The Sutton-Taylor Feud

Introduction

Al Capp’s Snuffy Smith

People typically speak of culture as a peculiar group within the framework of human populations.  We often hear such terms as “French Culture,” and occasionally applied to much larger areas, such as “Western Culture.” Indeed, the French are unique within the more extensive application. Still, I suspect that within France, there are subsets of that country’s national culture, which might include, for example, the Basque.  Similarly, we hear of “American Culture” within which there are several regional, racial, ethnic subsets.  There are significant differences between people living in New England, California, and Texas — each of which can have its own unique customs, lifestyles, and traditions.  And we can make an argument that each unique culture (or subset) views itself as somewhat superior (or, at least, preferred (to them)) of any other.  Few people living in the more “sophisticated” regions of the United States (such as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.) refer to southerners as belonging to a Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, or Texas culture; they instead prefer labeling them as hicks, rednecks, crackers, and Bible Thumpers.  Labeling theorists refer to this as stereotyping.

The term “redneck” originated from the red bandanas worn around the necks of laborers to absorb the sweat from working in the hot sun. There’s nothing wrong with honest work, of course, but people who see themselves as better than everyone else like to use such terms to describe lower-class white men.  They also use such terms as “cracker,” generally applied to working-class Texans, Georgians, and Floridians.  Originally, “cracker” was the term used to describe Florida and Georgia cowboys who cracked whips above the heads of cattle to herd them from one pasture to another.  Several other unkind references label grassroots Americans — a group that by far exceeds the number of people who view themselves as socially or politically elite.

Word associations are interesting things.  Call someone a “New Yorker” in New York, and the reaction might expect would be chest-swelling pride.  Calling someone a “New Yorker” in Texas is an insult, sort of like “rattlesnake.” Texans kill rattlesnakes and hang them over fences as a warning to others of their kind.  Two things stand out about grassroots people: they are as stubborn as the day is long, and they will not allow anyone pushing them around.

Pirates of the Sphere

If the Spanish conquerors created the New World in their own image, the Anglo-Celt people did just the opposite.  The British people were at best a haphazard collection of dissidents and diehards whose refusal to surrender to hardship enabled them to tame that which the Spanish could not pacify: a harsh land, hostile Indians, pestilence, and eventually, one another.  Once the Anglo and Celtic people arrived, there was no going back; they would either survive in the New World or die trying.

For two hundred years, roughly ten generations, the Anglo/Celt dissidents transitioned from Englishmen to Americans.  The Americans were a physically and morally strong people, of that there can be no doubt, but to survive in Texas, they would have to become even tougher — and they did.  They were mostly poor people, used to either making do, or doing without.  They didn’t own much, but what they did have was a strong sense of honor and a steadfast refusal to give up any fight — not until they were dead, anyway, and then they expected their survivors to continue the fight.

In those days, people sealed their deals with a handshake.  A man’s word was his bond — the glue that kept early Texian society together.  Violating these protocols was likely to end up in mano-y-mano conflict.  If a man was found to lack honor, if he was a liar, a thief, or a coward, no upstanding Texan would have anything to do with him.  To question a man’s honesty, cast aspersions on his character, or upon the honor or nature of any member of his family, was an invitation to swift retribution.  A life taken demanded Old Testament reprisals; no man deserved respect who would not stand up for himself or his family.

The Texas pioneers migrated from Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, George, Kentucky, and Missouri.  A few joined them from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, although more often than not through Tennessee and Missouri — people who were the seeds from which Texas grew.  They held themselves to a high standard and expected no less from a neighbor.  They were happy enough to allow every man to cut his own trail, but they would not be bullied or pushed around — nor were they willing to let a fledgling, ineffective legal system tell them when they’d received justice.  In matters of law and order, of fairness and justice, they decided those issues for themselves.

Dustups

Many historians and sociologists blame the American Civil War for Texas feuds.  It may be true in some cases, but not all.  The argument doesn’t explain the pre-war quarrels.  We cannot say that they were carry-overs from the Old Country, although there may have been a few disagreements carried into Texas from previous settlements.

Texas feuds have received far less popular attention than those in other locations, but I suspect they were as numerous, equally violent, and perhaps — as bitter as any other.  Half a dozen feuds are particularly well-known, but such conflicts raged in practically every county in the state.

Between 1830-1850, Texans spent most of their recreational time confronting Mexicans.  Only one feud emerged of any significance before the Civil War.  It was the Regulator-Moderator War of Shelby County between 1839 and 1844.  As with many later rivalries, the Shelby County War began as a contest between organized outlaws and vigilante groups.  Vigilantism existed throughout the Old West at various times and places because, in the absence of a formalized legal system, it fell upon citizens to mete out justice.  When legal systems proved corrupt or unresponsive to the concerns of local citizens, vigilance committees took the law into their own hands — sometimes even “convicting” crooked judges and town marshals.  See also, Vigilantism: Justice for All.  In Shelby County, the vigilantes (also regulators) went to such extremes in their attempt to break up outlaw gangs that another group came into existence to “moderate” the regulators.

It was also typical of Texas feuds for each side to draw in their friends, relatives, and sympathizers to aid them in their mission.  The farther away these comrades lived, the wider the conflict became.  In most cases, feuds became wars of extermination, which demanded the introduction of state troops to settle them.

In post-Civil War Texas, there were significant outbursts of feuds because raw feelings toward the authority of Union reconstruction drove hard-headed men to reject foreign interference in Texas affairs.  One example of such stubbornness was the Early-Hasley feud in Bell County (1865-1869).

The Early-Hasley Feud

The families of John Early and Samuel Hasley co-existed without malice before the Civil War.  Most of the Hasley men joined the Confederate cause early in the war.  John Early served in the Texas Home Guard, formed to protect the home front while younger men were away fighting.  John, however, abused his authority, using his power to take advantage of people less well-armed than himself.  One of the people John ill-treated was old man Drew Hasley, Samuel’s father.

When Samuel returned home in 1865, he became enraged after hearing about the abuses heaped upon his father.  To make matters worse, John Early began to align himself with the Union reconstruction effort, which involved the federal usurpation of the Texas government and the stationing of Union forces inside Texas.  Samuel made it known that he was looking for John Early and John wisely went into hiding.  Whenever Early did show himself, he was always in the company of Union cavalry.

At first, the feud was limited to both sides helping themselves to the property of the other.  There were a few shootouts, which resulted in two deaths.  The first victim was Jim McRae, a friend of the Hasley’s and an outlaw/gunslinger.  The second victim was Dr. Calvin Clark, who supported John Early.  The Hasley’s pursued Clark into Arkansas, where he was shot and killed by Samuel.

Samuel Hasley remained in Bell County but became a troublemaker and an outlaw in open defiance of Union occupation.  In the fall of 1889, Samuel went over to Belton, where he engaged in drinking and gambling with a few cuss words thrown into the mix.  Belton Deputy Marshal William “Cap” Light confronted Samuel because he was making a disturbance.  Deputy Light suggested that he “go home and sober up.” Hasley instead mounted his horse, rode it up on the walkway outside the saloon.  After the exchange of a few words, Light decided to arrest Hasley.  This was the instant when Sam chose to resist arrest and went for his sidearm.  Light, who was faster on the draw (and sober), shot and killed Samuel Hasley.

The Lee-Peacock Feud

This affair was also the result of raw post-Civil War animosities between two families living in the so-called Four Corners area of North Texas.  Bob Lee, a former Confederate officer, became the target of harassment by Lewis Peacock, a Union sympathizer, and a member of the Freedman’s League.  See also, The Lee-Peacock Feud.

… and the grand-daddy of ’em all

DeWitt County, Texas began as one of the early colonies in East Texas, founded by Green DeWitt, who gained Mexico’s permission to settle 400 respectable, industrious Catholic families in an area bounded by the Guadalupe, San Marcos, and Lavaca rivers, southwest of the Austin colony.  The people who settled DeWitt County mainly originated from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri.

The DeWitt Colony became a Texas county in 1846.  Initially, the county seat was Clinton, Texas, but later moved to Cuero.  During Post-Civil War Reconstruction, the U. S. Fourth Army Corps occupied DeWitt County, its headquarters element located in Victoria, Texas.  Between 1866-1868, the Freedman’s Bureau acted as the principal federal agency of the U.S. government in East Texas.[1]

Reconstruction officials regarded Texans as lawless and chaotic — likely a reference to Texans who steadfastly refused to abide by the Union’s oppressive policies.  The tool developed and then used to curb the independent-minded Texan was the Texas State Police.  Corrupt reconstruction Governor Edmund J. Davis appointed Adjutant General James Davidson[2] to serve concurrently as Chief of the Texas State Police.[3]  The post-war years led directly to the longest and bloodiest feud in Texas history.

The Texas Taylor family descended from Josiah Taylor, a Virginian who first went to Texas in 1811 as a participant in the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition.[4]  Josiah, a relative of Zachary Taylor, brought his family to Texas in 1824 and settled in the DeWitt colony.  His sons were Pitkin and Creed Taylor (1820-1906).

During the Texas Revolution, the fifteen-year-old Creed participated in defense of Gonzalez, took part in the Battle of Concepción, the Grass Fight, and the siege of Béxar.  After the fall of the Alamo, Creed led his mother and family to safety during the so-called Runaway Scrape and then returned to fight at the Battle of San Jacinto.  In 1840, Creed fought in the Battle of Plum Creek and then joined the Texas Rangers and fought in the early Indian wars with Captain John Coffee Hays.  During the Mexican-American War, Creed Taylor served with the Texas Mounted Rifles in four major engagements.  When the Civil War broke out, he served in Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford’s regiment.  In the feud, the sons, nephews, in-laws, and friends of Pitkin and Creed all played a significant part.

William E. “Billy” Sutton was originally from Fayette County, North Carolina.  Following his service in the Civil War, Billy moved his family to Clinton, where he ranched and entered county law enforcement as a deputy sheriff.[5]  Billy Sutton saw an advantage in associating himself with the Texas State Police and had no hesitation in volunteering his services to State Police captain Charles S. Bell.[6]

The difficulties began with the Taylor family’s steadfast repudiation of reconstruction (blue belly) policies and the Sutton clan’s firm alignment with Union authoritarians.  The igniter of the feud occurred when Buck Taylor shot a Union army sergeant whose only offense was attending a dance at Buck’s uncle’s home.  Later, Hays Taylor shot and killed another soldier in an Indianola saloon.  Later still, brothers Hays and Doby Taylor killed two Union soldiers in Mason, Texas.  By this time, the Taylor faction had clearly signaled its opposition to reconstruction policies. 

In 1868, sheriff’s deputy Billy Sutton led a posse from Clinton to pursue “a gang of horse thieves.”[7]  Catching up with the thieves in Bastrop, the posse killed Charley Taylor and arrested James Sharp.  During the return trip to Clinton, Sharp was “shot while trying to escape.” But it wasn’t until Christmas Eve of 1868 that the real feud began.  On that night, Buck Taylor and Richard Chisholm argued with Billy Sutton over the sale of horses.  Buck accused Sutton of dishonesty.  Buck and Billy exchanged words — and then bullets.  Sutton killed both Buck and Dick.

As the feud evolved, it became a deadly contest between the Taylor family and Edmund Davis’s State Police.  On 5 June 1869, Texas State Police Captain C. S. Bell enlisted the assistance of DeWitt County sheriff’s deputy Jack Helm,[8] who, along with Sutton, convinced Bell that the Taylors were cattle rustlers and horse thieves.  Helm assisted Bell and other reconstruction lawmen in the attempted arrest of Jim Bell and the Peaces brothers, who were friends of the Taylors.  In the process, the Peaces brothers killed Goliad County, Sheriff Andrew J. Jacobs.  In late August, the Sutton’s shot John Hays to death after he had caused “disruptions” in Clinton.[9]

In July 1870, Billy Sutton accepted an appointment to the Texas State Police as a “special officer,” serving under Texas State Police Captain Jack Helm.  Under Helm, more wanted men were killed resisting arrest than were arrested and taken to jail.  In August, Billy Sutton led his clan to arrest brothers Henry and William Kelly on a trivial charge.  The Kelly’s were relatives through marriage to Pitkin Taylor.  After the Helm posse took the Kelly brothers into custody, he and his men escorted the brothers a few miles away from their home and murdered them in cold blood.  Mrs. Henry Kelly didn’t feel right about the arrest, so she mounted a horse and followed the posse at a distance.  She witnessed the murders, and her account solidified Texans of DeWitt County against the reconstruction mob.  With this and other allegations, Jim Davidson dismissed Jack Helm from police service, but Davidson never charged Helm with murder.  Helm shrugged off his dismissal because he’d won election to the office of country sheriff, which allowed him to continue his harassment of DeWitt County citizens.

In 1872, Pitkin was lured from his home in the night by a cowbell in his cornfield.  The midnight cowbell became a typical ploy used by the reconstruction mob to gun down men who refused to knuckle under to Union policies.  When Pitkin investigated the cowbell, assassins shot him several times.  Severely wounded and approaching old age, Pitkin Taylor died a few months later.  At Pitkin’s funeral, his son Jim vowed to avenge his death.  On 1 April 1873, a couple of the Taylor men found Billy Sutton in a saloon in Cuero; from a position just outside the saloon, their gunfire inflicted several wounds, but nothing serious enough to cause loss of life.  Billy was ambushed again in June but escaped further injury.

Later that month, Taylor men killed Captain James Webb Cox and Jake Christman at Tumlinson Creek.  Famed outlaw John Wesley Hardin[10] may have been with the Taylors during the Tumlinson Creek raid, but he never admitted to participating.

Hardin’s main notoriety in the Sutton-Taylor feud came from his participation, along with Jim Taylor, in killing two DeWitt County lawmen: Deputy J. B. Morgan, and later in the day, Sheriff Jack Helm, who at the time was the leader of the Sutton gang.  The next day, a strong force of the Taylor faction surrounded Joe Tumlinson’s stronghold near Yorktown.  Tumlinson was saved by a large Sutton posse, who convinced the parties to sign a truce agreement.  It lasted until December, when Wiley Pridgen, a Taylor affiliate, was gunned down in Thomaston.  Taylor reacted by attacking the Sutton headquarters in Cuero, but a larger Sutton band besieged them.

In early March 1874, Billy Sutton and Gabe Slaughter waited on a steamboat platform in Indianola, Texas, when James Creed Taylor and William Riley Taylor approached the men and shot them down.  At the time, Sutton was growing tired of the feud he started and was planning to leave DeWitt County.  He didn’t decide early enough.  Nevertheless, a few months later, the Sutton clan captured and lynched three of the Taylor men, Rufus P. “Scrap” Taylor, John Alfred “Kute” Tuggle, and James White.

Creed Taylor c.1900

In June 1874, Texas Rangers killed two of Hardin’s relatives (Cousin Alexander “Ham” Anderson and Ham’s brother-in-law Alexander Henry Barekman) for their part in the murder of Texas Ranger Charles Webb.  In January 1875, Sutton men killed James Creed Taylor and two others just outside Clinton.  In November, unknown persons killed Sutton man and town marshal Reuben Brown (and two others) on the main street in Cuero.  John Wesley Hardin may have also participated in the Brown shooting.

Billy Taylor was charged and acquitted of murder on two separate occasions.  Some historians believe Billy was killed in Oklahoma in 1895, which given Oklahoma history, is entirely possible.

A final flareup occurred in October 1876.  Texas Ranger Jesse Lee Hall led a force into Cuero, where they remained for several months.  When Hall and his rangers departed DeWitt County in January 1877, there were no further incidents of feuding between the Sutton and Taylor families.

Creed Taylor died of natural causes on 26 December 1906.

Sources:

  1. Gilliland, M.  Wilson County Texas Rangers, 1837-1977.
  2. Parsons, C.  The Sutton-Taylor Feud: the deadliest blood feud in Texas.  University of North Texas Press, 2009.
  3. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas, online.

Endnotes:

[1] Formally, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.  It was an important agency of early reconstruction whose mission it was to assist former slaves (freed men) to aid destitute and suffering refugees, former slaves, and their families.  The Freedman’s Bureau became part of the Department of War when the US Congress refused to approve separate funding for its operation.

[2] James Davidson (1834-1885) was born in Scotland.  He claimed to have served in a British cavalry regiment.  When he immigrated to the United States in 1865, he settled in Maine.  With service as both an enlisted man and an officer, Davidson became the military commissioner for Red River County, Texas.  The reputation he earned in this role, particularly in forcing compliance to reconstruction policies from hard-headed Texans, led to his assignment as Texas Adjutant General and Chief of the State Police, which he used as “gestapo” agents and informers.

[3] Edmund J. Davis (1827-1883) was a Southern Unionist who served in the Union Army in the American Civil War.  From 1870 to 1874, he served as 14th Governor of Texas who, while in office, created the Texas State Police, imposed martial law, and after state senators walked out in opposition to his policies, he had the men arrested. He also sought to have Texas divided up into five separate states.  The State Police were given extraordinary (and un-constitutional) powers.  He hired black freedmen as police officers, which worked against his popularity among true Texans.  He also created the State Guard of Texas and a reserve militia composed of union sympathizers.  His government was marked by controversy, corruption, and “Carpetbagger rule.”  He was overwhelmingly defeated for reelection by Richard Coke.

[4] A filibuster mounted against Spanish Texas (1812-1813).  It was a failure.

[5] Billy Sutton was a known gunman who, were it not for the fact that he wore a badge, would have been an outlaw.  He supported the fascist policies of Governor Edmund J. Davis and used false allegations of cattle rustling and horse stealing to garner the reconstruction government’s support in acting against the DeWitt County Taylor family.

[6] C. S. Bell (1843-1879) was born in New York and served with the 19th Illinois Infantry during the Civil War.  He served as a Union Army spy under General J. J. Reynolds.  After the war, Reynolds commanded the occupation forces in the Southwest, including the Department of Texas.  After the war, Bell became a “detective” and was placed in a position to “wage war against the Taylors.” 

[7] While there was no shortage of cattle rustling and horse thieving in Texas, ever, county lawmen made such allegations to justify harassing, arresting, and eradicating dyed-in-the-wool Confederates who opposed reconstruction policies. 

[8] John Jackson “Jack” Helm (1830-1873) served in the 9th Texas Cavalry during the Civil War.  In 1861, Jack participated in the lynching of five Union sympathizers; he later deserted Confederate service.  In 1868, Helm accepted an appointment as a “special officer” to assist Captain C. S. Bell in his mission to destroy the Taylor family and their allies.  Throughout July and August 1869, Helm and Bell carried out a reign of terror in Bee, San Patricio, Wilson, DeWitt, and Goliad counties.  According to one newspaper article, Helm and Bell murdered 21 individuals within a period of sixty days.  Of thirty-one arrests, only ten men were ever turned over to civil authorities for trial.  In December 1869, DeWitt County voters elected Helm to serve as county sheriff.  When Davis created the Texas State Police in 1870, Helm became one of four captains.

[9] Clinton, DeWitt County, Texas, is a ghost town today.

[10] Hardin (1853-1985) was a well-known outlaw gunman who was in trouble with the law from around the age of 15-years.  Pursued by lawmen for most of his life, he was sentenced to 24-years in prison at the age of 23, by which time he is thought to have killed 42 men.  While in prison he wrote an autobiography noted for its embellishments.  He also studied law in prison and upon release, opened a law practice.  He was assassinated by John Selman in an El Paso saloon in 1894.


About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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4 Responses to The Sutton-Taylor Feud

  1. Andy says:

    In describing the attitude of early Texans, you wrote, “ … no man deserved respect who would not stand up for himself or his family.” This claim is as true today as it was one-hundred and seventy years ago. Just a few years ago, the wife of a Texas senator was publicly referred by a political opponent as … well, let’s just say … unattractive. Next, the same opponent falsely accused the senator’s father of collaborating with Lee Harvey Oswald in the assassination of JFK. The senator only mumbled a few words of what he hoped would pass as outrage. Not long after, the senator became a staunch supporter of the man who had slandered his wife and father. This outraged many Texans who now vilify this senator as a coward and weakling.

    Many things have changed in Texas in the last two centuries. But men this State are still expected to act like men.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Whenever I think of politics, a flashing neon sign appears inside my head with the word sleaze written in a dark yellow color. Few self-respecting honest people will engage in politics, and even then, not for long. We Americans seem locked into the perpetual position of having two choices in our elections: bad candidate and worse candidate.

      Like

    • A friend of mine says every election is the choice of the lesser of two evils, even if one of the candidates was Billy Graham.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Consequences | Old West Tales

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