The newly formed Central Texas Historical Association wants to talk about 19th-century murder and mayhem so that people can put the 21st century into perspective. The killing tools may be different, but the problems remain.
Dr. Kenneth Howell of College Station, the association’s executive director and professor at Blinn College, is putting final details on a daylong historical symposium from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at Central Texas College in Killeen. Registration is required. Six noted Texas historians will gather to discuss “Frontier Violence, Depredations, Outlaws and Rangers.”
The topic is timely today.
“Most historians will agree that one of the keys to understanding the modern era is to examine the past. Violence is an issue that transcends time and space,” Howell said. “Thus, by understanding the violent episodes of the 19th century, one can gain greater insights into violent events of the present day into perspective.”
This area was not immune to 19th-century violence. News reports were dismal. After a litany of wanton deadly exchanges and a long list of victims, Bell County seemed out of control.
“Society is in a deplorable condition. If something (is) not done, a state of things will arise too horrible to contemplate. The county will become inhabitable,” one newspaper reported. “There should be a general disarming of the country, enforced by a strong, mounted police, effectively armed and sufficient to accomplish the purpose.”
The newspaper added, “The people should be taxed to pay the expenses of maintaining such a police. We want a strong, effective government. It is no time for trifling.”
The report sounds like it could have been written last week, but a Bell County correspondent of a Galveston newspaper published the report in 1868. Far from being the “the good old days,” the 19th-century history was littered with bullets and nooses. News reports called for “law and order” and police crackdowns, but often those generated more violence.
“While the violent acts of the 19th century were certainly different than those of the modern era, we can gain valuable insights in the ways that society dealt with violent outbreaks and lawlessness,” Howell added. “Perhaps, these insights can lead us to new revelations on how to deal with violence (or how not to deal with it) in the present day and future. In other words, by studying violent eras of the past, we are better informed on how to effectively deal with violence today.”
On the program will be Donaly Brice, “The Great Comanche Raid”; Bill O’Neal, “Texas Gunslingers”; Henry B. Crawford, “Buffalo Soldiers”; Chuck Parsons, “John Wesley Hardin”; Bob Alexander, “The Texas Rangers”; and Carol Taylor, “Ben Bickerstaff.”
Hatred fueled early violence
Bell County history is certainly splattered in blood.
In 1868, a Belton mob lynched several pro-Union men who were being held prisoner for feud-related murders. Bell County whites chafed under Reconstruction, and a Ku Klux Klan–like organization swarmed like death-robed flies throughout the county. The pattern of lawlessness continued into the mid-1870s. From the news reports, the whole county seemed like a cauldron of nastiness and ambushes.
C.L. Sonnichsen, author of “I’ll Die Before I’ll Run: The Story of the Great Feuds of Texas” (Devin-Adair, 1962), meticulously documented the county’s Early-Hasley feud of the 1860s. “Great outbursts of the feuding spirit were part of the aftermath of the Civil War. Feeling against Union authorities and their local supporters touched off several explosions in the 1860s,” Sonnichsen said.
No one was exempt. Every town and settlement in the county experienced some kind of violence.
Bell County’s bloody past
After the war, Belton experienced a protracted period of violence and lawlessness.
Federal troops were stationed in the town to protect federal judge Hiram Christian but were unable to stop a series of political murders. Temple from its beginnings had the reputation as a rowdy railroad town; lynchings were frequent, some so horrific that they made national news. Railroad labor union strikes devolved into bloody riots that stopped commerce and traffic for weeks.
“Violence on the frontier took many forms and involved many different culture groups, including Native American, African-Americans, Anglos and Tejanos,” Howell said.
“All who lived on the frontier were affected in one way or another,” he said. “Native Americans attempted to protect their lands from settlers who were encroaching upon their lands. Anglo and African-American soldiers were sent to protect the settlers who were moving across central and western Texas. In essence, frontier violence was a way of life for many early pioneers. Therefore, a deeper understand of the early violence provides a deeper understand of the rich history of Central Texas in its formative years.”
Even though the program features scholars and professors, Howell said their presentations will be of interest to anyone interested in Central Texas history — students, lay and professional historians and the general public.