West Texas ranchers defy future governor

Panhandle cattlemen called the attorney general’s bluff on Jan. 9, 1886 by indicting themselves on charges of “illegal fencing” on public land. Fifty-two ranchers, including the majority of the grand jurors, defiantly thumbed their noses at state authorities.

By the 1880s, most people in the eastern half of Texas believed beef barons in the distant Panhandle were exploiting the public domain for their own private gain. Pressure mounted on the legislature to curtail the custom of letting the cowmen graze their herds for free on government land.

A bill was passed in 1883 that mandated competitive leasing of the public range at a minimum rate of four cents an acre. To enforce the new law, a State Land Board was created made up of the governor, attorney general, comptroller, treasurer and commissioner of the General Land Office.

But the ranchers flatly refused to bid against each other for grazing and water rights or to offer more than the minimum. The Land Board retaliated by doubling the price to eight cents an acre and branded the obstinate pioneers as trespassers subject to eviction at gunpoint.

Attorney General John Templeton demanded that the Panhandle prosecutor seek indictments against the big ranchers for “illegal enclosure,” private fencing of public pasture. Caught in the middle and fearing the worst, the district attorney reluctantly obeyed.

To his amazement, the grand jury cheerfully complied. Following the lead of Charles Goodnight, the biggest rancher of them all, the cowmen returned a total of 76 indictments against themselves and practically every beef producer in the region. The attorney general’s bluff was officially called.

Rare was the prospective juror in the sparsely settled Panhandle whose livelihood did not depend in one way or another on the cattle industry. The dozen that sat in judgment of the accused were either working cowboys or their employers, and, as expected, the short trial ended in a verdict of “not guilty.”

But the attorney general would not throw in the towel and immediately went after Goodnight as the ringleader of the resistance. Templeton obtained a temporary injunction in May 1886 that for all practical purposes put Goodnight out of business.

The injunction was soon overturned by a judge named Willis, the same magistrate who had presided over the controversial acquittal. Adding insult to injury, he awarded cash damages to Goodnight. Badly beaten at his own game, the humiliated attorney general was content to complete his term without going another round with the rough-and-tumble ranchers.

In a dramatic attempt to force the Land Board to honor the original four-cent lease, Goodnight and the owners of the T Anchor Ranch traveled to Austin. Loading a wheelbarrow with more than $100,000, they pushed the fortune up Congress Avenue to the office of the flustered state treasurer. Although he refused to accept the cold cash, the ranchers made their point and gave even their sharpest critics a good laugh.

On the heels of this publicity stunt, Goodnight confronted the Land Board in person. “I was on the frontier carrying a gun when I should have been in school,” he growled. “I put in my life to make this a free country and haven’t paid a cent for it. If this Board can legislate me, I’ll leave your damned state!”

“Where will you go?” Gov. John Ireland asked.

“Russia,” retorted Goodnight. “It’s the next meanest place I know.”

In January 1887, the incoming attorney general resumed his predecessor’s crusade. Setting his sights on Judge Willis, Jim Hogg initiated formal proceedings to have the jurist removed from the bench.

The future governor persuaded a special committee to refer the matter to the House of Representatives, but the required two-thirds vote could not be mustered. Overlooking this inconvenient technicality, a simple majority arbitrarily impeached Willis and sent him onto the Senate for trial.

Hogg was at his bombastic best in his scathing denunciation of the judge as the corrupt lackey of the rich ranchers. However, the ambitious attorney general did not have the evidence to back up his rhetoric, leaving the senators with no choice but to clear Willis of all charges.

To welcome home the vindicated judge, his cowboy constituents wildly whooped it up. Thirty riders stopped the stage on the outskirts of Mobeetie, presented Willis with a jug of his favorite beverage and escorted him into town at breakneck speed.

A hundred cheering citizens waving homemade signs and a band with more enthusiasm than talent were waiting for their hero, who had put the Austin politicians in their place. The hard life on the High Plains offered few occasions for celebration, and the Panhandle cowpunchers made the most of it in honor of His Honor.

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