The Fort Griffin Vigilante Movement

By Robert "Ty" Cashion

The Fort Griffin Vigilante Movement, 1876-1878, was responsible for the hangings of as many as two dozen suspected stock thieves. In a decade in which at least 16 extralegal campaigns arose, this was the bloodiest and perhaps most consequential. Because it represents the image of lynching fixed in the popular culture, moreover, the movement is significant for providing a counternarrative to recent scholarship that has inclined toward the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when race and social control became the primary motivations for lynchings.[1]

Fort Griffin, at the edge of Old Northwest Texas, was the last stop of any consequence on the trail to El Paso. The Town of Fort Griffin, known colloquially as The Flat, was akin to a port town perched as it was along the western edge of an Anglo advance that no longer had to worry about Comanche and Kiowa war parties. As the primary entrepôt for the bison hunt as well as being the last stop for northbound cattle drives, it provided a vibrant point of commerce at time when most Americans were feeling the full impact that followed the Panic of 1873. And, like any community similarly situated, it provided refuge for a criminal element, for whom justice was administered at Albany, the county seat, fifteen miles to the south.

Beyond the fort and village was an expansive and sparsely settled Texas frontier, where the combination of Reconstruction-era chaos and loosely tended horses and cattle provided easy targets for stock thieves. In Kansas, Indian Territory, and New Mexico opportunists found eager buyers who did not ask questions. Despite the staggering number of horse thefts, they accrued usually a few at a time, outstripping the means of stockmen and law enforcement for dealing with the crisis. Their frustrations became manifest in frequent shootings and hangings of thieves caught in the act. Such conditions provide the context for understanding how the movement formed in the Fort Griffin Country.

In April 1876, a dozen local stockmen accompanied by rancher and County Sheriff John Larn, twenty U.S. soldiers, and two Tonkawa scouts surprised a much smaller gang of outlaws about 90 miles west of the fort. While the soldiers rode ahead in pursuit of some men who had fled toward their nearby rendezvous at the Double Mountains, the vigilantes remained behind. The ranking army lieutenant later reported that Larn intimated they had hanged everyone who did not escape. The affair thus wrecked the good will and services of the federal troops in helping bring range conditions under control.[2]

Even so, the public response was overwhelmingly positive, according to Captain Robson, editor of the Frontier Echo, which would soon be moving to The Flat from its sister village of Jacksboro, near Fort Richardson. Frontierspeople in fact were “rejoicing,” he insisted. Enthusiastically forgiving the decisive actions of the “Vigilance Committee,” Robson rationalized that thefts had become so widespread citizens “could not purchase fresh stock fast enough to satisfy the demand of the horse thief.” He punctuated his claim with the report that “twenty six horses were recently stolen from one ranch alone.”[3]

Of the lynchings near the Double Mountains, the report alleged that the mob actually killed only four of the outlaws, which included two wounded men. Several others were still at large and being pursued. That did not keep the Echo’s editor from declaring: “The gang of horse and cattle thieves which have infested Shackleford County…has received a death blow at the hands of the cowmen of that section.” Although several others in the gang were later apprehended and met a similar fate, the extended episode did not stop the epidemic of horse and cattle thefts.[4]

Fueling the discontent of stockraisers were “not guilty” verdicts handed down by juries on which many of them served. When the first district court session met in Shackleford County during June 1875, Judge J. P. Osterhout heard six cases for horse theft. Three of the accused were found not guilty, another case was discharged, and warrants issued for two others who had fled. That sufficient evidence for convictions was lacking seemed unlikely, since most of the accused were caught with stolen stock. The best explanation for their release is that some of the jurors believed a one-to-ten year sentence at hard labor was too harsh for the crime, and they rendered “not guilty” verdicts in response.[5]

Given such a volatile social climate, the sensational news of the movement’s initial action provoked a much larger, emboldened mob to develop. Almost immediately the Echo was trumpeting descriptions of “armed and masked men,” seizing rustlers taken into custody and then hanging them along the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. On some of them were pinned notes, such as the scorecard-like placard pinned to the back of Houston Faught that read, “Horse thief No. 5,” along with the rhetorical postscript: “Shall horse thieves rule the country? He will have company soon.”[6]

Two weeks later he did. Lawmen in neighboring Eastland County had captured a suspected horse thief and handed him over to some deputies charged with the task of transferring him to Albany. Without explanation the Echo reported: “Yesterday his body was found hanging to a tree three miles from here.” Vigilantes underscored the killing by posting a message at The Flat adorned with a skull and crossbones, warning rustlers to leave the country.[7]

In May, 1876, when the district court convened at Albany, Judge J. R. Fleming took the bench. Fully aware of the explosive conditions, he alluded to the outbreak of vigilantism and acknowledged that “whole communities have become impatient with the tardy justice meted out by the courts.” Affirming the sovereignty of the law, he then appealed to his fellow citizens for restraint. The brief session ended, however, without a single conviction for stock theft in almost a dozen cases tried.[8]

Upset citizens responded by flocking to the secret society. Around the first of June, Sheriff John Larn gave new members their initiate when he returned from Dodge City with two men who had escaped the posse at the Double Mountains. After he went through the motion of depositing the prisoners at the county jail in Albany, a mob of approximately fifty men on foot and another twenty on horseback arrived and ordered the guards to release their prisoners. The next morning, the Echo reported, the two suspects were found “dangling in the air” a quarter mile from the town square. While Robson lamented that “it is at best a deplorable state of affairs when Judge Lynch is called to preside,” he nevertheless contended that so far the vigilantes “have made no mistakes.”[9]

When the district court opened its next session in October 1876, Judge Fleming decried both the vigilantes and their supporters, challenging people in the area to act responsibly and allow the justice system to do its job. When the session ended the same way as the others, the Vigilance Committee reacted violently, hanging eleven suspected horse thieves just beyond the military reservation. The Fort Worth Daily Democrat, which reported the incident, added that four more members of the local gang had been apprehended near Fort Sill, Indian Territory, and were being escorted back to Fort Griffin, where “their show for life will be meager indeed.”[10]

If the mass execution was a rebuttal to Fleming’s admonitions, it was an emphatic but final statement. Regional cattlemen, which included were already organizing, and in February 1877, they met at Graham, Texas, to form the Northwest Texas Cattle Raisers’ Association. Foremost on their agenda was ending the epidemic of stock thefts. Also, back in Albany, juries began to return convictions when the district court next met that spring. [fn14] Convicted cattle thief, Charles Mussleman, for example, received a five-year sentence at hard labor. Thirteen other suspects fled under indictments, but the jury found guilty four unlucky men who remained to face the court. Their penalties ranged from five to ten years hard labor at the state penitentiary in Huntsville.[11]

Eventually the recently formed Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers turned their attention to the Fort Griffin country as well—yet not on the account of stock thieves, but for the actions of the Vigilance Committee itself. As it turned out, John Larn, the sheriff who rode with the first group of vigilantes to the Double Mountains, led a group of stock thieves himself. Only at length did most of the cowmen realize they had mistaken his dark enthusiasm for something far more malignant. When the awful truth became apparent, the more resolute members resurrected the secret organization to keep Larn from turning state’s evidence on them to save himself.[12]

Near present-day Throckmorton, Lieutenant G. W. Campbell arrived at the head of more than two dozen men and established camp on Elm Creek early during the summer of 1877. From there he began an investigation which soon focused on John Larn, who had recently resigned as sheriff. Larn, who aspired to become a substantial rancher, had also recently married into the influential Matthews clan. First-comers to the land, they had forted up against the Indians during the Civil War and held tenaciously to the range on which they amassed their herd along the Clear Fork of the Brazos. Larn’s marriage and his efficient work as sheriff brought him prestige and respect. In August 1876, at the peak of the Vigilance Committee’s activity, he was one of four area representatives selected to attend the Democratic state convention at Dallas. The next year his fellow stockmen made him Deputy Inspector of Hides and Animals, a position he shared with his partner, John Selman, best known for later killing John Wesley Hardin in El Paso.[13]

Together, Larn and Selman used their position to move cattle, while thinning the range of competing rustlers. Soon, their fellow ranchers suspected they were stealing cattle to fulfill a contract to supply beef to the fort. More sinister tales circulated that involved several murders, including one where Larn and Selman killed a man trailing a small herd and appropriated his cattle. Even worse, their gang began a range war, engaging farmers who had planted crops along the river bottom.[14]

Lt. Campbell’s sergeant, J. E. Van Riper, wrote to the Rangers’ Major John B. Jones in Austin that Larn and Selman had promised to “exterminate the farmers and drive them from the country.” In the meantime, Campbell assured Major Jones that “there are men in Shackelford and adjoining counties that will come up and give in their evidence when these parties are arrested.” His plan, however, was to drop a net over everyone who had been involved in the secret organization.[15]

Campbell’s determined campaign had everyone looking to Judge J. R. Fleming for support. Chastened members of the secret society begged him to help extricate them from the situation they had created. Meanwhile, the lieutenant had promised Fleming that he would bring every guilty citizen to justice. As it turned out, Campbell and Van Riper had sided with the grangers, confiding to the judge that the Rangers had enough evidence to arrest about forty men.[16]

To the relief of former vigilantes, Campbell’s zeal was not reciprocated. Tragically, none of the rangers on the ground seemed to realize the powerful and unseen hands moving events behind the scenes. The lieutenant in fact had been reporting to Fleming on the command of Adjutant General William Steele, who commanded the entire Ranger organization. Even as Campbell and Van Riper were promising the grangers that Major John B. Jones would personally come to their aid, he and all but six men were being transferred.[17]

Van Riper, who continued the investigation, reportedly had determined to make a deal with Larn and Selman promising immunity if they would testify against the others. Those others, however, took matters into their own hands. At length they executed Larn before he could talk, making him the last victim of the vigilantes with whom he had ridden. Selman of course got away. It was clear that the affair would pass when Ranger Captain G. W. Arrington arrived in July 1878. To Major John B. Jones he reported: “I am satisfied that at one time nearly everybody belonged to the mob—but the good men are now satisfied that law and order can be maintained without the lynch law.”[18]

Superficially, the Fort Griffin Vigilante Movement is typical of the kind of frontier violence that scholar Richard Maxwell Brown called the “civil war of incorporation,” where law enforcement in the West could not keep up with population movements. More accurately, however, it illustrates what can happened in sparsely settled areas when power and anonymity become monopolized by a coterie of powerful men.[19]

As the countryside developed, so had the legal community. Just a few years earlier no framework for administering justice existed within a reasonable distance. By the time the Vigilance Committee acted in 1876, however, the county had been organized for two years. On the payroll was a sheriff with the power to appoint deputies. Four local justices of the peace, a county court, and a district court also stood ready and capable of trying anyone brought before them. If loose cannons such as Sheriff John Larn had not acted so rashly, federal troops might have worked more closely with local herder folk.

As it turned out, the secret society had won, but the moral and ethical costs were high. If they had exercised patience and worked within the limits of the law, relief was coming with the creation of the Northwest Texas Cattle Raisers Association. Most of the vigilantes wanted only to stop the epidemic of horse and cattle thefts and failed to recognize they were unwittingly being used. While all lynchings but Larn’s occurred between April and December, 1876, it took members of the secret society two more years to extricate themselves from the consequences of their actions. Most if not all of the grangers were forced off the land, and the victims of the vigilantes, some of them apparently innocent, never received justice. In the end, this movement is worth further study for illustrating the worst consequences of combining power and anonymity.


Notes

[1] For a detailed narrative that places the movement in the context of the region’s development, see Ty Cashion, A Texas Frontier: The Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1849-1887 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 213-35.

[2] Shackelford County, Minutes of Commissioner’s Court, Vol. A, 67, 112; Lieutenant Shipman to Post Adjutant, Apr. 11, 1876, Record Group 393, Fort Griffin, Letters Sent, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Richard Henry Pratt, Robert M. Utley, ed., Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 59-60.

[3] Frontier Echo (Jacksboro, Tex.), Apr. 28, 1876.

[4] Frontier Echo (Jacksboro, Tex.), April 14, 28, 1876; Dallas Daily Herald, Apr. 23, 1876.

[5] Shackelford County, Minutes of 12th Judicial District Court, Vol. A, various cases, filed 1st term, 1875.

[6] Frontier Echo (Jacksboro, Tex.), April 14, 28, 1876; Fort Worth Daily Democrat, Apr. 26, 1876.

[7] Frontier Echo (Jacksboro, Tex.), May 12, 1876.

[8] Frontier Echo (Jacksboro, Tex.), June 9, 1876.

[9] Frontier Echo (Jacksboro, Tex.), June 9, 1876; Cashion, 218.

[10] Frontier Echo (Jacksboro, Tex.), Nov. 10, 1876; Fort Worth Daily Democrat, Dec. 19, 1876.

[11] A. C. Williams, “Cattle Raisers Association of Texas: Something of Its History,” The Cattleman 10 (Mar. 1915): 13-14; Don Biggers, Buffalo Guns and Barbed Wire (1902, reprint, Lubbock, Texas Tech University Press, 1991), 160-1.; Frontier Echo (Jacksboro, Tex.), Mar. 30, 1877; see also various cases filed 2nd term, District Court, 1877.

[12] Cashion, 220-1.

[13] Frontier Echo (Jacksboro, Tex.), Aug. 18, 1876; Tom Crum, “Camp Cooper: A Different Look,” West Texas Historical Association Yearbook, 68 (1992): 68-9.

[14] Sergeant V. E. Van Riper to Major John B. Jones, June 15, 1878, Texas Rangers, Adjutant General’s Files, Texas State Archives, Austin, Texas.

[15] Judge J. R. Fleming, 12th Judicial District Court, to Governor Richard Bennett Hubbard May 1, 1878; Lt. G. W. Campbell, Texas Rangers, to Jones, Apr. 3, June 16, 1878, AG Files.

[16] Campbell to Jones, June 16, AG Files.

[17] Campbell to Jones, June 16, AG Files; Newton Jones, typescript memoir, Robert E. Nail Foundation Collection, Old Jail Art Center, Albany, Texas.

[18] Jones to Lt. G. W. Arrington, July 13, 1878; Arrington to Jones, Aug. 31, 1878, AG Files.

[19] Richard Maxwell Brown, No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).