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Murder in Shelbyville
"When I see him I may scare him but it will be a damn quick scare."
— Charles Jackson
One of the foremost land pirates of Shelby County during the late 1830s was Joseph G. Goodbread. Land pirates – men who dealt in fraudulent land titles – congregated in the wilderness county, along with a host of other disreputable characters: fugitives from the nearby United States; horse thieves; slave stealers; counterfeiters; murderers; and assorted other scoundrels.
Goodbread somehow – perhaps through payoffs – gained the cooperation of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, who provided him "any amount of certificates he required," according to Dr. Levi Ashcroft. A native of North Carolina, Dr. Ashcroft moved to Shelbyville in 1838, the same year as Goodbread. The physician related that in 1839 Goodbread purchased a slave from Alfred George, who often provided the swindler with fictitious names from fraudulent land titles. Goodbread paid George ten headright certificates, a total of 46,050 acres, certainly a lavish price for a single slave, even though both men were aware that the certificates were fraudulent. Dr. Ashcroft added that Goodbread had a wife and several children, and that "with all his faults he was a kind parent and an affectionate husband."
But Goodbread ran afoul of another Shelby County rogue, Charles W. Jackson, a former steamboat captain. Jackson, a native of Kentucky, operated a small steamboat on the Mississippi and the Red rivers. At Alexandria, on the Red, Captain Jackson killed a local merchant and wounded another in a fight. Jackson quickly steamed away, but a large reward was posted, and authorities tried to arrest him in New Orleans. But Jackson escaped again in his boat and steamed upriver to Shreveport, where he sold the vessel and bought a store. While conducting business at a local river landing, however, Jackson was seized by five men who hustled him onto a steamboat, then headed to Alexandria to collect the reward. But they did not secure Jackson, and when the riverboat drew near a plantation owned by one of his friends, he leaped overboard, swam ashore, and made good another escape.
Jackson headed overland to the Republic of Texas and it was rumored that he hanged someone en route. The fugitive found kindred spirits in Shelby County, so he sent for his family and store goods. Dr. Ashcroft said Jackson had "a reckless bearing and a certain degree of rough eloquence...." Eph Daggett, who lived eighteen miles from Shelbyville, became Jackson's comrade. "Jackson made friends and enemies wherever he went," observed Daggett. "He was always sober, and had a mouthful of teeth, wore a smiling countenance, and always laughed when he wanted or had an intention to fight."
Although a newcomer, Jackson entered the annual race for a seat in the congress of Texas. He lost, but learning the extent of land swindles in the area, "he immediately wrote New Orleans, Houston, Austin and other towns exposing the fraud." Such action inevitably made enemies of Shelby County's land pirates. While returning from Shelbyville to his home one night, Jackson emerged from the woods. A shot was fired from concealment, grazing the back of Jackson's hand. Hearing the gunshot, Mrs. Jackson ran from the cabin and called out to her husband.
"No harm done," he reassured her. A few days later, in April 1841, Jackson received a letter from Joseph Goodbread, warning "that he had better attend to his business or he would kill him." Eph Daggett stopped by the cabin on his way home through Shelbyville after visiting a nearby mill. Jackson showed Daggett the scar on his hand, read the letter aloud, and asked for advice. While Daggett was noncommittal, Mrs. Jackson reminded her husband "that he had had to kill rascals all his life and she expected he would have to kill a few more before they would let him alone."
Encouraged by his wife's blessing, Jackson waved the letter and proclaimed that he would kill Goodbread "on first sight." Daggett told of having his own difficulties with Goodbread until he "slapped his cheeks" with Goodbread's own knife, thereby "scaring" the land pirate into terms. "When I see him I may scare him, but it will be a damn quick scare," Jackson muttered ominously. "He shan't live. He shan't."
Daggett rode on into Shelbyville, the county seat village which boasted a log courthouse, a little hotel, and "grog shops." Daggett soon sighted Goodbread sitting "on an old fashioned horse rack" and talking with a friend. Dr. Ashcroft contended that Alfred George, recently elected county sheriff, sent a messenger to tell Jackson that Goodbread was in town without weapons. An enmity had developed between Goodbread and Sheriff George over the slave sold for fraudulent land titles. When the titles were discredited, Sheriff George stole his old slave back from Goodbread and hid him in the woods. According to Dr. Ashcroft, Sheriff George relayed Goodbread's threats to Jackson, and "promised to lend him any assistance within his power."
Within "a very short time" of Goodbread's arrival, Jackson rode into town on a fine Kentucky mare, with a rifle at the ready. "Goodbread, here is your letter. Git up," ordered Jackson from the saddle. "I am going to answer that letter."
"Jackson, I am unarmed."
"So much the better," replied Jackson coldly, "git up on your feet."
"Charley, I was mad when I wrote that letter," explained Goodbread, trying to talk his way out of danger. "I was hasty."
"Stand up," growled Jackson.
Goodbread asked Jackson to allow him to arm himself, and he tried to rise. Jackson "raised his rifle, took deliberate aim, and fired" into Goodbread's chest. The stricken man glared at Jackson "with a look of mingled hatred and contempt," then muttered "a horrid malediction" upon his murderer. Goodbread collapsed into the street and died within moments.
"Is there any more damned rascals of Goodbread in town?" challenged Jackson. "If not, bring Alfred George, your sheriff." Jackson surrendered, and several of his friends signed the modest $200 bond. Released before Goodbread's body was cold, Jackson returned home, where a number of friends stood guard through the night.
Joseph Goodbread was the first victim of what would become the Regulator-Moderator War, and Mrs. Goodbread became the first widow. Charles Jackson organized a band of "Regulators" to take action against other criminals – and to protect himself from retribution. Goodbread's friends pursued vengeance, organizing themselves into "Moderators" to "moderate" the Regulators. During the next four years more than thirty men who labeled themselves Regulators or Moderators were killed in ambushes, lynchings, assassinations, and pitched battles. The Regulator-Moderator War, although strangely overlooked by historians and popular mythmakers, produced more casualties than any other blood feud in the long history of frontier strife. A thorough account of this East Texas conflict is overdue, along with an evaluation of its proper rank in the annals of extralegal violence.
The Regulators and Moderators who plunged East Texas into a murderous orgy of shooting and lynching were following an extralegal tradition that extended into the American past for three-quarters of a century. Violence against British authority was commonplace in the colonies for several years prior to the American Revolution. The Boston Massacre (1770) and the Boston Tea Party (1773) were the most famous of scores of riots that began in the mid-1760s. In this atmosphere of unsanctioned violence, an outbreak of frontier crime in South Carolina triggered a response by angry citizens which launched the vigilante tradition in America. From 1767 through 1769, respectable citizens organized themselves as "Regulators" and tried troublemakers, flogging and expelling many undesirables. One outlaw gang was cornered, and sixteen members were slain.
This successful Regulator movement inspired hundreds of similar actions during the remainder of the eighteenth century, throughout the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth century. Many Regulator groups were highly organized and operated on a comparatively large scale, while others banded spontaneously to deal swiftly with a single criminal. For a century these extralegal groups usually were called "Regulators," but by the late nineteenth century the customary term had become "vigilante."
Another term common to extralegal experiences was provided by Colonel Charles Lynch, a prominent citizen of Bedford County, Virginia (the town of Lynchburg was named for Colonel Lynch). By 1780, with the Revolution still raging, Bedford County had become a hotbed of outlawry. Leading citizens formed a court with Colonel Lynch sitting as presiding judge. Regular – if illegal – trails were held, with flogging as the common punishment. This court thereby dispensed "Lynch Law," although in time this term came to mean a far more lethal form of justice than flogging.
During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, more than 6,000 men and a few women were executed by vigilante activities. In his authoritative study of violence in America, Richard Maxwell Brown described the development of "the ideology of vigilantism," which "gripped the minds and emotions of Americans." Brown concluded that "the vigilantes, knowing full well that theiractions were illegal, felt obliged to legitimize their violence by expounding a philosophy of vigilantism." By the mid-1800s, "self-righteous vigilantes ... were routinely invoking 'self-preservation' or 'self-protection' as the first principal of vigilantism." Brown quoted a resolution of Indiana vigilantes from 1858:
We are believers in the doctrine of popular sovereignty; that the people of this country are the real legal sovereigns, and that whenever the laws, made by those to whom they have relegated their authority, are found inadequate to their protection, it is the right of the people to take the protection of their prosperity in their own hands, and deal with these villains according to their just desserts....
Such sentiments were embraced vigorously by pioneers, and vigilantism flourished on the western frontier in the nineteenth century. The westward movement often outraced the establishments of courts, law officers, and even jails. Extralegal action was quicker and cheaper than any system of courts, judges, juries, attorneys, trials, appeals, and institutional punishment. Wherever lawlessness broke out, prominent citizens encouraged, organized, and usually led vigilante groups in establishing order. "A host of distinguished Americans – statesmen, politicians, capitalists, lawyers, judges, writers, and others – supported vigilantism by word or deed," stated Brown. Usually their support or participation was when they were younger men, leaders on the rise, "but in later life, they never repudiated their actions." Brown specifically listed two future presidents (Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt), five U.S. senators, and eight governors of states or territories who had participated in vigilantism.
Certainly, in frontier East Texas, the westward movement extended beyond courts, law officers, and jails. Shelby County and surrounding areas were overrun by criminals and desperados, but the fledgling legal apparatus of the new counties and of the Republic of Texas could not yet cope with the lawlessness of this wilderness region. Following the murder of Joseph Goodbread and subsequent reprisals, East Texans readily resorted to Regulators and lynching and ambuscade. Dr. Ashcroft of Shelbyville recalled that the Texas Republic was "without adequate resources for its own support," yet it had to repel Mexican invasions and combat "hordes of wild and merciless savages." The Republic "was indeed utterly powerless to preserve the ascendancy of law and order." As a consequence, in East Texas "the lynch code with all its horrors and severities was adopted...."
During the next four years East Texans embraced a tradition of extralegal violence that had existed for more than seven decades. The Regulator-Moderator War escalated this rough but accepted practice to a new level of intensity and bloodshed. Although this intensity would never again be equaled by feudists, the lack of legal consequences undoubtedly encouraged the continuation of the feuding tradition. How, then, did the Regulators and Moderators of East Texas, battling each other with single-shot weapons in a sparsely-settled wilderness, produce a uniquely homicidal feud?CHAPTER 2
"The man who had killed his man ... was looked upon as a sort of gentleman; while a man who had stolen a horse or dealt in bogus money was universally detested."
— Colonel Alexander Horton
An international development early in the nineteenth century influenced the Regulator-Moderator War. When Louisiana was transferred to the United States by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, U.S. troops were stationed at Natchitoches, long a Spanish possession. The boundary of Texas was undetermined, and the Spanish countered by placing army contingents at Nacogdoches and at Los Adaes, only fifteen miles west of Natchitoches. Predictably, there were tensions between these nearby bands of opposing soldiers, and it seemed only a matter of time before shooting erupted.
To avert bloodshed and an international incident, the U.S. and Spanish commanders in Louisiana and Texas pragmatically decided to separate their troops in 1806 by declaring a Neutral Ground. Neither Spanish nor U.S. soldiers would be permitted to enter an area bounded by the Sabine River on the west, and, on the east, the Arroyo Hondo (a north-south creek located a few miles west of Natchitoches) and south to the Gulf of Mexico along the west bank of the Calcasieu River. This informal agreement kept peace between the two nations for a decade and a half. But with no military or other authority in effect, the Neutral Ground became a haven for fugitives from justice, ruffians, thieves, killers, and all manner of other criminals. Gangs of highwaymen preyed on travelers on El Camino Real, who had to form armed caravans to hope for safe passage.
In 1819 the Adams-Onis Treaty negotiated the Florida Purchase and, among other things, established a boundary between Texas and Louisiana. Although the Treaty was not ratified until 1821, scalawags and riffraff, by now firmly entrenched in an outlaw paradise, continued their nefarious activities. In 1822 Fort Jesup, a major U.S. military installation, was established alongside El Camino Real about twenty miles southwest of Natchitoches. Fort Jesup grew to a complex of eighty-two buildings, and troops stationed there worked to enforce law and order. But area rogues offered all manner of vice to off-duty soldiers. After one of his troopers was killed, Colonel Henry Leavenworth angrily denounced the perpetrators as, "Sticky-fingered, whiskey-selling, slave-stealing squatters."
During the 1820s and 1830s, thousands of land-hungry emigrants passed the fort on their way to Texas. Passage was safer then, thanks to the efforts of the army. Hounded by the military, many of the fugitives and hooligans of the old Neutral Strip drifted into the unpoliced wilderness of East Texas. When settlers arrived to take possession of East Texas land grants, they soon learned about their unsavory neighbors. Although the Neutral Ground ceased to exist two decades before the Regulators and Moderators started killing each other, the outlawry it hosted stubbornly persisted and spread into Mexican Texas. By the time the Republic of Texas began dispersing large land grants, the criminal element in East Texas included land pirates, counterfeiters, murderers, slave stealers, horse thieves, fugitives from U.S. justice, and violent thugs.
There was a curious pecking order among this criminal aggregation, comparable to the informal alignment of inmates in a prison. "The one class were men who had killed their man or men, and were frequently gamblers," observed Colonel Alexander Horton. Horton had lived near San Augustine since 1824, served General Sam Houston as aide-de-camp, and fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. A long career in public service included tenures as sheriff of San Augustine County, and he would be called upon to subdue hostilities between Regulators and Moderators. "The other class were men who dealt in horses without buying, and in bogus money. ... There was no congeniality between these two classes of men," reflected Horton. "The man-killer and gambler detested the man who traded in stolen horses and bogus money. The man who had killed his man, even without a cause, was looked upon as a sort of gentleman; while a man who had stolen a horse or dealt in bogus money was universally destested."
Nacogdoches and San Augustine, older communities which usually attracted honest, ambitious settlers, pressured their worst lawbreakers into moving elsewhere. Many unruly criminals drifted north into what became Shelby County. "Unlike her sister counties," observed The Redlander of San Augustine, after the Regulator-Moderator War had begun, "Shelby has failed to get rid of a redundant and vicious portion of her citizens, who, being first to establish there, have succeeded so far, in maintaining their position...." The Redlander pointed out that it was common knowledge "that a band of outlaws and murderers have infested that county or a portion of it, since its first settlement." While the population of Shelby County "has increased rapidly in recent years," the better class of citizens "have waited in vain for a change." Indeed, Shelby County had attained a "notoriety abroad as a place of refuge for felons...."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "War in East Texas"
Copyright © 2006 Bill O'Neal.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Murder in Shelbyville,
Chapter 2. Regulator-Moderator Country,
Chapter 3. Jackson's Regulators,
Chapter 4. Watt Moorman,
Chapter 5. War Comes to Harrison County,
Chapter 6. Regulator Ascendancy,
Chapter 7. Of Hogs and Men,
Chapter 8. Mobilization,
Chapter 9. Battle,
Chapter 10. Houston and the Militia,
Chapter 11. Deadly Aftermath,
Chapter 12. Legacy of a Blood Feud,