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The Feud That Wasnt: The Taylor Ring, Bill Sutton, John Wesley Hardin, and Violence in Texas (Sam Rayburn Series on Rural Life, sponsored by Texas A&M University-Commerce) Hardcover – February 5, 2008
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It would be a valuable addition to this history to include explicitly the lesson of the tragedy of failure to secure the peace after a war.
For that reason, I picked up a copy with interest. The author lost me when he started talking about cattle rustling in the 1850s. Heck, why rustle in the 1850s? A cow worth a dollar on the range was worth only $1.25 at the tallow-and-hide plants two hundred miles away on the coast. Rustling was not a big deal. Too much work. Only after the great cattle drives started after the Civil War, when cattle worth a dollar or two could be sold in Kansas for $50 or $75 each did rustling get off the ground.
This and other facts--contemporary accounts calling this a feud, for example--knock the premise right out of this book. The author believes his premise ... but he did not convince me, the reader.
Don't waste any money on this.
How could Hardin get away with murder for that long? The answer is partly provided by James M. Smallwood in his book The Feud That Wasn't.
Smallwood's thesis is that the so-called Sutton-Taylor feud was actually an undeclared war between Confederate sympathizer Creed Taylor and his extended clan, and the Texas state authorities represented by the post-war Reconstruction government.
According to Smallwood, Creed Taylor operated a criminal "empire" financed by the post-war burgeoning cattle trade in east Texas. According to the author, the feud was actually the exercise of legitimate law enforcement by state police against a cornpone mafia of the plains.
The Reconstruction state police comprised a large proportion of Negroes (40%) whose previous employment as slaves would naturally result in the holding of grudges against whites in general and white Confederate sympathizers in particular. The arming of so many Negroes to "police" a region populated by hardcore resisters to Reconstruction turned out to be, like so many other post civil war social experiments, a disaster.
Contrary to the author's contention that the conflict was not a feud, it bore all the attributes of a feud. On the Taylor side, the combatants largely consisted of kin and extended family. Both sides engaged in retaliatory vengeance attacks, including outright assassination. The state police forces summarily executed unarmed and bound Taylor family members who were shot while "attempting to escape" or delivered(most likely by prearrangement) into the hands of "vigilantes."
The author's research consists in large part of newspaper accounts but he fails to acknowledge the editorial slant provided by the Reconstructionist (Republican) press. Thus, summary executions that may have been perpetrated by vigilantes and state police posses become "attempts at escape" and gunfights while resisting arrest. The author himself cites numerous instances of the deaths of dozens of Taylor partisans shot while "attempting to escape."
The feud-like nature of the conflict is so apparent even in Smallwood's account that one suspects that the author ignores such evidence to protect his thesis. He provides detailed descriptions of actions by historical characters that could only have been known by eyewitnesses, giving the distinct impression that the author has dramatized the facts which by extension calls into question the validity and objectivity of the presentation.
Two examples of information presented as factual by the author which other biographers of John Wesley Hardin have dismissed. The author claims that in 1870 Hardin encountered another noted Texas gunman, Bill Longley, in a poker game and that "they came away from their game with mutual grudging respect. Indeed, the two joined forces and started stealing horses from farmers and ranchers in the region." The author claims that "Longley at times rode with the Taylor gang although he did not appear to be a leader like Hardin became once he joined the unholy band."
Hardin's own account in his autobiography has him besting Longley in a high stakes poker game. Longley, preparing to rake in the pot says "I've got an ace full." To which Hardin replies "Hold on, I have two pair." Longley says "They aren't worth a damn." Hardin announces triumphantly "I reckon two pair of jacks are good."
Hardin shows a sense of humor in this story, entertaining for the reader but not necessarily true. A complete reading of his autobiography gives the sense that Hardin isn't shy about embellishing the truth or simply outright lying if the end result is self-aggrandizement. Leon Metz notes in Dark Angel of Texas that "Historians are divided over whether Hardin's autobiographical account of the Longley meeting is true. Hardin's statement is the only support for their encounter."
In any event, Hardin does not claim that he spent much time with Longley or that they shared any criminal adventures. Smallwood's assertion that Longley was some sort of underling in the Taylor "crime ring" simply isn't credible. In fact, the time period of this alleged alliance of Hardin and Longley predates Hardin's own involvement with the Taylors upon his return from a Kansas cattle drive in 1871.
More evidence of a loose interpretation of fact is Smallwood's description of an historical event that occurred while Hardin was on the run. "During the political season of 1876, a fight between political partisans in a Mobile saloon entrapped Hardin and Kennedy. They apparently killed two men, but they threw away their weapons before the police arrived. Arrested for malicious mischief, they spent a few days in jail before being released for lack of evidence." Smallwood gets these facts directly from the Hardin autobiography.
Regarding this same episode, Leon Metz (citing "the Alabama Mobile Register of May 3, 1877), writes `Gus Kennedy and J. H. Swayne (Hardin's alias) were arrested for disorderly conduct on Tuesday last night, and fined $5.'" No deaths were mentioned although one policeman was wounded. Hardin and Kennedy were kicked out of town. So what appears clearly to be another Hardin exaggeration is accepted by Smallwood as fact.
The author's stilted narrative is riddled with clichés so this book, from beginning to end, takes some getting used to. On page 116 he uses the term "ambushcade" (confusion of ambush and ambuscade) and on page 95 his narrative includes cast "dispersion" (for aspersion). It is apparent that the book would have benefited from a thorough copy edit before publication.
There are internal inconsistencies within the book as well. On page 158 the author writes "near the end of 1874, John (Hardin), his wife and his children relocated to the Florida Panhandle" and on page 159 he states "In late January or early February 1875, Bell County Deputy Sheriff William M. York received intelligence that Hardin and Jim Taylor were south of the Rio Grande, information that was true about Taylor but false about Hardin, who was already in Louisiana." How could he be in Louisiana and Florida at the same time? According to Leon Metz, by September 1874 Hardin was living (without his wife and children) in Gainesville, Florida.
This book is useful for anyone who wishes to extend his knowledge about the lawless state of post-civil war Texas. The reader must take care to question some of the author's conclusions, however.