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Vigilantes versus the Free Negroes in Texas

Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey through Texas ( New York, 1857). pp. 386-88.

Vigilantes versus the Free Negroes in Texas

A characteristic of vigilantism often is that it is hard to tell the vigilantes from the desperadoes. So it was in the "guerrilla of skirmishes and murders" that developed in east Texas in the 1850's. An issue of racism was present, there was feudlike involvement of entire families, and the victims included not only the sheriff and deputy sheriff, but a couple of strangers caught in the cross-fire. Guerrilla, feud, battle--it was also vigilantism. The account that follows is by a noted traveler and reporter on Texas and the antebellum South.

This county has been lately the scene of events, which prove that it must have contained a much larger number of free negroes and persons of mixed blood than we were informed on the spot, in spite of the very severe statute forbidding their introduction, which has been backed by additional legislative penalties in 1856. Banded together, they have been able to resist the power, not only of the legal authorities, but of a local "Vigilance Committee," which gave them a certain number of hours to leave the State, and a guerrilla of skirmishes and murders has been carried on for many months, up the banks of the Sabine, with the revival of the old names of "Moderators and Regulators" of the early Texans.

The feud appears to have commenced with the condemnation, by a justice of the peace, of a free mulatto, named Samuel Ashworth, to receive twenty-five lashes, on a charge of malicious killing of his neighbor's hogs, and of impertinent talking. The Ashworths were a rich mulatto family, settled in Texas in the earliest days of the Republic, and exempted by special mention from the operation of the law forbidding residence to free negroes. They are now three and four generations removed from black blood, and have had a reputation for great hospitality, keeping open house for all who call. The member of the family who was condemned to the indignity of being publicly whipped, rose upon his guard while in the hands of the sheriff, and escaped. In a few days after, he returned with a mulatto companion and shot the man on whose testimony he was condemned.

Upon this the Vigilance Committee was organized, and the sheriff, who was suspected of connivance at the escape of Ashworth, and all of the Ashworth family with their relatives and supporters, summoned to leave the county on pain of death. On the other hand, all free men of color on the border, to the number of one hundred and fifty, or more, joined with a few whites and Spaniards, formed an organized band, and defied the Committee, and then ensued a series of assassinations, burnings of houses and saw-mills, and open fights. The Moderators, or Committee-men, became strong enough to range the county, and demand that every man, capable of bearing arms, should join them, or quit the county on pain of death. This increased the resistance and the bloody retaliation, and, at the last accounts they were laying regular siege to the house of a family who had refused to join them.

Thirty families had been compelled to leave the county, and murders were still occurring every week. Among those killed were two strangers, traveling through the county; also the deputy sheriff, and the sheriff himself, who was found concealed under the floor of a lonely house, with a quantity of machinery for the issue of false money, and immediately shot; the proprietor of the house, defending himself, revolver in hand, fell pierced with many balls. The aid of the military power of the State had been invoked by the legal authorities, but the issue I had not seen in the newspapers.


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