Fort Worth residents Charles Ellis Mitchell and Pinkney Holt were children at the time of the York-Fowler double killing and many years later shared the stories they had heard while growing up. John Peter Smith, also a Fort Worth resident, was an adult in 1861 but did not witness the killings and only wrote about them 40 years later. Major Kleber Miller Van Zandt was away fighting in the Civil War that August, but he heard secondhand stories of the York-Fowler fight, which his daughter prodded him into including when he put it all down for posterity at age 92 in 1929. All four Fort Worth accounts call the clash a personal feud, sparked by the incident at the Cold Spring and abruptly ended in the public square when Fowler attacked York unprovoked.
Smith and Van Zandt agree that the weapons of choice were pistols and say nothing about Fowler’s nephew Willie or any other third person being involved. Their accounts, however, are so vague and generic that they sound more like the products of local lore. Holt and Mitchell insist that Fowler wielded a knife and provide other details, including the number of stab wounds (though they differ on how many). Holt mentions a third party, describing him as Fowler’s brother and claiming he finished York off with a shotgun. Aside from the shotgun and the brother, Holt’s recollections seem the most accurate of the Fort Worth accounts.
On the Dallas side, the only first-person accounts come from Susan Good and Olive Peak. Good’s account was written within days of the incident and is untainted by family connections. She was the wife of Captain John Jay Good, who was away fighting in the war at the time. On August 28, 1861, she wrote: “Very shocking news came down a day or two ago of the death of A.Y. Fowler. Report says he got into a controversy with another man, did not learn his name, both became very angry, the man fired upon him and killed him instantly.” Three days later, she wrote again, confirming the gossip and providing additional details. It was Sheriff York that killed Fowler, and then Fowler’s nephew killed York. She didn’t know the nature of the “controversy” between the two men but did include the interesting detail that York lived another “hour and a half” after being shot. Olive Peak, daughter of Dr. Carroll Peak, did not commit her recollections to paper until 1941; they were shaped by time and obvious family sympathies, so it is no surprise she depicted York as a drunken bully.
Oral tradition in Fort Worth, perpetuated by several generations of journalists and local historians, generally says that the sheriff and the lawyer met on a public street, drew their pistols, fired almost simultaneously and killed each other on the spot. Dr. Carroll Peak is never connected to the affair, despite the fact Fowler was his brother-in-law. His hands are completely clean—at least in the Fort Worth version.
Dallas journalists and historians over the years have claimed that the picnic which caused the bad blood between the two men occurred in Dallas, not Fort Worth. They point to York as the troublemaker, with Fowler the one trying to keep order at the spring. They go on to say it was York who pulled a knife and stabbed Fowler, not vice versa. Three identifiable sources spin this version: Peak-Fowler family history (in letters, stories and a privately printed volume of genealogy), Juliette Fowler’s 1889 obituary in the Dallas newspapers and the records of the city’s oldest Masonic chapter. One family tradition says, “York stalked Archer [sic]”; another says, “Archibald Fowler was not killed by an assassin’s bullet but by a Mr. York, a well-thought-of man.” The genealogy states that Archibald Fowler “tried every gentlemanly way to extricate himself from [the confrontation], but in the end he fell to an assassin’s bullet.”
When Juliette Fowler died, 28 years after her husband’s death, a beloved grande dame of the city, The Dallas Morning News was kind to both of them. The obit even filled out the story with specious dialogue, Fowler crying out, “For God’s sake, don’t let him shoot me!” just before being gunned down. In the newspaper’s telling, Archibald Fowler was a “typical gentleman of his day, a scholar of superior attainments and a lawyer in the very front rank of his profession.”
Finally, an undated entry in the records of the Dallas Masonic chapter says Archibald Fowler was “assassinated.” The word choice is not surprising, since Fowler was a brother Mason and once a resident of Dallas.
There is no way now of resolving the competing accounts. They are as much about the historic differences between Dallas and Fort Worth as they are about the bad blood between two violent, strong-willed men. In the absence of newspaper accounts and court documents, we are left with the bare bones of a story dressed up by popular lore.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.