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.
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.
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