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Sutton-Taylor Feud

Creed Taykor

Mr. Colt vs. The Rule Of Law

The time following the Civil War is often referred to as the Reconstruction Period. For many citizens of the vanquished South, however, it was more an era for venting anger than a period of rebuilding. The "carpetbagger" government of Texas exacerbated the situation with the appointment of a State Police force, which was little better than the so-called outlaws it pursued. Fencing of land had not begun, and there were frequent disputes over the ownership of cattle and property. Many of Texas' most infamous outlaws thrived during this era. By 1873, there existed in Gonzales and DeWitt Counties a vigilante committee that made life very tenuous for citizens. Sheriff Jack Helms, formerly a captain in the State Police, led the committee.

It was during all this turmoil that DeWitt County was host to one of the longest and most vicious feuds in Texas history. According to some historians, the Sutton-Taylor feud began in the Carolinas, continued during the 1840s in Georgia, and finally came to Texas. Both families unfortunately chose to settle near each other in DeWitt County.

Aside from the Reconstruction troubles, there was a general depression among the people of DeWitt County, which was intensified by bad crops. It was said that there was a "noticeable decay of character and ideals," particularly among the younger citizens. The age of cowboys and cattle drives was in full swing, and one author wrote, "So far as I can learn, there is not a boy of American parentage learning a trade or reading for a profession west of the Colorado." The rustling business boomed, and cattle prices soared. In 1867 Gonzales, prices rose from $70 to $100 a head.

Creed Taylor, the patriarch of the Taylor clan, was a rough-and-ready, old frontiersman. He had been a Texas Ranger under Captain John Coffee Hays, who was probably the most formidable fighting man in Texas between 1836 and 1849. Creed's sons were chips off the block. Around them, they gathered a group of kindred souls.

A native of South Texas, William E. Sutton served in the Confederate army and after the war moved his family to Clinton in DeWitt County. There he came into conflict with the Taylor clan, and the result was Texas' Sutton-Taylor feud. Texas Ranger Lee Hall held that the feud had begun a few decades earlier in the Carolinas and Georgia, but it flared anew in Texas in the late 1860's.

Sutton's band of "Regulators" at times numbered as many as two hundred and included such stalwarts as cattleman Shanghai Pierce, Indian fighter Old Joe Tumlinson, and vicious lawman Jack Helm. Aligned with the Taylors were the Clements brothers and their cousin from East Texas, the murderous John Wesley Hardin.

For several years there was a violent series of shootouts and ambushes which not even the Texas Rangers were able to halt. At last Sutton moved with his immediate family to Victoria, but Jim Taylor relentlessly sought him out and killed him in Indianola in 1874. The feud continued in bloody fashion until Taylor himself was killed a year and one-half later.

The son of Texas farmer Pitkin Taylor, Bill Taylor became involved in the bloody Sutton-Taylor feud when his father was gunned down in the summer of 1872. When Pitkin died of his wounds six months later, Bill supported his brother Jim in a vow of revenge. There were two unsuccessful attempts to kill Bill Sutton, leader of the opposition, and these clashes were followed by a bloody progression of ambushes, sieges, and street fights.

Jim rapidly became the more prominent of the Taylor brothers, fighting his way to leadership of his clan against the Suttons, but Bill took part in his share of the bushwhackings and murders. In March, 1874, Bill and Jim finally succeeded in killing Sutton in Indianola, although Bill was later arrested and thrown into the Indianola jail. Luck was with him, however; on September 15, 1875, a fierce storm struck the Gulf Coast of Texas, and during the resultant chaos and destruction in Indianola, Bill escaped-although before leaving he heroically rescued several people from the surging waters. The following December Jim Taylor was killed, and thereafter the fighting rapidly decreased.

Taylor's next notoriety came in 1877, when he was incarcerated in an Austin jail whose residents at the time included Wes Hardin, Mannen Clements, Johnny Ringo, and members of the Sam Bass gang. A year later rangers arrested Taylor in Cuero on charges of horse theft, assault, and forgery, but somehow he managed to evade imprisonment. In 1881 he was reported to be involved in altercations in Kimble County, but soon he left Texas and moved to Indian Territory. Relatives asserted that he became a law officer there and was killed by a criminal in the line of duty.

Hays Taylor was a young member of DeW itt County's Taylor family and an early participant in Texas' Murderous Sutton-Taylor feud. In 1867 he and his brother Doboy killed two soldiers and thus incurred the wrath of the authorities. Numerous members of the Sutton faction were officers of the law and were therefore able to take legalized action against the Taylors because of this and subsequent incidents. Hays was killed in an ambush near his father's ranch.

Jim Taylor was a young member of the large DeWitt County family which was embroiled with the Sutton clan in Texas' most violent feud. The Sutton-Taylor trouble had been raging since the late 1860's when, in the sunr mcr of 1872, Jim's father, Pitkin Tavlor, was lured outside his house by Sutton drygulchers ringing a cowbell. Pitkin was gunned down in his cornfield, and he died six months later.

At their father's funeral Jim and his brother Bill and several other relatives vowed revenge. Over the next two months Jim twice tried to kill Bill Sutton, and he did succeed in putting to death three Sutton men, including the vicious Jack Helm. The day after Ifelm's death a Taylor party attacked the ranch of Sutton stalwart Joe Tumlinson, but a posse soon arrived, and a truce was signed.

A few months later, in December, 1873, Taylor ally Wiley Pridgen was killed at Thomaston, and the feud again erupted. The Taylors immediately besieged the Suttons in Cuero for a day and a night, then were themselves pinned down when Joe Tumlinson galloped up with a larger band of gunmen.

Within months Jim and Bill Taylor succeeded in killing Bill Sutton and a friend, but the Suttons retaliated by lynching Scrap Taylor, Jim White, and Kute Tuggle in Clinton on June 20, 1874. But after a few other incidents - notably the escape of Bill Taylor from the Indianola jail and the assassination of Rube Brown, marshal of Cuero and new leader of the Suttons - the feud climaxed with the death of Jim Taylor late in 1875. For three years he had been the Taylors' most vigorous and aggressive leader, and when he was killed, the lengthy struggle rapidly subsided.

Creed Taylor, a veteran of the Texas Revolution, and his brothers Pitkin, William, Josiah, and Rufus were the elders of the DeWitt County family which battled the Suttons in Texas' bloodiest feud. Their sons were among the chief combatants of the murders and shootouts which lasted from the late 1860's until the middle 1870's. Phillip Taylor - always known as Doboy - was the son of Creed Taylor, and after the Civil War he was "wanted" by Reconstruction officials. (When he was married, the ceremony was conducted on horseback in the open prairie should flight be necessary, and he took his bride to the Taylor gang hideout for her honeymoon.) Doboy was involved in early shooting scrapes of the Sutton-Taylor feud, and he was shot to death in 1871.

Jack Helm first appeared in history just before the Civil War as a cowboy for Texas' fabulous Shanghai Pierce. During the late 1860's he joined the Sutton side in their bloody feud with the Taylors in South Texas, and he became one of the leaders of the two-hundred-strong Sutton "Regulators." In August, 1869, Helm arranged an attack which resulted in one of the bloodiest battles of the SuttonTaylor feud.

On July 1, 1869, Reconstruction Governor E. J. Davis organized the Texas State Police, and Helm received an appointment as one of the four captains. But shortly thereafter he misused his authority to murder two members of the Taylor faction and to levy a tax of twenty-five cents per person to defray his hotel expenses. Therefore, in October, 1870, he was suspended from the state police, and he was permanently dismissed the following December.

Helm had managed to win election as sheriff of DeWitt County, however, and from that position he continued to be a leader in the area feuding. But in April, 1873, he moved to Albuquerque, Texas, where he worked to perfect an invention to combat cotton worms. A few months later he was killed in Albuquerque by Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin.

William E. Sutton was not much different from his nemesis Taylor, nor were the men and women who sided with him. The Taylors had already gotten into trouble with the federal troops, while young Billy Sutton had become a deputy sheriff in Clinton.

Nobody seems to know exactly what started the feud again in Texas. There is a good indication that it arose when Billy Sutton and his posse of cattle rustlers killed Charles Taylor, supposedly a kinsman of the Dewitt County Taylors. Sutton then killed another Taylor, and the feud began to boil. To make matters worse, Sutton became a deputy for Captain Jack Helms of the nefarious State Police. The Sutton-Helms group took it upon themselves to pursue the Taylor clan, which proved to be a fatal mistake for Billy Sutton.

Luckily for peaceful citizens, a lawyer named Henry Clay Pleasants (23 March 1828 -. 7 November 1899) was also living in the community. Born in Richmond County, Virginia, he was educated at the University of Virginia and admitted to the bar of that state in 1852. Pleasants practiced in the offices of Peachey R. Gratton, author of Gratton's Reports. Later, he was a partner of the Honorable John M. Guy, one of Virginia's foremost lawyers. Obviously, Henry Clay Pleasants was a highly educated and outstanding lawyer when he moved to DeWitt County in 1854. He married Ann Eliza Atkinson in 1858 and they had four children, one of whom became a distinguished lawyer and jurist like his father.

Pleasants practiced law in DeWitt County until he was elected district judge of the old 23rd District. While signing the Constitution of 1876 formally marked the end of the Reconstruction Era, trouble would continue through the end of the century. It was indeed fortunate for the citizens of DeWitt and surrounding counties that during the first part of that period, Henry Clay Pleasants was district judge.

No one really knows how many people were killed in the Sutton-Taylor feud, but estimates are between thirty and fifty. When a member of the Taylor clan was killed, the Suttons retaliated by killing of a member of the Sutton-Helms group, generally by ambush. In 1873, the feud came to a head with the killing of Pitkin Taylor, another Taylor patriarch. The remaining Taylors swore to get Bill Sutton. John Wesley Hardin, Texas' most famous outlaw and a kinsman of the Taylors, now entered the picture. Along with Jim Taylor, he soon disposed of Jack Helms. No one was safe. A person had to be on one side or the other, and the battle waged all over the county.

Along with his wife and a man named Gabriel Slaughter of Virginia, Bill Sutton boarded the steamship Clinton at Indianola. Slaughter was a fine man and a relative of Judge Pleasants. John Wesley Hardin found out that Sutton was at Indianola and alerted his Taylor cousins, who immediately took action. Jim and Billy Taylor and other members of the clan caught Sutton just as he boarded the boat. In front of their wives, both Sutton and Slaughter were killed from gunshots to the head.

The feud continued, even though the inimitable Texas Ranger Captain Leander McNelly was called in by the governor. The Rangers helped to calm the storm to some extent, but in 1876, a terrible crime drew the attention and ire of the whole state. It was the murder of Dr. Philip Brassell and his son George. Dr. Brassell was a peace-loving man, but apparently George got involved with the wrong crowd.

A group of masked men came to Dr. Brassell's house after the family had gone to bed. They took the doctor, his son George, and two younger sons and led them down the road. They coldly executed the doctor and George, but the younger sons escaped in the darkness. Warrants were issued for five men, and they were brought to the courthouse at Clinton. But witnesses could not (or would not) identify the killers. Judge Pleasants, suspecting that something of the sort would occur, had asked the governor for another detachment of Texas Rangers. The Rangers encamped in Judge Pleasants' pasture under the command of Lieutenant Lee "Red" Hall, who would subsequently make a name for himself through his bravery in the case.

How Judge Pleasants was able to stay alive is anybody's guess, for he presided in many of the trials during this period. Undoubtedly, he must have been one of the most respected men in the county, and events would prove him to be a man of unquestionable courage. It would take a man or woman of steel backbone and determination to take a stand at a time when "bushwhacking" was a common retaliation for simply being friends with one of the feuding families.

On 18 December 1876, the criminal docket was to be called in Judge Pleasants' court. "Red" Hall, a Ranger, had three weeks to get ready for the anticipated fireworks. He reported that the sheriff couldn't be trusted to execute writs as he was on the side of the Sutton party, and they were the defendants in nearly all of the cases. To make matters worse, all of the witnesses in the Brassell case except three women had left the country, and even the women had been threatened that if they appeared before the grand jury. They were told that they would be killed and their homes burned.

Judge Pleasants was as determined as Ranger Hall to put an end to the horrors that had been visited upon the county. He proved his courage one day to Hall's Texas Rangers. The judge was driving down the Victoria road when he saw a man hiding behind a live oak tree. He drove up to within fifty feet of the tree and, pointing his shotgun, called out in his slow Virginia drawl, "I see you, sir. Come out from behind that tree!" A sheepish Texas Ranger stepped out, explaining to his honor that he was waiting for somebody else and didn't want to be recognized.

Hall decided to lay a trap to attempt to end the Sutton-Taylor feud. Joe Sitterlie of the Sutton group was getting married, and a party was in progress at a log house a few miles from Clinton. Fiddle music, food, and liquid refreshments were there. It didn't seem to matter that seven of the guests had been indicted by the grand jury just two days before; everybody was having a good time.

Hall and his Rangers surrounded the house. Hall boldly stepped in the front door, alone and unarmed. He called out the names of the seven men under indictment. After many threats were made by the Sutton crowd, Hall ordered his men to come let the women and children out and then to sweep the porch and doors with shotgun fire, shooting to kill. This did the trick, and Hall soon had the guests disarmed.

There had been seventy men against one Ranger inside the cabin and sixteen or seventeen outside, yet through sheer bravado, Hall had disarmed them all. The bride made a request that the party continue, and the Ranger, being a gentleman, obliged her. He changed guards outside every few hours and let his Rangers come in and take part in the celebration. The next day the seven indicted men were in the town jail.

Judge Pleasants presided over their trial. The accused were each under two indictments: one for the murder of Dr. Brassell and one for that of his son George. The courtroom was jammed with Texas Rangers and members of both parties of the feud. The judge had been threatened. In his pockets were letters telling him that he would be killed if he didn't set the defendants free. Hall had heard that a rescue attempt would be made. Rangers were bracketing the judge's bench, ready to mete out what might be termed "extra-judicial justice."

When Judge Pleasants was ready to render his decision, the quiet was deafening. In a clear and strong voice, he castigated the crowd for being lawless and for being "murderers, bushwhackers, and midnight assassins." He referred to his threatening letters and the circumstances leading up to the crimes, and then he denied the defendants' bails. Judge Pleasant's final words, "Lieutenant Hall, clear the courtroom," must have signaled to those present that Mr. Colt had lost and the rule of law would prevail.

Subsequent generations of the feuding families became exemplary citizens, and Judge Pleasants went on to serve on the First Court of Appeals. "Red" Hall gained additional laurels as a member of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War in Cuba.

Bob Dabney. This appeared in The Houston Lawyer, January-February 1999, Volume 36: Number 4 and is reproduced with their permission. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum is located adjacent to Interstate 35 in Waco, Texas (midway between Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin). The Texas Ranger Dispatch is the historical magazine of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum.


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