A LAWLESS BREED
John Wesley Hardin, Texas Reconstruction, and Violence in the Wild West
By Chuck Parsons, Norman Wayne Brown
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2013 Chuck Parsons and Norman Wayne Brown
All rights reserved.
"To be tried at that time for the killing of a Negro meant certain death at the hands of a court, backed by Northern bayonets. . . . Thus, unwillingly I became a fugitive, not from justice, but from the injustice and misrule of the people who had subjugated the South."
John Wesley Hardin
On May 19, 1847, the Rev. James Gibson Hardin (age twenty-five), and Mary Elizabeth Dixon (a year younger than he), were joined in holy matrimony in Navarro County, Texas. History has not preserved any details of the ceremony, however. Presumably, the groom wore his best suit of clothes, and the blushing bride her best dress, but no newspaper account has been found to verify the details of their wardrobe. Any information about the guests also remains undiscovered. The only record that has been preserved is a court document proving that Justice of the Peace Q. N. Anderson solemnized the ceremony.
Mary Elizabeth Dixon, most often referred to by her middle name, was born December 7, 1826 in Sullivan County, Indiana. She was the daughter of Dr. William A. and Malinda McArthur Dixon. There may have been other children who did not survive to adulthood. Several of Dr. Dixon's sons were to die violently, as did their cousins, the sons of Rev. J. G. Hardin. Other families closely related to the Hardin and Dixon families also experienced tragedy due to the post Civil War Reconstruction violence and the fact that they were associated with John Wesley Hardin.
James Gibson Hardin, born March 2, 1823 in Wayne County, Tennessee, was a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, having been ordained at age twenty-two. Hardin was among the early circuit-riding preachers in East Texas, which may be where he met Mary Elizabeth Dixon. Unfortunately, their son "Wes" (as he was frequently called) failed to mention any details about his parents when he wrote the story of his life years later. Their first-born was a son whom they named Joseph Gibson, born January 5, 1850. The name of Joseph for the first-born was a natural for them, as the reverend picked that name from the Bible. It was a common name, yes; but in choosing that name of his first-born, Reverend Hardin showed to all how he intended the boy to become like the father of his Lord. The name Gibson was a family name, repeated through several generations, ultimately reflecting the family's origins.
At the time of the wedding in 1847, much of Texas was unsettled—more than half of it was a dangerous frontier. The Comanche, the fiercest of the southwest Indian tribes, ranged freely over the Panhandle and central and west Texas, as well as what was New Mexico Territory. To the south and west of capital city Austin was a vast area of dangerous territory reaching to the Rio Grande, a natural border which would be contested between the two countries and three races—the Mexicans, "Americans," and Comanche—for generations. Much of the state was a virtual No Man's Land.
The 1850 census reported the Texas population slightly over 212,000. Of these, 154,000 were white; just over 58,000 were slaves, and a very few were free blacks. No one counted the Comanche and other warlike tribe members. So far as is known, circuit-riding preacher Hardin never had difficulty with anyone: whites, slaves, freedmen, or Comanche. He had, however, a singular characteristic as a parent which resulted in serious issues with his sons: he was what society terms an "enabler." When his son Wes told him he had killed a man, he didn't punish him. Instead he gave him money to find refuge among relatives or to leave the country. He often refused to believe what his son had done. If we could magically interview John Wesley Hardin today with our current understanding of why humans act as they do, we would find the reason for his dissocial behavior. We would also gain insight into the personality of the man-killer's father and mother.
John Wesley, "Wes" as we will call him, was almost a harbinger of things to come. In southeast Texas, Abner H. Cook was named superintendent of a newly constructed state prison in the town of Huntsville in Walker County. When baby Joseph was born, there were only a handful of prisoners. But by the time his brother, John Wesley, entered the world that number had increased to hundreds. Hardin's sons would eventually become inmates of Huntsville State Penitentiary, although not at the same time. But envisioning their sons to be some day inmates of Huntsville prison was never contemplated by the Reverend and Elizabeth Hardin.
Little factual material has been preserved about Reverend Hardin. None of his sermons have survived, giving us insight into the quality of his writings or the themes of his sermons. Why he chose to locate in Fannin County (on the border of modern Oklahoma) is unknown, but by the early 1850s he selected land to purchase on which to establish his home, which also became a primitive school for neighborhood children. In a few years, Fannin County and the three counties bordering it—Hunt, Collin and Grayson—would become the scene of violence among survivors of the defeated Confederate army, as well as those who remained loyal to the Union. Typically of so many young men whose sympathies were pro-Confederate, they later resented the presence of occupation troops in their area. Members of the Hardin and Dixon family seemingly could not avoid participating in this post-Civil War conflict known as Reconstruction. There were numerous Dixon family members in Fannin County and that is, perhaps, the reason Reverend Hardin established his home there. Whatever the reason, the minister created his home. On August 7, 1852, for $200.00 he purchased 100 acres of land out of a 330-acre tract situated on Bois d'Arc Creek.
On the same day, Reverend Hardin purchased, for $40.00, an additional twenty-nine acres situated on Bois d'Arc Creek. He planted four pecan trees to mark the boundaries of his home site. On the southwest corner of his farm, centered within the pecan trees, he built a Methodist church out of logs. Although no remnants of the church or home remain, one can visit the site today and look out on the four pecan trees that mark the exact spot where the Hardins began their family and where John Wesley Hardin was born.
Wes was the only one of the Hardin family to leave a significant paper trail: numerous newspaper articles about him in Kansas, Texas, Florida, Alabama, and elsewhere; his own life story; and a great number of letters his family preserved. He wrote his autobiography after years in prison, but it is a selected and dramatic saga of his adventures, describing only some of the killings, and those are filled with half-truths. He wrote his Life of John Wesley Hardin in an effort to prove to the world—or at least his fellow Texans—that what he had done was purely justified in order to preserve his own life or to maintain his personal freedom. He relates how he was forced to engage in several dozen or more killings. Certainly there were others he intentionally ignored. Even the opening paragraph is misleading: "I was born in Bonham, Fannin County, on the 26th of May, 1853." If he had been honest about his earliest years he would have written: "My father owned a piece of land between Blairs Springs Creek and Bois d'Arc Creek, less than two miles from where the town of Whitewright now stands. On this land he had built a home for my mother and the children who were born. Today the location can be easily recognized due to the impressive pecan trees which father planted to mark the boundaries of his homestead." But Hardin, for whatever reason, stated that he was born in the county seat town of Bonham, Fannin County.
Ministerial work demanded the Reverend Hardin's time and effort, as well as tilling the land and helping educate his children. The Methodist church he established on his land was not the first church he started. Five years before, in 1847, he and Rev. James E. Ferguson founded the first Methodist Church of Richland, Navarro County. Years later, the American Association of Methodist Historical Societies honored Richland as the oldest continuous congregation in central Texas. It was an honor indeed for the Hardin family legacy.
The Reverend Hardin's sermons were perhaps preached without notes; if he did write them out, none have survived. But he did leave an impression on one person who provided us with just a glimpse into the preacher's life. John W. Connelly, himself a minister, gathered newspaper clippings and preserved a grass-roots history of northeast Texas. Some of them are his own writings, undated, but the majority appeared as anecdotes in a column he entitled "Old Choc's Philosophy." In one column, he wrote:
The first Methodist preacher I ever heard in the state was Rev. Hardin, father of the notorious John Wesley Hardin. He was living in that old school house at the time, and in it John Wesley Hardin first opened his eyes upon this world. Mr. Hardin was a good man and an average preacher, and his wife was a most elegant Christian woman. They furnish an illustration of the fact that very pious parents sometimes raise very wicked sons.
To be described as a "good man" would perhaps have satisfied Reverend Hardin if he had known that was how one man remembered him.
Circuit-riding was anything but a secure life style as it required frequent absences from home and frequent moves—as Reverend Hardin spread the gospel he also found it necessary to relocate. In 1860, with war clouds growing darker every day, the Hardin family, now with five children—Joe (ten), John (seven), Elizabeth Ann (five), Martha Ann (three) and Benjamin (one)—moved to Trinity County to be closer to William Barnett Hardin and his household. There were two small communities in the area—Sumpter and Moscow—which became important entities in the life of Joseph and his brother John Wesley, especially Wes. The town of Sumpter lay in Trinity County; Moscow was in neighboring Polk County.
Reverend Hardin intended to join the Confederate army to defend the principles of the South. He even organized a company and got elected captain, but men he knew and respected convinced him that he was more needed on the home front. There may have also been a health issue involved: although he was only thirty-seven years of age he suffered from whooping cough occasionally which prevented him from his normal duties. This may have been the real factor in his not going to the front lines. He may have helped raise a company, but Howard H. Ballenger became the captain, commander of Company M, called the "Sumpter Light Infantry" organized in Trinity County. On May 5, 1862 it was mustered into the Confederate service at Sumpter.
Many boys wanted to join to show their patriotism, but due to their young age they were prohibited from joining up. Wes was one of those boys who had to remain at home, fighting blue-coated Yankees in his imagination, but only for a while. At only nine years old, Hardin "conceived the idea of running off and going with a cousin to fight Yankees," but his father learned of the plan and ended it by giving him a "sound thrashing." This remains the sole punishment Hardin alludes to in his autobiography.
Instead of shouldering a musket with which to kill Yankees, Wes could ony observe Reverend Hardin's mustering in the company and observe his preaching. Wes must have observed his father studying law books (he passed the bar examination in 1861). He certainly thought of those years while he himself was in prison studying law. Reverend Hardin also established a Masonic school at Sumpter, fifteen miles northwest of Moscow. Then the family moved again, this time to Livingston, the seat of Polk County. But then in 1865 the war ended and the Hardins returned to Sumpter.
While conflicting armies bloodied the landscape of eastern states, Texas had remained relatively peaceful. Not so for young John Wesley Hardin. In 1861, when he was eight years old, he saw his first act of real violence (or at least the first act of violence he remembered)—the death of one man at the hands of another. The details of this incident remain sparse. Jesse Turner Evans, a virtual Texas pioneer, was born in Georgia in 1816. On April 30, 1855 he was appointed post master of Sumpter and served in that position until June 11, 1856. Evans owned extensive acreage and in 1860 he owned forty-one slaves, blacks and mulattos, ranging in age from eleven months up to sixty-two years. He thus was in a position to loan money to a less fortunate neighbor, John H. Ruff, a twenty-three-year-old farmer born in Alabama.
As Hardin understood it, Ruff owed Evans money, and Evans continually browbeat Ruff to pay it back. Hardin recollected Evans as an overbearing man who "annoyed him [Ruff] greatly" and "being rich and influential, had a crowd of hangers-on around him." Under the influence of the whiskey of Sumpter saloons, Evans began searching for Ruff with the intention of beating him with his cane. When Evans found Ruff in a small grocery store, he "at once commenced to curse and abuse him." Ruff attempted to ward Evans off, but Evans persisted, going so far as to strike Ruff on the head with his cane. Ruff then pulled "a large bowie knife" to defend himself as Evans' friends joined in the assault, hitting Ruff with chairs, while Evans "used his stick freely." Ruff, now fighting for his life, slashed Evans severely in the neck. By this time, Sheriff John F. Moore had arrived on the scene, and he quickly arrested Ruff. Evans' friends carried him off where he could receive medical attention; Ruff was taken to jail. Evans bled to death, his "jugular vein being completely severed, and he soon died and left a large family" as Hardin recalled.
John H. Ruff was from Alabama and, according to the 1860 census, had real estate valued at a mere $260, and no personal estate of note. Ruff may have been jailed initially but he did not remain in jail "for several years" as Hardin believed. He certainly claimed self-defense as his reason for the killing. At this point—in Hardin's recollections of events from his youth—he was inspired to moralize: "Readers, you see what drink and passion will do. If you wish to be successful in life, be temperate and control your passions; if you don't ruin and death is the inevitable result." Why had he not followed his own advice through the years? Perhaps he had gained such insight only after having learned life's lessons the hard way.
John H. Ruff remained in the Trinity County area, probably out on bond and tending to his farm. On April 15, 1862, fourteen months after the creation of the Confederate States of America, Ruff enlisted as a volunteer in Capt. Walter C. Gibbs' Company C. Enlistment was at Sabine Pass, on the Texas coast, about 140 miles southeast of Trinity County where Ruff called home. He survived the war, returned home, and, on September 13, 1869, married Elizabeth M. Sweeney, a thirty-five-year-old widow who had lost her husband two years before. Ruff inherited four young children with this marriage. In July of 1869, he became a guard at the state penitentiary in Huntsville. Over the next seventeen months, he watched prisoners and, at times, worked as a prison steward. His last pay record was dated December 1870. Ironically, if he had remained a few more years, he could have welcomed and guarded his old neighbor from Trinity County—John Wesley Hardin, number 7109. But Ruff died before then, passing from an undisclosed cause on February 25, 1875. Elizabeth M. Ruff, widowed twice by the age of forty, never remarried. She later applied for a widow's pension as a family in indigent circumstances.
Although Reverend Hardin had organized a company of Trinity County men to fight for the Confederacy, he never left the state at the head of those men. The "best citizens" had convinced him he would do more good on the home front. Neither the father nor the son saw action during the war years, but young John Wesley proved to be an irregular soldier during the Texas Reconstruction years, 1865–1874. He claimed to have seen Lincoln burned and "shot to pieces" in effigy so often that he "looked upon him as a very demon incarnate." Hardin learned early "the justice of the Southern cause." He grew up in the midst of the " peculiar institution" even though his father—unlike his Uncles William Barnett Hardin and Claiborne C. Holshousen—owned no slaves. Before the war, Uncle Barnett, as Wes knew him, owned six slaves and Holshousen owned a dozen.
On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas. How quickly the news of this dramatic, cultural-changing event reached Hardin territory—Polk, Trinity, and Walker counties—is undetermined, but most freedmen found their lives did not improve a great deal as freed men. Most continued to work menial jobs: some joined the army, and some even became cowboys. The children of the slaves often played with the children of their masters before and after the proclamation. During his formative years Wes thought of himself as a "child of nature," explaining that "her ways and moods were my study." His greatest pleasure, he said, was to spend his days in the open fields, the forests and the swamps. Among his playmates he recalled years later were John Norton, Bill Gordon, Shiles and Hiram Frazier and Sol Adams, all of Sumpter. He enjoyed going out "among the big pines and oaks with my gun and the dogs and kill deer; coons, 'possums, or wild cats."
Excerpted from A LAWLESS BREED by Chuck Parsons. Copyright © 2013 by Chuck Parsons and Norman Wayne Brown. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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