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In Virtually Every County, Bitter Wars Were Waged

Juan Cortina
A young Juan Cortina wearing the uniform of the Mexican Army.

Though feuds and range wars were rampant throughout the American West, it seems the Lone Star State wins the "prize" for having the most. In virtually every county in the state, bitter wars were waged, often beginning with a few family members before growing to include hundreds of men. From disputes rising out of Civil War sympathies, to cattle thievery, and old-fashioned arguments between neighbors, the Lone Star State was not only filled with violence stemming from numerous outlaw factions, but also from locals killing each other.

Great outbursts of the feuding spirit were part of the aftermath of the Civil War. Feeling against Union authorities and their local supporters touched off several explosions in the 1860s. An example of this type of disturbance was the Early-Hasley feud which occurred in Bell County from 1865 to 1869. John Early, a member of the Home Guard, abused an old man named Drew Hasley. When Hasley's son, Sam, came home after service in the Confederate Army, he took the matter up. Early had become a supporter of the Yankee officials, and they backed him. Hasley soon became the head of a party of friends and relatives, including, notably, Jim McRae, a fearless and possibly a desperate man. Early and his crowd accused the Hasley party of all sorts of thievery and depredation and brought in soldiers to clean them out. On July 30, 1869, McRae was ambushed and killed. The Hasley party broke up after that, though one of them pursued Dr. Calvin Clark, an Early supporter, into Arkansas and killed him shortly thereafter.

An influential landowner near Pilot Grove (also known as Lick Skillet), Texas, Lewis Peacock led a faction of local toughs in a post-Civil War feud in North Texas. Peacock wore the uniform of the Reconstruction Union League, an organization designed to help former slaves, and the conflict had racial overtones. The feud erupted in 1867 and lasted for four years, during which time the leaders of both sides (Peacock's opposition led by Bob Lee) were killed.

The Lee-Peacock feud, which flourished from 1867 to 1871 in the contiguous corners of Fannin, Grayson, Collin, and Hunt counties, followed the same pattern. Bob Lee, a former Confederate officer, fell out with the Union authorities and aroused the enmity of Lewis Peacock, one of their supporters. There was killing on both sides, and Lee was waylaid and killed in 1869. A systematic hunt for his friends and supporters was then begun, and several were killed. Peacock himself was shot on June 13, 1871, bringing the feud to an end.

The Cortina Troubles are the generic name for the First Cortina War (1859) and Second Cortina War (1861), in which the paramilitary Mexican forces led by the local leader Juan Nepomuceno Cortina confronted the U.S. Military, the Texas Rangers and the local militia of Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, in the Rio Grande Valley area.

The First Cortina War started on 13 July 1859 when Brownsville Marshall Robert Shears was shot in the arm by Cortina for brutalizing his former employee, Tomás Cabrera, after ignoring Cortina's request to let him handle the situation. Tension increased between Cortina and the Brownsville authorities, and on 28 September he raided and occupied the town with a 40 to 80 man posse. His enemies, however, had fled, and during the occupation of Brownsville, he issued a famous proclamation to reveal his intentions to both communities.

... There is no need of fear. Orderly people and honest citizens are inviolable to us in their persons and interests. Our object, as you have seen, has been to chastise the villainy of our enemies, which heretofore has gone unpunished. These have connived with each other, and form, so to speak, a perfidious inquisitorial lodge to persecute and rob us, without any cause, and for no other crime on our part than that of being of Mexican origin, considering us, doubtless, destitute of those gifts which they themselves do not possess. ... Mexicans! Peace be with you! Good inhabitants of the State of Texas, look on them as brothers, and keep in mind that which the Holy Spirit saith: "Thou shalt not be the friend of the passionate man; nor join thyself to the madman, lest thou learn his mode of work and scandalize thy soul.

Cortina retained control over Brownsville until 30 September 1859, when he evacuated the town at the urging of influential residents of Matamoros. The following days, the townsfolk of Brownsville formed a 20 man group in order to fight Cortina, called "the Brownsville Tigers". In November, the Brownsville Tigers learned that Cortina was at his mother's ranch in the nearby town of Santa Rita, five miles west of Brownsville. They immediately launched an attack, only to be sent into retreat in disarray by Cortina's forces.

Later the same month, the Brownsville Tigers were joined by a group of Texas Rangers, and Cortina decided to attack them. The offensive was unsuccessful, and on December, a second group of Rangers led by Capt. John "Rip" Ford arrived, larger and better organized. Because of appeals from Brownsville citizens, the U.S. Army sent troops from San Antonio to the nearby Fort Brown, which had been abandoned a few years ago. The fort's new commander, Maj. Samuel Heintzelman, united and coordinated all armed groups to put an end to the Cortina threat. Cortina retreated up the Rio Grande, until on December 27, 1859 Heintzelman and Ford engaged him in the battle of Rio Grande City. Cortina's forces were decisively defeated, losing sixty men and all their equipment. Pursued and defeated by Ford again a few days later, Cortina retreated into the Burgos Mountains. The First Cortina War had finished, and with increasing pressure from both the United States and Mexican Government to cease all hostile activities, Cortina remained away from the scene for more than a year.

In May 1861, the much shorter Second Cortina War took place. The American Civil War had just began, and Cortina, who had aligned himself with the Federal Government of the United States, invaded Zapata County. He was defeated by Confederate Capt. Santos Benavides at the battle of Carrizo and retreated back into Mexico, after losing eighteen men. No longer would Cortina conduct large scale military incursions within the territory of the United States, albeit accusations of promoting guerrilla actions against the richer Texan landowners in the area were numerous throughout the following years.

While the Horrell and Higgins factions were still shooting at each other, another cattle feud, known as the Mason County War, or the Hoocloo War, erupted in the rolling ranges two counties to the southwest. Thrifty Mason County settlers, many of them of German ancestry, complained about the stealing of their cattle and blamed outlaws from surrounding counties. Major John B. Jones, head of the Texas Rangers, visited the area in 1874. He found the people aroused over cattle rustling but was unable to make any arrests.

Early in 1875, Sheriff John Clark arrested five men on charges of cow theft and locked them in the jail at Mason. At night a crowd of masked men gathered in front of the jail and demanded that the prisoners be released to them. After the sheriff went for help, the crowd battered the jail door. "Keep away if you don't want to get shot," the leaders yelled at anyone who threatened to interfere.

When the door fell in, the band took out the alleged rustlers and headed south with them, toward Fredericksburg. The sheriff led a posse in pursuit but caught up with the vigilantes too late. One prisoner had escaped, one had been shot to death, and three were already strung up - though one of them was cut down in time to save his life.

Two months later, Tim Williamson, a reputable stockman, was arrested on a charge of cattle theft. He made bond, and when John Worley, deputy sheriff, was taking him to court, a party of masked, armed men approached. The deputy, instead of trying to protect his prisoner, shot Williamson's horse, leaving him unmounted as well as unarmed. In a few minutes the defendant lay dying.

This action incensed Williamson's many friends, especially Scott Cooley, a former Ranger, who had worked for Williamson. Before long, Cooley and his friends killed two of the men who had taken Williamson from the non-resisting deputy. They also killed John Worley and took his scalp.

In the next few months, rival armed bands roamed the county and the death toll mounted to fifteen. After the Texas Rangers were called in, some of the feudists were caught and later sent to prison. Others left the state, and Cooley went to another county, where friends protected him. After two years of turmoil, in which men slept with pistols under their pillows, Mason County again became a peaceful cattle range. On the night of January 21, 1877, the Mason County courthouse burned, destroying all records relating to the feud.

By the mid-1880s the worst of the feuding was over, and only a handful of fresh disturbances occurred. One of these was the trouble at Graham, Young County, in 1888. A family of brothers named Marlow was accused of mishandling cattle and horses, though the brothers contended that they were victims of the desire of the big cattlemen to own everything. They killed Sheriff Marion D. Wallace when he tried to arrest them. Boone Marlow got away, but Alfred, George, Epp, and Charley were jailed. They broke jail once, were recaptured, and stood off an attempt by a local mob to kill them in their cell. The mob tried again the next day when the prisoners were being moved to Weatherford. The Marlows, though chained, seized guns from their guards and killed three of the mob before the others ran away. Alf and Epp Marlow were killed; Charley and George, each chained to a dead brother, cut off the feet of the corpses with pocketknives and got away. Boone Marlow was later killed in Oklahoma, and the feud subsided into litigation, which was finally dropped.

Mob trouble was also at the root of the killings in San Saba County, where organized stealing became unbearable in the late 1880s. A vigilante group led by some religious people began to function, and there were hangings and ambushings. In 1893 a young man named Jim Brown was killed by a mob as he was going home from church. In 1896 there were two more mob executions. Public sentiment turned against this sort of Klan-like work, and District Attorney Linden joined forces with ranger sergeant W. J. L. Sullivan to work up a case that broke the power of the mob and sent its leaders into exile, though the last suits were not dismissed until 1903.

Another political feud was the clash between the Botas and Guaraches at Laredo, which ended in a street riot on April 7, 1886, during which the Guaraches used an old cannon, the only documented case in which Texas feudists made use of artillery.

During the 1890s feuds again grew numerous, but they were neither so big nor so bloody as the feuds of the 1870s. The killing of Sheriff Andrew Jackson Royal at Fort Stockton on November 21, 1894, was the result of a small but bitter feud. Jim Miller and Sheriff Bud Frazer fell out at Pecos, and several people lost their lives. Frazer was shot in a saloon at Toyah on September 13, 1896.

Somewhat bigger than these disturbances was the Broocks-Border-Wall feud in San Augustine just before and after 1900. The Wall boys were enemies from boyhood of Curg (Lycurgus) Border, a relative of the powerful Broocks family. The Walls themselves had numerous kin with plenty of backbone. In April 1900 Border shot and killed Sheriff George Wall on the streets of San Augustine. Eugene Wall retaliated by killing Ben Broocks on June 2. On June 4 a battle around the courthouse resulted in the deaths of Sid and Felix Roberts. Later two more of the Wall boys were ambushed, and many of their friends and supporters left the country. The feud was not really ended until Sheriff Sneed Nobles killed Curg Border.

As bitter as any other were the feuds at Columbus, Colorado County. Two great clans of cattlemen, the Staffords and the Townsends, had trouble that culminated in the killing of R. E. and John Stafford in front of a Columbus saloon on July 7, 1888. Larkin and Marion Hope, nephews of Sheriff Light Townsend, were accused of the deed. In the 1890s the Townsend family divided against itself. Former Sheriff Sam Reese, who had married a Townsend, grew bitter against the local political machine led by lawyer Marcus Townsend and Sheriff Light Townsend (the uncle of Marcus Townsend). On August 3, 1894, Marcus Townsend's follower Larkin Hope was murdered. Reese himself was assassinated in a street battle on March 16, 1899. Numerous engagements and killings followed, the last being another general shooting on June 30, 1906.

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


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