In sections of the Texas frontier where courts and jails had not been established or where officials and juries could not be depended upon, committees of vigilance were often formed to stamp out lawlessness and rid communities of desperadoes. Sometimes these secret bodies degenerated into mob rule or were used for private vengeance, but usually they were made up of law-abiding, responsible citizens who wanted only to maintain order and to protect lives and property. They operated against murderers, horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and those who held up stagecoaches and trains. Sometimes they acted without warning, but often they gave notice for offenders to leave. Those who failed to do so might be caught and hanged. As vigilantes usually operated at night and were not inclined to talk, their activities seldom had detailed public notice, but newspaper files and other chronicles indicate that they were active in many parts of Texas, especially in the two decades following the Civil War. In the spring of 1857 seven horse thieves were reported hanged at different places along the San Antonio River, with their guns and outer clothes placed beside the trees. On the night of April 26, 1869, a horse thief was taken from the jail at Richmond and hanged from a span of the iron bridge being built across the Brazos River. The annual report of Adjutant General Frank L. Britton for 1873 quoted a warning to four alleged thieves in Hill County, telling them to leave the county within thirty days if they wished to avoid the fate of others of their kind. At Denison, where thugs gathered after the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway reached the Red River, vigilantes hanged a horse thief on the night of January 12, 1874. The best known and probably most active vigilance committee in Texas was that of Fort Griffin. On the night of April 9, 1876, this group caught a man in the act of stealing a horse and promptly hanged him to a pecan tree, leaving below the swinging body a pick and shovel for the convenience of anyone who might wish to remove the gruesome spectacle. In the next three months the Fort Griffin vigilantes shot two horse thieves and hanged six others. Two years later they executed by firing squad a former sheriff of Shackelford County who had turned to cattle rustling.
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Denison Daily News, January 14, March 23, 1874, June 4, 1876. Galveston News, April 28, May 5, 1869. Wayne Gard, Frontier Justice (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949). Paul D. Lack, "Slavery and Vigilantism in Austin, Texas, 1840–1860," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 85 (July 1981).
Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
Vigilante Activity/Mob Violence
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Vigilantes and Vigilance Committees,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 22, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
February 9, 2019