History Friday: The Haunting of Mason County

The so-called Mason County Hoo-Doo War was one of those particularly impenetrable frontier feuds which mixed up all the classic western feud elements into one bloody and protracted mess; legal possession of land provided one cause for conflict, there was also a clash between cattle ranchers and local farmers and townsmen, wrangling over the ownership of cattle – branded and otherwise – ethnic resentment between German and native-born American or Anglo settlers, the passions of Unionist and Confederate partisans still at a simmer in the aftermath of the Civil War, and finally, that Mason County was situated on the far frontier, where enforcement of the law was a sketchy and erratically enforced thing.

Mason County is in the high Edwards Plateau, north of Kerrville; it was part of the Adelsverein land grant, originally taken up by a consortium of German nobles who wished to follow in the footsteps of Stephen Austin and Greene DeWitt in luring settlers to Texas in the 1840s. The Adelsverein scheme fell through, but not before more bringing more than 7,000 German immigrants to the Hill Country. Although the land grant was later invalidated by the State Legislature, the ownership rights of individual settlers was upheld, and as it eventually turned out much of the best land in the Hill Country was owned by those German settlers. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that during the Civil War many of those same Germans were pro-Union Abolitionists. In the resulting mini-civil war in the Hill Country, it was bitterly said that more Germans were murdered by pro-Confederate forces (legal and extra-legal) during 1861-65 than ever were killed by raiding Comanche Indians, before or after. Such wartime terrors and injustices could not be forgotten or forgiven easily, even though the post-war Reconstruction government tended to favor Unionists.

The post-war boom in Texas cattle provided yet another point of friction between Anglo and German. The cattle trails to the north ran through Mason County. Not infrequently herds of cattle assembled in the Hill Country, before commencing the long walk north on the Chisholm or Goodnight trails, and the cowboys who shepherded them were often not scrupulous about including straying mavericks as they passed through Mason County. Added to that mix, a large number of the frankly larcenous who took advantage of lax law enforcement to collect wandering cattle, legally branded or not … and the German small ranchers and farmers whose stock grazed in the unfenced pastures often had good reason to resent Anglo cattlemen, and to be suspicious of outsiders. Brands were easily changed, and when it came to an unbranded calf, possession was nine-tenths of the law. The German settlers in Mason were infuriated by the constant loss of their cattle, and the inability of anyone to do anything about it. In 1872, they elected a no-nonsense sheriff, who promised a hard line against the epidemic of cattle rustling; an Anglo named John Clark, backed up by a local German, John Wohrle as deputy sheriff and another, Dan Hoerster as inspector of brands. John Clark was well-liked and well-trusted by the local German citizens; he may have been a veteran of the Union Army. Over the next two years, he took a very hard line against neighboring ranch owners whom he considered to have made free with Mason County cattle – a hard line which lead to resentment among the Anglo ranchers and those cowhands who worked for them.

Early in 1875, a locally-raised posse made a sweep of the ranges northwest of Mason – and found a large herd in the possession of a party of men led by the Baccus brothers, Pete and Elijah. Curiously, the cattle in question bore the brands of practically everyone else but the Baccus brothers. The posse arrested them all, and brought them back to Mason for trial, while Sherriff Clark and another posse pursued another party of rustlers and another herd of stolen cattle. They retrieved the cattle, but the rustlers had vamoosed.

At this point things began to get bloody. The body of a dead man was found beside the road between Llano and Mason, with a note pinned to it; ‘Here lies a noted cow thief.’ Three days later a mob of men wearing masks broke into Wohrle’s home and forced him to give up the keys to the jail, where the Baccus brothers and the others arrested were waiting trial. Sherriff Clark and Ranger Captain Dan Roberts – buying grain for his company’s horses – hurried to the jail together, but there were too many in the mob. Helplessly, Clark and Roberts watched the mob carry away the Baccus brothers and three other men. It took time for them to gather aid and follow. They caught up to the mob just as four of their captives were being hung. In the exchange of gunfire the mob scattered, and Sheriff Clark cut down the prisoners. The Baccus brothers were already dead; two others were injured so gravely that one died within hours. The fifth man had been able to escape, although his hands were bound. And thus began the Hoo-Doo War.

(To be continued. Cross-posted at www.ncobrief.com and at my book blog )

5 thoughts on “History Friday: The Haunting of Mason County”

  1. There was a lot of blood spild over cattle – open range vs fenced, shepards vs ranchers, cattle thieves…one can’t feel to sorry for the Baccus Brothers

  2. The Hoo-Doo war was a little unusual in that it didn’t have a strong family element, like the Sutton-Taylor feud, or the Graham-Tewksbury feud in Arizona. Both of those finished up without about every male in the respective families violently dead. In this case, the two sides were pretty evenly matched – not like the Johnson County war, where the big established cattlemen had the state government and the news media on their side too. And the German-Anglo ethnic element has to be darned unexpected. In New Mexico, the Lincoln County war broke on English/Irish animosities (among other things)… and then there was Elfego Baca, and the most one-sided gunfight ever…

  3. Sgt – I was thinking – a bit tongue-in-cheek – but why didn’t those Germans – some of home I am sure came from Prussia – organize themselves into military units and run those Anglos out of Texas? ;-)

    Abteilung! Achtung! You’all!

  4. Not too many junkers and professional soldiers among them, Bill – although there were some, notably Capt. August Buchel, and a handful of other officers. Most of them were farmers and techs of various specialities. Now, the Germans of St. Louis, Missouri, DID organize themselves militarily just before the Civil War – and they did duke it out with the local Anglo secessionists. With US Grant and Wm. T Sherman (still civilians at the time) watching with great interest from the sidelines.
    One of the Boyz sent me that link when the article was first published, thinking I would be interested. I was more than interested – I was fascinated!
    Now, what might really have been fun would have been if the Franco Texian Bill had passed, which would have a established a large French grant in Texas, to be filled with settlers from Franch. And if the Adelsverein had been able to make a success of their own grant … there would have been a good few Texas counties filled with Germans, and another good few filled with French. Which would have made WWI really, really interesting, locally.

  5. I grew up in Glasscock County, which at the time was about half hardshell Baptist ranchers and half German Catholic farmers. Their ancestors mostly came from Bavaria and Bohemia from what some of the old timers told me. Most of the families had been over for at least 2 generations, some for 3 or 4. Nearly all of the guys who started farming in the St. Lawrence area grew up in the Wall/Rowena/Miles area of Tom Green County before WW2 and bought land on the GI bill after the war. I know one was in the Rangers in the war and was part of the group that assaulted Point du Hoc on D-Day.

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