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A Terror to all the Bad Men
"... THIEVES STOLE ABOUT SEVENTY-FIVE HEAD OF HORSES FROM MY RANGE.
AMONG THEM WERE SIXTEEN HEAD OF MINE. I FOLLOWED THEM TO NEW MEXICO, GOT ALL MY HORSES BACK, AND A LOT OF MY NEIGHBORS' HORSES. THE BAND OF MEN WAS ALL BROKEN UP."
—John R. Hughes, interview in the San Antonio Light, May 30, 1915
If Texas Ranger John R. Hughes had been a boastful man, he could have prided himself on his ancestral background. His grandfather, Ezekiel Hughes, a native of Montgomeryshire, Wales, came to America to avoid religious persecution. Ezekiel settled in the Miami River area in Hamilton County, Ohio, on land that was known at the time as the Northwest Territory. Looking westward Ezekiel Hughes could see Indiana; southward Kentucky. He purchased the first land sold by the government from this territory, paying $2.50 per acre for it. According to his most complete obituary, Ezekiel Hughes was "a thrifty, hard working man, a staunch Presbyterian and at his death left each one of his ten children a good farm." A "good farm" for each of ten children certainly was a sizeable amount of acreage. Among his neighbors was the U.S. president-to-be, William Henry Harrison, "their farms being in close proximity." Just when Ezekiel Hughes made the acquaintance of Mary Ann Ewing of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, is unknown, but the pair married on July 10, 1805, in Hamilton County, Ohio. They gave ten children to the world, all born in Hamilton County: the first in 1806 and the last, two decades later in 1826. They named their fourth child and second son Thomas, born in July of 1812.
Thomas Hughes, the father of future Ranger Hughes, was an adventurous man himself, as in 1839 he crossed the Atlantic to visit his father's home and explore Wales, England, and Scotland. He returned to America but then three years later he crossed the ocean again and this time kept a journal of his travels and his impressions. Some member of the family later bound the notes for the sake of permanence; they proved to contain "many interesting sketches and descriptions of the people and countries that came under his observation." Unfortunately, the journals did not survive, perhaps going up in smoke when the Hughes family home-hotel burned in October 1909. A voracious reader, Thomas Hughes was familiar with the works of such British authors as Shakespeare, Byron, Burns, and Pope. He was educated at Miami University, at Oxford in neighboring Butler County, Ohio. Besides farming, Thomas Hughes taught school for at least one term, providing his pupils with a good education in his home.
On June 1, 1846, Thomas Hughes married Jane "Jennie" Augusta Bond. Less is known of her, other than that she was a native of Venice, Ohio, and was born December 29, 1827, the fourth of six children of Enoch and Jane Sargent Bond. Both the Hughes and Bond families had earlier "left the comforts of good homes, and sought the forests of Ohio, to escape religious persecution." Jane Bond, as a little girl, had received an above average education at the Young Ladies Seminary located at Oxford. Thomas Hughes had been "her neighbor and friend from early childhood," according to her obituary. The Rev. Thomas Thomas, formerly a resident of London, England, had baptized them both. Both Thomas and Jane became full members in the Presbyterian Church. Mr. and Mrs. Hughes became the parents of seven children: Louise/Louisa, generally known as Lou; Bond; Emery Sargent; John Reynolds born February 11, 1855, the man who would become the famous Texas Ranger; William Parker, who also served as a Texas Ranger although a decade earlier than his more famous brother; and twins Thomas F. Hughes Jr. and Nellie. Thomas Hughes Sr. was listed as a farmer on the various censuses on which his name is found, and as the operator of a hotel.
The Hughes couple lived for a few years in Butler County, Ohio, but then ventured into western Illinois in 1855. Deed records reveal Thomas purchased "a parcel of land in the town of Genesee Henry County" for $125.00, purchased from Miner M. DaSano. Another move followed, as in 1856 Thomas Hughes was in Marion County, Illinois, nearly two hundred miles south. Now he is on record as selling to James M. Nye "a certain tract of land situated in Henry County" in the northwest corner of the town of Cambridge, Henry County. Again, we have no indication as to why Thomas Hughes made these particular moves. Perhaps the frequent moves instilled in John R. Hughes a restlessness that he was able to take advantage of a few years later.
Thomas Hughes moved his family ever westward. Although he may have had wanderlust in his veins, a stronger reason for moving was that he had unwittingly settled in an area with strong pro-slavery sentiment. The atmosphere surrounding him was "not congenial and failed to harmonize" with the Hughes family's "ardent anti-slavery ideas" so they moved to Rockport, Illinois, and then farther west.
By the middle of the 1860s Thomas Hughes had established himself and family in Mound City, the seat of Linn County, Kansas. It was a small community in the southeast corner of the state, located some sixty miles due south of Kansas City. In 1865, Thomas Hughes purchased and remodeled a large dwelling operated as a hotel, which he named the Mound City House. Built by Isaac Ellis and his son Benjamin H. in 1859, it was the first hotel in the county. The Ellises later moved to violent Lincoln County in New Mexico Territory. Four different owners had operated the hotel unsuccessfully before Thomas bought it. He continued to farm and to operate the hotel until his death in 1890.
Mrs. Hughes acted as hostess until the infirmities of age dictated she turn over the operational duties to her daughter. The name of the popular establishment was changed to the Commercial House by daughter Lou Coleman. An advertisement, carried regularly in the Border Sentinel, the Mound City newspaper, informed the traveler that it was "newly refitted" and was "one of the most comfortable and best houses in Southern Kansas." In the early days $5.00 per week provided the traveler with board and lodging. In addition there was an "excellent stable and stock yard attached, which makes it convenient for Drovers and the Travelling [sic] Public." Tragically, a fire cost the Hughes family many of their possessions in October 1909: their home and the hotel business. Citizens were able to save some three-quarters of the building's contents. The only loss of life was the death of Bond Hughes's dog Bowser, who normally slept under Bond's bed. Bond was away in Kansas City at the time of the fire, and Bowser refused to leave due to the absence of his master.
While young John Hughes worked in the "excellent stable and stock yard" attached to the hotel, he certainly became aware of Linn County's rich history of Civil War engagements, most notably the Marais des Cygnes "massacre" that had taken place in 1858, only a dozen years before and less than twenty miles from their home in Mound City. On October 25, 1864, the last important Civil War battle in the area had been fought nearby at Mine Creek: 2,500 Union cavalrymen defeated 6,500 Confederate cavalrymen. The knowledge of the fighting that had taken place not long before and relatively close only added to the excitement of the Hughes children's lives, and perhaps especially for John. The wanderlust and urge for adventure compelled him to seek his fortunes elsewhere.
John R. stayed at his family's new home in Kansas for at least one year "before the fascination of Indian Territory made him run away," as Hughes admitted years later in an interview with an El Paso newspaper reporter. His leave-taking was coyly expressed, stating that "if he neglected to obtain the consent of his parents, it was only because he deemed himself capable of making his own decisions." The Federal census shows that Hughes was still considered "at home" at least as late as 1870, when he was fifteen years of age. He was still residing with his parents and siblings: Emery S., William, Thomas Jr., sometimes called Forester, and Nellie. At the time of the census, Emery was working as a printer, a profession he followed most of his life. Census enumerator William R. Biddle listed the other siblings as simply being "at home." Sometime after 1870 John did leave Mound City as the Kansas state census of 1875 shows only Thomas and Jane with children William, Thomas Jr., and Nellie still at home. Enoch and Jane Bond, Mrs. Hughes's parents, now lived with them in the Mound City House.
John R. Hughes was a courageous and responsible individual; leaving home and living resourcefully for a young man aged somewhere between fifteen and twenty years old proved that. Whatever work he did initially to earn room and board is unknown, but he knew horses and could work hard, and no doubt was proficient with firearms, at least in hunting animals, which could not return fire. His skill in handling weapons would later prove invaluable in tracking human prey that could and often did return fire. His skill with weapons was only one of the sterling characteristics of John Reynolds Hughes.
John Reynolds Hughes sought new horizons and adventure at this young age. He avoided living in the white man's world at this early point in his life, spending several years among the tribes in what government mapmakers identified as "Indian Territory." Just west of Linn County, Kansas, lived various tribes, primarily the Osage, and Hughes may have initially lived with them before going farther south into the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. By living with the Osage, Hughes gained "invaluable knowledge on tracking down horse thieves, outlaws and other enemies of society." He later found work on the reservation at Fort Sill, built in 1869 in the Wichita Mountains. It was from this fort that army troops with their frontier scouts applied such pressure on warring Kiowa and Comanche bands that they surrendered. Once proud lords of the plains, they had no choice but to move to the U.S. government's reservation after their defeat at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle in September 1874. Among the experienced scouts Hughes became acquainted with during the 1870s was Simpson E. "Jack" Stilwell; it was from Stilwell that he learned of Custer's defeat in June 1876.
While working out of Fort Sill as a reservation trader Hughes became acquainted with noted Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, once the feared leader of the Comanche tribe in the war against the buffalo hunters. Quanah, the warrior son of a white woman and Comanche chief, realized the futility of continued struggle against the white man and with one hundred warriors and some three hundred women and children brought his people into Fort Sill to live. That Hughes and at least some of the Comanche were on friendly terms is revealed from Hughes's own keepsakes: one photograph is of Quanah and two of his wives, Topai and Chonie; another is of Kicking Bird, also known as Humming Bird.
We know some details of this early portion of Hughes's life, thanks to an interview with Pearl Virginia Crossley in El Paso in 1925. From this accounting, it becomes clear that his living among the Osage, Comanche, and Kiowa may have been no more isolated or primitive than being on the reservation at Fort Sill. He explained that when he became a Ranger living in a tent, this was "not his introduction to the wilds" because "he had spent six exciting years of his youth among the Indians of Oklahoma." He explained:
The traders went out from the agency loaded with a limited variety of provisions, such as red calico, red blankets, colored glass, beads, green coffee, flour and sugar, which they traded for buffalo robes. Leaving one of the men to carry on the business with the Indian chief, the remainder of the wagon train returned to the agency with the buffalo robes they had on hand. For six years I was the man left behind.
In 1872 Hughes was for the first and only time injured in a scrape with another man. We know few details of this incident, but in an interview with Ernie Pyle, before Pyle himself became an American icon, Hughes told of how he nearly lost his life. "He was shot, however, by an Indian when he was 17, and he suffers from the wound to this day," Pyle wrote. "His right arm was shattered and is weak and smaller than his left. He had to learn to do everything with his left hand, even shoot." There is no doubt the right arm was badly damaged, but did the Indian do it intentionally, as Pyle recorded, or was it an accident as Mrs. O. L. Shipman described in her article on Hughes, published in 1923? She wrote, telling of his experience with the traders, that the accident happened "while he was in the territory that made his right arm stiff and caused him to shoot with his left hand, but he developed a direct fire that made him a terror to all the bad men along the entire stretch of the Rio Grande." Although the cause of the injured right arm may be open to historical question, the fact remains that he became a "southpaw" for the remainder of his life. There was no question that many thought he was a natural-born left-hander.
That some believed he was born a southpaw was apparently part of family lore, as Hughes's nephew, Emery H. Hughes, son of brother Emery Sargent Hughes, shared the notion with author William Cx Hancock. Hancock may have added additional "color" in identifying the man with whom Hughes engaged in the fight.
He had caught on as a cowhand in Oklahoma Indian Territory with an outfit supplying cattle to the reservation Indians. A feared breed rustler named Big Nig Goombi tried to run off the stock Hughes was herding. The tenderfoot puncher killed the dangerous thief, but was himself maimed by wounds in the right arm which permanently slowed his draw from that side. He quickly taught himself to fire from the left side with such speed and accuracy that few subsequent acquaintances suspected that he had not been born left-handed.
Hughes learned the business of driving cattle as well as breaking horses and hunting buffalo during these Indian Territory years. He went on at least one significant buffalo hunt, as he recollected to interviewer Crossley: "In 1871 when I returned to civilization from my first buffalo hunt I heard of the Chicago fire," which charred that city on October 8. He also worked with cattlemen who contracted with the army to deliver beef to the reservation. Hughes, years later, wrote to Roy Aldrich a brief summary of these years:
In the Spring of 1877, I was working at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, issuing cattle to the Comanches and Kiowas, to keep them from going out on buffalo-hunts. The contractors, Powers and Buckley, lost their contract that Spring, so we had to move what cattle we had left on hand to Kansas, to sell them.
The firm of Powers, Buckley & Co. trailed the herd north from Texas early. It was the first herd of the season to reach famed cattle town Dodge City, arriving in May. A correspondent identified only by his nom de plume of "Nemesis" wrote from Dodge City to the editors of the Ellis County Star of Hays City, the rival cattle town's newspaper, that the first herd of Texas cattle "had made their appearance on the sunny slopes of the Arkansas [River]." Although with no mention of the hands accompanying the herd, such as Hughes, Nemesis did write that the first herd had been brought up by the "genial and well known Mike Dalton" and in their conference regarding the drive, Dalton informed Nemesis that the cattle were in excellent condition and everything "moved lovely on the trail." It was fortunate for them, as some drovers lost many head through storms, raiding parties, or stampedes. Dalton, so Nemesis wrote, was in charge of the Powers & Co. cattle and would cross the Arkansas River on the fourteenth, bound for Ellis. Hughes did not state the reason Dalton chose not to sell in Dodge and drove his herd on to Ellis in Hays County, some eighty miles north. The Star announced the good news (for merchants and businessmen): "The first drove of 'long horns' reached Ellis on Tuesday [May 22], Powers & Buckley are the owners; thousands more are on the trail destined for Ellis." Powers & Buckley's herd made up only a small portion of the estimated 200,000 head of cattle driven north from Texas during 1877. Hughes's recollection continued:
Excerpted from Captain John R. Hughes by Chuck Parsons. Copyright © 2011 Chuck Parson. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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