This Week in Texas History: King Fisher ruled an outlaw empire

By Bartee Haile

King Fisher entered the state penitentiary on Oct. 30, 1870 to do a five-year stretch for housebreaking. But the governor took pity on the 16-year-old convict and granted him a full pardon after only four months behind bars.

None too happy to see the teenaged troublemaker back on the street so soon, Goliad authorities kept a close eye on the budding badman. Knowing the slightest slip-up would land him back in prison, the youth went west in search of a fresh start.

Fisher found exactly that in the no-man’s-land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, where the wild inhabitants lived by their wits and trigger fingers. As a cowboy, he learned to outthink and outshoot the opposition, Mexican bandits that preyed on the isolated cattle ranches.  By the mid-1870s, he was beating the rustlers at their own game and building a private domain known as the Pendencia or simply “King Fisher’s Territory.”

The King was the picture of frontier success. Always dressed fit to kill, he sported the finest linen shirts and tailor-made chaps with a crimson waist sash. Wearing a buckskin jacket with gold embroidery, he topped off the expensive wardrobe with a white sombrero also trimmed in precious metal and featuring a gold snake hatband.

On his hips Fisher carried a matching pair of silver-plated six-shooters with ivory handles. More than mere ornaments, the pistols enabled the ambidextrous gunfighter to dispense death with either hand.

Although Fisher believed bloodshed was bad for business, he never shied away from a fight. He once caught a trio of Mexicans stealing a horse from his corral. After one thief foolishly fired in his direction, he grabbed the assailant’s gun and dropped all three in their tracks.

In another fabled fracas, Fisher single-handedly slew four more foes. Braining the first with a branding iron, he shot the rest before they could clear leather. It did not take many such episodes for him to rank among the fastest guns in Texas.

Fisher hobnobbed with the high and mighty cultivating the friendship of politicians and even a future dictator. Prior to seizing power in Mexico, Porfirio Diaz often dined with the border boss in Piedras Negras across the river from Eagle Pass. Fisher’s connections with influential officials time and again foiled efforts to bring him to justice.

Capt. Leaner McNelly, however, could not be bought or bullied, and in June 1876 he arrested nine members of the Fisher gang in a raid on the Pendencia. Tying the prisoners to their saddles for the ride to Eagle Pass, the Ranger warned Fisher’s new bride that any rescue attempt would result in the death of her husband. 

But McNelly was upstaged by a slick lawyer, who secured the release of his clients before they set foot in jail. After turning Fisher loose, the captain offered him a few choice words of wisdom.

“You’ve won every bout with the law up to now,” conceded McNelly, “but finally you’ll lose one and that one will be for keeps. You could make a good citizen. You’d also make a nice corpse.”

Ironically, Capt. McNelly beat the outlaw to the hereafter, when he died of tuberculosis the next September. The Ranger that took his place continued the campaign to clean up the border badlands by filing 21 separate charges, including five for murder, against the well-dressed outlaw.

Fisher was in and out of court for six years but eventually beat every rap. While a guest of the taxpayers for five months in the Bexar County Jail, he resolved to turn over a new leaf and become a legitimate rancher. So complete was the conversion that he sold his interest in a saloon and regularly attended religious revivals.

The sheriff at crime-infested Uvalde asked Fisher to lend a hand, and within months the deputy was running the show after his host ran afoul of the law. The reformed rustler was assured of election when voters went to the polls in 1884.

During a visit to Austin, Fisher bumped into fellow gunman Ben Thompson, who as usual was in a festive mood. Although he rarely drank, on this fateful occasion Fisher imbibed in a daylong binge which ended late that night in San Antonio.

 A sober Fisher never would have agreed to step inside the very gambling house, where Thompson had killed the proprietor two years before. Associates of the dearly departed arranged an ambush in their honor and on cue cut down the famous gunslingers with a barrage of bullets.

Many Texans mourned the premature passing of King Fisher and cursed the cowards who nipped his new life in the bud. Not everyone, though, was willing to forgive and forget.

For years the mother of a fugitive killed by the sure-shooting deputy visited the Uvalde cemetery on the anniversary of her son’s death. She would build a fire over the remains of King Fisher and dance triumphantly on his grave.

“Texas Entertainers: Lone Stars in Profile” is full of talented Texans who deserve a curtain call. Order your copy by mailing a check for $24.00 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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