Monday, December 28, 2009
1883: A Bloody Christmas in McDade, Texas
The Yegua Knobs are a line of small hills running along the border of the Texas counties of Bastrop and Lee, and are very close to Williamson County as well. During the mid to late 1800’s, the underbrush, large stands of cedar trees, and the elevated terrain of the Knobs made it a perfect place for people to go who did not want to be found. As such, the Knobs provided a safe haven for violence-prone drifters, killers, petty thieves, Confederate deserters, and men who liked to steal cattle and horses.
The years following the Civil War were especially traumatic across the Southern states, Texas included. The South was devastated by the war, and many of its social institutions were destroyed. Confederate soldiers returning to Texas found a much different environment from the one they left. Resentment and bitterness between those who supported secession and those who did not resulted in violence, murder, and blood feuds across the state. To make matters even worse, Federal soldiers, who came to Texas to enforce Reconstruction, exacerbated the already unsettled situation. In many places in Texas, it was a very dangerous time for law-abiding citizens.
The McDade, Texas, area was first settled on the edge of the Knobs in the 1860’s, but did not become a town, as such, until the 1870’s. The building of the railroad through town greatly expanded the financial opportunities in the area, and, along with the more respectable businesses of the time, came the gambling dens and saloons. These attractions brought many of the less than desirable men out of the Knobs into McDade to “take advantage” of the money passing through town. The bitterness and anger of the Reconstruction era, fueled by survival instincts, alcohol, and guns, brought about an explosive combination in and around McDade, which culminated into a deadly Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1883.
Texas, in the late 1800’s, was hampered by a lack of fast and effective communication, slow travel conditions, and understaffed, biased, or corrupt law enforcement officials. Given those unique circumstances, jury members were often reluctant to convict those who broke the law, for fear that they or, members of their families would be harmed. It was not an irrational fear.
During the 1870’s, a gang of desperate men began to form in the Knobs. The “Notch-Cutters,” as they were called, was a gang which initially preyed upon the weak and defenseless, but later still on powerful ranchers and respected citizens of McDade. Citizens were often ambushed as they traveled through the area. People disappeared and mysterious graves were found from time to time. The citizens of McDade, eventually, endured enough of the killings and fear, and formed a vigilante group to enforce order and decency in the area.
As early as 1875, McDade vigilantes hung two trouble makers. The outlaws then attempted to square things by killing a couple of men who had participated in the lynching. The vigilantes, however, immediately struck back. The retribution came in the form of yet another outlaw hanging from a tree. The next year, a couple of cattle-rustlers were caught skinning cattle belonging to the nearby Olive Ranch. They were shot dead, and covered with the branded hides of the animals they had killed. In 1877, vigilantes stopped a dance not far from McDade, and took several suspects away. They were later found hanging from a tree. These incidents, along with others, were just a precursor to the bloody Christmas in McDade itself in 1883.
In December 1883, a deputy arrived in McDade to investigate a couple of murders which had taken place in nearby Fedor, Texas. He was shot and killed as he walked through McDade’s streets after dark. Despite all the violence which had taken place in and around McDade over the years, this was the incident, it seems, which crystallized the need for decisive action among the town’s citizens.
Christmas Eve 1883 found a celebration in progress inside the Rock Front Saloon in McDade. During the evening, many armed vigilantes arrived at the saloon, and took three men away into the dark night. They were found the next morning dangling from a tree about a mile outside of town.
The next morning, Christmas Day, found several members of the “Notch-Cutters” milling around town. The sequence of events and motivations of those involved is disputed, but what is not disputed is that a gunfight took place on a McDade street. The fight involved two respected McDade businessmen, Tom Bishop and George Milton, and several members of the gang. When the shooting stopped, two gang members were dead, and another, seriously wounded. Another person who came to the defense of Bishop and Milton was also killed in the melee. When all was said and done, the Christmas Eve hangings and Christmas Day shootings left six men dead. Needless to point out perhaps, but it was not a very Merry Christmas that year in McDade.
Although some violence in McDade lingered for many years thereafter, there was never anything again like that bloody Christmas in 1883. Today, McDade is a very small and extremely quiet place best known for its annual watermelon festivals. If one did not know the town’s history, there is nothing today to suggest its violent past. The old railroad track, which brought both prosperity and crime during the 1800’s, is now covered with grass and weeds. And the Rock Front Saloon, the scene of much of the turmoil in McDade’s history, is a museum.
The Yegua Knobs, of course, still rise above the surrounding area. And, although the infamous “Notch-Cutters” lost the natural protection the region afforded the gang long ago, the Knobs area itself has recently been in need of preservation from the threat of encroaching development. As a result, several hundred acres of the Knobs have been safely secured in recent years to ensure development does not destroy the natural beauty, flora, fauna, and history of the region.