War in East Texas: Regulators vs. Moderators, by Bill O’Neal, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2018, $18.95

Although Texas was famous for its 19th-century blood feuds, official state historian Bill O’Neal is somewhat puzzled that both history and legend have overlooked the bloodiest of them all. War in East Texas is his modest but well-researched effort to set that situation to rights.

Hostilities between so-called Regulators and Moderators began in 1840 and racked up an excessive body count before coming to a close in 1844, the year before the Republic of Texas became a state. In that era places like Shelby and Harrison counties were a dream world for strong and independent-minded folks, what with government jurisdiction all but nonexistent, court proceedings readily terminated by well-directed death threats against the local judge, and justice, such as it was, truly emanating from the barrel of a gun—or from the end of a rope. Attempts to settle were frequently jeopardized by men stealing livestock, horses and slaves, as well as “land pirates” who dealt in fraudulent real estate. 

Inevitably, in such an atmosphere, settlers took the law into their own hands, individually and, later, as organized “Regulators.” The people they targeted swiftly recognized the value of numbers and formed their own counter-organizations, dubbing themselves “Moderators.” Thus the scene was set for ongoing conflict fueled by vengeance, which sometimes erupted into outright battles, as occurred in Shelby County in August 1844. It ultimately took men of the stature of Sam Houston and intervention by the militia to bring it to an end, by which time 30 people had lost their lives—a steep toll in an era when most firearms were single-action.

It would take a scorecard to keep track of east Texas feuds, and the author provides one, listing the Regulators and Moderators. The last chapter puts the conflict in perspective with more widely remembered feuds, such as the Hatfields and McCoys, and “wars” fought in Lincoln (New Mexico Territory) and Johnson (Wyoming) counties, Arizona Territory’s Pleasant Valley and Tombstone—noting that none of the above were as deadly as the relatively forgotten east Texas affair. The author finds this all the more curious, given that it involved such prominent historical figures as Robert Potter and William Pinckney Rose, as well as such evocative local names as Jim Strickland, “The Tiger of the Tenehaw,” “Riproaring Jim” Forsyth, “One-Eyed” Williams and “Buckskin Bill” McFadden. Scholars of the West’s wilder side should learn something new in War in East Texas and might come away wondering why they hadn’t learned about it sooner.

—Jon Guttman