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Range Wars And Feuds

Idaho Range Wars
Armed cattle ranchers delayed farm settlement here for six years before a permanent farm community was organized in 1872.
This kind of conflict occurred in widely scattered western areas when farm crops displaced rangeland. Families of early farm pioneers still occupy holdings here that are well over a century old, although many of them finally have shifted from planting crops to raising cattle after winning their battle against early stock herders.

The violence created in the range wars and feuds often occurred where there was no law, the law was too weak to enforce any type of change, or the law sided with one faction over the other. They were prone to take the law into their own hands.

The Code of the hills, one version of the western ethical tradition, was the excepted method to deal with conflicts, disagreements, and outright disregard for law, it was based on moral and biblical beliefs. These beliefs were enforced with methods of the times, which accounted for the only real law and order.

A feud is a long-running argument or fight between two groups of people, especially families or clans. Feuds tend to begin because a member of one group attacks or insults a member of the other, and then turn into long-running cycles of retaliation. Feuds can last for generations. In areas without a strong central government the feud can be the only way to balance relationships between and within communities. A blood feud is a feud with a cycle of retaliatory killings.

Actually, the frontier feud was a form of lawlessness that involved murder and other major crimes. Yet, in the minds of the feudists, it was something far different. It was a primitive - though, of course, mistaken - means aimed at bringing law of a sort to an area where chaos had prevailed. The clansman who ambushed his enemy and filled him with buckshot thought of himself as an upholder of a higher order.

The typical feud, as C. L. Sonnichsen pointed out in I'll Die Before I'll Run, "usually starts when a group of people feel they have been intolerably wronged and take the law into their own hands. This is not lawlessness. It is an appeal to a law that is felt to be a reason able substitute for legal redress which cannot be obtained - sometimes to a law that is higher or more valid than those on the statute books."

Vengeance, a common motive in the clashes between early settlers and Indians, was evident in many of the quarrels of white frontiersmen. It intensified some of the controversies into bloody vendettas. In thinly populated areas where statutory law was weak, some families or factions felt impelled to seek what they believed to be justice by repaying wrongs in kind. When this brought counteraction from the other side, as usually it did, the feud might become a local war that continued for years.

The Westerner defended himself and resented governmental restrictions. The duel and the blood-feud found congenial soil in Kentucky and Tennessee. The idea of the personality of law was often dominant over the organized machinery of justice. That method was best which was most direct and effective. The backwoodsman was intolerant of men who split hairs, or scrupled over the method of reaching the right. In a word, the unchecked development of the individual was the significant product of this frontier democracy. It sought rather to express itself by choosing a man of the people, than by the formation of elaborate governmental institutions.

Of course there are plenty of hard characters among cowboys, but no more than among lumbermen and the like; only the cowboys are so ready with their weapons that a bully in one of their camps is apt to be a murderer instead of merely a bruiser. Often, moreover, on a long trail, or in a far-off camp, where the men are for many months alone, feuds spring up that are in the end sure to be slaked in blood. As a rule, however, cowboys who become desperadoes soon perforce drop their original business, and are no longer employed on ranches, unless in counties or territories where there is very little heed paid to the law, and where, in consequence, a cattle-owner needs a certain number of hired bravos. Until within two or three years this was the case in parts of Arizona and New Mexico, where land claims were "jumped" and cattle stolen all the while, one effect being to insure high wages to every individual who combined murderous proclivities with skill in the use of the six-shooter.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858""1919)
Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail. 1896.

Like many similar feuds on the Frontier, the Lincoln County War began as a land dispute that turned violent following a variety of unsavory actions taken by government authorities. The war was touched off by a legal dispute between established cattlemen L.G. Murphy and J.J. Dolan who used their connections with US officials in the area as well as with the Army at Fort Stanton, to secure economic control over the cattle and merchant economies of Lincoln county. In 1877, Alexander McSween and John Tunstall, along with competing cattleman John Chisum, began to challenge the control of Murphy and Dolan as well as the favoritism they had long been receiving from territorial officials.

Violent feuds between cattlemen and sheepmen also developed and the results culminated in some very famous gunfights ... Combating the rustling of cattle and horses became an important enforcement function for the Wild West sheriff.

It is certainly a fact that most frontiersman would fight for their rights, and frequently had to, for along with honest settlers came many a rascal who robbed and murdered as the spirit moved him. There was naturally some fueding in such an environment, especially among Southern settlers who never took anything lying down.

The great feuds of Texas, however, were products of the Civil War. One big trouble and a few little ones are all the record shows before the sixties. They feuded occasionally. On the Upper Brazos the white settlers and the reservation Indians repeatedly attacked and threatened each other in the "Reservation War" of 1858. Farther south there was the "Cart War" of 1847 between Mexican and American teamsters, and the "Cortina War" of the late fifties. These were minor troubles, however; hardly feuds at all.

Then came the conflagration of 1860, forcing thousands of Texans into new patterns, taking away the securities and safeguards they were used to. Almost at once the willingness of these men to take the law into their hands made its appearance. Governor Sam Houston, who was not a secessionist, refused to call a special session of the legislature to vote Texas out of the Union. Thereupon the leaders of the secession party invited the people to elect delegates to a special convention which would, in effect, take over the government. This was done, and the power which had come from the people was taken back by the hands that in theory had given it. The pattern is a familiar one to a student of Texas feud troubles.

The war itself produced many feud situations, for Texans disagreed among themselves about the basic issues almost as much as they disagreed with the Yankees. The majority of those who were opposed to dividing the Union fought manfully for the South after hostilities began. But some left the state, or tried to, and some hid out in the scopes of wild country like the "Big Thicket" in the East Texas. The most violent Southern patriots could not bear to let such men go unpunished, and many were hunted down and killed. Much of the hunting and killing was done by the Home Guard organization, sometimes called the "Heel Flies." Theoretically this force was composed of men too old or too young to join the regular army, but the membership sometimes included draft dodgers and thieves who came in for protection.

Because it was a republic when it entered the Union, Texas controlled its own public lands. In other Western states the federal government was in charge. The argument gradually changed, and by the time it ended, it was no longer over whether the prairies would be fenced but by whom. On one side were the new type of homesteaders, called ranchers, who both farmed and kept cattle. Small ranchers thought the cattle barons were unfairly laying claim to land that gave them a near monopoly on the market, while the big concerns believed that the ranchers were rustlers who stole their cattle.

In Johnson County, Wyoming, things came to a climax when cattle barons decided to intimidate the small ranchers by bringing in hired gunmen. Twenty-five gunslingers came on a special train from Denver. They were joined by 21 others, including reporters, at Cheyenne, and set forth on April 5, 1892. A week later they had killed two suspected rustlers, two of their own had died, and they were holed up in a ranch, surrounded by a mob of at least 200 angry men. Wyoming's acting governor, Amos W. Baber, appealed to President Benjamin Harrison for help. On the third day of the siege, just as a wagon filled with dynamite was about to be pushed against the cabin, federal troops, with bugle blowing and flag flying, came to the rescue.

As Don Cusic comments in Cowboys and the Wild West, "More than any other event, the Johnson County War symbolized the arrival of the New West settled by homesteaders and the end of the Old West, ruled by cattlemen with their huge herds, large ranches, hired gunfighters, and use of public grazing lands for their own."-

Old-fashioned feuding also endured into modern times in the hollows of Greene County, Virginia. The players in this running skirmish were from the Shifflett and the Morris clans, families that had intermarried so often during their two centuries of coexistence in the Blue Ridge Mountains that their surnames were simply formalities. No one knows the origin of the free-for-all""except that it was born from the "Code of the Hills," a body of unwritten rules about vengeance, vigilantes, and hillbilly conduct holding that, for instance, if you knock up my sister, I'll burn your house down""but at its most violent it seems to have revolved around moonshining.

One early fight, however, was a rock-throwing battle in 1922 over the issue of abusive language. During the next nine years a dozen men were murdered by gunshot or bludgeon, and there were scores of assaults, murders, and weddings. In 1931 a local newspaper, the Daily Progress, reported that "wholesale hot-headed shooting was the order of the day yesterday when two men stood face to face and killed each other in a fierce pistol-shotgun duel." The combatants were Manuel Morris, 45, and Bernard Shifflett, 35. Three bystanders were also wounded in the melee. According to witnesses, Shifflett's carcass was filled with lead from head to toe. These dysfunctional families were still devouring themselves as late as 1961, when a jury sentenced 40-year-old George Shifflett to 60 years in the state pen for shooting to death his cousin, Eugene Morris, a 38-year-old father of nine, in a dispute about a stolen barrel of corn mash used to make whiskey.


I'll Die Before I'll Run: The Story of the Great Feuds of Texas

The feuds raging in Texas in the nineteenth century bound in acrimony not only families but special-interest groups that, feeling intolerably wronged, sought "extralegal justice" when they believed the law would give them no satisfaction.




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