A Tale of Southwest Texas

Texas was always — and remains today — a place best suited to Texans.  You can visit Texas, of course, and many people do enjoy a family holiday along San Antonio’s River Walk and visiting the Alamo (which looks nothing like it did in 1836), but until one lives in Texas, it is impossible to identify with Texas culture.  It was always the land, the climate and weather patterns, and the dangers associated with wilderness living that shaped Texas culture, and this is as true today as it was in 1820.  Texas, of course, is a vast land divided into regions that extend from the piney woods of the swampy east, across wide pasture lands, and across arid deserts.  Texas travel in the 1800s wasn’t impossible, of course … nothing is impossible for Texans, but it was time consuming and very difficult.

In modern times, it is possible to travel from San Antonio to Austin in a little more than an hour (depending on traffic (which gets steadily worse with each passing year).  The distance is around 67 miles.  In 1820, though, it was the difficulty of travel and the ever-present danger of hostile Indians that limited human settlements in Mexico’s northern territories.

In 1820, there were three modes of travel in Texas: walking, horseback, or riding inside Conestoga wagons.  The wagons were too heavy for horses, so two to four oxen were used.  Oxen were slow as they struggled to negotiate rough, rocky, and at some places impassable terrain features.  Winters were frigid, typical summer weather ranged from wet and humid to arid and searing.  More than a few people drowned as they were caught in the flash floods of deep arroyos and while crossing raging rivers, and the dust storms made people choke on thick Texas dust.  Not everyone that “set off” on a journey in Texas arrived at their destinations; there were probably a hundred reasons why some folks just “disappeared.”  Danger was always just “up ahead.”

In 1860, the American people were amazed by the accomplishments of rugged, dare-devil Pony Express riders.  These were stalwart young men who rode out of St. Joseph, Missouri carrying mail pouches to Sacramento, California — a distance of around 1,700 miles.  Express riders moved the mail 75-miles per day — but in order to achieve this feat, they changed horses every ten or so miles.  The early Texans didn’t have the luxury of changing horses; they were lucky to have a single horse, or a mule, and oxen weren’t known for speed.

Colonists from the United States began arriving in Texas in the 1820s to establish Anglo settlements.  The process of Texas colonization involved several empresarios, each responsible for settling 300 to 400 families from the United States. Each colony had a central settlement that was usually established near a source of water.  Land grants (also, homesteads) took on a more or less circular pattern around the settlements and many of these were also near rivers, creeks, or streams.  Two of the earliest colonies established in present-day Victoria (founded by Martin de León in 1824), and Gonzalez (founded by Green DeWitt in 1825).  The distance from Victoria to San Antonio is around 115 miles and around 75 miles between Gonzalez and San Antonio.  It would take an ox-drawn wagon ten to twelve days to travel from Victoria to San Antonio … an expanse characterized by rugged terrain where water for animal and human consumption was always a concern.

El Paso, Texas is in the extreme southwest region of Texas.  Its location has been settled by humans for a few thousand years.  The Spanish established a settlement there in 1598.  For two hundred years, El Paso was little more than a collection of Hispanic communities and in no way similar to modern El Paso.  It wasn’t until 1848 that anyone gave much thought to a roadway to facilitate trade between San Antonio and El Paso.  The country was not only rough, but the climate ranged from frigid to hell on earth, and of concern to travelers, it cut through the Comancheria.  That fact alone discouraged white exploration.  But in 1848, San Antonio businessmen hired famed Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays to find a suitable route.

Captain Hays’ expedition of Texas Rangers took four months, and in that time, they managed to travel as far as Presidio — a distance of around 450 miles — before running out of food and water.  The Hays expedition was a bust.  A year later, gold seekers began arriving by ship along the Texas Gulf Coast and then traveling overland to San Antonio in their effort to find a land route across South Texas to California.

In a short time, San Antonio was teeming with prospectors; local businessmen began clamoring for a road to El Paso.  Eventually, Major General William J. Worth ordered First Lieutenant William H. C. Whiting and Second Lieutenant William Farrar Smith to find a suitable overland route to El Paso.  Worth ordered the expedition to follow Captain Hays’ trail to Presidio and then continue up the Rio Grande to El Paso.  Such is the burden of lieutenants (then and now).

The Whiting expedition made the journey to El Paso, but Whiting was dissatisfied with the route taken, so on his return trip, the party took a different route.  From El Paso, Whiting led his men down the Rio Grande for a hundred miles, and then headed east toward the Pecos River.  They followed the Pecos River to the Devil’s River, and back to the Rio Grande, and then eastward to San Antonio.  Well, it was an expedition of discovery, after all … and Whiting was a lieutenant.

During Whiting’s absence from San Antonio, General Worth died from Cholera.  His replacement was Brigadier General William S. Harney.  Harney ordered Lieutenant Smith to accompany Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Johnston on another survey expedition to El Paso.  Johnston’s command included one company of the 1st Infantry Regiment, six companies of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, and a train of California-bound immigrants.  Initially, this route became known as the as the Military Road — later, as the San Antonio-El Paso Road.

Men can live far longer without food than they can without water.  There’s almost nowhere one should go in Texas without water — not even if traveling in modern conveyances.  The San Antonio-El Paso Road was judged important enough to make it work.  In 1850, a supply train formed in Uvalde, 85 miles due west of San Antonio.  When the train departed Fort Inge, it consisted of 340 wagons, 4,000 animals, 450 civilians, and 175 soldiers.  Note: In 1850, there was no US Cavalry, so those soldiers, as infantry, marched the entire way. 

To safeguard cargo, mail, and travelers from Indians and bandits along the Military Road, the US Army constructed a series of fortifications.  From east to west, these included forts named Inge, Clark, Lancaster, Stockton, Davis, Quitman, and Bliss.[1]

Fort Stockton was established in the area known as Comanche Springs.  It was characterized by a few scattered Indian villages, first discovered by white men in 1849.  In Lieutenant Whiting’s journal, he described Comanche Springs as being “near” the Comanche Trail leading toward Chihuahua, Mexico.  What made Comanche Springs ideal was its proximity to water.  This was the site chosen for Camp Stockton, established in 1859.  Camp Stockton’s mission was the protection of travelers along the Military Road, Comanche Trail, and the San Antonio-Chihuahua freight wagon road.  Camp Stockton never provided much in the way of protection, however.  Infantry (foot) patrols would not have extended much beyond a ten mile radius of the camp, and no one thought foot patrols were very effective against horse-mounted Comanche.

Camp Stockton was named in honor of First Lieutenant Edward Dorsey Stockton of the US First Infantry, who died in San Antonio, Texas in 1857.  Soldiers assigned to the 1st and 8th Infantry Regiment completed the initial construction of Camp Stockton — garrisoned by Company H, 1st US Infantry.  When the American Civil War broke out, US troops were withdrawn from West Texas and dispatched back east. Abandoned, the camp deteriorated and remained dilapidated until 1867 when Colonel Edward Hatch of the 9th US Cavalry[2] reestablished it as Fort Stockton.  The new facility, intending to house four companies of the 9th Cavalry, was much larger than the original — in total, 960 acres, 35 buildings, including one of the first, a guard house.  Most of the buildings were constructed of adobe.

In 1875, the 9th Cavalry was ordered to proceed to New Mexico.  Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s 10th US Cavalry assumed responsibility for the Military Road.  Between 1867-1886, 87% of the soldiers assigned to Fort Stockton were Buffalo Soldiers — noted for their courage under fire and their tenacity in combat.  It was also during this time that Fort Stockton hired civilians to work as freighters, laborers, farmers, stockmen, and merchants.

In time, entrepreneurs from San Antonio evaluated the water source and thought that the area was suitable for a town.  They purchased large tracts of land for agricultural development.  One of these men was Peter Gallagher, who purchased 160 acres for a townsite.  He named this town Saint Gaul.  Gallagher build two stores at Comanche Springs and purchased additional property along Comanche Creek.  By 1870, 450 people lived around Comanche Springs/St. Gaul — mostly people who migrated there from San Antonio.

In 1871, with the organization of Pecos County, St. Gaul became the county seat.  Within four years, the population increased to around 1,100 souls.  If there was one thing the citizens of St. Gaul could not abide, it was the name of their town.  In 1881, the town’s name was changed to Fort Stockton.  With the conclusion of the Indian Wars in 1886, Fort Stockton was closed and abandoned.  Naturally, closure of the fort had a negative impact on the town’s economy.

Violence was never a stranger to Texas.  If the Indians weren’t killing Mexicans, they were killing Texans.  Texans returned the favor. When Texans and Mexicans ran out of Indians, they started killing each other. Neither was there ever a shortage of well-heeled ornery fellows just looking for a fight with other Texans.

One of these cantankerous fellows was Andrew J. Royal (1855-1894).  A.J. was still a young man when he left his home in Alabama and headed west where he first settled in Fort Worth and found work on the railroad.  In 1879, living in Coryell County, A.J. married Naomi Christmas.  Eventually, the Royal’s would raise one son and six daughters. 

After a few years, AJ moved his brood to Junction, Texas where he established a saloon and a ranch just outside town.  After being indicted for murder (there is no information about a subsequent trial), Royal moved his family to Pecos County, settling there in 1889.  Royal started another ranch outside Fort Stockton, and he opened another saloon he named the Gray Mule.

Royal was more than ornery — he was a bully.  During an argument with one of his saloon employees, Royal unholstered his weapon and shot the man dead, which one must admit is one way of resolving labor disputes.  Since Royal was never charged with murder, one wonder about the “other side” of the story.  The truly amazing thing, though, was that shortly after the shooting, the citizens of Pecos County elected A. J. Royal as their sheriff.  To some, Royal was a no-nonsense West Texas lawman but to others, he was a very dangerous, and a very abusive man.  Some say that he punished minor offenses by horse-whipping the accused — and if the fellow happened to be just passing through, after the whipping he warned the miscreant to “go on and git,” and “don’t come back.”  This is not how modern people define community policing, but AJ was apparently opposed to wasting taxpayer funds with costly trials. 

The longer Royal served as sheriff, the more abusive he became — even to the extent of threatening key businessmen in Fort Stockton.  He even threatened the County Judge and County Clerk, Mr. O. W. Williams, and Mr. W. P. Matthews  — neither of whom supported Royal’s reelection.  AJ was a simple man.  Either you supported him, or you were against him.

In early August 1894, while sitting at a card table drinking whiskey in his own saloon, Royal scribbled a note addressed to brothers Frank and James Rooney, two unsupportive local merchants.  To AJ, the note amounted to a fair warning that he intended to “wipe them out.”  Royal knew at the time that both men were at Koehler’s store, across the street, so that’s where he sent his messenger.  Royal later denied he sent any such note, but the messenger ratted him out.

Later in the day, Royal went to Koehler’s Store looking for the Rooney’s.  James Rooney spotted Royal entering his store with weapon in hand and hammer cocked.  Employing extremely good judgment, James withdrew to a small closet in the back of the store.  When Royal found no one inside, he turned to leave.  James Rooney then displayed less than good judgment when he came out of the closet armed with a shotgun.  Royal and Rooney both fired their weapons, but neither man was hit.

By the time the gun smoke cleared, both men had left Koehler’s Store.  Rooney high-tailed it back to his own place and Royal went to summon his deputies.  Soon after, Sheriff Royal surrounded Koehler’s store and threatened to burn it down if the Rooney brothers didn’t present themselves.  Frank and James Rooney and W. P. Matthews surrendered to the Sheriff, who promptly marched them to the Justice of the Peace for arraignment.  Realizing that they were in grave danger, all three men told the JP that they wanted to appear before the Grand Jury of the County Court.  He granted their request and released them pending formal arraignment.

A month later, the three men faced the grand jury, which, as it turned out, was mostly comprised of Sheriff Royal’s personal friends.  After deliberating through the consumption of a bottle of free whiskey, courtesy of the Gray Mule Saloon, the grand jury issued indictments against the Rooney brothers, Matthews, and several of their anti-Royal friends.  There were no formal charges filed against anyone, only indictments — which was a bit strange even for Pecos County.

Everyone indicted was soon arrested.  The justice of the peace, known as an avid supporter of AJ Royal, denied bail.  That’s when County Judge O. W. Williams stepped in and ordered the men released.[3]  The situation was a “range war” in the making, so Judge Williams wasted no time asking for the assistance of Texas Rangers.

Ranger Sergeant Carl Kirchner of Company D, soon arrived in Fort Stockton with five men.  After listening to William’s chronicle of events, Kirchner drew aside the indicted men and strongly suggested, “If I was you, I’d arm myself.”  Judge Walter Gillis of the 41st Texas Judicial District Court thought that Sergeant Kirchner had offered good advice.  It was at this point that AJ Royal became concerned about his prospects for reelection.

The way AJ looked at it, what he needed to secure reelection was the support of the Mexican community — essentially, the same people he’d been abusing with some regularity since arriving in Fort Stockton.  To gain the support of local Hispanics, Royal “released” a prisoner named Victor Ochoa, apparently with the expectation that Ochoa would encourage local Mexicans to help reelect Royal.

Victor may not have been the brightest of the Ochoa clan, but neither was he stupid.  When Sergeant Kirchner learned the details of Ochoa’s “release” from jail, he promptly arrested Sheriff Royal along with deputies Barney Riggs, J. P. Meadows, and Camilio Terrazas.  Rangers also filed charges against Royal for unlawful assault.

Enraged, AJ filed charges against Judge Williams, the Livingston Brothers, and Shipton Parke for smuggling stolen horses.  Sergeant Kirchner arrested them too, but come election day, Sheriff Royal was out of a job.

After the county court adjourned in the afternoon of 21 November 1894, Sheriff Royal (whose term of office expired at the end of December) was puttering around inside the court house when two blasts from a shotgun rang out.  Someone — no one knew who — had shot Sheriff Royal, who was mortally wounded.

When Judge Williams went to investigate the shots, he found a number of townsmen standing in the doorway of the Sheriff’s office calmly observing AJ Royal as he bled out.  A few of the men may have been taking bets on how long it would take.  Everyone heard the shot, but no one could say for sure who did the shooting.  Some people thought that the shooter was the fellow who drew the shortest straw — but no one knew for certain who that might be.[4]

One of A. J. Royal’s deputies was a fellow named Barney Riggs.  We’ll hear about Barney next week.


  1. Pecos County Historical Commission.  Pecos County History (two volumes), Canyon Texas: Staked Plains, 1984.
  2. Happle, M. A.  Andrew Jackson Royal.  Permian Historical Annual No. 24, 199984.
  3. Williams, C. W.  Texas’ Last Frontier: Fort Stockton and the Trans-Pecos, 1861-1895.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982.


[1] We have visited Fort Stockton and Fort Davis, which is not far from Alpine.  Neither of these posts were fortified in the way Hollywood depicted them in films.  There were no wooden fortifications.  The reason for this, according to a park ranger, was that there was no suitable wood in Texas.  Instead, the camp was surrounded by a series of fighting trenches.  Behind both Stockton and Davis are hills that overlook the camp.  We wondered if any attacks ever came from those hills.  In the dark, Indians would be inside the camp before anyone knew it, which is not where I would want to fight a Comanche or Apache.

[2] Buffalo Soldiers.

[3] In Texas, county judges exercise “original jurisdiction” and serve as courts of record and exclusive authority over Class A and Class B misdemeanors, act as supervisory authority over civil cases, and preside over the county court.  These are elected officials who serve four year terms in office.  County judges act as the appellate authority over justices of the peace.

[4] Sheriff Royal’s desk is now housed in the Annie Riggs Museum; Royal’s bloodstain can still be observed in one of the drawers.  The Gray Mule Saloon is now a coffee shop and art gallery.  Koehler’s Store was later converted to a bank, but now serves as a community center.  Annie Riggs Museum has a framed newspaper headline of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  When my wife and I commented to the curator that we remembered that day, she said, “Wow, you must be old.” 

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in FRONTIER, HISTORY, LONE STAR. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Tale of Southwest Texas

  1. Support the blue!


  2. kidme37 says:

    That story sounds like today’s FBI,except no one is voting them out.

    Liked by 1 person

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