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.

Sources:

  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

Notes:

[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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