THE ORANGE COUNTY WAR OF 1856
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from W. T. Block, "Meanest Town on The Coast," OLD
WEST, Winter, 1979, pp. 10ff.
Sources: Galveston WEEKLY NEWS and TRI-WEEKLY NEWS, June 1 to July 15, 1856. The issue of
July 15 of TRI-WEEKLY NEWS contains a full, 8-column page of the war. Also, an excellent
secondary account is A. F. Muir, "The Free Negroes of Jefferson and Orange Counties,
Texas," JOURNAL OF NEGRO HISTORY, XXXV (April, 1950), 183-206.
Any visitor to Madison, Texas, (now Orange) in the month of May, 1856,
would have hardly imagined that that community was steeped in jealousy and hatred. Only
four years earlier, Orange County had cut itself adrift from neighboring Jefferson County
and established its county seat at Madison, a prosperous village located on the Sabine
River, twelve miles from its mouth, and cooled by the prevailing southerly breezes from
Madison had no log-cabin or unpainted clapboard ugliness. Already a
thriving timber products center, it had grown from zero population to 600 in ten years.
One early writer praised its fairy-tale appearance, 150 white cottages "ensconced
like a duck in a nest of roses" and encircling a mile-long river crescent studded
with stately cypresses. Five steam saw mills and shingle mills, two shipyards, a dozen
other hand-powered industries, stores and cotton warehouses lined the banks of the river
where six steamboats and numerous sail craft transported lumber and cotton abroad. A
multi-billion foot reservoir of huge, virgin cypress and pine forests abutted the
community that had already become the state's leading exporter of lumber, shingles,
lathes, fence pickets, barrel staves, and wagon spokes.
If Madison's idyllic setting belied its ugliness within, it also left
as totally inexplicable the strangest circumstances that were ever a party to vigilante
violence and twelve assassinations -- a sheriff who, along with his uncle, comprised the
most skillful ring of counterfeiters in early-day Texas; a West Texas killer who rode with
the Moderators, the party of "law and order;" and a dozen free Mulattoes, who
were slaveholders, wealthy cattlemen, and considerably less "black" than the
hearts of their persecutors.
By 1856 Orange County, Texas, had the largest aggregate of "free
blacks" in the state, numbering about 100. The nucleus of the Mulatto colony included
Aaron, Abner, William, Jesse, and Tapler Ashworth and their children; Hiram Bunch, Gibson
Perkins, and Elijah Thomas, all of whom were either brothers, in-laws, or were otherwise
closely related. The wives of some of them were white, whereas a few white men in the
county had Mulatto wives (mixed marriage was illegal, although seldom enforced). Most of
them having arrived in Texas by 1834, a few of them held Mexican land grants. Some had
military bounties or land grants from the Republic of Texas, and most of them had served
one enlistment in the Texas Army in 1836. While several of mixed ancestry were Mulattoes,
others were of quadroon or octaroon ancestry.
Despite the marriage laws of the state, six of the group had taken
white spouses, a continuing process which had left some of them as a whole "three or
four generations removed from black blood" (a phrase coined by an early county
historian). Except for their disfranchisement from the political and judicial processes,
they had gained most of the privileges of whites, including an 1840 enabling act from the
Congress of the Texas Republic to circumvent the forced removal of free blacks from the
state. Although many of them were widely respected, they still had committed, in the eyes
of their neighbors, one cardinal and unforgivable sin -- they had accumulated large tracts
of valuable lands and thousand of cattle which were coveted by others.
Nonetheless, the free blacks were allied through marriage bonds and
partnerships to many white settlers as well (one of whom was Sheriff Edward C. Glover),
who rallied to the Mulattoes' side whenever the violence began. Hence, the number of free
blacks and their allies made it impossible for any small number of whites to attack them
without considerable bloodshed.
Sheriff Glover and his uncle, John C. Moore, were destined to lead the
Regulator faction composed of about 100 whites and Mulattoes. For two decades, the pair
had flooded East Texas with fake land certificates and counterfeit currency and coins, and
had suffered only minute molestation as a result. In 1841, Glover was arrested at
Beaumont, Texas, for passing bogus bank notes, but a grand jury failed to indict him. In
1851, Moore was arrested in Jefferson County by Marshal Felps and Captain John Cozzens of
Houston, and Moore's press and $200,000 worth of fake currency were confiscated, but the
interruption was only short-lived. By 1853 he and Glover were back in business,
"engaged in the manufacture of bogus money" and were passing it "throughout
the state." According to a St. Louis newspaper account in March, 1851, Moore was
reputed to have counterfeited the currency of many Louisiana and Mississippi banks, and
his reproduction of the $50 note of a St. Louis bank was said to be almost perfect.
In such an atmosphere, only one spark was needed to ignite the furies
of hostility and envy. That moment arrived on May 15, 1856, when Deputy Sheriff Samuel
Deputy hailed a free Mulatto, Clark Ashworth, into Justice of the Peace A. N. Reading's
court on a hog theft charge. The merits of the case are unknown, but the butchered animal
may well have been one of the thousands of unmarked swine, in a semi-wild state (as many
still are), which then roamed the mast-bearing lowlands of Orange County.
Reading bound the defendant over to the district court and released him
on a personal security bond signed by a cousin, Sam Ashworth. Later in the day, the
cousin, armed and accompanied by a friend, William Blake, met Deputy on the outskirts of
Madison and challenged him to a gun fight. The deputy sheriff refused, however, and in
turn arrested Sam Ashworth under a "statute providing against abusive language from
Negroes." Since the prisoner's hair texture, facial, and physical characteristics did
not confirm the charge, Justice Reading subpoenaed a number of witnesses, who stated under
oath that they considered Sam Ashworth to be "of mixed blood, or a Mulatto."
Reading sentenced the defendant to a punishment of "thirty lashes on the bare
back" and then remanded him to the sheriff's custody for execution of the sentence.
In loyalty to his Ashworth friends, Glover soon allowed his prisoner to
escape; or so it was alleged by those who were the sheriff's enemies.
Infuriated by Deputy's race allegation and the severity of his
sentence, Sam Ashworth burned inwardly for revenge. He hastened to the residence of a
cousin, Henderson Ashworth, where he disguised himself and borrowed a skiff, two musket
shotguns, and a Colt revolver with an 8-inch barrel.
Accompanied by his eighteen-year-old cousin, Jack Bunch, Sam Ashworth
rowed to the juncture of Cow Bayou and the Sabine River, a point where Deputy would have
to pass in order to reach his home at Deputy Shellbank. When the boat of Deputy and a
friend, A. C. Merriman, reached the scene, Bunch maneuvered the skiff from its hiding
place in the bulrushes, while Ashworth fired two loads of buckshot and emptied the pistol
at his enemy. When Deputy did not die instantly, Ashworth suffixed the crime with the butt
of his musket. Miraculously, Merriman escaped uninjured and later returned the body of the
lawman to Orange, where he swore out arrest warrants for the killers who by then had fled
The following day Sheriff Glover raised an eight-man posse and rode off
into the countryside. Again it was alleged that the sheriff had no intent to search out
and capture the fugitives, for his handpicked posse consisted of William Blake, Thaddius
Pate, Bazille Sapp, Burwell Alexander, Joel Brandon, Martin Stewart, and others known to
be friendly to the Ashworth clan. As expected, Glover returned the warrants to the court
at the close of the day, marked "not found."
The following day, Merriman and his friends, disgusted by the sheriff's
nonchalance, demanded that he organize a new posse and continue the search. Glover
declined the leadership, however, and assigned the duty to another deputy, Joshua Harmon.
The new posse scoured the adjacent wilderness for days, searched homes of the Ashworth
family members, but all to no avail. On one occasion, based upon rumors that the murderers
were concealed within the confines of the Empire Mills, the posse set fire to the sawmill
on May 31, but failed to flush out the fugitives. The mill, described in a Galveston paper
as "the best in the state," and its 100,000 feet of stacked lumber were soon
reduced to cinders.
From the outset the defendants in the case seemed to be the Mulatto
community collectively, rather than two individual members who had perpetrated the deed.
For two weeks free blacks were harassed by small bands of self-appointed vigilantes who
plundered homes, set fire to houses and barns, and warned their victims to leave the
county. Sam Ashworth and Jack Bunch hid out in the swamps for several days. Finally they
crossed the Neches River and fled into the Big Thicket, where they parted company and each
headed for West Texas.
Glover and his associates soon disappeared from view as well, and the
vigilantes soon came to believe that Glover was keeping the killers informed as to the
whereabouts of the various posses. Between June 1 and 15, 1856, several Mulattoes moved
their families and slaves to safety across the river in Louisiana, but each man returned
to try to protect his property and cattle herd. All sorts of rumors rode rampant
throughout the county. A mail rider reported in Madison that he had seen Sheriff Glover
and a large band of Regulators, composed of both whites and free blacks, in the vicinity
of Ballew's Ferry. On June 14, Bazille Sapp tried to enlist a stranger into the Regulators
and told him that Glover would lead forty armed men into Madison the following day.
Another claimed to have heard John Moore swear that he and 150 Regulators would soon
"lay the town of Madison in ashes."
On June 15, Merriman and the vigilantes met at the courthouse and
organized a "committee of safety," actually a Moderator faction of sixty men, to
be called the "law and order" party. Still expecting an attack that day by the
Regulators, these men, heavily armed with double-barrel muskets, knives, and a
"general assortment of Colt jewelry," presented the appearance of a frontier
militia company bound for a war front. Tempers flared among them when two or three
suspected Regulators were observed along Front Street, the main business thoroughfare
along the bank of the river.
About the same time, the Moderators welcomed a newcomer, Jack Cross,
into their ranks, unaware that the notorious killer was fleeing eastward from several
murder warrants in Bexar and Nueces Counties. During one of their meetings as a 'committee
of safety,' they issued a resolution declaring the sheriff's office to be vacant and
issued an ultimatum warning all Mulattoes and their white associates--including Moore,
Glover, Pate, Brandon, Sapp, and others--to remove themselves fifty miles beyond the
county borders within twenty-four hours on penalty of death.
Many Mulattoes crossed the river to safety, but Glover and his men
remained hidden in the vicinity of Brandon's and Moore's log cabins near Ballew's Ferry,
about ten miles north of Madison. About one o'clock on the 15th, Bennett Thomas, who was
suspected of being one of Glover's Regulators, quarreled with Willis Bonner, a Moderator,
and killed him after a shootout in downtown Madison. An hour later, all hell broke loose
when Jack Cross collided with Burwell Alexander, a friend of Glover's, at an intersection
on Front Street, and the West Texas gunman mortally wounded Alexander in the neck. As Dr.
Andrew Mairs knelt to attend his friend's mortal wound and stop the bleeding, Cross pulled
his gun and killed the physician in cold blood. For an entire week, no further violence
occurred, but the Moderators, considering themselves outnumbered by two to one, maintained
an armed camp at Madison in the event of a Regulator attack.
Finally tiring of the inactivity, Merriman and others decided to take
the offensive against their enemies. Long before daylight on June 22, he assembled
twenty-eight Moderators at the court house and told them they would attempt to take Glover
and his men by surprise. As the 'committee of safety' rode north through the wilderness
that morning, they waylaid and killed two innocent strangers, passing through the county,
whom the Moderators mistook for Regulators. By dawn the committee had surrounded the
cabins of Brandon and Moore. Forewarned in some manner, Bazille Sapp and another man
escaped to the Sabine River swamps, but the remainder of the Regulator stronghold, caught
unprepared as they slept, offered no resistance and surrendered.
By then, Merriman and others were apparently feeling some remorse for
the wanton killings of the previous week. Upon some of the Regulators' agreement to remove
themselves 150 miles from the county's borders and never return, the Moderators
accompanied Brandon, Thaddius Pate, and William Blake to the Newton County line and
released them. Their hatred of Sheriff Glover and Moore, however, was too intense for that
course of action, and the Moderators determined to bring the pair back to Madison to stand
trial for their crimes.
When Moore surrendered, a systematic search of his cabin was conducted.
Bazille Sapp's saddle bags were found to contain a quantity of forged land certificates
and counterfeit coins. When a Moderator discovered a locked trunk under a bed, he asked
Moore to produce a key, but the latter refused. A couple of boot kicks dislodged the lid,
however, exposing to view the "far-famed Sabine Bogus Mint---consisting of dies for
making $2 1/2, $5, $10, and $20 gold pieces and doubloons---together with a large
assortment of crucibles and bogus metal, and five or six hundred dollars in counterfeit $5
and $10 pieces---new and bright as a new pin."
Panic-stricken, Moore grabbed a hidden revolver and began firing, but
the bullets from several guns quickly cut him down. He died on the floor of his cabin with
the cocked revolver still clenched in his fist. Glover, still arguing that he was the
duly-elected sheriff and knew nothing about his uncle's illicit activities, refused to
return to Madison as a prisoner; thereupon, Cross, soon disgusted with the ex-sheriff's
stalling techniques, drew his pistol and killed him. The Moderator posse, convinced that
they had destroyed the Regulator leadership and had ended the civil strife, then returned
to Madison and disbanded. Thereafter, tempers cooled rapidly in Orange County, sawmill
boilers were soon fired up, but things were never quite the same again in the idyllic city
on the bank of the Sabine. More than thirty Mulatto families had evacuated to Calcasieu
Parish, Louisiana, and half of them abandoned Texas permanently.
Jack Bunch was recognized and arrested in Montgomery County. On a
change of venue, he was tried and convicted of first degree murder at Beaumont, Texas, on
November 12, 1856. Two weeks later, he was executed on a scaffold so crudely constructed
that the condemned youth had to climb a ladder which was then twisted and pulled out from
Sam Ashworth fared somewhat better. After a period in West Texas, he
fled to the Indian Territory and lived with the Choctaw tribe for several years. When the
Civil War began, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and subsequently was killed at the
Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862.
Jack Cross continued his flight eastward. Early in 1857, he killed a
man named Jake Morrison at Lake Charles, Louisiana, and later he was executed, the vicim
of a lynch mob, who left him swinging from the broad branch of a live-oak tree. Hence, the
old killer died by the same sword that he knew so well.
After a two-month cooling off period, Aaron, Abner, and William
Ashworth and a few other Mulattoes brought their families back to Orange County.
Historical records of that period are scarce and vague, but it becomes quite apparent that
the large Mulatto cattle herds of Orange County dwindled rapidly after that year, a new
breed of Southern planters and slaveholders soon arriving to cut up the rich prairie lands
and carve them into cotton plantations. In the census enumeration of 1860, Aaron Ashworth,
once worth more than $30,000 and the wealthiest Jefferson County resident of 1850 (Orange
County was created in 1852), had managed to retain about half of his 1850 estate, but his
large herd of 3,000 cattle had completely disappeared.
Abner and William Ashworth, each of whom formerly owned herds totaling
1,500 steers and large tracts of land, had lost nearly all of their wealth, both land,
cattle and slaves, and the 62-year-old William was reduced to the status of a sawmill day
laborer. Just how they lost everything, and whether or not their economic ruin was brought
about through property confiscation or forced sale at give-away prices, is unknown at this
Time and fate have a way of becoming great equalizers. With the advent
of the American Civil War in 1861, three companies of soldiers were organized in this
unhappy land and went forth to Virginia to fight. But no more than six men of the
companies ever returned to Orange, all of the others becoming victims of battlefields and
disease. And what the ravages of war did not accomplish, a hurricane did. On September 13,
1865, while the town was still wallowing in the ashes of defeat, a massive storm raged
inland from the Gulf and took a large toll of life at Orange, formerly Madison, and left
only four buildings still standing in the once "pretty as a fairy tale" river