No Hope for Heaven

errata:  In the book I credit Tracey Wegenhoft with the transcription of the Goeppinger tape. Although Tracey began the transcription, Roger Wade completed the project and did by far the bulk of the work.  This was a central task to the book and I apologize to Roger for this oversight.

About the feud:

Colorado County in South Central Texas has a troubled past. The gun violence that wracked the county for decades had its immediate roots in the post-Civil War era. This situation was compounded by the fact that the Old South truly meshed with the Old West in the county since its physical geography enabled both slave-based plantations and extensive cattle operations. Prior to the war, many large slaveholders from core southern states relocated their plantations on virgin soil along the Colorado River basin and, to a lesser extent, the Navidad River basin at the western edge of the county. After the war, large-scale cattle operations flourished on the wide-open prairies between the two river basins and supplanted the plantations as the predominant economic activity. Old attitudes associated with slavery did not permit an easy adjustment to emancipation of the former slaves, leading to much violence and mayhem, while the rapid rise of the cattle industry offered a fresh arena for friction and bloodshed: in cinematic terms, a fusion, as it were, of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Howard Hawk’s Red River.

Two family names have come to be associated with the gun violence that plagued the county for decades after the end of the Civil War: the Townsends and the Staffords. Their stories, however, cannot be separated from the larger picture that included habituation of generations of young men to violence and the evolution of a code of honor that tolerated and encouraged private justice. In I’ll Die Before I Run, C.L. Sonnichsen wrote, “In Texas the folk law of the frontier was reinforced by the unwritten laws of the South and produced a habit of self-redress more deeply ingrained perhaps, than anywhere else in the country. The grievances and abuses of the bad days after the Civil War gave extraordinary scope for the application of the old ways and dealing justice.” The troubles in Colorado County offer an almost perfect case study for Sonnichsen’s observation.

There was, however, an important corollary to the Southern code of family honor strongly evident in the troubles in Colorado County, namely the determination on the part of the two prominent families to amass wealth and achieve status, and the resolve to hold on to it, once obtained, by whatever means necessary, including extra-legal means. Elected office was one of the paths to both, since political power often translated into financial gain and social standing. The sheriff’s office, especially, was a very powerful institution in nineteenth century Texas, with little outside control to check excesses. It placed one in a position to cement lucrative deals at a time when the courthouse was very much the center of commercial activity in the county. Control of the sheriff’s office, self-evidently, also gave one a decided advantage should the threat of gun violence arise.The sheriff’s office, therefore, became a focal point of conflict in Colorado County.

In those areas of Texas that had substantial black populations, such as Colorado County, the key to obtaining and holding on to political power for thirty years after the South’s defeat was the black vote, a volatile issue that fueled many of the fabled Texas feuds of the times, such as The Jaybird/Woodpecker feud in neighboring Ft. Bend County. But although they all emerged from the same fire, so to speak, each grew into something distinctive.

This book neither catalogs nor examines all the violence of the period; rather, it concentrates on those individual acts of private justice associated with the Stafford and Townsend families. During the same time frame the county also experienced an appalling string of mob-inspired lynchings; of tribal eruptions of white on black violence that continued to plague the county for decades. These are mentioned in the course of the narrative and form a disturbing background to the primary focus of the book.

It should be noted that this tale falls clearly into two distinct phases, the first phase beginning with a 1871 shootout in Columbus and ending with the deaths of the Stafford brothers in 1890; the second commencing in 1898 with the assassination of Larkin Hope and concluding in 1911 with the violent deaths of Marion Hope, Jim Townsend, and Will Clements, all in the space of one month. One of the main challenges for the author has been to disentangle the various strands and make clear to the reader how the two phases relate; how the one story evolved into the next, yet never completely separated from it, even as the cast of characters changed. It is a complicated story; the reader cannot expect a casual read and will have to pay close attention.

Finally, the Colorado County story represent the last of the major Texas feuds that has not received book length treatment, at least, book length treatment that rests on documentation and aspires to be unbiased. This then, is the tale of the Staffords and Townsend families, and how their aspirations for wealth and status brought them into conflict with one another, and then, in the case of the Townsends, brought them into conflict with themselves.

About the book:

Bill Stein, archivist at the Nesbitt Memorial Library in Columbus Texas and published historian,  conceived the idea for this book in the 1990s. The project, however, sat on the back-burner until the last year of his life when he took it up with renewed interest and dedication. He had approached the University of North Texas about a book length treatment and received a green light. After Bill’s untimely death in 2008, his brother Chris Stein asked me to take up the project where Bill had left off. I was a friend, historian, and colleague of Bill. Moreover, like Bill, I also grew up in Colorado County and had that immediacy to the story that comes with being a native. Upon examination of his papers, I discovered that Bill had compiled an exhaustive file of primary sources, had written a set of research summaries of various episodes connected with the feud, and had started a list of short biographies of the very large cast of characters involved in the story. I have made extensive use of all these resources, which were entrusted to me for this purpose. Bill had not, however, developed either an outline or undertaken the actual writing of the story beyond the research summaries and biographies mentioned above. Thus, this very complex and involved story still needed to be interpreted, organized, and written from beginning to end. The finished manuscript, however, was so thoroughly grounded in Bill’s research as well as his scholarly writings about Colorado County, which appeared over several years in the Journal of the Nesbitt Memorial Library, that it is right and proper to list him as co-author. In 2011 the Nesbitt Memorial Library Foundation contracted Dr. James Smallwood to help organize the archives at the library. Dr. Smallwood, a renowned Texas historian, author of innumerable books, and recognized expert on Texas Reconstruction, spent over a year completing this task and in the process became intimately acquainted with Colorado County history. He also became very interested in the feud story. Dr. Smallwood worked on a rough draft of his own, but for several reasons, chief among them being deteriorating health leading to his death in 2013, only a small portion of his rough draft found its way into the finished manuscript. Nonetheless, his participation qualifies him as a co-author. Specifically, both Bill and I had struggled to find the thread that ties this story together: is it merely a narrative; a sequence of violent episodes connected with two prominent families in Colorado County or does some larger theme or concept unify these events in a meaningful way so that a reader is able to take something from the story beyond the mere recitation of dates, names, and events? It was Dr. Smallwood who came up with such a concept, namely ‘private justice’ in the context of post-Civil War mayhem and violence in Texas. I remain convinced that this is the key to the correct interpretation and understanding of the story in its entirety and for this I acknowledge in no uncertain terms my debt to Dr. Smallwood. I also had done extensive research on my own at one point. But what I most had to offer in this regard was a taped interview with John Goeppinger, which was conducted at his invitation in 1972. Mr. Goeppinger was ninety years old at the time and had a remarkably clear memory of the events from 1890 forward, events in which he had participated on several occasions. He realized full well the deeply disturbing and even self-incriminating nature of much of what he had to say, but he was striving plainly for some sort of redemptive effect through his revelations, as if a confessional. He realized, moreover, that he was the last living participant; the last to know what really had happened from first hand experience. His only caveat was that he be dead when the tape was made public, and since the tape was made over forty years ago, that requirement has been met.

James C. Kearney

Below two charts of the Townsends involved in the feud )highlighted in red)