A sheriff and a lawyer had a brief run-in during a town picnic in July 1861, but a month later they ran into each other again—with deadly results.

In 1861 Sheriff John B. York and Archibald Y. Fowler, a lawyer as adept with a bowie knife as he was with an argument, resided in Fort Worth, a humble village on the north Texas frontier 35 miles from “civilization,” as defined by Dallasites. Fort Worth was part of Tarrant County, organized a decade earlier yet still mostly empty. Bad blood surfaced between the two on July 20 during a public barbecue at the Cold Spring, just over a mile northeast of the public square. Eight local militia companies were putting on a full-dress review before marching off to join Confederate service, and most residents were on hand.

It was an especially hot, dry summer. Liquor flowed freely that day, and thirsty folks also formed a long line to drink from the spring. A livestock fence around the spring controlled access. York was keeping an eye on things when Fowler grew tired of waiting and jumped the fence. The sheriff ordered him to the back of the line. The feisty lawyer took exception, whereupon York picked him up and deposited him in a mudhole. Fowler scrambled out, madder than a hornet, and others intervened to keep the men from coming to blows. Fowler’s friends persuaded him to leave, but he would brood over the incident in the weeks ahead. The insult grew all out of proportion in his head, and that meant bigger trouble when Fowler encountered York in the public square that August —trouble so big it cost the sheriff his life.

The killing of Tarrant County Sheriff John York was no honorable affair. It might properly be termed “A Tale of Two Cities.” But it was equally a tale of two families: the York-Gilmores of Fort Worth and the Peak-Fowlers of Dallas. No, it was not Archibald Fowler who shot the sheriff, although he did come at York repeatedly with his bowie knife that day. York was able to get off one well-aimed shot during the bloody confrontation, and Fowler, like his adversary, did not live to tell the tale.

Like many early Texans, John York came from Tennessee; he was born there in 1827. His parents had followed the westward star, moving the family to Missouri, where John grew to manhood and married Julia Ann Gilmore. She gave birth to a son in late 1847. Six months later, the York and Gilmore families settled in north Texas on land belonging to the Peters Colony, out of which Tarrant County would soon be carved. John built a snug cabin on his 640- acre headright adjoining the property of his in-laws. In 1848 the Yorks’ son died in infancy and was buried in a plot that would become Fort Worth’s first cemetery. In July 1849, following the birth of a second son, the Yorks, the Gilmores and other homesteaders welcomed the arrival of Major Ripley A. Arnold and a 2nd Dragoon company. Fort Worth represented the edge of settlement in north Texas for the next few years.

In 1850 John York won election as Tarrant County’s first constable. The state constitution described the position as “the conservator of peace throughout the county,” but a constable was actually more of a process server than a lawman. However, it did serve as a springboard to higher office, and in 1852 York became sheriff, the county’s second. Being the son-in-law of Seabourne Gilmore, the county’s first judge, didn’t hurt. The position was part-time, as there was no red-light district to police or bank to protect, Indians thereabouts were peaceful enough, and the Army (Fort Worth was literally a fort until September 1853) handled most of the peacekeeping. But that was fine with John, who was civicminded and a leader but not particularly passionate about law enforcement. Big and solidly built, York could intimidate smaller men and keep his old Colt revolver holstered. He was no gunfighter. York remained a full-time farmer while serving as sheriff. In the 1850s, he and Julia had four more children, and she was expecting again in the summer of 1861.

York’s first two-year term as sheriff passed quickly, and he was reelected in 1854. William Bonaparte Tucker, scion of another First Family of Fort Worth, won the 1856 election, but “Bony” moved on to bigger things, and John reclaimed the badge in 1858. York oversaw the construction of the first county jail (a one-room log cabin used for 20 years) and helped raise a $10,000 bond toward construction of a county courthouse. The biggest trouble during his tenure was a bitter fight between Fort Worth and Birdville over which one should be designated the county seat. Forth Worth, thanks to bogus votes and plenty of election-day liquor, won the 1856 election, but it took a second election in 1860 to settle the matter for keeps, and not before two men were killed.

In 1860 Tarrant County voters elected William O. Yantes sheriff, but when he joined the Confederacy the following spring, York served out the term. Everything went smoothly as York carried out his everyday duties in the rough-and-tumble town. Even the physical confrontation with Archibald Fowler at the July barbecue didn’t amount to much. At least the sheriff didn’t think so. Little did he know how much brooding the 36-year-old lawyer was doing.

Archibald Young Fowler, born in South Carolina in 1825, came to Texas after his father died and first hung out his law shingle in Austin. Passing the bar was not a requirement in early Texas; just calling oneself a lawyer made it so. A few years later, Fowler was practicing law in Dallas as “A.Y. Fowler, Esq.” and was a member of Mason Lodge No. 148. In 1859 he married 19-year-old Juliette Peak, daughter of one of Dallas’ most prominent families. (Among her brothers were Carroll Peak, Fort Worth’s first civilian physician, and Junius Peak, future Dallas lawman and legendary Texas Ranger.) The newlyweds moved that year the 30 miles to Fort Worth, which was on the frontier’s edge and was regularly visited by buffalo hunters. “Men,” said one resident, “went about wearing pistols and bowie knives openly, and it was a common thing to hear of a man being shot without any notice being taken of it by the authorities.” One such authority in 1859 was Sheriff York.

How much crime actually beset Fort Worth is debatable, but the town certainly held boundless opportunity for Fowler, who opened a law office off the public square. He soon launched a second career as a general land agent, and he and his brother-in-law became local agents for the Dallas Herald. Archibald bought Juliette a nice house in town, and she gave birth to their first child in February 1860. The girl died of unknown causes nine months later, but Juliette was pregnant again by the summer of 1861.

Fort Worth was Fowler’s kind of town. He ingratiated himself with the town fathers and mentored future mayor and beloved civic figure John Peter Smith. Although not a slave owner, Fowler lined up with Southern “fire-eaters” who defended the institution and despised abolitionists. In July 1860, he was among the regulators who strung up William H. Crawford, a recent Missouri transplant accused of being “an agent of the underground railroad.” Fowler then sat on the coroner’s jury that called it an unsolved crime committed by persons unknown. York was sheriff at the time, but it is not known how he felt about the lynching in his jurisdiction. That fall Fowler was on a committee that drew up a petition supporting secession, though when other secessionists marched off to fight after Fort Sumter, Fowler stayed behind.

Not that Fowler was one to avoid a fight. He could not forget being manhandled by York at the July 1861 barbecue, and he did not try to sidestep a further confrontation. In any case, in a small town like Fort Worth, with one main street, avoiding anyone was a challenge. On August 24, on the public square at the north end of town, Fowler and York had what seems to have been a chance encounter. Fowler was with his teenage nephew Willie at the time. There is no record of words being exchanged, but at one point, according to some accounts, the lawyer sprang on York and began stabbing the sheriff with his bowie knife. The badly wounded York managed to pull his revolver and shoot his assailant, killing him on the spot. Nephew Willie then produced a gun and shot the sheriff, who would cling to life another hour and a half before succumbing to his wounds. By that time, Willie was with his uncle, Dr. Carroll Peak, laying low until it was safe to slip out of town. As Fort Worth’s resident physician, Peak would have tended to both victims even as he involved himself as an accomplice to murder after the fact. But then, not everyone agreed who was the actual murderer that day.

Willie eventually fled to Missouri, where he joined the Confederate Army. He died during the war. John York was buried in the same family plot as his infant son, and Juliette Fowler took her husband’s body back to Dallas, where Archibald received a proper burial in the old Masonic Cemetery (today’s Pioneer Memorial Park). Fort Worth did not hold a memorial service for its departed lawyer. No court or jury ever considered the case. The two principals were dead, and Willie had fled. Newspapers apparently overlooked the double killing. Fort Worth’s only newspaper had suspended publication at the outbreak of the war. The tale lived on in local lore and family history. One good man had been killed, but exactly who was the good man and who was the murderer depended on which side of the Trinity River you hailed from and which family account you favored, the York-Gilmores’ or the Peak-Fowlers’.

The double killing might have touched off one of those Texas blood feuds. Julia York’s father, Judge Seabourne Gilmore, was known as a man of courage handy with a rifle, while Juliette Fowler’s brother Junius Peak was a good gun hand who made a career as a lawman. Fortunately, both sides confined their feuding to the historical record. Not counting a long oral tradition on either side of the Trinity, four first-person versions of the shooting survive from the Fort Worth side, two from the Dallas side, although not one comes from an actual eyewitness (see sidebar, P. 53).

The two pregnant women who became widows on August 24, 1861, faced a difficult road ahead. A few months after burying her husband, Julia York gave birth to their seventh child, Mary. Julia never remarried, so the six York children who reached adulthood grew up without a father. Judge Gilmore took in his daughter and her children, and they continued to live in Tarrant County. Julia eventually moved in with her married oldest son, William, who for some inexplicable reason named his own first son William Archibald York.

Juliette Fowler could not get back to Dallas fast enough after her husband’s death. Relatives took her in, and that December she gave birth to Archibald Young Fowler Jr., but he died before reaching his first birthday. Juliette, too, never remarried, but she did adopt a child. Her health was always fragile, and she died at age 52 while visiting New York City in 1889. Her body was returned to Dallas and buried beside her husband and two children in the Masonic Cemetery. In her will, Juliette left 15 acres and a “munificent bequest” to establish a home for Dallas widows and orphans. To later generations, memories of Archibald Fowler have benefited from his having been married to Juliette.

Of the dozen Tarrant County sheriffs between 1850 and 1876 (when legendary “Longhair Jim” Courtright took over), only John B. York left a mark on history. All the others were Reconstruction-era appointees or nonentities, forgotten as soon as they left office. For that matter, John York is only remembered because he died in a sensational double killing. He is the only sheriff to die in office in more than 150 years of Tarrant County history—though whether he died “in the line of duty” remains a question of family loyalties.

 

Texas author Richard F. Selcer’s 2009 book Fort Worth Characters (reviewed in this issue) is recommended for further reading, as are his two earlier books about Fort Worth.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here