Ruthless Cattle Barons and Little Farmers — Part Three

Robert E. Howard knew and wrote a good deal about the blood feuds of his native Texas, and the old-time range wars that had been fought even before the Civil War. They became still more bitter and intense afterwards. Howard wrote to H.P. Lovecraft in January 1931:

I hope to some day write a history of the Southwest that will seem alive and human to the readers, not the dry and musty stuff one generally finds in chronicles. To me the annals of the land pulse with blood and life, but whether I can ever transfer this life from my mind to paper, is a question. It will be years, at least. Much of the vivid history of the Southwest is lost forever and the breed growing up now looks toward, and apes, the East, caring nothing at all about the traditions and history of the land in which they live.

Lovecraft at times became almost supercilious in his attitude to the violent frontier history of the Lone Star State. Well, much of it had been shockingly bloody, but so had much of England’s history, and Lovecraft admired England and the English to the point of affecting to regret the American Revolution. I’m not one to romanticize gunfights, but the solid fact is that in the old west there were very few activities that were free of physical danger, least of all the cowboy’s. He might meet armed cow thieves or fence cutters any day of his working life. He was understandably not willing to “ride the river” with a pardner who hadn’t shown that he was ready to fight. If he encountered rustlers, Comanches, or crooked lawmen who declared they were going to cut his herd on the excuse that they believed it had been stolen – well, he was better off with a hard-drinking braggart and bully beside him than someone who was yellow.

REH expressed it this way, in the same letter quoted above:

Western feuds have generally been fought over land – cattle – sordid commercial wrangles in outward appearance, but with the underlying reasons of stubborn independent pride. More men have been killed in Texas over fences than for any other one reason. When two men own each thousands of acres, it seems foolish for them to shoot each other to death because one insisted on setting his fence forward a foot or so, doesnt it? But its the old story of ‘the principle of the thing’. And after all, a man cant be blamed for defending what he thinks is his, or taking what he thinks is his. Say you and I own adjoining ranches and I claim that the fences werent run according to the survey. I claim a strip of your land four feet wide and half a mile long. You are just as certain that it dont belong to me. I come in the night and set the fence up four feet. You are patient and not quarrelsome, so you come back the next night and set the fence back where it was. I come again and start moving that fence once more. Well, there’s nothing left for you to do but take your Winchester and start throwing lead in my direction and you’re quite right, too. A man has a right to defend his property. Its not the money value or the grazing value of the land; its the sturdy resolve of the Anglo-Saxon or the Scotch-Irish-American not to be bullied out of his natural rights. And when both contestants are of the same breed, and both absolutely certain they’re right, well, by-standers might as well start ducking, because there’s only one way to settle a row like that, and if its taken to court, it wont do any real good, but merely make feeling more bitter on each side, whichever way the decision goes.

As he observed, land and cattle were the usual cause. Not always, though, and often not the direct cause. The Texas cattle barons of the early 1870s who cursed the Kansas legislators and their quarantine rules had no idea what other problems they were soon to face. Not because of rustlers, Comanches, northern politicians or cowhand unions. Because of one man by the name of Joseph Glidden, tinkering with an apparently harmless coffee mill.

Glidden was a prairie farmer in Illinois. He didn’t invent barbed wire – that was a man named Michael Kelly – but Glidden improved it until it was truly practical. He perfected the barbs, and the means of attaching them to double-strand wire, on a small scale at first, experimenting with a coffee mill. Then he designed machines that could economically mass-produce the wire. He applied for and received a patent in 1874. Other inventors challenged his application in court, but Glidden’s design won by November – not only through his lawyer, but also through its comparative efficiency and the number of sales orders.

Barbed wire across their ranges was about as welcome to the big ranchers as infidels eating pork in Mecca to the faithful.

The clashes between cattlemen and sheepherders on the big ranges had begun at about this time. Like Glidden, the sheepherders had to fight their cases in court as part of the Sheep Wars, and cattlemen had more money. A court case being a contest to see who can afford the best lawyer, the cattlemen mostly won.

Conflict between the two was in fact less intense and violent in Texas than in Wyoming and Colorado – but Texas did have the distinction of hosting one of the earliest such clashes. Shortly before barbed wire was patented, the famous Charles Goodnight’s cowhands met with incursions of sheepmen on that part of Goodnight’s range which comprised the north fork of the Canadian River, in the Panhandle. The clashes were made worse by ethnic prejudice; the sheepherders were Mexicans, and the Texans still remembered the Alamo. In the end, Don Casimiro Romero and Goodnight came to an agreement; sheep would graze on one side of the Canadian River Valley, cattle on the other. That dispute was settled peacefully.

It was in 1875, also, that the Hoodoo War broke out. Or the Mason County War, after the locale in central Texas. That wasn’t settled peacefully.

It began because of the mistrust between the German-American settlers there and the Anglos. The Germans had been solidly in favor of staying with the Union when Texas seceded, and their neighbors remembered. There was plenty of ill-feeling, but since the Union army had a strong presence at Fort Mason until 1869, there wasn’t much overt trouble. Then the fort closed, and in 1873 John Clark was elected county sheriff – mainly through the support of the German-American majority. They viewed him as “their man”. He was certainly biased in their favor, and tough on rustlers. He stated openly his support for those who shot or lynched any person even suspected of cattle rustling, and he didn’t give much of a damn for court rules of evidence.

His German-descended deputy, Wohrle, was if anything harder. Early in 1875, Wohrle’s boss led a posse into McCulloch County, where he arrested nine cowboys on suspicion of rustling. Four were released on bail, and Clark let it be known in a loud voice around the town that if the remaining five were to be lynched, he wouldn’t grieve terribly. Less than a week later a cowboy named Bolt was found shot to death by the road with a note pinned to his corpse. It read, “Here lies a cow thief.” Bolt was seventeen.

Shortly after that, Deputy Wohrle handed over the keys to the jail to several masked men, who took the five cowboys still being detained, and lynched two of them, brothers, outside the town. A Texas Ranger named Dan Roberts happened to be handy, and he stopped the lynch gang from stringing up a third cowboy, named Turley, while the fourth one, Johnson, broke free during the ruckus and escaped into the night. Someone shot the fifth man in the head and he died next morning. His name was Abe Wiggins. Nobody was ever arrested for the killings.

These events and others were resented by the Anglos. Some members of Clark’s posse – the one that had made the original arrests – had stood against the lynching, and for their pains received death threats. At least one – Caleb Hall — was arrested himself, on suspicion of being in league with rustlers. Hall, and the cowboy Turley who had narrowly escaped being lynched, broke jail together, having doubts about whether they would be justly and impartially tried.

The “Hoodoo War” became worse when Clark and Wohrle rode out to arrest a ranch foreman named Tim Williamson on charges (probably false) of having possessed a stolen calf. Williamson agreed to ride back to town with the two lawmen, who were acting on the complaint of the calf’s German-American owner. A gang of masked men intercepted them on the way. It’s not hard to guess how they knew where to find them. Williamson was shot like a dog. That wasn’t well received among the Anglos; Williamson had been popular, and one close friend of his was Scott Cooley, a Texas Ranger. He broke down and cried when he heard the news. His grief soon turned to rage, but he kept a grip on himself and waited for legal indictments to come down from the courts against the killers. It didn’t happen.

Cooley took matters into his own hands, then, rode out to Wohrle’s home, shot him on sight, scalped him and went around showing the scalp to Wohrle’s German-American fellows, daring them to object. He subsequently killed another German cattleman, Carl Bader. Cooley was then joined by a gunman of some notoriety who happened to be in the area, though the reasons he became involved aren’t obvious. Maybe he was simply attracted by violent events. It’s very possible, as his name was Johnny Ringo.

Two of Ringo’s friends were soon ambushed by a posse led by Sheriff Clark. The sheriff was plainly on the side of the German cattlemen, and the Rangers weren’t willing to become involved; some of them resigned rather than take action against Cooley. Killings became frequent and almost random before the end, especially with Ringo involved. Sheriff Clark hid from Cooley, and then, late in 1875, handed in his badge and fled from Mason County; he wasn’t heard from further. Just after Christmas, Cooley and Ringo were arrested by another, more gutsy, sheriff. Like Turley and Caleb Hall before them, they broke jail. Cooley was pursued by a posse which may have fatally shot him, but the story can’t be confirmed and he was never officially seen again. Johnny Ringo, of course, became an enemy of the Earps in Tombstone, and was shot in mid-July, 1882; his death may even have been suicide.

In any case, the arrests of Cooley and Ringo in Texas had effectively ended the “Hoodoo War.” About a year later, the Mason County Courthouse burned to the ground. The official records of the Mason County War were destroyed in the blaze.

The famous Lee-Peacock feud was essentially a continuation of the Civil War. It was played out in northeast Texas, the “big thicket” country, a wild and desolate region which had served as a haven for deserters and outlaws during the war. A man from that region, Robert “Bob” Lee (not the general) served in the Ninth Texas Cavalry of the Confederate army. When he and other Confederate soldiers came home, they found to their disgust and ire that an organization called the Union League was active in the Big Thicket. It worked with the Federal forces to implement Reconstruction and protect freed blacks, which didn’t suit Lee and his friends, whether they had owned slaves themselves or not. The local honcho of the Union League was Lewis Peacock, who knew of Lee’s attitude and used it as an excuse to intimidate him and extort money from him – or attempt it. As Li’l Abner once said of a gangster named Big Stanislouse, who asserted “In my heart, I know I’m right!” – “But … it’s dislegal! His motives is clean, but his methods is dirty!” After making a phony arrest on false charges, Peacock and his cohorts robbed Lee of money, his watch, and forced him at gunpoint to sign a promissory note for two thousand dollars. Lee refused to pay it afterwards, and his family, as well as friends of his, the Maddoxes and Borens, who had served with him in the Ninth, supported him. They resisted the claim by legal means, in Bonham courthouse, and won the case.

Peacock and his faction resented the outcome. Hell broke loose. In February 1867, Lee encountered one of the men who had abducted him in a store, and challenged him to shoot it out. He even offered him a gun to do it with. The other man, Maddox, waited until Lee turned around to fire at him, but merely grazed his ear and head, after which he was treated at the home of a Doctor William Pierce. Maddox was charged with assault with intent to murder, but the Union military authorities dismissed the charge, and Doctor Pierce was shot to death by a Peacock gunman for his adherence to the Hippocratic Oath. It happened while Lee was still recovering from Maddox’s bullet at the doctor’s home.

Doctor Pierce’s killer didn’t live long to boast about it; he was soon shot dead at Saltillo. The casualties mounted through 1868. Reconstruction authorities posted a thousand-dollar reward for Bob Lee, and bounty hunters rushed to the Big Thicket area in great eagerness to collect. They didn’t sufficiently appreciate that they were dealing with tough and angry war veterans of the Ninth Texas Cavalry. Three of them, Kansas men, were found dead in the road in the spring of 1869. After that, the Fourth U.S. Cavalry came searching for Lee, house to house, which led to several shootouts and fatalities. They might never have caught Lee if someone on his own side, one of the Boren family, Henry, sold him out to the Reconstruction authorities. Bob Lee was shot and killed in May, 1869, and Henry Boren’s own nephew, William Boren, later killed him as a traitor, before getting out of the area. An outlaw, he rode with John Wesley Hardin for a time. The feud continued for two more years, until Peacock was shot and killed in mid-1871.

John Wesley Hardin was to be found in most places where trouble and post-war resistance to the Yankees was intense. He was involved in the notorious Sutton-Taylor “feud” of DeWitt County, Texas. Your blogger has placed “feud” in sarcastic quotation marks because it was evidently more of a struggle between the law and the lawless, flawed though the forces of law were during Reconstruction. REH described the average Texas feud as being “short, fierce and appallingly bloody”. The Sutton-Taylor business was at any rate not short, though the other two adjectives fitted.

It emerged from the violent feelings and great hardships that followed the Civil War. The so-called “Reconstruction” was handled as badly as the English government had handled matters in the American colonies before 1776. Crooked exploiters had a field day in the conquered south. In DeWitt County, the usual disputes over land boundaries, ownership of cattle, and water sources, were exacerbated by the aftermath of war. Outlaws rode about their business as they wished, and vigilante groups to counter them were often no better than the outlaws … the usual story.

The Taylors were hard-case unreconstructed southerners. Pitkin Taylor and his brother Creed were the leaders of that faction, and Creed was a truly redoubtable fighting man. He’d fought Mexicans and Comanches, taken part in the battle of San Jacinto, served in the Confederate Army under Colonel John Ford, and the Texas Rangers under Captain Samuel H. Walker. In the Mexican War he’d fought at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey, and Buena Vista. Nobody’s timid and retiring petunia picker, Creed Taylor.

Although I’ve read that there had been trouble between the Taylor and Sutton families before they ever moved to Texas, I haven’t been able to confirm it for certain. There was actually only one Sutton in the faction immortalized under his name, William E. Sutton, but he had more than enough friends to make up for lack of family backing. Captain Jack Helms of the Reconstruction State Police, later the DeWitt County Sheriff, was one.

It’s too easy and over-simplified to cast the Taylors and their adherents as the put-upon former Confederates victimized by the wicked Reconstruction forces – although Jack Helms doesn’t appear to have been any prize package. Bill Sutton had fought for the south himself. He wasn’t a Yankee. Besides, the Taylors may well have been the backbone and leadership of a widespread crime ring, horse thieves, rustlers and killers. That’s the view presented in James Smallwood’s book, The Feud That Wasn’t: The Taylor Ring, Bill Sutton, John Wesley Hardin, and Violence in Texas. I reckon you’ve got to have your doubts about the essential righteousness of any bunch that included John Wesley Hardin.

Captain Jack Helms’ State Police claimed to be hunting cow thieves and bandits when, in August 1869, they shot down Hays Taylor. Bill Sutton himself was a deputy sheriff in Clinton, and with the same sort of justification as Helms, he shot one Charlie Taylor, a kinsman of Pitkin and Creed. He had accosted Charlie and his gang of (probable) horse thieves in Bastrop. They arrested another gang member, and shot him later while he was “trying to escape” – ley fuega, as the practice was called in Mexico.

The State Police had justifiable reasons for not liking the lawless Taylor clan, despite Helm and his organization’s own failings of honesty and honor. The Taylors killed pretty much whomever they wished, especially if the victim was black. In 1866, Buck Taylor had fatally shot an Afro-American sergeant who came to a dance at the home of Buck’s uncle, and Hays Taylor, in the same year, had killed a black soldier in a saloon fight. Hays Taylor and his brother Philip (known as Doby) had killed two Union soldiers at Mason in November 1867. Plenty of hard-case southerners, like John Wesley Hardin, Bill Longley, and the fearsomely violent Cullen Baker, considered it no crime to drop a bluebelly or a former slave. Edmund J. Davis, Texas’s Reconstruction governor, had his hands full trying to control that kind of fury, and his State Police were in some ways more of a hindrance than a help to the policies he was trying to implement. They included restoration of public schools – for poor whites as well as blacks – the creation of a functioning immigration bureau, and frontier protection. Helms – and Sutton, who soon became one of his officers – mainly just wanted to shoot and hang outlaws.

Buck Taylor and his buddy Dick Chisholm were killed in a shootout with Sutton on Christmas Eve, 1868. Henry and William Kelly, who were married to Pitkin Taylor’s daughters, were arrested on minor charges and then ruthlessly murdered (ley fuega again). That outrage got Jack Helms thrown out of the State Police. Bill Sutton then took over the leadership of their faction, but Helms wasn’t entirely out of the law enforcement picture; he became Sheriff of DeWitt County.

Old Pitkin Taylor was lured from his house and shot like a dog in 1872. Pitkin’s son Jim Taylor made a serious attempt to kill Sutton on April Fool’s Day 1873, and wounded him, but didn’t finish him. Sutton escaped another ambush a couple of months later. John Wesley Hardin and his cousin Mannen Clements were engaged in the conflict boots and all by that juncture. It was Hardin, with Jim Taylor, who caught Jack Helms in a blacksmith’s shop and killed him, shortly afterwards. (Hardin had killed Helms’s deputy, Morgan, in a gunfight earlier that same day.) Both the Taylors and Bill Sutton by that time had well over a hundred salty adherents each, and the situation was close to a genuine war. Siege, ambush and pursuit went on constantly. Nobody could stay neutral, and to try was to incur the enmity of both sides.

Bill Sutton himself was killed, after his various narrow escapes, while getting ready to board a steamboat with his wife and his friend Gabriel Slaughter. He had probably made up his mind to leave the county for good before it was too late; some versions of the tale say he was merely going on a business trip. Either way, on March 11, 1874, Jim and Bill Taylor rode hell-for-leather onto the dock before the trio could depart. They shot down Sutton and Slaughter; both died.

Not all such wars took place in Texas, of course, and several of the more savage ones occurred elsewhere. The Bloody Lincoln County War took place in New Mexico; so did the Colfax County War. The latter was motivated by disputes over the rights and wrongs of the immense Maxwell Land Grant. REH mentions Maxwell in his lengthy letter of January 1931:

How many know anything of Lucien Maxwell? Yet in his day he owned a Spanish land grant bigger than whole Eastern states, containing more than a million acres. This was in New Mexico in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. In his mansion he kept royal style, with places for two dozen set at his generous table; the dishes were of solid silver, the wine goblets of solid gold. He sold his holdings for $750,000, and the buyers sold for nearly twice that amount. He died a poor man.

Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell really was all that REH said about him, and perhaps even more. The land grant that was the source of his holdings had been founded by Charles Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda in 1841, when they petitioned the Mexican government for it, wishing to raise sugar beets, cotton and wool there. The request was approved within three days, and in 1843 they received formal title to about a million acres (!) in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeast New Mexico. A year later, Lucien Maxwell married Beaubien’s daughter, Luz, in the New Mexico town of Taos. (Maxwell’s close friend of a couple of western expeditions, Kit Carson, married at the same time.) Beaubien gave his new son-in-law 15,000 acres as a wedding gift.

From the very beginning the land grant seemed fated to cause trouble. A Catholic priest of the region, Padre Antonio Jose Martinez of Taos, protested against the grant on behalf of the leaders of the Taos Pueblo Indians, whose traditional grazing and hunting lands were engulfed by the immense grant. The Padre also held that instead of being given, rather arbitrarily, to a couple of foreigners, the grant lands not rightfully held by the Pueblo should be available to poor local farmers. A new governor, who didn’t like foreigners, did rescind the grant, but it was restored later. Then, in 1846, U.S. authority replaced Mexican, making the situation more complicated and explosive. Charles Bent, a former Taos trader and unofficial partner of Beaubien and Miranda, became governor of the territory. The result was the Taos Rebellion, a rising against the new American administration, in which Governor Bent, with Miranda’s son and son-in-law, were all killed.

Beaubien would have been murdered too, probably, if he’d been in Taos at the time, and the bloody revolt made him decide against returning. He still wanted to administer the grant, so he turned power to do so over to his son-in-law, Lucien Maxwell. Maxwell managed Beaubien’s ranch for ten years, through a decade which saw constant trouble with the Utes, Jicarilla Apaches, and Cheyenne. In 1857 Maxwell moved to the present site of Cimarron, and soon bought Miranda’s share of the grant from Miranda, who now lived in Mexico. When Beaubien died in 1864, Maxwell bought out his heirs and became sole owner of the immense grant. His farms and ranches flourished; he established gold mines on his land; he became an important supplier to the U.S. Army and the Cimarron Indian Agency. By 1869 he was sole owner of about one and three quarters of a million acres – the largest landowner in the U.S.A.

Maxwell was as generous as he was wealthy. He allowed the Utes and Jicarillas to hunt freely on his land, and when delays in government supply occurred (Indian agents were often inefficient, crooked, or both) he made up the deficient rations himself. It was good business as well as being humane, of course; other Indian tribes weren’t likely to make trouble for a man who had the Jicarillas’ goodwill. He allowed small farmers to settle on the grant and pay their rent in produce. He was reasonable towards miners in the boom of the late 1860s, too, leasing claims to them on decent terms. Very few people had a word to say against him, despite the strong inclination of the poor to criticize the rich.

Even so, Maxwell found his immense holdings hard to administer, and at the end of the 1860s he sold most of them to a British company. It paid him $1,350,000 – in 1870! It called itself the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company. Then the British investors sold out to a Dutch consortium. The latter wasn’t as nice to the little people on the grant as Maxwell had been. It began trying to squeeze them out by fair means or foul, mostly the latter, and its methods led to the Colfax County War. A few months after the foreign investors had assumed control of the grant, there was a riot in Elizabethtown of such proportions that the governor was formally asked to send soldiers in from Fort Union.

In 1872 the county seat was moved to Cimarron, and the eviction notices kept coming. Squatters and settlers with valid leases alike ignored them. In 1874, despite an 1860 Act of Congress that gave the Dutch purchasers lawful title to the Maxwell Grant, the Federal Department of the Interior declared the land grant public domain. Property tax defaults, auctions to sell the grant for the unpaid taxes, and manipulations by a group of crooked speculators and politicians known as the “Santa Fe Ring”, made the whole mess more complex. Thomas Catron, the former Territorial Attorney General, was a suspected member of the ring.

Reverend Franklin Tolby, a Methodist minister, had been a forthright opponent of the land grant bigwigs and their hired guns from the start. He was an outspoken critic of the Santa Fe Ring as well. Since he wouldn’t be quiet, they silenced him by having him shot. His body was found in Cimarron Canyon, but his horse and belongings hadn’t been touched. The motive wasn’t robbery. The outraged settlers formed vigilante groups and answered gunfire with gunfire. Reverend Oscar McMains, a friend of the murdered Tolby’s, took up the cause, declaring, “No quarter now for the foreign land thieves and their hired assassins!”

Rumors began to circulate that implicated a local lawman, Cruz Vega, in Tolby’s murder. Then the notorious Clay Allison (who receives a mention in Part Two of this series) became involved, on appeal by McMains for his help. Allison had taken herds up to Kansas, by report confronted Wyatt Earp, and certainly killed Sheriff Charlie Faber in a gunfight. A wild man. Vega was lynched before long. A member of the Santa Fe Ring, Melvin Mills, was threatened but insisted on a court hearing, at which he was defended by Frank Springer, an honest lawyer and no friend of the Ring, in the interests of legal justice. The charges were dismissed. Dr. Robert Longwill, another Ring member, wasn’t so lucky. He hightailed out of town on a fast horse to escape a posse (or vigilante gang) led by Clay Allison. He reached home, briefly saw his wife and gave her a story to tell anybody who came asking for him, then changed horses and continued his flight. It’s likely that Allison caught him, because he was never seen again.

The governor, Samuel Axtell, wasn’t a great deal of help in stopping the trouble. About all he did was sign into law a bill that transferred all Colfax County’s judicial powers to Taos County. Most people knew Axtell’s integrity was doubtful and saw him as a stooge for the Santa Fe Ring. Even granting that, though, what happened next was astonishing. Stevens, the DA for Las Vegas, arranged a private meeting between the governor and a group of responsible men in Cimarron, with a view to working out a method of dealing with the trouble. Then Stevens deliberately brought a company of Buffalo Soldiers (the Afro-American troopers of the famous Ninth and Tenth Regiments of Cavalry) to Cimarron at the same time. This was meant, with malice aforethought, to provoke Clay Allison, who was well known to hate both Yankees and blacks. Stevens counted on a violent response from Allison which would provide an excuse for shooting him. To the credit of the Buffalo Soldier company’s captain, let’s record that he was wise to the murder plot, did not allow his men to be used as tools, exposed the scheme and confirmed that Clay Allison had been its intended victim. In 1878, President Hayes kicked Axtell out and replaced him with Civil War general Lew Wallace, mainly remembered today as the author of Ben Hur.

One Pancho Griego, a friend of the lynched Vega, came looking for Clay Allison. He confronted him at a Cimarron hotel. Griego tried to distract Allison before he drew his gun, pretending to have cooled off, but Allison was too experienced a gunhawk to fall for that. He drew quickly and shot straight. Griego ended as dead as Vega; the shooting was ruled self-defense.

By the time the Colfax County War ended, it was estimated to have cost about two hundred lives.

This blogger is now out of space once more. I had estimated at first that the subject matter would take two posts. Then I had to extend it to three. This only takes us down to the end of the 1870s. Although barbed wire was invented and patented in that decade, it didn’t begin to be manufactured on a big scale and have its effect on the west until the 1880s – which was also when the era of the great cattle drives ended. I’m afraid topics like the Fence Cutting War, the major sheepmen-cattlemen clashes, and the story of Cattle Kate (the sobriquet of Ellen Liddy Watson) will have to wait for a fourth part of this series.

Read Part One and  Part Two