Travel between Mexico and the "States over the "San Antonio Trail" was, as one may judge, large and continuous. My "folks" went to Texas as early as 1843, and were consequently among the pioneer settlers. Nacogdoches, Texas, was then and for years following, a center of Texas' worth, wealth and culture. San Augustine, also, was a town of importance, and here was established one of the Lone Star State's earliest institutions of learning. Denominational schools were in advance, of course, and this was the Wesleyan Academy, founded by the Methodists of that and neighboring sections. My mother had charge of its female department, and it was here that many of my earliest and most lasting impressions were formed.
I can remember, and do, perhaps, because of the striking event, when the company from the vicinity went to the Mexican War. I was a little shaver in the procession and ubiquitous editor, "Wooden-legged" Russell-so-called from the quality of a limb, the natural one having been lost in a street fight-with his flag waving and his speech, impressed me as wonderful. Then comes to mind the line of marching men on horseback, with one in front blowing blasts on a long, tin horn and the vision fades, for all the rest must have been common-place. Those that marched away to war were members of Jack Hayes' Texas Rangers, and left their dead on all the bloody fields of far-off Mexico.
Regulators and Moderators Soon Locked Horns
Around San Augustine there is much historical material-in fact, the annals of this vicinity are replete with stories of the Regulator and the Moderator times, which, beginning with good intent, ended in internal war, during which fortune fluctuated until President Houston, of the then Republic of Texas came down with the National militia and put both parties to flight.
The first born of these rivals was the "Regulators," and they came because public opinion was strong enough to make law effective. A new country crowded with hopes and opportunities; a line of travel which flowed a wealth of commerce in silver, gold, produce and slaves, was too inviting to be resisted, and the venturesome buccaneer came to ply his trade.
Among these were deep, designing and desperate men, and a "foray" which would net a hundred "one-thousand dollar niggers" was the lure that brought the best of the fearless scoundrels. The country was in time under their complete despotism, and it was death to him that divulged or "chirped."
Lawless Band Was Compared to Murrell
I can remember with what bated breath the better, but always more timid, citizen spoke of them and their deeds, and connected them with Murrell and his famous gang, who held, or had held, like sway in Mississippi. It was the days of bank currency--"wild-cat," as it was termed-and there were false coiners, cou[n]terfeiters and sharpers of all degrees among them. They looted, robbed and stole, from the card table to the pack train to and from market point, and there are fortunes yet extant which were founded on n[N]egroes run off from homes in the States and lost in the maze of Texas thievery. These buccaneers killed only when necessity demanded, and then under the rule that "dead men tell no tales."
Around all this, as in the days of Robin Hood, there was woven a certain quality of romance.
Tales of their deeds, their revels and their charities-because even the devil isn't like painted-came down to the Civil War, a strife filled with more momentous incidents, and which wiped from memory's tablet all of the minor disturbances of society. Then--
"--The simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can"
came to an end, as all things which man wills must.
The insecurity of life and property grew apace, until the less timid became bold, and the more timid grew bolder. A leader was found, and, as usual, he came from among the despoilers. He had enough-and wanted to keep it. He did that and his descendants have it yet-multiplied some times over.
Leader of Regulators Subjected to Test of Courage
To prove his right to command, the new leader of the order-an order later known, from the Spanish name, as the Vigilantes-was then called to a test of courage. He was set upon in San Augustine's public square by two of the Wild Rovers' (as they were termed) most desperate men. The new leader triumphed. He killed them both!
In a trice his standard was crowded with recruits-both good and bad, for among such a society no one knew who to name as honest citizens or a recreant. Of open discussion there had been none and could be none. To suppress public speech and to keep still tongues much blood had been shed, and to intimidate others, these scoundrels had but to point to some of these newly-made graves.
And then came the "regulation of society by the Regulators."
At first blush, all went well. The noted desperadoes and thieves were "hung out, shot out, or run out." Orders were posted and printed in the local paper-for the American press kept pace with the American pioneer-denouncing the gang and their acts and warning all to leave who would harbor, or who had in any way been connected with the lawless crew that had so long ruled the communities of San Augustine, Sabine and Shelby counties.
I was told in later years that men and families "bundled" up and left at this warning who had never been suspected, and among them a popular preacher fled between suns with a fortune in n[N]egroes he had accumulated, as was supposed, by honest dealing. In after years, when all was forgotten, he was heard of as an eminent divine, heatedly engaged in the manumission of other people's slaves, after he had sold his own, as Tom Lawson charges that pious Boston did about that time or a little later.
Soon A Regulation of the Regulators Began
And when the Regulators had regulated the thieves, robbers and murderers, a regulation of the Regulators began.
Like the Herbertists and the Dantonists who planned and created Thermedore, on which day Robespierre met his doom, the leader and his ilk were subjected to ordeals themselves. The local paper, under the charge of that aforesaid "Wooden-legged" Russell, blazed forth a charge on the Regulator's leader for his past iniquities, which resembled in fervency and truth Thibaudeau's excoriation of Tallien. But the Regulator leader was of better fighting metal than his Gallic prototype. He went "gunning" for he of the "wooden-leg," and the result was marked in that lost limb which gave the editor his by-name.
But the timid were no more. They had tasted authority and saw how easy it was--if you could hold together. This they did.
The Coming of the Moderators
And then the Regulators, or at least the former leader's friends, associates and fellow villains, began to be as bad as the bad men they had so summarily cleaned out. True, they respected property, but grudges, dislikes and almost forgotten quarrels were excuses enough to "play for even," and good men began to be killed.
And Russell, from his couch of pain, urged the best elements on. At his suggestion, a new order was created. Thus, the "Moderators" were born.
Their mission was laudable, as it appeared at the moment, and for a short time they were a success--as Moderators. Their organization and the stout array of good names of men fearless and true, sufficed to awe the Regulators, leader and all. But a drunken brawl in San Augustine, two or three dead and some wounded, brought the climax, when Moderator and Regulator forgot society at large and went to war on their own hook.
Love Affair of a Modern Helen
Woven among these disturbances was a love affair. A woman, beautiful, 'tis said, as a dream, fearless herself, and a Diana in horsemanship, became the leading spirit of this strange, eventful period. Withal, she must have been superior in intellect, in cunning and in nerve. Named from her who brought woe to Troy, she planned forays and ambuscades, which denoted superior skill and judgment, and one, the last, which bears 'till this day her name, and in which she lost her life, was daring in the extreme.
This Helen was evidently a coquette, whose beauty and wiles played havoc with hearts on both sides of the quarrel. Varying fortunes marked numerous pitched battles; the noise of the combat had reached Austin, the Republic's capital, and Houston, the President, had issued a proclamation denouncing both belliga[e]rents as outlaws, calling upon them, under pains and penalties, to disperse, when Helen planned a coup--which was hoped and believed would end the Moderators to a man, before Houston could reach the scene.
These were then "forted" in Shelby County, near the Augustine border, and Helen went ostensibly to meet her lover, who was one of them, but really to entice the garrison out and into the rigle range of her friends. Superbly mounted, dressed in full, long, flowing velvet riding habit, as was the fashion in those days, with banded beaver on her head and riding whip in hand, she cantered up to the forted Moderators, the fort being a double log house planked up and surrounded with a fence. She called her lover (?) and at the fence laughed and joked with glee and talked of other things than war.
Retribution Came Swift and Strong
Her friends, she said, had "quit on old Houston's order;" had gone to their homes or were far away, and she was for peace for her family, for which she had come to sue. This, with a winning glance at her lover, captured him. All the while her friends were creeping up to get within full range of the foe. The men of the fort came one by one to the fence, their fears relieved, and chatted with Helen. And then she made her mistake. She looked towards the nearby woods once too often and, at last, too anxiously. This her lover noted, but true to his clan he warned them "to cover and be quick about it," when the crack of a rifle, which was fired from a nearby thicket, desperately wounded him. Helen, swooping to her horse's mane, turned and fled. The fort responded with a volley, and Helen, falling from her horse, was dragged by her foot, which caught in the stirrup, along a wild country road. When rescued, her head had been pounded to a pulp. This affair was known as "Helen's Defeat."
Houston came in person a few days later and with a thousand troops. These were quartered in the counties of the feud for some months, and served to quiet affairs somewhat, but, although there were no more outbreaks, the animosities engendered came down to Civil War times, and my school days at Nacogdoches, fifteen years after the related events, were full of Moderator and Regulator talk, and killings on that score were not infrequent in East Texas even after Appomattox.
[Source: Texas Magazine (Volume 6) May, 1912 to Oct. 1912 p. 59-61 - Transcribed by Rita Hunt]
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