then, realizing that nothing good would follow this encounter, he decided to getaway.  Gregorio initially stopped at the home of Martín and Refugia Robledo, which was situated on the property of one Mr. Schnabel.  Over the next several hours, Gonzales County Sheriff Glover and his posse discovered Gregorio at the Robledo home.  An exchange of gunfire ensued, resulting in the death of both Glover and Schnabel.  The posse withdrew.

Cortez escaped again, this time on foot, walking nearly 100 miles to the home of his friend, Ceferino Flores.  Flores provided Cortez with a horse and saddle and sent him on his way. Gregoria now headed for Laredo.

Gregorio-CortezGregorio Cortez was now a wanted man in the State of Texas.  In spite of a manhunt involving hundreds of local and county lawmen, and a special train requisitioned to transport men and horses to Laredo, Cortez successfully evaded authorities for another ten days.

Texas newspapers were at first critical of Cortez, some even lamenting that he hadn’t been lynched.  The hatred that some Texans had toward Mexicans spilled over into Tejano communities in the counties of Gonzalez, Refugio, Hays, and others.  In time, however, the animosity initially directed toward Cortez was transformed into admiration for the man’s ability to evade a rather substantial force of lawmen.  The San Antonio Express even glorified his remarkable powers of endurance and skill in eluding pursuit.

Throughout his ordeal, Cortez received aid and comfort from his friends; one of these, however, turned him in and Cortez was subsequently apprehended by a Texas Ranger on 22 June 1901. Within those ten days, Cortez traveled nearly 400 miles on horseback, and another 100 miles on foot.  The story, when carefully considered, appears symbolic of the struggles between Texans, Mexicans, and Tejanos [1].

Immediately following Cortez’ capture, supporters began forming organizations to help publicize the case and raise money for a legal defense.  In all, Gregorio endured four separate trials.  In Gonzalez County, Cortez was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison.  His lawyers appealed the judgment, but while that was going on, a lynch mob of several hundred Texans appeared in front of the jail and attempted to lynch him. The effort was thwarted by good law enforcement.

Gregorio was also tried and convicted in Karnes City, and Pleasanton.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals eventually overturned these verdicts and ordered a new trial with a change in venue to Corpus Christi, Texas. The trial was held in 1904; by this time, Cortez had been incarcerated for three years.  Again convicted, Cortez began a life sentence in the state penitentiary.  Nevertheless, considering the circumstances of these shootings, which everyone acknowledged were in self-defense, efforts to obtain a governor’s pardon finally succeeded in 1913.  Texas governor Oscar Colquitt issued him a conditional pardon —the condition being that he must, upon release, return to Mexico.

When he was released, Cortez thanked everyone who had worked for his freedom and then promptly returned to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.  It was there that he joined the forces of Victoriano Huerta during the Mexican Revolution. Shortly after marrying —some say for the fourth time, Gregorio Cortez died of pneumonia on 28 February 1916.  Family members claimed that Gregorio had been poisoned and died in the family barn shortly after his release from prison, but this does not appear to have been the case.  What is true is that Senor Cortez died at the age of 41-years.

Like most Mexicans, Gregorio Cortez had a humble beginning.  His parents were itinerant laborers who took their family to Manor, Texas in 1887.  In that same year, Romaldo was charged with stealing a horse, but charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence against him.  Another brother, Tomas, was charged with a similar but separate offense.  Tomas, while convicted, was eventually pardoned by Texas Governor Sul Ross.  Some historians today speculate that the family was involved in horse thievery throughout the 1880s.

In spite of the activities of his brothers, Gregorio Cortez worked as a farmhand in various Texas counties —which made him familiar with much of the area of his ordeal.  His marriage in 1890 produced four children, but he was divorced in 1903 —while in state custody.  Of his early years, he was known to speak good English and to have been the owner of legitimately acquired horses.  I have often wondered, if Gregorio spoke good English, why he would have needed the deputy to translate the sheriff’s questions.  In any case, Gregorio Cortez Lira became a folk hero within South Texas Tejano communities —and remains so today.

The Robert Young film, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, staring James Edward Olmos (1982), was both excellent and thought-provoking.


[1] On a personal level, almost every Texan had a Mexican or Tejano friend.  Generally, however, these groups developed and nurtured a fair amount of contempt for one another, the foundation of which was the history of South Texas and their suspicious nature.  To a Texan’s face, a Tejano called him amigo, but when among his own kind, he would refer to a Texan as gringo.  To a Mexican’s face, the Texan would call him by a first name, behind his back, a Texan often used the term “a” or “the” Mexican.

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The Bandit War

(Continued from last week)

Governor Ferguson responded to the Mexican/Tejano uprising by hiring a man named Henry Ransom [1] to serve as a Texas Ranger captain in South Texas. To put a fine point on it, Ransom was a ruthless killer who had been hardened by his earlier scrapes in Texas and his turn of the century military service in the Philippine Islands.  It was in the Philippines that Ransom saved the life of US Army Captain John A. Hulen.  As a reward for saving his life, Hulen, also a former Adjutant General for the State of Texas, influenced Ferguson to hire Ransom.  Ferguson ordered Ransom to form a new Ranger company, Company D, and to “… go down there [Rio Grande Valley] and clean it up —even if you have to kill every damn man connected with it [Plan of San Diego].”

Henry Ransom

Henry Ransom, seated far right

In essence, Ferguson offered Ransom and his rangers official protection from prosecution for first degree murder.  For his part, Ransom was eager to carry out Ferguson’s instructions. Insofar as Ransom was concerned, “Anyone who has guilty knowledge of crimes committed, or anyone who harbors bandits should be killed.”  To form his new company, Ransom recruited former prison guards and disreputable shootists from throughout South Texas.  Ransom stationed Company D in the border town of Harlingen, Texas, in Cameron County.  What subsequently transpired was a period of South Texas history referred to as the Bandit Wars.

In fairness, few people living in the Rio Grande Valley shared Ferguson’s and Ransom’s radical (and deeply un-American) views.  Cameron County Sheriff William T. Vann was one Texan who pushed back —and this began a long conflict between Vann and Ferguson, and by extension, between Sheriff Vann and the Texas Rangers.

On 2 August 1915, someone reported spotting fifty Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande near Brownsville.  At the time, Caesar Kleberg managed the politically influential King Ranch.  He and Jim Wells notified the State Adjutant General of this incursion and urged him to come personally to South Texas to deal with it.  Adjutant General Henry Hutchings promptly ordered Texas Ranger Captain J. Monroe Fox to move his entire company from Marfa [2] to Brownsville and, having done so, boarded a train for South Texas.  On the very morning Hutchings arrived in Brownsville, Luis De la Rosa attacked the settlement at Sebastian murdering two innocent men, a father and his son who were working in a nearby field.  He then set about looting several stores in Sebastian.   Before making his escape, De la Rosa made a chilling announcement: he intended to kill other prominent citizens in South Texas.  In reporting this incident, the Dallas Morning News reminded its readers that the De la Rosa raid should dispel any notion that these attacks originated in Mexico [3].

That night, Hutchings and Ransom led a posse to track down the bandit gang.  Three suspected raiders were shot and killed on the McAllen Ranch near Paso Real.  Sheriff Vann, who was a member of the posse, later insisted that these three men were not bandits —they were all unarmed.

Captain Fox and his Company B rangers arrived by train in Brownsville at noon on the following day. On the morning of 8 August, Fox received a telephone call from Kleberg informing him that Mexican raiders had been observed on his range near Kingsville.  Hutchings quickly organized a posse composed of Ransom and Fox, fourteen Texas Rangers, and eight men borrowed from the 12thCavalry under Corporal Allen Mercer.  This contingent departed Brownsville headed for Norias, a sub-unit headquarters location of the sprawling King Ranch.  The posse was eventually joined by a US mounted immigration inspector named D. Portus Gray, who with nothing better to do, decided that he wanted to share in the excitement.  Gray soon recruited Deputy Sheriff Gordon Hill, two customs inspectors (former Texas Rangers), and two civilian (cowboy) volunteers.

Norias is situated on a flat plain 75-miles north of Brownsville.  At that time, it was an isolated cattle shipping station for the King Ranch.  The headquarters building was a two-story wood frame house that stood 50-feet west of the railway tracks; it was more-or-less surrounded by out-buildings such as a railroad section house, tool sheds, piles of cross ties, and two bunk houses.  Residents of Norias consisted of only a handful of people associated with the King Ranch, including a foreman, three cowboys, a carpenter and his wife, a black cook and his wife, several Mexican railroad hands and their wives, and an elderly woman by the name of Manuela Flores.  A gentleman by the name of Tom Tate was also on hand serving as a special ranger [4] to the King Ranch.

Shortly after the posse’s arrival, Tate supplied them with horses and then led Hutchings and his men toward a water hole twelve miles southwest where they hoped to strike the trail of the suspected bandits.  The US troops were left behind to guard the Norias station.

Portus Gray and his men arrived at the Norias station around 5:30 p.m., and since the posse had already departed Norias, the Gray contingent were invited to join everyone else for supper.  Afterwards, while sitting leisurely on the porch, Customs Inspector “Tiny” Hines (who was anything but tiny) spotted the approach of riders in the distance.  He thought the posse was returning.  On closer examination, however, Gray noted the Mexican sombreros and a white flag with a red border.  He alerted everyone that the approaching riders were bandits, and everyone scurried to a defensive position.

Luis de la Rosa 1914

De la Rosa, 1914

In fact, there were sixty bandoleer-draped riders, armed with Mauser rifles, and they were fast approaching Norias Station.  Some of these men were Carranza’s soldiers (from Mexico), while others were Tejano adherents to the Plan of San Diego (The Plan), and all of them serving under the command of Luis De la Rosa.  Their intention was to wreck and rob the train and dispatch anyone who got in the way.  US troops quickly took up defensive positions behind a low rail bed.  As the raiders closed to 250-yards, the troops opened fire with their Springfield rifles; Mexicans quickly dismounted and returned fire. Three of the defenders were immediately wounded.  The rebels launched an aggressive attack, attempting an envelopment of the defenders. The largest battle of the Bandit Wars was joined.

Deadly fire from the defenders caused the seditionists to take cover behind a toolshed, the section house, and the stack of cross ties.  Having broken in to the section house, Antonio Rocha dragged Manuela Flores forward and demanded that she tell him how many defenders were at the ranch house.  The feisty older woman answered defiantly in Spanish, “If you want to know, go over there and find out.”  Rocha promptly shot her in the head.

The rebels positioned themselves so that they were delivering fire into the defenders from two sides.  One of the defenders, a cowboy named Lauro Cavazos, shot the horse out from under one of the rebel leaders.  With this sudden lull in the firing, the three wounded defenders were quickly moved to the ranch house.  Several raiders, who had managed to entangle themselves in barbed-wire east of the tracks, were shot down by the defenders.  Realizing that they had a limited supply of ammunition, the defenders carefully chose their targets.  The black cook, Mr. Albert Edmunds, reached a telephone by crawling along the floor and, contacting Kleberg, pleaded for help.  Then, braving lethal fire, Edmunds crawled from one defender to the next with much needed drinking water —and while the men were drinking, he took over his rifle and delivered accurate fire at the bandits.

The gunfight raged for more than two hours.  The defenders were nearly out of ammunition and the situation looked bleak.  Just as the sun went down, at about 8:30 p.m., the raiders mounted a coordinated charge shooting and yelling like wild Indians. At a range of about 40-yards, former Texas Ranger Pinkie Taylor shot and killed De la Rosa and the attack faltered. The bandits, having never figured on a stout defense at a place they imagined was lightly defended, then lost interest in continuing their assault.  Loading their wounded onto horses, they withdrew from Norias Station. Gray later said that the defenders had wounded half of the attackers.  After the Mexican withdrawal, the defenders maintained their positions and watch.

An hour later, the Hutchings posse returned to Norias oblivious to the firefight.  Surveying the damage, the Texas Rangers were embarrassed and chagrined to learn how narrowly they had missed the action. Captain Ransom then began lecturing the defenders on how they should have organized themselves, but former ranger Pinkie Taylor would have none of his arm-chair analysis and put him in his place.  Hutchings elected not to pursue the marauders fearing an ambush in the night.  This was probably a wise decision.

The next morning, the posse followed the raiders’ tracks.  They discovered four bodies on the plains east of the ranch house along with a white flag emblazoned with a large letter E.  One wounded bandit identified himself as Jose Garcia and said that he was from San Benito, Texas.  The goal of the attackers, he said, was to reclaim the Rio Grande Valley for Mexico. After making his statement, Garcia died. A subsequent inquiry by Sheriff Vann, however, suggests that Garcia was actually a man named Jesus Garcia of Brownsville.  There was some conjecture about how Garcia died, an inference that he was murdered by Ransom, but most believed he died from the wounds he sustained during the battle.

On the next day, a photographer named Robert Runyon arrived by train from Brownsville. Runyon had created a cottage industry photographing grizzly scenes of the Mexican Revolution and then selling his pictures as postcards.  Runyon took several pictures of the aftermath of the firefight at Norias Station. Texas Rangers posed proudly for him —as if they had had anything at all to do with the battle, but this was the nature of the Texas Rangers under Hutchings in 1915.  Nevertheless, Runyon’s photographs offended a large number of people in the United States and did nothing but anger the Mexicans —especially his still-photographs of Texas Rangers dragging dead bodies behind horses to a mass-grave pit.

The Norias Station Raid caused a sensation in the United States.  A massive operation was initiated to hunt down the surviving participants of the attack.  The local army commander, General Frederick Funston, ordered additional troops, heavy guns, and an aircraft to patrol the border.  Within ten days, according to one San Antonio newspaper, ten Mexicans and Tejanos had been shot dead or hanged in the Rio Grande Valley.  The Dallas Morning News reported, “To all practical purposes, a condition of guerrilla warfare exists along the border.  Nobody knows how many Mexicans have been killed in the brush in the last few days—and nobody will ever know.”

Given the circumstances of the Norias Station Raid and public knowledge of The Plan, almost everyone in South Texas started wearing or carrying firearms —and, whenever an armed Hispanic was encountered, he was assumed to be an insurgent and treated accordingly.

On the morning of 10 August, Captain J. Monroe Fox received a tip that a band of marauders was hold up at the El Merino Range, two miles west of Sebastian.  As Fox and his rangers rode toward the ranch house, an unknown number of Mexicans leaped on their horses intending to escape.  The rangers opened fire, killing two men —the rest making good their escape.

On 14 August, Fox was informed that one of the Norias Station raiders was located in Raymondville. They tracked him down and killed him. Upon Fox’s return to Brownsville, he reported that “virtually all of the Mexican bandits have either been killed or driven back into Mexico.”

The killing wasn’t over, however.  On 20 August, Fox and his rangers went to the home of Tomas Aguilar, who was suspected as one of the Norias Station insurgents.  From what we know, Aguilar at first attempted to hide from the rangers, but then he grabbed a rifle and ran for his horse, firing at the rangers as he ran.  The rangers returned fire, hitting him.  That evening, from his hotel in Raymondville, Fox wrote his report informing General Hutchings that they had captured and killed Aguilar, that he had admitted to robbing the depot at Combs, Texas, and setting fire to the railroad bridge.  Aguilar also admitted to murdering a farmer and his son in cold blood. Apparently, Ferguson’s “shoot to kill” order had taken hold among the Rangers.  From Captain Fox’s own report, Aguilar made his confession —and was then executed.  Soon after, Company B was soon ordered back to the Big Bend area of Texas.


The bearded Venustiano Carranza, standing left

Apparently, the Plan of San Diego wasn’t as absurd as some imagined —the raids were real and deadly, but they actually began in 1910 and lasted through 1919.  They were initially carried out by Mexican rebels from Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, Mexico.  The Carranza faction was responsible for most of these, but the Tejano seditionists played a large role, as well.  While never able to implement The Plan in the way it was envisioned, the seditionists played havoc with South Texas communities —essentially widening the gap between Anglo and Hispanic communities.

The facts are that the first raids targeted prominent Mexican-Americans (Tejanos).  Deputy Sheriff Pablo Falcon was the first victim of The Plan.  One of the men who killed him was a Mexican whom Falcon had arrested the week prior. The overall leaders were Luis de la Rosa and Aniceto Pizana, who organized their guerrilla bands that consisted of between 25 and 100 men.  In addition to targeting prominent Hispanic citizens, they intended to kill all white men over the age of 16 years.  They intended to raze public and private property, to instill fear within South Texas communities.  They disrupted communications by pulling down telephone and telegraph wires.

In order to maintain this assault, it was crucial to maintain support from Mexico.  Half of the men on guerilla missions were Mexicans. Additionally, Mexican newspapers were used as propaganda tools within border towns, which exaggerated the success of Mexicans against white Americans and actively recruited others to participate in the raids.

Understandably, white Americans became increasingly hostile toward and suspicious of Hispanics —during and years after the Bandit Wars.  The unhappy result of these actions were illegal executions of Mexicans at the hands of the Texas Rangers, county sheriffs, and local police officers. Private citizens also participated in the indiscriminate killings.  Local whites established the Law and Order League in 1915, a vigilante group. Before the end of 1916, more than 300 Tejanos were slain in Texas.

Francisco Pancho Villa

Francisco “Pancho” Villa

Then, in March 1916, Pancho Villa  raided Columbus, New Mexico.  This act prompted President Woodrow Wilson to send General John J. Pershing into Mexico to capture him.  Pershing never found Villa, but the crisis escalated to a point just short of general war between the United States and Mexico.  Eventually, the issue was resolved diplomatically, but after the Zimmerman Telegram became public knowledge in 1917, South Texas whites looked upon Hispanics as enemies of the United States.

Personal note: having lived in the Rio Grande Valley for a decade (albeit twenty years ago), I can say that the suspicion, distrust, and resentment between whites and Tejanos generated during the Bandit Wars continues to simmer beneath the surface of South Texas society.


  1. Texas Monthly, Rivers of Blood, (January 1986)
  2. Boessenecker, J: Texas Ranger, The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde(2016)
  3. Webb, Walter P: The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, (1935)
  4. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas


[1] When it was revealed that the Houston police force was unable to cope with the explosion of crime, Mayor Horace Baldwin Rice, a wealthy progressive reformer, hired two former Texas Rangers as his personal police agency to stop the violence. These men were Henry Lee Ransom and Jules J. Baker.  Of the two, Ransom was the most dangerous; his willingness to shoot anyone he suspected of a crime, particularly if they happened to be black or Tejano, resulted in his indictment for murder on more than one occasion.  He always seemed to escape punishment, however.  In 1910, Ransom was 39-years old, stood five-foot, 8-inches tall, and weighed 140 pounds.  Ransom was a veteran of the Spanish-American war with service in the Philippine Islands at a time when US Army troops destroyed villages and wantonly murdered military prisoners and civilians in cold blood.  According to one biographer, “Trouble followed Henry Ransom like horseflies on a cow pony.”

[2] Marfa, Texas is located in northeastern Presidio County in the high desert of the Trans-Pecos between the Davis Mountains and the area known as Big Bend (now a national park).  The town is twenty miles south of Fort Davis and 18 miles west of the city of Alpine.

[3] This wasn’t the first time the newspaper “got it” wrong —or the last.

[4] At this time, special Texas Ranger commissions were offered to certain politically connected individuals.  The commission gave men the same rights as a regular Texas Ranger, including certain law enforcement powers, but they were not state employees.  It is likely that Tate’s commission was granted to him because he was employed by the politically powerful King Ranch and it was convenient to the King Ranch to have such a person on their payroll.


Posted in History, Society | 5 Comments

Sedition in Texas —1915

Wells JB 001

James Babbage Wells Jr.

The boss of all white bosses in South Texas was a thoroughly corrupt Brownsville attorney by the name of James Babbage Wells, Jr.  Wells controlled South Texas from about 1880 until 1920.  Along with wealthy merchants, bankers, and large land-owners, Wells created a political machine much on the order of the Old Mexican patron: he gave jobs, protection, and support to the Tejano [1] poor —in exchange for their political support, of course.  While Wells was the boss of bosses in South Texas, the majority of the population remained Tejano —and, for the most part, Tejanos lived in harmony with the white minority because they were materially rewarded for supporting the Wells machine.

This harmonious relationship between Anglos and Tejanos changed after 1898, however, when the introduction of irrigation farming transformed the Rio Grande Valley from dry scrub desert into the epicenter of a vast agricultural network. Six years later, the railroad came to the Rio Grande Valley.  Combined, these improvements pulled in huge numbers of laborers from Mexico and farmers from the American midwest.  The Tejano labor pool was suddenly competing with Mexican migrants.  Worse, however, Anglo farmers from the Midwest brought with them their prejudices toward Mexicans and Tejanos.  Beyond this, the new immigrants caused a shift in South Texas politics —which was the beginning of the end to the Wells political machine.

Added to this paradigm, Mexico’s revolution sparked civil unrest throughout the Rio Grande Valley, which extended from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico —the most populated area in this span being the one-hundred miles inland from Brownsville, which included the counties of Starr, Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy.

Diaz P 001

Porfirio Diaz

Mexico’s president was the dictator Porfirio Diaz, a man who had exercised brutal power in Mexico since 1876.  His administration was rife with corruption—today, a long-standing Mexican political tradition.  Under Diaz, however, armed thugs known as Ruralesterrorized the population.  A frequent refrain in Mexico, in the aftermath of wanton murders perpetrated these rural police, was that the victims were killed while trying to escape.  The Mexican phrase for this policy was ley de fuga (law of flight).  In 1910, Diaz was challenged by an aristocratic reformer named Francisco Madero.  Fearing Madero’s appeal to the masses, Diaz had Madero arrested and then defeated him through massive voter fraud.  After Diaz’ was reelected, Madero was released from jail and (perhaps wisely) fled to Texas.  In Texas, he began to call for a popular uprising against Diaz.  In essence, then, Madero helped to ignite the Mexican Revolution. He was joined in this endeavor by the revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco.  In 1911, Diaz’s army was defeated at the Battle of Juarez, a city adjacent to El Paso.  Diaz subsequently resigned his presidency and fled to Spain.

Huerta V 001

Victoriano Huerta

Mexico had no fewer than ten presidents over the same number of years.  Diaz immediate successor was Madero, who proved himself a weak leader; rather than taking advantage of the strengths Villa and Orozco gave his presidency, he alienated them by refusing to appoint either man to a position in his government.  In the next year, General Victoriano Huerta led a bloody coup-d’état against Madero, who was assassinated.  Huerta, although succeeding Madero as president, was almost immediately opposed by Venustiano Carranza, a Mexican politician and rancher.  Then, in 1914, the United States seized the port city of Vera Cruz in an effort to cut off the flow of arms and munitions flowing to Huerta’s junta from Germany.  After a crucial defeat by Pancho Villa [2] two months later, Huerta resigned his office and went into exile.  A civil war then erupted between Carranza, Villa, and Alvaro Obregon for control of power in Mexico.  None of these men developed any good feelings toward the United States, not because of the Vera Cruz incident, but because President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize them as legitimate rulers.

As the revolution degenerated into an armed struggle between rival criminals, thousands of Mexican refugees flooded into Texas seeking shelter and safety.  In spite of reaching safety, the immigrants began to support various civil war factions in Mexico.  Tejanos (most of whom had close family ties to Mexico) also began to support either Huerta, Villa, Obregon, or Carranza.

Ferguson JE 001

James E. (Pa) Ferguson

In Texas, James E. Ferguson [3] was elected governor in 1915.  Ferguson’s base of support was rural tenant farmers, white laborers, and pro-liquor interests throughout the state.  One of his first acts as governor was to re-shape the Texas Rangers to suit his own (corrupt) agenda.  He did this by firing the existing leadership and bringing in his own henchmen and political supporters.

It was also in 1915 that the so-called Plan of San Diego was discovered.  This was a radical manifesto drawn up in the seat of Duval County, which called for a full-scale race war in the Southwest United States.  It demanded that all Mexicans rise up against American tyranny on 20 February 1915.  The goal was to return all territory Mexico lost to the United States to Mexico.  The land in question included Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California.  The manifesto additionally demanded the summary execution of every Anglo male over the age of sixteen years.  Six additional states would be ceded to African-Americans as an independent nation, land that would act as a buffer zone between the United States and Mexico. It was an invitation to a race war because it pitted Hispanics, Negroes, and Japanese against white Americans.  Their battle standard would be a white flag with a red fringe.

It was an absurd proposition, of course, but when the Plan of San Diego (henceforth, The Plan) was made public knowledge, many Texans took it seriously.  They were joined by Texas lawmen, who realized that they and the general public were being targeted for treasonable murder.  Tejanos took it seriously, as well.  Many impoverished Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley suffered from ethnic, economic, and political discrimination; Mexicans and Tejanos alike were willing to join any movement that gave them hope for a better future.

The Plan took on a life of its own when in July 1915, a band of rebels led by Luis de la Rosa suddenly made their presence known in Brownsville, Texas.  De la Rosa was a former shopkeeper, a former deputy-sheriff, and a suspected cattle rustler. Beginning on 4 July 1915 (America’s Independence Day), De la Rosa and his bandits began a series of attacks against the white population:

  • A ranch near Raymondville (50-miles north of Brownsville)
  • Two Anglo workers were shot and killed near Lyford
  • An attempt to rustle cattle from the King Ranch, which resulted in the death of one bandit and gunshot injury to another.
  • Robbery of a store in Lyford
  • The murder of a youth in a pasture eighteen miles from Raymondville
  • The destruction of a railroad bridge near Sebastian, and
  • The raid of a ranch near Los Indios, Texas, killing a Mexican worker

(Continued Next Week)


  1. Texas Monthly, Rivers of Blood, (January 1986)
  2. Boessenecker, J: Texas Ranger, The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde(2016)
  3. Webb, Walter P: The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, (1935)
  4. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas


[1] The wordTejanodenotes a person of Mexican ancestry born in Texas.

[2] In spite of the fact that Pancho Villa was a life-long criminal, he enjoyed the support of the United States up until he decided to launch an ill-advised raid into Columbus, New Mexico in 1916.

[3] Variously referred to as “Farmer Jim” or “Pa Ferguson” he was the most corrupt Texas governor in the twentieth century.

Posted in History, Society | 6 Comments

The Shelby County War

Unable to agree on a boundary between the newly-emerging United States and the Spanish territories in what is now Louisiana, both nations pretty-much ignored that strip of land separating Spanish Texas from the Louisiana territory.  The area became known as the Sabine Free State (also “Neutral Ground”) and eventually a lawless patch that neither country controlled.  The lawlessness spilled over into adjacent portions of East Texas, then still under Spanish control and, even after the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, very little changed within the so-called Free State area.  After Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, the strip of land remained wild, dangerous, and uncontrollable.

Middleton's BookWhat we know about this period of Texas history comes to us from John W. Middleton[1], who wrote about it in a memoir titled A History of the Regulators and Moderators and the Shelby County War in 1841-1842 in the Republic of Texas (Fort Worth, Texas: Loving Publishing, 1883).  Middleton, who wrote this reflection in his 75th year claims to have been a direct participant[2], but he also admitted that many years had passed —a factor that might have affected his memory[3].

After a string of business losses in the United States, John Middleton moved to Texas thinking that his luck might change.  He settled in Shelby County, Texas in 1837.  He wrote, “The country was thinly settled and the condition of society disagreeable, as there were many settlers who were fugitives from justice in the United States.”

In an attempt to control the rampant crime, a group of vigilantes formed calling themselves Regulators.  This group was extreme in their attempt to stop crime that another band of counter-vigilantes soon formed to moderate the Regulators.  Before long, each faction grew to include sympathizers from miles away and the effect of this was to enlarge the war previously confined to Harrison and Shelby counties but expanded to include Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and other East Texas counties.

Leading the Regulators were two men by the names of Charles W. Jackson[4]and Charles Watt Moorman[5].  The catalyst for conflict in Shelby County was a dispute between Joseph Goodbread and Sheriff Alfred George occurring sometime in 1840.  George asked for Jackson’s assistance in the matter, and Jackson ended up shooting Mr. Goodbread to death.  Arrested for murder, Jackson was nevertheless released pending trial and it was some period of time after this that Jackson organized the Regulators to rid the area of cattle rustlers.  It was following this that the Moderators were formed, principally led by Edward Merchant, John M. Bradley, and Deputy Sheriff James J. Cravens.

Jackson’s murder trial was scheduled for 12 July 1841 in Judge John M. Hanford’s court in Harrison County.  Hansford has been a personal friend of Goodbread and was a well-known supporter of the Moderator faction.  Jackson’s supporters concluded, not unreasonably, that Hansford would not be an impartial judge—so, when they arrived at the courthouse, they were all armed to the teeth.  Observing these armed men, Judge Hansford fled the courthouse, leaving a note for the sheriff stating, “I am unwilling to risk my person in the courthouse any longer when I see myself surrounded by bravos and hired assassins.”  Jackson’s trial ended even before the court could be called to order.

This, quite naturally, outraged the friends of the late Mr. Goodbread, the Moderators, who then embarked on a determined program to assassinate Mr. Jackson.  The attempts of the Goodbread faction to do irreparable harm to Mr. Jackson initially failed owing to the fact that Mr. Jackson was profoundly armed —and heavily guarded.  And, to press home their point, Regulators presented themselves at the residences of Moderators named Mr. Strickland and Mr. McFadden, men who they believed posed the greatest threat to Jackson, with the intention of killing them.  As both gentlemen were away from home at the time, however, the Regulators burned down their homes.

Moderators finally did manage to ambush Jackson, killing him along with an innocent traveling companion by the name of Lauer. In October 1841, Moorman led a party of Regulators to avenge the Jackson-Lauer killing.  Moorman and his gang surprised the assumed assassins 25-miles north of Crockett, arrested the three McFadden brothers, lynching the two oldest brothers, while sparing the youngest brother.  Moorman then led the Regulators in a reign of terror and retribution that spread north into Panola and Harrison counties.  Men alleged to be members of the Moderators were summarily lynched.

Within a short time, the Regulators numbered so many men that Colonel Moorman actually considered overthrowing the government of Texas and naming himself as dictator.  Texans not directly involved in the conflict lived in constant fear for their safety.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Sheriff Albert George, who had aligned himself with the Regulators, who now feared for his own life, resigned his office and fled to Nacogdoches.  John Middleton was appointed to replace him.

By this time, the Moderators had had their fill of the Regulators.  They first responded by filing articles of impeachment against Judge John Hansford[6]for his failure to bring Jackson to trial. Next, they convinced Sheriff Llewellyn and Judge Lester in Crockett County to issue warrants for the arrest of Middleton, Moorman, and others.  Three-fourths of the citizens of Crockett County supported the Moderators and formed posses to expel the Regulators[7].  Finally, Moderators John Bradley and John Haley hired a group of assassins from Austin to kill seventeen prominent men in Shelby County.

After leading his band of cutthroats to Shelbyville, John Middleton was ambushed and shot twice outside his home.  Although badly wounded, he escaped death.  Middleton identified one of his assailants as Jim Strickland, who was later killed in Louisiana while stealing slaves.  Additionally, Regulator Henry Reynolds was also assassinated.  One of Reynold’s assassins was captured and, before he was hanged, gave a full confession and named the men who had hired him along with the names of the men who were Moderator targets.

Crockett County Sheriff Llewellyn tried to serve an arrest warrant on Moorman, who stated that he needed two or three days to decide whether he wanted to be arrested.  Llewellyn gave him time to think about his options.  Moorman’s first option was to quickly assemble fifty regulators to resist arrest.  Meanwhile Judge John Ingram, a Regulator, determined that the warrants issued against Regulator leaders were technically incorrect and dismissed them.  He then issued warrants against the Moderator leaders.  In return, the Moderators had Judge Lester dismiss the warrants against them.

With the law supporting each side, outright violence between the factions was only a matter of time. The Moderators favored direct assault; they planned to ride into Shelbyville to kill the leaders of the Regulators while intimidating local residents.  They managed to kill one Regulator leader, but the rest escaped.  The following day a force numbering between thirty-five to sixty-five Regulators attacked Moderators in what would become known as the Battle of Hilliard, a gunfight that lasted all day.  According to Middleton, Moderators numbered close to two hundred; they suffered sixteen killed and twenty-five known wounded[8].  The Moderators withdrew to Shelbyville where Regulators re-engaged them and forced them to flee in what became known as the Church Hill Battle.

Texas President Sam Houston was becoming weary of the Shelby County War.  He once remarked, “I think it advisable to declare Shelby County, Tenaha, and Terrapin Neck free and independent governments, and let them fight it out.”  But, by this time, Houston was working to annex the Republic of Texas to the United States.  The Shelby County War wasn’t helping matters.  Thus, on 15 August 1844, President Houston decided to put a halt to the violence.  Houston called out 1,500 militia under the command of General James Smith and sent them to Shelbyville.

General Smith arrested the leaders from each side and forced them to sign a peace treaty.  The treaty effectively disbanded the vigilantes, which, while ending the war, failed to end all hostilities in Shelby and surrounding counties. In 1847, a Moderator named Wilkerson held a wedding party for his daughter and invited some of the known Regulators.  Unknown to the Regulators, Wilkerson had poisoned the refreshments causing violent illness among 60 guests, killing ten others.  Regulators responded by lynching Wilkerson.  These differences were not fully set aside until after the end of the Mexican-American War.

Charles Watt Moorman spent time in prison for his part in the Shelby County War.  Some years after his release, an assassin shot him dead in Louisiana in 1850.


  1. John Warren Love, The Regulator-Moderator Movement in Shelby County, Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1936).
  2. John W. Middleton, History of the Regulators and the Moderators(Fort Worth: Loving, 1883).
  3. Oran M. Roberts, “The Shelby War, or the Regulators and the Moderators,” Texas Magazine, August 1897.
  4. Texas State Historical Society


[1]Middleton served as a Texas Ranger between 1838-1839.  He passed away in 1898.

[2]While researching Middleton’s book, I came across another title but was only able to discover a photocopy of a book cover that is not the same as stated in this paragraph.  It is possible that Mr. Middleton wrote two books.  It is also likely that he was never a captain in the Texas Rangers.

[3]The Middleton account is the only surviving record by a direct participant of the so-called Regulator-Moderator War, and according to this author, Colonel Charles Watt Moorman’s narrative of what happened is the only “fair and true” account.  Unfortunately, whatever Moorman had to say about it was either destroyed or misplaced.

[4]Jackson, a former Mississippi River boat captain, was himself a fugitive from Louisiana.

[5]Moorman was a fugitive from Mississippi.

[6]Hansford resigned his office on 19 January 1842 to avoid impeachment, retiring to his farm near Jonesville.  In 1844, Regulators appeared at his home and demanded that he release some number of sequestered slaves.  When Hansford refused, he was shot to death.

[7]In 1880, the population of Crockett County, Texas was 127.  There does not appear to be a record of the population in 1840.

[8]Historian C. L. Sonnichsen, author of 10 Texas Feuds, states both sides likely numbered no more than 65 men.

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Three-Legged Willie

cropped-texas-star.jpgRobert McAlpin Williamson (1804/1805–1859) was the son of Peter B. and Ann (McAlpin) Williamson, who was born in Clark County Georgia.  While a teenager, he encountered an illness that confined him to his home for two years and left him disabled for life.  His right leg was drawn back at the knee; the wooden leg, which he wore from the knee to the ground, resulted in his widely known nickname, “Three-Legged Willie.”

During his illness and recovery, Williamson occupied his time by studying mathematics, Latin, literature, and law.  Far better educated than most others, Williamson was admitted to the bar in 1824 or 1825 at the approximate age of nineteen.  He is believed to have practiced law for about one year in the office of his uncle, Judge Duncan Campbell.

Williamson 001Williamson left Georgia around the end of 1825, spent some time in Alabama and New Orleans, finally arriving in San Felipe de Austin, Texas (the capital of Stephen F. Austin’s colony and, not inconsequentially, the site of a prevalent disregard of law and public safety), in June 1827.  We do not know why Williamson migrated to Texas, but there were rumors to the effect that he may have fled after wounding an adversary in a duel over the affections of a woman.  Whatever his motive, Texas suited Williamson’s independent spirit and his sense of adventure.

In San Felipe Williamson became friends with Stephen F. Austin and William B. Travis.  He practiced law and co-founded a newspaper, the Cotton Plant, in 1829.  By 1830 he had been appointed the first prosecuting attorney for the San Felipe district.  He also edited The Texas Gazetteand then The Mexican Citizenuntil 1831.

Williamson moved to Mina, Texas (now Bastrop) in the summer of 1835.  From Bastrop, Williamson served as a delegate to the Consultation in November 1835—the body that eventually established a provisional government just prior to the Texas Revolution.  At the Consultation, Williamson accepted a commission as a major of the Texas Army and placed in command of the Texas Rangers[1].  Despite his disability, Williamson was a capable horseman and a skilled marksman. He fought Comanche on the frontier, Mexicans in the battle of San Jacinto, and he served as an able member of William H. Smith’s cavalry squadron.

In December 1836 the First Congress of the Republic elected Williamson judge of the Third Judicial District, which automatically made him a member of the Texas Supreme Court.  Popular lore tells us that Williamson held the district’s first court session under the shade of a large oak tree next to the site of the one-day Colorado County courthouse in Columbus[2].

Williamson was known as a colorful character, even for the Texas of his own time.  Numerous legends about him persist in the folklore of Texas. Between 1837 and 1844 there erupted a feud in Texas that became known as the Regulator-Moderator War.  The principal leaders of the Regulators were Charles W. Jackson and Charles W. Moorman.  The primary leaders of the Moderators were Edward Merchant, John M. Bradley, and Deputy Sheriff James J. Cravens.  The roots of this conflict lay in the fraud and land swindling that had been rife in the so-called neutral ground between the American and Mexican borders.  In one dispute, Jackson (a fugitive from Louisiana) shot Joseph Goodbread at Shelbyville.  Jackson then organized the Regulators to prevent cattle rustling, and Merchant organized the Moderators to keep an eye on the Regulators.  It was during this time that both Regulators and Moderators intimidated judges to the point where trials could not proceed.

In Williamson’s first court session in Shelby County, a man stood before the court and made a motion that this particular trial should not proceed.  Williamson asked, “What is the grounds for your request?”  The man plunged a Bowie knife into the judge’s dais and replied, “This is the law that governs here.”

Williamson rose to his feet, drew out his pistol and laid it on the table next to the knife and said, “If this is your law, this pistol is the constitution that overrules it.”  The trial proceeded without further interruption.

Williamson 002Judge Williamson served as judge for four years.  In this capacity, he helped make East Texas a safer place for new settlers.  The outlaws he didn’t hang or put in jail, he ran out of Texas after giving them notice that they would be shot on sight if they ever returned.  Still, Williamson was a fair man, saving the life of a young Indian man who had been falsely accused and was about to be lynched.  In another case, he was about to sentence a convicted murderer when the main fainted.  Judge Williamson instructed the sheriff, “Hang that poor fellow before he comes to.”

The core concept of circuit courts requires judges to travel to different locales to ensure wide visibility and understanding of cases in a region. More generally, some modern circuit courts may also refer to a court that merely holds trials for cases of multiple locations in rotationally[3].

The life of a circuit judge was harsh and difficult, but the job suited Judge Williamson.  In 1836, the Third Judicial District included six counties; the circuit was ridden on horseback during all kinds of weather, with lodgings taken wherever available; if no lodgings were available, the judge and circuit lawyers camped out.

Following court sessions, Williamson often entertained at evening gatherings, playing banjo and singing.  We are informed that Williamson preferred performing Negro spirituals learned in his childhood in Georgia.  He also was known for pattin’ juba, an African-American percussion style thigh-patting, hand-clapping, and foot stomping widespread among slave populations.

Despite Williamson’s adventurous spirit, he suffered from an illness that might have been epilepsy. Episodes occasionally left him partially or completely paralyzed for periods of time where he was unable to either move or speak, but nevertheless remained aware of everything going on around him.  At one point so afflicted, and while staying on the second floor of an Austin hotel, Williamson’s nurse mistook him for dead.  She called the carpenters, who measured him for a coffin.  All the while this was going on, Williamson lay still on his bed.  A few hours later the carpenters returned with the coffin but discovered that they had failed to consider his deformed leg.  The carpenters took the coffin away to make the sides higher.  When they returned, Willie called upon all of his faculties to protest as they lowered him into the coffee.  He suddenly began kicking with all three of his legs, which scared the carpenters and nurse so badly that the carpenters dropped the coffin and ran for the door, and the nurse leaped from the second story window onto the street.

At the close of his first circuit in 1837, Williamson married Miss Mary Jane Edwards, a daughter of Gustavus E. Edwards who was a member of the “Old Three Hundred” settlers that migrated to Texas in 1822.  The couple settled in Washington County and started a family that eventually included seven children.  Williamson resigned his position on the court in January 1839.  The following year he was elected to represent Washington County in the Congress of the Republic of Texas.  He served in the Texas House during its fifth, sixth, and seventh sessions, in the Texas Senate during the Eighth Congress, and in the Texas House again during the Ninth Congress.  Williamson ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1851.

In 1857 Williamson suffered the onset of an illness that left him mentally impaired.  Mary Jane’s death in 1858 guaranteed that Judge Williamson would never recover from his debilitations and he died in Wharton on 22 December 1859.  Williamson County, Texas is named in his honor.


  1. Hunter, J. Marvin, Frontier Times, 1928
  2. Lynch, James D. The Bench and Bar of Texas, 1885
  3. Robinson, Duncan W.  Judge Robert McAlpin Williamson: Texas’ Three-Legged Willie, 1948
  4. Williamson, Robert McAlpin, Handbook of Texas


[1]Texas lawmakers created the Texas Rangers on 24 November 1835.  The organization consisted of fifty-six men in three companies, each officered by a captain and two lieutenants whose immediate superior was a major subject to the orders of the commander-in-chief of the regular (Texas) army.

[2]I have not been able to establish the specific jurisdiction of the Third District Court in 1836-1839; I think this information would be interesting and worthwhile.

[3]The first sovereign to institute circuit courts was King Henry II of England, the beginning of the custom of having judges ride the circuit each year to hear cases rather than requiring citizens to bring their complaints to a central court-house location.  This was particularly useful in the expansive countryside of the United States, where judges often traveled on horseback with a group of lawyers.


Posted in History, Justice | 4 Comments

An Overlooked Lawman

AW GrimesVery few people know who Ahijah W. Grimes was —no, not even those who daily travel on the road named in his honor in Round Rock, Texas.

Ahijah W. Grimes (called AW by his family and friends) was born in Bastrop, Texas on 5 July 1850. He was second from the youngest son of Robert Henry and Elizabeth Highsmith Grimes, who were among the first pioneer families of Bastrop County.  AW’s grandfather, Jesse Grimes, for whom Grimes County is named, was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, a politician, and a Texas judge. In later years, Jesse Grimes was a running mate of Sam Houston in his bid for the governorship after statehood. Jesse’s son Albert Calvin Grimes was one of the men who fell at the Alamo in 1836.

AW was named after his maternal grandfather, Ahijah Morris Highsmith; his grandmother Deborah Turner descended from prominent Mayflower families.  Many of the Turners traveled to Texas with the Highsmith’s from Missouri. The fact that Ahijah Highsmith, settled in Bastrop in the 1820s made him an Indian fighter out of necessity.  Both he and his son Benjamin participated at the Battle of San Jacinto.

AW’s family settled along Plum Creek; Robert Henry participated in the Texas Revolution as a member of Washington H. Secrest’s Cavalry.  Robert became a justice of the peace in Bastrop County in 1846.  He moved to Craft’s Prairie in 1852 and went into the lumber mill business.  Robert Henry passed away in 1863.  As AW was only 13 when his father died, the most influential people in his formative years were his extended family: the Cottles, Turner’s, and Highsmith’s.  Elizabeth Grimes later remarried James Hendon Wilkins in 1866.

The Grimes family seemed to gravitate toward law enforcement.  AW’s law career began as a Bastrop City Marshall in 1874, although it is believed that he worked as a printer’s assistant in Bastrop as a younger man.  Also in that year, AW married Charlotte (Lottie) Lyman of McDade, Texas. Lottie’s parents were Major Benjamin Lyman and Lelia Addie Dabney.  Lyman was also in the lumber business, but the business failed after the civil war and he moved on to Lampasas, Texas; there he accepted an appointment as a federal judge.

In 1875, AW was elected to serve as a city tax assessor, and in the following year he was appointed to serve as a constable in Precinct Six.  Nineteen days after his brother Albert joined the Texas Rangers in 1877, AW joined as well, on 20 September.  He served in Neal Caldwell’s A Company of the Frontier Battalion but resigned in December if that year and returned to Bastrop.  Shortly later, AW moved his family to Round Rock to work for Miller’s Exchange Bank.

By this time, Grimes had three small children —factors which may account for his short tenure with the Texas Rangers.  That said, when Williamson County Sheriff Sam Strayhorn offered Grimes a deputy’s star, he accepted it.  The city of Round Rock was growing, and with it, incidents of crime were on the rise. Apparently, Grimes believed that a position as a Sheriff’s Deputy was more lucrative than clerking in a bank.

Seaborn BarnesOn 19 July, famed outlaw Sam Bass[1], along with cohorts Frank “Blocky” Jackson[2] and Seaborn Barnes (shown right)[3] returned to the new town section of Round Rock to case the Williamson County Bank one final time before robbing it.  Jim Murphy, a spy for the Texas Rangers, had remained behind at camp with the hope of contacting Texas Ranger Major John B. Jones to inform him of Sam Bass’s criminal intentions.  Upon their arrival in town, the outlaws hitched their horses in the alley north of Georgetown Avenue at the corner of Lampasas Street and walked up the street to Kopperal’s General Store.  Texas Ranger Sergeant Richard Ware crossed the street from Highsmith’s Livery Stable and entered a barbershop.

As the brigands crossed over to Kopperal’s Store, they were also observed by Travis County Deputy Sheriff Morris Moore, and Williamson County Deputy Sheriff AW Grimes.  Grimes indicated to Moore that he believed one of the men was wearing a pistol, which at the time was against the law in Round Rock. While Moore waited outside, Grimes entered the store, walked up to the men, who were purchasing tobacco, and asked one of them, “Do you have a pistol?”

Sam Bass replied, “Sure. I’ve got two of ‘em.  I’ll let you have ‘em both.”  Blocky Jackson and Seaborn Barnes then drew their pistols and opened fire, shooting Grimes six times, killing him instantly.

Deputy Moore rushed inside the store and opened fire on the bandits, shooting Bass through the hand. Moore was shot in the chest, the bullet piercing his lung, forcing him to withdraw.  The sound of shooting galvanized Ranger Ware who was getting a shave. Ware ran into the street, his face still lathered, and engaged the bandits single handedly.  Major John B. Jones also heard the commotion from his position at the International and Great Northern Telegraph Office.  He rushed out to meet up with Ware and got off a single shot. The bandits returned fire, missing Jones.  Now Ranger George Herold joined up with Ware and Jones.  Nearby were two witnesses, Soapy Smith[4]and his cousin Edwin.  As Bass attempted to flee on horse, Harold and Ware got off another shot.  “I think you got him,” Soapy exclaimed.  Barnes fell dead with a bullet to the head and Bass, now slumped in the saddle, rode off.

Sam BassThe official report of the Texas Rangers credits Dick Ware as the one who made the fatal shot, but at an official inquest, Ware stated that he did not believe he had shot Sam Bass (shown right); George Harold insisted that it was Ware.  After the shooting the Rangers made no great effort to pursue Sam Bass because of their concern that he would lead them into a trap.  The Rangers called off the search for him until the next day.  Bass was eventually discovered propped up against a tree.  As one of the searchers approached him, Bass held up his hand and said, “I am Sam Bass—the man that has been wanted for so long.”  Rangers placed Bass in the back of a wagon and returned him to Round Rock.

Texas Rangers interrogated Bass, but he refused to give them any information about his cohorts. Speaking about Deputy Grimes, Bass is reported to have said, “If I killed him he is the first man I ever killed.” Bass died of his gunshot wounds the following day, which was his 27th birthday, on 21 July 1878.

After Grimes was killed, Lottie returned her parent’s home in Lampasas.  She later remarried a man by the name of Hart.


  1. Handbook of Texas
  2. Grimes Family Biography, Ancestry
  3. Gard, Sam Bass, 1936
  4. Eckhardt, C.F. Tales of Badmen, Bad Women, and Bad Places: Four Centuries of Texas Outlawry. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1999


[1]After failing at a series of legitimate enterprises, Sam Bass turned to crime. He joined a gang that robbed the Union Pacific Railroad gold train from San Francisco, California on 18 September 1877. The outlaw gang intercepted the train a Big Springs, Nebraska and netted $60,000.  Shortly afterward, Bass formed his own gang in Texas, which staged a string of robberies.  In 1878, the gang held up two stagecoaches and four trains within 25 miles of Dallas.  Sam Bass and his gang became the object of a manhunt by Pinkerton National Detective Agency and a special company of the Texas Rangers headed by Major John B. Jones and Captain Junius Peak.

[2]Texas born Frank Jackson was orphaned at a young age.  By 1874, Jackson was working as a tinsmith in Denton, Texas when he became acquainted with Sam Bass.  Two years later, Jackson killed a horse thief by the name of Henry Goodall. The following year, Jackson joined up with Bass and his gang in a number of bank robberies, including the hold-up of a stagecoach near Fort Worth, Texas on 22 December 1877 and again on 28 January 1878.  Within several weeks, Jackson began robbing trains stopping near Allen and Hutchins, Texas. Over the course of the next year, Jackson became a close associate of Bass and, at one point, was able to intervene on behalf of another gang member, Jim Murphy, who was suspected of being an informant (and in fact, he was), thus saving Murphy’s life.  Jackson died in the late 1920’s in New Mexico; by then, he was a wealthy rancher.

[3]Seaborn Barnes was also known as Nubbin Colt (1849-1878).  He was born in Cass County, Texas.  Illiterate, Barnes worked as a cowboy in his early years, but never able to hold his liquor, he gained the reputation of a barroom fighter.  He was jailed for one year in Fort Worth, Texas for his involvement in a gunfight in a local saloon.  After a second arrest in 1874, he escaped jail and became a wanted fugitive from justice. Barnes joined the Bass gang in 1878 and soon became Sam Bass’ chief lieutenant, helping to rob several trains in the spring of that year.  In the shootout at Round Rock, Texas, Barnes was shot in the head and died instantly.

[4]Jefferson Randolph Smith II (November 2, 1860 – July 8, 1898) was a con-artist and gangster whose most famous scam was the so-called soap-sell racket, which earned him the sobriquet of “Soapy”.  The nickname remained with him to his death.   This particular scam, one of many, involved setting up a stand on a street corner and, piling ordinary soap cakes onto the display case, he began expounding on the wonders of the product. As he spoke to the growing crowd of curious onlookers, he would pull out his wallet and begin wrapping paper money, ranging from one dollar up to a one-hundred-dollar bill, around a select few of the bars of soap.  He then finished each bar by wrapping plain paper around it to hide the money.  He then sold the soap to the crowd for one dollar a cake.  A shill planted in the crowd would buy a bar, tear it open, and loudly proclaim that he had won some money, waving it around for all to see. This performance had the desired effect of enticing the sale of more packages. More often than not, victims, hoping to “win,” bought several bars before the sale was completed. Midway through the sale, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill yet remained in the pile, unpurchased. He then would auction off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidder.  This should serve to remind us that a fool and his money are soon parted.

On one occasion, Smith was arrested by policeman John Holland for racketeering.  While writing his arrest report, Holland had forgotten Smith’s first name and wrote “Soapy”; the sobriquet stuck. Smith was shot and killed in Juneau, Alaska when confronted by vigilantes on 7 July 1898.


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The Hoodoo War

Texas StarWhen Africans were brought over on slave ships they brought their beliefs and practices with them, as all migrating people do. Their form of spirituality shared a commonality with other African religions and practices, which was an abiding faith in the power of a spirit-world. They called a spirit that was conjured up from the spirit world a “hoodoo.”  The hoodoo could perform magical powers, which meant that if Africans feared anything at all, it was probably associated with the spirit world.

In Mason County Texas, the hoodoos were masked gunmen and members of the vigilante committee who were able to work the magic of life and death over their adversaries. Accordingly, the Mason County War also became known as the Hoodoo War —a period of lawlessness ignited by a tidal wave of cattle rustling in Mason County, and the hostility produced between German immigrants and Anglo Americans.

Mason County TXMason County is located on the Edwards Plateau.  As of the last federal census, the population was around 4,000 —which are far fewer citizens than in most other areas of Texas. Before 1850, Mason County set squarely inside Indian country and the native peoples included Lipan Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche.  In 1860, barely 600 people lived in the area surrounding Fort Mason but that would change when settlers moving into Texas realized what a great place it was for raising cattle and horses.

Nevertheless, bad luck was on the horizon for this Hill Country area when quite suddenly, in 1874, large numbers of cattle began to disappear.  Back then, cattle were the same as gold; steal a man’s cattle and you’re just looking for trouble.  It was this issue that started the so-called Mason County (Hoodoo) War.  It was a war fought between Texans and German immigrants. In all honesty, the problem had been simmering for a while.  During the Civil War, for example, native Texas declared themselves for the Confederacy; Germans remained loyal to the Union —which did not sit well with the Texans.

As early as 1874, county justice Wilson Hey wrote to Governor Richard Coke requesting troops to help deal with large scale cattle rustling inside Mason County.  Both German immigrants and native Texans believed that the state was ignoring their problems, and neither group was able to secure the protection of lawful authority against cattle rustling.  A young cowboy by the name of Allen Bolt may have been the first casualty of the Hoodoo War; he was discovered lying along a dirt trail, shot to death, with a note penned to the back of his vest: “Here lies a noted cow thief.”

Mason County Sheriff John Clark subsequently arrested nine men and charged them with stealing cattle.  He placed them in the Mason County Jail, which at this time was no more than an open coral of oak logs.  Before trial, however, four of these men escaped.  Texas Ranger Dan Roberts happened to be in Mason at the time, but he had only a few men and was powerless when a mob of about forty men showed up at the jail on 18 February 1875 to remove the five remaining prisoners and hang them.  In the minds of these vigilantes, it was justice, by God.  Roberts attemptedVigilante Justice 001 to stop the mob, but the Rangers were significantly outnumbered.

The five victims included Lige Baccus and his cousin, who died, a Mr. Tom Turley who was hanged but survived, another fellow named Johnson, who escaped, and a fifth man by the name of Wiggins, who was shot in the head.  A district court investigated this incident, but nothing ever came of its examination.

Tim WilliamsonOn 13 May, Sheriff Clark sent his deputy John Wohrle (variously, Worley) and the county brand inspector over to Castell, in Llano County, with orders to arrest Tim Williamson.  Williamson worked as ranch foreman.  In the previous year, Williamson had been charged in Mason County with selling a yearling with someone else’s brand.  Historians point out that Williamson may not have been guilty, as no trial had been convened in this matter, but it was nevertheless required that Williamson post a bond. Williamson stood in good stead with his employer, who offered to sign the bond himself, but Deputy Wohrle refused this offer, saying that the bond would have to be taken care of in Mason Country.  (Shown right, Mr. & Mrs. Tim Williamson).

While enroute back to Mason, a gang of twelve men with blackened faces ambushed Wohrle and Williamson.  The unarmed Williamson was killed.  Wohrle was said to have offered no good defense of his prisoner, causing some folks to think that Wohrle was in on the assassination.  No trial was ever ordered for the murder of Williamson, and in all likelihood, Williamson’s murder triggered the Mason County War.

Hoodoo violence continued in earnest after Williamson’s death.  In July, gunmen fired on three German men from the dark.  One of these was gut shot and died within a few days.  The circulating rumor was that this shooting was in retribution for the murder of Williamson, but there was no evidence of any complicity by any white men.  Tracks found in the area were those of a moccasin wearing persons.

Scott CooleyInto this mix enters Scott Cooley (shown right), a former Texas Ranger, and a longtime friend to Tim Williamson.  Left fatherless by frontier violence, Williamson and his wife had more or less adopted Scott Cooley.  Mary Williamson nursed Cooley back to health when he contracted typhoid fever.  So, when young Scott learned of Williamson’s murder, he just sat down and cried; Williamson was his best friend in the world. When his crying stopped, Cooley announced that he was going to Mason County to put things right.  He started by putting together a group of his own: John and Moses Baird, George Gladden, and a fellow by the name of Johnny Ringo. They’d begin their campaign with Wohrle.

Scott Cooley found Deputy Wohrle on 10 August 1875; he was working on a well at the Wohrle ranch.  Cooley took the time to engage him in a calm conversation and then Scott asked him point blank, “Wohrle, why’d you kill Williamson?”

Wohrle answered, “Because I had to…”

Scott promptly shot him through the head and then, according to some, scalped him.  The Wohrle shooting was followed by several other acts of violence.  Ten days later, Cooley found Peter Bader’s brother Charles working in the field and shot him down but had mistaken him for Peter.

Johnny RingoAfter Sheriff Clark learned of the Bader killing, he set a trap for Scott Cooley.  He sent James Cheney to lure Moses Baird and Gladden in to Mason.  It was there that Clarke’s fifty-man posse waited in ambush near Keller’s General Store, which was situated along the Llano River. Baird died in the shootout that followed; Gladden was severely wounded.  The Mason County attorney wrote to Governor Richard Coke and told him that if he did not take immediate action, a civil war would develop inside Mason Country.

Baird was avenged on 25 September when Johnny Ringo (shown right) and one other gunman visited Cheney and shot him down in front of his family.

Governor Richard Coke directed General Steel to send Texas Ranger Major John B. Jones to Mason County —to clean the mess up.

JB Jones 003When Major Jones (shown left) arrived in Mason, Sheriff Clark nearly opened fire on him.  Clark reported that the Cooley Gang could be heading toward Loyal Valley to “burn out” the German settlements there.  Jones hurried over to Loyal Valley, finding everything quiet.  He ordered his men into bivouac for the night.

Cooley arrived in Mason at about the time Jones reached Loyal Valley.  Now riding with Cooley was Gladden, who had healed sufficiently to carry a firearm once more —and John Baird.  Citizens reported hearing a lot of shooting up by the county court house.  Dan Hoerster had been killed.  Cooley tried to kill Peter Jordan and Henry Pluenneke too but missed.  Historian Mike Cox chronicled, “…a few hours later Jones and the rangers rode into town too late to do anything other than inspect Hoerster’s body and marvel at what a load of buckshot could do to a man’s neck.”

Mason County Sheriff Clark filed murder charges against Scott Cooley, but there was one small problem.  In spite of the $300 reward offered for information leading to his arrest and capture, no one was stepping up.  Even the Texas Rangers, recalling that Cooley had served in their ranks, seemed unable to locate him.

Major Jones assembled his men and explained that he understood the ranger’s unwillingness to go after one of their friends.  He offered an honorable discharge to anyone who wished to withdraw from this onerous task.  One source report that fifteen rangers resigned; historians, however, are only able to identify three.  Nevertheless, the Texas Rangers never located Scott Cooley —and herein lies an important lesson.  Major Jones understood that the Texas Rangers could only be an effective law enforcement arm when they had the cooperation of local authorities.  When those officials were as divided as their citizens, there was no magic that the Texas Rangers could perform that would resolve local conflicts.

The Texas Rangers and local law enforcement did eventually arrest a few people, but magistrates dismissed most of the cases. Mason county courts never convicted anyone of either faction of murder.  George Gladden later hunted down Peter Bader and killed him.  Gladden was eventually tried for murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison; he was released after only three years.

Scott Cooley fled into Blanco County where friends sheltered him.  He died some time later from a brain fever.  After many months of murderous violence, peace eventually returned to Mason County in the fall of 1876.  Mysteriously, on the night of 21 January 1877, the Mason County courthouse burned to the ground.  Any and all records of the Hoodoo War perished with it.


  1. B. Eilers, A History of Mason County, Texas, 1939
  2. G. Polk, Mason, and Mason County: A History, 1966
  3. L. Sonnichsen, Ten Texas Feuds, 1971
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Frontier Battalion

(Continued from last week)

As mentioned in a previous post, Texas began to regain its states’ rights under the leadership of Governor Richard Coke aided by the Democratic Party in 1874.  Part of this recovery involved doing away with the state police organization, which was at best a marginally criminal enterprise composed of so-called radical republicans with a peculiar political agenda.  The new leadership in Texas realized that Texas had become infested with white outlaws, Mexican bandits, and wide-scale depredation at the hands of hostile Indians.

Governor Coke emphasized the need to protect the frontier, which led to the legislature passing a bill providing for six companies of Texas Rangers, consisting of 75-men each, fielded as the Texas Frontier Battalion.  Major James B. Jones was appointed its commanding officer.  The mission of the Frontier Battalion was to protect citizens living along the Texas frontier.

By July of that year, six companies were formed and organized along the entire frontier and by the first of October, Jones reported that the organization was “in good working order.”  Within the first seventeen months, the Texas Rangers had twenty-one confrontations with hostile Indians.  By early 1876, problems with Indians seemed to abate and the Texas Rangers began to concentrate on the problem with outlaws, Mexican bandits, and conflicts between agrarian and cattle interests.  Texas Rangers made arrests, escorted prisoners to stand trial, guarded jails, and protected courts of law.  Hundreds of outlaws were arrested, thousands more fled Texas for safer parts of the nation, and Texas Rangers addressed such incidents as the Mason County War, crime in Kimble County, terminating the so-called Salt War of San Elizario, and putting an end to the Horrell-Higgins Feud.

The man most responsible for the success of the Frontier Battalion, as previously stated, was its commanding officer, Major John B. Jones, a son of South Carolina.  Born in Fairfield on 22 December 1834, John’s parents were Henry and Nancy (Robertson) Jones.  The family moved to Texas in 1838, initially settling in what eventually became Travis County.  John later lived in Matagorda and Navarro Counties.

After completing his academic studies at Rutersville College and Mount Zion College at Winnsboro, South Carolina, Jones enlisted as a private in Benjamin F. Terry’s 8thTexas Cavalry.  He left Terry’s command to serve as an assistant adjutant under Joseph W. Speight’s 15thTexas Infantry, where he was commissioned a captain.  He was later appointed Adjutant[1]in General Polignac’s Brigade[2]and at the end of the war, was promoted to Major.  According to one 19thCentury historian, “Jones made an excellent record as a man of superior business, tact, and judgment, and on the field of battle, his coolness, quickness of judgment, breadth of comprehension, soldierly skill and management marked him as one to trust in time of great difficulty.”

At the conclusion of the Civil War, Jones’ father sent him to South America to research a site suitable for an expatriate Confederal colony.  Jones returned with the recommendation that South America would not be a suitable place for the family’s relocation.  In 1868, Jones was elected to the state legislature as a representative of Ellis, Hill, Kaufman, and Navarro counties, but he was denied his seat by the radical republican faction of the reconstruction government.  We next know of Jones when he received his commission to command the Frontier Battalion in 1874.

JONES JBHistory will show that Major John B. Jones was well suited to execute the governor’s mandate to put an end to Indian raids on the frontier and enforce the laws of Texas.  During his command of the Frontier Battalion, Jones reported to General William Steele, the Adjutant General of Texas.

In July 1874, Jones led a small contingent of forty Texas Rangers in an attack on a war party of Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache Indians, numbering 130 or more hostiles under the war chief Lone Wolf.  Conflicts with the hostiles took place in the Lost Valley of Young County, El Paso, and in Brown and Menard counties.  Along with putting a halt to depredations targeting white settlers, Jones returned stolen property recovered from marauding Indians and began a campaign to reign-in lawless elements from outside and within the State of Texas.

In 1877, Jones was sent to El Paso to quell the Salt War of San Elizario, but in this he was unsuccessful in overcoming a large band of Mexican citizens, many who lived across the border in Mexico, seeking to keep the salt deposits at the foot of Guadalupe Peak open to the public (by which they meant retaining access to the salt flats, which was within the territory of the United States.  This particular problem was finally resolved by an international commission convened to mediate these difficulties; Major Jones was appointed to represent the interests of Texas as a member of this commission[3].

As an illustration of Major Jones’ efforts to curtail the criminal element in Texas, here is how he was able to deal with the so-called Horrell-Higgins feud in Lampasas County in 1877, but before we get to that … this is how those events unfolded.

The Horrell and Higgins families were ranchers who settled in Lampasas before the Civil War.  They were friends and neighbors until the 1870s.  The five Horrell brothers (Mart, Tom, Merritt, Ben, and Sam) had initially found themselves in trouble with the State Police in 1873.  Captain Tom Williams was sent to Lampasas to put a stop to the general lawlessness of the county.  A shootout erupted in Jerry Scott’s saloon, the result of which was the death of four state police officers.  Mart Horrell was wounded in the melee and taken to jail in nearby Georgetown, but he was later aided in his escape by his brothers.  Within a few months, the Horrell family gathered a herd of cattle and moved to the New Mexico territory.

In New Mexico, the Horrell family settled west of Roswell but it wasn’t long before the Horrell clan found themselves in what has become known as the Horrell War.  It was a brief but bloody affair that resulted in the shooting deaths of seventeen men, including Ben Horrell and his brother in law Ben Turner.  Unable to stand up to the pressure of angry citizens in New Mexico, the Horrell family returned to Texas in 1874, surrendered to authorities for the murder of Thomas Williams, and stood trial.  All of the accused were acquitted of the charge of murder and the remaining brothers resettled in various parts of Lampasas.

Pink-HigginsAt some time within the next two years, the Horrell family found themselves in a quarrel with their former neighbor, John Pinckney Calhoun (known as Pink) Higgins (shown right), who accused them of cattle rustling.  On 22 January 1877, Pink Higgins shot and killed Merritt Horrell in the Gem Saloon in Lampasas.  The three remaining Horrells’ were determined to call to account Pink Higgins, his brother-in-law Bob Mitchell, and Bob’s friend Bill Wren.

On 26 March 1877, Tom and Mart Horrell were enroute to attend a session of Judge Blackburn’s court when they were accosted four miles outside of Lampasas by the Higgins party, who had concealed themselves along the banks of Battle Branch Creek.  In the initial fusillade, Tom was shot from his saddle and badly wounded. Mart, also wounded, but less so, dismounted and returned fire, single-handedly running off his attackers.

horrells 001The next confrontation, apparently accidental, occurred on 7 June—three days after the Lampasas County Courthouse had been burglarized and district court records destroyed, (including the bonds of Pink Higgins and Bob Mitchell).  Both factions happened to be in Lampasas that morning when fighting suddenly erupted in the streets (shown right, part of the Higgins family).  As a result of the shootout, Bill Wren was wounded, Frank Mitchell (a cousin to Pink Higgins’ wife), and Jim Buck Miller (also known by the names Palmer and Waldrup) were killed.  Local citizens were finally able to persuade the men to stop shooting and get out of town. After this incident, the Texas Rangers were called in …

A detachment of Texas Rangers surprised the Horrells while they were asleep in their beds, persuading them to submit to arrest. Major Jones mediated the dispute, persuading both sides to sign official agreements to reconcile their differences and curtail hostilities.  In the following year, Tom and Mart Horrell were suspected of complicity in the robbery and murder of a country shopkeeper in Bosque County.  Submitting themselves to arrest, both men were placed in the Meridian jail awaiting their day in court.  While in pre-trial confinement, vigilantes stormed the jail and shot both men to death.  The last remaining Horrell, Sam, moved his family to Oregon in 1882.  Sam died in 1936; Pink Higgins died of a heart attack in 1913.

One year after the end of the Horrell-Higgins feud, Major Jones and his Texas Rangers were instrumental in running the Sam Bass gang into the ground at Round Rock, Texas.  Sam Bass was shot on 19 July, arrested the following day, and died of his wounds on his birthday, 21 July 1878.

One newspaper of the day reported how pleased Texans were with Major Jones’ service: “As an Indian fighter, Major Jones has acquired a reputation unsurpassed, and now that a quietus has been put upon the red man, he is devoting special attention to the rest of the outlaws and lawless characters generally among more civilized classes. In this field he has so far achieved a success no less conspicuous than on the frontier.”

Jones was appointed State Adjutant General in January 1879.  He passed away in Austin on 19 July 1881 while serving in that position, during which time he retaining command of the Frontier Battalion.


  1. Dictionary of American Biography, John Holland Jenkins, Recollections of Early Texas, University of Texas, 1958
  2. P. Webb, The Texas Rangers, Houghton Mifflin, 1935
  3. Cox, The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900, 2008


[1]In the United States an adjutant is a key member of the battalion, regiment, division, air wing, or corps staff.  At the battalion or regimental level, the adjutant is a captain or major charged with managing the administrative and ceremonial functions of the command.

[2]Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac (1832-1913) was born at Millemont Seine-et-Oise, France.  His father Jules had been president of the council of Charles X of France.  Armand studied mathematics and music at St. Stanislas College.  In 1853, he won a lieutenancy in the French Army and participated in the Crimean War in that capacity.  In 1861, Polignac offered his services to the Confederacy.  He first served as a staff officer under P. G. T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg, but in January 1863 he was advanced to Brigadier General and appointed to command the Texas Infantry Brigade.

[3]As a result of this unrest, San Elizario lost its status as a county seat; it was moved to El Paso.  Buffalo Soldiers of the 9thUS Cavalry were sent to reestablish Fort Bliss and to keep an eye on the border and local Mexican population.  When the railroad came to West Texas in 1883, it bypassed San Elizario.  Soon the town’s population decreased and the Mexicans living in this area lost their political influence.

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