Jaybird-Woodpecker War

By: Pauline Yelderman

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: November 11, 2020

The Jaybird-Woodpecker War was a feud between two political factions for the control of Fort Bend County. The Jaybirds, representing the wealth and about 90 percent of the White population, were the regular Democrats who sought to rid the county of the Republican government that had gained control during Reconstruction. The Woodpeckers, numbering about forty persons and also claiming to be Democrats, were the officials and former officials who held office as a result of the Black vote for the Republican ticket. Former friends, neighbors, and relatives became bitter enemies as a result of the feud.

The election of 1888 engendered much bitterness. Serious altercations occurred between rival candidates. On August 2, 1888, J. M. Shamblin, Jaybird leader, was killed. In September Henry Frost, another Jaybird leader, was seriously wounded. The Jaybirds held a mass meeting at Richmond on September 6 and resolved to warn certain Black people to leave the county within ten hours. They did so. Members of both factions were armed, and Texas Rangers were stationed in Richmond. The heaviest vote in the history of the county was polled on election day, which passed peacefully. Again the Democrats were defeated and the Woodpeckers left in control. After the election the breach between the factions widened. There were insults, assaults, threats, and denunciations-and two more killings. Kyle Terry, Woodpecker tax assessor, killed L. E. Gibson at Wharton on June 21, 1889; a week later Terry was killed by Volney Gibson. The county became an armed camp, and the "Battle of Richmond," on August 16, 1889, became inevitable.

An exchange of shots between J. W. Parker and W. T. Wade of the Woodpeckers and Guilf and Volney Gibson of the Jaybirds was the signal for the beginning of the battle. Most of the action took place around the courthouse, the National Hotel, and the McFarlane residence. After about twenty minutes of exchange of shots, the Woodpecker combatants retreated to the courthouse and left the Jaybirds in possession of the town. The casualties were heavy. Jaybirds from all parts of the county hurried to Richmond in anticipation of further hostilities, but there was no renewal of the conflict. The Houston Light Guards arrived to establish martial law, and Governor Lawrence S. Ross and the Brenham Light Guards arrived on August 17. Governor Ross remained in Richmond several days to act as mediator. A complete reorganization of county government resulted in the removal or resignation of all Woodpecker officials and the selection of Jaybirds or persons acceptable to the Jaybirds to fill the offices. After a turbulent era of more than twenty years, the White citizenry once more controlled the government.

A mass meeting was held at Richmond on October 3, 1889, to form a permanent organization to maintain White control. It passed a resolution to appoint a committee to draft a constitution for an association of the White people of Fort Bend County to control county affairs. A second meeting on October 22, 1899, organized the Jaybird Democratic Organization of Fort Bend County. Four hundred and forty-one White men signed the membership roll. The organization played the dominant role in Fort Bend County politics for the next seventy years.

Clarence Wharton, Wharton's History of Fort Bend County (San Antonio: Naylor, 1939). Pauline Yelderman, The Jay Bird Democratic Association of Fort Bend County (Waco: Texian Press, 1979).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Feuds
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Pauline Yelderman, “Jaybird-Woodpecker War,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/jaybird-woodpecker-war.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 11, 2020

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