DEADLIEST FEUD IN TEXAS

It’s called the Sutton-Taylor Feud, but William Sutton was the only Sutton involved in this fight. He had a lot of friends, including some members of Governor E. J. Davis’ State Police. The Taylor faction consisted of the sons, nephews, in-laws, and friends of two

brothers––Creed and Pitkin Taylor. The tale gets more complicated: Creed Taylor, who had fought in every major Texas battle from the “Come and Take It” skirmish at Gonzales through the Mexican-American War, did not join the feud. His brother Pitkin was an old man in 1872 when the feud was well underway. Sutton supporters lured him out of his house one night by ringing a cowbell in his cornfield. Shot and severely wounded, he lived only six months. At his funeral, his son and several relatives vowed to avenge the killing. “Who sheds a Taylor’s blood, by a Taylor’s hand must fall” became their mantra.

Lawlessness ran rampant in Texas after the Civil War and resentments flared with the arrival of black Union soldiers assigned to keep order and Carpetbaggers—Northerners, some of whom took advantage of the impoverished conditions by paying back taxes on land to acquire farms belonging to Confederate soldiers.

Evidence of the building tensions appeared in 1866 when Buck Taylor shot a black sergeant who came to a dance at the home of Taylor’s uncle. Then Hays Taylor killed a black soldier in an Indianola saloon. The following year, Hays Taylor and his brother Doby killed two Yankee soldiers in Mason. No arrests were made in any of the cases.

William Sutton’s first foray into the “troubles,” began in 1868 while he served as Clinton deputy sheriff. In an attempt to arrest horse thieves, Sutton killed Charley Taylor and arrested James Sharp. When Sharp “tried to escape,” a recurrent problem with prisoners during that period, Sutton shot Sharp in the back.

A few months later, Buck Taylor and Dick Chisholm accused Sutton of dishonesty over the sale of some horses. They settled the matter with guns, which resulted in the death of both Taylor and Chisholm.

Then William Sutton did the unthinkable by joining the hated State Police force under Captain Jack Helm. Historians believe not all of the State Police were corrupt or politically motivated, however, the faction working under Jack Helm apparently used “Reconstruction,” as an excuse to terrorize large sections of South Central Texas. For example, Helm’s men arrested sons-in-law of Pitkin Taylor on a trivial charge, took them a short distance from home, and killed them while one of their wives watched from hiding.

After several incidents came to light regarding Jack Helm’s misconduct, the State Police dismissed him. To the chagrin of many in the area, Helm continued serving as DeWitt County Sheriff. It was not long before Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin, the notorious murderer, killed Jack Helm.

With Helm gone, William Sutton became the leader of the group. After old Pitkin Taylor, mentioned above, was lured out and killed, his son Jim and several relatives caught William Sutton in a saloon; they fired through the saloon door, but only wounded him. After a second unsuccessful attempt to kill Sutton, they settled for killing a member of Sutton’s group.

The murders continued to terrify the countryside. Residents of the region were forced to take sides and lived in constant fear of being pursued or ensnared in a trap. No one felt safe from the rampage. Finally, William Sutton moved to Victoria and got married. When his wife was expecting a child, he decided they should leave the country.  Gabriel Slaughter accompanied them on the train to Indianola. On March 11, 1874, Sutton, his wife, and Slaughter were boarding a ship when Jim and Bill Taylor shot and killed both men.

In retaliation, the Sutton faction arrested three Taylors on charges of “cattle theft,” and put them in the Clinton jail. Despite probable innocence, they were taken out of jail on the night of June 20, 1874, and hanged.

In September 1875, Bill Taylor went on trial in Indianola for murdering Sutton and Slaughter. Huge crowds from all over the state––eager to witness the trial of a member of the notorious feud––converged on Indianola. Instead of a trial, they witnessed a devastating hurricane with winds of 110 miles an hour. When water began filling the jail, Bill Taylor and the other prisoners were released.

The murders continued when John Wesley Hardin killed the new leader of the Suttons. A gunfight the following month, left Jim Taylor and two of his friends, dead. When masked men executed four prominent citizens, the Texas Rangers finally stepped in and arrested eight suspects. No one dared testify. The trial ended with only one conviction and that man, after twenty years of legal maneuvering, received a pardon.

The Sutton-Taylor Feud ground to an exhausted halt. Known as the longest and bloodiest feud in Texas history, the confirmed death toll in the Taylor faction reached twenty-two. The Sutton group lost about thirteen.

 

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The Making of a Ghost Town

After the Civil War, Indianolans were determined to rebuild and recapture the financial momentum that had driven the local economy before Texas seceded from the Union. They welcomed northern businessmen like Francis Stabler who came from Baltimore with a very successful method to preserve beef by using carbonic acid gas. He opened a meat canning plant and a tallow operation that spread to markets in New Orleans and New York.

Indianolans were as wary as were all the citizens of the former Confederacy when the Reconstruction Government imposed military rule and moved in federal forces assigned to see that the civil rights of the freed slaves were protected. Since there were only a small number of slaves in the entire county and the area had never been dependent on slave labor, the infantry companies found their task relatively easy. And residents began to see the occupying force as gentlemanly and courteous.

By the end of the war, the number of unbranded cattle had exploded. Steamships lined up at Indianola’s long piers to take on loads of cattle. Massive numbers of longhorns were driven to the railheads in Kansas.

In July 1869, the world’s first refrigerated warehouse was built at Indianola to hold thirty beef carcasses at a temperature just above freezing. Thus, began a new business constructing refrigerated warehouses and a future of shipping fruits and vegetables from as far away as the West Indies.

Gaslighting, washing machines, and Steinway pianos became readily available and there were more fine hotels with billiard rooms and fancy bars and restaurants known for oysters and seafood of all kinds.

Despite the completion of the railroad that hauled goods over the sixty-five-mile route to Cuero, the streets remained congested with hundreds of freight wagons and Mexican carretas loaded with raw materials and silver from mines in Northern Mexico and the produce from Western Texas farms. Ships from across the Gulf Coast and as far north as New York and Boston brought finished lumber and manufactured goods that the teamsters hauled to eager merchants at inland towns. The activity at the port of Indianola began to rival Galveston.

In the midst of the economic revival, resentment increased over men having to swear that they had never supported the South in order to receive amnesty. If they had been part of the Confederacy they were disenfranchised. The outrageous increase in taxes finally drove Democrats and moderate Republicans to join forces in 1874 and vote out the administration of Governor E. J. Davis.

Indianola continued to thrive and enjoyed very little of the political unrest and outright defiance of the law that stirred many communities across other parts of the South. However, on March 11, 1874, Indianola was thrust into the middle of the Sutton-Taylor feud, a bloody series of revenge killings that started after the Civil War and raged across DeWitt County. William Sutton, one of the principals in the fight had been persuaded by his pregnant wife to leave the area. Accompanied by his wife and a friend, they arrived on the train from Cuero and were walking up a ship’s gangplank, when two of the Taylor boys appeared out of the crowd and killed the two men.

The murder trial was scheduled to be held at the Indianola courthouse in mid-September 1875. Crowds from Victoria, DeWitt, Calhoun and surrounding counties descended on Indianola for the sensational event. They filled the hotels and boarding houses to capacity and buoyed the town with a spirit of excitement.

The winds picked up on Tuesday, September 14, and by Wednesday children and visitors were enjoying the white-crested waves. It looked like all the people gathered for the trial would return home with additional tales of the storm. By dawn on Thursday, the bay had moved into the streets and the surging water tore at foundations. The road out of town had become impassable and the force of the waves ate away at the railroad track. Observers scrambled to the second floor of the concrete courthouse and families used boats to move to structures that appeared stronger. As night covered the city, the winds increased and buildings were swept into the darkness of the prairie and bayous for twenty miles behind the town. People tied cotton bales together to form rafts. Banks secured cotton bales around the safes that allowed them to float when the buildings collapsed.

The silence of the center came after midnight. Then the deafening roar returned as the opposite side of the eye sucked the water back to sea with such force that it carried with it many of the weaken structures. Friday morning dawned clear and cool with a stiff wind. Three-fourths of the buildings had disappeared; most of the others were severely damaged; five bayous had been cut across to Power Horn Lake that sprawled behind the town. Entire families were gone, yet some people were found miles away after floating on doors or roofs. Because of the number of visitors in town, no one knew how many had perished. Almost three hundred bodies were found, many so mutilated that they could not be identified. Unknown numbers had been swept out to sea.

Aid flowed in from all over the country in the form of cash and supplies to help Indianolans rebuild their lives. Ironically, Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon who had increased his fortune by filling his steamships at the local wharves sent only a letter with an expression of sympathy.

The people imagined deepening the bayou that led into Powder Horn Lake and rebuilding their port on the higher ground beside the inland lake. When it became clear that representatives of the aging Charles Morgan would not help with such an expensive endeavor, many people and businesses moved to Victoria and Cuero. However, a determined core of residents decided to continue the shipping business and to build on the seaport’s natural assets––clear bay water, gleaming white shell beaches, excellent fishing, and hotels and restaurants of the first order. They named the beautiful beach drive that paralleled the bay The Promenade, and they advertised all the features that expanded their port city into a vacation and fishing locale.

The campaign began to work and Indianola rose again as a prominent coastal community for business and pleasure. Then on August 19, 1886, after a summer of extreme heat and drought, telegraph signals warning of an approaching storm failed to reach Indianola before the rising tide cut off all hope of moving to safety. During the fierce winds, a fire broke out and burned all but two of the downtown buildings. Structures that had withstood the 1875 storm collapsed under the wind and water. Although the wind speed was greater than the first hurricane, the rapid movement of the storm decreased the surge of water from the bay and the devastating outflow.

The end had come. Residents who could find portions of their homes, gathered up the pieces, renumbered the boards and began the sad process of abandoning their city by the sea. A few diehards hung on for a year or two and then the coast returned to the windswept place it had been when the first Germans arrived in December 1844.

STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA tells the Indianola story through the lives of Helga Heinrich and her four children who operated Dr. Joseph Stein’s boarding house through all those joy-filled and turbulent years.

The new edition of Stein House.
Cover image of Federal troops leaving Indianola in 1861 is from the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

Texas Panhandle Nobility

In the late 1870s word spread across England of the fabulous money—returns of thirty-three to fifty percent on investments—to be made in American cattle ranching.  Two British aristocrats, Sir Edward Marjoribanks the Baron of Tweedmouth and his brother-in-law John Campbell Hamilton Gordon, Earl of Aberdeen, established the “Rocking Chair Ranche” in 1883.  Courting dreams of a vast English-style estate, the two “cattlemen” bought 235 sections in the Texas Panhandle counties of Collingsworth and Wheeler and began stocking their land with 14,745 head of cattle and 359 ponies.  They laid out the town of Aberdeen with a ranch house, corrals, and a store as the nucleus of their envisioned cattle empire.

The inhabitants of the Texas Panhandle in the 1880s, in true frontier spirit, did not take to the high-minded notions of the English.  West Texans considered themselves equals whether they owned extensive cattle ranches or only a few steers and a dugout.  The English ranchers, unfortunately, held to their Old World attitudes regarding master and servants.  In response to their references to cowboys as “cow servants” their establishment became known as “Nobility Ranch.”

J. John Drew, an Englishman who partnered in the original scheme to sell cattle ranch land to British investors became general manager of the Rocking Chair.  He got along well with the “cow servants” and knew cattle, but he wasn’t scrupulously honest.

Baron Tweedmouth’s younger brother, Archibald John Marjoribanks became assistant manager and bookkeeper at the ranch.  Uninterested in the life of a rancher and known among the cowboys as “Archie” or “Old Marshie”, Archibald spent his days drinking and gambling in Mobeetie saloons and hunting with his purebred hounds while drawing an annual salary of $1,500.  The “Honourable Archie” never associated with or rode with the cowboys.  Soon, even men who prided themselves on always being fair in their cattle dealings began openly rustling cattle from “Nobility Ranch,” apparently with Drew’s knowledge.imgres

Everyone in the Eastern Panhandle except Archibald knew of the thefts, and that rustlers and disgruntled cowboys were openly stealing from the ranch.  Drew, who maintained the loyalty of the ranch employees, kept for himself 100 cows for every one stolen and reportedly shipped more cattle than he recorded for the ranch.  For a time the ranch prospered, but the thievery began to show in the financial reports.  Without prior notice Lord Aberdeen, Baron Tweedmouth, and other investors showed up at ranch headquarters demanding an inventory.  Drew directed the cowboys to drive cattle around a nearby hill and back several times to make the count increase by several hundred and satisfy the “Lords of the Prairie” that the ranch operated an increasingly large herd.

Additionally, a feud developed in 1890 between settlers and squatters of Southern Collingsworth County, who wanted Pearl City to be the county seat and the Rocking Chair faction that had laid out Wellington for that purpose.

The Rocking Chair cowboys also caused the Great Panhandle Indian Scare in January 1891 when they killed a steer for supper, accidentally incinerated the carcass of the animal and in the process let out some loud whoops and celebratory gunfire.  Although Indians had been run out of the Panhandle for at least ten years, settlers living in the remote region continued to be nervous.  A woman living near the commotion rushed with her two children to report the blood-curdling war whoops.  The news of an impending slaughter went out over the telegraph at the train station.  Citizens barricaded themselves, waiting in terror for the attack.  A hardware store in Clarendon sold out of guns and ammunition.  Finally, the Texas Rangers mustered to defend the terrified citizenry only to discover that the noise came from Rocking Chair Ranch Cowboys having a good time.  It took three days to calm the frightened community, and the episode became known as The Great Panhandle Indian Scare.

By 1891 the Rocking Chair herd was so reduced that the entire range had to be searched to produce two carloads of calves for market.  The owners tried bringing charges against Drew, but community feelings against the Englishmen made it impossible to impanel a jury.  The ranch was sold in 1895, and all that remains are the names of Wellington and Rocking Chair Hills in the northern part of Collingsworth County.

SUTTON-TAYLOR FEUD

William Sutton was the only Sutton involved in this feud, but he had a lot of friends, including some members of Governor E. J. Davis’ State Police.  The Taylor faction consisted of the sons, nephews, in-laws and friends of Creed and Pitkin Taylor.  Creed apparently did not join the fight and Pitkin, an old man, became involved when Sutton supporters lured him out of his house one night by ringing a cowbell in his cornfield.  Shot and severely wounded, he lived six months before he died in 1872.  At his funeral, his son and several relatives vowed to avenge the killing. “Who sheds a Taylor’s blood, by a Taylor’s hand must fall” became the mantra.

Lawlessness ran rampant in Texas after the Civil War and resentments flared with the arrival of the Reconstruction government including Carpetbaggers—Northerners, some of whom took advantage of the impoverished conditions by paying back taxes on land to acquire farms belonging to Confederate soldiers–and black Union soldiers assigned to keep order.

Evidence of the building tensions appeared in 1866 when Buck Taylor shot a black sergeant who came to a dance at the home of Taylor’s uncle.  Hays Taylor killed a black soldier in an Indianola saloon.  Then, in 1867 Hays Taylor and his brother Doby killed two Yankee soldiers in Mason. No arrests were made in any of the cases.

William Sutton’s first foray into the “troubles,” came in 1868 while he served as Clinton deputy sheriff.  In an attempt to arrest horse thieves, Sutton killed Charley Taylor and arrested James Sharp.  When Sharp “tried to escape,” a recurrent problem with prisoners during that period, Sutton shot Sharp in the back.  A few months later, Buck Taylor and Dick Chisholm accused Sutton of dishonesty over the sale of some horses.  They settled the matter with guns, which resulted in the death of both Taylor and Chisholm.

Then, William Sutton did the unthinkable by joining the hated State Police force under Captain Jack Helm.  Historians discovered not all of the State Police were corrupt or politically motivated, however, the faction working under Jack Helm apparently used “Reconstruction,” as an excuse to terrorize large sections of South Central Texas.  For example, Helm’s men arrested sons-in-law of Pitkin Taylor on a trivial charge, took them a short distance from home, and killed them in front of one of their wives.

After several incidents came to light regarding Jack Helm’s misconduct, the State Police dismissed him, but to the chagrin of many people in the area, Helm continued serving as DeWitt County Sheriff.  It was not long before Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin, (see recent blog) the notorious murderer, killed Jack Helm.

With Helm gone, William Sutton became leader of the group.  After old Pitkin Taylor, mentioned above, was lured out and killed, his son Jim and several relatives wounded William Sutton when they fired at him through at saloon door.  After a second unsuccessful attempt to kill Sutton, they settled for killing a member of Sutton’s group.

The murders continued to terrify the countryside.  Residents of the region were forced to take sides and lived in constant fear of being pursued or ensnared in a trap.  No one felt safe from the rampage.  Finally, William Sutton moved to Victoria and got married.  When his wife was expecting a child, he decided they should leave the country.  Gabriel Slaughter accompanied them on the train to Indianola.  On March 11, 1874, as Sutton and Slaughter boarded a ship with their wives, Jim and Bill Taylor shot and killed both men.

In retaliation, the Sutton faction arrested three Taylors for cattle theft, and put them in the Clinton jail.  Despite probable innocence, they were taken out of jail on the night of June 20, 1874, and hanged.

After being arrested for the murder of Sutton and Slaughter, Bill Taylor awaited trial in the Indianola jail in September 1875.  Eager to witness the trial involving a member of the notorious feud, a huge crowd from all over the state converged on Indianola.  Instead of a trial, they witnessed a devastating hurricane with winds of 110 miles an hour.  When water began filling the jail, Bill Taylor and the other prisoners were released.

The murders continued when John Wesley Hardin killed the new leader of the Suttons.  The next month, a gunfight left Jim Taylor and two of his friends dead.  The Texas Rangers finally stepped in and arrested eight suspects after masked men executed four prominent citizens.  When no one dared testify, the trial ended with only one conviction and that man, after twenty years of legal maneuvering received a pardon.

The Sutton-Taylor Feud ground to an exhausted halt.  Known as the longest and bloodiest feud in Texas history, the confirmed death toll in the Taylor faction reached twenty-two.  The Sutton group lost about thirteen.