Redlands, Red State: A True Story of the Creation of Texas, Part 3
March 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
During the 1840s, La Grange and Fayette County became a center for organized crime, home to the first gang in Central Texas, a loosely organized group referred to as the Clan, or the Family. It may have had 400 members, according to the confession of the third inmate of the Texas state prison system in 1849, which named only several dozen of his reputed accomplices.
When the Texas State Penitentiary opened for business in a Huntsville log cabin in 1849, two of its first three inmates were members of the Clan. They were lucky to be alive, for the most notorious members had been hunted down and killed after their perfidies were exposed.
William G. Sansom, prisoner number one, was convicted and sentenced to three years for cattle theft. Thomas Short, prisoner number three, was sentenced to two years for stealing a horse in Washington County. Sansom was pardoned by Governor Bell on September 4, 1850; Short served his full term, being discharged on November 7, 1850.
Sansom and Thomas Short were brothers in law. Thomas’ older brother, William Short, considered one of the Clan’s leaders, was hung by vigilantes, who left his corpse for the buzzards.
Within a space of two days late in August 1849, both Sansom and Short had spilled the Clan’s beans, and their confessions were subsequently published in the Texas Banner, published in Huntsville. Regardless of their truth, the confessions are a rarity in the annals of Central Texas outlaw gangs. Few such comprehensive confessions would be forthcoming from their lawless successors.
No one can put a date on when the Clan started, because it never was a formal organization, but the late 1830s seems a guess, if only because the Shorts and Sansoms arrived here in the winter of 1838-39.
According to Tom Short, who was only seven at the time, they brought their thieving tendencies with them from Alabama.
“I was born in the State of Alabama; my parents moved to Texas when I was very young. My father and mother always stood fair, and were regarded as honest people. At a very early period of my life I disobeyed instructions of my parents and took my own course, or rather the planned course of my oldest brother, William Short.
“Almost as far back as I can recollect my brother William would pick up little notions which I kept canceled from my father and mother. About the time my brother was to get married, he broke into a store, in the company with several others, and one of the articles which my brother took was a pair of ladies stockings, which he proceeded to give to his intended wife.
“From time to time William went on a step by step stealing small articles, until he got so he could trade a horse for a horse that he knew was stolen. I was gradually initiated into the secret of stealing, and particularly for the necessary item, of hiding them well, this was the difficult part of the profession.
“During this time one of my sisters had married William Greenbury Sansom, who became a member of the party.”
The Short brothers and Sansom apparently found Fayette County to be fertile ground for their activities. The whole of civilized Texas was awash in fraudulent land certificates and counterfeit coinage and law enforcement was scarce to non-existent. It was a Texas tradition dating back at least 20 years, to the earliest Anglo-American invasions, when the first batch of blank Spanish land-grant certificates were stolen.
Noah Smithwick explained the status of things in 1831, as he prepared to leave San Felipe (banished for having helped a prisoner escape), where he had lived since 1827:
Many hard things have been said and written of the early settlers in Texas much of which is unfortunately only too true. Historians, however, fail to discriminate between the true colonists – those who went there to make homes, locate land, and, so far as the unfriendly attitude of the Indians permitted, resided on and improved it – and the outlaws and adventurers who flocked into the towns.
The first public function after my arrival in the town being a demonstration in honor of a local bard, in which the distinguished gentleman, after having been made the recipient of a brand new suit of tar and feathers, was escorted through the whole length of the town seated on a rather lean Pegasus and bidden a long adieu at the further end.
The poetical flight which called forth this popular expression, had for its inspiration the banishment of a woman who, though posing as the wife of a prominent man, had previously sustained the same relation to an old circus manager, whom she deserted without the formality of a divorce when a younger suitor appeared. Her charms being already on the wane, the faithless lover soon wearied of his conquest and, in order to make room for a younger woman, to whom he could establish a legitimate claim, preferred charges against his whilom inamorita, which led to her banishment; an injustice which fired the poet’s soul with indignation. The pen being mightier than the sword, the champion of the injured fair, chose the former weapon with which to avenge her wrongs, but unfortunately for him he neglected to put up his shield when entering the arena.
The verses as a whole, I do not recall, nor would their publication be admissible; the following couplets will be sufficient to establish their character. They were headed “Mrs. W—-s’ Lament.”
“The United States, as we understand,
Took sick and did vomit the dregs of the land.
Her murderers, bankrupts and rogues you may see,
All congregated in San Felipe.”
Then followed a long string of names including those of the most prominent men in the place, together with the cause which impelled them to emigrate. There was literally “more truth than poetry” in the argument, the master of ceremonies in the demonstration on the author, having been lighted on his journey thither by the moon’s pale beams. As Dr. Rivers expressed it, “people were nearer on an equal footing socially in San Felipe than any place he ever saw; if one said to another, ‘you ran away,’ he could retort, ‘so did you.'”. Some wag fitted a tune to the doggerel rhyme, and the dare-devil spirit, which tempted the disinterested to sing it, was several times productive of blood-shed.
Old Vicente Padilla was running a monte game in San Felipe. Money was too scarce to bet more than a quarter at a time, and quarters – dos reales – were not plenty, so in order to provide enough such change, they cut a dollar in four pieces. When Mexico established her independence, one of her first acts was to change the stamp of her coin, the eagle dollar taking the place of the Spanish milled dollar. The latter being defaced by hammering was then worth only seventy-five cents. These hammered dollars were often cut into five pieces by a little extra hammering and made to pass as quarters. Old Vicente was getting the best of the game of course and nobody had any scruples about beating him in any way. One of the “buckers” was in my shop one day and seeing a lot of little triangular bits of iron lying around was struck with an idea. Gathering up the bits, he polished them up till they bore quite a resemblance to the quarters cut from the hammered dollars. He departed with his prize and after dark repaired to the monte bank where the dim light of the tallow candles enabled him to pass off his iron chips on the dealer without detection.
Nacogdoches was the gambler’s heaven; that being the first town the newcomer struck after crossing the Sabine. Here there was a regular organization for roping in the greenhorn and relieving him of his cash. Several of its members afterward took an active part in the revolution, one at least being a signer of the Declaration of Independence. This brave patriot having spotted a stranger who seemed to have deep pockets, steered him into a game and went out to look for another sucker. When he returned the game was over and the clique dividing the spoils. The steerer demanded his share. “Why you wasn’t in the game,” they contended. “The h—-l I wasn’t; didn’t I find him first?” and backing his claim with a pistol he secured his share. So unscrupulous were they that they didn’t even wait till the victim was out of the room to divide. Taking in the situation, a fellow that had been thus robbed, said to them, “I think it’s a d—-d outrage for the government to send old John H. Murrill to the state’s prison and let such fellows as you go free.”
Another swindling scheme that was being worked on a gigantic scale, and which was productive of more lasting evil, it will be necessary to go back to 1829 to explain. In that year Don Padillo came on from Saltillo as commissioner of the land office, to survey and make title to the claims of bona fide settlers outside the regular colonies, being provided with blanks for the purpose, on which, were stamped the seal of the Republic of Mexico, lacking only the specifications and signature of the commissioner to complete them. Accompanied by T. Jefferson Chambers, surveyor general for the colonies, he established headquarters at Nacogdoches, but, unfortunately for the old don, he became enamored of the pretty young wife of one of his attaches, and to get the husband out of the way sent him on an errand from which he never returned alive. Suspicion at once fell on the commissioner and he was arrested as the instigator of the murder. He was thrown into prison and his papers all thrown into the hands of an unscrupulous gang, who at once proceeded to establish a land office of their own. Securing the services of an old Spaniard who had been a government clerk for years and was an expert penman, they had him forge the commissioner’s signature to the blanks, and thus equipped set up business on a large scale, issuing floating certificates to any amount of land for an insignificant consideration. Any good plug of a pony would buy an eleven-league grant. James Armstrong, afterward a member of the legislature, told me how they conducted business.
“I had just come to the country,” said he, “and, being broke, was looking around for a clerkship or other employment that might procure necessities. In this emergency I accepted a position in the office of the manager of the land-grabbers, and was set to work filling out the blanks. I worked a whole month, meanwhile running on ‘tick,’ and at the end of that time demanded my salary, which had been fixed at $50 a month. Imagine my disgust when, instead of cash, I was tendered a certificate for eleven leagues of land. The cool audacity of the thing fairly took my breath away. I told the boss that I preferred the money.
‘You are a fool,’ said he.
‘Maybe I am,’ I replied, ‘but if it were land I was after I could have filled out a certificate for any amount that would have been just as good as yours.'”
I was also offered any quantity of these bogus land certificates to dispose of in Louisiana on shares, and no doubt I could have done so to advantage among the wealthy planters, whose slaves were becoming too numerous for their plantations, thus creating a demand for increased acreage. Perhaps it was only because I lacked the courage necessary to the making of a rascal; at any rate, I rejected all these alluring offers for fortune, not caring to run my neck into a halter by being made a cat’s paw for these scoundrels. Of the effects of this wholesale land fraud I shall have occasion to speak hereafter. It was the foundation for all the land litigation that has vexed the souls of the settlers ever since.
As there are few now living who remember the first incumbents of the offices to which those seals were attached, I will add that they were Andrew Rabb, judge; Richard Vaughn, sheriff, and William Gorham, clerk. Some years later the district court was instituted with Judge R. Q. Mills on the bench. Having established a reputation for that kind of business, I cut several other seals and was offered a large fee to counterfeit the seal of the land office. That was not in my line, however. But the land sharks found ways and means to get on without the seal, as many an honest settler found to his cost and the disgrace of the country.