Three-Legged Willie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


Posted in History, Justice | 4 Comments

An Overlooked Lawman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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The Hoodoo War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wohrle answered, “Because I had to…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

(Continued from last week)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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Exit of the Scalawags

COKE RichardThe election of Richard Coke[1]as governor changed the course of Texas for the next 120 years.  Completely fed up with the Reconstruction government imposed by federalists, Texans tossed out E. J. Davis (who initially refused to give up his office) and elected a man who would begin to respect the will of the people of Texas.

To understand the attitudes of Texans toward the so-called Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and Negroes (by which was generally meant the so-called Buffalo Soldiers), we have to appreciate the fact that there was nothing pleasant about post-Civil War Reconstruction in Texas.  The term “carpetbagger” was a pejorative term applied to individuals who relocated to the South after the Civil War, including white Northerners, black freedmen, and former slaves.   They were mostly members of the radicalized Republican party formed in 1867.  Texans regarded these people as corrupt adventurers seeking advantages to themselves following the defeat of the Confederacy.  The term carpetbagger comes from the suggestion that their property consisted only of what they could carry in the carpet bags (suitcases made of carpeting).  It was widely believed, with some justification, that they came to Texas to seize political power and plunder Texans who were then living under the thumb of the triumphant federal government.  Whether this assessment is actually correct is beside the point: these attitudes remained with Texans through the mid-1990s.

During the period of radical Republican rule, Texas society was chaotic and lawless.  Between 1865 and 1868, there were 939 murders; of these, 40 involved whites killing whites, 373 were whites killing blacks, 10 involved blacks killing whites, and 57 murders involved blacks killing blacks.  These figures did not include the entire state, however, since many counties refused to file reports with the Reconstruction government.  According to various sheriff’s reports between 1865 and 1871, there were 4,425 crimes committed with only 588 arrests —and few convictions.  Only 82 Texas counties had jails, and many of these were easily escaped.  The Police Act of 1870 authorized a state police force of 257 men, but the actual number never exceeded 200.  State policemen included blacks, Hispanics, and whites. Some of these men fought for preservation of the union, others were Confederates; some of these officers were good lawmen, others were themselves criminals.  Most were affiliated with the Republican Party.  The fact that the state police employed black officers, some of whom were former slaves, and controlled by the hated reconstruction governor Edmund J. Davis, irritated Texans to no end.  As governor, Davis consistently supported political programs that restricted the rights of secessionists and expanded rights for blacks, therefore intensifying racism in Texas.  As we have seen in our social development, racial bias is a disease that is difficult to cure.

After the Texas legislature had (according to one author), “…cleansed itself or carpetbaggers, scalawags, and negroes, and went democratic,” one of its first acts was the dissolution of the state police. As an example of how serious the situation was in Texas, when Richard Coke was overwhelmingly elected governor, Davis barricaded himself on the second story of the state house and undertook to retain his office by force until he could appeal to president Ulysses S. Grant for military aid.  Democratic legislators occupied the first floor and laid siege to Governor Davis.  When Grant refused to interfere, Davis yielded his office to Coke, and Democrats began to disassemble everything Davis had done as chief executive.

One of the first things Governor Coke did was provide for the adequate protection of the Texas frontier[2].  In his inaugural address, Governor Coke emphasized the need to protect the frontier, which led to the legislature passing a bill providing for six companies of Texas Rangers, consisting of 75-men each.  The name of this organization was to be known as the Frontier Battalion; James B. Jones was appointed Major-Commanding officer. Major Jones would be responsible to the State Adjutant General and the Governor.

JONES JBThe forty-year-old Major Jones, of Corsicana, Texas, received his commission on 2 May 1874.  Dr. Webb tells us, “It is quite certain that Governor Coke could not have found in all of Texas a man more competent for the difficult job ahead.”  He was not a large man; he was of slight stature, about five feet, eight-inches tall, and weighing about 135 pounds.  What he did have was a sense of command presence and dignity such that no one ever thought of him as “small.”  His hair and eyes were raven black, which contrasted with his fair, though weather-beaten face.  He always wore a dark, well-kept suit, a white shirt with black bow tie.  His appearance was accentuated by his full dark mustache and his twinkling eyes.

Major Jones had one preeminent characteristic: his manners and his tact.  It was this character that allowed Jones to go into are area filled with dangerous, volatile men, and find peace where there had been serious conflict.  Along with his tact was a deep intelligence and judgment that was never better illustrated than in the post-Civil War period. His own people were hot-blooded Southerners who hated the fact that the South has lost the war.  His family convinced Jones to make a trip to South America and investigate the possibility of relocating there.  Upon his return, he was able to convince his family that migration was a bad idea.  He told his father, “… we could never be happy there; it is overridden with priests and the social conditions unpredictable and unseemly.”

John B. Jones had only two vices: sponge cake and coffee, but his preference for the latter was out of necessity.  Forced to consume green and stagnated water along the trail, Jones found that consuming liquid was far more palatable when made into coffee, which he drank black.

Within thirty days of the formation of the Frontier Battalion, Major Jones had placed five companies of Texas Rangers in the field. In thirty more days, he had the full complement of his battalion on active duty within the counties of the Texas frontier.  Many of his men were young and inexperienced, but his patience, energy, and exacting standards soon brought them into peak condition.  His point of view was from that of a commanding general, and while men such as Leander McNelly were fine captains, Jones behaved himself as if a flag rank officer—one that led his men from the front, rather than from an arm chair in the state capital.

(To be continued)


[1]Richard Coke (March 18, 1829 – May 14, 1897) was a lawyer, farmer, and statesman from Waco, Texas, the fifteenth governor of Texas (1874-1876) and a member of the United States Senate (1877-1895).

[2]Prior to the Civil War, Texans refused to create a permanent force of Texas Rangers after 1846 believing that the duty of protecting the border belonged to the central government.  The Civil War, however, and the reconstruction period, permanently altered all relationships between the people of Texas and the federal authority.  Walter Prescott Webb has stated, “If the Civil War emancipated the slaves, so did Reconstruction emancipate the Texans from dependence on the federal arm.”

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The Red Raid, 1875

Texas StarLast week, Captain Leander H. McNelly spoke to you through his own words of 143 years ago.  McNelly’s official report of the Palo Alto Prairie War wasn’t the only rendition of what happened that day. Texas Ranger Private William Crump Callicott was born on 8 November 1852 at Pattison, then Austin County, now Waller County.  William’s middle name was chosen to honor William E. Crump, Speaker of the House of Representatives, first legislature on 16 February 1846.  William’s mother and her first husband, Jacob Pevehouse, migrated to Texas as part of Stephen F. Austin’s first colony (1824).  Pevehouse settled near San Felipe de Austin. Pevehouse was killed in an accident while working on the roof of his home.  His widow then married James Callicott, but she died in 1854 leaving four children in the care of her second husband.

Callicott WC 001Bill Callicott served under Captain John R. Waller, Major John B. Jones, and Captain Leander H. McNelly.  Callicott served with the Rangers until 30 November 1875, when he was mustered out with an honorable discharge.  He passed away in Houston, Texas on 10 June 1926; on the date of his passing, hardly anyone knew who Bill Callicott was, or what he’d seen as part of the Frontier and Special Forces Battalions, Texas Rangers.

Bill Callicott’s story, as told to author Walter Prescott Webb before his death, provides a keen insight into how Leander H. McNelly commanded his company of rangers.  Callicott’s version of the story differs somewhat from that of his captain, particularly as to the disposition of Mexican prisoners, but it does coincide with McNelly’s account in most other respects.  In any case, this is how Private William Crump Callicott (shown right) remembered the Red Raid in June 1875.

In the early spring of 1875, Captain McNelly had orders to organize a company of forty rangers to go down to the Rio Grande and deal with Mexican cow thieves and bandits that were coming from Mexico into Texas, killing people and driving cattle to Mexico.  Captain McNelly had orders to deal with these bandits and thieves in the same way Major Jones dealt with the Indians —kill those on this side of the river and take no prisoners.  The Captain said he knew how to obey such orders and as soon as he got his company in shape, he made for the Rio Grande.

We had not been there but a little while until we heard of a band of Mexicans who had come over after cattle.  At the time we heard this, only thirty men were in camp, the rest being out on a scout. Captain McNelly called for twenty-two volunteers, which he readily got.  Among them was Barry Smith, the youngest fellow in the company.  Old Man Smith, who was with us, went to the Captain and asked him to let some other boy take his boy’s place; he said that Barry was his only child and if anything happened to him, his mother would die of grief. The Captain told him that any of the Rangers would be glad to take Barry’s place and he told Barry that if he wished, he could stay in camp with his father.

Barry said, “Captain, we have been out here some time and haven’t had a fight yet and I would like to go if you will let me.  If I get killed it will be no worse than for some of the other boys to get killed.” The Captain told him that was the way he liked to hear a fellow talk and to go ahead and get ready to start …

Another Ranger we had with us was Old Jesus Sandoval.  He was a Mexican who had a ranch on this side of the river.  Several years before we went out there, he and a white man caught four Mexican cow thieves and hung them all to one tree. After that, the Mexicans on the other side swore they would kill him on the first chance.  Jesus had not slept in his own house for over ten years because he was afraid of being killed.  He knew the country well on this side of the river, knew all the Mexicans for miles around, and so the Captain let him join us, paying him the same that he did us … forty dollars a month.  He gave him the same kinds of arms we used, a Colt .45 and a needle gun, and Jesus was proud of these weapons and made a fine Ranger.  The way he helped us in handling spies will be told later.

When on the Mexican border, Captain McNelly used wagons instead of pack mules such as Major Jones used on the northern frontier after Indians.  We did not need pack mules as we could buy grub from the ranches.  Captain McNelly left seven or eight men, including a corporal, with the wagons while the rest of us tied what little we had cooked to our saddles and started out to find the bandits.

Mexican Bandit 001We hadn’t been out but a day or two before we caught the first Mexican bandit spy.  Captain McNelly marched his company so that it was hard for any prowling Mexicans to escape him.  Two or three men marched on each side of the company in the direction we were going and looked out for bandits and spies, and if they came across a Mexican that looked suspicious, they would bring him into the company for Old Jesus to identify.

Jesus would talk to the Mexican a little, and then tell Tom Sullivan, our interpreter, who was raised among the Mexicans in Brownsville, what the Mexican was.  If the Mexican proved to be a citizen, we let him go at once; and if he proved to be a bandit spy one of us would take charge of him and march along until we saw a suitable tree.  The Captain would take Tom, the bandit, and four or five of the boys over to the tree.  Old Jesus would put a rope over the bandit’s neck, throw it over a limb, pull him up and let him down on the ground until he would consent to tell all he knew.  As far as we knew, this treatment always brought out the truth.

 After the Captain had all the information he wanted he would let Jesus have charge of the spy.  Jesus would make a regular hangman’s knot and place the loop over the bandit’s head, throw the end of the rope over the limb and make the bandit get on Old Jesus’ paint horse and stand up on the saddle.  Jesus would then make the loose end of the rope fast, get behind his horse, hit him a hard lick, and the horse would jump from under the spy, breaking his neck instantly.  Now, Captain McNelly didn’t like this kind of killing, but Jesus did.  He said if we turned a spy loose, he would spread the news among the bandits and we would never catch them.  We caught several spies on that scout before we overhauled the bandits with the cattle, and Jesus dealt with all of them alike, showing no partiality —he always made them a present of six feet of rope.

The last spy we caught was on 11 June, Friday after twelve o’clock.  The Captain turned him over to me to guard.  He rode along with me until we stopped to get supper on a little creek.  I had him tied with a rope so that he could not get away.  I fixed a little supper for him and gave him some jerked beef and bread that he could eat and good strong coffee, knowing that would be about the last meal he would have a chance to eat.  I gave him some cigarettes to smoke.  He enjoyed it all.

It was beginning to get late in the evening, all had supper, and our horses had grazed for about two hours.  As the sun was getting low, the Captain, Tom Sullivan, and two of the boys came over to where I was sitting down with the bandit smoking.  The Captain said, “Well Bill, we will relieve you; we will take charge of this prisoner.  Did you give him plenty to eat?”  I told him he had all he could digest on six feet of rope.

They took him out to a little motte about two hundred yards from where we were. Jesus took along his old paint horse and he used for trap-door gallows and I knew it was checking up time for the Mexican bandit spy.  We at the camp could see all that was going on out there.  They did not stay out there but a little while when the Captain and the boys came back to us … all except Jesus and the bandit.  The Captain said he could stand death in any other form better than hanging.  After Jesus had completed his job he came back to us and said, “He all right —he come back no more.”  By that time it was sundown.

We now prepared to go on after the bandits.  The spy had told us all he knew, that seventeen Mexicans and one white man were driving two hundred fifty head of cattle in the direction of Palo Alto Prairie.  He evidently told the truth.  We planned to overhaul them in the night.

I had on the only white shirt in the crowd.  The Captain came to me and said, “Bill, from what the spy says we will likely overhaul the bandits tonight and in the dark it will be a hard matter to tell our men from them if we get mixed up.  I want your white shirt, but I will give you another when we get to a place where I can buy one.”  I told him the shirt made no difference to me, that the weather was warm, and my undershirt was all I needed.  I pulled off the shirt and the Captain tore it up and died a piece around the left arm of each man.  Barry Smith, the boy that was killed the next day, still had the piece of white tied to his arm.

After all was ready the Captain ordered us in line.  He rode out front of us and said, “Boys, from what the bandit told me, we are likely to overhaul them tonight, and when we do, I will order you all into a line of battle, and when I order you to charge them, I want you to charge them in line.  Do not get ahead of each other and get mixed up with the bandits for if you do you are apt to kill one another instead of the bandits.  Don’t pay any attention to the cattle.  The spy tells me that there are seventeen Mexicans and one white man and that they are Cortina’s picked men, and Cortina says they can cope with any Rangers or regulars.  If we can overhaul them in an open country, we will teach them a lesson they will never forget.  If they should stampede, pick you out the one that is nearest you and keep after him. Get as close to him as you can before you shoot.  It makes no difference in what direction he goes, stay with him to the finish.  That is all I have to say.  Ready … form in two’s!  Forward, march!

Old Jesus took the lead and we rode all night in the direction which the spy told the Captain Palo Alto Prairie lay, and we got to the prairie about sun up. As luck would have it, we did not overhaul them in the night.  If we had, we could not have wiped them out.

At the prairie we found their trail leading across it towards the Rio Grande.  We followed it at a fast trot and lope, not wanting to overspeed our horses that had been under the saddle for twenty-four hours with but little rest and little to eat.  We hadn’t followed the trail farther than a mile or two before we come in sight of the bandits.  The Captain knew we had them right where he wanted to overhaul them, and he kept getting faster and faster.  The bandits saw us, but thought, so the one that got away told after he got back to Mexico, that we were regulars and that they could stand us off.

Palo Alto Vicinity MapThe bandits came to a big lagoon running out from the bay.  It was about one hundred fifty yards wide with mud and water from knee deep to belly deep.  They rounded up the cattle on this side of the lagoon, and then went over to the other side and dismounted in a line of battle.  When we came to the lagoon, Captain McNelly ordered us in a line of battle about four feet apart and ordered us not to fire until we got out of the mud and water.  The bandits opened fire on us from behind their horses, using their saddles for gun rests.

As we were crossing the lagoon, the Captain happened to look off to the right and saw a skirt of timber about two miles away.  He told Lieutenant Robinson to keep on across the lagoon and not to fire a shot until he got to where the mud and water were shallow enough to make a charge, and that he would take Jesus and six of the boys and keep the Mexicans cut off from the timber.  The Captain took the right wing, going angling toward the timber.  The bandits kept firing at us, but their bullets would pass over our heads, between us, or hit the mud and water before us.  By the time we got out of the deepest mud and water the Mexicans, seeing that their bullets had no effect, mounted and away they went toward the skirt of timber.  When they found themselves cut off by Captain McNelly and his men, they rallied and stopped, opening fire on Captain McNelly’s squad.  The Captain and his men killed one or two of them and the rest broke out full tilt across Palo Alto Prairie with Lieutenant Robinson and the rest of us behind them, and Captain McNelly on the side.

Soon we were all running in line of battle in case the Mexicans should turn to right or left or scatter in any way.  We had the bandits straight ahead of us going toward the Rio Grande.  There was not a tree in sight, only now and then a little bunch of Spanish daggers[1]

When we came within gun range Lieutenant Robinson shouted out “Go for them, boys! Go for them!”  Every man slapped spurs to his horse, giving him all the speed he had.  I rammed both spurs to Old Ball who opened up his throttle with such an unexpected lunge that he went from under my hat and came near going from under me.  We soon got up with them and the battle opened right. As fast as we overhauled one, we would shoot him or his horse.   The last one we killed was riding the best horse in the bandit’s crowd and kept away ahead of any of the rest.  The Captain and three or four of us were after him.  We killed his horse from under him near a little Spanish dagger thicket and he ran into it on foot.  The Captain ordered us to surround it, and then he dismounted, took his pistol out and started into the thicket.  When he met the bandit they were about six or eight feet apart.  The bandit had emptied his pistol and the Captain had only one ball left in his.  The Mexican drew out his knife and with a grin on his face he started after the Captain saying, “Me got you now …”  The Captain leveled his pistol and place his last shot between the bandit’s teeth —as if he had put it there with his fingers.  The Captain called, “Come in boys,” and we dismounted and ran in to find the Captain standing over the bandit who had already checked up and breathed his last. The Captain took his knife and pistol … I untied his sash from around him, tying it around myself.  It was the prettiest one I had ever seen, having the colors of Mexico; red, white, and green.

Having put an end to the last bandit, we mounted our horses and started back over the trail of the dead.  It was then about two o’clock in the evening.  As we passed by I happened to come upon a dead bandit lying in the grass flat on his back with his hands and leg lying out straight from his body.  He was shot through the head and I don’t think he moved a muscle after he fell from his horse.  His eyes were glared wide open, gazing at the hot June sun. His shaggy black beard was blood stained and the blow flies were swarming over his face after blood and brains. Just back of his head, in the grass, lay a fine Mexican hat, bottom up.  The high June sun was getting mighty hot on my head as I hadn’t had a hat on since the first charge that morning.  So, I eased down off Old Ball, picked up that hat, pulled up some grass, wiped off what blood I could, and put it on.  Glad to get it.  I then got on Old Ball and overtook the Captain and the boys.  The Captain said, “Where did you get your Mexican hat?”  I told him I got it off a dead bandit.  He said, “It’s a good one.  With that hat and sash, you could pass for a Mexican bandit in the dark anywhere.”

While we were going back over the trail and locating bandits, Jesus and two Mexican ranchmen who had joined us during the fight began to gather them up.  When they found one, they would fasten a rope around his neck, wrap the loose end around the pommel of the saddle and strike a lope to the road that was near the bandit trail.  They put them all in one pile, Jack Ellis, the white man, included.

Near upon the end of the trail, we came upon Spencer J. Adams sitting on his horse, Sorrel Top, so called because his mane and tail were white.  Adams had pulled off his shirt and had it wrapped around Sorrel Top’s neck to protect a bullet wound from the flies.  Adams was looking intently into a rush pond nearby.

“What are you watching in that pond, Adams?” asked the Captain.

“I’m watching that bandit,” said Adams.  “This morning when the fight started by the lagoon, you all got ahead of me and Berry Smith and some of you shot the bandit off his horse and you thought he was dead. Barry and I saw him crawl into that Spanish dagger thicket you see there near the edge of the pond.  We ran up to a thicket to shoot him again, but just as we got there he shot and killed Barry and shot at me and Sorrel Top.  Later, after Barry was dead, this bandit crawled out and got Barry’s pistol.  A little while ago he crawled out to this pond of water.  He’s out in the middle of it—you can see the rush grass move when he crawls along.  I think you broke his leg for has not been on his feet today.”

When Spencer told us this, the Captain said, “You boys surround this pond but don’t get opposite one another.  Use your guns but not your pistols, and if Adams hasn’t let this bandit die on his hands, we will soon wake him up.”

The Captain did not do any shooting, but when the rush grass would move he would point to the spot and tell the nearest of us to shoot.  We had fired several shots without waking him up when finally, one of the boys hit him.  He floundered and kicked and sometimes his feet would go above the top of the rush grass. When he quieted down, the Captain said, “That will do —that shot checked him up.  Ride in, Jesus, and bring him out.”  Our inspection showed that the bandit had been hit in many places.  The Captain told Jesus to take him to the other bandits and come back as soon as he could.

Dragging Bandits 002That made sixteen Mexican bandits and one white bandit, Jack Ellis, that we killed.  One Mexican got away.  We shot him off his horse and left him for dead, but he crawled out to where some Mexicans were cutting hay and hid in the hay. 

When Jesus got back to us, after taking in the pond bandit, we were all together except Barry Smith.  We found him lying in four feet of the thicket, stiff dead.  He was only sixteen years old, had no experience, and got too close to the bandit without seeing him.  The Captain had me tie Barry on the back of my horse and send two Mexican ranchers back over the trail to get whatever they could in the way of horses, saddles, and bridles.  He told them to kill any horse that was badly wounded, as he did not want them to stay out on the prairie and suffer.

I suppose a thinking person would conclude that all of this sounds just a bit barbaric.  Perhaps. Did ranchers in the Rio Grande Valley have a right to live their lives in peace, without threat of bandits from Mexico?  What were the grievances of the Mexicans?  There were several, actually, mostly stemming from the Texas Revolution and the Treaty of Hidalgo, which assigned the official border with the United States along the Rio Grande.  The treaty, of course, had nothing whatever to do with hard working folks whose lives and property became targets of opportunity for gangs of armed thugs.

Something had to be done about the murder, rape, arson, and the cattle rustling —and something was done about it.  Such depredations didn’t end with Captain McNelly, but his efforts sent an important signal across the border that Texans would not put up with these mid-19th Century terrorists.  In my view, we should stand in awe of those who had the courage to meet this threat mano a mano.  It wasn’t pretty, but warfare seldom is.

Someone had to stand up … men like Leander H. McNelly and William Crump Callicott did exactly that.  They were, after all, Texas Rangers.


[1]Spanish dagger, or Yucca gloriosa, is a plant native to the southern regions of North America. It goes by a number of alternate common names including Mound Lily Yucca, Soft-tipped Yucca, Spanish Bayonet, Spanish Dagger, and Sea Islands Yucca. This member of the Yucca genus produces broad, blade-like leaves from a central stem. New growth occurs at the end of the stem, creating a tight ball of leaves, and older leaves tend to die off and drop away as the plant grows.


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South Texas, 1875

cropped-texas-star.jpgAs my readers may have already discerned, I enjoy recounting stories about the American west.  Some would say, the Old American West.  It may not have been so long ago, but make no mistake, it was a much different time.  In the telling of these stories, I will not apologize for the way people were back in the day; they were who they were.  We may not agree with all of their attitudes today, but that has nothing whatever to do with the trials of living in a hostile land and what they endured transforming the west into civilized communities.  Beyond this, we should recognize that comparing who we are today with who they were back then does provide a measure of accomplishments in our ever-complex society.

Many of the people living in Texas (and beyond) scraped out a living in a hard and mostly unforgiving environment.  South Texas, in particular, has always been a challenge.  There were, or so it seemed, hardships at every turn: hot weather, limited rainfall, depredations levied upon hard-working pioneers by homegrown outlaws, Mexican bandits, and Indians.  Life-expectancy was short: fewer than 22% of male pioneers lived to age 50; women lived a bit longer, but not by much.

McNelly LHI’ve previously written about Leander H. McNelly; you can review his story here.  Now I want to take you back to when McNelly was sent to South Texas to interdict the horrific crimes perpetrated against white settlers by Mexican criminals.  One thing that seems to stand out in these accounts is the fact that a majority of Mexican-Americans living on the US side of the Rio Grande sided with and gave succor to Mexican bandits.  By 1875, a serious cultural rift was already apparent between white and Hispanic communities.  Cultural divide continues to exist today and in many cases throughout South Texas, it has grown worse over the years.  Few “Hispanic” citizens living in South Texas regard themselves as Americans; in their minds, they are Mexicans[1].

In the spring of 1875, Captain Leander H. McNelly was tasked to recruit and field a company of Texas Rangers.  They were to perform “special duty” in the southwest where cattle rustling was massive in its scale and effects.  South Texas crime was out of control and there was not much that local authorities could do about it.  Sheriff John McClure of Nueces County sent a telegram to the Adjutant General of Texas, William H. Steele, demanding:

“Is Captain McNelly coming? We are in serious trouble.  Five ranches burned by disguised men near La Parra[2]last week.  Answer.”

McNelly was indeed coming.

As McNelly approached the border area, he found that the country was over-run by bands of armed men.  They claimed that they were armed for their own protection, but McNelly found it impossible to differentiate between groups of men who were seeking self-defense, and those who were perpetrating heinous crimes upon their neighbors.  McNelly ordered all “militia” type organizations disbanded immediately, whether composed of Mexicans or Americans.  He reported back to Austin:

The acts committed by Americans are horrible to relate; many ranches have been plundered and burned, and the people murdered or driven away.  One of these parties confessed to me in Corpus Christi as having killed eleven men on their last raid.  I immediately issued an order disbanding these minute companies and all armed bands acting without the authority of the state.  Had I not disbanded these companies, it is possible—and very probable—that civil war would have ensued, as the Mexicans are very much exasperated.”

At Edinburg, Texas, McNelly met with Captain Neal Coldwell of the Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion.  For his part, Coldwell was disinclined to participate in forays across the Rio Grande into Mexico.  Apparently, the Mexican Bandit Juan Cortina[3]had made a brief appearance before McNelly’s arrival and toward intimidating locals further, hanged an alcaldeand a citizen of Mexico for having killed one of his cow thieves.

According to Walter Prescott Webb, Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, Captain McNelly then rode to Brownsville, where he found local citizens quite alarmed about their safety.  Even the US Army officer commanding Fort Brown was concerned.  General Potter admitted to McNelly that Mexican bandits had been crossing the river above and below Brownsville with some regularity.  Potter, having only one-hundred fifty men at his disposal, and those being negroes, was inadequately prepared to defend Fort Brown[4].  Cattle rustling increased substantially, carried on by well-mounted and well-armed men.

The increase in the theft of cattle was due to the fact that Juan Cortina had received large contracts to deliver beef to the island of Cuba.  Juan Cortina was nothing if he was not bold in his plan to transfer wealth in cattle from Texas to Mexico.  When McNelly arrived at Port Isabel, he learned that there was a steamer standing three miles offshore to receive up to 400 head of cattle; animals being held in Bagdad, Mexico.  Two-thirds of these animals bore American brands, but how McNelly learned this, I don’t know.

Captain McNelly’s official report on the Palo Alto Prairie War[5]follows:

Brownsville, Texas

June, 1875


General William Steele:

I have the honor to report that on Saturday the fifth, I received information of a party of Mexicans, fifteen in number, who had crossed the river eight miles below Brownsville for the purpose of stealing cattle.  I immediately ordered Lieutenant Robinson with eighteen men to proceed to the crossing of the Arroyo Colorado and send out scouts to learn their whereabouts and report to me.

 On the morning of the eighth, the lieutenant reported that he had captured one of the raiders.  I at once went to the company and learned from the prisoner, Rafael Salinas, that he party consisted of sixteen men under command of Camillo Lerma and Jose Maria Olguin, alias the Aboja, and that they had been sent by General Cortina to La Parra to get a drove of cattle for the Cuban market.  He further stated that he had been left behind to remount and act as rear guard.  I then sent a spy on their trail with instructions to follow them until they returned, at the same time keeping my men concealed and secretly guarding all the passes of Arroyo Colorado for twenty miles on my front.

 On Friday evening the eleventh, we caught a Mexican called Encarnacion Garcia who was identified as one of the parties.  He told the same story as Rafael Salinas, as far as number, name, and intention of the raiders, and said he was advance guard and that they had about 300 head of cattle and would cross the Arroyo that night and drive to the river the next day.

 I stationed my men in a motte and remained there until two o’clock, when one of my scouts came in and reported that the thieves had passed four miles east of our post earlier in the night.  I at once started to strike their trail or get in their front by taking a near cut to Laguna Madre.  At seven o’clock the next morning, I came in sight of them about eight miles distant. They discovered my command about the same time and commenced running the cattle.  They drove about three miles and finding that we were gaining on them, drove the herd onto a little island in a salt marsh and took their stand on the opposite side and they waited for our approach for a half hour before we reached the marsh.

 1873-rifle-carbine-44-magnum_123735_140511On arriving, I found them drawn up in a line on the South side of a marsh about six hundred yards wide, filled with mud and water, eighteen or twenty-inches deep, and behind a bank four or five feet high.  I formed my men as skirmishers and rode into the marsh, not allowing my men to unsling their carbines or draw their pistols.  As soon as we struck the water, the raiders commenced firing on us with Spencer’s and Winchester carbines.  We advanced at a walk (a more rapid gait being impossible) and not firing a shot or speaking a word and keeping our line well dressed.

 On nearing the position they held, perhaps within seventy-five or one-hundred yards, they wheeled their horses round and galloped off at a slow gait.  When we got out on hard ground we pressed forward and soon brought ourselves within shooting distance, fifty or sixty yards. The Mexicans then started at a full run, and I found that our horses could not overtake them.  I ordered three of my best mounted men to pass to their right flank and press them so as to force a stand.

McNelly ArtAs I had anticipated, the Mexicans turned to drive my men off, but they held their ground and I got up with four or five men, when the riders broke.  After that it was a succession of single hand fights for six miles before the got the last one.  Not one escaped out of the twelve that were driving the cattle.  They were all killed.
(Note: Artwork by Joe Grandee titled Leander H. McNelly, Texas Ranger)

 I have never seen men fight with such desperation.  Many of them, after being shot from their horses and severely wounded three or four times, would rise on their elbows and fire at my men as they passed. I lost one man … L. B. Smith of Lee County.  We captured twelve horses, guns, pistols, saddles, and two hundred and sixty-five head of cattle belonging in the neighborhood of King’s Ranch, Santa Gertrudis.

 James J. Brown, Sheriff of Cameron County with a posse of Mexicans were with us, in sight of the whole affair.  But their horses were too much jaded for them to get into the fight.  When it was over, I reported to the sheriff that the enemy had cross the river on the night of the fourth and that they had gone to the La Parra and gathered these beeves, that I had found them in the marsh, they had fought, and I would now place him in charge of their bodies.  He knew most of them, his posse identified all of them as Cortina’s men: Camillo Lerma, Jorge Jimenez alias the Cayote, Telesforo Dias, and Guadeloupe Espinosa are said to be Cortina’s favorite bravos and it is also said that he will be very indignant.

 I find that the killing of those parties has developed a most alarming state of things on this frontier.  The Mexicans on the other side of the river are very much infuriated and threaten to kill ten Americans for each of their Bravos.  And then on this side the Mexican residents of Brownsville (that is the majority and lower class) are public in their denunciation of the killing and the attention given to my dead soldier seems to have exasperated them beyond measure.  I really consider the place in danger as Cortina is known to have twelve or fifteen hundred men that he can muster in three or four days.  The US forces here only amount to about two-hundred and fifty all told … officers, soldiers, and servants, and they are negroes at that.

H. McNelly

Captain, Company A

Volunteer Militia

 Of course, this was Captain McNelly’s official report. It provides an interesting look at life in South Texas in 1875, but McNelly’s wasn’t the only version of these events.  I will include the “second” version next week.


[1]Given the shoddy treatment heaped upon Mexicans by their government since 1821, this fact confounds me.

[2]Once a vaquero settlement and headquarters of the Kenedy Ranch, the La Parra property consisted of well over 23,000 acres.

[3]Juan Cortina was a Mexican rancher, politician, military leader, outlaw, and folk hero in Mexico.  He was an important caudillo, who effectively controlled the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.  In borderland history he is known for leading a paramilitary mounted Mexican militia during the so-called Cortina Wars, able to field upward of 2,000 armed bandits. These wars were raids targeting Anglo-American civilians whose settlement Cortina opposed near the several leagues of land granted to his wealthy family on both sides of the Rio Grande.

[4]Congress created six regiments of black soldiers on 28 July 1866: The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments, and four regiments of infantry (later combined into two regiments) and assigned white officers as their leaders.  Many of these black troops, known as Buffalo Soldiers, were sent to the Texas frontier between 1867 and 1900.  While historians have explored the contributions of these men, myths and misconceptions about their service in the Old West continue.  Their combat record did not surpass that of white soldiers/units; their uniforms and equipage were no worse than those of white soldiers, and nothing about these men has been hidden or sequestered from public knowledge.  Whether McNelly held the performance of negro soldiers in low regard is quite beside the point.  The US Army, in its infinite wisdom, sent infantry units to safeguard the frontier against the depredations of the world’s most efficient and lethal mounted warrior: Comanche.  US infantry stood no chance at all against these mounted warriors.  Moreover, 150 men, no matter what their color, could not have long sustained an assault from Juan Cortina’s 2,000 or more mounted bandits.

[5]Walter Prescott Webb, Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense…

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Cap Arrington

George Washington Arrington was born in 1844 in Greensboro, Alabama as John Cromwell Orrick, Jr., the son of John Cromwell and Mariah Arrington Orrick.  After John Sr., died in 1848, Mariah married William Larkin Williams, who lost his life in the Civil War.

John Orrick, Jr., enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 and rode as a member of Colonel John Mosby’s guerrillas[1].  He often operated as a spy, providing useful information about enemy movements to his squadron commander.  After the war, Orrick migrated to Mexico arriving too late to join Emperor Maximilian’s forces as a mercenary.  Disappointed, he returned to his home in Greensboro.

In 1867, Orrick and a man by the name of Alex Webb, a recently appointed voting registrar for Hale and Greene Counties in Alabama[2], began to argue.  During the course of this dispute, Webb called Orrick a liar.  Orrick drew out his pistol and shot Webb three times, killing him instantly.  Witnesses later testified that after the shooting, Orrick remarked, “I will allow no damn Negro to call me a damned liar.”  Now wanted for the murder of a government official, Orrick fled Greensboro. He not only left behind his home town, but also his name.

In 1870, Orrick was living in Texas under the name George Washington Arrington.  He initially worked for the Houston and Texas Central Railway, later taking a job at a commission house in Galveston.  In 1874, Arrington took up farming in Collin County but later blazed trail moving cattle to Brown County.

Co D Texas RangersArrington was in Brown County in 1875 when he enlisted in a newly formed company of the Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers.  His work in the first two years was sufficient to convince Major John B. Jones to promote him from Sergeant to First Lieutenant in 1877.  Arrington, it seems, had demonstrated the skill of tracking down fugitives and outlaws.  A year later, Arrington was appointed Captain of Company C and stationed at Coleman.  In July 1878, he was ordered to Fort Griffin to restore peace in the wake of vigilante activities.  A year after that his company was moved to the Texas Panhandle to investigate a series of Indian depredations at area ranches.

In 1879, Arrington (now called “Cap” because of his rank) had a significant disagreement with the US Army commander at Fort Elliott, Lieutenant Colonel J. W. (Black Jack) Davidson[3].  Davidson favored humane treatment of transient Indians in the Texas Panhandle; Arrington believed that if the Indians were off their reservations, they should be treated as criminals.

Cap Arrington 001In September 1879, Arrington established Camp Roberts, the first Texas Ranger Camp in the Panhandle, situated east of present-day Crosbyton.  From this location, he led his company on a successful forty-day reconnaissance for the lost lakes in Eastern New Mexico.  The rangers charted the area from Yellow House Canyon to Ranger Lake in Eastern New Mexico, marking watering places and favorite Indian hideouts.

Arrington resigned from the Texas Rangers in the summer of 1882 in order to take advantage of ranching opportunities in the Texas Panhandle.  After helping local ranchers break up a major rustling operation, they elected him Over-Sheriff of fourteen counties in the Texas Panhandle.  It was at this time that Cap Arrington met and married Miss Sarah (Sallie) Burnette.  Together they had three sons and six daughters.

During his years as Sheriff, Arrington became known as the Panhandle’s Iron Hand.  This reputation increased when, in 1886, Arrington shot and killed the cattle thief John Leverton.  Leverton’s widow filed charged against Arrington for murder, but he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.

Cap Arrington 003Arrington resigned his star in 1890; he had filed a land claim on choice ranch land on the Washita River in Hemphill County.  In 1893 he became the manager of the Rocking Chair Ranch and with their support made considerable improvements in the process of marketing and shipping cattle. He remained with the Rocking Chair Ranch until 1896 when the Continental Land and Cattle Company bought out the owners.

After the sale of the Rocking Chair Ranch, Arrington resumed management over his own affairs.  He became involved in the civic affairs of Canadian, Texas where he lived for seven years.  In 1897, Arrington was called upon to escort the convicted killer George Isaacs to the State prison in Huntsville.  Isaacs had murdered Hemphill County Sheriff Thomas McGee.

Cap Arrington 002Because of his duties as a law officer, Cap Arrington always remained cautious about strangers; he was seldom ever seen in public without a side arm.

While visiting the springs at Mineral Wells in 1923, Cap Arrington suffered a heart attack in late March.  Returning to his home, he passed away on 31 March.  Miss Sallie lived on until June 1945.  Cap Arrington’s ranch continues to operate through family heirs.


  1. Sinise, George Washington Arrington, 1979
  2. Texas State History Association


[1]John Mosby (December 6, 1833 – May 30, 1916), was a Confederate cavalry battalion commander during the American Civil War.  He commanded the 43rdBattalion of Virginia Cavalry; collectively known as Mosby’s Raiders, noted in history for its lightening quick raids and the ability to elude pursuing Union Army forces in the area of Central Virginia.   After the Civil War, Mosby (who was known as “The Gray Ghost”) worked as a lawyer in the US Department of Justice and served as American Consul for Hong Kong.  Mosby, a Republican, became a staunch supporter of President Ulysses S. Grant, his former enemy’s commander in chief in the Virginia campaign.

[2]White Southerners commonly denounced carpetbaggers during the post-Civil War years, fearing they would loot and plunder the defeated south and be politically allied with radical Republicans.  Many of their fears regarding the influence of the carpetbaggers came to fruition. Sixty men from the North, including educated free blacks and illiterate slaves, who had escaped to the North and returned South after the war, were elected as Republicans to Congress.  Alex Webb was one of the negroes appointed to government office by the carpetbaggers.

[3]Davidson was a native Virginian, well known as a professional soldier and Indian fighter. Davidson graduated from the US Military Academy in 1845, saw frontier duty in Kansas and Wisconsin, and participated in several California battles during the Mexican American War.  During the Civil War, he served as a Brigadier General in McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.  He was known as Black Jack because he commanded the US 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers) from 1866 to 1875.

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Ira Aten, Texas Ranger

Texas StarIra Aten joined the Texas Rangers in 1883, serving as a member of Captain L. P. Seiker’s Company D.  He later served as a Sergeant under Captain Frank Jones.  Over all, Aten served as an active duty Texas Ranger for nearly seven years, and then served as a volunteer (without pay) until 1891. Most of his work took place in the counties bordering the Rio Grande, roughly from Pecos to Rio Grande City, Texas.

ATEN Ira 001Born in 1862 in Illinois, Ira’s father was a circuit riding preacher who decided to move his family to Texas in 1876.  The family settled near present-day Round Rock.  In 1878, Ira witnessed the gunfight between the outlaw Sam Bass and members of the Texas Rangers.  Listening to the tales told by these Rangers, Ira Aten decided that he wanted to become a lawman.

During his service, Aten became involved in many cases, but it best known for his participation in the so-called Fence Cutting Wars.  When barbed wire was first introduced on the open range, many people took exception to having to relinquish the open range to anyone, be they cattlemen or farmers.  Those who were opposed to fencing began to cut the wire, mostly that surrounding the larger tracts.  This led to violent confrontations between landowners and fence cutters.  In 1886, Ira Aten was called to Austin where he was assigned the mission of tracking down and capturing the fence cutters.  In short, the governor of Texas wanted these wars stopped, and Aten was the man charged with stopping them.

To accomplish his mission, Aten often worked under-cover as a ranch hand.  His investigations did have a noticeable effect on reducing damage to private property and gun violence, but it wasn’t quite enough.  In 1888, Aten targeted areas of fencing that had been cut on several occasions and began constructing explosive devices that would only trigger when the fence was cut. According to Aten’s own memoirs, “I fixed the bombs so that when the fence was cut between the posts, it would jerk out a small wire laid in the grass to the blasting cap, and that would set off the dynamite.”

Ira AtenThe Adjutant General of Texas did not approve of these methods and ordered Aten to remove the booby traps.  Instead, Aten exploded several of them and then spread the word around that more bombs were present along the fencing.  Suddenly, the fence cutting stopped in Navarro County.  The story here is about a single ranger, tasked to stop a war that was becoming increasingly violent.  He did that, but of course, those who never placed themselves in harm’s way criticized him for his methods, rather than praising him for his achievements.

Aten also participated in the Jaybird-Woodpecker War, a feud between two political factions for control of Fort Bend County, Texas.  The Jaybirds were those who represented the wealthy class, and about ninety-percent of the white population.  These were Democrats who sought to rid the county of any Republican (Woodpecker) representation.  Woodpeckers, numbering only about 40 persons in the county, also claimed to be Democrats, but were seen by Jaybirds as part of the post-Civil War Carpet-bagger class because they were officials and former officials who had held office as Republicans, having won elective office because of black voters in the county.  The conflict turned friends, neighbors, and relatives against each other.

The election of 1888 caused bitterness throughout the county.  Serious altercations occurred between rival candidates. On 2 August 1888, Jaybird Leader J. M. Shamblin was killed.  In September, another Jaybird Leader, Mr. Henry Frost, was seriously wounded. Jaybirds held a mass meeting on 6 September 1888 and resolved to war several black people to leave the county within ten hours.  The blacks complied.

Members of both factions were heavily armed.  Texas Rangers were sent to Richmond, Texas to keep the peace during election day.  It was the heaviest voter turnout in the history of the county.  Again, Democrats were defeated by Woodpeckers … and the breach widened even further.  There were insults, threats, denunciations, and assaults.  Mr. Kyle Terry, a Woodpecker tax assessor, killed Mr. L. E. Gibson at Wharton on 21 June 1889.  A week later, Terry was killed by Volney Gibson.  Fort Bend County became an armed camp and the so-called Battle of Richmond on 16 August 1889, became inevitable.

An exchange of bullets between J. W. Parker and W. T. Wade of the Woodpeckers, and Guilf and Volney Gibson of the Jaybirds signaled the begging of the battle. Most of the action took place around the courthouse building, the National Hotel, and the McFarlane residence. After twenty or so minutes of gunfire, Woodpeckers retreated into the courthouse, leaving Jaybirds in possession of the town.  Casualties mounted.  Jaybirds from all parts of the county hurried to Richmond to participate in further hostilities, but by the time they arrived, hostilities had subsided.  Texas Governor Lawrence S. Ross[1]arrived in Richmond and acted as mediator toward resolving the conflict.  “Sul” Ross ordered a complete reorganization of the county government, which resulted in the removal or voluntary resignation of all Woodpecker officials, and selection of Jaybirds or other persons acceptable to the Jaybirds to fill newly vacated offices.

A mass meeting was held in Richmond on 3 October 1889 to form a permanent organization designed to maintain white control of the government.  Among measures passed was the creation of a Fort Bend County Association of White People.  Interestingly, Ira Aten was one of the signatories of the FBAWP Charter. A second meeting was held on 22 October, which organized the Jaybird Democratic Organization of Fort Bend County. More than four hundred men signed the membership roll.  This organization controlled county politics for the next seventy years.

Not surprisingly, Ira Aten’s participation in the Jaybird-Woodpecker War caught the attention of leading citizens, resulting in his appointment as the Sheriff of Fort Bend County, Texas, where he served until the end of 1890. Aten then moved to Castro County, Texas, where he was elected as sheriff in 1893.  In 1895, Aten was hired by the Capitol Syndicate Company to help stop cattle rustling on the XIT Ranch.  To do this, he created a ranch police force consisting of two former Texas Rangers and twenty cowboys.  The cattle rustling stopped after a short time.

By 1904, Aten relocated his family to the Imperial Valley of California.  He passed away due to complications of pneumonia at the age of 91 and is buried in El Centro, California.


  • Ira Aten, Six and one-half years in Ranger Service, 1945 Harold Preece,
  • Lone Star Man,New York, 1960 Walter Prescott Webb,
  • The Texas Rangers, Boston, 1935 Fred Wilkins,
  • The Law comes to Texas, Austin, 1999


[1]Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross was a Texas Ranger, soldier, statesman, and university president.  He served as governor of Texas from 1886 to 1891.

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The Texas Fence-Cutting Wars

cropped-texas-star.jpgOld West Texas was a land of vast grasslands uninterrupted by natural barriers.  The landscape was devoid of rock and timber from which landowners might have erected fencing to mark land boundaries or control grazing livestock.  In 1883, a clash occurred among landed cattlemen and maverick stockmen and farmers that would become known as the Texas Fence Cutting Wars.

Under the Homestead Act of 1862, the US government offered 160 acres in the west to those who were willing to reside on and improve their selected parcel of land.  Farmers were seeking cheap, plentiful land on which to raise their families, crops, and small herds of livestock; the Homestead Act precipitated a sudden influx of migrants into Texas.  Over time, some of these men accumulated more cattle than others; companies and syndicates began to invest in large cattle operations. Those with larger holdings of cattle and other livestock were variously known as cattle kings, cattlemen, or cattle barons.

Barbed wire had been available in Texas since the 1870s, but initially, it wasn’t considered to be a durable form of fencing by cattlemen; cattlemen initially thought that it might be as useless as the smooth wire fencing that had previously failed to hold their stock.  On the other hand, mass-produced barbed wire was cheap and eventually seen as a viable product to fence in private land holdings, hold back maverick cattle from encroaching private land, and prevent landless cowmen from using privately owned land to graze their stock.

Beginning in the 1880s, livestock owned by newcomers were beginning to overcrowd the herds of the larger cattlemen.  This led cattle kings to fence off their lands to prevent access to privately owned rangeland and water.  It was an action that infuriated many homesteaders, particularly when some of these cattle kings not only fenced their own land, but public lands as well. Irate homesteaders retaliated by cutting the barbed wire fencing to allow their livestock access to public lands, and these activities prompted the Fence Cutting Wars.

Fence cutters (also called nippers) were mainly small-scale stockmen who used free ranges out of necessity; they resented its appropriation by men who were much wealthier than themselves.  They also detested the fact that their stock could get tangled up in the fences, injuring or killing the animals.  This was one of the down-sides to barbed wire; injuries to livestock caused by rusted barbed wire that went unnoticed and unattended led to screwworm infestations, causing the death of many cattle and a concurrent loss of revenue among cattle ranchers.

A severe drought in 1883 was especially hard on cattlemen, rich or poor.  Creeks, rivers, and watering holes dried up almost completely in the summer and fall of that year; grass was withering all over the open range. Landless cattlemen had little choice but to move west, but when they did, they were faced with even more fencing. The move west also brought cattlemen into contact with homesteaders, mostly farmers who disliked the fences because they quite often crossed public roads and impeded travel.  These were the conditions that prompted maverick cattlemen and homesteaders to protest the growing number of wire fences.  The Texas Greenback Party soon joined the protests.

After several unsuccessful meetings, protests, and unanswered letters, landless stockmen decided that the only option left open to them was to cut the fences.  Well-organized groups were formed; large scale fence nipping began[1]. As the drought worsened, even legally-installed fencing was cut. Pastures were set on fire, and landowners were threatened with violence. Groups of cowboys calling themselves Owls, Javelinas, or Blue Devils embarked on fence cutting raids.  Ranchers reciprocated by hiring gunmen to battle the anti-fence cowboys.

There were pro-fence activists as well.  The most influential of these was a widowed and debt-ridden lady by the name of Mable Doss Day.  Her protests to elected representatives and the governor led to the passage of legislation that would punish the act of fence cutting and pasture burning as felonies, with sentences of up to five years in state prison.  The fence cutters didn’t care about the legislation, however, and the cutting of fences continued until 1889, when the governor sent in the Texas Rangers.  Well, in truth, the governor sent in one Texas Ranger to stop the Texas Fence Cutting Wars.  His name was Ira Aten … and what a clever fellow he was; I’ll post an article about him in the near future.

Nevertheless, the implications of the Fence Cutting Wars were numerous because to begin with, they represented the last attempt toward keeping the open range alive.  After the Fence Cutting Wars, western settlement patterns increased.  Barbed wire soon crossed more formerly open ranges.  Illegal fencing would become more common than fence cutting, as barbed wire continued to make its way across the region.  As one scholar noted, “barbed wire closed off land, closed people in, and enabled some people to acquire land illegally.

Overall, damages caused by fence-cutting was estimated to be in the range of $20 million by the fall of 1883.  At least four people, including a Texas Ranger named Ben Warren, died in the conflict.  The conflict was ultimately resolved when wealthy landowners settled their disagreements with maverick stockmen and farmers by agreeing to remove fence barriers across public roads and land not owned or leased by them, allowing fence-nippers passage through their gates, in return for an end to the wire-cutting.


[1]The Fence Cutting Wars were not confined to Texas, although Texas experienced the fiercest fence nipping activities. Fencing wars also developed in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

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