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Texas Feuds & Wars

Texas Frontier 1852-1861
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Although the feuds of Texas have received far less general attention and publicity than have the Kentucky variety, they were probably even more numerous and bitter. Half a dozen of the worst ones have become fairly well known, but dozens of others, big and little, have raged in practically every county in the state. Only one important feud broke out in Texas before the Civil War: the Regulator-Moderator War, which flourished in Shelby County and adjacent regions from 1839 to 1844, involved several hundred men on each side, and caused much bloodshed and violence. Like many of the later feuds, this trouble was at first a contest between organized outlaws and a group of vigilantes. Typically, the Regulators went to such extremes in their attempts to break up the outlaws that a group of countervigilantes came into existence to "moderate" the Regulators. Typically also, both sides drew in friends, relatives, and sympathizers from many miles away, and a war of extermination would have been the inevitable result if Sam Houston and the militia had not marched in.

Regulators Fight Moderators

In Texas, which had more than its share of feuds, one of the bitterest and longest was that of the Regulators and Moderators, or the Shelby County War. It embraced a largely wooded section near the eastern edge of the state and lasted from 1839 through 1844. The trouble had its origin in land frauds, horse stealing, home burnings and other crimes.

The first violence came in the fall of 1840, when a fugitive ruffian, Charles W. Jackson, rode up to Joseph G. Goodbread, who was sitting on a hitching rack in Shelbyville, pointed his rifle at Goodbread, with whom he had had a quarrel, and said he was going to shoot him. Goodbread said he had no ill will against Jackson. "Besides," he pleaded, "I'm unarmed." "So much the better!" exclaimed Jackson, as he shot his victim through the heart.

Jackson and some other frontiersmen organized an armed company which they called the Shelby Guards, but which was more generally known as the Regulators. This group of rough, reckless men was ostensibly formed to suppress horse thieving and cattle rustling, but in practice it inflicted terroristic vengeance on persons believed to be enemies of its members. It horsewhipped some, drove others from the county, and killed several. The Regulators also burned houses and, in one instance, crowded into a courtroom and intimidated the judge. To oppose this high-handed assumption of authority an opposition group, called the Moderators, was formed. The Moderators said they had organized to preserve order and uphold the courts. However, their first aim was to kill Jackson, the leader of the Regulators, which they did by shooting him from ambush.

The Regulators quickly found a new leader in Watt Moorman; and the two bands roved about the country, threatening each other and making occasional depredations. In the fall of 1841, the Regulators, said to number 250, advanced on the town of San Augustine, where the Moderators were camped. A battle seemed imminent but was averted by the recently mustered militia.

Yet terrorism continued, causing some settlers to abandon their farms and discouraging others from coming to the county. "Land is now worth only ten cents an acre in Shelby County, where formerly it was valued at more than twenty times that sum," said the San Augustine, Texas, Red-Lander of January 17, 1842, "and the tide of emigration has completely turned from that county, which is shunned as another Sodom."

The feud spread into adjoining counties and became so serious that pitched battles were fought in the summer of 1844. At that point, General Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, decided to interfere. He sent militiamen into the area and went there himself. Sitting on a pile of firewood and whittling a sliver of pine, he listened to local leaders, then issued a proclamation, dispersing both warring factions. Thus the tragic conflict that had taken the lives of about fifty persons came to a close.

Cart War

The so called "Cart War" erupted in 1857 and had national and international repercussions. The underlying causes of the event, historians believe, were ethnic and racial hostilities of Texans toward Mexican Texans, exacerbated by the ethnocentrism of the Know-Nothing party and the white anger over Mexican sympathy with black slaves. By the mid-1850s, Mexicans and Tejanos had built a successful business of hauling food and merchandise from the port of Indianola to San Antonio and other towns in the interior of Texas. Using oxcarts, Mexicans moved freight more rapidly and cheaply than their Anglo competitors. Some Anglos retaliated by destroying the Mexicans' oxcarts, stealing their freight, and reportedly killing and wounding a number of Mexican carters. An attack on Mexican carters occurred in 1855 near Seguin, but sustained violence did not begin until July 1857. Local authorities made no serious effort to apprehend the criminals, and violence increased so much that some feared that a "campaign of death" against Mexicans was under way.

Public opinion in some counties between San Antonio and the coast ran heavily against the carters, who were regarded as an "intolerable nuisance." Some newspapers, however, spoke out against the violence. The Austin Southern Intelligencer and the San Antonio Herald expressed concern that the "war" would raise prices. The Intelligencer also worried that if attacks on a "weak race" were permitted, the next victims would be the German Texans, and that finally "a war between the poor and the rich" might occur. Some humanitarians also expressed concern for the Mexicans, notwithstanding "the fact of their being low in the scale of intelligence," as the Nueces Valley Weekly of Corpus Christi stated.

News of the violence in Texas soon reached the Mexican minister in Washington, Manuel Robles y Pezuela, who on October 14 protested the affair to Secretary of State Lewis Cass. Cass urged Texas governor Elisha M. Pease to end the hostilities. In a message to the state legislature of November 30, 1857, Pease declared: "It is now very evident that there is no security for the lives of citizens of Mexican origin engaged in the business of transportation, along the road from San Antonio to the Gulf." Pease asked for a special appropriation for the militia, and the legislators approved the expenditure with little opposition. Though some citizens of Karnes County, who wanted the "peon Mexican teamsters" out of business, were angry at the arrival of armed escorts for Tejano carters, the "war" subsided in December of 1857.

Reservation War

The Texas Legislature reluctantly agreed to allow the United States establishment of two reservations on the Brazos. The federal government in 1854 leased four leagues of land for an Indian reservation along the Brazos River below Fort Belknap. A second reservation upstream was added for the Penatekas near Camp Cooper, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos. Their concerns stemmed from the knowledge that most of their constituents on the frontier strongly preferred to exterminate or drive out the remaining Indians. Their acceptance of the reservation proposal was based, at least partially, on the fact that the land they donated was far west of the settlements but within five years, Texas ranches completely surrounded the agencies. Raiders from Indian territory and the Plains increased the frequency and viciousness of their attacks on the new settlers, and racial hatred increased proportionately among the Whites.

Becauses of conflict and tension on both sides, Rangers and Indian agents had a difficult time keeping peace and enforcing policies. Desire for a fight was mutual so the Kiowa and Comanche warriors took every opportunity to make false trails leading to the Texas reservations. Rip Ford had recently taken command of the Rangers at Belknap and was discussing with his junior officers the pile of complaints concerning reservation Indians involved in stealing and murder. Ford suggested sending patrols around the reservations, and one officer remarked that if a trail could be found leading from an attack back to the reservation, it would prove the complaints were true. Lt. Allison Nelson added that a trail could be made. It seems the Whites learned a few things from the Comanches when it came to making false trails. Ford lifted Nelson by his collar and emphatically stated, "No, Sir, that will not do, I am responsible to the state, and to public opinion, and I will take no step in the matter, unless I am backed by the facts, and of such a character as to justify me before the public. I am willing to punish the [reserve] Comanches, if they are found guilty; but I am not disposed to do so unjustly and improperly."

Many settlers expressed their admiration for the Indians' efforts to take up farming and stock raising, but others - more outspoken in their criticism - would not be satisfied until the native peoples were either exterminated or run out of Texas for good. While the rest of the state was preoccupied with rumors of slave insurrections, frontierspeople were stirred into the same kind of frenzy when a Jacksboro weekly, The White Man, embarked on a sensational campaign that preyed on settlers' fears and turned every rumor to fact.

Indian Reservation Superintendent Robert S. Neighbors was equally frustrated with the state of Indian affairs, and he expresses below his inability to maintain peace without the help of the Ranger battalion. The situation for Neighbors worsened as anti-Indian sentiment continued to increase among the frontier settlers and many of the Rangers. Lt. Nelson allied himself with John R. Baylor, whom Neighbors had fired as Comanche agent. Nelson wanted Neighbor's job, and he and Baylor did all they could to arouse the anger of the white settlers.

Several incidents of innocent Indians being attacked and murdered by local residents brought pressure on Ford to arrest the guilty parties, but he refused even though it was the Ranger's duty to protect Superintendent Neighbors and his Indians. Thus Neighbors was forced to relocate the Indians to the Wichita Agency near where Fort Sill is today. The relocation devastated the already impoverished Indians. Many of the Caddo and Tonkawas had fought with the whites in Texas and were understandably afraid in their new home.

The pioneers' sense of dread was somewhat allayed in 1858 by news of two signal victories over their Plains adversaries. That spring, Texans led by ranger captain Rip Ford reported the defeat of over 300 determined warriors at the Battle of the Washita, in Indian Territory. Not far from there, near Wichita Village, U.S. Captain Earl Van Dorn routed about 500 Comanches and Kiowas that fall.

Meanwhile, The White Man grew ever more vocal. Words grew into deeds, climaxing in the Reservation War of 1859 that pitted militiamen of Northwest Texas against the Indians on both reservations. While no pitched battles ensued, the affair resulted in the expulsion of the native peoples.

Jay Monaghan. Frontier Feuds. The Book of the American West Simon & Schuster New York, NY 1969.


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