A Tearful Trail

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Battle of the Alamo, 6 March 1836

After gaining independence from Spain in 1824, the government of Mexico invited foreign settlers to sparsely populated Texas. The Empresario responsible for this planned migration was Moses Austin, who soon passed away, leaving the task to his son, Stephen F. Austin.  The original 300 settlers established homesteads along the Brazos River. Within a few years, settlers began to resent the heavy hand of Mexico’s government, which led these Anglo settlers to declare their independence from Mexico in 1835.  Initially, Texian volunteers were defeated by Mexico’s president, General Antonio-Lopez de Santa Anna, who forced an eastward retreat.  A small garrison of Texians at Goliad were coaxed into surrendering, and then summarily executed.  Another garrison of men were overrun and killed at the Battle of the Alamo on 6 March 1836.  The Alamo became a symbol of heroic resistance to the tyranny of Mexico.  On 21 April 1836, leading 800 highly motivated and vengeful Texians, General Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna’s force of 1,500 men at the Battle of San Jacinto.

These were eventful times.

John Parker was an American patriot, veteran of the American Revolution, a frontier scout, and a noted Indian fighter. Parker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland in 1758.  As a young man, he was an associate of the explorer Daniel Boone who scouted the territory of present-day Kentucky and Tennessee.  In 1777, the British recruited native Indians to participate in campaigns designed to force Americans from the western frontier.  Many of Parker’s family were brutally massacred as a result and Parker took up arms against the British.  In 1779, John Parker married Sarah White.  Their first child was born on 6 April 1781; they named him Daniel, after Parker’s friend Boone.

After the Revolutionary War, frontier Indians once more began attacking settlements.  For a time, the Indians succeeded in stemming the flow of new settlers. Fearing for the safety of their growing family, Sarah urged her husband to relocate to a less threatening environment. The Parker’s traveled to Georgia, only to find that Indian depredations existed there, as well—again, set in motion by Spanish and British colonial officials.  Parker again became a frontier ranger against Cherokee and other of the so-called civilized tribes.  In these battles, the Americans were the victors, and this opened much of Appalachia to further settlement.

In 1803, Parker again moved his family (including his wife, eight children, and his son Daniel’s family) to the small settlement of Nashboro (present-day Nashville).  By 1817, the Parker family had grown to eleven children, many of whom had married and had children of their own.  As Indians were further defeated in the area of present-day Southern Illinois, new lands opened to white settlement.  The family moved again, this time to Illinois.  In 1824, Sarah passed away.  In the next year he married a widow named Sarah Duty, who had several daughters that had married into the Parker clan.

Stephen Austin recruited the 74-year old Parker to help settle the frontier of Texas.  John Parker well understood that settlers were needed as a bulwark against the Comanche Indians.  After negotiations and preparation, Parker led most of his family, and allied families, to Texas in 1833.

In 1835, relying on his vast experience as a frontiersman, Parker established a settlement on the headwater of the Navasota River, near present-day Groesbeck in Limestone County.  This location abutted the frontier of the Comancheria. He constructed a fort, which he called Fort Parker.  He chose this area because it offered enough land to sustain the settlers; his fort was thought to be sturdy enough to provide protection to the settlement in the event of Indian raids.  It didn’t. Neither did John Parker have adequate knowledge of his prospective foe, the Comanche —the most ferocious of all plains Indians tribes.

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Silas Parker

On the morning of 19 May 1836, three weeks after Houston’s defeat of General Santa Anna, the Fort Parker men went to the fields, as they usually did.  They were quite suddenly confronted by up to 700 hostile warriors.  The attack was swift and brutal.  Families in outlying homes were burned alive, men fleeing toward their homes were cut down, and then the Indians headed directly for the fort. John Parker attempted to rally the community in their common defense, but the men, women, and children at Fort Parker were overwhelmed.  Parker ordered as many of the women and children as could be found sent off with hand-picked men, and then he led a sortie into the mass of hostiles to divert their attentions away from the escape group.  He succeeded in doing this, but these men, including John Parker, were swiftly killed.  The Fort was insufficient to hold off these devastating numbers of Indians.

Though Parker’s wife was wounded, she and a son escaped and eventually gave warning of the approaching Comanche raiders. Several of the Parker kin did escape, five remained in the hands of the Indians.  One of these was John Parker’s granddaughter, Cynthia Ann, aged 10 years.

The other captives were Elizabeth Kellogg, John R. Parker, Rachel Plummer, and James Pratt Plummer.  All of these were later ransomed, except for Cynthia Ann Parker. While in captivity, the women were repeatedly raped by their captors.

John R. Parker, Cynthia Ann’s brother, and their cousin, James Pratt Plummer, were ransomed in 1842.  John was unable to adapt again to white society and returned to the Comanche.  During a raid into Mexico, John contracted smallpox.  The war party left him with a captive Mexican girl; she was instructed to care for him.  When John recovered, he restored the girl to her family, eventually married her, and spent the remainder of his days in Mexico.  John passed away in 1915.

Rachel Plummer was the 17-year old wife of Luther, the daughter of James Parker, and a cousin to Cynthia.  She was held captive for two years before being ransomed. She later authored a book that was published in 1838, the first narrative about captivity among the Comanche.  The book horrified Texians and others throughout the United States.  Rachel died in childbirth in 1840.

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Old Fort Parker (Website)

James Pratt Plummer was ransomed by his grandfather in 1842.  He never rejoined his immediate family.  He died of pneumonia while serving with the Confederate Army in 1862.

Elizabeth Kellogg was transferred from one band of Indians to another.  The Delaware Indians purchased Elizabeth and sold her to her brother-in-law James W. Parker in August 1836 for $150.00.  She was eventually reunited with her sister, Martha Patsey Duty in September 1836.

James W. Parker, who was working in the field when the attack began, spent much of the rest of his life searching for his daughter Rachel, grandson James, niece Cynthia and nephew John.  After several near-death experiences, he finally settled down with his family.  John Wayne’s character in the film The Searchers, was modeled (somewhat) on the true life of James W. Parker.

Continued Next Week …



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Battle in Antelope Hills

The Expedition of Captain John S. Ford, Texas Rangers

Texas in the 1850s was a particularly vicious and bloody place.  The availability of productive land acted as a magnet to thousands of Anglo-Americans fleeing the economic malaise of the United States eastern and southern regions.

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The Comancheria, 1850s

In Texas, one could raise cattle or dabble in agriculture; it truly was a land of opportunity—but not without incurring some risk.  The further west they went, the more likely it was that white settlers would encroach upon Indian territory.  From the perspective of the Comanche, their valuable hunting grounds were suddenly plowed under for farming; the grazing ranges for much needed Buffalo began to disappear.  These white settlers were stealing food, denying the Indians any ability to feed their families.  The Texas plains Indian would not put up with this without a fight.  Consequently, the Comanche and Kiowa grew more hostile with each new white face dotting the Texas plain.

 While the settlers may have understood that the Comanche presented a clear danger to their settlements and their persons, they may not have given much thought to this situation from the Indian point of view. They soon found out, however, as the frequency of ferocious and bloody Comanche raids increased dramatically.

Before statehood in 1845, it was up to Texas to deal with the Indian problem.  After statehood, this responsibility fell under the authority of the United States.  However, the Mexican-American War began almost immediately following Texas statehood.  Under these circumstances, the United States found little opportunity to address Indian hostility.

During the 1850s, the United States Army proved itself wholly incapable of curtailing hostile Indian raids.  Part of the reason for this was that the Army fielded only a limited number of cavalry regiments.  Owing to manpower shortages, the War Department decided to establish a series of fortified garrisons manned by infantry troops—which placed the Army at a disadvantage against highly mobile Comanche horsemen whose skill in warfare exceeded that of the regular Army.  Beyond this, the US Congress demonstrated no willingness to develop realistic solutions to the conflict between the Comanche and white settlers.

Texas was also restricted from dealing with the Indians by federal law that prohibited state militia from operating within federally protected Indian territories [1].  Realizing this, Comanche and Kiowa tribes resided within the Comancheria, but raided white settlements, murdered the settlers, stole their horses and cattle, and then returned to their federally protected homelands.  The situation created unharmonious feelings between Texas officials and the US government.  Texas expected the federal government to assume responsibility for the costs of Indian affairs, but refused to cooperate with federal Indian agents on the issue of Indian homelands.

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Governor Hardin R. Runnels 6th Governor of Texas

As the possibility of a conflict between northern and southern states increased, federal forces were removed from the frontier in growing numbers.  Gone from Texas was the US 2nd Cavalry, which left much of the plains unprotected from Indian raids.  Texan settlers were not happy about this.  Governor Hardin Runnels, who had campaigned for office on a platform promise to end hostile raids, was stunned by the withdrawal of federal troops.  To make good on his promises, Runnels reestablished the Texas Rangers as a frontier battalion.  On 27 January 1858, Governor Runnels commissioned John S. “Rip” Ford [2] to command the Texas Rangers, state militia, and allied Indian forces and ordered him to carry the battle to the Comanches in their homeland, the Comancheria.

Captain Ford was a tough frontiersman —a man who stood up to the realities of fighting savage Indians.  Like the Indians, he gave no quarter.  Like the Comanche and Kiowa, he made no distinction in his treatment of warriors, women, or children; Texas Rangers under Ford were expected to fight to the death, never surrendering themselves as prisoners to their Indian foe.  There was one difference between Ford and the Comanche; he never permitted any of his men to rape Indian women.

Indian violence toward settlers cost about 17 settler lives per mile of settlement in the Comancheria.  Ford determined to meet this brutality with equal violence.  Governor Runnels gave his instructions: “I impress upon you the necessity of action and energy.  Follow any trail and all trails of hostile or suspected hostile Indians you may discover and, if possible, overtake and chastise them if unfriendly.  In this, allow no interference from any source [3].”  Captain Ford followed these instructions to the letter.

Ford raised a force of one hundred Texas Rangers and State Militia.  Even armed with modern repeating rifles, Buffalo guns, and modern Colt revolvers, Ford realized that his force was inadequate to the task.  He began to recruit unpaid volunteers —including men from among the Tonkawa tribe, which because they were cannibals, were despised by all other Indians in Texas. Given the fact that the Tonkawa hated the Comanche, Ford raised 120 volunteers who served effectively as scouts to locate Comanche camps north of the Red River in the Comancheria and in the Oklahoma territories.


John S. “Rip” Ford

Ford pursued the Comanche and Kiowa to their strongholds amid the hills of the Canadian River, into the Wichita Mountains.  He intended to kill the Comanche and Kiowa wherever he found them, decimate their food supply, strike at their homes and families, and destroy their ability to make war.  In February 1858, Ford established Camp Runnels near the town of Belknap, one-half mile east of Fort Belknap [4].

In late April 1858, Ford led his rangers and Indian volunteers across the Red River into Indian territory and advanced into the Oklahoma Comancheria.  Later charged with violating federal law, Ford stated plainly, “My job was to find and fight Indians, not to learn geography.”

The first of three encounters occurred at sunrise on 12 May 1858.  In Ford’s mind, the campaign was a legitimate response to Comanche raids on settlers in Texas.  Neither Ford nor the Comanche ever observed rules of engagement or any prohibition on harming non-combatants.  Thus, at Antelope Hills on Little Robe Creek in the heart of the Comancheria, Captain Ford led his men in an attack on the first Comanche camp they found.  A few women and children got away; none of the men survived [5].

Captain Ford led his men forward, attacking a second encampment of between 70-100 lodges further upriver.  Fortunately for the Comanche, a member of the village saw the Texans’ advancing and had ridden to warn them.  Forewarned, the Comanche were able to establish a defense of their women and children. The number of Comanche dead was high, including the legendary Chief Phohebits Quasho (known as Iron Jacket). Iron Jacket had acquired his Spanish coat of mail during a battle years before.  It protected him from light weapons, but it did not save him from Jim Pockmark’s well-aimed shot from a Buffalo gun.  Iron Jacket was in his 60s at the time, but still exhibited a fierce fighting spirit during this, his last engagement.  His death demoralized the Comanche warriors, made worse by the fact that Iron Jacket’s second in command was also cut down.

Lieutenant Lawrence “Sul” Ross, serving as Captain Ford’s deputy, expected him to order an advance, but Ford instead ordered his men to hold fast and form a defensive perimeter.  Ford had seen movement in the surrounding hills and believed that a large force of Indians were nearing the battle site.  Ford was right.  Before his death, Iron Jacket had dispatched a runner to another village for reinforcements. The leader of the reinforcements was Peta Nocona, son of Iron Jacket, and the husband of Cynthia Ann Parker [6].  Nocona led between 100 and 125 warriors.  Realizing that his warriors were ill-prepared to engage the Texans, he attempted to lure the Texans into the wood surrounding Little Robe Creek.  Captain Ford wasn’t having any of that; he stood his ground.

Nocona and his warriors began to taunt Ford’s men, particularly the Tonkawa, and challenge them to individual combat.  After the Comanche killed a number of Tonkawa in personal combat, Ford ordered a halt to any of his men accepting further challenges.  Captain Ford later reported these challenges as follows:  “In these moments the mind of the specter was vividly carried back to the days of chivalry; the jousts and tournaments of knights; and to the concomitants of those scenic exhibitions of gallantry. The feats of horsemanship were splendid, the lances and shields were used with great dexterity, and the whole performance was a novel show to a civilized man.”

The Comanche

Comanche Warriors c. 1830s

However much Ford may have admired the spectacle, he had no intention of engaging any Comanche in single combat, nor allowing any of his men to do so.  He ordered the Tonkawa to attack the Comanche in mass formation, hoping to lure Peta Nocona into committing his forces.  The strategy failed when Ford discovered that the Tonkawa had removed their white head bands, which was the only way the Texans could distinguish between Tonkawa and Comanche.  Noting that the Tonkawa were losing the battle, Ford signaled them to retreat.  As the Tonkawa withdrew, Ford ordered his Texans to advance with precise rifle fire. Nocona observed that these Texans weren’t firing single shot weapons; they had repeating rifles.  An average Comanche could shoot six arrows in the space of a minute, but the repeating rifles gave the Texans an advantage in fire power.

Nocona had no intention of allowing the Texans to catch his men in the open.  He ordered a retreat.  The battle was thus transformed into a running gun fight over several miles.  This negated the Texan’s advantage in fire power and allowed Nocona to save most of the Comanche people of Iron Jacket’s village.

By this time, additional Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache warriors were arriving on the field of battle. With odds turning against him and dwindling ammunition, Ford ended the battle of Antelope Hills.  At dusk, Ford ordered a withdrawal back to Texas —but not before he destroyed the food stores, lodges, and other possessions discovered in Iron Jacket’s village.

In their day, the Comanche may have been the world’s finest light cavalry, but the Ford Expedition proved to be a turning point for the plains Indians.  The first factor was that the Texans had learned how to fight the Comanche way: nomad tactics, living in a cold camp, initiating and maintaining relentless pursuit all the way into enemy encampments.  At this point, the playing field was even.  The second factor proved to be the tipping point: rapid fire rifles and pistols, and Ford’s element of surprise.  Modern weaponry destroyed Comanche tactics; Ford’s determination proved to the Indians that there was a new sheriff in town.  It was the beginning of the end of the Indians of the Great Plains.


  1. Texas State Historical Association
  2. Photographs retrieved from the public domain


[1] After statehood, Texas retained its control over public lands as part of the language of admission to the United States.  Prior to statehood, Texas experimented with the idea of establishing Indian reservations, but every effort failed. Accordingly, the Texas legislature steadfastly refused to make public land available to the Indians after statehood. In contrast, the federal government exercised control over public lands and Indian affairs and was thus able to make treaties and carve out Indian reservations in all newly admitted states.

[2] John Ford was a veteran Texas Ranger with service during the Mexican-American War and a frontier Indian fighter. During the Mexican-American War, Ford developed a habit of signing casualty reports with the initials RIP (rest in peace), and this is how he gained the nickname Rip.  Ford was known as a ferocious, no-holds-barred Indian fighter.

[3] “Any source” meant the United States Army and any federal Indian agent who might try to enforce federal treaties and federal statutory law against the Texas Rangers.

[4] The town of Belknap was established in 1856 and became Young County’s first seat of government.  The US Army abandoned Fort Belknap during the Civil War. By 1870, owing to the frequency of hostile raids, only a handful of people remained.  It is a ghost town today.

[5] Historians have referred to this first encounter as a massacre of an entire sleeping village.  In John Ford’s memoirs, edited by Stephen B Oates, Ford stated that he was defending Texas by “whatever means were necessary.”  Historians too often view bygone events through their modern-day lenses.  John Ford did to the Comanche what the Comanche had long been doing to Texans since the mid-1820s (and to Mexicans before that).

[6] Cynthia Ann Parker (1825-1871) was the daughter of Silas Parker who, on 19 May 1836, was kidnapped by a large band of Comanche warriors.  She became the wife of Peta Nocona and the mother of famed Comanche War Chief Quanah Parker.  In 1860, Texas Rangers under the command of Lawrence Sullivan Ross repatriated Parker and returned her to her white family.  She attempted to escape white society on several occasions, but was forced to remain with them against her will until her death in 1871.

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Duval County Crime and Politics

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Duval County, Texas

The character of Duval County, Texas is one of “old Mexico.” It was first surveyed in 1804 by Jose Contrerras, who was the Surveyor-General of San Luis Potosi.  The area’s first recorded birth was that of Luis Muniz in 1828.  The more important colonists from Mexico came from Mierand Tamaulipas, Mexico.  Not much happened in present-day Duval County between the early 1800s and 1836 (The Texas Revolution), nor even statehood in 1845.  But in 1858, the Texas legislature established Duval County, named in honor of Barr H. Duval, a Texian killed in the massacre of Goliad.  At the time of its organization, Duval County had but four stock raisers and no one expected the population to rise much beyond that.

Around 1860, Anglo-American immigrants arrived in Duval County to raise sheep.  These settlers included people from England, France, Ireland, and Scotland.  As with all immigrants, the settlers brought with them their culture and traditions and Duval County residents soon hosted formal balls and haute cuisine [1].  The food was so good that people traveled to Duval County from Corpus Christi fifty-miles away.  The bad news about Duval County, however, was that in the 1880s, its rate of violence rivaled that of Tombstone, Arizona.  Some of these deaths were attributed to dueling, but most were due to foul play —and most of these victims were Mexican or Tejano.  In 1881, at a time of rampant crime and depredation, Duval County was short on law officers, judges, and jails.  A vigilante group was thus formed from Duval and McMullen counties. Their purpose was to defend citizens from Mexican bandits, cattle rustlers, and horse thieves.  One of these groups was making a routine scout when they stumbled upon a large pile of cowhides at a place near the two-county line.  The vigilantes (logically) concluded that these hides came from stolen animals.  Fifteen Mexicans were promptly lynched at that location.

As the county economy improved, ethnic and racial tensions eased somewhat.  The Texas-Mexican Railway brought a line to the county seat of San Diego in 1881, and the town soon became an important center for shipping hides, wool, and cotton.  For some odd reason, the sheep began to die out in 1886 and the economic boom faded away.

As was the case in many South Texas counties, Hispanic culture dominated Duval County, which became a stronghold of the Democratic Party [2].  Within a short time, Duval County would experience the rise of a political dynasty similar to that of Jim Wells in Brownsville.  Archer (Archie) Parr was a cattle rancher and politician who eventually became known as the Duke of Duval County.  He was the political and crime boss of Duval County from around 1914 to 1934.

Archie Parr was born on Matagorda Island in Calhoun County in 1860.  His father George was a veteran of the Mexican-American War in 1846.  Archie was still a youngster when his father died. Then in the third grade of school, Archie dropped out to work on his family’s ranch.  By the time he was 11-years old, Archie was wrangling horses. He was a drover by the age of 14, and at 17-years he was a trail boss on the Chisholm Trail.  He later worked as a school teacher in Rockport, in Aransas County, Texas.

Although an Anglo (white), Archie spoke fluent Spanish. He moved to Duval County in 1882 where he worked as a ranch hand and a manager at the Sweden Ranch near Benavides, Texas.  Within a few years, he purchased his own ranch.  In 1891, then 31-years old, he married Elizabeth Allen in Huntsville, Texas. She was, at the time, a student at Sam Houston State Teacher’s College, and five years his junior.  The Parr’s had a family of five children, including sons Given and George Parr.  All of his children spoke English and Spanish.

Archie realized that given the population of Tejanos in Duval County, political success might be possible if he could galvanize these people into a base of support.  Among Duval County Tejanos, it was probably better to be ignored by the Anglo than to be persecuted by him.  In any case, Anglo attitudes afforded Archie the opportunity of seizing the reigns of Democratic politics in Duval County.  He treated his own workers in the manner of a Mexican patron: he helped “his” people and their families, giving them favors and looking out for their welfare.  It wasn’t long before he had earned a positive reputation within the Tejano community.

PARR Archie 001In 1901, the Texas legislature forced the payment of poll taxes [3], which in effect politically marginalized blacks, poor whites, and most Tejanos.  This was a post-Reconstruction strategy designed to end any competition from Republican and Populist parties in Texas, and, as intended, it propelled the Democratic Party into dominating most of the state.  In the end, competitive elections were mostly restricted to primary elections.  After 1901, in the absence of Republicans or Populists, die-hard Democrats turned on one another.

As but one example of this, Duval County Tax Assessor John D. Cleary (a Democrat) managed to engineer a sweep of the county elections in 1906.  The next year, Cleary was found murdered with evidence of a shotgun blast to his back. The county was in an uproar and among some, Archie Parr was suspected in the death because Cleary was Parr’s main political opponent at the time.  Texas Rangers were called in to investigate but the murder went unsolved.  It was with Cleary’s death that Parr seized the reigns of the Democratic Party in Duval County.  To solidify his base among Tejanos, he established his own party, which he called El Guaracha (the sandal party, or party of the poor), and he labeled other Democrats as the rich, or La Bota (the boot) party.

Parr was first elected to political office in 1896, when he successfully ran for the office of county commissioner. He was re-elected to that position continually until 1906.

Tejanos formed Archie Parr’s political base, and for some this may have been enough, but inside the Parr machine, there was never any hesitation to use fraud and coercion to control county-wide elections.  Parr’s techniques were not necessarily unique: he orchestrated marked ballots, employed intimidating armed guards at polling places, and if needed, altered election results.  It was said that no one was more adept as stuffing ballot boxes than Archie Parr.

Having won election to the Texas State Senate in 1914, Archie Parr served in that office for nearly two decades.  Along with his seniority came tremendous power throughout the state and he easily aligned himself with the Democratic Party patronage system.  He was also instrumental in bringing cheap labor from Mexico to work the ranches and farms.  In time, Archie came to own the San Diego State Bank, the Dobie Ranch, Harcones Ranch, and was a silent partner of dozens of businesses in South Texas.  To say that he became a very wealthy man over his years in Duval County would be an understatement.

In 1928, Archie Parr led state democrats against US Congressman Harry M. Wurzbach, the only Republican elected to the House of Representatives from Texas since the end of Reconstruction. Wurzbach represented the 14thCongressional District, which included Guadalupe County, where German-Americans favored the Republican platform.  However, in this election the winner was a Democratic candidate. Wurzbach suspected election tampering and contested the election results.  The elections committee found in Wurzbach’s favor and he was finally seated in 1930. Wurzbach also won re-election, but then died while serving in office.

In 1932, Parr was indicted by the federal IRS for tax evasion.  His political opponent in the upcoming election successfully labeled him as a tax cheat [4] but in spite of these problems, Archie had hopes for reelection. Parr attempted to push through road construction project that would have put a modern highway from Duval County to Corpus Christi.  The Parr plan would have placed the highway on a track that extended through the King Ranch, but his long-time political ally (and the owner of the King Ranch), Robert Kleberg, Jr [5]., vigorously opposed the project and it was shelved.  Archie’s son George confronted Kleberg, saying, “You’re crucifying my father!  I’ll get you. I’ll gut you if it’s the last thing I do!”  When Parr was defeated in 1934, Kleberg became an enemy of the Parr machine.

In spite of Parr’s legal problems, his syndicate was a golden egg.  The discovery of oil in Duval County created ample opportunity for patronage and it allowed Archie Parr to add to his already substantial fortune.  In fact, the family political network continues to influence politics in Texas today, offering its patronage to both Democrats and Republicans alike.  As but one example, Jim Maddox [6] was a beneficiary of the Parr machine in his bid for State Attorney General; he garnered a majority of county votes despite the fact that he was running against a Hispanic.

In 1940, Archie Parr applied for a presidential pardon for the tax evasion conviction.  The pardon, if granted, would demonstrate to other political bosses in South Texas that Parr continued to wield power within the state. On the advice of then Congressman Richard Kleberg, US Attorney General Francis Biddle blocked it.  Archie Parr died in 1942; George Parr then mounted a campaign against Kleberg, throwing his considerable weight behind the candidacy of Major John E. Lyle, Jr. [7]  At the time, Lyle was serving on active duty in Europe during World War II.  When Tom Clark replaced Biddle as Attorney General, and with Kleberg out of the way, then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson lobbied President Harry S. Truman to approve Parr’s pardon, which he did on 20 February 1946. In any case, by the time of Archie’s demise, the Parr family had gained firm control of politics in Duval and Jim Wells County—the baton had been passed along to Archie’s his youngest son, George.

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George B. Parr

George Berham Parr [8] (1901-1975), like his father, became known as the Duke of Duval County.  His appetite for politics was wetted when he served as a page in the Texas Capital during one of his father’s terms.  He spent four years at the West Texas Military Academy and graduated from Corpus Christi High School in 1921.  He attended several colleges without much success, and attended the University of Texas Law School in 1923, but left without a degree.  In spite of this, he passed the Texas Bar in 1926 and was admitted to the practice of law.  In that same year, Archie appointed George to complete the term of his brother Given as Duval County Judge.  George’s first wife was Thelma Duckworth of Corpus Christi; he subsequently married Eva Perez, with whom he had two daughters.

The Parr political machine employed bribery, graft, and illegal donations.  Political support came from the southern-most counties in Texas.  The machine was able to produce large numbers of votes, legal or not, from among the impoverished and uneducated working-class Tejano population.  As a result of this arrangement, marginalized native Texan farmers moved away from Duval county.  County politics was thus left to the Parr machine and an easily bribed Tejano community; it made the county a bastion of Democratic crime and corruption.  Even so, George Parr was as charismatic as his father and equally fluent in Spanish.  Like his father, local Tejanos referred to George as “El Patron.”

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Lyndon B. Johnson

In 1948, Coke Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, and others, competed for the United States Senate seat.  Stevenson and Johnson advanced to a runoff election.  For five days following the election, Stevenson appeared to hold a lead of 112 votes.  Then, Jim Wells County amended its return adding 202 additional votes —200 of which were for Johnson, who ended up winning the election by 87 votes.  This miraculous showing at the polls earned Johnson the sobriquet, “Landslide Johnson.”  It was dirty politics, pure and simple —but Parr did pay Johnson back for supporting his application for a presidential pardon.

By 1950, the Parr machine had become an irritation to Governor Allan Shivers and Attorney General John Shepperd.  Federal officials initiated an investigation in Duval County, which resulted in 650 indictments against the Parr Machine.  Three hundred of these indictments were rendered at the state level. George Parr eluded indictment, however. Later charged with fraud, the allegations were dismissed by a local judge.  Now under the protection of Lyndon Johnson, George Parr eluded every attempt to indict him for fraud, bribery, corruption, racketeering, and murder.  At the time John Shepperd was seeking indictments against Parr, he also served as a close political advisor to Lyndon Johnson.

In 1950, Jake Floyd, from Alice, Texas successfully lead the Freedom Party against the Parr machine and won. The result was the Parr operation lost an important office that was used to control their South Texas interests. Then, in 1952, Jacob “Buddy” Floyd, Jake’s 22-year old son, was murdered by a Parr assassin named Mario Sapet. Sapet’s intended target was Jake; it was a case of mistaken identity.  Sapet was arrested and later convicted, but everyone knew that the real culprit was never indicted for this crime.

Parr continued to be object of political reform movements in Duval and Jim Wells counties and in 1954, Governor Shivers declared war on the Parr faction.  Texas Rangers were sent to investigate George Parr.  He was charged with embezzlement but managed to beat the case against him.

In the early 1960s, a group of county women organized to clean up county politics.  They requested that the State Attorney General investigate voting fraud in Duval and Jim Wells Counties.  Several investigations were conducted, but without any meaningful change. With the end of the Johnson administration in 1968, Parr lost his primary protector.  Under the advice of Johnson and other prominent state democrats, George relinquished control the Parr apparatus to his nephew, Archer Parr III in the 1970s.

The law finally caught up with George Parr in 1974 when he was convicted of income tax evasion and received a ten-year prison sentence.  Determined not to go to jail, George committed suicide on 1 April 1975.  At this time, Archie Parr III was serving as the Duval County Judge; he stood down later that year and it wasn’t long after that that the Parr machine collapsed.  Even though a small land-owning minority attempted to retain control of county politics, the party was taken over by the large Tejano community.  In spite of all this, the family and its network remain significantly influential in Duval and Jim Wells counties —both of which remain one of the strongest and most consistently Democrat localities in Texas, frequently giving national and local Democratic candidates winning margins greater than 70 percent.


[1] Also, Grande Cuisine, as may be served in gourmet restaurants, and luxury hotels.

[2] The last Republican to carry the county was Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.

[3] In the United States, poll taxes were implemented in some U.S. states and local jurisdictions; paying the tax was a pre-condition of voting.  Many southern states enacted poll taxes as a means of restricting eligible voters for exercising their right to vote.

[4] Convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to supervised parole, Parr eventually served nine months in the Federal Correction Institution at El Reno for violating his parole.

[5] Richard Kleberg served as a Democrat in the US House of Representatives for seven consecutive terms (1931-1945); he passed away in 1955 at the age of 67 years.

[6] Maddox was indicted for commercial bribery (an attempt to deliver corporate funds to an election campaign) in 1983.  In essence, Maddox received $125,000 from his sister, a Dallas lawyer.  She in turn received the funds from the Seafirst Bank in Seattle, which had close ties to Clinton Manges, who was a controversial South Texas rancher and the heir to the Parr machine in Duval County.

[7] Lyle replaced Kleberg in the US House of Representatives in 1945, serving through 1955.  He was a beneficiary of the Parr political machine.  He passed away in 2003, aged 93 years.

[8] George attended the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston, Texas with his father.  It was in Houston that he was introduced to Alvin Wirtz (State Senator), Ealy Johnson, Jr., (State Representative) and members of the Bexar County political machine. He was also introduced to Ealy’s son, then a college student by the name of Lyndon B. Johnson.

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A Dangerous Dandy

John King Fisher, known in his adult life as King Fisher, was born on an unknown date in October 1853.  His parents were Jobe and Lucinda Warren Fisher.  Jobe was a cattleman who owned and operated two freight wagons. Lucinda died when King was still an infant; his father later remarried a woman named Minerva.  At the end of the Civil War, the Fisher family moved from Collin County to Williamson County, just outside Austin, Texas, and a short time after that, Minerva also passed away.

Jobe Fisher relocated to Goliad, just west of Victoria, Texas. There, the Fisher’s were joined by Jobe’s mother, who helped her son raise the children.  As in many cases in early Texas, John Fisher had a rough childhood. As a young man, he was restless, handsome, popular with the ladies —and he associated with a rough crowd.  Around 1869, Jobe sent his son to live with his brother James.  Two years later, King Fisher was arrested for horse theft and was sentenced to two years in prison.  Because of his youth, however, he was released later in the same year.


John King Fisher

After King’s release from jail, he began working as a ranch hand.  Incessant raids, lootings, and assaults directed toward Texas ranch and farm families by Mexican bandits led to King’s participation as a member of local sheriff’s possés.  He enjoyed this kind of activity, and he began to think of himself as a fast gun. His attire became somewhat ostentatious [1]; he carried ivory handled pistols, and with time he developed proficiency with sidearms.  In time, King Fisher began to associate with known outlaws which engaged in frequent rustling forays into Mexico.  As in one of the never-ending stories of crime life, the gang squabbled about how to divide their spoils.  More or less to emphasize his own point of view, one of the irate outlaws drew his pistol. In the gunfight that ensued, King Fisher shot the outlaw and two of his accompanying bandits.  Being the winner of this disagreement enabled Fisher to take charge of the gang, and over the course of several months, the Fisher gang killed seven more Mexican bandits.

King Fisher purchased a ranch on the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. The ranch was right on the border with Mexico, perfectly placed as a base of operations in Texas and Mexico. Still, King rarely perpetrated acts of violence or theft against other Texas.  He preferred raids into Mexico, whether in retribution for Mexican raids into Texas or simply because the Mexican ranches were easy pickings, I don’t know.  What I do know is that this was a time of constant raiding back and forth between Texas and Mexico, a time of common place murder and mayhem, of looting and raping, and to the victor go the spoils.

In these days, there was not much law in South Texas.  Settlers, feeling ignored by state and county authorities, began to organize themselves somewhat in defense leagues—or, if you prefer, rival gangs.  All this really accomplished was increasing ill-will between Texans and Mexicans, and among Texans themselves.  The situation made it difficult for the Texas Rangers to establish lawful authority over South Texas.

The arrival of Leander H. McNelly in South Texas changed the foregoing situation.  Ostensibly, Captain McNelly’s focus was to quell the activities of Mexican bandit leader Juan Cortina, but at the same time, McNelly realized that King Fisher was also part of the problem.  McNelly led his rangers to the Fisher Ranch and arrested its owner.  McNelly didn’t want to take Fisher into custody, so he sat him down and made an agreement with him.  As a result, Fisher’s frequent raids into Mexico ceased and, whatever it was that McNelly told him, Fisher soon retired from his outlaw ways.  He became a legitimate and lawful rancher —the word lawful having a somewhat subjective connotation.

Fisher King never lost his edge with a side arm.  In 1878, an argument developed between Fisher and four Mexican vaqueros.  Fisher clubbed the first man with a branding iron; then, as the second man went for his gun, Fisher drew his own pistol and, shooting straight and true, killed the man instantly.  Fisher then spun around and shot the other two men, who evidently did little more than set themselves on the corral fence.  It was the kind of stuff one might find in dime novels of the time [2].

Fisher may have been a gentleman rancher, but he was never quite the good boy his grandmother hoped he would become.  He was arrested on several occasions for public altercations, several of these involving local lawmen.  On one occasion, he was charged with “intent to kill” —charges that were dropped when no witnesses came forward to tell what the knew.  In spite of being a hot head, he was well liked in South Texas.  In 1876, Fisher married Sarah Vivian; together they had four daughters.  It was time for King Fisher to settle down.

In 1883, Fisher served as acting Sheriff of Uvalde County.  During this service, he was called upon to investigate a stagecoach robbery that allegedly involved Tom and Jim Hannehan. He trailed these men to their ranch near Leakey, Texas.  Fisher wanted to question them about the allegations, but they resisted his arrest. Fisher shot and killed Tom, and the smarter of the two, Jim, surrendered.  Having taken Jim Hannehan into custody, Fisher discovered the stolen loot and returned it to the rightful owners [3].

San Antonio 1885

Jack Harris’ Variety Theater was in the rear of this building

In 1884, King Fisher traveled to San Antonio on business.  There, he came into contact with his old friend Ben Thompson [4].  Thompson was somewhat unpopular in San Antonio owing to the fact that he’d previously killed a popular theater-owner named Jack Harris.  A feud over that killing had been brewing between Thompson and friends of Harris—which is generally the way feuds work.  On the evening of 11 May, Fisher and Thompson attended a play at the Turner Hall Opera House.  At around 10:30 p.m., they went to the Vaudeville Variety Theater.  Local lawman Jacob Coy sat with them.  Thompson wanted to see Joe Foster, also a theater owner and a friend of the departed Harris.  Foster was also one of the fellows harboring a grudge against Thompson. Thompson set up a meeting with Foster’s partner, Billy Simms.  Simms directed Thompson and Fisher upstairs to meet with Foster.  Coy and Simms soon joined them in the theater box, but Foster refused to speak to Thompson.  Fisher noted that something was amiss.  Simms and Coy stepped aside; as they did, gunfire erupted from another theater box. A hail of bullets struck Thompson and Fisher.  Thompson fell on his side, and either Coy or Foster approached him and shot him in the head. He died immediately.  Fisher was hit thirteen times, but got off one shot, wounding Coy, and crippling him for life.  Foster, while drawing his pistol for the coupe deGrasse over Thompson, managed to shoot himself in the leg, which was later amputated.  Foster died shortly afterwards.

San Antonians, ever known for their peaceful nature, demanded that a grand jury investigate the shooting, but no action was ever taken.  San Antonio police and the local prosecutor showed very little interest in the case and it, along with Fisher, was laid to rest [5].  Fisher was 30 years old.


[1] He was known to wear a sombrero with a gold braid, embroidered vests, silk shirts, and crimson sashes.  His most famous trademark was a pair of Bengal tiger skin chaps.  His silver mounted two-gun holsters sported ivory handled pistols. He also wore silver spurs mounted on silver bells that always announced his presence nearby.

[2] A reporter named Carey McWilliams once said that he asked King Fisher how many notches he had on the handles of his guns (denoting one kill for each notch).  Fisher is said to have replied, “Thirty-seven, but not counting any Mexicans.”

[3] For years after King Fisher’s death, Tom Hannehan’s mother traveled to Fisher’s grave, built a fire above it, and danced around singing chants of one kind or another —proving where the Hannehan brothers obtained their wackiness.

[4] Ben Thompson was an Englishman who immigrated to the United States in 1851.  He was a lawman and a gunfighter.  He once explained his success as a gunman: “I always make it a rule to let the other fellow fire first.  Now, if a man wants to fight, I argue the question with him and try to show him how foolish it would be.  If he can’t be dissuaded, why then the fun begins but I always let him have the first crack.  Then when I fire, you see, I have the verdict of self-defense on my side.  I know that he is pretty certain in his hurry to miss. I never do.”

[5] After Fisher’s death Deputy Sheriff Tom Sullivan of Medina County was asked his opinion about Fisher and Thompson.  After giving the question a measure of thought, he said, “They called King Fisher and Ben Thompson bad men, but they weren’t bad men —they just wouldn’t stand for no foolishness.”


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Captain John R. Hughes

Hughes JR 001

John Reynolds Hughes

As with many a young man in the mid-1800s, John Reynolds Hughes left home at an early age to find his own way in the world.  He was but fourteen years of age.  At the beginning of his adult life, he led the life of a ranch hand —or as some today might say, that of a cowboy [1].  Initially, he worked on a cattle ranch near his home in 1868, but eventually an invisible hand pulled him further west into the Indian territories.  For four years, he lived among the Choctaw and Osage nations, and then he moved on to the Comanche Nation in 1874.  He traded for goods and commodities near Fort Sill and became friends with Quanah Parker [2].  After living for six years in the Indian territory and a brief time working as a hand along the Chisolm Trail [3], Hughes bought a farm near Liberty Hill, Texas and entered the business of raising horses.

In 1886, the 31-year old rancher discovered that a number of his horses, and those of neighboring ranches, had been stolen; he wanted them back.  He set out to find the men who took them.  After trailing the thieves for several months, he finally located them.  Some of these men he killed, others he turned over to authorities in the New Mexico territory.  He returned the horses to his neighbors and resumed the business of his ranch.  By now the word was out that John Hughes was not a man to trifle with.  This reputation brought him to the attention of Ira Aten [4] of the Texas rangers.

In 1887, Hughes accompanied Aten in the pursuit of the murderer Judd Roberts.  The two men located Roberts, who when confronted by Hughes and Aten was killed in a gunfight.  Based on Aten’s recommendations, John Hughes was subsequently recruited by the Texas Rangers.  He accepted his commission at Georgetown, Texas on 10 August of that same year and was assigned to Company D, The Frontier Battalion [5].  Company D was located at Camp Wood [6] and tasked to patrol the border area between Texas and Mexico.

Hughes JR 004

Texas Rangers c. 1893 Captain John R. Hughes seated far right

After Texas Ranger Captain Frank Jones was killed in 1893 [7], Hughes was commissioned as the Captain of Company D.  He quickly gained the reputation of a relentless pursuer of outlaws, demonstrated after Jones’ death when Hughes led his company in tracking down the killers, most of whom were of the Olguin family.  Based on information provided to him by undercover agent Ernest St. Leon, Hughes tracked down 18 suspects and either killed them in shootouts or by hanging them from the nearest tree.  In fact, Hughes reputation was such that not even the infamous murderer “Deacon Jim” Miller [8] wanted to tangle with him.

Hughes JR 002

Captain Hughes, post-retirement

After Hughes’ retirement in 1915, an author by the name of Zane Gray approached him for an interview.  Hughes and Gray got along well enough.  The result of this meeting was a Zane Gray book titled Lone Star Ranger,which while fiction, was modeled on the exploits of John Hughes and the Rangers of Company D.  Other books soon followed: The Border Boss, by Jack Marin (1942), Trails and Trials of a Texas Ranger, by W. W. Sterling, Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, by Bill O’Neal, and The Law Comes to Texas, by Frederick Wilkins.  Many western enthusiasts today believe that John Reynolds Hughes was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger character that found its way in to early films, a television series, and a remade modern film of the same name.

Hughes never married; by the 1940s, he was in poor health and most of those who were closest to him had already passed away.  At the age of 92, Hughes was living with his niece in Austin, Texas.  He committed suicide on 3 June 1947.


[1] The term cowboy, when used in the 1800s, was meant as a pejorative since cow boys were believed to be toughs, bullies, gunfighters, back-shooters, or men of ill-repute.  The good guys who pursued this line of work were simply called “hands,” ranch hands, or trail hands.

[2] Quanah Parker (1845-1911) was the last chief of the Quahada tribe of Comanche.  He was the son of Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker. He became a major figure in Comanche resistance to white settlement and in the tribe’s adjustments to reservation life.

[3] The Chisholm Trail was the major route out of Texas for livestock between 1867 and 1884.  The cattle trail played a major role helping Texas recover from the economic effects of the American Civil War.

[4] Ira Aten died on 5 August 1953 at the age of 89-years.

[5] The Frontier Battalion was composed of six companies of Texas rangers (each company having 75 men).  The battalion was formed in 1874 to protect the frontier of Texas.  Camps were established at locations along the entire frontier area with pony riders maintaining continual communications among them.

[6] Established as a US military outpost in 1857, Camp Wood was located on the Nueces River near the present-day town of the same name.  The purpose of the outpost was to protect the San Antonio-El Paso route and the Rio Grande Valley from Indian raids.  It was also near the ruins of Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz. Camp Wood was named for George W. F. Wood.  After the Civil War, Camp Wood was periodically used as an outpost by the Texas Rangers.

[7] Texas Ranger Captain Frank Jones, Corporal Kirchner, Privates Tucker, Aten and Saunders, and El Paso County Deputy Sheriff Bryant attempted to serve an arrest warrant on Jesus-Maria Olguin and his son, Severio, for cattle rustling.  The Olguin clan were known outlaws and lived in the “no man’s land” on Pirate Island which was situated in the middle of the Rio Grande River between Texas and Mexico across from El Paso County.  As the lawmen approached the small village of Tres Jacales, they observed two Mexican riders flee toward the village, dismount, and enter an adobe building.  As Captain Jones and his men approached, gun fire erupted from inside the buildings and from surrounding brush. Jones was wounded in the thigh and fell from his horse. He straightened his leg out and continued to return fire.  Private Tucker came to his assistance, but Jones ordered his men to save themselves.  Seconds later he was riddled with bullets and died.  Jones was 37-years old.

[8] James Brown Miller (aka Deacon Jim) (1861-1909) was a professional killer, said to have murdered 12 people during gunfights and assassinations.  He was called Deacon Jim because he regularly attended the church, did not smoke or drink.  Having assassinated a popular former US marshal, Miller and three other men were lynched in Ada, Oklahoma by a mob of highly irate town citizens.


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El Pistolero

Karnes County TXThe date was 12 June 1901.  Karnes County, Texas Sheriff W. T. Morris (whom everyone called Brack) and a deputy were investigating the theft of a horse.  The sheriff’s inquiry led him to the Thulemeyer Ranch outside Kenedy, Texas.  Arriving at the ranch, Morris encountered two Mexican tenant farmers —brothers named Gregorio and Romaldo Cortez.  Not being able to converse in Spanish, Morris depended on his deputy to act as an interpreter.  The sheriff, having learned that Gregorio had recently obtained a horse, sought to question him about it.  Gregorio was asked (by the deputy) if he had recently acquired a caballo (stallion).  Cortez replied no, but he had a yegua (mare) … a word that the deputy did not understand.  Morris and his deputy conferred for a few moments.  After this short conversation, Morris suddenly drew out his revolver; Romaldo immediately went for his gun.  Morris shot Romaldo, wounding him.  Within a split second, Gregorio drew his weapon (in self-defense) and shot Morris, mortally wounding him.  The deputy pushed Morris into their buckboard wagon and made a quick withdrawal back to town.

Gregorio took his brother inside their small cottage and turned him over to his woman for care, and then, realizing that nothing good would follow this encounter, he decided to getaway.  Gregorio initially stopped at the home of Martín and Refugia Robledo, which was situated on the property of one Mr. Schnabel.  Over the next several hours, Gonzales County Sheriff Glover and his posse discovered Gregorio at the Robledo home.  An exchange of gunfire ensued, resulting in the death of both Glover and Schnabel.  The posse withdrew.

Cortez escaped again, this time on foot, walking nearly 100 miles to the home of his friend, Ceferino Flores.  Flores provided Cortez with a horse and saddle and sent him on his way. Gregoria now headed for Laredo.

Gregorio-CortezGregorio Cortez was now a wanted man in the State of Texas.  In spite of a manhunt involving hundreds of local and county lawmen, and a special train requisitioned to transport men and horses to Laredo, Cortez successfully evaded authorities for another ten days.

Texas newspapers were at first critical of Cortez, some even lamenting that he hadn’t been lynched.  The hatred that some Texans had toward Mexicans spilled over into Tejano communities in the counties of Gonzalez, Refugio, Hays, and others.  In time, however, the animosity initially directed toward Cortez was transformed into admiration for the man’s ability to evade a rather substantial force of lawmen.  The San Antonio Express even glorified his remarkable powers of endurance and skill in eluding pursuit.

Throughout his ordeal, Cortez received aid and comfort from his friends; one of these, however, turned him in and Cortez was subsequently apprehended by a Texas Ranger on 22 June 1901. Within those ten days, Cortez traveled nearly 400 miles on horseback, and another 100 miles on foot.  The story, when carefully considered, appears symbolic of the struggles between Texans, Mexicans, and Tejanos [1].

Immediately following Cortez’ capture, supporters began forming organizations to help publicize the case and raise money for a legal defense.  In all, Gregorio endured four separate trials.  In Gonzalez County, Cortez was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison.  His lawyers appealed the judgment, but while that was going on, a lynch mob of several hundred Texans appeared in front of the jail and attempted to lynch him. The effort was thwarted by good law enforcement.

Gregorio was also tried and convicted in Karnes City, and Pleasanton.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals eventually overturned these verdicts and ordered a new trial with a change in venue to Corpus Christi, Texas. The trial was held in 1904; by this time, Cortez had been incarcerated for three years.  Again convicted, Cortez began a life sentence in the state penitentiary.  Nevertheless, considering the circumstances of these shootings, which everyone acknowledged were in self-defense, efforts to obtain a governor’s pardon finally succeeded in 1913.  Texas governor Oscar Colquitt issued him a conditional pardon —the condition being that he must, upon release, return to Mexico.

When he was released, Cortez thanked everyone who had worked for his freedom and then promptly returned to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.  It was there that he joined the forces of Victoriano Huerta during the Mexican Revolution. Shortly after marrying —some say for the fourth time, Gregorio Cortez died of pneumonia on 28 February 1916.  Family members claimed that Gregorio had been poisoned and died in the family barn shortly after his release from prison, but this does not appear to have been the case.  What is true is that Senor Cortez died at the age of 41-years.

Like most Mexicans, Gregorio Cortez had a humble beginning.  His parents were itinerant laborers who took their family to Manor, Texas in 1887.  In that same year, Romaldo was charged with stealing a horse, but charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence against him.  Another brother, Tomas, was charged with a similar but separate offense.  Tomas, while convicted, was eventually pardoned by Texas Governor Sul Ross.  Some historians today speculate that the family was involved in horse thievery throughout the 1880s.

In spite of the activities of his brothers, Gregorio Cortez worked as a farmhand in various Texas counties —which made him familiar with much of the area of his ordeal.  His marriage in 1890 produced four children, but he was divorced in 1903 —while in state custody.  Of his early years, he was known to speak good English and to have been the owner of legitimately acquired horses.  I have often wondered, if Gregorio spoke good English, why he would have needed the deputy to translate the sheriff’s questions.  In any case, Gregorio Cortez Lira became a folk hero within South Texas Tejano communities —and remains so today.

The Robert Young film, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, staring James Edward Olmos (1982), was both excellent and thought-provoking.


[1] On a personal level, almost every Texan had a Mexican or Tejano friend.  Generally, however, these groups developed and nurtured a fair amount of contempt for one another, the foundation of which was the history of South Texas and their suspicious nature.  To a Texan’s face, a Tejano called him amigo, but when among his own kind, he would refer to a Texan as gringo.  To a Mexican’s face, the Texan would call him by a first name, behind his back, a Texan often used the term “a” or “the” Mexican.

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The Bandit War

(Continued from last week)

Governor Ferguson responded to the Mexican/Tejano uprising by hiring a man named Henry Ransom [1] to serve as a Texas Ranger captain in South Texas. To put a fine point on it, Ransom was a ruthless killer who had been hardened by his earlier scrapes in Texas and his turn of the century military service in the Philippine Islands.  It was in the Philippines that Ransom saved the life of US Army Captain John A. Hulen.  As a reward for saving his life, Hulen, also a former Adjutant General for the State of Texas, influenced Ferguson to hire Ransom.  Ferguson ordered Ransom to form a new Ranger company, Company D, and to “… go down there [Rio Grande Valley] and clean it up —even if you have to kill every damn man connected with it [Plan of San Diego].”

Henry Ransom

Henry Ransom, seated far right

In essence, Ferguson offered Ransom and his rangers official protection from prosecution for first degree murder.  For his part, Ransom was eager to carry out Ferguson’s instructions. Insofar as Ransom was concerned, “Anyone who has guilty knowledge of crimes committed, or anyone who harbors bandits should be killed.”  To form his new company, Ransom recruited former prison guards and disreputable shootists from throughout South Texas.  Ransom stationed Company D in the border town of Harlingen, Texas, in Cameron County.  What subsequently transpired was a period of South Texas history referred to as the Bandit Wars.

In fairness, few people living in the Rio Grande Valley shared Ferguson’s and Ransom’s radical (and deeply un-American) views.  Cameron County Sheriff William T. Vann was one Texan who pushed back —and this began a long conflict between Vann and Ferguson, and by extension, between Sheriff Vann and the Texas Rangers.

On 2 August 1915, someone reported spotting fifty Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande near Brownsville.  At the time, Caesar Kleberg managed the politically influential King Ranch.  He and Jim Wells notified the State Adjutant General of this incursion and urged him to come personally to South Texas to deal with it.  Adjutant General Henry Hutchings promptly ordered Texas Ranger Captain J. Monroe Fox to move his entire company from Marfa [2] to Brownsville and, having done so, boarded a train for South Texas.  On the very morning Hutchings arrived in Brownsville, Luis De la Rosa attacked the settlement at Sebastian murdering two innocent men, a father and his son who were working in a nearby field.  He then set about looting several stores in Sebastian.   Before making his escape, De la Rosa made a chilling announcement: he intended to kill other prominent citizens in South Texas.  In reporting this incident, the Dallas Morning News reminded its readers that the De la Rosa raid should dispel any notion that these attacks originated in Mexico [3].

That night, Hutchings and Ransom led a posse to track down the bandit gang.  Three suspected raiders were shot and killed on the McAllen Ranch near Paso Real.  Sheriff Vann, who was a member of the posse, later insisted that these three men were not bandits —they were all unarmed.

Captain Fox and his Company B rangers arrived by train in Brownsville at noon on the following day. On the morning of 8 August, Fox received a telephone call from Kleberg informing him that Mexican raiders had been observed on his range near Kingsville.  Hutchings quickly organized a posse composed of Ransom and Fox, fourteen Texas Rangers, and eight men borrowed from the 12thCavalry under Corporal Allen Mercer.  This contingent departed Brownsville headed for Norias, a sub-unit headquarters location of the sprawling King Ranch.  The posse was eventually joined by a US mounted immigration inspector named D. Portus Gray, who with nothing better to do, decided that he wanted to share in the excitement.  Gray soon recruited Deputy Sheriff Gordon Hill, two customs inspectors (former Texas Rangers), and two civilian (cowboy) volunteers.

Norias is situated on a flat plain 75-miles north of Brownsville.  At that time, it was an isolated cattle shipping station for the King Ranch.  The headquarters building was a two-story wood frame house that stood 50-feet west of the railway tracks; it was more-or-less surrounded by out-buildings such as a railroad section house, tool sheds, piles of cross ties, and two bunk houses.  Residents of Norias consisted of only a handful of people associated with the King Ranch, including a foreman, three cowboys, a carpenter and his wife, a black cook and his wife, several Mexican railroad hands and their wives, and an elderly woman by the name of Manuela Flores.  A gentleman by the name of Tom Tate was also on hand serving as a special ranger [4] to the King Ranch.

Shortly after the posse’s arrival, Tate supplied them with horses and then led Hutchings and his men toward a water hole twelve miles southwest where they hoped to strike the trail of the suspected bandits.  The US troops were left behind to guard the Norias station.

Portus Gray and his men arrived at the Norias station around 5:30 p.m., and since the posse had already departed Norias, the Gray contingent were invited to join everyone else for supper.  Afterwards, while sitting leisurely on the porch, Customs Inspector “Tiny” Hines (who was anything but tiny) spotted the approach of riders in the distance.  He thought the posse was returning.  On closer examination, however, Gray noted the Mexican sombreros and a white flag with a red border.  He alerted everyone that the approaching riders were bandits, and everyone scurried to a defensive position.

Luis de la Rosa 1914

De la Rosa, 1914

In fact, there were sixty bandoleer-draped riders, armed with Mauser rifles, and they were fast approaching Norias Station.  Some of these men were Carranza’s soldiers (from Mexico), while others were Tejano adherents to the Plan of San Diego (The Plan), and all of them serving under the command of Luis De la Rosa.  Their intention was to wreck and rob the train and dispatch anyone who got in the way.  US troops quickly took up defensive positions behind a low rail bed.  As the raiders closed to 250-yards, the troops opened fire with their Springfield rifles; Mexicans quickly dismounted and returned fire. Three of the defenders were immediately wounded.  The rebels launched an aggressive attack, attempting an envelopment of the defenders. The largest battle of the Bandit Wars was joined.

Deadly fire from the defenders caused the seditionists to take cover behind a toolshed, the section house, and the stack of cross ties.  Having broken in to the section house, Antonio Rocha dragged Manuela Flores forward and demanded that she tell him how many defenders were at the ranch house.  The feisty older woman answered defiantly in Spanish, “If you want to know, go over there and find out.”  Rocha promptly shot her in the head.

The rebels positioned themselves so that they were delivering fire into the defenders from two sides.  One of the defenders, a cowboy named Lauro Cavazos, shot the horse out from under one of the rebel leaders.  With this sudden lull in the firing, the three wounded defenders were quickly moved to the ranch house.  Several raiders, who had managed to entangle themselves in barbed-wire east of the tracks, were shot down by the defenders.  Realizing that they had a limited supply of ammunition, the defenders carefully chose their targets.  The black cook, Mr. Albert Edmunds, reached a telephone by crawling along the floor and, contacting Kleberg, pleaded for help.  Then, braving lethal fire, Edmunds crawled from one defender to the next with much needed drinking water —and while the men were drinking, he took over his rifle and delivered accurate fire at the bandits.

The gunfight raged for more than two hours.  The defenders were nearly out of ammunition and the situation looked bleak.  Just as the sun went down, at about 8:30 p.m., the raiders mounted a coordinated charge shooting and yelling like wild Indians. At a range of about 40-yards, former Texas Ranger Pinkie Taylor shot and killed De la Rosa and the attack faltered. The bandits, having never figured on a stout defense at a place they imagined was lightly defended, then lost interest in continuing their assault.  Loading their wounded onto horses, they withdrew from Norias Station. Gray later said that the defenders had wounded half of the attackers.  After the Mexican withdrawal, the defenders maintained their positions and watch.

An hour later, the Hutchings posse returned to Norias oblivious to the firefight.  Surveying the damage, the Texas Rangers were embarrassed and chagrined to learn how narrowly they had missed the action. Captain Ransom then began lecturing the defenders on how they should have organized themselves, but former ranger Pinkie Taylor would have none of his arm-chair analysis and put him in his place.  Hutchings elected not to pursue the marauders fearing an ambush in the night.  This was probably a wise decision.

The next morning, the posse followed the raiders’ tracks.  They discovered four bodies on the plains east of the ranch house along with a white flag emblazoned with a large letter E.  One wounded bandit identified himself as Jose Garcia and said that he was from San Benito, Texas.  The goal of the attackers, he said, was to reclaim the Rio Grande Valley for Mexico. After making his statement, Garcia died. A subsequent inquiry by Sheriff Vann, however, suggests that Garcia was actually a man named Jesus Garcia of Brownsville.  There was some conjecture about how Garcia died, an inference that he was murdered by Ransom, but most believed he died from the wounds he sustained during the battle.

On the next day, a photographer named Robert Runyon arrived by train from Brownsville. Runyon had created a cottage industry photographing grizzly scenes of the Mexican Revolution and then selling his pictures as postcards.  Runyon took several pictures of the aftermath of the firefight at Norias Station. Texas Rangers posed proudly for him —as if they had had anything at all to do with the battle, but this was the nature of the Texas Rangers under Hutchings in 1915.  Nevertheless, Runyon’s photographs offended a large number of people in the United States and did nothing but anger the Mexicans —especially his still-photographs of Texas Rangers dragging dead bodies behind horses to a mass-grave pit.

The Norias Station Raid caused a sensation in the United States.  A massive operation was initiated to hunt down the surviving participants of the attack.  The local army commander, General Frederick Funston, ordered additional troops, heavy guns, and an aircraft to patrol the border.  Within ten days, according to one San Antonio newspaper, ten Mexicans and Tejanos had been shot dead or hanged in the Rio Grande Valley.  The Dallas Morning News reported, “To all practical purposes, a condition of guerrilla warfare exists along the border.  Nobody knows how many Mexicans have been killed in the brush in the last few days—and nobody will ever know.”

Given the circumstances of the Norias Station Raid and public knowledge of The Plan, almost everyone in South Texas started wearing or carrying firearms —and, whenever an armed Hispanic was encountered, he was assumed to be an insurgent and treated accordingly.

On the morning of 10 August, Captain J. Monroe Fox received a tip that a band of marauders was hold up at the El Merino Range, two miles west of Sebastian.  As Fox and his rangers rode toward the ranch house, an unknown number of Mexicans leaped on their horses intending to escape.  The rangers opened fire, killing two men —the rest making good their escape.

On 14 August, Fox was informed that one of the Norias Station raiders was located in Raymondville. They tracked him down and killed him. Upon Fox’s return to Brownsville, he reported that “virtually all of the Mexican bandits have either been killed or driven back into Mexico.”

The killing wasn’t over, however.  On 20 August, Fox and his rangers went to the home of Tomas Aguilar, who was suspected as one of the Norias Station insurgents.  From what we know, Aguilar at first attempted to hide from the rangers, but then he grabbed a rifle and ran for his horse, firing at the rangers as he ran.  The rangers returned fire, hitting him.  That evening, from his hotel in Raymondville, Fox wrote his report informing General Hutchings that they had captured and killed Aguilar, that he had admitted to robbing the depot at Combs, Texas, and setting fire to the railroad bridge.  Aguilar also admitted to murdering a farmer and his son in cold blood. Apparently, Ferguson’s “shoot to kill” order had taken hold among the Rangers.  From Captain Fox’s own report, Aguilar made his confession —and was then executed.  Soon after, Company B was soon ordered back to the Big Bend area of Texas.


The bearded Venustiano Carranza, standing left

Apparently, the Plan of San Diego wasn’t as absurd as some imagined —the raids were real and deadly, but they actually began in 1910 and lasted through 1919.  They were initially carried out by Mexican rebels from Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, Mexico.  The Carranza faction was responsible for most of these, but the Tejano seditionists played a large role, as well.  While never able to implement The Plan in the way it was envisioned, the seditionists played havoc with South Texas communities —essentially widening the gap between Anglo and Hispanic communities.

The facts are that the first raids targeted prominent Mexican-Americans (Tejanos).  Deputy Sheriff Pablo Falcon was the first victim of The Plan.  One of the men who killed him was a Mexican whom Falcon had arrested the week prior. The overall leaders were Luis de la Rosa and Aniceto Pizana, who organized their guerrilla bands that consisted of between 25 and 100 men.  In addition to targeting prominent Hispanic citizens, they intended to kill all white men over the age of 16 years.  They intended to raze public and private property, to instill fear within South Texas communities.  They disrupted communications by pulling down telephone and telegraph wires.

In order to maintain this assault, it was crucial to maintain support from Mexico.  Half of the men on guerilla missions were Mexicans. Additionally, Mexican newspapers were used as propaganda tools within border towns, which exaggerated the success of Mexicans against white Americans and actively recruited others to participate in the raids.

Understandably, white Americans became increasingly hostile toward and suspicious of Hispanics —during and years after the Bandit Wars.  The unhappy result of these actions were illegal executions of Mexicans at the hands of the Texas Rangers, county sheriffs, and local police officers. Private citizens also participated in the indiscriminate killings.  Local whites established the Law and Order League in 1915, a vigilante group. Before the end of 1916, more than 300 Tejanos were slain in Texas.

Francisco Pancho Villa

Francisco “Pancho” Villa

Then, in March 1916, Pancho Villa  raided Columbus, New Mexico.  This act prompted President Woodrow Wilson to send General John J. Pershing into Mexico to capture him.  Pershing never found Villa, but the crisis escalated to a point just short of general war between the United States and Mexico.  Eventually, the issue was resolved diplomatically, but after the Zimmerman Telegram became public knowledge in 1917, South Texas whites looked upon Hispanics as enemies of the United States.

Personal note: having lived in the Rio Grande Valley for a decade (albeit twenty years ago), I can say that the suspicion, distrust, and resentment between whites and Tejanos generated during the Bandit Wars continues to simmer beneath the surface of South Texas society.


  1. Texas Monthly, Rivers of Blood, (January 1986)
  2. Boessenecker, J: Texas Ranger, The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde(2016)
  3. Webb, Walter P: The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, (1935)
  4. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas


[1] When it was revealed that the Houston police force was unable to cope with the explosion of crime, Mayor Horace Baldwin Rice, a wealthy progressive reformer, hired two former Texas Rangers as his personal police agency to stop the violence. These men were Henry Lee Ransom and Jules J. Baker.  Of the two, Ransom was the most dangerous; his willingness to shoot anyone he suspected of a crime, particularly if they happened to be black or Tejano, resulted in his indictment for murder on more than one occasion.  He always seemed to escape punishment, however.  In 1910, Ransom was 39-years old, stood five-foot, 8-inches tall, and weighed 140 pounds.  Ransom was a veteran of the Spanish-American war with service in the Philippine Islands at a time when US Army troops destroyed villages and wantonly murdered military prisoners and civilians in cold blood.  According to one biographer, “Trouble followed Henry Ransom like horseflies on a cow pony.”

[2] Marfa, Texas is located in northeastern Presidio County in the high desert of the Trans-Pecos between the Davis Mountains and the area known as Big Bend (now a national park).  The town is twenty miles south of Fort Davis and 18 miles west of the city of Alpine.

[3] This wasn’t the first time the newspaper “got it” wrong —or the last.

[4] At this time, special Texas Ranger commissions were offered to certain politically connected individuals.  The commission gave men the same rights as a regular Texas Ranger, including certain law enforcement powers, but they were not state employees.  It is likely that Tate’s commission was granted to him because he was employed by the politically powerful King Ranch and it was convenient to the King Ranch to have such a person on their payroll.


Posted in History, Society | 7 Comments

Sedition in Texas —1915

Wells JB 001

James Babbage Wells Jr.

The boss of all white bosses in South Texas was a thoroughly corrupt Brownsville attorney by the name of James Babbage Wells, Jr.  Wells controlled South Texas from about 1880 until 1920.  Along with wealthy merchants, bankers, and large land-owners, Wells created a political machine much on the order of the Old Mexican patron: he gave jobs, protection, and support to the Tejano [1] poor —in exchange for their political support, of course.  While Wells was the boss of bosses in South Texas, the majority of the population remained Tejano —and, for the most part, Tejanos lived in harmony with the white minority because they were materially rewarded for supporting the Wells machine.

This harmonious relationship between Anglos and Tejanos changed after 1898, however, when the introduction of irrigation farming transformed the Rio Grande Valley from dry scrub desert into the epicenter of a vast agricultural network. Six years later, the railroad came to the Rio Grande Valley.  Combined, these improvements pulled in huge numbers of laborers from Mexico and farmers from the American midwest.  The Tejano labor pool was suddenly competing with Mexican migrants.  Worse, however, Anglo farmers from the Midwest brought with them their prejudices toward Mexicans and Tejanos.  Beyond this, the new immigrants caused a shift in South Texas politics —which was the beginning of the end to the Wells political machine.

Added to this paradigm, Mexico’s revolution sparked civil unrest throughout the Rio Grande Valley, which extended from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico —the most populated area in this span being the one-hundred miles inland from Brownsville, which included the counties of Starr, Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy.

Diaz P 001

Porfirio Diaz

Mexico’s president was the dictator Porfirio Diaz, a man who had exercised brutal power in Mexico since 1876.  His administration was rife with corruption—today, a long-standing Mexican political tradition.  Under Diaz, however, armed thugs known as Ruralesterrorized the population.  A frequent refrain in Mexico, in the aftermath of wanton murders perpetrated these rural police, was that the victims were killed while trying to escape.  The Mexican phrase for this policy was ley de fuga (law of flight).  In 1910, Diaz was challenged by an aristocratic reformer named Francisco Madero.  Fearing Madero’s appeal to the masses, Diaz had Madero arrested and then defeated him through massive voter fraud.  After Diaz’ was reelected, Madero was released from jail and (perhaps wisely) fled to Texas.  In Texas, he began to call for a popular uprising against Diaz.  In essence, then, Madero helped to ignite the Mexican Revolution. He was joined in this endeavor by the revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco.  In 1911, Diaz’s army was defeated at the Battle of Juarez, a city adjacent to El Paso.  Diaz subsequently resigned his presidency and fled to Spain.

Huerta V 001

Victoriano Huerta

Mexico had no fewer than ten presidents over the same number of years.  Diaz immediate successor was Madero, who proved himself a weak leader; rather than taking advantage of the strengths Villa and Orozco gave his presidency, he alienated them by refusing to appoint either man to a position in his government.  In the next year, General Victoriano Huerta led a bloody coup-d’état against Madero, who was assassinated.  Huerta, although succeeding Madero as president, was almost immediately opposed by Venustiano Carranza, a Mexican politician and rancher.  Then, in 1914, the United States seized the port city of Vera Cruz in an effort to cut off the flow of arms and munitions flowing to Huerta’s junta from Germany.  After a crucial defeat by Pancho Villa [2] two months later, Huerta resigned his office and went into exile.  A civil war then erupted between Carranza, Villa, and Alvaro Obregon for control of power in Mexico.  None of these men developed any good feelings toward the United States, not because of the Vera Cruz incident, but because President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize them as legitimate rulers.

As the revolution degenerated into an armed struggle between rival criminals, thousands of Mexican refugees flooded into Texas seeking shelter and safety.  In spite of reaching safety, the immigrants began to support various civil war factions in Mexico.  Tejanos (most of whom had close family ties to Mexico) also began to support either Huerta, Villa, Obregon, or Carranza.

Ferguson JE 001

James E. (Pa) Ferguson

In Texas, James E. Ferguson [3] was elected governor in 1915.  Ferguson’s base of support was rural tenant farmers, white laborers, and pro-liquor interests throughout the state.  One of his first acts as governor was to re-shape the Texas Rangers to suit his own (corrupt) agenda.  He did this by firing the existing leadership and bringing in his own henchmen and political supporters.

It was also in 1915 that the so-called Plan of San Diego was discovered.  This was a radical manifesto drawn up in the seat of Duval County, which called for a full-scale race war in the Southwest United States.  It demanded that all Mexicans rise up against American tyranny on 20 February 1915.  The goal was to return all territory Mexico lost to the United States to Mexico.  The land in question included Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California.  The manifesto additionally demanded the summary execution of every Anglo male over the age of sixteen years.  Six additional states would be ceded to African-Americans as an independent nation, land that would act as a buffer zone between the United States and Mexico. It was an invitation to a race war because it pitted Hispanics, Negroes, and Japanese against white Americans.  Their battle standard would be a white flag with a red fringe.

It was an absurd proposition, of course, but when the Plan of San Diego (henceforth, The Plan) was made public knowledge, many Texans took it seriously.  They were joined by Texas lawmen, who realized that they and the general public were being targeted for treasonable murder.  Tejanos took it seriously, as well.  Many impoverished Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley suffered from ethnic, economic, and political discrimination; Mexicans and Tejanos alike were willing to join any movement that gave them hope for a better future.

The Plan took on a life of its own when in July 1915, a band of rebels led by Luis de la Rosa suddenly made their presence known in Brownsville, Texas.  De la Rosa was a former shopkeeper, a former deputy-sheriff, and a suspected cattle rustler. Beginning on 4 July 1915 (America’s Independence Day), De la Rosa and his bandits began a series of attacks against the white population:

  • A ranch near Raymondville (50-miles north of Brownsville)
  • Two Anglo workers were shot and killed near Lyford
  • An attempt to rustle cattle from the King Ranch, which resulted in the death of one bandit and gunshot injury to another.
  • Robbery of a store in Lyford
  • The murder of a youth in a pasture eighteen miles from Raymondville
  • The destruction of a railroad bridge near Sebastian, and
  • The raid of a ranch near Los Indios, Texas, killing a Mexican worker

(Continued Next Week)


  1. Texas Monthly, Rivers of Blood, (January 1986)
  2. Boessenecker, J: Texas Ranger, The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde(2016)
  3. Webb, Walter P: The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, (1935)
  4. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas


[1] The wordTejanodenotes a person of Mexican ancestry born in Texas.

[2] In spite of the fact that Pancho Villa was a life-long criminal, he enjoyed the support of the United States up until he decided to launch an ill-advised raid into Columbus, New Mexico in 1916.

[3] Variously referred to as “Farmer Jim” or “Pa Ferguson” he was the most corrupt Texas governor in the twentieth century.

Posted in History, Society | 6 Comments

The Shelby County War

Unable to agree on a boundary between the newly-emerging United States and the Spanish territories in what is now Louisiana, both nations pretty-much ignored that strip of land separating Spanish Texas from the Louisiana territory.  The area became known as the Sabine Free State (also “Neutral Ground”) and eventually a lawless patch that neither country controlled.  The lawlessness spilled over into adjacent portions of East Texas, then still under Spanish control and, even after the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, very little changed within the so-called Free State area.  After Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, the strip of land remained wild, dangerous, and uncontrollable.

Middleton's BookWhat we know about this period of Texas history comes to us from John W. Middleton[1], who wrote about it in a memoir titled A History of the Regulators and Moderators and the Shelby County War in 1841-1842 in the Republic of Texas (Fort Worth, Texas: Loving Publishing, 1883).  Middleton, who wrote this reflection in his 75th year claims to have been a direct participant[2], but he also admitted that many years had passed —a factor that might have affected his memory[3].

After a string of business losses in the United States, John Middleton moved to Texas thinking that his luck might change.  He settled in Shelby County, Texas in 1837.  He wrote, “The country was thinly settled and the condition of society disagreeable, as there were many settlers who were fugitives from justice in the United States.”

In an attempt to control the rampant crime, a group of vigilantes formed calling themselves Regulators.  This group was extreme in their attempt to stop crime that another band of counter-vigilantes soon formed to moderate the Regulators.  Before long, each faction grew to include sympathizers from miles away and the effect of this was to enlarge the war previously confined to Harrison and Shelby counties but expanded to include Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and other East Texas counties.

Leading the Regulators were two men by the names of Charles W. Jackson[4]and Charles Watt Moorman[5].  The catalyst for conflict in Shelby County was a dispute between Joseph Goodbread and Sheriff Alfred George occurring sometime in 1840.  George asked for Jackson’s assistance in the matter, and Jackson ended up shooting Mr. Goodbread to death.  Arrested for murder, Jackson was nevertheless released pending trial and it was some period of time after this that Jackson organized the Regulators to rid the area of cattle rustlers.  It was following this that the Moderators were formed, principally led by Edward Merchant, John M. Bradley, and Deputy Sheriff James J. Cravens.

Jackson’s murder trial was scheduled for 12 July 1841 in Judge John M. Hanford’s court in Harrison County.  Hansford has been a personal friend of Goodbread and was a well-known supporter of the Moderator faction.  Jackson’s supporters concluded, not unreasonably, that Hansford would not be an impartial judge—so, when they arrived at the courthouse, they were all armed to the teeth.  Observing these armed men, Judge Hansford fled the courthouse, leaving a note for the sheriff stating, “I am unwilling to risk my person in the courthouse any longer when I see myself surrounded by bravos and hired assassins.”  Jackson’s trial ended even before the court could be called to order.

This, quite naturally, outraged the friends of the late Mr. Goodbread, the Moderators, who then embarked on a determined program to assassinate Mr. Jackson.  The attempts of the Goodbread faction to do irreparable harm to Mr. Jackson initially failed owing to the fact that Mr. Jackson was profoundly armed —and heavily guarded.  And, to press home their point, Regulators presented themselves at the residences of Moderators named Mr. Strickland and Mr. McFadden, men who they believed posed the greatest threat to Jackson, with the intention of killing them.  As both gentlemen were away from home at the time, however, the Regulators burned down their homes.

Moderators finally did manage to ambush Jackson, killing him along with an innocent traveling companion by the name of Lauer. In October 1841, Moorman led a party of Regulators to avenge the Jackson-Lauer killing.  Moorman and his gang surprised the assumed assassins 25-miles north of Crockett, arrested the three McFadden brothers, lynching the two oldest brothers, while sparing the youngest brother.  Moorman then led the Regulators in a reign of terror and retribution that spread north into Panola and Harrison counties.  Men alleged to be members of the Moderators were summarily lynched.

Within a short time, the Regulators numbered so many men that Colonel Moorman actually considered overthrowing the government of Texas and naming himself as dictator.  Texans not directly involved in the conflict lived in constant fear for their safety.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Sheriff Albert George, who had aligned himself with the Regulators, who now feared for his own life, resigned his office and fled to Nacogdoches.  John Middleton was appointed to replace him.

By this time, the Moderators had had their fill of the Regulators.  They first responded by filing articles of impeachment against Judge John Hansford[6]for his failure to bring Jackson to trial. Next, they convinced Sheriff Llewellyn and Judge Lester in Crockett County to issue warrants for the arrest of Middleton, Moorman, and others.  Three-fourths of the citizens of Crockett County supported the Moderators and formed posses to expel the Regulators[7].  Finally, Moderators John Bradley and John Haley hired a group of assassins from Austin to kill seventeen prominent men in Shelby County.

After leading his band of cutthroats to Shelbyville, John Middleton was ambushed and shot twice outside his home.  Although badly wounded, he escaped death.  Middleton identified one of his assailants as Jim Strickland, who was later killed in Louisiana while stealing slaves.  Additionally, Regulator Henry Reynolds was also assassinated.  One of Reynold’s assassins was captured and, before he was hanged, gave a full confession and named the men who had hired him along with the names of the men who were Moderator targets.

Crockett County Sheriff Llewellyn tried to serve an arrest warrant on Moorman, who stated that he needed two or three days to decide whether he wanted to be arrested.  Llewellyn gave him time to think about his options.  Moorman’s first option was to quickly assemble fifty regulators to resist arrest.  Meanwhile Judge John Ingram, a Regulator, determined that the warrants issued against Regulator leaders were technically incorrect and dismissed them.  He then issued warrants against the Moderator leaders.  In return, the Moderators had Judge Lester dismiss the warrants against them.

With the law supporting each side, outright violence between the factions was only a matter of time. The Moderators favored direct assault; they planned to ride into Shelbyville to kill the leaders of the Regulators while intimidating local residents.  They managed to kill one Regulator leader, but the rest escaped.  The following day a force numbering between thirty-five to sixty-five Regulators attacked Moderators in what would become known as the Battle of Hilliard, a gunfight that lasted all day.  According to Middleton, Moderators numbered close to two hundred; they suffered sixteen killed and twenty-five known wounded[8].  The Moderators withdrew to Shelbyville where Regulators re-engaged them and forced them to flee in what became known as the Church Hill Battle.

Texas President Sam Houston was becoming weary of the Shelby County War.  He once remarked, “I think it advisable to declare Shelby County, Tenaha, and Terrapin Neck free and independent governments, and let them fight it out.”  But, by this time, Houston was working to annex the Republic of Texas to the United States.  The Shelby County War wasn’t helping matters.  Thus, on 15 August 1844, President Houston decided to put a halt to the violence.  Houston called out 1,500 militia under the command of General James Smith and sent them to Shelbyville.

General Smith arrested the leaders from each side and forced them to sign a peace treaty.  The treaty effectively disbanded the vigilantes, which, while ending the war, failed to end all hostilities in Shelby and surrounding counties. In 1847, a Moderator named Wilkerson held a wedding party for his daughter and invited some of the known Regulators.  Unknown to the Regulators, Wilkerson had poisoned the refreshments causing violent illness among 60 guests, killing ten others.  Regulators responded by lynching Wilkerson.  These differences were not fully set aside until after the end of the Mexican-American War.

Charles Watt Moorman spent time in prison for his part in the Shelby County War.  Some years after his release, an assassin shot him dead in Louisiana in 1850.


  1. John Warren Love, The Regulator-Moderator Movement in Shelby County, Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1936).
  2. John W. Middleton, History of the Regulators and the Moderators(Fort Worth: Loving, 1883).
  3. Oran M. Roberts, “The Shelby War, or the Regulators and the Moderators,” Texas Magazine, August 1897.
  4. Texas State Historical Society


[1]Middleton served as a Texas Ranger between 1838-1839.  He passed away in 1898.

[2]While researching Middleton’s book, I came across another title but was only able to discover a photocopy of a book cover that is not the same as stated in this paragraph.  It is possible that Mr. Middleton wrote two books.  It is also likely that he was never a captain in the Texas Rangers.

[3]The Middleton account is the only surviving record by a direct participant of the so-called Regulator-Moderator War, and according to this author, Colonel Charles Watt Moorman’s narrative of what happened is the only “fair and true” account.  Unfortunately, whatever Moorman had to say about it was either destroyed or misplaced.

[4]Jackson, a former Mississippi River boat captain, was himself a fugitive from Louisiana.

[5]Moorman was a fugitive from Mississippi.

[6]Hansford resigned his office on 19 January 1842 to avoid impeachment, retiring to his farm near Jonesville.  In 1844, Regulators appeared at his home and demanded that he release some number of sequestered slaves.  When Hansford refused, he was shot to death.

[7]In 1880, the population of Crockett County, Texas was 127.  There does not appear to be a record of the population in 1840.

[8]Historian C. L. Sonnichsen, author of 10 Texas Feuds, states both sides likely numbered no more than 65 men.

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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.


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