Nightriders: West-Kimbrell Gang
The Neutral Zone was formed in 1806 as a buffer between Spanish and American territories. Spain owned Texas and Mexico to the West and the U.S. owned the land to the east. The Neutral Zone encompassed nearly 5,000 square miles and the Calcasieu River was the eastern boundary with the Sabine River being the western border and had Natchitoches as its northern boundary extending all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Outlaws flocked to the neutral zone because of its lack of government.
John West fled to the neutral zone around 1850 to avoid justice for killing a man. He settled about 5 miles south of the Atlanta community in southern Winn parish. John West fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and returned to home after the war to find that carpetbaggers and scalawags were cheating the residents out of their money and property. Jackson Laws Kimbrell was the second half of the clans' leadership. It is believed that Laws Kimbrell also arrived in the area around 1850. Just like John West he too settled around the Atlanta community, fought for the Confederacy, and returned home to find the carpetbaggers and scalawags taking advantage of the local residents. (Briley)
The formation of the West-Kimbrell Clan took place sometime after the Civil War when West and Kimbrell became friends. Believe it or not but they were respected citizens in the community and church. (Peebles) They formed a home guard that was supposed to protect citizens from lawbreakers in the area. The home guard consisted of all sorts of community leaders including ministers and church members. Most members were not aware of the inner circle of the home guard however. It was the inner circle that committed the most heinous crimes. If someone was invited to join the inner circle of the clan, they either accepted the invitation, or were killed to prevent exposure of the clan's inner circle. (Briley)
The members of the inner circle of the home guard would invite travelers crossing the neutral zone to spend the night at the home of John West, Laws Kimbrell, or some other member of the home guard. While the visitors were asleep they would be murdered and their possessions stolen. Other traveling families were simply ambushed and murdered down to the last person, including women, children, and even infants. (Briley) The clan generally disposed of the bodies by dumping them in various local wells. Around the year 1870 a member of the clan's inner circle whose name has been lost to history, rode up to Jim Carter's house near the Calvin community in Winn parish. (Briley) The rider was a cousin of Jim Carter. The rider asked Jim if he would come to a party at Cedar Bluff and play his fiddle or guitar for a dance. Jim was most likely unaware that his cousin was a member of the West-Kimbrell Clan so trusting his cousin he accepted the invitation. It was late afternoon when Jim Carter arrived at the house at Cedar Bluff, with no music or noise emanating from the house. (Peebles) Upon entering the house Jim realized that he had been tricked by his cousin as he came face to face with a group of rough looking men. The men informed Jim that he would be required to join the clan because his services were needed. They told him that his job would be to kill the kids and babies of the traveling families and then dispose of the bodies. Knowing that the clan killed anyone who refused an invitation to join, he acted like he was more than happy to join and carry out the devilish deeds they wanted done. Under the cover of darkness that night Jim made his escape from the house on Cedar Bluff. He raced his horse home fearing for his life every step of the way. Upon returning home he retrieved his pistol and went to meet his pursuers. When he got to the ford of Dugdemona Creek near his house he heard a horse galloping towards him, it was his cousin who was undoubtedly sent to kill him to prevent the exposure of the clan. His cousin's horse stopped to drink the cool clear creek water despite the rider's urging the horse forwards. Jim leveled his pistol and shot his cousin out of the saddle, staining the creek water red with his cousin's blood and forever branding that ford in the creek as Carter's Crossing, which it is still called to this day. (Briley)
Dan Dean was a gunfighter and member of the clan's inner circle. For some reason, Dean and West had a serious falling out and John West tried to kill him. Laws Kimbrell interfered and saved Dean's life. On Easter Sunday 1872 the clan kidnapped Dean's in-laws. John West, who was also a deputy sheriff, claimed that they were under arrest. Dean's in-laws were suspended from the rafters of the masonic lodge by their thumbs while the John West attended church with Laws and Lee Ingram, another clan member left to guard them. Dean traveled to the governor's office and fully explained the situation to the governor and was open pardons for any person involved in eliminating the gang. (Briley) One day in 1872 members of the Atlanta community formed a vigilante group and approached the members of the gang in the streets of Atlanta. John West was shot in the neck with a shotgun blast, completely removing his head from his body and it came to rest atop a fencepost-where it sat for years. Many of the gang members surrendered and Dean allowed Laws Kimbrell to leave the country in exchange for Laws saving his life from John West, Laws was never heard from in the area again. The remains of the slaughtered gang members, along with the headless corpse of West, were buried in an unmarked grave outside the Methodist Cemetery in Atlanta. They were considered too indecent to be buried among honorable people. It is said that more than one of the clan members were buried standing up in accordance with a long standing superstition that if you were buried upright your soul would never be at rest.
Most Louisiana historians would agree that north central Louisiana's West-Kimbrell gang were the state's most notorious outlaws during the Reconstruction era. Much has been written about the clan based in Winn Parish but often the stories were based on unsubstantiated legend.
The official record is slim for a number of reasons the Winn Parish courthouse burned in 1868 and 1885; few newspapers from that region of Louisiana exist today; those newspapers that did report on the atrocities were reluctant to name names; travelers crossing the remote region headed west were easily waylaid and disposed of with no one the wiser; and the gang was adept at keeping much of its activity secret.
After the demise of the "Nightriders" in 1870, the Ouachita Telegraph noted the outlaws, who were "headed by a man named West, have been operating as highwaymen with unvarying success ever since the close of the war, and perhaps before its close, and have sent unheralded and unprepared into eternity the soul of many an innocent victim, stimulated thereto solely by an ungodly greed for gain."
Despite many inaccuracies in the tales of the killers and thieves led by Lawson Kimbrell and John West, the evidence is clear they were among the worst of the worst. The gang murdered U.S. Army Lieutenant Simeon Butts who was assigned to the Freemans' Bureau in 1866.
Numerous murders of freed slaves and white men alike were attributed to them. A number of arrest warrants for murder were issued against various gang members but local authorities seemed to have difficulty apprehending them, either through indifference, fear, or the outlaws' cunning.
Federal troops occupied the region at the time, ostensibly to enforce Reconstruction, protect freedmen, and support U.S. marshals and local officials in enforcing the law. Encumbered by a mandate to accompany lawmen rather than take the initiative, and without the cooperation of citizens and many of the local officials, the army was largely ineffective in dealing with crime.
One of the army officers assigned to the area was Napoleon Bonaparte McLaughlin. The Vermonter joined the army in 1850 as a private and entered the Civil War as a second lieutenant.
He fought in some of the war's bloodiest and significant engagements Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania. A series of promotions for gallantry on the battlefield saw him reach the rank of brevet (temporary) brigadier general when the war ended.
In December 1868, his unit was headquartered near Natchitoches as part of the government's Reconstruction occupation of Louisiana.
McLaughlin was astounded by the lawlessness in north Louisiana, not only from the West-Kimbrell gang, but outlaws the army had forced out of east Texas. He wrote to his commander that "I would respectfully state for the information of the Major General Commanding, that never in all my experience in this section of the country have so many outrages been committed as within the past two months, and the solution to my mind is that the activities of our troops in the vicinities of Jefferson and Sulphur Bottom, [Texas], have driven most of those Texan desperadoes into these northern parishes, where they can perpetrate all kinds of outrage with the most perfect impunity. Not a day passes without complaints and petitions for aid from the citizens, whilst the civil authorities are paralyzed with fear, and I powerless to interfere. I am well satisfied of the existence of a band of robbers, horse thieves, and murderers, extending from probably Rapides Parish to the more northern parishes, and thence into Texas."
But interfere McLaughlin did by personally going after some of the offenders, aggravating his superiors when he took steps to actually apprehend one.
On December 12, 1868, McLaughlin crossed from his camp west of the Red River into Winn Parish to investigate two newly reported murders. On the way, he learned William and Lawson Kimbrell, both wanted for murder in Natchitoches and Winn Parishes were at their father's house. Since troops had been sent to capture them several times without success, McLaughlin was determined to attempt it again. Traveling with just a sergeant as an orderly, they could get to the house undetected, unlike the large contingent of soldiers sent in the past.
McLaughlin described what happened in a report to his superiors. Some minor corrections have been made for readability: "Therefore upon reaching the house, I stopped and enquiring for them was informed by the mother that they had that morning left for Texas. I looked through the house and not finding them, resumed my way to Winnfield and had ridden about one mile when I discovered one of them (William Kimbrell), about 300 yards ahead, mounted with revolver in hand. Immediately upon seeing me he started at utmost speed taking to the thick woods. I gave chase gradually gaining upon him, until at the end of about a mile we were not more than sixty yards apart. Here he reached a mud hole, about ten yards wide, in attempting to cross which his horse bogged, breaking girth and precipitating saddle and rider to the ground.
"Upon my coming up, found the horse upon the opposite bank and Kimbrell standing behind it with his army revolver levelled at my head, and demanding my surrender. Demanding his surrender to me I reached down to raise my double barreled shotgun when he fired, the ball taking effect in my horse's neck, passing through from front to rear; I now fired with No. 5 bird shot, at his forehead and top of head, being the only parts visible above his horse's shoulders.
This shot took effect, the blood flowing profusely from his forehead. He again fired and I returned with my other barrel of small shot. After this he fired two shots. I returned fire with myrevolver, making in all four shots each, he on the ground covered by his horse and I mounted, the distance between us being as stated above about 10 yards.
"After my fourth shot he said that he surrendered. Supposing he had two shots left ordered him to throw down his weapon, which he did. I now called for my orderly whom not being able to find, dismounted myself, which Kimbrell seeing, he snatched his revolver, mounted his horse bare backed and started. To mount and after him was the work of a moment, my horse although wounded, carrying me through the mud hole beautifully, and after perhaps a fourth of a mile run, I had again got within some ten yards, when Kimbrell turned and fired his sixth shot. I returned it, now pressed my horse until being about ten paces ahead and to the left of him he snapped the sixth barrel of his revolver, and I firing at almost the same instant killed him instantly.
"Tying his horse to a tree, in order to mark the spot it being in a dense woods, and picking up his pistol, I retraced my way to the point from which we had started, where I found my orderly, as also a younger brother of Kimbrell and several citizens, whom I took to show the body, upon reaching which I found guarded by the father and two others with double barreled shotguns.
Knowing the desperate character of the family, and not liking the appearance of affairs, I felt to remain would be death, so I rode off about nine miles to the coroner, informed him of the circumstances, telling him that I did not propose being arrested in Winn Parish but would return to my camp where I could be found at any time."
Realizing he was outnumbered, McLaughlin and his sergeant crossed the Red River to his headquarters in Natchitoches Parish to regroup and nurse his injuries cuts and bruises from rough encounters with trees during the chase.
Once McLaughlin learned the Winn Parish sheriff held a warrant for his arrest for killing Billy Kimbrell, he went to Natchitoches and surrendered. He appeared before a district judge, gained his release on bail to appear in court the following week. His report was sent up the chain of command with a note from his immediate superior grumbling that McLaughlin detoured from his investigative assignment to capture a wanted murderer.
On December 29, the court held McLaughlin's preliminary hearing. After hearing from several witnesses, the district judge dismissed the charge and freed McLaughlin.
One of the inaccurate legends of the Nightriders misidentified McLaughlin as a U.S. marshal who is killed by the gang. After Reconstruction, McLaughlin went on to other assignments, including commanding the famed Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry at Fort Davis, Texas.
The West-Kimbrell gang continued its bloody reign of robbery and murder until May 1870 when local citizens mustered the courage to band together to eliminate the gang, shooting or lynching nine or so of them in Atlanta. Lawson Kimbrell escaped to Texas where he was arrested for horse stealing. He broke out of jail and made his way to the Indian Territory where he murdered a law officer. His subsequent execution completed the elimination of the dreaded Nightriders.
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