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.