The Orange County War of 1856
W. T. Block, (1920-2007)
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 Lake Sabine.
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 octoroon 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…
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