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Old West Vigilantes - Page 5

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Shelby County Texas Regulators - In 1839 land disputes, fraudulent land transactions, and cattle rustling in Harrison and Shelby Counties led to the formation of the Regulators the following year. The principal leaders of the Regulators were Charles W. Jackson and Charles W. Moorman with its primary goal to prevent cattle rustling. However, as the Regulators' actions became too extreme a counter-vigilante group was formed, called the Moderators, to "moderate" the Regulators. This opposing faction's principal leaders were Edward Merchant, John M. Bradley, and Deputy Sheriff James J. Cravens. The roots of the conflict lay in the land disputes over the neutral ground that lay between the American and Mexican borders. As the violence between the two factions escalated and eventually spread to San Augustine, Nacogdoches, and other East Texas counties, the conflict became known as the Regulator-Moderator War. Of the whole affair, Sam Houston reportedly stated, "I think it advisable to declare Shelby County, Tenaha, and Terrapin Neck free and independent governments, and let them fight it out." By the time the conflict was finally resolved in 1844, at least ten people had been killed, including Regulator leader Charles W. Jackson.

Stuart's Stranglers or the Montana Stranglers (1884) - Granville Stuart, best known as being a Montana cattleman, he is also credited as earning his living as a miner, a merchant, horse trader, banker, rancher, real estate investor, historian and writer. What many may not know is that he was also the leader of an extremely successful group of Montana Vigilantes

In the early 1880’s, Montana was still a wild and lawless place with wide expanses of land and with more heads of cattle living there than people. Under those conditions, it was a haven for cattle rustlers and horse thieves. In April, 1884, a number of cattlemen met in Helena to try to come up with a solution to this ever growing problem, but they could not agree to a solution other than to gather as much information as possible on the rustlers.

Determining that the leaders of these rustling gangs were a number of hard cases, Stuart soon gathered up 14 fighting men to go after the outlaws and stop the thievery. Though Stuart called his men a "Vigilante Committee,” much like those that had operated in the Virginia City area two decades earlier, they would forever be remembered "Stuart’s Stranglers” or the "Montana Stranglers.”

 

Within no time dozens of Montana outlaws had either been strung up in trees or riddled with bullets. The Montana Stock Growers’ Association was so appreciative of Stuart’s efforts that they elected him president of the organization that summer of 1884.

 

Texas Vigilantes - In the two decades following the Civil War, Texas was a lawless place and in many sections of the Texas frontier, courts and jails had not been established. In others, the authorities could not be depended on to take action against the many criminal elements flooding into the state. To counteract the outrages caused by these outlaws, vigilante groups formed all over Texas to stamp out lawlessness and rid communities of desperadoes. Often formed by decent law-abiding citizens, most vigilante groups handled criminals by imitating legal court procedure where the offender was "tried" before a vigilante judge and a jury.

 

 

 

Convictions often resulted in whippings or expulsion from the community, but at least 17 Texas vigilante groups used hanging to curb the criminal mentality. Though their original focus may have been admirable, many of these vigilante committees degenerated into warring mobs committing criminal acts themselves.

 

At other times, these groups were used for private vengeance or personal gain. While many of the groups were successful, driving out murderers, horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and train robbers, they were finally put to an end in 1897 when the Texas Rangers broke up a group of vigilantes who frequently gathered at Buzzard Roost. Over the years, these many vigilante groups claimed some 140 lives, with the most active being the san Saba County Lynchers, who killed  approximately 25 people between 1880 and 1896.

 

Texas Vigilantes

A Texas vigilante court is about to hang a gang member

that shot up a saloon in a dispute over a prisoner taken

by the sheriff. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated

Newspaper, November 12, 1881.

 

Fort Griffin, Texas

Fort Griffin Administration Building, June, 2007, Kathy Weiser

This image available for photographic prints and

 downloads HERE!

 

Tin Hat Brigade (1874-1878) - The best known and probably the most active vigilance committee in Texas was that of the Tin Hat Brigade of Fort Griffin. The settlement that grew up around the post quickly became a bustling frontier town attracting an array of buffalo hunters, tradesmen, soiled doves, and cowboys passing through with their cattle herds on the Western Trail. The town also attracted a host of the outlaws, thieves, and desperate characters, becoming a hotbed for violence. Before long, the town sported a roster of those who passed through the area that reads like a "whos-who of the American West," including Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Johnny Golden, John Wesley Hardin, Lottie Deno, and Mollie McCabe.

 

Law and order was much needed in the wild and wooly community, in fact it became so bad, that in 1874, the lawlessness required the military to declare martial law on the town as the Fort Griffin soldiers tried to run many of the lawbreakers out of town for good.

 

 However, this was not enough for a certain faction of men who in the town who decided to take the law into their own hands. Seeing to the protection of the lives and property of the people in the surrounding area, this band of men, who called themselves the Tin Hat Brigade, determined that swift "justice" was more effective. Soon, many a horse thief was found hanging from a tree near the river.

 

In 1874, a man named John Larn joined the brigade and the respect that Larn gained as a member of this group helped to get him elected sheriff of Fort Griffin in April, 1876. That same month, the Tin Hat Brigade caught a man in the act of stealing a horse and promptly hanged him to a pecan tree. Leaving his body hanging there for all to see, they also left a pick and shovel below his gruesome remains for anyone who might have wished to remove the thief and bury him. In the next three months the Fort Griffin vigilantes shot two more horse thieves and hanged six others. In the meantime, Sheriff Larn hired John Henry Selman to work for him, but the two were not what they appeared to be. Instead of controlling the area crime, they controlled the vigilantes, rustling cattle and otherwise terrorizing the county. After serving less than a year as sheriff, Larn resigned and moved on to outright cattle rustling. Within a year, a warrant had been issued for Larn's arrest, and the the new Sheriff William Cruger, who had formerly been Larn's deputy, was tasked with arresting him. Bringing Larn in on June 22, 1878, he shackled him to the floor of the jail house to prevent a breakout by Larn's supporters. Instead, the next night, the Tin Hat Brigade stormed the jail intending to hang Larn. When they found they couldn't lynch the shackled man, they shot him in his cell. At about the same time an unknown man was found hanging outside of town and the town marshal, William C. Gilson, went missing. The rumor was that Gilson knew too much about the going-ons of the vigilantes and was killed in order to keep him quiet.

 

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2010.

 

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