‘You Take that Back!’ — Texas Feuds

The notorious Hatfield clan, 1897

Although lesser known than the notorious Hatfield-McCoy fracas that claimed about a dozen lives along the West Virginia-Kentucky state line between 1865 and 1888, six and a half of the ten bloodiest American feuds took place in Texas.

Yes, six and a half. Just hold your horses and I’ll explain.

Two of Texas’s feuds were deadlier than the quarrel between the Hatfields and McCoys, and most of them erupted over a bigger insult than laying claim to a wayward pig.

In ascending order of body count, the feuds were…

Early vs. Hasley, 1865-69

Sam Hasley did not take it well when he returned from fighting for the Confederacy to discover his elderly father had been roughed up by a member of the Union occupation force sent to keep order in Texas during Reconstruction. Hasley vowed vengeance not only upon the culprit, John Early, but also on every other Federal in Bell County. He and the friends and family who gathered around him openly defied the authorities, leading the Early faction to accuse Hasley’s group of any crime of any kind anywhere in the vicinity. Yankee soldiers ambushed and killed one of the Hasley contingent in mid-1869, effectively disbanding the gang. One rogue member, however, pursued one of Early’s friends into Arkansas and killed him later that year. Sam Hasley went on to become a deputy sheriff. In 1889, drunk on duty, he was shot and killed by a deputy city marshal while resisting arrest in Temple, Texas. Body count: two.

A plantation house in Columbus, Texas, ca. 1840

Reese vs. Townsend, 1898-1907

The Reeses and the Townsends got crossways over politics. U.S. Senator Mark Townsend, the Boss Tweed of Columbus, Texas, withdrew his support from incumbent sheriff Sam Reese and threw his considerable political clout behind former deputy Larkin Hope instead. When Hope ended up on the wrong end of a broad daylight assassination in downtown Columbus, Reese was the most likely suspect, though no evidence surfaced. Townsend’s handpicked replacement won the election. Perturbed by the unanticipated turn of events, Reese picked a gunfight with a Townsend supporter, thereby moving out of politics and into a casket. The former sheriff’s family vowed to avenge him, provoking five shootouts in Columbus over the following six years. Four combatants died, including Sam Reese’s brother Dick. Body count: six.

Lampasas texas ca 1882
Lampasas, Texas, ca. 1882

Horrell vs. Higgins, 1874-1877

When the five Horrell brothers—Ben, Mart, Tom, Merritt, and Sam—took it on the lam to Lincoln County, New Mexico, in order to avoid a murder rap in Texas, they probably didn’t plan to leave one of their number under six feet of dirt before scrambling back to Lampasas barely ahead of a posse. They fared no better in their hometown, running afoul of former friend and neighbor John “Pink” Higgins right away. Higgins accused the high-spirited Horrell boys of rustling cattle…and that’s when the trouble started. A jury acquitted the Horrells of all charges, but continuing ill will led to Merritt Horrell’s death at Higgins’s hand during a saloon fight. Folks lined up behind both families, swore to wipe the opposing faction from the face of the planet, and set about their task with admirable devotion. By the time the Texas Rangers put an end to the running gun battles in June 1877, four men were dead, dozens more were injured, and the three remaining Horrell brothers were behind bars. Although they were released in short order, two of the three were arrested on suspicion of murdering a shopkeeper less than a year later. A vigilante gang shot them to death in their jail cells. The feud ended when both sides signed a written promise to leave one another alone. Amazingly, they kept their word. Body count: seven.

1912 New York Times report about the Boyce-Sneed disagreement. (Click to read.)

Boyce vs. Sneed, 1911-1912

Wealthy ranchers John Beal Sneed and Albert Boyce, Jr. came to blows over Sneed’s wife. After more than a decade of marriage and two children, in 1911 Lena Sneed admitted to having an affair with Boyce and asked for a divorce. Sneed straightaway had her committed to an asylum. Boyce rescued the damsel in distress, and the couple ran off to Canada. Incensed when kidnapping charges were dropped, Sneed upped the ante: In early 1912, he murdered Boyce’s unarmed father in the lobby of a Fort Worth hotel. Widely publicized court proceedings ended in a mistrial, spurring a mob of Boyce supporters to storm the courthouse and kill four men. Sneed’s father was the next to go, in an alleged murder-suicide. Although John and Lena Sneed reconciled in mid-1912, he could not let the insult go: Wearing a disguise, he shot and killed Boyce in broad daylight on a Fort Worth street and then surrendered at the county courthouse. Juries later acquitted Sneed of all charges, calling the killings justifiable homicide. Body count: eight.

former Texas Ranger Creed Taylor, ca. 1880

Sutton vs. Taylor, 1866-1877

Dewitt County Deputy Sheriff William Sutton set off the longest-lasting and most widespread feud in Texas history when, in three separate 1866 incidents, he shot and killed three members of former Texas Ranger Creed Taylor’s family. In 1867, two more Taylors died while Sutton was attempting to arrest them on a minor charge. After adopting the motto “Who sheds a Taylor’s blood, by a Taylor’s hand must fall,” the Taylors retaliated by killing two Sutton allies. Mob violence, ambushes, prison breaks, and lynchings ensued. Sutton himself was gunned down while attempting to board a steamboat and high-tail it out of the area. After numerous attempts at peacemaking failed, Texas Ranger Captain Leander McNelly and his Special Force put a stop to the violence. Body count: at least 35.

Fighting Over a Stolen Herd, Frederic Remington, 1895

Lee vs. Peacock, 1866-1871

Only Arizona’s Pleasant Valley War, which took the lives of twenty to fifty men between 1887 and 1892, outstripped the Lee-Peacock feud of northeast Texas. Like the Early-Hasley dustup, the Lee-Peacock fandango grew out of lingering animosity over the Civil War. Confederate veteran Bob Lee butted heads with an organization of Union supporters, leading Lewis Peacock, the leader of the Union bunch, to round up a posse and arrest Lee for alleged war crimes. To “settle the charges,” Peacock seized Lee’s valuables and exacted a promissory note for $2,000. Lee won a subsequent lawsuit, earning an assassination attempt along with the money. His doctor was murdered while Lee convalesced in the medic’s home. Thereafter, Northeast Texas fractured along Union-Confederacy lines and bands of armed men proceeded to track down and do away with their ideological opponents. The Fourth United States Cavalry’s arrival to end the fracas only made things worse: Although a house-to-house search failed to turn up Lee, it sparked several more gun battles. Lee was betrayed by one of his own men in 1869 and died during the cavalry’s attempt to arrest him. Fighting continued until Peacock’s shooting death in 1871. Body count: about fifty.

And now for the one-half Texas feud…

Brooks vs. McFarland, 1896-1902

Although most of the violence took place on Oklahoma land belonging the Creek Nation, a fatal attempt to rob a former Texas Ranger started the fight. After would-be robber Thomas Brooks was killed, family patriarch Willis Brooks accused neighbor Jim McFarland of planning the unsuccessful crime and then tipping off the Ranger. Not disposed to sit idly by and watch the family name besmirched, the McFarlands lined up behind Jim and faced off with the Brooks clan. Both sides vowed to shoot members of the other on sight. The conflict came to a head in a Spokogee, Oklahoma, gunfight in September 1902, when Willis Brooks and his son Clifton were killed along with a McFarland family ally. The survivors were arrested, but allowing them to make bail may have been a mistake: One month later, Jim McFarland died in an ambush at his home. McFarland’s death put an end to the feud.


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25 thoughts on “‘You Take that Back!’ — Texas Feuds”

  1. Kathleen, this is great stuff. I just wrote a blog on ‘what I know about Texas’ You might want to add a bit of this info in the comments there as I’m looking for new info! Loved this, thanks for posting!

  2. Wow! And I’ve heard historians say that the “Wild West” wasn’t as wild as Hollywood would have us believe. I think your post just disproved that theory, Kathleen.

    The part most unbelievable to me was the Boyce vs. Sneed story. She took him back???? And the fact that at least two separate courts found the man’s actions justifiable stuns me. Killing people in cold blood is fine because a man has a right to kill as many people as is needed to get his wife back. Doesn’t matter that it was her choice to leave or that he put her in an asylum to start with.

    Obviously this was before women were allowed to sit on juries.

    • I know, Karen! I couldn’t believe those two developments, either. And I really, REALLY disliked that John Sneed had Lena committed to an asylum because she wanted a divorce. Killing innocent fathers was a bit far to go to make a point, IMO. Men and their honor…

  3. Wow! Very interesting. I always knew us Texans were a rowdy bunch but my gosh! Love the history. You always find fascinating things that I don’t know beans about. I’m very happy to learn from you though.

    Hope you feel better soon. Hugs, Filly sister!

  4. very interesting,,I know we have had several feuds here in TN back in the day,,I guess waiting for justice was too slow back then,,lot of innocent ppl got shot or hung

  5. I had to chuckle a bit about the Union believing it could reform a Texan–like that’s ever going to happen. Whew! Looks like a really bad idea to tangle with a Texan over women, politics, or just about anything else. We’re all real careful not to pick a fight with you, Kathleen, or face the unpleasant consequences.
    Loved this blog, Kathleen. It’s amazing the historical info you find.
    All good things to your corner of the universe.

    • What can I say, Sarah? I warned y’all about Texans having a genetic predisposition for rambunctiousness and misbehavior. Surely you didn’t think that “Don’t Mess with Texas” slogan came out of thin air. 😉

      All the best to you, too, sweetheart. 🙂

  6. A most interesting post. I can understand why feuds get started and last for years. I can get angry with someone, and have been. Most people just stop talking to each other and avoid interacting. They may even “bad-mouth” the other party. What I can not understand is why it would deteriorate into murder. So their egos and pride are offended. To go out and kill friends and family members of someone you dislike seems more than extreme.

    I know, “clan” warfare is as old as mankind. I just think “make love (or at least negotiation, friendship, and forgiveness), not war” is a better way to handle conflict. Unfortunately, that is not the way that most of mankind operates.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • Patricia, despite what my unending fascination with violence and bloodshed might indicate, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. I so completely agree with you about letting disagreements get out of control to the point of blood-feuding. What sense does that make? Permanently removing an opposing viewpoint from the equation creates a snowball effect, and that doesn’t work well for anyone.

      Thanks for coming by and adding your voice to the mix. It’s always good to know there are some of us who’d rather do our fighting with words. 🙂

  7. Loved this Kathleen! So much I read in historicals about sending the wives to an asylum. So sad. Years ago for my Masters I wrote my paper on the history of deaf people institutionalized. Being deaf myself It was hard to read but too fascinating. Great history info, thanks again.

    • Thank goodness the world has wizened up a bit in the past several centuries. In the past, folks were sent to asylums for all sorts of things we see today as points on a vast continuum called “normal.” Sadly, women, children, and those with physical challenges bore the brunt of a mentality that considered warehousing the only solution. That’s always made me both sad and angry.

      I’d love to have read your Masters thesis. I’m sure you uncovered all sorts of hair-raising instances of injustice.

      Thanks for coming by! 🙂

  8. This was a very interesting post. Some of these just go to show that truth is truly sometimes stranger than fiction.

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