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 element, there was also a clash between cattle ranchers with local farmers and townsmen, wrangling over the ownership of cattle – branded and otherwise – an element of 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 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. Crossposted at my book blog and at www.chicagoboyz.net)