On The Border

For three hundred years, Spain, France, and England asserted their claims over vast swaths of the North American continent.  They did this by sending soldiers, settlers, trappers, and merchants to plant their flags, construct fortifications and trading posts.  They signed treaties with one other and with the people who already inhabited the land and jealously guarded their claimed domains.  By 1764, France was out of the running for a North American empire, and within another fifty years, Spain would suffer a series of rebellions that changed Spanish America.

The truth is that Spain may have claimed large territories in North America, but they never entirely controlled these lands.  Most of the territories claimed by Spain remained unpopulated, which made their assertions weak and ineffective.

On the other hand, the British didn’t have that problem; they understood that to claim title to the land, it had to be occupied and administered by British officials.  Almost from the beginning of British settlements, colonial settlers began to expand westward, and this, of course, brought them into conflict with both French settlers and native tribes.  Still, few British settlers crossed over the Mississippi river for quite some time.  For its part, the British government seemed consistently sensitive to the fact that loosely confederated Indian populations controlled the western territories, and it did not serve Britain’s interests to be always at war with native people.  British subjects who did cross over the Mississippi River did so illegally.

Most of the land that became the United States remained unsettled until after the American Revolution.  Between the end of the French and Indian War and 1870, Indians remained the undisputed owners of much of the land; they maintained their hold on it by instilling fear in those who encroached on their territories.

In 1801, there was no “western border” in the United States.  It was a work in progress, and the “border” (such as it was) frequently changed.  In the minds of the frontiersmen, the land was up for the taking.  All they had to do was assume the risk of being massacred by Indians who simply would not go quietly into that good night.  What opened up this land, at least in the minds of the frontiersmen, was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  Looking back in time, one may argue that no president did as much to enlarge the size of the United States as Thomas Jefferson.

It wasn’t until 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain, that the United States even had a border with Mexico.  Even then, it mainly existed in the minds of Mexicans and Americans who had inaccurate maps and imagined what it would take to control the vast unexplored territories that expanded westward to the Pacific coast.  Mexican politicians learned from their American counterparts that they could not leave their territories unpopulated and claim to own them.  As it had been with the Viceroyalty of Spain, the problem for Mexico was that few Spaniards/Mexicans had much interest in settling a dangerously hostile frontier.

The seeds of distrust between politicians in Mexico and the United States began when American filibusters began invading Mexican territories, sometimes accentuated by regional rebellions by Mexican landowners seeking to create petty empires.  As best they could, Mexico addressed these problems directly by using their military to put down every challenge to Mexican sovereignty.  More than a few American “pirates” met their fate while standing in front of a firing squad.

Still, none of Mexico’s efforts were sufficient.  First, as previously noted, few Mexicans were interested in settling Mexico’s northern-most territories.  Second, the territories themselves were simply too large for the Mexican government to control.  But there was hope — a risk that by inviting Americans to become citizens, Mexico might be able to rule the province of Tejas one day.  Mexican officials settled on the idea of letting Texian settlers deal with the Indian problem.  The scheme did work for a while, but it was a short while.

The story began with a “hostile” problem that morphed into a much larger one involving immigration.  In the beginning, Mexico lost Tejas.  In the end, they also lost Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma.  Within fifty years, the US/Mexico border changed from its location at the western edge of the Louisiana territory to an area six hundred miles south.  At the end of the Mexican/American War in 1848, the United States claimed the Rio Grande as its southernmost border.  It was then, and in some circles, it remains now a disputed claim.

Both the United States and Mexico sent commissioners, surveyors, engineers, scientists, soldiers, and laborers to the border.  It was known as the Joint US/Mexican Boundary Commission, and it was their job to determine the actual location of the official border.  The process of completing this work wasn’t easy or cheap, and political infighting, corruption, and financial mismanagement plagued the commission from the beginning.

In October 1849, the United States appointed John B. Weller and Andrew Gray to the post of boundary commissioner, sent to mark a physical line that had only previously existed, vaguely, in the treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe.  Surveyor Gray departed San Diego, California, and proceeded to the Gila River to begin his work.  En route, he came across a group of lost American pioneers, so he turned around and led these people to the California coast.

Soon after the two commissioners finally met, Gray and Waller argued.  The event remains somewhat murky because accounts of what subsequently transpired are inconsistent.  Some people claimed that following angry words, Weller struck Gray.  Other witnesses testified that Weller attempted to strangle Gray, but almost everyone agreed that Gray shot Weller in the thigh and then continued his work while Weller recuperated.

The work was challenging — made more so by the high desert heat, dangerously frigid winters, poor nutrition, and water scarcity.  Surveyors discovered that their maps were inaccurate.  In one example, surveyors found themselves standing in a dry creek bed where mountains were supposed to exist.  In another example, surveyors discovered misplaced canyons and arroyos.  In desperation, the Joint Commission abandoned their work to find supplies in the northern Sonora village of Santa Cruz.  The commission anticipated a short journey but was quickly beset by rising creeks, muddy landscapes, and hostile Indians.  It took them several weeks to find their way to Santa Cruz, and they all arrived with debilitating illnesses.  One of the Mexican surveyors died.

The war ended in 1848; by1851, the survey effort was such a shamble that survey work became secondary to staying alive.  But the US Congress could not understand why the survey was taking so long or why it cost so much money.  Fed up, some members of Congress argued for sending the Army to the border, to seize ports, claim Mexico for the United States, and settle the matter once and for all.  What actually happened was the $10 million Gadsden Purchase but even with that, resolving the border issue took another ten years.

Meanwhile, the Apache did not seem to care about a line drawn in the sand, and so the border made yet another transition: from a disputed border to a bloody one.  The Apaches noticed that American soldiers would not cross the line drawn in the sand and cross into Mexico to pursue them.  Cross-border raiding soon became a favorite Apache pastime — and one shared with Mexican bandits who made frequent raids into the United States to raid small towns, rustle cattle, and murder anyone who got in the way.

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered the US Army to keep lawless bands from invading the United States, even if it had to cross into Mexico to punish cross-border outlawry.  Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, who had only just assumed the presidency, protested Hayes’ authorization and sent Mexican troops to the border to safeguard Mexican sovereignty.  Eventually, Diaz agreed to a joint US/Mexican border security arrangement, but the border region remained an extremely volatile place from Texas to California.

Another border issue was the fluid nature of the Rio Grande, which frequently changed its course — an issue not finally addressed until 1889.[1]

When Mexico discovered oil in the early twentieth century, financial mismanagement led to a debt crisis.  High debt became the genesis of the so-called maquiladoras that drew people from both sides closer to the border area, but Mexico’s debt problems only grew worse.[2]

The free trade agreement in 1994 allowed US-owned/Mexican-operated Maquila plants to import tax-free materials and produce goods cheaper than was possible in US labor markets.

After 1960, the demand for illicit drugs in the United States fueled yet another industry, which brought massive profits to the people who ran it — the drug cartels. Between 1910-1980, Mexicans flooded across the border to live in the United States, many deciding to settle within 200 miles of the border, which from a practical standpoint, changed the US southern border yet again. In the 1970s, large-scale massacres began taking shape along the border, which beyond a few headlines, did nothing to encourage greater cooperation between the US and Mexico.

Today, with only a few exceptions, the US/Mexico border is a perilous place.  It is overrun by destitute peasants, consumer prices are high, the food and water are bad, and the border region no longer provides a protective barrier against violent chaos.  Whatever happens in the Mexican cities of Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Cuidad Acuna, Juarez, Nogales, and Tijuana is felt in equal measure in Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, Del Rio, El Paso, Tucson, and San Diego.  People live in fear for their safety, and neither the US nor Mexican governments seem disposed to doing anything about these deplorable conditions.

Recently, despite an increase in Mexican military forces and federal police, Mexican drug cartels terrorize Juarez and El Paso citizens, along with landowners of both countries fifty miles north and south of the US/Mexican border.  There is, by the way, almost no one you can talk to in El Paso who doesn’t have a relative living in Mexico — which, of course, means that the war on drugs no longer confines itself to Mexico; it is an international event.

It might help if Mexican and American politicians in border cities and states were not accepting substantial kickbacks from the drug cartels or if Mexican army officials and federal/local police were not on the take. Still, the jaw-dropping reality of the US/Mexico border region is that lawmen who refuse to accept payoffs wind up dead.  Today, a criminal insurgency has taken over the lives of decent people on both sides of the border.

On 20 June 2021, says journalist Alfredo Peña, a massive gunfight broke out in the border city of Reynosa, Mexico, across the river from McAllen, Texas.  Shooters, armed with automatic weapons and driving 14 motor vehicles, sped into Reynosa and shot everyone they could find.  In all, fourteen people (including taxi drivers, shopkeepers, students, and law officers were shot and killed.  It was not a fight between competing drug lords; it was intimidation, plain and simple.

In 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador assured the people of Mexico that a solution to border violence was within his grasp.  He promised “hugs, not bullets” to dismantle the drug cartels that operate with impunity in Mexico.  Someone should ask El Presidenté how his solution is working out.

I have no personal knowledge of the complicity of Mexican officials, but according to Peña, a politician by the name of Garcia Cabeza de Vaca who proclaimed “no truce for violent persons” is himself under investigation for links to drug cartels.  Peña also tells us that in Tamaulipas, Mexico, several past governors have ties to organized crime. One former governor was even extradited to Mexico from Italy to face corruption charges.

But it is no better north of the border.  US President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder conspired to provide weapons and ammunition to the Mexican drug cartels, one weapon of which was used in the murder of Border Patrol officer Brian A. Terry.  Neither Obama nor Holder have ever been required to account for their part in wholesale murder and mayhem in Mexico — and, of course, no one that high up in the political food chain is ever in danger of a thorough investigation.

Today, literally tens of thousands of Mexicans/Central Americans are flooding the US/Mexico border.  They are doing this at the invitation of President Biden and Vice President Harris.  In asserting our humanitarianism, the Biden administration encourages illegal migration and contributes to the human suffering of brown-skin people even before they reach the US border.  The coyotes are getting richer, and the drug cartels, who are no longer the focus of US law enforcement personnel, are moving their products into the US with few challenges.


There has been no substantial improvement along the US’ southern border since 1842.  Why?  Because no one in Washington DC or Mexico City feels threatened by the border violence that now exists.  In fact, it is making them wealthier.


  1. “South of the Border Was Once North,” L. Rohter, New York Times, 26 September 1987.
  2. “Cartel gun battle with armored trucks kills 8 in Camargo, Mexico,” A. Peña, Rio Grande Valley News/AP, 26 April 2021.
  3. “At least 15 die in multiple attacks near US-Mexico border,” A. Peña, Associated Press, 20 June 2021.


[1] Five such disputes arose between 1899 and 1977.

[2] In the 1960s and 1970s, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico borrowed huge sums of money from international creditors for industrialization, particularly to fund infrastructure improvement programs.  At the time, these countries had strong economies, so the banks were happy to provide loans.  Initially, developing countries relied on the World Bank for such loans, but after 1973, private banks had an influx of funds from oil-rich countries and sovereign debt was viewed as a safe investment.  Mexico borrowed against future oil revenues with the debt valued in US dollars, so that when the price of oil collapsed, so too did the Mexican economy.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, Colonial America, History, Indian Territory, Mexican Border War | 3 Comments

A Texas-Canadian Cowpoke

Some Background

Regardless of their diverse body types and coloration, scientists believe that all of the world’s cattle come from the humped cattle of Asia.  From Asia, cattle expanded to Africa and then introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors.  Over thousands of years, Asian cattle evolved into many types, including a longhorn variety.  When Columbus continued his expedition to the Americas in 1493, he took with him many of these longhorn species.  Descendants of these animals were the first cattle in Mexico.

Longhorn cattle have a strong survival instinct — which means that they are strong breeders.  Disposition-wise, they tend to be strong-willed and among men who earn their living as stockmen, often dangerous to themselves and their horses.  Among large herds of domesticated cattle, there are always hundreds that wander off into the brush.  If they are not recaptured and returned to the herd, they become feral animals.  In the case of the longhorn, they existed for around two hundred years on the plain of present-day South Texas and increased their numbers.  During this time, these cattle developed resistance to drought and other hardy characteristics, such as their mean stubbornness.

The people who migrated to the Mexican province of Tejas took with them their own breed of cattle.  Early Texians discovered these wild longhorn animals between the Nueces River and Rio Grande, captured them, and bred them with animals derived from English specimens.  The result of this cross-breeding was a tough animal with long legs and exceptionally long horns that extended up to around seven feet in length.  They were adaptable to their environment, healthy, fertile, and structurally sound.

Through the 1840s, longhorn cattle provided beef mainly for Texas consumption; there was no national market for these animals.  Beginning in the 1850s, however, the demand for beef increased, along with its price, which made some ranchers quite wealthy.  The American Civil War was an economic disaster for Texans.  The state suffered through twelve years of reconstruction policies.  Between 1850-1877, the population of Texas Longhorn cattle increased to well over five million head.  There was no substantial market for these animals in the financially ruined south, but there was a very high demand for beef in the north — if the ranchers could find a way to move them to northern markets.

Joseph McCoy was a livestock trader in Chicago.  He wanted to bring Texas Longhorn cattle to Chicago and distribute them to eastern markets.  One of the problems encountered in moving cattle from Texas was the blood tick found on Texas Longhorn cattle.  Longhorn animals were impervious to the disease carried by this blood tick; Kansas cattle were not.  In a short time, the relationship between Texas and Kansas cattlemen became somewhat hostile.  Well, “somewhat” evolved into a hesitance of Texans to risk getting shot while moving Texas cattle through Kansas.  Joseph McCoy brokered an arrangement between Texas ranchers, the Chicago meat industry, and the railroad companies.

Additionally, McCoy constructed a hotel, brokerage, bank, and stockyard at a small railroad town named Abilene.  Abilene was one of America’s first cow towns.  McCoy’s plan was for Texans to drive their cattle to Abilene, and then he would ship them to Chicago by train.

McCoy’s plan was the start of a very lucrative business.[1]  One Texas cattleman bought 600 head of longhorn cattle for $5,400, drove them to Abilene, and sold them to McCoy for $17,000.  Between 1867-1881, McCoy sent more than 2 million head of cattle from Abilene to Chicago.[2]  After 1880, the cattle business began to decline.[3]

A Cowboy Named John Ware

Historians believe John Ware was born into slavery around 1845 in northern Texas.  As already noted, the cattle industry rapidly expanded after the Civil War, and there was a sudden demand for experienced cowhands.  John Ware was just such a man.  In the spring of 1882, John met Tom Lynch in southern Idaho.  Lynch, a Canadian, was looking to purchase cattle in Texas on behalf of Sir Hugh Allan, owner of the North-West Cattle Company (also, Bar U Ranch).  Lynch managed to obtain 3,000 head of Texas Longhorn cattle and hired John Ware to help move the herd to the Rocky Mountain foothills.  The drive began in May and took six months to reach Alberta.

Seasoned stockmen were in short supply on the Canadian range, and Lynch persuaded Ware to remain with him at the Bar U.  Four years later, John moved over to the Quorn Ranch near the Sheep River.  The owners of the Quorn Ranch were a consortium of English investors in Leicestershire.  There was a sizeable cattle herd at the Quorn, but the primary interest among these Englishmen was raising horses for the British market.  Ware became the foreman of the horse raising end of the business and earned a good reputation for his knowledge and ability.

According to an article appearing in the Macleod Gazette, “John [Ware] is not only one of the best-natured and most obliging fellows in the country, but he is one of the shrewdest cowmen, and the man is considered pretty lucky who has him to look after his interest.  The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride.”  In a similar fashion, English investor Edward J. F. Hills wrote of John Ware’s reputation as “the best rough rider in the northwest” of the “rough Montana cowboys,” and of Ware’s personal kindness in helping him master range-land skills.

John Ware established his ranch along the north fork of the Sheep River, not far from the Quorn Ranch.  He called his ranch Walking Stick and registered his brand as 4-nines (9999) (later changed to 3-nines).  In 1892, he married Mildred Lewis, the daughter of a Canadian homesteader and cabinet-maker named Daniel V. Lewis.  John and Mildred were married in the Calgary First Baptist Church.

In 1902, John sold his foothills property and moved eastward to a homestead on the Red Deer River (northeast of Brooks).  Ware expanded his herd and, with Mildred, raised his family of four sons and two daughters.  Tragically, Mildred passed away in April 1905 from typhoid fever, and pneumonia and John sent his children to live with relatives in Alberta.  In September, while herding cattle, John’s horse stumbled into a badger hole and fell on him, killing him instantly.

Since his death, cowboy John Ware has become a Canadian folk hero.  Canada’s government officially recognizes John Ware by such place names as Ware Creek, John Ware Ridge, and Mount Ware … all of which are located near his first ranch.  John’s children were still very young when their parents died.  We do not know what became of them.


  1. Barnes, W. C.  “Wichita Forest Will Be Lair of Longhorns,” The Cattleman, April 1926.
  2. Breen, D. H.  “Ware, John.”  Dictionary of Canadian Biography 1901-1910.  Online resource.
  3. Dobie, J. F.  The Longhorns.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.
  4. Barrett, N. Jr., Long Days and Short Nights: A Century of Texas Ranching on the Y O (1880-1980).  Y O Press, Mountain Home, Texas, 1980.


[1] Several factors contributed to the rise of the American cattle industry: increased railroads, refrigerated cars, and removing hostile Indians from the range. 

[2] Joseph McCoy’s reliability as a cattle broker gave rise to the expression ‘The Real McCoy.’

[3] Factors of decline included the closure of open ranges and limited pastures, increased agriculture on the plains, periodic droughts, excessively cold winters, and less demand for beef in the north.

Posted in Canadian Cowboys, Civil War, History, Kansas, Texas | 3 Comments


A Texas Ranger could ride like a Mexican, track like an Indian,

shoot like a Tennessean, and fight like a devil.

McMullen County, formed in 1858 from Béxar, Atascosa, and Live Oak counties, sets around 74-miles south of San Antonio.  The country wasn’t organized until 1877.  The county seat is Tilden, a small town of around 450 people, named in honor of Whispering Sammy Tilden, the fellow who lost the presidential race to Rutherford B. Hayes.

During the War of Yankee Aggression, the area was a small camp set up to protect settlers from Apaches and Mexican bandits.  They called it Camp Rio Frio — on account of the fact that the camp was set up along the Frio River.  After the war, the folks living there decided to change its name to Dog Town.

Dog Town was a lawless place in the middle of nowhere — a likely consequence of allowing local cow hands wear their hog legs into lean-to cantinas.  Drinking and gambling leads to shooting and hanging — or so some say.  Ralph Franklin started his range in 1868.  By 1871, Dog Town had its own post office.  At some point, local folks began calling it Colfax.  But Sammy Tilden was a popular fellow and his name finally won out.

It was just after the Shelby County War when Joe Walker moved down to Atascosa County, forced to relocate his family on account of the fact that Joe had killed two men during the dustup.  The Walkers were among the first to settle in the county.  Joe’s daughter, Mary Jane, ended up marrying a cow hand by the name of Aaron Van Oden.  Aaron was of Swedish descent. 

After their marriage, Mary Jane and Aaron moved over to Dog Town.  In mid-March 1863, Mary Jane gave birth to a son.  The couple named him Alonzo but took to calling him Lon.  Lon was only four months old when his father, riding with George Hindes, came across an hombre by the name of Julian Gonzalez.  Gonzalez was a known horse thief from Starr County.  For whatever reason, Oden and Hines got into a gunfight with Gonzalez.  Oden shot and killed Gonzalez, but not before Gonzalez put a few bullets in Oden, and Oden was also killed.  Hindes buried the two men where they fell and then had the task of telling Mary Jane, who was just 19-years old, that she was a widow.

Such was their love for one another that Mary Jane was broken hearted when Aaron was taken away from her.  She lived another year — some say she simply wasted away.  Her father Joe claimed that she died from grief.  And Lon, fourteen months old, became an orphan. 

By agreement, his grandparents raised Lon in a joint arrangement.  Grandmother Oden taught the boy about Sweden and instructed him in the classics, poetry, and the arts.  The Walkers were salt of the earth Texans.  From them, Lon learned how to raise cattle, break a horse, and shoot a pistol and a rifle.  Joe Walker had a total of nineteen children, but he had a special place in his heart for his grandson.  When Lon was around two years old, Joe Walker registered 150 head of cattle and the brand ODN in Lon’s name.

Lon’s uncles Tom and James Walker were still teenagers when their sister died, but they chipped in and helped to raise Lon.  The Walkers were cowboys, and they imparted these skills to Lon for most of his formative years.  Part of this experience was defending themselves from Comanche raids — and growing up with the reality that Texas was a wild and bloody land.

In 1868, Lon’s cousin William “Buck” Taylor was gunned down at the start of what became the Sutton-Taylor Feud.[1]  The Walker family was tied to the Taylor’s by virtue of James Walker’s marriage to Sophronia, the widow of Martin Taylor.

Oden’s Uncle Tom Walker was also known as a shootist.  Tom Walker had a few brushes with the law on account of having shot a few men.  Apparently, Tom Walker didn’t take any sass from folks.  In any case, Tom drifted west to New Mexico and joined up with the Seven Rivers Warriors Gang during the Lincoln County War.  Tom met his end in a gunfight on 23 November 1879.

Lon married the first time in 1889.  He was 26 years old, and the marriage was in trouble almost from the start.  In 1891, Lon Oden joined the Texas Rangers.  His first assignment was in the area surrounding San Antonio, but he was later assigned to Company D where he served under Captain John R. Hughes.  Lon was fortunate because there was no one better to teach him about becoming a good ranger.

On the night of 14 August 1891, a 35-year old county deputy sheriff named Toribio Pastrano was looking for an elusive outlaw named Antonio Carrasco.  Pastrano was in possession of evidence linking Carrasco to the murder of Texas Ranger Charles Fusselman in El Paso County in 1890.  Pastrano was determined to bring Carrasco to justice.  Deputy Pastrano may have bitten off more than he could chew.

Antonio Carrasco

Antonio Carrasco was a bad-ass.  What we know about Antonio is partly fact and partly fiction, with no clear lines separating one from another.  Antonio was one of three brothers who became legends in their own time as West Texas outlaws.  The Carrasco family was a large one.  When Mexican Rurales killed his father, he didn’t seek justice — he wanted revenge.  Eventually this would take the Carrasco brothers into the Mexican revolution against Porfirio Diaz.  Before then, Antonio was known among the local populations as the Prince of Devils.  His kingdom was the area of the Rio Grande in lower Presidio County.  He stole horses, murdered ranchers, and never gave a second thought to gunning down Texas Ranger Charles Fusselman. 

Deputy Pastrano entered a Mexican fandango[2] looking for Carrasco, spotted him standing at the end of the bar, and made his way through the crowd to confront his quarry.  It would have been difficult not to spot Carrasco.  He was dressed from head to foot in snow white duck; he wore a bright red sash around his waist,[3] and a prominently displayed holstered revolver.

If anyone could spot a lawman from a distance, it was Antonio Carrasco.  He eyed Pastrano carefully as the lawman approached.  Before Pastrano reached the place where Carrasco stood, at the end of the bar, Antonio called out, “My friend, you are an officer, and you wish to arrest me.  Very well.”  The greeting gave Pastrano pause and Antonio an edge.  Before Pastrano could even respond, Antonio Carrasco whipped out his revolver and shot Pastrano in the head.  Carrasco backed out of the dance hall daring any man to step forward to arrest him, leapt upon his horse, and plunged into the river and disappeared into the night. 

Ernest “Diamond Dick” St. Leon

Antonio’s brothers were Matilde and Florencio.  Due to their outlawry and the murder of a Texas Ranger, the three men captured the attention of Captain John R. Hughes.  On the night of 12 January 1892, Hughes and Lon Oden set out to arrest Matilde Carrasco and two companions for stealing ore from the mines at Shafter, Texas.  With information provided by Ernest “Diamond Dick” St. Leon, Hughes and Oden prepared an ambush along a trail commonly used by Matilde and his compañeros.[4]  When Matilde and his friends rode down the trail, Hughes stepped out and told them to surrender to law officers.  Matilde, in a silly moment, had another idea and decided to resist arrest.  Hughes and Oden opened up with their shotguns, killing Matilde’s companions, and Diamond Dick shot Matilde through the head with his pistol.

Six months later, Captain Hughes and Oden were tracking another outlaw when they happened to stumble upon Florentino Carrasco, who was also in the company of two thugs.  In the shootout that followed, Florentino joined Matilde in the netherworld.  Captain Hughes was nothing if not prolific in chasing down bad guys — and dispensing justice.  Meanwhile, Antonio managed to avoid the Rangers.  He was no doubt aware of the fate of his brothers.

Captain John R. Hughes, Texas Rangers

But to emphasize the rightness of Captain Hughes’ campaign to rid Texas of despicable men, a man by the name of Antonio Carrasco was arrested in 1895, charged with stealing horses.  He went to court and received a five year prison sentence.  We do not know if this was THE Antonio Carrasco, or another by the same name.  What we do know is that this particular Antonio was never charged with the murder of Deputy Sheriff Toribio Pastrano and we know that in 1898, while serving as a prison “trustee,” this Antonio escaped from jail and disappeared into the desert.  Had Captain Hughes arrested this man, he would not have escaped because In the history of mankind, no one has ever escaped from the fires of hell.

The Mexican revolution erupted in 1910.  It was an opportunity for Antonio Carrasco to finally become “somebody.”  Carrasco raised his own company of “revolutionaries,” which in Mexico is coded language for cut throats.  Carrasco’s revolutionaries pursued their normal course by waging a private war for the hearts and minds of heartless/mindless people.  Colonel Jose de la Cruz Sanchez (supporting Francisco Madero) initially refused to acknowledge Carrasco, but eventually allowed Carrasco and his 100 gunslingers to join his force about a year later.  To the extent that Sanchez controlled Carrasco is unknown but in 1911, Carrasco raided a small border village called San Antonio, near Candelaria, Texas.  The raid was likely a search for forage and arms.

Carrasco 1911

Carrasco rejoined Sanchez at the battle of Ojinaga, conducted in full view of the small Texas town of Presidio.  Units of the US Cavalry had a front row seat in observing this battle.  It was an American social event, as evidenced by the fact that one Texas woman served a “battle tea” on the roof of her home.  In 1911, Carrasco was getting full page press in the American media because he had made the strategic decision to stop fighting for free; fighting, he reasoned, should at least be a profitable enterprise.  Carrasco also believed that any orders he might have received from Sanchez were mere suggestions that he was free to ignore, as he chose.  American media suggested that Carrasco was consorting with the federales while still a member of Sanchez’ army.  Such allegations were factually supported — or at least, they were good enough to support a Mexican revolutionary tribunal.  One positive aspect of Mexican courts-martial is that they don’t waste a lot of time on courtroom procedure and post-trial appeals.  Carrasco faced the charges one day and was executed the next.  An American named Frank “The Devil” McCombs[5] supervised Carrasco’s execution.

Following the terminal arrest of Florentino Carrasco, Lon Oden was dispatched to El Paso, Texas where he worked with Texas Ranger Baz L. Outlaw.  Also called “Bass,” Outlaw came from a good family, was well-educated, and was largely regarded as a refined gentleman.  Outlaw’s problem was, unfortunately, the excessive consumption of alcohol on a somewhat regular basis.

In 1893, after Texas Ranger Captain Frank Jones was killed while serving a warrant for the arrest of Jesus Maria Olguin and his son Severio at Tres Jacales, Captain Hughes took over command of the ranger company.  At the time of his death, Jones was inside Mexico and there was no way the Mexicans were going to hold a citizen of Mexico responsible for the killing of a Gringo.  Working under cover, Diamond Dick was able to compile a list of individuals responsible for Jones’ death.  Then, accompanied by a company of rangers, including Lon Oden, John Hughes tracked down and killed all eighteen men on St. Leon’s list — either by shooting them, or hanging them.[6]

By 1893, Lon Oden had settled in Ysleta, Texas — a mostly Hispanic/Indian community outside of El Paso.  During his time in El Paso, Oden participated in several raids which, in time, decreased the amount of criminal/gang activities in the region.  The Rangers were needed in El Paso, but not every Ranger was a credit to his company.

In April 1894, while working with Oden in El Paso, Baz was under the influence when he fired a shot from his pistol into Tillie Howard’s brothel.  Constable John Selman and Texas Ranger Joe McKidrict challenged Outlaw, who then pointed his gun in their general direction and pulled the trigger, the shot hitting McKidrict in the head, killing him.  Selman returned fire, hitting Outlaw in the chest.  Baz fired two more shots at Selman, wounding him.  Outlaw died from his wound a few hours later.  Oden, who had grown close to Outlaw, was depressed over Outlaw’s death, even though he realized that there was no one more responsible for what happened than Outlaw, himself.

In 1896, two years to the day that Baz Outlaw was killed, lawman (and bad ass) George Scarborough, who had been a close friend of Baz Outlaw, called John Selman into the alley behind the Wigwam Saloon.  Words were exchanged, a few punches were thrown, and finally both men went for their guns.  John Selman was a few seconds too slow.

In his years with the Texas Rangers, Lon Oden gained the reputation of an honest lawman, and a dangerous one.  When he went after outlaws, they were either soon arrested, shot to death, or hanged.  Anyone on the wrong side of the street gave Lon Oden a wide birth.  But by 1897, Lon Oden had fallen in love with Annie Laura Hay, a widow.  The couple married, he resigned from the rangers, and Oden became a rancher and a businessman in Marfa, Texas.

Lon Oden passed away on 11 August 1910 from a lung ailment.  He was 47 years old, which in 1910, was about the average life expectancy in the United States.


  1. Dolan, S. K.  “Another Bad Man Goes to Hell.”  True West Magazine, April 2021.
  2. Parsons, C.  Captain John R. Hughes: Lone Star Ranger.  Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2011.


[1] The Sutton–Taylor feud arose from a growing animosity between the Texas Taylor family —headed by Pitkin Taylor, the brother of Creed Taylor (a Texas Ranger) — and local lawman, William E. Sutton — a former Confederate soldier, who had moved with his family to DeWitt County intending to raise cattle.  Sutton had been elected deputy sheriff in Clinton, Texas prior to the feud’s inception in 1862.  The feud lasted almost a decade and has been called the longest and bloodiest in Texas history.

[2] Dance hall.

[3] It is difficult to affix the origin for wearing red sashes around the waist, but it became popular among the so-called Cochise County (AZ) Cowboys.  Some claim the non-military tradition may have come from Veracruz, Mexico, where early Spanish settlers wore white guayabera trousers and shirts with a red sash around their waist, accompanied by straw hats.  I doubt if anyone made fun of Johnny Ringo for wearing a red sash in 1880.

[4] Ernest St. Leon was one of the finest undercover officers in Texas law enforcement.  He also distinguished himself as a member of the U. S. Army Cavalry during the Texas Indian Wars and served for over ten years in Company D of the Texas Rangers.

[5] Frank McCombs was a mercenary who, in addition to joining the Mexican Revolution, participated in the Greek-Turkish War, the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Boer Wars, and in the Philippine-American War.  He is also believed to have been a bandit in Nicaragua.  The amazing part of the McCombs story is that he spoke not a word of Spanish.

[6] Looking back through time at the Texas Rangers, there is a tendency among metrosexual pundits to classify the Rangers as  murderers and cut throats.  This may be an accurate description of these men, but only if we judge them by modern standards.  One-hundred-thirty years ago, Texas was a dangerous land — it was a state so hostile that the only protection available to the innocent from murdering desperadoes were the lawmen equally capable of extreme violence.

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Feuds & Rivalries, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Outlaws, Society, Texas, Texas Rangers | 2 Comments

The Old West — and Independence Day

Soon after the signing of the American’s Declaration of Independence, criers were sent out to read the document to the public in several American cities.  It was a time of celebration for most people who cheered loudly when the document was read.  Not everyone was enthralled, of course — there were still around a million or so British loyalists living in the former colonies, after all.

John Adams later opined that the Fourth of July “ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”  In his enthusiasm, Mr. Adams may have overlooked that France and Spain owned most of the continent in 1776 — but that would change in time. 

Nevertheless, despite the battles that raged between American and British forces, from Canada to Spanish Florida, 4 July 1777 was a day of celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  There were, as Mr. Adams prescribed, ringing bells, firing guns, setting off fireworks, and giving thanks in prayer in local churches.  It may have been Philadelphia’s celebration that set the precedent for Independence Day Celebrations throughout the United States.

Captain William Rogers Clark, co-leader of the Corps of Discovery, recorded celebrations of Independence Day in 1804, 1805, and 1806.  Well, perhaps not celebrations as much as they were solemn acknowledgements of what had been accomplished.  A new nation, a grand experiment in the ability of free men to govern themselves.

There were educated men and women in Nineteenth Century America, but comparatively few of them in the old west.  Most men and women back then were illiterate.  They didn’t learn about Independence Day from schoolbooks; they learned about it through stories passed down to them from earlier generations.  It is unlikely that they knew any of the details, such as about the Declaration of Independence’s first signer, John Hancock.  They may have known that the declaration was written in draft form by Thomas Jefferson, but not that John Adams, Ben Franklin, and William Morris edited it, or the stories of the 56 men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their honor to see independence through to its conclusion.

In 1868, Hamilton, Nevada (today, a ghost town) was a mining community.  I’m not sure how many people lived in Hamilton, but a large number of them were miners.  The citizens of Hamilton decided to celebrate the 4th of July and they planned to do it by having a flag pageant, a parade, and a hoedown.  The Hamiltonians encountered a few problems, though.  The mining town of Hamilton had exactly two women.  And there was only one musician … a fellow who could play the fiddle.

There was also a test within the other challenges.  The fiddler was a connoisseur of rot-gut whiskey, so the 4th of July committee had to find a way to keep him reasonably sober.  It fell to the women to organize the town dance, which everyone thought was fair seeing that the women would be dancing for most of the night. 

Finding an American flag was also a challenge.  The nearest store where a flag might be found was 120 miles distant.  Instead, the townsfolk found a quilt with red lining, they found some white canvas, and then somewhat miraculously, a family traveling through town came up with a blue veil.  The presence of this family was also a bit of luck because the family had four daughters.  Suddenly, the town’s two women had help on the dance floor.  When it was discovered that none of the young ladies had any shoes, and when it was realized that it would be somewhat cruel to ask the ladies to dance barefooted on rough floor planking, a call went out for shoes.  The miners searched through their few belongings and came up with a couple of pairs of brogans.

After a parade of citizens through the town of Hamilton to the nearby community of Treasure Hills, someone gave a tin of whiskey to a local politician, and he managed to give a patriotic speech that didn’t last too long.  It wasn’t long before everyone was in the spirit of Independence Day.  For most everyone, it was a good day.

In Texas, everything is done on a grand scale — otherwise, according to most Texans, why bother?  In 1876, the 100th Anniversary of the United States of America, the citizens of Corpus Christi surpassed even Texas-style celebrations.  Festivities began at midnight on 3 July and lasted until sunrise on 5 July.  Heck, even Texans were impressed.  It included the firing of howitzers (borrowed from the King Ranch) and the plan was to fire one round for each of the original 13 states.  Well, Texas whiskey got in the way and the artillerists fired fourteen.  When the guns had fired, church bells began ringing and that kept up until none of the bell men could ring another bell.

At sunrise on the 4th, the howitzers fired thirteen (this time) rounds and the bells started ringing again afterwards.  At around 7 a.m., citizens began gathering at the Congregational Church, where they observed a demonstration by the Star Rifles drill team, Captain S. T. Foster, commanding.  At 8 a.m., around five hundred folks gathered at the baseball field to watch a game between the Corpus Christi team and Fulton.  After the game, a citizen parade took shape, which ended up at Market Hall, where theological students read scripture, led prayers, and entertained the crowd with a choir.

Corpus Christi was quite crowded by 11 a.m.  There were men on horseback, of course, and carriages.  Ranch hands began challenging one another to horse races, nothing planned, just youngsters feeling their oats.  And then there was the incident involving Stan Welch, editor of the Valley Times.  Mr. Welch’s job was to sponge the barrel of the gun and ram home the powder charge.  His boss, Charlie Beman, publisher of the Valley Times, along with Larry Dunn, J. J. Boerum, and Tomas Rivera, were the loaders and lanyard snappers.  What happened was that after the tenth shot was fired, Beman loaded the powder charge and Stan rammed it home — but the barrel was hot and ignited the powder and the gun discharged prematurely. Stanley lost his arm, and his hand was found a block away.  As far as I can tell, no other town in America can make a similar boast about Independence Day celebrations.

A grand parade led citizens down Mesquite Street eventually ending up on the school grounds where the Declaration of Independence was read, and people joined in singing “America the Beautiful.”  Since the main speaker went and blew off his arm, the job fell to Mayor Headen.  Toward the late afternoon, a rain shower cooled everyone down and folks began to mosey over to the long tables for the main dinner.  There was enough food on those tables to feed an army.  Nearby, barrels of ice water kept everyone hydrated and pitchers of lemonade were set on the dining tables.  Chinese style lanterns provided sufficient light.  Toasts were offered to the nation, to George Washington, the heroes of ’76, Texas, and the women of America.

After dinner, a dance was held at Market Hall — and the dancing lasted until dawn.  It was a great celebration, of course (except perhaps for Mr. Welch), but memorable, nonetheless.  Despite losing an arm, Welch went on in life to become an attorney and a judge.  He was assassinated in 1906 in the political violence between Democrats and Republicans in Rio Grande City, Texas.  His murderer joined the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921) on the side of Sr. Carranza.

One of the better-remembered Independence Days took place in North Platte, Nebraska in 1882.  This was made possible for William Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill.  He called it an Old Glory Blowout.  There was a parade, singing, speeches, and cowboy contests, such as roping and shooting, horse racing, and a fireworks display.  There were two off-shoots to the North Platt celebration.  It was the start of Buffalo Bill’s wild west show idea, and it was also the beginning of American rodeo.

In 1884, the wild town of Dodge City added a new twist to the Independence Day celebration: a Mexican style bull fight — some say, the first ever staged on US soil.  But even then, there were folks who thought bull fights were inhumanely cruel to the animals.  Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals complained to the Governor of Kansas, “Humanity and public decorum have been trampled underfoot and the blood-red flag of barbarism elevated above them.”  Personally, I’ve never understood the purpose of bull fights — but this is yet another characteristic of the independent-minded Americans: there’s not much they agree on.

In the old west, Independence Day was a time for celebration.  Festivals took place in mining camps, farming communities, towns, and emerging cities.  Americans enjoyed picnics, dances, musical entertainments, rodeos, horse races, foot races, turkey shoots, parades, and of course, there was always the need for speechifying.  And a few drinks.  Well, maybe more than a few.  These events later expanded to baseball games, food-eating contests, and games for the youngsters.  At some locations, where Native Americans had assimilated American traditions, Indians also conducted rodeos, pow-wows, traditional dances, and weapons competitions.  Everyone seemed to join in the 4th of July celebrations from the plains of Texas to those in Montana, from California to Florida, and everywhere in between.

Posted in History, Independence Day! | 2 Comments

The Sutton-Taylor Feud


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.


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.


  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.


[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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Sons of a Preacher Man


The only species on earth that dabble in politics are human beings.  Political activities are those associated with making important decisions for groups of people.  Within those groups, it is common to find individuals who seek to attain power and maintain their influence over others, too often for their own benefit.

The word “politics” can have both positive and negative connotations — although in my own view, politicians offer us but few examples of honor and selflessness in service to the nation or its people.  In order to find political solutions, elected officials gravitate toward expediency over thoughtfulness, and compromise over conviction.  Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the formation of the government of the United States.

Some Background

Although the founding politicians acknowledged that slavery violated the core principles of liberty and  equality, they were also deeply committed to private property rights, principles of limited government, and intersectional harmony as a means of achieving union.  The considerable investment of southern politicians in slave-based staple agriculture, and the generally held view that black people were intellectually and culturally inferior to whites prevented any meaningful discussion about emancipation.

Recognizing the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, founding politicians embarked on a process whereby the Articles of Confederation might be improved to form a “more perfect” union.  The result of this was a repeal of the Articles of Confederation, replacing them with the United States Constitution. 

During the Constitutional Convention (25 May to 17 September) of 1787, the United States’ founding politicians argued over the method of determining a fair apportionment of seats in the US House of Representatives.  The answer, of course, was to apportion seats according to a state’s population, as determined by a federal census every ten years.  Of course, the problem was that northern states had higher populations than in the agrarian south, and this would afford the representatives of northern states more power and influence than in the less-populated southern states.

Through compromise, convention delegates decided to count 3/5ths of a state’s enslaved population in the state’s total population for the purpose of apportioning house seats.  It was called the Three-Fifths Compromise.  The exact wording of Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 is: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.[1]

Slavery aside, southern states had a valid concern.  In 1793, the southern states were apportioned 47 out of 105 House seats; without the Three-Fifths Compromise, southern states would only have had 33 apportioned seats (based entirely on the population of whites living in southern states).  That said, although legislative influence remained in the hands of the northern states through the American Civil War, the southern states did have an impact from within the executive and judicial branches.

No scholarly person can ignore or under-emphasize the importance of slavery as an issue in the formation of the US government because institutional slavery vs. freedom for all was a constituent element of American democracy from the very beginning.  In the inherent antagonism of these two incompatible issues, Alexander de Tocqueville noted that they posed the greatest danger to the Republic’s permanence.  De Tocqueville was prophetic, because slavery not only shaped the south’s social, moral, economic, and political systems — it also led to violent sectionalism in the United States.

In 1776, slaves were present in every one of the original thirteen states.  Pennsylvania became the first state to abolish slavery in 1780, a gradual approach granting freedom once a slave reached the age of majority.  Massachusetts abolished slavery outright in 1783.  New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York adopted gradual emancipation schemes.  The Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in all future states north of the Ohio River.

Within the primarily agrarian southern states, no one considered emancipation.   If anything, the economies of southern states produced a united front on the issue of slavery (including Delaware).  One question remained throughout the antebellum period: to what extent could the federal government regulate slavery?  Chief Justice John Marshal once observed, in a different context, that, “The power to regulate is the power to destroy.”  There was no one in the United States who understood this axiom better than southern plantation owners, investors, and those who made a living from marketing agricultural goods.


In 1818, the Missouri territorial legislature submitted a request for statehood to the US Congress.  By then, a petition for statehood had become a routine procedure but in the case of Missouri, it suddenly became a controversial issue when northern representatives objected to Missouri’s admission as a slave state.  In the process of writing an invitation to the Missouri legislature to prepare a Constitution, Representative James Tallmadge (D/R-NY) attached an amendment prohibiting any further introduction of slaves into Missouri from other states and required the emancipation of all slaves born in Missouri, after statehood, upon reaching the age of 25 years.  The Tallmadge plan was a cutout of the emancipation scheme adopted by New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York over the previous fifty years.  Tallmadge’s restrictions passed through the House but failed in the Senate.  The “crisis” was resolved with the Missouri Compromise of 1820.[2]

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (passed by the 33rd US Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Pierce) was the brainchild of Senator Stephen Douglas (D-IL).  Douglas intended to open up lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase for the development of a transcontinental railway.  Although, rather than restricting slavery to new states below 36/30 (the so-called Mason-Dixon Line, pursuant to the Missouri Compromise), Douglas wanted the citizens of  new territories to decide for themselves the issue of slavery.  It is difficult to argue with the notion of popular sovereignty, but in this case, it appears as if the US congress wanted to pass the responsibility of the slavery issue to the citizens of territories seeking statehood.

Thus, one effect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was that it repealed the Missouri Compromise, which inflamed the passions of those who believed that the federal government had reneged on its previous agreement and set into motion popular violence and sectional conflicts on the issue of slavery.

Violence Begins

By 1855, thousands of New Englanders began flooding into the Kansas Territory to make sure that Kansas would become a free state “through the will of the people.”  Abolitionists argued that slavery was a moral rather than political issue and that given the egalitarian intent of the US Constitution, no state should have the right to permit the existence of human bondage.  The pro-slavery position was that since all states were constitutionally sovereign, all states were free to govern themselves without unwanted interference from the federal government.  Moreover, southern states believed that all states had the right of nullification.[3]


Abolitionist voices grew louder after the Dred Scott decision in 1857.  Dred Scott was a slave whose “owners” had taken him from Missouri (a slave state) into Illinois and Wisconsin (free states).  When Scott was taken back to Missouri, he sued for his freedom arguing that having been taken into a free state, he was automatically freed from human bondage and was no longer a slave.  He first sued in a Missouri court, which ruled that Scott was still a slave.  He then sued in federal court, which sided with the Missouri court.  Scott appealed the federal court decision to the US Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court issued its 7-2 decision in 1857: Chief Justice Roger Taney (a slave owner) ruled that blacks were never “included” as citizens of the United States and could not, therefore, claim any benefit derived from the concept of US citizenship.  Since Scott was not a citizen of the United States, Taney argued, he could not claim citizenship of any state.  Beyond the issue of Mr. Scott, Taney further determined that that the Missouri Compromise was itself un-Constitutional because Congress had exceeded its authority under the Constitution.  Taney intended that the court’s decision would settle the matter of slavery in the United States.[4]  It had the opposite effect.[5]

Little Dixie

While most people in Missouri supported the idea of popular sovereignty, pro-slavery politicians inflamed the passions of Missouri slave owners (mostly located north-central Missouri).  Men such as David Atchison and B. F. Stringfellow encouraged pro-slave Missourians to follow the example of New England abolitionists — move to the Kansas Territory and agitate/vote against the admission of Kansas as a free state.  Despite the fact that most slavery in Missouri was unprofitable and little practiced, the area of Little Dixie (shown on map) was heavily reliant on slave labor and many Missourians took Atchison’s advice and migrated to Kansas to try to influence “popular sovereignty.”  The result of this meddling was “Bleeding Kansas” violence between Kansas/Missouri militias.[6]

By 1861, sectionalism over the issue of slavery had been festering in the United States for more than four decades.  The outbreak of civil war caught no one ‘off guard.’  The trigger was the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States.

At the outset of the civil war, three-quarters of Missouri’s population, particularly in the area called ‘Little Dixie’ (which included Clay County), had deeply engrained southern roots.  They migrated to Missouri from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky — bringing their slaves with them.  Overall, Missouri’s slave population never exceeded ten percent of the state’s population, but in Clay County, the percentage of enslaved blacks ranged from 25 to 30%.

The James-Samuel Family

One southern migrant to Missouri was Reverend Robert S. James (1818-1850).  He was born in Logan County, Kentucky, the son of John & Polly Poor James.  While attending Georgetown College, where he studied theology, Robert married the sixteen-year-old Miss Zerelda Cole in 1841.  Robert and Zerelda had three children.  After Robert graduated from college in 1843, he moved his family and six slaves to Clay County, Missouri.

In Clay County, Robert and Zerelda settled in with Zerelda’ mother and step-father.  Robert later returned to his studies in Kentucky and eventually earned a master’s degree.  He was known as a skilled orator and an enthusiastic revivalist.  After returning to Missouri, he helped establish the William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri in 1849.

Robert left Zerelda and the children in April 1850 to visit with his brother in California.  Robert wanted to do some prospecting, of course, but he also thought that it might be possible to hold profitable revival meetings in a place called Hangtown, California (later, Placerville).  Within a few months of his arrival, however, Robert contracted cholera.  He died in August 1850.

Robert’s death was a disaster for Zerelda.  Despite the fact that Robert owned 100 acres of Kentucky land and six slaves, he was deeply in debt.  These circumstances forced Zerelda to sell the land and some of the slaves at auction.  In 1852, Zerelda married Mr. Benjamin Simms, a wealthy Missouri farmer.  The marriage didn’t last long because of Mr. Simms abusive treatment of Zerelda’s two boys.

Zerelda’s third marriage was to Dr. Reuben Samuel, a medical doctor, in 1855.  Reuben was well-respected and treated Zerelda’s children well.  He was a quiet, thoughtful, somewhat passive man and also, henpecked.  Reuben and Zerelda had four children.

At the time the civil war erupted, the governor of Missouri was a man named Claiborne Fox Jackson, a professed Douglas Democrat.[7]  Previously, Jackson manufactured and sold medications.  It was through this activity that he became wealthy and politically influential.  Jackson was deeply involved in Democratic politics in Saline County (central Missouri) with service in the Missouri House of Representatives for twelve years.  In 1848, Missourians elected him to the State Senate.  During the election of 1860, most people in Missouri opposed secession, which is why Jackson professed to be an anti-secessionist.

After his election, Jackson declared that Missouri shared a common bond and interest with other slave states and that Missouri could separate itself from these sentiments if the Union should be dissolved.  He called for a state-wide convention to consider secession from the United States (and other matters).  Convention delegates voted 98-1 against secession.  Subsequently, Jackson declared the State of Missouri an “Armed Neutral,” which meant that he intended to refuse to provide men or arms to the federal government or Confederacy.  Jackson refused to obey Lincoln’s executive order for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion.

Meanwhile, Jackson was engaged in secret negotiations with Confederate President Jefferson Davis; the plan involved a governor-directed military takeover of the State of Missouri.  Following Jackson’s unsuccessful attempt to seize the federal arsenal in St. Louis, the Confederacy began smuggling arms, artillery, and munitions into Missouri through the port facilities at St. Louis.  As pro-Confederate militia began to organize themselves, pro-Union state militia did the same.

Following a brief series of campaigns and battles between Union and Confederate forces, guerrilla warfare gripped Missouri and Kansas.  It was largely a war waged between secessionist (also known as bushwhackers) and pro-Union Kansas militia (also known as jayhawkers and Red Legs).  Both groups committed unspeakable crimes against one-another.  According to one early Kansas history, “Confederated at first for defense against pro-slavery outrages, but ultimately falling more or less completely into the vocation of robbers and assassins, they have received the name — whatever its origin may be — of jayhawkers.”

There were more than a few Union and Jayhawker depredations committed against Missourians, including the imposition of martial law, anti-secessionist raids on private homes, the seizure of firearms, the arrest and torture of “suspected” Confederate sympathizers, summary executions, and the banishment of anyone who wasn’t loyal to the Union.  Missouri bushwhackers (also, border ruffians) returned the favor.

It was within this environment that Zerelda James raised her two sons, Alexander Franklin James (b. 1843) and Jesse Woodson James (b. 1847).  The James-Samuel family sided with the Confederacy.  The two boys enlisted in the Confederate Army soon after the outbreak of war.  Alexander (called Frank) joined a local company and ended up as a participant in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August 1861.  Frank was soon after released and sent home because of an illness that rendered him “combat ineffective.”

In early 1863, Union officials identified Frank as a member of a guerrilla band operating in Clay County.  In the spring, a Union militia company seeking to arrest Frank raided the Samuel farm.  As a means of getting him to reveal the whereabouts of Frank, the militia tortured Reuben by hanging/strangulation.  When Reuben couldn’t say where Frank was, the Union men tied Jesse to a tree and whipped him.

Frank eluded capture and was thought to have joined up with Quantrill’s Raiders.[8]  Historians believe that Frank participated in the raid on Lawrence, Kansas where 200 men and boys were massacred.  After wintering in Texas in 1863-1864, Frank returned to Clay County, Missouri.  It was then that Jesse joined the Fletch Taylor raider band.  Jesse was 16-years old.

In the summer of 1864, Taylor lost his arm to a shotgun blast and Frank and Jesse joined the raider group of William “Bloody Bill” Anderson.  Not long afterward, Jesse received a non-lethal chest wound.  Both Frank and Jesse were suspected of participating in the Centralia Massacre — an incident where Anderson stopped a train carrying unarmed Union soldiers and killed or wounded 24 men.  Anderson was also responsible for defeating a regiment of Union troops and then killing in cold blood those who sought to surrender.  Many years later, Frank James identified his brother as the person responsible for the murder of Major A. V. E. Johnson, who commanded the defeated regiment.

Frank and Jesse’s activities prompted Union officials to banish the Samuel family from Clay County.  Reuben was told to “head south” but he instead took his family to Nebraska.  When Anderson was killed in a Union ambush, his group split up.  Frank rejoined Quantrill’s operations in Kentucky, while Jesse joined Archie Cléments’s group and remained in Missouri.  In the spring of 1865, 17-year-old Jesse was again wounded while trying to surrender to a Union patrol near Lexington, Missouri.

Post-War Violence and Outlawry

The Civil War ended in April 1865 — but it did not end in Missouri.  The war split the people of Missouri into three groups: Anti-Slavery Unionists (also, Republicans), Segregationist Unionists (also, Democrats), and Pro-Slavery ex-Confederate Secessionists (also, Dixie Democrats).  When the Republican-dominated reconstruction legislature passed a new Constitution freeing all slaves in Missouri and excluded former Confederates from the right to vote, serve on juries, serving as corporate officers, or preach from church pulpits, a new Confederate rebellion took shape.

After Jesse recovered from his wound, hiding in Kansas City, he began a nine-year courtship with his first cousin, also named Zerelda (Mimms), whom he eventually married.  Meanwhile, Archie Cléments kept his gang together and began targeting reconstruction Republicans and “Yankee banks,” many of which were owned and operated by former Union military officers.  In one robbery, a 17-year-old student at William Jewell College was caught in a crossfire and killed — the same college founded by Frank and Jesse’s father, Robert.  There is no evidence that either Frank or Jesse participated in the Clay County bank robbery (Liberty, Missouri), but they did receive full credit for it.

In June 1866, the Cléments gang raided a jail in Jackson County, Missouri and freed two members of the Quantrill gang, murdering the jailer in their effort.  Missouri violence increased with time.  Governor Thomas C. Fletcher ordered militia companies to track down the guerrilla gangs/outlaws.  Archie Cléments wasn’t the least bit intimidated.   On one occasion, Cléments took over the town of Lexington on Election Day, 1866.  Before the end of the year, however, Archie got himself  intimidated when state militia shot him to death.

Between 1866-68, remnants of the Cléments gang continued to rob banks.  Over time, the Cléments Gang became smaller through arrests, gunfights, and lynching’s.  Ostensibly, the border ruffians targeted the banks owned and operated by former union army officers and politicians as revenge for their part in the Civil War, but since most of the holdups were directed at small community banks, the robberies did more harm to local citizens than to bank owners.  In 1868, Frank and Jesse joined the Cole Younger Gang[9] in the robbery of the Russellville Bank, in Kentucky.

Until 7 December 1869, hardly anyone knew who Jesse James was.  On that date, Jesse and Frank robbed the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri.  The robbery didn’t bring the two outlaws much money, but it was Jesse’s murder of bank teller and former Union captain John Sheets that gained the James brothers the most notoriety.  Jesse mistakenly believed that Sheets was Samuel P. Cox, the militia officer responsible for killing “Bloody Bill” Anderson.  More than the murder of sheets and the robbery, it was Jesse and Frank’s escape that made the most headlines.  They rode through a sheriff’s posse to make their getaway.

Once people realized who Jesse James was, the last survivor of a former gang of bushwhackers, he became one of the more infamous outlaws of the post-Civil War period — his notoriety more or less assured by Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, who offered a reward for his capture.  It was after this that Jesse formed an association with John Newman Edwards, founder, and editor of the Kansas City Times.

John Edwards was a former Confederate cavalry officer who actively campaigned to return former secessionists to political power in Missouri.  Six months after the Gallatin robbery, Edwards began publishing a series of letters written by Jesse James to the public at large.  He asserted his innocence, of course, but over time, his letters took on a more political in tone.  Two common themes were his condemnation of Republicans and his pride in his loyalty to the Confederacy.  With Edward’s help, Jesse James became a symbol of Confederate defiance of reconstruction policy.[10]

On 21 July 1873, the James-Younger gang focused their attention on the Rock Island Railroad train west of Adair, Iowa and netted $3,000 (around $62,000 in 2021).  During the robbery they wore Klu Klux Klan masks.  The railway companies had become a target of former Confederate outlaws.  James-Younger held up passenger trains only twice over several robberies.  They instead focused on the contents of the express safe in the baggage car; John Edwards made sure to highlight this fact in creating Jesse James’ public image as a Robin Hood type character.

In 1874, the Adams Express Company[11] turned to the Pinkerton Detective Agency to stop the James-Younger Gang from robbing its shipments.  Pinkerton’s initial efforts to corral and arrest the James-Younger Gang was less than stellar: the James boys killed three Pinkerton agents.  The murders drove Allan Pinkerton to mount a vendetta.  During the night of 25 January 1875, Pinkerton staged a raid on the James homestead.  Incendiary devices were thrown into the house, killing Jesse’s younger half-brother, and amputating Zerelda Samuel’s arm.

Clay County residents were outraged by the Pinkerton raid and Allan Pinkerton’s life wouldn’t have been worth a plug nickel on any Missouri city street.  The raid prompted certain members of the Missouri legislature to draw up a resolution granting the James brothers amnesty, but the resolution was barely defeated.  Former confederate members of the legislature had more success limiting the amount of reward the governor could offer for the capture of the James Gang.  Meanwhile, supporters of the James-Samuel family tracked down the people who cooperated with Pinkerton and eliminated them. 

On 7 July 1876, Frank and Jesse, Cole and Bob Younger, Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell, and Hobbs Kerry robbed the Missouri Pacific train at Rocky Cut, near Otterville, Missouri.  Hobbs was the newest addition to the James-Younger gang, so when lawmen arrested Mr. Kerry, he was happy to identify his accomplices — which tends to prove that good help is hard to find.

Rocky Cut set the stage for the final James-Younger operation: the raid of Northfield, Minnesota.  The gang’s target was the First National Bank.  The raid was the brainchild of Jesse James and Bob Younger.  Cole Younger thought it was a bad idea and tried to talk his brother into shelving it.  Reluctantly, however, Cole eventually went along with his brother’s scheme.  James allegedly selected the First National because its owners were Radical Republicans and former Union generals Benjamin Butler, and his son-in-law, Adelbert Ames (a former reconstruction governor of Mississippi).

Bob, Cole, and Jim Younger, Frank and Jesse James, Charlie Pitts, Clell Miller, and Bill Chadwell booked passage by train to St. Paul, Minnesota in early September.  At St. Paul, the gang split up into two groups, one proceeding to Mankato, and the other to Red Wing (on either side of Northfield).  After purchasing horses, each group conducted a reconnaissance of the surrounding areas.  The outlaws regrouped south of Northfield along the Cannon River on the morning of 7 September 1876 and headed into Northfield.  Once arrived, they went to a local restaurant.  Now, for some reason, locals seemed to take notice of the eight strangers; it may have been on account of the strong odor of alcohol on their breath and the appearance of being “under the influence.”

Upon leaving the restaurant, Bob, Frank, and Charlie crossed the bridge by Ames Mill and entered the bank.  Jesse, Cole, Jim, Bill, and Clell stood outside the bank, “standing guard.”  That, in and of itself, may have been a tell of events to come.  Two of the boys stood near the bank’s main entrance, three waited in Mills Square to guard the escape route.

Inside the bank, assistant cashier Joseph Heywood refused to open the safe.  For his loyalty to the First National, he was shot dead.  Alonzo Bunker, another teller, escaped from the bank by running out the back door but was wounded in the shoulder by Frank Wilcox as he skedaddled.

A keen citizen-observer named J. S. Allen shouted to the townspeople, “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbing the bank!”  Several men took up arms from nearby store fronts.  The three robbers having fired their weapons at least twice — and having nothing to show for it, heard shooting from outside and ran out of the bank.  The moment Bob, Frank, and Charlie exited the bank, they ran into a hail of flying bullets.

Henry Wheeler, a medical student, shot and killed Clell Miller from a second-floor window opposite the bank.  Mr. A. R. Manning shot and killed Stiles from the corner of a building opposite the bank.  Cole was hit in the hip; Bob took a bullet that shattered his elbow.  Jim Younger was shot in the jaw.  Thirty-year-old Nicholas Gustafson, recently arrived from Sweden, was shot dead by Cole Younger.

All eight gangsters were killed or wounded.  Frank James and Charlie Pitts were shot in their right legs, Jesse James took a bullet in the thigh during his escape.  With two men dead, the remaining six rode out of town on the road toward Millersburg.

Minnesotans assembled several posse’s and set up pickets throughout the area.  After a few days, the outlaws split up.  The Youngers and Charlie Pitts had abandoned their horses and moved on foot toward western Minnesota.  Within two weeks, the Youngers and Pitts found themselves cornered in the Hanska Slough, south of La Salle, Minnesota.  In the gunfight between the good guys and bad guys, Pitts was killed, and the Younger’s were again wounded.  Frank and Jesse rode across Minnesota into the Dakotas, and made good their escape, but the James-Younger Gang was no more.

After the failed Northfield robbery, Jesse and Frank returned to Missouri and from there made their way to Nashville, Tennessee.  Assuming the names Thomas Howard and B. J. Woodson, Frank seemed ready to settle down.  But by 1879, Jesse was restless for the outlaw life.  After forming a new gang, he held up three trains and pulled off the robbery of a federal payroll in Killen, Alabama.  It was after the Killen caper when Jesse James began experiencing personnel problems.

The difficulty seems to have been that Jesse’s new men had never bonded in the same way as his war time affiliates.  The new boys were always arguing with one another, thought they knew more about thieving than their gang leader.  Plus, they were not the brightest bunch of outlaws of the old west.  The new boys liked to brag about their raids and robberies, which ended up getting a few of them arrested or shot.  But worse than that, Jesse never felt as if he could trust his new associates.  If it was a premonition, he should have paid greater attention.  By 1881, Jesse only had to gang members remaining close to him: Charles (Charlie) and Robert (Bob) Ford.  Jesse and the Ford’s relocated to St. Joseph, Missouri, while Frank James decided he would move to Virginia.

Charlie Ford had pulled a few jobs with Jesse, but Bob was merely one of Jesse’s wannabes.  Jesse began to look upon the Ford brothers as his principal body guards.  Unbeknownst to Jesse, Bob secretly contacted Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden and devised a plan to turn Jesse over to Missouri lawmen.  Since the Missouri legislature had limited the amount of cash reward he could offer for the capture of the James brothers, Crittenden contacted railroad and express companies and arranged for a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of Jesse and Frank James.

On 3 April 1882, while Jesse was straightening a wall picture in his living room, Bob Ford shot him in the back of the head.  Jesse was 34 years old.  The murder was a national sensation.  Charlie and Bob surrendered to authorities, who promptly charged them with first degree murder.  Juries indicted both men, convicted them, and sentenced Charlie and Bob to hang.

Governor Crittenden promptly pardoned both men, suggesting to some that Crittenden may have conspired to kill a private citizen.  Although pardoned, national news sheets reviled the Ford’s.  Ten years later, Edward O’ Kelly walked into Bob Ford’s tent saloon in Creede, Colorado with a double-barrel shotgun and let Bob have it the throat with both barrels.  O’Kelly received a life sentence for the murder, but he also received a pardon after serving ten years of his sentence.

Over the next thirty years, Frank James worked in a number of jobs, from telegraph operator to stage theater ticket seller and lecturer about the real James boys.  Frank eventually returned to the family farm and conducted paid tours of the property.  He died at the age of 72 years on 18 February 1915 leaving behind his wife, Annie Ralston James and one son.  Jesse’s wife, Zerelda Amanda Mimms-James died childless, in her 55th year, on 13 November 1900 — impoverished and alone. 


  1. Astor, A.  Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2012.
  2. Castel, A.  Order Number 11 and the Civil War on the Border.  Missouri Historical Review, 1963.
  3. Frizzell, R. W.  Southern Identity in Nineteenth-Century Missouri: Little Dixie’s Slave-Majority Areas and the Transition to Midwestern Farming.  Missouri Historical Review, 2005.
  4. Hylton, J. G.  Before there were “Red” and “Blue” States, there were “Free” States and “Slave” States.  Marquette University Law School, 2012. (Link)
  5. McCandles, P.  A History of Missouri: 1820 to 1860.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.
  6. Mecklin, J. M.  The Evolution of the Slave Status in American Democracy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1917


[1] One will notice that the word “slave” or “enslaved” does not appear in this provision.

[2] Passed into law in 1820, the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri (as a slave state) and Maine (as a free state) and prohibited future slave states north of the 36/30 parallel.  In effect, the Missouri Compromise was the first formal sectional division of the United States.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, and passed the responsibility for deciding the issue of slave vs. non-slave statehood to the residents of the states through popular sovereignty.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act was further complicated by the Dred Scott decision (1857), which ruled that Africans, whether enslaved or free, could not become citizens of the United States. 

[3] Nullification is a theory that a state has the right to nullify or invalidate any federal law which the state legislature deems unconstitutional.  The federal court has never upheld a nullification argument but this issue is far from dead on arrival. Currently, eight state legislatures have passed laws that nullify federal laws and regulations in certain areas.

[4] One wonders if Taney imagined that “freed slaves” would have to be returned to Africa.

[5] The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) voided the Dred Scott decision.

[6] “Bleeding Kansas” describes the period of repeated outbreaks of violent guerrilla warfare between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces following the creation of the new territory of Kansas in 1854.  In total, 55 people were killed between 1855-59.  The struggle intensified the ongoing debate over the future of slavery and was a key precursor to the American Civil War.

[7] By this time, American politics had become confusing and muddled.  Douglas Democrats were those people who embraced the Democratic Party platform but opposed secession from the United States.  There were also Democrat-Republicans, Whigs, and Dixie Democrats.  

[8] William Quantrill was one of the better-known Confederate partisan groups operating in Missouri and Kansas.  Quantrill (1837-1865), a school teacher, became a hunter of escaped slaves in Missouri and Kansas and later organized a band of around 400 guerrilla raiders that terrorized Unionists.  He was mortally wounded while fighting Union troops in Central Kentucky.

[9] Cole Younger (1844-1916) was a bushwhacker during the Civil War.  His gang included Jim, John, and Bob Younger, and Frank and Jesse James.  The gang was sometimes known as the James-Younger Gang.  Cole Younger was wounded and captured during the Northfield Bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota. 

[10] Some form of post-war reconstruction was necessary, but the method employed by Radical Republicans and the so-called carpet-baggers was cruel and unnecessary.  More than any other factor, post-Civil War Reconstruction policies and methods explains the angry racism and sectionalism that remained in the United States for another 100 years.

[11] Adams Express was started in 1839 by Alvin Adams, a produce merchant who was financially ruined in the Panic of 1837.  He began carrying letters and small packages between Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts.  As Adams & Company, he expanded his operation to New York City, Philadelphia, and other eastern cities.  By 1850, he was servicing as far west as St. Louis.  In the 1840s, abolitionists hired Adams Express to deliver anti-slavery news sheets and pamphlets from northern publishers to southern states.  After the civil war, Adams Express provided paymaster services for both sides of the war.  

Posted in Civil War, Colonial America, Gunfights and such, History, Kansas, Little Dixie, Minnesota, Missouri, Outlaws | 2 Comments

Barney Kemp Riggs

There was a time in America when folks just up and died.  No one knew why … they just did.  No one in the mid-1800s knew much about influenza, cancer, congestive heart failure, or stroke.  And when they died, their next of kin buried them.  Family farms were often a long way from other farms, and miles away from the nearest town.  Farm work was unrelentingly hard, and, except for Sunday, there was never any time for sluffing off.  So, after the family member was laid to rest, after prayers were spoken, a meal consumed, everyone went back to their chores.  In a few days, someone would make an appropriate entry in the family Bible.

Sometime later, who really knows how long, a family member might take a trip into town for flour or cloth.  The family member’s passing might be mentioned to the store clerk, who told his wife, who mentioned it to the preacher, who told the sheriff, who told the court clerk, who made an entry in this census book.

In 1874, two friends were hunting when one of them accidently shot and killed the other.  Understandably, there was great sadness among his loved ones — perhaps some anger that a life had been taken so young and maybe at the foolishness that caused the accident.  There was also likely to have been some forgiveness; after all, accidents happen.  In any case, Hugh Armstrong was laid to rest in the family plot behind the house on the side of a hill on a small farm some distance away from the village of Salado, Texas — over in Bell County where a toddler named Jim Ferguson[1] was living at the time.  Well, accidents happen and there was nothing else to be done.

It wasn’t until 1879 when the county sheriff began asking questions about the incident.  I suppose it was a matter of someone from the Armstrong family finally making it in to town and mentioning Hugh’s untimely death to a store clerk.  In any case, the sheriff wanted to ask Hugh’s friend, Barney Kemp Riggs — the man who shot Hugh a few questions about what happened.  At first, Barney agreed to speak to the Sheriff but then, just before the meeting took place, Barney left Bell County for parts unknown.

The second eldest of seven children, Barney was born to Thomas and Hannah Riggs on 18th December 1856.  As with thousands of people in the mid-1800s, the Rigg family decided to risk moving to Texas where land prices were low and land a good investment.  They settled in the village of Salado where they could farm.  It was never an idyllic life, of course.  The Comanche made life a living hell for some folks, but things were getting better.  There was an army post not too far away, over in Coryell County[2] — Fort Gates (today, Gatesville — north of Fort Hood).

When Barney Riggs left Salado, he went to live with his father’s brother, James, in Cochise County, Arizona.  Jim Riggs had a ranch there and Barney was hired on as a ranch hand.  In 1881, Barney met Miss Vennie Hicklin from Dos Cabezas[3], a small mining town over by Willcox.  Barney and Vennie married on 21st February 1882.  Of course, marriage is a big step in any young man’s life and because a stockmen’s wages were slim Barney Riggs engaged in a little moonlighting to bring in a little extra income by helping Mexican horses and cattle find their way to freedom in the United States.  Of course, moving horses across international borders always incurs some risk, particularly if the transfer takes place without the owner’s consent or knowledge.  One day, Riggs and his cousin were resting ten or twelve recently liberated horses at a watering hole just north of the Mexican border when two vaqueros traveling with three women in a cargo wagon happened by.  The vaqueros noted the brands on the horses were from a spread in Mexico and started asking questions about how those horses found their way into Estados Unidos.

With some apprehension that the vaqueros were on to them, Riggs shot both men dead and then, leaving the three women unmolested, he and his cousin moved the horses along.  A few miles later, Riggs wondered about leaving witnesses who could later testify against him.  He solved that problem by returning to the watering hole and killing all three women.  Barney was very thoughtful in such matters.

I’m not sure if Barney Riggs was one of the Cochise County Cowboys, but he was definitely one of Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan’s deputies searching for Wyatt Earp during his so-called vendetta ride.  We know how that turned out.  At this point, one might conclude that Barney Riggs — in not finding Wyatt Earp — was a lucky man.

At the Riggs Ranch, Barney worked under Uncle Jim’s stepson, Richmond Hudson.  Richmond assigned Barney to a cattle-buying trip in Texas.  When Barney returned to the ranch in early September 1886, he began hearing rumors about Vinnie and Richmond.  Barney asked Richmond about this rumor, of course — as any husband would — and Richmond denied any improper relationship with Mrs. Riggs.  As it turned out, though, Richmond wasn’t all that bright.  A few days later, Barney overheard Richmond telling his friends about his seduction of Vinnie Riggs, how easy she was to coax into bed.  On 29th September 1886, Richmond Hudson was found shot to death.

Almost everyone at Uncle Jim’s ranch knew that Barney and Richmond had a falling out.  Richmond’s friends knew why — which led lawmen to name Barney Riggs as a prime suspect in the assassination of Richmond Hudson.  Barney soon took off into the Arizona mountains and a $250.00 bounty was offered for Riggs’ capture.

Cochise Deputy Sheriff Charlie Smith partnered with Tombstone Constable Fred Dodge[4] to bring Barney Riggs in.  The two men set up a surveillance of the Riggs Ranch from an overlooking hill top position.  A day or two later, Smith and Dodge observed a rider on an adjacent hill signaling to Vinnie Riggs.  Smith and Dodge followed her at a discreet distance to the rendezvous and took them both into custody.

At the Sheriff’s Office in Tombstone, Vinnie, who was guilty of little more than occasional marital infidelity, was released.  Barney, however, went to trial.  Actually, there were two trials. The first event ended up as a mistrial because half the jury thought that Riggs’ shooting of Hudson was justifiable homicide.  The jury in the second trial took a different view.  A man may warrant killing on account of making sexual advances to another man’s wife, but cold blooded assassination could only be regarded as a premeditated murder.  On the very last day of 1886, Barney Riggs was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison at the Arizona Territorial Prison in Yuma, Arizona.

One might think that this tale would end with Barney being sent away to serve a life sentence.  Not quite.  No one likes having to go to prison — not even today — so when seven convicts managed to get ahold of firearms, they took Arizona Territorial Prison Warden Thomas Gates hostage and used him to secure their escape.  When the inmates learned what was going on, pandemonium broke out inside the prison.

Barney Riggs was an observer of this fracas.  At just the right moment, Riggs disarmed one of the escapees and shot and killed the convict who was holding Warden Gates as a shield.  This act of bravery earned Riggs the warden’s undying gratitude and the Territorial Governor’s commutation of Barney’s life sentence.  Riggs was released from prison on the very last day of 1887.

During the year Barney spent in prison, Vinnie and their son William Earl went to live in California.  After his release, Riggs traveled to California to inform Vinnie that the marriage was over.  Barney collected his son and returned to Texas where he took up residence with his brother Tom.  Within a year or so, Barney and Tom started up a ranch along the Texas/New Mexico border.

In the 1890s, few people bothered with formal divorces.  Barney Riggs didn’t.  While still married to Vinnie, who remained in California, Riggs married a widow woman named Annie Stella Frazer Johnson.  She was the widow of Pecos County Sheriff James Johnson and the sister of Reeves County Sheriff George A. “Bud” Frazer.

Bud Frazer was born in Fort Stockton, Texas.  He and Annie were the children of George M. Frazer, who had served as an Arizona Ranger, Pecos County Sheriff, and as County Judge.  Noted for their violence, the Frazer family feuded with the Sosa family in the mid-1880s.  It seems that the Frazer’s objected to Crispin Sosa cutting Jim Frazer’s throat.  Jim was Bud’s brother.  In any case, Crispin ended up shot to death.  His brother, Pablo, went into hiding in Presidio, Texas but he didn’t run far enough because sometime later, Pablo’s body (or what was left of it) was found in a hog pen riddled with bullets.  Pablo’s death more or less ended the feud, which had no effect at all on Bud Frazer’s reputation in Reeves County because in 1890, Bud was elected Sheriff.  Bud Frazer was 26 years old.

In 1891, Bud hired a fellow named Jim Miller as one of his deputies.  Miller was a bit odd, but he was a church-going fellow and he read the Bible frequently.  He was so religious, in fact, that folks began calling him “Deacon Jim” Miller.  Well, some of them did; other folks called him “Kill ‘in” Jim.  Jim Miller’s signature firearm was a shotgun, so it was somewhat easy to conclude that Deacon Jim hated Mexicans by the number of shotgun riddled Mexicans found at various places throughout Reeves County.

Bud Frazer’s brother-in-law, Barney Riggs warned Bud about hiring Jim Miller, but Bud was one of those hard-headed cusses who knew everything and pretty much disregarded what Barney had to say.  After Miller was hired, the county noted a sudden up-tick in cattle rustling and misappropriation of horse-flesh.  Miller’s task was to get to the bottom of the theft of livestock.  He must have chuckled to himself as he said “Yes sir” … He never actually caught any rustlers, of course, but there were several “suspects” who were shot while trying to escape.  It was probably only a coincidence that most of those men were Mexicans.

Riggs, who had no deep love for Mexicans, did have an affinity for other people’s cattle.  He suggested that if Bud wanted to resolve the cattle rustling problem, he might take a closer look at Jim Miller.  It was only after Miller shot yet another Mexican “trying to escape” that Frazer began his investigation.  Barney suggested that the Mexican was shot because he knew where Miller was hiding the stolen livestock.  Bud found the missing animals and promptly fired him.  This was the event that started the famed Frazer-Miller Feud[5].

Over in Fort Stockton, Andrew J. Royal was elected to serve as Sheriff of Pecos County and, perhaps on the good recommendation of Sheriff Bud Frazer, Royal hired Barney Riggs as one of his deputies.  As reported last week, Royal was one of those fellows who could fool some of the people most of the time.  In his two years in office, Royal made a transition from lawman to gangster, and it took the Texas Rangers and one very pissed off citizen to sort A. J. out.  When the matter of his corruption came to a head in 1894, just in front of the bi-annual election cycle, Texas Rangers arrested Royal and his deputies, Barney Riggs, Camilio Terrazas, and J. P. Meadows.  It was alleged that Royal had allowed a Mexican prisoner to “escape” from jail so that the Mexican could help Royal win votes within the Hispanic community in Pecos County.  Well, as it turned out, Royal lost the election in October 1894, and lost his life in November on account of the fact that a mysterious person shot gunned him to death while he was sitting inside his office.

By this time, Riggs had learned how to “go along to get along,” This is not always a winning strategy, however.  Over in Reeves County (next door to Pecos County), Riggs was arrested several time for public drunkenness, unlawfully carrying a firearm, and assault.  In March 1893, Riggs was indicted by a Reeves County grand jury for assault with intent to kill Augustin Palanco.  It was Augustin’s story that when he went over to the Riggs ranch to claim one of his burros, Riggs shot at him and then beat him about the head and shoulders.  This tidbit reminds us that no matter how long Mexicans have been liars, they’ve never been any good at it.  But since Riggs was acquitted of the charge, another possibility arises — which is that the Reeves County jury pool had an ethnic bias against Mexicans.

Not everything was peachy for brother-in-law Bud Frazer, either.  In May 1893, Frazer was out of town for some reason or another and town marshal Miller and his gunmen took over the town of Pecos.  It might have been the ideal setting for one of those made for television westerns in the 1950s.  Businesses were suffering because everyone was afraid to go into town out of fear for their safety — and this was long before traffic lights and stop signs.  Miller and his boys decided that when Frazer returned, they’d shoot him down and make it look as if he’d been hit by a stray bullet from a staged gunfight.  Frazer found out about this plan from an informant named Con Gibson.

Frazer contacted the Texas Rangers and when he arrived back in town, he was in the company of Captain John R. Hughes of the Texas Rangers.  Hughes arrested Miller and deputies Mannie Clements (Miller’s brother-in-law) and Martin Hardin and charged them with conspiracy to commit murder.  A grand jury indicted all three men on 7 September.  Because of the Frazer family influence in Reeves County, the trial was scheduled to take place in El Paso.  The primary witness in this case was Con Gibson who tried to outrun a bullet fired by John Denson over in Eddy, New Mexico.  Gibson lost the race.  Without Gibson’s testimony, there was no case against Miller and his henchmen.  The only consequence of this incident to Deacon Jim was that he lost his job as town marshal.  He bought a hotel in Pecos, instead.

Bud Frazer was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he wasn’t a coward, either.  On 18 April 1894, Frazer encountered Miller on the street in Pecos and shouted to him, “Miller, you’re a cattle rustler and a murderer.  Here’s one for Con Gibson!”  Frazer then drew his weapon and fired on Miller, striking him in his right arm.  Miller fired back, shooting a shopkeeper, instead.  Frazer then emptied his pistol into Miller’s chest.  Everyone was amazed that Miller was still alive when they carried him to his hotel — until they noticed he was wearing a metal breast plate under his long coat.  In November, Frazer lost the election and he moved over to Carlsbad, New Mexico where he opened a livery stable.

A second gunfight followed in December, with similar results, and for the same reasons.  Again, Frazer got the best of the gunplay, having shot Miller twice in the left arm, once in the leg, and twice in the chest — but Miller’s breast plate saved him again.  It was only then that Frazer figured out about the breast plate.  A lesson too late learned, perhaps.

In March 1895, a famed gunman-turned prisoner-turned lawyer arrived in Pecos to file charges against Bud Frazer for attempted murder on behalf of his brother-in-law, Deacon Jim Miller.  Frazer’s trial was scheduled to convene in El Paso.  Fortunately for Frazer, John Wesley Hardin was murdered in El Paso before the trial date and ultimately, Bud Frazer was acquitted.

Miller would have his revenge — and not only with Bud Frazer.  By this time, Barney Riggs was known as a dangerous gun-fighter.  He was also the man who exposed Miller’s involvement in cattle rustling.  But Barney Riggs was likely the only man Miller truly feared.  Miller was an assassin, however, in league with John Denson and Bill Earhart — all of whom were back-shooters.  While drinking in a saloon in Fort Stockton, a friend of Riggs overheard Denson and Earhart muttering threats against Barney.  When Deputy U. S. Marshal Dee Harkey learned of this, he telegraphed a warning to Riggs in Pecos that Denson and Earhart were looking for him.

When the two shooter arrived in Pecos, Riggs avoided them.  On 3 March, however, Riggs was working the bar in Johnson’s saloon when Denson and Earhart burst in and shot at Riggs.  Earhart’s shot grazed Riggs, who returned fire, killing Denson.  Riggs then grappled with Earhart, who was able to free himself and escape down the street.  Riggs stepped into the street and shot Earhart dead.  Riggs surrendered to the law, was tried for murder, and acquitted.

Bud Frazer wasn’t so lucky (or as skilled) as Riggs.  While visiting his family in Toyah, Texas, on 14 September 1896, Frazer was playing cards with friends in a saloon when Miller stepped inside the doorway and fired both barrels of his shotgun into Frazer, which nearly took his head off.  Later, Bud’s sister approached Miller with a firearm and Miller told her, “I’ll give you what your brother got — I’ll shoot you right in the face.”  Amazingly (or not) Jim Miller was acquitted of murder on account of the fact that “he had done no worse than Frazer.”[6]

Over the next several years, Barney Riggs continued living inside a whiskey bottle.  Annie finally tired of it and left him.  She purchased Koehler’s hotel and store in Fort Stockton.  She was granted a divorce in 1901 and it was this divorce, not Jim Miller’s vendetta, that would be Barney’s undoing.

Annie’s divorce settlement required that Barney Riggs pay her periodic child support payments.  The court ordered Daniel J. Chadborn (known as Buck) to handle the payments as trustee.  Buck was the 21-year-old husband of Annie Rigg’s daughter from a previous marriage.  Barney resented Buck’s involvement in the divorce, which was a contentious one, and loudly berated Buck whenever he found the opportunity.  Within a year, Buck petitioned the court to relieve him of the duty, which the court declined to do.  In April 1902, Barney took a cane to Buck and beat him thoroughly.  Barney intended to beat him again the next day, but Buck had had enough.  As Riggs raised his cane toward Buck Chadborn to strike him, Buck slapped leather and shot Riggs center chest.

Barney Riggs was buried in the Fort Stockton “old fort” cemetery — next to A. J. Royal.


  1. DeArment, R. K.  Deadly Dozen: Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
  2. James, B.  Jim Miller: The Untold Story of a Texas Badman.  Henington Publishing, 1989.
  3. Nash, R.  Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws.  Da Capo Press, 1994.


[1] Texas’ infamous 26th governor.

[2] Ohio-born James Coryell moved to Texas when he was 18 years of age.  In 1831, Coryell was a companion of James Bowie who made several explorations with the Bowie party in search of silver mines. He afterward traveled to Sarahville de Viesca (present day Falls County) where he served twice as a Texas Ranger.  Granted land in the area of present day Coryell County, James was killed in 1837 when attacked by hostile Caddo Indians.

[3] After 1960, a ghost town.

[4] Fred Dodge (1854-1938) was an undercover Wells Fargo detective, a Tombstone, Arizona constable, and a Texas cattleman.  Some say that Fred Dodge was a near look-a-like of Morgan Earp.  Dodge’s initial visit to Tombstone was in his official capacity as an  undercover agent.  He was looking for the thugs who robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches in Cochise and Pima County, Arizona.  He later worked with famed lawman Heck Thomas in hunting down the Doolin and Dalton Gang members.

[5] In 1892, Miller ran against Frazer for sheriff and lost.  Instead, Miller became the town marshal in Pecos, Texas and surrounded himself with gunmen, whom he hired as his deputies.  One of these men, John Denson, was related to John Wesley Hardin. 

[6] “Kill ‘in” Jim Miller was hanged by vigilantes in Ada, Oklahoma on 19 April 1909 for assassinating Allen “Gus” Bobbitt.  Bobbitt’s murder was arranged and paid by rival ranchers Jesse West, Joe Allen, and Berry Burrell.  

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Arizona Territory, Gunfights and such, History, Texas | 4 Comments

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.” 

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, History, Indian Territory, Justice, Society, Texas, Texas Rangers | 2 Comments

Cowboys in Neckties

Some background

The United States is a nation of immigrants.  Between 1580 and 1775, the population of Europeans went from zero to around 3.5 million.  They arrived in waves, of course, and the attitudes toward new arrivals vacillated between enthusiastic welcome and dark exclusion.  European settlements began to dot the Eastern seaboard in the early 1600s.  The Spanish settled Florida, the British in New England and Virginia, the Dutch in New York, and the Swedes in Delaware.  Some of these people came for religious reasons, others were drawn to the prospect of a new beginning, and some to escape poverty, landlessness, and authoritarianism.  The first arrivals laid claim to the best property nearest the seacoast; later arrivals claimed the western lands.  By the mid-1700s, much of the Eastern seaboard lands had been taken, which meant that later arrivals were forced further west, beyond the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and eventually, to its western slopes.

Western Frontier

Immigrants arriving in waves is a good analogy; there was a continuous influx of humanity, which forced the new Americans westward, always westward.  In this sense, the American frontier may have been more of a necessity than an inspiration.  Still, either way, it was a challenge to a people whose courage matched their determination.

I do not believe most of us can imagine the difficulty of the challenges facing the westward migrants. Severe injury and death were always “just around the corner.”  There were no doctors of any merit in those early days, so people who were seriously injured probably died from those injuries.  Disease was another major killer, along with drowning in the numerous streams, creeks, and rivers — particularly during seasonal floods.  Predatory animals posed a genuine concern, but they were of less concern to the Europeans than predacious Indians.

The frontiersmen moved westward in spurts; some of the settlers made a westward leap more than once.  Of course, the settlements were necessary for survival and unknown to the migrants, stepping stones toward the future.  The barely adequate settlements transitioned into villages, and then towns, and then cities and the ever-westward moving people became the seeds from which America flowered.  

In bits and pieces, the frontier shrank until finally, it disappeared completely.  Before then, just outside the villages and towns, within a few hundred meters, the wilderness resumed.  Today’s old west towns were once part of that American frontier — all of them at one time vibrant and alive with a wide variety of human beings.  Some of these people remained behind as the westward trek continued for others.  They put down their roots … at least for a time.  One of the oldest settlements (dating to 1775) was Tucson, Arizona, a major US city that flourishes.  A few miles away, to the southeast, there is another old town.  It isn’t as old as Tucson, of course, but it still exists — but only as a tourist trap.  They call it Tombstone (established in 1879).  Tres Alamos was a thriving town in 1875; it became one of many ghost towns in fourteen years.

Life was unbelievably difficult for many men and women who became the westward pioneers.  I am sure that the frontier men and women always did their best to raise their children, but there were occasions when their best simply wasn’t good enough.  Frontier families were always under a lot of stress.  Approaching their breaking point, angry fathers and mothers became disinterested in their children.  In some cases, the children were “just another place at the table.”  Daughters were “married off” at an early age.  Boys as young as twelve left home to find their way in the world.  In the mid-1800s, boys weren’t runaways — they were people looking for work.

Impact of the Civil War

Two million soldiers fought for the Union; 750,000 fought for the Confederacy.  Most of the men who fought, regardless of which uniform they wore, were farmers.  The average civil war soldier was in his early twenties.  If there was only one accomplishment of the American Civil War, it produced men capable of remorseless killing — a true statement no matter which side the soldier served.  When these young men returned to their homes, they found one of two things: destroyed homesteads or unemployment.  If things were wrong in the northern states, it was doubly so in the south.  Within the former Confederate states, reconstruction was nowhere more difficult than in Texas.

Whether they left home at an early age or returned home to destroyed communities, many of these boys emerged from their circumstances as troubled persons.  Most of them were entirely too susceptible to the harmful influences of their peers.  In almost every case, troubled young men turned into dangerous young men.

John Heath’s Master Plan

One such lad was a fellow named John Wesley Heath.  We don’t know much about his early years.  Some historians claim that he was born in Ohio in 1844; others say he was born in Texas in 1855, but according to “Find-A-Grave,” he was born in 1851 in Bowie County, Texas.  Either way, while living with his parents in Terrell, Texas, the teenaged John was implicated in two serious incidents: cattle rustling, and the other was armed robbery, although no one was ever charged.  It is uncertain whether the incident was related to a family enterprise.  When John was 20-years old, he married Jenny Ferrell, but their marriage is about all historians know about Miss Jenny.

Cochise County, Arizona, was a wild and dangerous place in the 1880s, and for several reasons.  The discovery of silver in Cochise Country drew thousands of prospectors and miners looking for that vein of ore that would make them rich.  To accommodate these men when they weren’t inside the mines, and to help them decide where to spend their money, dozens of saloons provided all the usual entertainments: rotgut whiskey, gambling tables, and painted ladies.  Such amusements were available around the clock.  The County was also rife with corrupt politicians, lawmen, and judges.  Opposing outlaw groups fought one another in the streets, and more than a few merchants were willing to do anything for a fast buck.

And then there was a loose collection of misfits and cowhands who individually and collectively posed a real danger to the innocent town folk.  They called themselves The Cowboys, easily identified by the red sash they wore around their waists.  They were dangerous men whose names were John Ringo, Billy Brocius, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury — to name a few.

Of all the criminal elements in Cochise County (the drunks, gamblers, cheats, and gunmen), the Cowboys were the worst of the lot — dangerous men who were bullies, thieves, and terrorists.  They operated with impunity in Southeast Arizona, aided and abetted by county lawmen.  They also made frequent raids into Mexico where they rustled cattle and horses, raped, pillaged local rancheros, and set fire to ranchos and graneros — warnings to the owners of Mexican haciendas not to resist their decadent behaviors.  The stolen cattle were often sold to butchers in Benson, Bisbee, Charleston, Douglas, and Tombstone, who made a good living by offering stolen meat to their town folk, which the townies were happy to buy at reduced prices.

John Heath (Pictured right) c.1880

John Heath was living in Bisbee, Cochise County, Arizona, in 1880, where briefly employed as a deputy sheriff.  The pay for this kind of work was relatively low, and the deputy’s duties mind-numbingly dull.  Low income and idle hands too often led old west lawmen, like John, to find other ways to line his pockets — in many cases, money earned by breaking the laws they were sworn to uphold.

Eventually, John Heath gave up his position as a deputy to open up a Bisbee saloon.  By every account, Heath made a good living in the entertainment industry.  The Cowboys were his frequent customers.  Of course, while John made good money, there was never enough, so John Heath sat down and thought about increasing his bottom line.  Assisting John were his good friends, fellows named James “Tex” Howard, “Big Dan” Dowd, Omer “Red” Sample, Billy DeLaney, and Dan “York” Kelly.

Since there was no bank in Bisbee, the Copper Queen Mine owners contracted with the Goldwater & Castaneda Mercantile Store to receive and store their payroll until dispensed to their employees. Typically, the monthly payroll money amounted to around $7,000.00, arriving in Bisbee one or two days in advance of the company’s scheduled “payday,” the tenth of each month.

Heath’s associates rode into Bisbee on the evening of 8 December 1883 and tethered their horses to the hitching rail outside the company’s smelter at the end of Main Street.  Tex Howard led two of the men into the store while two others remained outside.  Unlike the other boys, Tex had left his kerchief at home that day, so of the three, Tex was the only man the store clerk and customers could later identify.  Tex entered the store brandishing his pistol.  “I’ll be taking the mine payroll,” he announced.

The one snag in Heath’s plan, which came as a surprise to Tex Howard, was that the payroll was late to arrive.  Howard, who was known for his somewhat grumpy disposition, was not happy to hear this news.  He raised enough of a fuss that the two outside men quickly put on their face masks and ran inside.

Tex Howard forced the store owner to open his safe, which contained around $800 and a gold watch.  It was far less money than Howard expected and, since his mood hadn’t changed significantly, he decided to rob everyone inside the store, as well.  The two backup cowboys went back outside to “keep watch.”

Thanks to Howard’s cussing and shouting, the town folk were aware that something was going on inside the G & C store.  As local assayer, Mr.  J. C. Tappenier left the Bon Ton Saloon, which was next door to the mercantile store, one of the cowboys ordered him back inside.  Tappenier, who may have had a few too many drinks, belligerently answered, “I will not go back inside.”  One of the lookouts, armed with a rifle, shot Mr. Tappenier dead.

At that moment, Cochise County Deputy Sheriff D. T. Smith was having dinner with his wife at the Bisbee House, a local restaurant (which no doubt served stolen beef steaks).  Hearing the report of a rifle nearby, Deputy Smith rushed outside.  He saw Tappenier laying in front of the saloon and a cowboy standing not far away with a rifle.  Smith identified himself as a lawman and demanded to know what was going on.  The cowboy responded by shooting Smith, as well.

Mrs. Annie Roberts and her husband owned the Bisbee House restaurant.  Although with child, Annie waited tables.  She, too, heard the two rifle shots and went to the door to see what was going on.  The cowboy saw her in the doorway and shot her, as well.  The bullet killed her baby and severed her spine.  Local teamster John Nolly was, at that moment, standing next to his wagon when the cowboy shot him in the chest.  Both Nolly and Mrs. Roberts died later that evening.

With a bag full of loot, Tex Howard and his affiliates ran from the store and headed for their horses outside the smelter, shooting at everyone they saw.  Sheriff’s deputy Billy Daniels ran out of a saloon and emptied his pistol at the fleeing robbers but failed to hit anyone.  Tex and his four cohorts rode to a place known locally as Soldier’s Hole, and this is where they divided up their loot before going their separate ways.

Serving Old West Justice

Within a few minutes, Deputy Daniels dispatched riders to Tombstone to notify Cochise County Sheriff Jerome Ward of what had happened and then formed two posse groups to pursue the murderers.  Daniels deputized saloon owner John Heath, his friend, gambler Henry Frost, and a third man named Nathan Waite to lead the first posse.  At daybreak on 9 December, Daniels led the second posse, which soon overtook Heath’s group.  Heath informed Daniels that it appeared to him that the horsemen had split up.  Three horse tracks headed east, he said, and there was a sign that two horsemen had headed south toward Tombstone.  Daniels was skeptical but told Heath to take his men and follow the southward track.  Both groups lost the trail.  Heath and his men, with their horses exhausted, spent that night in Tombstone; Daniels and his posse returned to Bisbee in the evening.

On 10 December, Heath, Frost, and Waite met with under-sheriff Wallace in Tombstone and then returned to Bisbee.  The next day, Sheriff Ward arrested Heath and Waite as suspected accomplices in the robbery.  Ward released Waite after a few hours of interrogation but retained Heath in custody.  The basis for Heath’s arrest was that Deputy Daniels believed Heath misled him about the horse tracks going off in different directions.

Meanwhile, the Copper Queen Mine owners offered a $2,000.00 reward for the capture and conviction of the thieving, murdering cowboys.  It would not be easy to pinpoint all the robbers since 80% were wearing masks to conceal their identity.  Tex Howard, however, was rather quickly identified as one of the five desperados. It didn’t take Daniels long to identify the other four, however.  Tex Howard was a known associate of Heath and both Heath and Howard seen in the company of Dowd, Sample, DeLaney, and Kelly over at the nearby Buckles Ranch.

The first of the five outlaws arrested was York Kelly, taken into custody at Deming, New Mexico.  Tex Howard and Red Sample made the mistake of returning to their hangout in Clifton.  While in Clifton, Howard and Sample visited with their pal Walt Bush, who tended bar at a local saloon.  After a few drinks, Howard and Sample spoke of what they’d done, and Bush notified the town marshal.  Within a few days, lawmen arrested both men and placed them in jail.  Dowd and DeLaney made their escape to Sonora, Mexico.

Deputy Daniels rode to Sonora, working on a hunch where he soon determined that a gringo matching Dowd’s description was over in Los Corralitos, just outside Sonora — where Daniels arrested him.  A few days later, Daniels and Deputy Bob Hatch arrested DeLaney in the small Mexican town of Minas Prietas.  DeLaney was vacationing in a Mexican jail cell on account of getting into a fight with another fellow at a local cantina.  Given the reward, Mexican officials were happy to release DeLaney into Daniel’s and Hatch’s custody.

The Trial

William Herring

On 6 February, a county grand jury delivered indictments against Howard, Dowd, Sample, DeLaney, and Kelly.  The accused hired attorneys James Southard, Thomas Drum, F. V. Price, William Herring,[1] and Colonel Stanford to represent them.  Their trial began on 17 February 1884, and the evidence against the defendants was overwhelmingly conclusive.  Local town folk recognized four of the five either during the robbery or as they ran from the mercantile store.  The trial lasted for three days, after which the jury deliberated for about an hour before delivering their verdict: guilty of first-degree murder.  Upon hearing the jury’s verdict, Kelly reportedly remarked, “Well, boys, hemp seems to be trumps.”

Defense attorneys immediately moved for a new trial, but Judge Daniel Pinney denied the motion and proceeded to sentence.  All five men would hang.

John Heath requested a separate trial, which convened on 12 February.  William Herring represented him.  The prosecution was unable to produce a single witness who could tie Heath to the robbery. Herring offered the proposition that while his client undoubtedly knew the other defendants, there was no evidence that Heath had conspired with them to commit the robbery.  County Attorney Marcus Smith was resourceful, however.  Smith located a prisoner who could testify against Heath.  Sergeant L. D. Lawrence, assigned to the Third Cavalry Regiment, had been indicted for killing two men during a saloon brawl in Wilcox.  Jailers had placed Heath and the other defendants in Lawrence’s cell while awaiting trial.

Sergeant Lawrence offered courtroom testimony that he had overheard Heath and the others talking about the robbery and then moaning about how the plan had failed.  Herring questioned Lawrence about whether he had made a deal with Attorney Smith for a lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony.  Lawrence swore that he had not made any deals with Smith.[2]  In any case, Lawrence’s testimony was enough to secure a guilty verdict for second-degree murder.  Judge Pinney sentenced Heath to life in the Arizona Territorial Prison.

Post-Trial Vigilance Committee

It is definitely true that some men in the world do not, and never did, have a sense of humor.  The menfolk of Cochise County were among them, and they were not happy with Judge Pinney’s sentence.  On 21 February 1884, a large mob of armed men gathered in and around the saloons of Tombstone, Arizona, not far from where John Heath awaited his sentence.  There were several “committees” that, over some space of time, were reduced to one committee of seven elected men.  Their task was to enter the Tombstone courthouse, retrieve John Heath from his cell so that they could adequately consider an appeal of his sentence.

Heath Lynched

The County Jailer assumed that the loud knock at his door was from a Chinese cook scheduled to bring breakfast to the jailhouse.  When the jailer answered the knock, seven burly men forced themselves inside, pointing their guns at the sheriff and jailers.  The Committee of Seven convinced Sheriff Ward to release John Heath into their care.  No — they didn’t want those other five men; they’d only come for Heath.  Sheriff Ward put up a struggle to prevent Heath’s release, but it was to no avail.

With John Heath firmly in tow, the committee marched from the county jail/courthouse over to the intersection of First and Toughnut Street, stopping at the first telegraph pole encountered.  As one man climbed the telegraph pole and rigged it with a rope, Heath said to the men, “Boys, you are hanging an innocent man, and you will find this out before those other men are hung.  I have but one favor to ask: that you will not mutilate my body by shooting it after I am hung.”

Once the committee agreed not to mutilate his body, John Heath stopped struggling and allowed the men to place a blindfold over his eyes.  After placing the noose around his neck, the vigilance committee then began hauling his body up the telegraph pole where the gathered men could watch him strangle to death.  When it was certain that John Heath was dead, someone put a sign on the telegraph pole that read, in part: “John Heath was hanged to this pole by the citizens of Cochise County at 8:00 a.m. on 22 February 1884, Washington’s Birthday.  Advance, Arizona.”

Tombstone medical doctor and coroner George E. Goodfellow, apparently a man with a good sense of humor, listed the cause of death as “self-inflicted emphysema of the lungs.”  

Thus endeth the story of John Wesley Heath. As for the other boys — Heath’s playmates — they came to an end as well.  The town undertaker buried their remains in the Tombstone “Boot Hill” cemetery.  The execution of Howard, Dowd, Sample, DeLaney and Kelly was Tombstone’s first legal hanging — and the second, third, fourth, and fifth.  As brutal as the hangings might sound, none of these men ever again robbed or murdered anyone.


[1] William Herring was the father of Sarah Herring Sorin, Arizona’s first female attorney.  Some accounts identify Herring as a member of the Cochise County Vigilance Committee.  This would be very interesting,  if true.

[2] At Lawrence’s trial, he was represented by an attorney associated with Smith’s private law firm.  Appearing before Judge Pinney, Lawrence was convicted of manslaughter and served two years in the Arizona Territorial prison.

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Arizona Territory, Civil War, Colonial America, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Texas | 4 Comments

The Hillbilly Wars


The term “red neck” 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 regard 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.  Other terms include “hillbilly” for those living in Appalachia.

More recently, America’s so-called social elite have demonstrated a penchant for lumping all these honest, hard-working folks together as “simple people who prefer their bibles and guns.”  This term originated with former President Barack Obama, who isn’t one-hundred percent sure who his father was, so he invented a few scenarios to explain his lineage while seizing a presidential latitude in labeling others. 

Word associations are interesting things.  Mention the words Kentucky Hillbilly to most people, and they immediately think of feuding mountain folk.  Who hasn’t heard of the Hatfield-McCoy feud?  It has been the subject of stories and songs handed down for well over one-hundred years and fictionally recounted in Hollywood films and television series.

Early Kentucky

The original territory of Virginia was never quite as large as the Roman Empire, but it may have seemed that way to those who began their westward migration along the Wilderness Road.  At one time, Virginia consisted of portions of present-day Illinois, Southern Indiana, and Kentucky.

James Harrod founded the first European settlement in Kentucky in 1774 at the present-day site of Harrodsburg.  On 31 December 1776, an act of the Virginia General Assembly created the county of Kentucky from what was then termed the Ken-tuck-ee Territory.  The county seat was established at Oldtown (also, Harrod’s Town).  Additional counties were established after 1780, but each of these were centrally governed as Virginia’s District of Kentucky.  Between 1784 and 1792, people living in Kentucky held ten constitutional conventions, each one ending with a petition addressed to the either the Virginia General Assembly or the Confederation Congress for separation from Virginia and statehood.  One petition that had finally received the assent of the Virginia General Assembly was unfortunately introduced at about the same time the United States was attempting to secure ratification of the new Constitution, which delayed consideration for Kentucky statehood.

On 18 December 1789, Virginia once more gave its consent for Kentucky statehood; the US Congress gave its approval on 4 February 1791, and Kentucky became the fifteenth state of the Union on 1 June 1792.  Virginian Isaac Shelby became Kentucky’s first Governor.

Ranked as the United States’ 37th largest state in total area, a significant portion of the state is located in Appalachia, also known as the Cumberland Plateau.  It is into this region that many of Kentucky’s earliest migrants settled.  If any part of early America could be called a wilderness, Appalachia is that place.  It is rugged, isolated, and in the 1770s, a thoroughly dangerous place for white settlers.  According to one government report in 1790, Kentucky Indians killed fifteen-hundred settlers between 1783 and 1789.  Hostilities increased dramatically as hundreds of settlers made their westward journey over the Wilderness Road.

Generally, the term Appalachia refers to a geographical area that extends from the southern tier of New York to northern Alabama and Georgia.  The mountain region, however, stretches from Belle Isle, Canada to Cheaha Mountain in Alabama and includes the Blue Ridge and Great Smokey mountains.  Whenever we think of this region, we are likely to imagine a self-sufficient pioneer with a full beard, long scraggly hair, dressed in buckskin clothing, wearing a coonskin hat, and carrying a long rifle.  What we know of Daniel Boone fits this image, but he was but one of thousands who pioneered early America’s western frontier.


Appalachia is a vast area that is defined geographically and culturally.  As a region of the United States, the Appalachian Mountains separated early western settlements from well-established eastern civilizations.  The high mountains, craggy ridges, and deep valleys not only separated early settlers from their “eastern betters,” they also had the effect of isolating Appalachian settlements from one another.  The people who settled this region were tough hombres; it was either that, or they were soon dead — noting that not all of the sturdiest of folks survived, either.

Once known as the “back country,” settlers developed their own unique culture.  They were independent, stubborn to a fault, prone to violence, and steadfast in their desire to be left alone to pursue life as they saw fit.  Used to the hard life with few amenities, they were fighters who recognized native populations as “the enemy.”  They were the sort of people who never hesitated helping George Rogers Clark eradicate the British and their Indian allies during the Revolutionary War.  They were also the kind of people who participated in the Whiskey Rebellion.

Between 1790 and 1810, deep animosities developed that pitted mountain folk and yeoman farmers against the wealthy low-landers.  It was, after all, the people from the low lands who controlled the legislature, who had the power to impose what seemed to the mountain folk as arbitrary taxes, which they steadfastly ignored.  There could not be a greater difference in these two groups.  The low-landers expected to make money from the land; mountain folk simply wanted to live on it — and be left alone to find their own way.

Before 1861, the primary industry in eastern Kentucky came from the production of salt.  After 1865, the quest for land literally exploded as timber companies, miners, and railroads worked their way into Appalachia.  Lumber operations and mines demanded far more labor than was available, so thousands of new immigrants to the United States found their way into eastern Kentucky.  The railroads not only offered job opportunities to migrants, but they also helped to transport them into the emerging west.

None of the foregoing activities made the mountain folk very happy, of course, but then, it would be difficult to describe the mountaineers as a cheerful lot.  They were more obstinate and quarrelsome than almost everyone else — which over time prompted outsiders to label them as “simple folks.”

About those feuds

There are some historians and sociologists who blame the Civil War for the Kentucky feuds, and while this may be partly true, it doesn’t explain hostilities that were ongoing long before the Civil War.  Nor can we make the argument that the feuds were carry-overs from the old country.  I rather think that it was a different time, when men were honor-bound to seek justice by their own hand rather than within a fledgling and largely ineffective legal system in the emerging United States.  Mountain folk lived according to rules handed down to them through many generations.

The early frontier Americans living in the western sections of Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas were extremely poor people who worked hard to put simple meals on their family’s table — and about all they had to call their own was their land and their sense of family honor.  Since most business arrangements were sealed with a handshake, violating such protocols were likely to result in violent behavior.  If a man was found to be a liar, a thief, or a coward, frontier society shunned him.  To question a man’s honesty, to cast aspersions on his character or that of any member of his family was an invitation to swift retribution.  A life taken demanded Old Testament reprisals and no man was respected who would not stand up for himself or his family.

Between 1820 and 1932, deadly feuds erupted in the hills of Eastern Kentucky and spread like a wild fire.  They were so bad that local government became ineffective and the enforcement of laws all but impossible.  Governors were called upon to send state troops to protect lives and allow jurisdictional courts to do their work.  A border dispute between Kentucky and West Virginia nearly erupted in a state war.  The challenge for historians is separating fact from fiction, but for almost everyone else, it’s pure entertainment — including an American rendition of the Romeo-Juliet relationship that developed between the Hatfield and McCoy families.  In any case, while the eastern press and social highbrows described this particular feud as having taken the lives of one-hundred men, the number of men killed was closer to about a dozen.[1]  In addition to those losses, nine of the Hatfield’s were imprisoned, seven of them for life, and one Hatfield was executed.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud lasted from 1863 to 1891, but there were other feuds that never received the interest of the press (selective journalism always rules in the newspaper business), and several of these were much worse.  Many — but not all, were part of the aftermath of the American Civil War, which, when one thinks about it for a while, wasn’t very civil.

The Hill-Evans Feud began around 1824 and ended with the shooting death of Hezekiah Evans in 1862.  According to historian Sandra Norris, bad feelings developed between two medical doctors — one, Dr. Hezekiah Evans, and the other Dr. Oliver P. Hill — we simply aren’t sure why bad feelings developed.  There are several accounts of the feud, written by individuals with family connections to the combatants, but a reasonable person must question the accuracy of subjectively written family histories.

The Tobacco Barn fight of 1854 began with the Hill family.  The Hills were in the process of relocating the family of John Brown from Nina to Scotts Fork in Garrard County.  Later in the day, the Hill group returned from William Teaters’ tavern where they spent the afternoon drinking Kentucky whisky.  On the way back to wherever they started from, they passed by the Evans Tobacco Barn, and they thought it would be fun to shoot into the barn.  The problem was that John Sellars, James Alverson (John’s uncle), Sam Sellars (John’s brother), and William Chrisman were working inside the barn at the time.

In the opening salvo, a bullet struck William Chrisman in the abdomen.  Alverson received a bullet wound to his wrist.  Both Chrisman and Alverson were unarmed.  John Sellars returned fire and killed Russ and Fred Hill.  Sellars then ran down Isaiah Hill and killed him, too.  Isaiah’s son Samuel shot Sellars six times, and to make sure he was dead, John Brown ran over to his body and thrust a knife into his chest.

After dispatching Sellars, William Hill assaulted the wounded Chrisman and finished him off by shooting him at close range.  William then returned to Sellars’ remains and mutilated them.  Despite the depravity of the assault, no one was ever stood trial for the Tobacco Barn murders.

The Cattle War

Brothers James and Hugh White settled in Manchester, Kentucky between 1802-1804.  They purchased the Collins/Outlaw Salt Works and started up a successful mercantile store.  The Whites had been involved in the manufacture of salt in Virginia, having moved there from Pennsylvania.  After the Kentucky legislature created Clay County, they appointed Hugh White to serve as a circuit judge.  James and Hugh, along with salt man John Amis, donated ten acres of land for the new county seat, which they named Greenville (later, Manchester).  The Kentucky legislature later appointed Hugh White to serve as a brigadier general of state militia (1810).  Hugh White built his home along Goose Creek on the East Fork.  These facts illustrate the prominence of the White family in early Kentucky.  

John Amis was born on 5 April 1773 in Bladen, North Carolina.  In 1792, he married Katherine Bolling, from Rogersville, Tennessee.  Amis served as a volunteer soldier during the Indian removal campaigns, eventually achieving the rank of captain.  In 1806, Amis was living along the Kentucky River’s Middle Fork.  He owned a quarter share in the Goose Creek Salt Works, with John White retaining control over 75% of the salt works.

While hunting for elk on his property, in an area where his cattle were wintering, Amis discovered some cattle from North Fork farms grazing on his land.  Irate, Amis proceeded to stab twenty or so head of cattle and drive them into the water where they eventually died.  It was not a very prudent course of action, but I did mention that John was in a foul mood that day.

One of the cattle owners was William Strong.  Upon learning about the destruction of his property, William sent a letter to Judge Hugh White of the newly created Clay County Court asking for lawmen to deal with the problem.  Judge White’s reply was brief: “You have got yourself into trouble, get out of it if you can, for I will not come to your assistance or send a single man.”

With no interest from the government in helping to settle this matter, North Fork cattlemen decided to take matters into their own hands.  Strong organized twelve men from the Stacey, Davidson, Lewis, Bolling, Eversole, Callahan, Cornett, Lewis, and Begley clans, who along with Joel Elkins, went to the Amis homestead to address the matter.

John Amis wasn’t at home when the men arrived, but they informed his wife “Kate” that they intended to make good on their losses.  The Strong group then proceeded to shoot Amis’ horse, set his hay barn on fire, and helped themselves to twenty head of Amis’ cattle.  Then, as a further demonstration of their indignation, Peter Stacey smacked Kate in the face with the butt of his rifle as the men were leaving the Amis property.

If Peter and his friends were angry, it was nothing compared to Kate Amis’ rage.  She called for one of her Negro men to follow the assailants, gave him a rifle, and instructed to shoot the bastards if he got a chance.  Along the way back to North Fork, Peter Stacey became aware that someone was following the Strong Posse.  At a turn in the road, Stacey concealed himself alongside the road and as the slave came in sight, shot him dead.

When John Amis returned home, he and his brother-in-law John Gilbert, organized a company of thirty men to go to North Fork and put things right.  Since no one in Appalachia can keep a secret, William Callahan learned that Amis was leading a party to North Fork.  Strong recalled his men and set them in at the mouth of the Lick Branch, where they concealed themselves.  As Amis’ party began to cross the river, the Strong group opened fire, killing a couple of horses and wounding two of Amis’ men.  In the melee that followed, John Gilbert was captured.  Some of Strong’s men wanted to kill Gilbert, but Strong would not allow it on account of the fact that he was a preacher.

Eventually, Amis and Strong agreed to end the fighting and settle the matter in court.  On the first day of the trial, 15 August 1807, Joel Elkins entered the court room while Amis was giving testimony and shot him dead.  In addition to being affiliated with William Strong, Joel Elkins was an employee of the Goose Creek Salt Works.  When Amis was killed, Hugh White paid Kate for her husband’s share of the Goose Creek Salt Works.

Baker/Garrard-White/Howard Feud

The Cattle War of Clay County set into motion the blood feud that eventually involved the Baker and Garrard families against the White and Howard families.  It was one of the deadliest and longest-lasting feuds in United States History.

The salt works industry began in earnest after Colonel Daniel Garrard[2] migrated to Goose Creek in 1806 and established the Buffalo Lick Salt Works.  Competition among the owners and operators of the salt works companies evolved into differences in local and state politics, which was, more often than not, contentious, angry, and vindictive.  Because of the Cattle War, Manchester, Kentucky was already a lively town — by which I mean to suggest volatile.  Amateur historians in Kentucky claim that the state legislature created Clay County because the region was already a disaster in the making and it was believed that a strong county government would be necessary to control the animosity that existed among the town’s founding members.

Abner Baker, Jr., was the son of Captain Abner Baker.  Baker Sr. was a long-term resident of Clay County with service as a captain of the militia and clerk of the county court.  Baker Jr., was the youngest of several siblings, noted from a young age as having a good intellect, and was always popular among his peers.  After a few years’ service in the United States Navy, around 1834, Baker Jr., returned home to serve as Clerk of the Clay County Court and Clerk of the Judicial Circuit Court.  In 1836, he decided to pursue medical training and received his physician’s certification in 1839 … the year in which Dr. Abner Baker, Jr., began to display bizarre, unexplained, and unprovoked violent behavior.  Beyond threatening students at the medical college, he seemed to have developed paranoia.  For example, he would awaken during the night and search his home with lit candles looking for intruders — even in closets and cupboards.

Abner practiced medicine in Knoxville, Tennessee but eventually returned to Manchester.  Soon after, Dr. Baker married Miss Susan White, the daughter of James White.  According to more than a few observers, “It was with his marriage and connection to the White family that he established a relationship with people whose associates, character and disposition were the antitheses of his own manner of life.”  Dr. Baker’s father formed the opinion that in his son’s decision to marry Susan White, he must “clearly be deranged.”   

Dr. Baker married Susan White in 1844 — at a time when most people in Manchester believed that Dr. Baker was a few bubbles off plumb.  He in fact did behave erratically, displayed a bad temper, and his paranoia was ever-present.  Not long after their marriage, Baker began making accusations against Susan, calling her promiscuous, alleging that Daniel Bates, the husband of Susan’s sister, had carried out an  illicit affair with Susan, and that Bates conspired with her to kill him.  During one of his incoherent confrontations, Dr. Baker took out his pistol and mortally wounded Bates.  While Daniel Bates lay on his death bed, he directed his son to take revenge on Baker and see that he was either prosecuted or killed.

Afterward, Baker surrendered to the Garrard family, who escorted him to the justice of the peace.  Witnesses from both sides testified that they believed Baker was insane at the time of the shooting.  His custody was transferred to both of his brothers, both of whom were physicians.  Abner was quickly sent to Cuba for “recovery.”  Meanwhile, the Bates family persuaded the commonwealth attorney to seek an indictment of murder, which was rendered, and Governor William Owsley offered a reward for the arrest and return of Dr. Baker for trial.  Abner’s brothers knew none of this, so that when Abner was brought back from Cuba, he was arrested and held for trial.

The trial began in early July 1845, and it was nothing if not salacious.  That Baker shot Bates was never in question.  The White family claimed that Baker’s marriage to Susan was contrived so that he could access their family’s wealth.  Some witnesses claimed he was clearly crazy; others testified that he was as sane as anyone.  Witnesses for Baker claimed that Daniel Bates had threatened Baker with his life.  A team of alienists claimed that Baker was, in fact, mentally disturbed.  After a short deliberation, the jury found Baker guilty of murder.  The Bates-White families gathered more than two-hundred armed men to surround the jail to ensure that Baker-Garrard sympathizers did not try to break Dr. Baker out of jail.  On 3 October 1845, the State of Kentucky hanged Dr. Abner Baker.

The implications of the Baker trial were significant.  The Baker-Garrard families and their allies claimed that if Governor Owsley allowed the sentence carried out, then he would be guilty of murdering an insane man.  They also claimed that Bates/White/Howard conspired with Governor Owsley to deny Baker a stay of execution so that he could be examined by a lunacy board.  Whether true, Owsley did refuse to pardon Baker.

In 1849, William Baker, the son of Sarah and Boston B. Baker, was accused of murdering Frank Prewitt, a local shoe-maker.  William went to trial in Manchester with the support of the Garrard family, who hired big name lawyers from outside Kentucky.  For all that effort, William was sent to the gallows on 15 January 1850.  Before his execution, the serene William asked those gathered to watch him die not to forget Job Allen, Adonriam Baker, and Robert Hays for giving false testimony against him.  He also said, “And remember, James White has too much money for a man like me to live.”  Five years later, on her deathbed, Matilda Prewitt, Frank’s wife, admitted to killing her husband.

In 1856, the Garrard family backed Mr. John Bowling for the office of county jailer, and he won the election.  But six months later, Bowling was found shot to death.  The evidence in this case pointed to Edward White.  White was taken into custody, went to trial, and a jury composed mostly of members of the White Clan found him not guilty.

The Civil War and Beyond

During the Civil War, foragers from both sides interrupted life in Manchester.  The Confederates were interested in the salt, and the Union was interested in keeping it away from them.  To achieve that, the Union Army destroyed Clay County’s salt works in 1862 and did so even though one of the Union’s more celebrated generals owned the Union Salt Works, Brigadier General T. T. Garrard, a grandson of former Governor James Garrard.

Theophilus Garrard recruited men from Manchester in 1861 to organize the 3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment (later renamed the 7th Kentucky Volunteers) and led them in battles outside of Kentucky.  While these men served away from home, the Confederate Army gained the upper hand in Clay County, adding disorder to the usual chaos.  Resentments developed toward the Confederates, of course, but also long-term anger directed toward the White-Howard families, who some claimed supported the Confederate cause.

In 1866, the Clay County Judge was Beverly White.  The Commissioner of Schools was John E. White.  Will White served as the County Clerk.  John G. White served as the County Sheriff.  One afternoon, an argument erupted between Jack Hacker, Dale Lyttle, and Sheriff White.  Hacker and Lyttle were angry because of Sheriff White’s bullying.  Will and Daugh White soon joined the argument on the side of John.  Someone pulled out a pistol and when the smoke cleared, Jack and Dale lay dead on the floor.  Sheriff White, County Clerk White, and Daugh White surrendered to the County Judge Beverly White, who released all three men before sundown.  The Baker-Garrard clans were furious because Dale Lyttle was a family member.  Tom Baker, reputed to be the best rifle shot in Clay County, had married Dale’s sister, Emily.

Some citizens had tired of the White family’s control over the Clay County government.  Granville Philpot, who was part of the Baker-Garrard faction, was able to win election to the state assembly in 1896.  Whether he accomplished this fete through popular election or popular intimidation is unclear.  T. T. Garrard called the clan together for a strategy session and discussions about how to “take back” the county offices.  The meeting included the patriarchs of the Baker, Webb, McCollum, and Philpot clans.

But Bev White had no intention of giving up his office.  He also called a meeting, attended by the Howard, Hall, Benge, and Griffin families.  The Griffin family had its own feud going on with the Philpot family.  In the county elections that followed, Judge White won re-election, Jim Howard became sheriff, and George Baker, Tom Baker’s father, was elected as County Attorney.  The White-Howard faction managed to retain control of the courthouse.

Judge White scheduled another clan meeting for the afternoon of 7 August 1897.  That morning, deputy sheriff George Hall and former revenue officer Holland Campbell met Charles Wooten on the road near Manchester.  Wooten was riding with John and Anse Baker.  Hall assumed that Wooten and Baker were traveling en route to the courthouse to disrupt Judge White’s meeting.  Shooting erupted when one of the men pulled a gun.  In this melee, Anse Baker received a gunshot wound and his horse was killed.  The following night, unidentified men set fire to George Hall’s home and Holland Campbell’s store in Pin Hook.

Soon after, Sheriff Howard named Anse and Tom Baker as suspects in the arson and had them arrested.  Tom swore that he was miles away from the Pin Hook area and had witnesses to back his story.  T. T. Garrard bailed Tom and Anse Baker out of jail.  A trial was held in February 1898 and both men were acquitted of the charges.  Judge White, who was unhappy about the acquittal, started an argument with John Baker, and this devolved into a fistfight that worked its way out of the courthouse into the street.  The Bakers mounted their horses and headed out for Crane Creek.

According to the journal of T. T. Garrard, in April 1898, Bal Howard had suffered a financial collapse which forced him to sell his timberland property.  At the time, Garrard’s son James was serving as the auditor’s agent and the state placed a bid on the Howard property.  The problem was that the Baker family laid claim to some of the timber.  Jim Howard indicated that he could solve the problem by killing James Garrard.[3]  Tom Baker rode his horse over to the river one morning where Bal Howard was working on a raft and suggested that the matter could be solved easily enough if Bal Howard simply paid him the money owed — a sum of about $15.00.  Howard claimed that he didn’t owe Baker any money.  The fight started when someone in the Howard group pulled out a weapon.  Tom Baker threw an auger (hand drill) at Bal Howard, missed, and then clubbed him with his sidearm.  Israel Howard fired his weapon at Tom, which inflicted a flesh wound.  Corbin Howard and Jesse Barrett jumped in to defuse the situation, but tempers were already flaring.  Tom then departed from the scene of the incident without further injuries.

Later, after hearing about this incident, Jim Howard went to see George Baker (Tom’s father) to propose a truce and the two men reached an agreement and shook hands on it.  No one on Crane Creek knew about this agreement, however, so the next day, as members of the Baker and Howard families were on opposite sides of the river preparing logs for transportation downstream, gunfire erupted from the Baker side of the river.  Burch Stores was shot in the head, Wilson Howard fell mortally wounded, and Bal Howard was shot in the chest while astride his horse and was able to escape further injury.  Before succumbing to his wounds, Wilson Howard identified the shooters as Charlie Wooten, Jesse Barrett, and Wiley Baker.

Although badly wounded, Bal Howard escaped the fight, along with the Shackleford brothers and John Lewis.  When Jim Howard had learned of this shooting, he was furious because of his earlier agreement with George Baker to stop the fighting.  Jim Howard mounted his horse and went looking for George.  Finding him on the road to Manchester, Howard ordered Baker to dismount.  As George slid off his horse, Jim Howard fired his rifle, the bullet at close range went through Baker’s horse and struck him in the abdomen.  George died the next day.[4]

Jim Howard rode over to Burning Springs and surrendered to sheriff’s deputy Will White.  Howard spent the night with the White family and the next morning Will took him to Judge Brown, who released Howard without bail with orders to return to his home on Crane Creek.  To ensure Howard’s safety, Judge Brown assigned forty deputized men to guard the Howard home while awaiting the initial hearing.  Brown’s plan didn’t prevent snipers from shooting into the Howard home, however, so Brown ordered Howard escorted to Harlan County for safekeeping at the home of Barry Howard.

Meanwhile, the situation in Manchester was getting worse.  The Garrard family demanded the immediate trial of Jim Howard for killing George Baker, and the White-Howard factions demanded the trial of Tom Baker for the river killings.  George Baker had fifteen sons; Tom Baker had 13 sons.  The threat was ever-present, but of course, not every Garrard-Baker/Howard-White man was involved.

When the Howard family attempted to bury their dead, concealed snipers began shooting at them in the cemetery.  None of George Baker’s sons appeared at his funeral — probably on account of the fact that they were all over at the cemetery trying to shoot the Howard family.  No one knows for certain who the shooters were, though.

Sometime later, while engaged in his tax collection duties, sheriff’s deputy Will White came upon Tom Baker and Jim Helton near the mouth of Jim’s Branch.  It was where Will White met his end as the recipient of one of Tom’s bullets.  George and Lucretia Goforth heard the shots and hurried down the road to see what was going on.  They found Will White laying along the side of the trail and as Lucretia tried to aid Will, he told her that Tom Baker had killed him.

Will White was not a popular man in Clay County.  Beyond the fact that he was a tax collector, he was also a mean-tempered drunk and a bully — but he was one of the White’s and people remembered when he jumped on old Tish Philpot and beat him up.  It wasn’t long before more than a hundred men were walking around inside Manchester with their rifles in hand.  On 24 June 1898, a sniper shot and killed John Howard.  On 1 July, Tom Baker was acquitted for the river murders; witnesses testified he was nowhere near the river on that day.  Two days later, Gilbert Garrard (T. T. Garrard’s son) and his wife were fired upon while on the way to church.  The couple soon moved to Pineville to get out of the way, but not without incident.  Both of the men he hired as armed guards were killed in a second assassination attempt.

On 8 July, T. T. Garrard, bailed John Baker out of jail over in Barbourville.  Wagging tongues thought it was so that John could help kill members of the Howard clan.  Both John Baker and Jesse Barrett were acquitted of murder charges in Clark County.

Tom Baker didn’t fare quite as well in the murder trial of Will White.  A jury found Baker guilty as charged and the judge sentenced him to life in prison.  Baker’s lawyers immediately appealed the conviction, and it was overturned.  After Baker’s release, he was re-arrested pending a second trial.  T. T. Garrard arranged for bail and Baker was released.  The Court Clerk set Baker’s second trial for June 1899.[5]

On 20 July 1898, law officers Felix Davidson and Daugh White detained John Baker and Frank Clark as they were en route to meet with T. T. Garrard.  A coroner later reported that John had been shot 32 times, and Frank eleven times.

A final “battle” occurred in 1901 when the two clans fought a hellacious gunfight in front of the Manchester court house.  When everyone ran out of bullets, the two sides signed a peace treaty, and the Clay County War came to an end … almost.  The last murder relating to the Baker-White feud occurred in 1932.  In total, 150 men died in hostilities that lasted more than 90 years.


  1. House, C.  Clay County: Highlights of the 18th and 19th Centuries.  Online publication, Clay Families Organization.
  2. Logan, S.  The Strange Case of Dr. Abner Baker, Jr.  Kentucky Historic Institute Organization, 2019.
  3. Tabler, D.  Appalachian History: John Amis and the Kenturcky River’s South Fork.  Online Publication, history network.


[1] If the feuds seem worse than they actually were, there is no one to blame more than the press, who embellished events for the purpose of selling newspapers.  Journalism was never a respected profession — and still isn’t.

[2] Daniel Garrard was the older brother (by thirteen years) of James Garrard, who served two terms as Kentucky’s second governor.

[3] The logic of this escapes me.

[4] Clay County Sheriff Jim Howard was arrested and convicted of Baker’s murder.  One persistent rumor was that Jim Howard was offered a pardon in the Baker murder if he would also assassinate Governor William Goebel.  The only evidence that Jim White accepted the offer is that Governor Goebel was assassinated, and Jim Howard eventually received a governor’s pardon.

[5] On the order of Governor Will Bradley, a company of state militia (with a Gatling gun), went to Manchester where Baker’s second trial was to be held.  Baker was placed inside a guard-tent just outside the courthouse where he was surrounded by a squad of soldiers.  A hundred yards or so from this tent, at the foot of a wooded outcrop, stood the unoccupied “official residence” of the County Sheriff.  A sniper hidden inside the house shot and killed Tom Baker and then made good his escape.  Shortly after Baker’s death, four members of the Griffin family, also aligned with the White-Howard faction, ambushed “Big John” Philpots and his cousin, severely wounding the former and killing the latter.  Despite his wounds, John fought them from behind a log and killed all four assailants.

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