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Mason County War

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The German and Anglo Texans spoke different languages, went to different churches and had different beliefs and habits. That caused some friction, as did the fact that the German immigrants owned much of the best land. Still, the two groups found a good reason to cooperate — their population was small and the threat of hostile Indians was large. As late as February 1860, Thomas Milligan, the first sheriff of Mason County, was attending to some horses and mules on the outskirts of the town of Mason when Indian raiders killed him. The Civil War and secession, however, pushed the two groups farther apart. Texas voted overwhelmingly to secede, but in Mason County the vote was 77 to 2 in favor of staying in the Union. Loyal Valley, 16 miles south of the town of Mason, got its name because the German settlers there did not desert the Union. Supporters of the Confederacy regarded the German farmers as a threat. Although no violence took place in Mason County at that time, Germans were attacked in other parts of Texas, and resentment built up everywhere.

After the war, Reconstruction was difficult for most Texans, but things were relatively quiet in Mason County, where the military force at Fort Mason maintained the peace. When the Army closed the fort in March 1869, peacekeeping became the business of local law enforcers and judges. In the minds of some Texans, too many former Union soldiers held those positions, but there was certainly no stress from population growth. The censuses of 1860 and 1870 both showed only 650 residents in Mason County.

Raising and selling Texas cattle became a very profitable enterprise in the late 1860s and flourished in the 1870s, with thousands of Longhorns being driven each year to the Kansas railhead towns. Cattle were Texas' most important 'cash crop, and some Anglo cattlemen did more than just raise them — they were not always too particular about what cattle they branded and brought to market. Because cattle often roamed far on the open range, honest cattlemen regularly rounded up their own cattle and strays, held them as their own, put out the word, and expected the owners to show up and identify their animals. Meanwhile, livestock rustling occurred all along the Texas frontier, including Mason County. The Germans generally had small, tame herds of cattle, and they objected to losing their strays to the rustlers and cowboys.

In October 1873, the German majority in Mason County chose as sheriff a man they obviously felt could protect their interests. Little is known of Sheriff John Clark's background; even his middle name or initial is uncertain. How an apparent stranger could be elected sheriff — for his name did not appear on any tax roll or census in Mason County before he was elected — is unclear. When Clark rode out of town two years later, nobody is sure where he went. One thing is clear, though: While sheriff of Mason County, Clark had no problems with lynching or shooting those accused of — or merely suspected of — livestock theft. Clark was no gunman, but he surrounded himself with armed men, including Deputy Sheriff John Wohrle, who were willing to do his dirty work.

In August 1874, Clark and a large posse of German-born supporters arrested and jailed a number of reputable ranchers, led by M.B. Thomas and Allen G. Roberts, who were rounding up cattle. Thomas and Roberts owned ranching interests in Llano and Burnet counties, but they reportedly had hired several Mason County men who could recognize the cattle brands of local ranchers. The arrested men claimed they were rounding up only the cattle they owned, but to the state it made little difference. State law allowed for a man to round up and sell any cow he found, as long as he later turned the money over to the rightful owner. After spending a week as prisoners in Mason and paying a large bond, these cattlemen were released and returned to Llano County, where they found their herds scattered. They brought charges against Clark for false imprisonment and robbery.

Clark, though, was only getting started. On February 13, 1875, he and his posse went into McCulloch County and arrested nine men, including brothers Elijah and Pete Baccus, for suspected cattle theft. The suspects were brought to Mason and jailed. Four of them made bond and left the community, while the other five remained in jail to await trial. Almost immediately, the sheriff made it well known around town that he was in favor of lynching cattle thieves.

Only a few days later, a 17-year-old cowboy named Allen Bolt was killed and left beside the road near Mason. A note pinned to his back said, Here lies a noted cow thief. Bolt appears to have been the first man killed by vigilantes in Mason County, but far more blood was about to be spilled. On the night of February 18, a group of armed men broke into the house of Deputy Sheriff Wohrle, causing the lawman's wife to wake up half the town with her screams. The intruders forced Wohrle to give them the keys to the jail. The mob then went to the jail, where they took the five prisoners and headed south along the road to Fredericksburg. Only a quarter mile from the jail, the mob found a suitable tree and began to hang their prisoners.

There are several versions of how Sheriff Clark and Captain Dan Roberts of the Frontier Battalion (Texas Rangers), who was in town buying supplies, chased after the mob and tried to stop the lynchings. In one version, Clark found some other men to help him, and they drove off the vigilantes in time to save a few of the prisoners. Other accounts suggest that Clark and Roberts didn't do much of anything that night. In any case, nothing could be done for the Baccus brothers, both already hanged to death. Their associate Abe Wiggins had been shot in the head and would die the next morning. A rope had not yet choked the life out of Tom Turley, and he was returned to jail. The fifth man, Charlie Johnson, had been able to throw the noose off his head and escape into the night.

The next morning, Wohrle and his wife said they could not identify any of the men who broke into their house, even though Mason was a small community where everyone knew each other. Clark and Roberts were of no help either, and nobody was arrested for the jailbreak or the murder of three prisoners. Still, four men, including young Bolt, were now dead in what would become known as the Mason County War, or the Hoodoo War. In his book Ten Texas Feuds, historian C.L. Sonnichsen wrote that Hoodoos were the members of a vigilance committee which attempted, by ambushes and midnight hangings, to get rid of the thieves and outlaws who had been holding a carnival of lawlessness in Mason County, as in other parts of Texas. He added that some 19th-century blacks were using that term to refer to members of the lynch-happy Ku Klux Klan. One definition of hoodoo is a person or thing that causes bad luck, and by that definition, there were plenty of hoodoos on both sides during the Mason County War.

Within a few days of the February 18 necktie party, a former member of Sheriff Clark's posse, Caleb Hall, was accused of rustling and placed in the Mason jail next to survivor Turley. Rumors soon spread that another raid on the jail was planned to finish off Turley and to give the same treatment to Hall. The two prisoners didn't hang around to see if the rumors were true — they dug their way to freedom and high-tailed it from Mason County. Another former posse member, Tom Gamel, also felt threatened because he had spoken out against the hanging of the Baccus brothers. Instead of fleeing the county, Gamel brought together 30 armed men from surrounding ranches and rode into town to confront the sheriff. Clark beat a fast retreat out of town. Gamel and friends had the upper hand for a while, but on March 24, Clark returned with an estimated 60 well-armed Germans. Both sides drifted toward the courthouse square at the center of town, and a battle seemed imminent. Then, cooler heads prevailed, and the men negotiated a truce, which would stay in effect as long as mob rule was controlled and vigilantes didn't orchestrate their harsh brand of justice.

The truce held for almost two months. On May 13, Clark sent Wohrle out to Carl Lehmberg's ranch to speak with the foreman, Tim Williamson. The deputy asked the well-liked 33-year-old cowboy, who also owned his own small ranch, to accompany him to town. Months earlier Williamson had been arrested for possession of a stolen calf, and cattleman-brand inspector Daniel Hoerster had posted bond for him. It was the custom in rural Texas that a person accused of a minor crime, and who was not a flight risk, need not travel to town to post bond; that could be done by any reliable third party who agreed to put up the money within 24 hours. Apparently Hoerster, a supporter of Sheriff Clark, had recently withdrawn his bond. Lehmberg told Wohrle he would post bond for Williamson later that day, but the deputy insisted that the new bond be paid in Mason. Lehmberg and Williamson agreed to accompany the deputy. While Lehmberg was saddling his horse, the deputy disarmed Williamson and traded his older horse for the foreman's younger, faster mount. The three men then rode toward Mason.

After covering about 10 miles, the trio ran into a dozen masked men. Lehmberg, Wohrle and Williamson all supposedly tried to ride off, but Williamson had his horse shot out from under him (some accounts say by none other than Deputy Wohrle). On foot and disarmed, Williamson didn't have a chance. But apparently he tried to talk his way out of the tight spot after recognizing one of the masked men as Peter Bader, a German farmer he had known for several years. Bader showed no mercy, firing his gun at Williamson, as did others in the mob.

Williamson was the fifth man killed in Mason County by Clark's mob. It was a huge mistake, for Williamson's death changed the nature of the Mason County War. Instead of a range war against alleged cattle thieves, it became an even more violent ethnic conflict, driven by the hate that Anglo-American cattlemen from Mason and nearby counties had for the Dutch. Never mind all that beef and the quest for greater riches, the cattlemen were now out for vengeance. The first man to take direct and bloody revenge against Williamson's killers was a young former Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley, and he proved very good at such work.

Born in Missouri about 1854, William Scott Cooley moved with his family to Jack County, in northwest Texas, in 1856 or '57. Indian war parties regularly raided into that area, and it continued that way through the Civil War and even into the 1870s. The Austin Daily State Journal of February 17, 1872, and other sources tell the story of how three members of the Cooley family were trailing stolen horses the previous January 20 when they came upon about 25 Indians. The Cooleys opened fire, killing two Indians and scalping one, though they weren't able to recover the stock. Also in the early 1870s, Scott Cooley helped take two cattle herds to Kansas. During this time, Cooley met Tim Williamson and rode with him. Williamson and his wife, while living at their Loyal Valley ranch south of the town of Mason, apparently accepted Scott into their family, and the young man looked to Tim as a father figure.

On May 25, 1874, one month after the Frontier Battalion was formed, 19-year-old Cooley enlisted at Blanco City in Company D of that outfit. Not long after that, Cooley was with Major John B. Jones when Indians ambushed the command at Lost Valley, killing two Rangers and wounding two more. A month later, Cooley resigned his rank of corporal but remained with Company D. On November 20, according to the Austin Daily Statesman, he had a big role in another Indian fight: Cooley, who was fired at and run into camp, not only cut a wounded Indian's throat, but stripped a large piece of skin from his back, saying that he would make a quirt out of it. Near the end of 1874, a reduction in state allocations for the Frontier Battalion led to a number of Rangers being discharged, including Cooley, who had served just over six months.

After leaving the Rangers, Cooley moved to Menard County, west of Mason County, to begin a ranching life. Five months later, in May 1875, the masked mob murdered Williamson, and Cooley declared that he would revenge his best friend in the world. Cooley no doubt soon learned that Clark, as sheriff and tax assessor/collector, had once abused Williamson's wife during a confrontation over the tax assessment of Williamson's property in Loyal Valley. That incident, according to Tom Gamel, had caused Williamson to pay a call on the sheriff. Clark was on horseback and Williamson followed him around on foot and tried to get a fight out of him, but Clark refused to fight, Gamel recalled. Shortly afterwards Williamson was charged with stealing a yearling and placed under arrest and gave bond. Cooley didn't need more evidence than that to become convinced that Sheriff Clark, Deputy Wohrle and their German mob were responsible for the death of his friend. He was further angered when the Mason County Grand Jury completed its inquiry into Williamson's death and filed no indictment.

On August 10, Cooley rode into Mason and inquired about John Wohrle. He then rode to the west edge of town, where the former deputy sheriff was helping two other men dig a water well. Cooley spoke briefly with Wohrle, who then turned his attention back to his work — hauling one of the other men up from the bottom of the well. At that point, Cooley shot his target in the back of the head. The man being hauled up fell to the bottom of the well and was knocked out; the third man fled the scene. Cooley proceeded to shoot Wohrle five more times and to scalp him, the ultimate insult by an Indian fighter, before riding away. Nine days later, Cooley rode to the Bader farm in Llano County, perhaps looking for Peter Bader, the farmer who had showed Williamson no mercy. Cooley found Peter's brother Carl working in a field and promptly rode over him and shot him at the same time. John Wohrle and Carl Bader were the sixth and seventh men to die in the Mason County War, and their deaths got the attention of the German faction and Clark. The sheriff convinced Texas to offer a $300 reward for the arrest of Cooley.

Some writers have suggested that Cooley did not go to the Bader farm alone on August 19, but that he brought with him a number of drifters and desperadoes, including John Ringo, George Gladden, and Moses and John Baird. There is no evidence, however, that Ringo was even in Mason County at that time or that he knew Scott Cooley. Gladden, who lived in Loyal Valley and no doubt had known the late Williamson, could have allied himself with Cooley. Ringo, though, was from Burnet County and was never a friend of Williamson's. In Burnet, Ringo was a good friend of the Baird family.

On September 7, Moses Baird happened to be visiting Gladden when Mason County gambler Jim Cheney (also seen as Cheyney) showed up at Gladden's door. Cheney, who had been hired by Clark, told Gladden and Baird that the sheriff wanted to see them in Mason. As the two men were saddling their horses for the trip, Cheney rode off. If Gladden or Moses Baird had been involved in the killing of Carl Bader, they certainly would not have agreed to casually ride in to meet with the sheriff. In any case, it did not prove to be a wise decision. When they arrived near Hedwig's Hill, east of Mason, Clark appeared, and his mob, including Peter Bader, was close at hand. The sheriff's men were not there to talk; they opened fire, wounding the two riders, who stayed in the saddle and rode off. Their enemies gave chase. Moses Baird was found dead about a mile away, the eighth man murdered in the Mason County War, but Gladden managed to get away and receive care from friends in Loyal Valley. He survived to fight another day.

If killing Tim Williamson had been the biggest mistake made by Clark and company, then the murder of Moses Baird was a close second. John Baird, Moses' brother, now rode into Mason County with John Ringo and several others, first to recover Moses' body and later to even the score. Ringo, along with John Baird, was now joined with Cooley in the relentless search for revenge. And there were others, too. More than a dozen men from Burnet, Llano, Blanco and Bexar counties rode into Mason County to avenge the death of Moses Baird.

Early on September 25, Ringo and another avenger rode to Cheney's home on Comanche Creek. Cheney must have been nervous, not knowing what to expect from the two strangers, but he soon found out. Ringo and the other man made Cheney the ninth victim of the feud and then rode to Mason, where they joined Cooley and others for breakfast. Three days later, Major Jones and a Frontier Battalion command from Companies A and D arrived on the scene. They found Sheriff Clark and a dozen other men hiding in a store outside Mason. Clark convinced the major that Cooley and his other lawbreakers were in Loyal Valley plotting to burn out the Dutch.

Jones took his command to Loyal Valley, but the town was quiet. The Rangers spent the night there and then headed to Mason the next morning, September 29. Meanwhile, Cooley and three others — Gladden, John Baird and Bill Coke — were in Mason looking for Clark. They didn't shoot the sheriff, but they did ambush Dan Hoerster and two other members of the German faction, Peter Jordan and Henry Pluenneke. When the shooting was done, Hoerster was dead (the 10th man killed in the feud) and Jordan and Gladden wounded.

When the Rangers arrived at Mason, Cooley and company were long gone. For the next week, Major Jones and his Rangers accomplished little, with the probable exception of keeping Sheriff Clark alive until he resigned on about October 5. A few days after Clark rode away from Mason County, so did most of the Frontier Battalion, except for some men from Company A. Then, in late December, came big news from Burnet, Texas, more than 50 miles to the east. On December 27, both John Ringo and Scott Cooley had been arrested for allegedly threatening to do bodily harm to Burnet Sheriff John Clymer and Deputy Sheriff J.J. Strickland. But the fact that Ringo and Cooley were behind bars didn't mean that all the violence had ended. On January 13, 1876, John Baird and Gladden tracked down Peter Bader in Llano County and killed him. That made 11 men killed in the Mason County War during the 12-month period from February 1875 to January 1876.

Cooley and Ringo were taken to the more secure Travis County jail and then back to the Burnet County jail. In early February, their case was removed to nearby Lampasas County in a change of venue. After the initial hearing in March, Ringo and Cooley remained in the Lampasas County jail. In May, on a second attempt to spring the two gunmen, a group that included John Baird and Joe Olney succeeded in freeing Ringo and Cooley. As far as John Baird was concerned, and Ringo, too, the vendetta had ended with Baird's killing of Peter Bader. Once out of jail, Cooley rode down to Fredericksburg before heading to Blanco County to see friends. Cooley's life after the Hoodoo War proved to be extremely brief. The former Ranger took sick (brain fever) — although some accounts say he had been poisoned by bitter Germans — and he died on June 10, 1876, at age 21. His death might be viewed as the 12th death related to the feud. He is buried in Miller Creek Cemetery in Blanco County.

John Ringo and George Gladden were arrested in Llano County, near the Mason County line, in October 1876. Gladden was tried in Llano County for the murder of Peter Bader and sentenced to 99 years in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. In 1884 he was pardoned. Ringo was jailed in Mason County and indicted for the murder of Jim Cheney. In January 1877, the Mason County courthouse burned to the ground (arson was suspected) and all the court records went with it. That May, though, Ringo was indicted a second time for the murder, and he remained in jail for another seven months, finally being released in January 1878 on a writ of habeas corpus. In May 1878, the case against Ringo was finally dismissed, because testimony cannot be procured to make out the case. Ringo stayed in Mason County for a time and was even elected constable in Precinct No. 4 on November 15, 1878, but he soon rode west. He ended up in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, where he became involved in an even more famous feud — between the Earp brothers and the so-called Cowboys of Cochise County.

Once Ringo, Cooley, Gladden and John Baird were out of the picture, the feuding in the Mason area stopped. The terror in Hill Country had ended. The hate, however, was said to linger for another two decades, and several more men lost their lives in killings that some have linked to the Mason County War. Texas is famous for its feuds, but none of the others can quite equal the one in 1875 when it comes to corrupt and shameful motives and the number of men killed in such a short period. Although murder ran rampant during those violent 12 months from February 1875 to January 1876, the only individual convicted of murder was George Gladden. Furthermore, none of the men killed and very few others in Mason County were ever convicted of cattle theft.


This article was written by Allen G. Hatley and originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Wild West.

 

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One Response to “Mason County War”


  1. 1
    Gordon Gipson says:

    This is one of the best accounts of the Mason County War that I have ever read. Being from Mason County, it means a lot to me to have this kind of history online.



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