A word from Curt:
All of my life, I’ve been fascinated with the “Westport Fight.”
This page is a compilation of material on this 1881 event.
Thanks to Louisiana historian Jane P. McManus for typing this Dr. Crawford’s fascinating account of the fight.
The store owner in the fight, Joe Moore, was my great great great grandmother. He is the fictional lead character in two of my novels, The Wayfaring Stranger and A Good Place.
I am currently researching and writing the third book in the trilogy, As the Crow Flies. It takes place around the time and events of the Westport Fight.
The Westport Fight, Vernon Parish Louisiana B
By Webster Talma Crawford
Submitted by Jane P. McManus CPS
Date: March 4, 2008 **********************************************
Copyright. All rights reserved. http://usgwarchives.net/copyright.htm http://usgwarchives.net/la/lafiles.htm **********************************************
The Westport Fight by Webster Talma Crawford
(submitted by Jane P. McManus CPS)
This work by the author was never copyrighted, and typed copies have been circulated and found in many locations over the years. I was given a copy of a much larger work done by Crawford during an interview in 1988 with George Washington Johnson in Pitkin Louisiana. The Westport Fight was only one part of Crawford’s story. Although he could not remember who had sent him the copy, Mr. Johnson who was 98 years old at the time, could remember amazing details of the fight. He said that one of his ancestors had participated in the fight, namely Robert Perkins (not Tom as referred to in the story), and that the family retold the story of this fight many times by the fireside at night. He shared photographs of his family and those of Robert Perkins and his sons. The story as told by Crawford is basically true, but with many embellishments as was the style of writing back then. Some of the terms may appear derogatory, but to attempt to change those at this time would detract from the story. At the same time, no attempt was made to correct the spelling, but minor punctuation errors were corrected..
The Rapides Parish Courthouse houses records of the indictments and trials of several of the members of this fight – “Murder” and “Assault with Deadly Weapons with intent to kill” being the charges. All were acquitted or not prosecuted during the Spring term of court 1882. The subsequent murder of John Watson in the latter part of 1882 can be assumed to relate directly to this altercation, as the inquest refers to the Westport Fight. The main cause of the Westport Fight in this account was the horse race.
In an interview in 1988 with I.C. Morrison in Hineston LA, I was told that the racetrack in the story was near the Hatch & Moore store. He described the event to my mother and me. A goose was greased and hung from a tree by its feet. The riders as they went around the track were to grab the bird as they raced by, and the winner was the one who was able to pull the head off the goose.
Such was the entertainment in the backwoods of Louisiana in the 1800’s.
Participant Index: Crawford, Webster Talma – White Davis, Buck – White Davis, Jeff (Jessie) – White Dyal, Ephraim – Redbone Dyal, Ruth – Redbone Dykes, Hance (Hamp) – White (killed) Hamilton, Dr. – White Hatch, Joseph – White Johnson, Matt – Redbone Lacaze, Louis – White (creole) Lacaze, Soulonge (creole) (negotiator) Moore, Dan – White (teenage son) Moore, Joe – White Moore, Joe Jr. – White (teenage son) Moore, Mayo – White (teenage son) Morrows [Maricle], Simon – Redbone (killed) Morrows [Maricle], Hiram – Redbone Musgrove, Gordon – White (wounded) Nolan, Sam – White Perkins, Henry – Redbone Perkins, Marion – Redbone Perkins, Tom [Robert] – Redbone (killed) Rube, Uncle – Black (ex-slave) Sanders, Hugh – White Watson, John – White Wray [Ray], Bob – Redbone
In the fall of 1881, I was working with a government surveying party on Cherry Winche. I even had a Redbone sweetheart. Toward the last of November we finished our survey, moved north and made camp near Hineston. About two weeks later I decided to try to see my girl again. I say try, because her pappy, old man Ephraim Dyal, was mightily opposed to my courtin’ her. But I expected to see Ruth by attending a dance which was to be given at the home of the Redbone farmer, Bob Wray. And this is how I happened to get into the Westport Fight.
And you never heard of it? Well, it was shore a real battle and I am quite surprised that you haven’t heard the story many times. Still come to think of it, you have been away from this part of the country so long I guess, you have forgot that the old timers who set around Williams’ store at Hineston for twenty five years never tired of recountin’ vigorous though somewhat exaggerated versions of this famous old “Rawhide Fight.”
Well, back there in ’81, a man of the name of Joe Moore, with his partner Dr. Hamilton, was running a general merchandise store and a mill I believe, at Westport. A man named Hatch it seems, had an interest in the business, but was not an active partner. Hatch probably had established the mill at this place several years before, at least prior to May ’77, for in that month we ran line near the mill and I mark its location if I remember correctly, as being on the north side of the Old Sugartown Road, some eight or ten chains east of the west line of Section 17. This would fix the site more than a mile from the crossing on Ten Mile Creek, at which place it generally is supposed the fight occurred. But the site of the old grist mill and store where the Westport Fight took place is not the same as the “Westport” on Ten Mile, from which the battle got its name.
Moore was born in Mayo County Ireland. To escape the wrath of an irate nobleman whose dog he had killed, the boy fled to this country in the early fifties, and later settled in western Louisiana.
About this same time the young doctor Hamilton had left his home in Virginia to try his fortune in the west and had taken up his residence in that same hinterland between the Quelqueshoe and the Sabine.
The culture Moore and Hamilton had known sorter drew them together it seems, and with Hatch, whom I know nothing of they established the store at Westport, in the very heart of the Redbone Country. There being no other trading post nearer than Hineston or Sugartown, it was a good stand and business prospered. But it was a “Daresome” venture, a downright risky thing to do, for ever and anon the Redbones looked with baleful eyes on this encroachment into their domain. It was anathema to the old Redbone tradition to permit an Anglo-American establishment west of the Quelqueshoe. This part of Louisiana was still a vast, unexplored and unclaimed hinterland over which the “Painter,” the wolf and their human cousin, the Redbone, held high carnival. Here, the untamed wilderness was making a stubborn last stand. Here was the pioneer’s paradise.
The Redbones, though apparently and perhaps, even ostensibly engaged with the wilderness, were in reality standing guard against its spoliation. Like their Indian ancestors from whom the virtue was inherited, they could settle in a primeval region without besmirching it with the evils of progress. The Neutral Ground, as history knows it, bred a race of heroic figures but having passed across the stage of American life at a time when the attention of the nation was centered on bigger events, those heroes of Western Louisiana remain pretty well unknown. Since this territory was a part of the original Texas, it is meet that several of its natives are numbered with the other immortal heroes of the Alamo. The deadly enmity between the incoming settlers from the east and the already established Redbones began in the twenties of the nineteenth century. In the early thirties, a moral fight between those opposing factions of American colonial life occurred at a place called Rawhide, the exact location of which I don’t know and I doubt it would be possible to ascertain, but it was somewhere in the Ten Mile or Six Mile country.
In this fight, the Redbones by force of overwhelming number had been victorious; the new settler had been driven out, and during the half century that followed, a constant hatred had been smoldering about the borders of the Redbone settlement into which easterners were steadily trying to push their way. The valley of the Cherry Winche was a fine grazing country; sheep and cattle thrived; land cleared of its thick growth was productive of bountiful crops; hogs fattened to solid grease in the creek bottoms; and deer, turkey and all manner of other wild game provided an easy living.
Every man engaged in the Westport Fight was a hero.
Only heroes lived in Western Louisiana in the early ‘80’s, but in a stronger relief perhaps than any of the other combatants, there stands but one figure, this man was Gordon Musgrove. Musgrove moved to West Louisiana about 1878. He settled near the northwestern border of the “Dead Line” flung about the Cherry Winche country by the Redbones. But it was not in Gordon Musgrove’s mind to stop at either an imaginary of a real line of demarcation. Nor was he inclined to call a spade a hand shovel, or a Redbone an “Israelite.” He was about thirty six at the time and of powerful physique. Reputed to have Indian blood in his veins, he was justly proud of his heritage; for he was a man of high character and unflinching courage. The beginning of the actual trouble which led up to the Westport Fight occurred at a camp meeting when Musgrove stoked the fire by suddenly leaving the building which was packed with Redbones, after making the statement that the “Smell of N—–“ always made him ill.
Then there was the animosity which had been stirred up by the horse race about ten days before Christmas, where it was quite generally accepted that the decision given had been unfairly in favor of the Redbone’s horse ridden by Henry Perkins. The new settlers had of course bet on the horse owned and ridden by the “White” farmer, Buck Davis. There was much bitter, ugly argument that day between Redbone and “White” settlers and nobody knows just how a serious encounter was averted. Yet the day ended without bloodshed, although the factions went away to their homes with much snarling and rancer [sic] of heart. Getting back to the dance; on the night of December 23rd, a week following the horse race, the Redbones for miles around, gathered to the home of Bob Wray. It was to be purely a Redbone affair and no place for any “White” settlers. And while any older or better informed man, or indeed, any man with a thought for caution would have remained away, I was not so inclined. Being young-blooded, new to the country, full of daring and also in love, I rode straight for the Redbone settlement on Ten Mile. Upon reaching the Wray place I found it a focus of excitement somewhat stronger than I had ever before observed. It was a cold crisp night. In a corner of the yard a big pine knot fire was going and a crowd of men were standing around it, drinking and “Whooping It Up” in general revelry.
I tied my horse to a sapling and joined the crowd by the fire. I found a cool greeting and an almost hostile attitude. Thinking that all the “White” men were probably in the house, I made my way through the pack of men on the porch and into the front room of the building, where the dance was in progress. On the hearth of the immense dirt chimney at the end of the room, a great fire of pine knots was roaring, while couples were shuffling over the rough boards to the spirited strains of a veteran darkey’s fiddle. He alone comprised the orchestra. And what man of mature years who was reared in Western Louisiana has not danced to the music supplied by that lovable old slave Negro, “Uncle Rube.” Later “Pete” joined Rube with guitar and it was “Pete and Rube” playing for the country dances for years on years.
Red likker was the universal drink throughout the backwoods of that day and a dance near Christmas was the supreme occasion for its use. Wine was tolerated, for the women folks. So, on an inverted dry-goods box in one corner of the big room, two kegs were set enthroned, one of whiskey and the other of wine, and beside this box, next to the broad fire place, old Rube sat with his fiddle; the kegs and the old darkey being joint rulers over the conviviality of the merrymaking crowd. At first glance I saw no one whom I recognized and I was about to pass out into the yard when I caught sight of my sweetheart dancing with a strapping young Redbone. The girl saw me about the same time, immediately disengaged herself from her partner and returned to the seat near the door, where I joined her and asked for a dance. “No, no, we mustn’t dance together here,” Ruth replied. “I am afraid all my people dislike you, Frank and you had better leave.”
But I insisted, so when the next dance started we waltzed out on the floor. After finishing the set my girl’s father, old Eph Dyal, told me he wanted to talk with me a little, so I followed the old man outside. “I’m thinkin’ you had better git on ter hoss and ride stranger,” old Eph declared as soon as we had cleared the room, “why?” I asked him. “Because I ainter goin’ to have you adancing with my gal and because we ‘unses don’t want you here no how.” “All right, I’ll be going then,” I told him. Being unarmed, I knew it would be unwise to remain and so assented to his demand. But I decided to ask Ruth first, if she thought I was really in danger. Ruth told me that I must not remain another minute, else her father send someone out to waylay me on the way home. So, with hurried words parting, I left my sweetheart with her Redbone lover and rode swiftly out of the Cherry Winche country. With calls such as “Skip fire in a fen; swing your partner and swing him again,” the sets were announced and the ball roared on into the night. As the evening advanced the leaders of the Redbones’ affairs gradually assembled before the throne of Bacchus where, inspired by the worship, the conversation drifted into the inevitable topic of threatening hostilities. Simon Morrows, prominent and influential among his fellow Redbones, was a habitual dispenser of the festive fluid and represented the Hatch store in that lucrative capacity. During the low but open discussion, Morrows diplomatically discouraged any plan or plot which involved an open break at Ten Mile, as this would jeopardize his cherished source of income and inspiration. Instead, Simon proposed and advocated to his compatriot the plan of waylaying their enemies the next morning, at a lonely place known as Chinquapin Gulch.
Most of the “White” settlers, including the Musgroves, Davises, and both the older and younger generations of the Creole family Lacaze, passed this arroyo on their return to the Hatch store to which they would most certainly go for Christmas supplies the following day. This plan, Morrows pointed out, was much the best, as the victims could be shot from an ambuscade with no danger to the ambushers and no one need ever know who did the shooting. Simon’s motto was that of his Spanish-speaking friends across the Sabine; “Los Muertos No Hablan” – “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” Since ambushing his enemies in the “Long Suit” of every Redbone, it required no permission for Simon to bring all his hearers into agreement with his scheme that is, all save one.
This lone dissenter was an entirely passive one, a silent, unknown hearer of the discussion. Freely and confidently the determined Redbone had talked, all unmindful of Uncle Rube who was sawing valiantly away on his fiddle, beating time with his foot and ostensibly oblivious to everything but his own paramount part in the success of the evening. But, old Rube’s hearing was more acute than his years belied and if the solemn visaged old darkey, eyes closed and body swaying to his music, missed a word of what passed around the thrown that night, it was nothing more potent than a request for another tune. Rube’s best friends were “White Settlers,” but the old Negro was closely associated with the Redbones and lived only a short distance from Wray’s. So when the dance broke up soon after midnight, the faithful old fiddler and his lame mule were seen to job sleepily through the sagging gate and out to the low lean-to stable, half an hour after the last strains of “All Over Now” had sobbed from the weary fiddle.
But no one saw Rube and his mule slip silently through the gap and into the woods behind the barn lot, nor did anyone see them steal silently back again, after a ten mile circuit, which ended just as the sun broke over the Cherry Winche swamp, Christmas Eve morning. So it came about that, however many skulking forms may have lain under cover of the brush, or crouched behind tree trunks at Chinquapin Gulch that morning, the intended victims did not appear and as the day advanced it became evident to the ambuscaders that the “White” settlers had missed the trap. The usual Christmas Eve crowd was straggling in by the various other neighborhood roads and trails that led to the Hatch store. None came the way of Chinquapin Gulch.
At the Hatch store a careless jovial crowd circulated. Of the high tension flowing under the surface of affairs no evidence was apparent; but human nerves never were strung more taught.
As was their custom, but few Redbones came into the building. Preferring the open, most of them hung around the hitching racks, or leaned against the tall pines amidst which the store had been built. At intervals one of the Cherry Winche men would enter the store, make some purchase and return to his comrades outside.
About ten o’clock I suppose, Gordon Musgrove drove up. He tied his team and sauntering up the steps of the wide store gallery, passed a cheery word of greeting to Buck Davis, who stood leaning against the outer post of the gallery, chewing a cud of tobacco. The talk between the two men turned to the horse race, and whether by design or by chance, it was just as Marion Perkins stepped out of the store that Musgrove spoke the words which precipitated the inevitable battle. Marion Perkins was an older brother of the jockey whose horse had run the race, and he was a somewhat larger man. He held a new bull whip in his hands which he had just bought. “You won that race clean, Buck” Musgrove said, “and if I’d bin a ridin’ instid o’you, I’d er had the money or a whipped Henry Perkins.” It was a straight challenge to Marion Perkins’ hot Redbone blood, and he didn’t hesitate a moment. Tossing his new bull whip to the floor, he faced Musgrove arrogantly. “Mebby you wanta whap his brother now,” he roared. Without further word, and like a pair of old bucks, the men charged each other. The hatred of generations, now released, put force and fury into their rushes. Each man’s blows found solid target, for it was a backwoodsman’s fight without rule, science or quarter. With each man seeking to keep his back to the building and each instinctively circling when driven toward the open front of the gallery, the crafty crouching movements and catlike springs of the Redbone striking contrasted with the swift bold charges and more open attack of the hardy timber jack.
The Redbone was employing the advantage of his greater weight and getting in a solid blow to Musgrove’s face, the latter was sent crashing against the wall of the building; but as if bouncing from the impact, the agile hard-knit form leaped into the air and launched a slashing kick which landed squarely on the Redbone’s unguarded jaw. Staggering from this driving crash, Perkins yielded himself to its impetus and dove toward the nearest gallery post as if to leap to the ground, but catching a brace, the man drove himself back toward his antagonist. Musgrove made a savage swing at the Redbone but Perkins ducked under it and grappling the timber man around the waist, he lifted Musgrove off his feet and hurled him to the floor, the Redbone driving his own head into the pit of the under man’s belly as he fell.
With the breath knocked out of him by the fall, Musgrove was unable to retain the hold he had secured on Perkins who lost no time in taking full advantage of what he had gained by gripping his prostrate opponent between his knees, and driving his heavy fists into the unyielding face pillowed on the rough board floor. Just as Musgrove’s vicious kick had landed on Perkins’s chin, a rangy horse had trotted around the corner of the store and the steel gray eyes of the rider had taken in the situation at one flashing glance.
Seeing nothing alarming in that stage of the fight, John Watson had casually wheeled his horse toward the hitch rack without however permitting a move to escape him. And in the next instant when the rider saw the fighters crash to the floor, he leaped clear of the saddle. Pitching his bridle reins to a popping eyed Negro boy to whom he snapped, “Heah boy, hold my hoss,” Watson bounded toward the store gallery. Now, if there was a “best man” in all of the wild reaches of that rough and tumbled country west of the Quelqueshoe, it was John Watson. He went always armed and seldom wore a coat. Tall and rangy as the big stallion he rode, broad of shoulder and slim of hip, with his muscles bulging the great breadth of his back with every panther like move of his perfectly synchronized body, he carried the air of being always stripped for action. And from one river to the other there was not a ten year old boy who had not heard of the quick and deadly accuracy of Watson’s heavy, single action 45. As Watson landed on the store gallery, Perkins, intoxicated with the joy of the killer, was aware of nothing but the battered blinded face beneath him and not failing to sense in full the mercilessness of the victor in his triumph, Watson saw no need for silk gloves had he owned them.
Gauging his stride, he swung a kick which lifted Perkins clear of his victim and slammed him against the corner post of the gallery, and before the Redbone could even get to his knees, Watson seized him by the shoulders and hurled him sprawling into the dust of the road, half way to the hitching rack, twenty feet away. Before attempting to rise, Perkins looked dazedly about to see what gargantuan power had burst so disastrously into his hour of glory. Watson stood at ease on the edge of the gallery, but there was no mistaking his tone when he drawled, “You stay there til I tell you to git up.”
As Perkins landed in the open roadway, Joe Moore came from the store and bent over the quivering form of the still prostrate Musgrove, who lay unconscious. Moore turned to Watson; “Looks as if that hard fall had knocked the all wind out of Gordon,” he said calmly. The storekeeper then addressed Davis sharply. “Get a horse, Buck,” he said, “and go for Dr. Hamilton.”
Although the whole encounter had been crowded into a period of time perhaps shorter than four minutes, every man about the mill and store had gathered to the scene as Musgrove began to draw his breath again. The dazed man staggered to his feet just as Dr. Hamilton rode up to the west door of the store. Davis had ridden to the Doctor’s home, only a short distance away, but Hamilton had been away on a call and knew nothing of the trouble until he reached the scene.
Having seen Dr. Hamilton approaching, Moore and Watson went to meet the Doctor as he entered the store at the rear; for they realized that it was time for some straight thinking and for steering a steady course. I had arranged no rendezvous with Ruth Dyal for that day, but I was determined to see her and in the hope of meeting her by prowling around the Dyal homestead, the early morning of that fateful Christmas Eve found me riding surreptitiously down the old Sugartown road toward Westport.
I had decided that it would be best first to reconnoiter the store and ascertain whether old Eph were away from home. I had assumed that Dyal would be at Westport but I knew it would be good business to verify the assumption. So it happened that I reached the store just as Musgrove and Perkins opened the first act of the Westport Fight. Realizing at once the inevitability of a serious battle, and the danger of open attack, the Redbones who had been loitering about the hitch rack at the beginning of the hostitilities, vanished into the woods. The opening of the long festering wound was now eminent; the Redbones must drive the “White” settlers out of the Cherry Winche country once and for all.
Many of the details of the Westport Fight were still clear in my memory, after these long years; yet it is rarely possible ever to ascertain a thoroughly complete account of any complicated affray, even directly after its occurrence. Fifty years after, the task is multiplied a thousand fold. In the minds of some of the witnesses there has even been the question as to the year in which the Westport Fight occurred. Some of the participants have claimed ’81; some ’82. But this has been conclusively settled by reference to the inscriptions on the grave stones of the victims which all read “1882,” and by the fact also, that the Christmas Eve of 1882 fell on Sunday.
In such a melee as the Westport Fight, none of the eye witnesses and least of all the combatants ever remembers just what occurred. All accounts will differ as to the sequence of events, number of shots fired, and the relative positions of the antagonists. The mind is unable to concentrate on the various details of the complex situations and the rapidly shifting and simultaneous views, each with high spots of interest, so crowd upon the centers of vision and hearing as to make the entire scene kaleidoscopic. Whether the first account a witness gives is better than any subsequent construction, as has often been contended, I shall seriously question. Such an account, given before the witness has had time to correlate and properly arrange the order of events, is likely to contain much that is conflicting. Although it is doubtless true that a fresh account will more often give the better view of what was apparent to the observer’s mind, however variant with reality.
While Moore and Watson discussed the situation with Dr. Hamilton, the Redbone, Perkins, lay in the dust of the roadway where he had fallen. Only the fact that he was under the orders of John Watson was protecting the man from violence at the hands of the mob which had gathered around him. The actual presence of the cold-eyed executive, Watson, could have added nothing to the inviolate status of the recumbent Perkins. The crowd about the man was less afraid of him than they were of John Watson.
This ludicrous and almost unbelievable situation lasted for several minutes while Moore, Hamilton and Watson held a confab within the store. Having reached a tentative decision, the three cool-headed men walked out to the spot where Perkins lay in the road. As the circle of men standing around the Redbone opened to admit the trio, Moore stated the decision, “Get up Marion,” he said to Perkins, “and go inside.”
But looking quickly at his jailer, the Redbone made no move until Watson nodded, whereupon Perkins obeyed the order, and no man spoke or made a move as the four disappeared through the doorway of the store. The Westport store was a large two-story frame building, set facing the east and, as I told you, stood on the north side of the old Sugartown road. The stairway leading to the upper story was located at the rear of the building and leading the group to the lower landing,
Dr. Hamilton calmly gave his order to Perkins; “Go upstairs Marion,” the doctor said. “Keep quiet and don’t show yourself. We will see that you are safe.” But again glancing at Watson as an accused man to his lawyer, Perkins caught the quick nod and obeyed the doctor’s command. Half an hour passed.
Tom Perkins the elder, father to Marion and Henry, rode up to the Hatch store, dismounted and went in. Old man Tom had heard of the fight between Musgrove and Marion; had heard that his son was being held a prisoner in the store. The old Redbone’s face was set and tense as he approached the proprietor, Joe Moore. But without waiting for Perkins to address Moore, Dr. Hamilton caught his attention and suavely nodded to old Tom to come over into the vacant corner of the store. Dr. Hamilton, always agreeable in manner, bland of appearance, and a cool moderator in the affair of all that back country between the rivers, was also a man of unflinching courage. Apart from the boisterous crowd which stood about the counters drinking, Dr. Hamilton hoped to allay Perkins’ anger.
The doctor laid the situation briefly before the aggressive father, and as he did so, Hamilton poured a glass of his best wine and extended it to Perkins. “Mr. Tom,” the doctor said soothingly, “we have assured Marion that we will see that he is not harmed and now that you have come and can go with him, we will send the boy for his horse and keep the crowd occupied up front while Marion slips out the back door and gets away. Where shall we say that you will meet him?”
Pushing back the proffered glass of wine, old Tom straightened his heavy shoulders with the cold arrogance of his proud Moorish lineage; “Dr. Hamilton,” he said. “This aint no time for drinkin’. My boys have done run away for the last time and nothing but a rawhide fight is goin’ter do it now.”
And turning about, the old Redbone strode silently the length of the store and out to his horse. Mounting the cayuse, Perkins drove his spurs viciously into the animal’s flanks as the pony wheeled from the hitch rack and dashed away through the trees. Beyond sight of the store, Perkins came upon a group of his people who awaited the outcome of this interview. Angered beyond all reason, the old Leader of the clan ordered a runner to make all speed through the Redbone settlements with the inflaming report that the “White” men at Westport were holding Marion Perkins a prisoner within the store; that they were going to kill him; and that the settlers must gather all their forces with all the guns and ammunition they could find; and for all to come at once to “Fight it out.”
Little did the men at the store suspect the lurid lie old Tom h ad sent back to his people and the sinister program his report had inaugurated. As a result of the old Redbone’s story, the protection which had been afforded young Perkins now became a tremendous liability. The “Whites” at the store had no premonition of the impending assault. Even when the approaching cavalcade of Redbones were sighted, bearing guns of every description, some with barrels as long as hoe handles the men at the store continued unperturbed in the casual, carefree drunken way of the holiday season. Failing to realize the seriousness of the situation, the “Whites” were unable to take whatever advantage that might have been secured by Marion Perkins being within the store. Many women were in the attacking party and soon now the yapping babble of their high-pitched voices grew so plain as to compel recognition of the alarming fact that the whole Redbone community had taken to the warpath.
I became at this time both too drunk and too badly scared to remember any further details of the Westport Fight, but according to the memoirs of one of the besieged settlers, the attackers must have numbered more than fifty. The Redbone women remained in the background, hiding behind trees the while, keeping up a continual turmoil of shouting. Most of the men likewise kept within the shelter of the grove, dodging from tree to tree as they approached the store. Several of the bravest Redbones came out of the forest on horseback and rode boldly up to the hitching rack where they tied their horses and advanced toward the building on foot. These men were all heavily armed and in fighting mood.
Only three of the band came on the store gallery. These three, old Tom, Simon Morrows, and Hamp Dyal, disarmed the suspicions of the “Whites” by climbing the steps and approaching the front door of the store as though on peaceful business. It may seem strange that a man walking up to a country store with a rifle or a shotgun on his shoulder could be regarded without suspicion whatever, but it is true. Game was so plentiful in the woods traversed by the lonely roads over which the settlers went to the store or to the mill, and men and boys were so frequently seen with guns, that an armed man not only attracted no attention; his gun was unnoticed. The deadly purpose of the Redbones in this particular case however, was soon revealed. Joe Moore was standing in the doorway of the store. As the three Redbone men reached the door, Louis Lacaze, who had missed his rendezvous with fate at Chinquapin Gulch that morning, stepped out of the wide doorway behind Moore and unguardedly started toward his horse. Simon Morrows instantly threw his rifle on Lacaze, and was balked in his murderous purpose only by Moore’s quick action in springing between Morrows and his intended victim.
“For God’s sake Simon,” Moore cried, “don’t do that!”
The trigger of Morrow’s rifle was not pressed. The esteem and respect which the Redbones still held for Moore saved Lacaze’s life and also Moore’s own. Morrows lowered his gun, and Lacaze, realizing that he had better not start off through the cordon of Redbones in the woods, reentered the store.
Moore followed closely behind Lacaze. The heavy doors were then quickly slammed shut and barricaded, as a roar of rage went up from the disappointed crowd of Redbones who were now advancing on the building. This turn of the situation fell so swiftly as to catch several “Whites” outside, who were now left to the disposition of the Redbones.
Within the big store at this time, and upon whom devolved its defense, besides the present reviewer, were Joe Moore and Dr. Hamilton, proprietors, John Watson, Louis Lacaze, Sam Nolan, a stranger from the settlements whose name was afterwards learned to be Hugh Sanders, and Moore’s three sons, Mayo, Dan and Joe Jr.’ fifteen, thirteen, and eleven years old respectively.
The Moore & Hatch store at Westport was the base of supplies for a large territory between the Quelqueshoe and Sabine Rivers, at a time in the history of Western Louisiana, when firearms were a necessary adjunct to livelihood; and unfortunately for the besiegers, the garrison was rather amply supplied with means of defense. Marion Perkins, who had been left prisoner upstairs, had been watching developments from his position near the window, and at the first outbreak of hostilities, he came down to the ground floor of the building.
It was reported that Moore immediately unbarred the rear door of the store and allowed Perkins to go, unmolested. But another account, given by the Redbone and more likely correct, is that young Perkins fought his way down the stairs and out of the store with a “Double derringer and two other pistols”: his coat having been shot to threads. It is known that he was wounded which adds some confirmation to the story.
A few minutes after Perkins’ escape, the first fatal shot of the Westport Fight rang out to echo sharply upon the crisp air of that bright Christmas Eve morning. It was fired by Marion Perkins himself immediately after his peaceful (?) release from the “protection” of the “Whites,” and that shot killed a quiet, inoffensive non-participant in the race riot, a man named Hance Dykes who, innocently and unarmed, had come to the Hatch store to do his Christmas buying.
But Dykes was a “White” settler and he was living in that domain which the Redbones had reserved for their own. The “White” settlers must go out of the Cherry Winche country, now and forever, or be killed. After young Perkins, “in cold blood,” shot and fatally wounded his victim, the man staggered a few steps to the side of the building, groaning in his death agonies. In that condition and over his pleading that he was already a dead man, Dykes was attacked by the older Perkins and brutally beaten over the head with a six gun. One of the men inside the store, crouching against the wall, plainly heard the pleading and the attack, and announced to his co-defenders that old Tom had killed a man. To the Redbones, this opening act was simply retribution. The Anglo settlers had crossed the Quelqueshoe.
To the “Whites,” barricaded within the store, it appeared as a ghastly outrage, and it was the casting die in favor of a fight to the finish, without quarter. So as the old Redbone gloating, returned to the front of the store, he was shot down and instantly killed by a charge of buckshot fired by some man within the building, and thus the penalty old Tom had earned was paid while his hands were still hot with the earning. Gordon Musgrove was the next victim. He was another who had failed to get inside the building before the doors were barricaded and during Marion Perkins’ mad rushes, he came upon Musgrove, shot him several times and left the young timber jack lying on the ground, in a perfect pool of his own blood. After Perkins had hurried away in search of other victims on which to vent his murderous wrath, another Redbone, Matt Johnson it is said, came across Musgrove, perceived some sign of life in him, fired another shot into the prostrate man, after which the Redbone seized a piece of rough scantling and beat the helpless body with it until he was sure no life remained in it.
The rifle fire which was opened on the building as old Tom fell, now became a steady bombardment. Ranging from window to window inside the store, the defenders of that little civilization which existed west of the Quelqueshoe, were sending out hot lead into the thickets of pine through which skulking forms of the attackers ranged from tree trunk to fallen log. And with an accuracy that was fast making every window on the store a dangerous porthole, the long-range rifle fire of the Redbones poured into the opening. Musgrove remained on the ground lying in the crimson stain in which he had fallen.
After an hour or so of this ineffectual warfare and during a lull in the firing, Moore peering cautiously, very cautiously indeed through a small window, thought he saw Musgrove’s eye lids quiver. So, on the chance that a spark of life still lingered in the man, it is said that Moore “risked” his thirteen year old son by sending the boy out to investigate.
Perhaps in all justice to this boy, we should say that he was the real hero of the Westport Fight. I suppose God alone knows what saved him from a bullet as he made his investigation. But Dan, like Daniel of old, got safely back and reported that the man still breathed. The defenders then sent out two volunteers whose names it has not been possible to ascertain; but who, under a terrific volley of shots, succeeded in bringing their wounded comrade inside.
The fighting continued with renewed through ineffectual fury, through which Moore’s sons valiantly stood by their elders, loading guns and serving drinks, since it appears from all accounts that the besieged garrison required plenty of fluid stimulants to keep up their courage. From the beginning the situation must have seemed hopeless, as the supply of water could not last more than a day or two, and realizing this, the besieged men doubtless went easy on the Adam’s ale, and heavy on the whiskey, rum, gin, anisette, cider and cherry bounce, with all of which they were well supplied.
The cherry bounce was bouncing well enough to the tune of muzzle-loaders’ bullets whistling through the pines on Cherry Winche Hill. At this stage of the wild party young Joe Moore had a narrow escape. As the boy stooped to draw a glass of cherry from a barrel on the floor, a bullet crashed through the window, whizzed over his head and embedded itself in the wall beyond. It may be recorded here that none of Moore’s sons who served drinks that merry Christmas Eve, became bartenders in later life.
The attackers were having poor luck in silencing the defense, and they had no Cherry Bounce to cheer them up. Of the entire Redbone clan, Simon Morrows was perhaps the most disgusted and disappointed. The “Whites” had escaped the trap at Chinquapin Gulch. Somebody had let the cat out, old Tom had been killed and things were going badly indeed. The Redbones had never gone in for guerrilla warfare en massa: it had been thrust upon them two or three times, but they proved to be poor troops, having no esprit de corps. They were lone scouts, sharp shooter, snipers and true “unknown soldiers” par excellence.
Gathered into battalions, Simon’s men are poor soldiers, but one Redbone can carry on a war. And how! Openly embittered at the thought of having to yield the chance to kill his man early that morning, Simon stealthily ranged from one vantage point to another, seeking a chance to redeem himself. Finally, in desperation, apparently seeming to feel that old Tom and Matt had outdone himself, Morrows became bolder, and less cautious until, in a reckless effort to place an effective shot, he exposed himself to the quick aim of Louis Lacaze, the man Simon wanted most to get and the Redbone himself fell dead, his shot gun exploding in his hands and tearing a great hole in the ground as it fell.
Another defeat to be chalked up against open warfare. With this loss the bravest two men of the entire Redbone clan were gone and the boldness and aggressiveness of the besieging force went with them. From that time on none of the attacking party showed himself in the open, but a constant bombardment was kept up from behind the nearby trees. Even a shadow passing across a window drew a volley of shots from the alert gunmen hid in the surrounding forest. The leading spirit of this typical Indian warfare was Hiram Morrows, the blustering bravery of Marion Perkins having waned with the unexpected turn of events which had resulted in the death of his father; and the too-evident fact that the notches were not all to be cut on the Redbone’s guns.
After this, the day and the siege wore on, broken by a funny incident.
Jeff Davis, brother to Buck, who had lost the horse race, himself also a jockey, had been shut out of the store at the commencement of hostilities, and had remained crouched on the beam of a “lean-to” at the rear of the building, and in a precarious position. Unarmed, the poor fellow had hid to escape the onslaught of Marion Perkins. The fighting now having become concentrated on the east side of the store, Jeff thought his chance to escape was come, and dividing his attention between running and watching for Redbones, he tore out. A volley of shots put more speed into his legs, and whether a bullet actually struck the flying jockey or whether he collided with a sapling, or perhaps both, is not clear. Anyway, he burst a bottle of whiskey he was carrying in his shirt bosom, and feeling the liquor running down his legs, the fellow thought he was hit, forgot all caution and hung his entire faith on speed. “I’m kilt, I’m kilt, and my bowels are running out,” he cried as he ran on. However, the supposed loss of his digestive tubes only lighted the man for greater speed, which was such we are told, that marbles might have been played on his coat tails. While knowing that he had left Dr. Hamilton behind in the store, but perhaps feeling that the medical man’s wife had acquired a knowledge of first aid, Davis fled to the Doctor’s home yelling, “I’m kilt, I’m kilt,” as he ran into the yard.
But Mrs. Hamilton knew that Jeff could not be very badly wounded, and realizing very well the danger which would at once accrue if Davis were seen taking refuge in her house, refused the frightened man entrance, but recommended instead that he continue his flight into the adjacent creek swamp, and hide behind the trunk of a large tree which had fallen close to the hog trail beyond the barn lot. Davis vanished into the swamp and with this, passes from the story of the Westport Fight, only to be remembered as the flying jockey who was more fleet of foot than any race horse he ever urged down the turf.
About this time it became evident to the besieged “Whites” that the tactics of Hiram and his followers meant a long drawn out fight. It was then that the straight line of John Watson’s lips tightened, his steel gray eyes narrowed to slits, and the hard gunman took his stand by the broken upstairs window which commanded a view of the infested grove. Soon a coat sleeve showed for an instant at the side of a tree. The long barreled .45 roared and a chip flew from the trunk of the pine behind which the Redbone lurked. The smoke of the shot half concealed a darting form that was seeking safer shelter behind a larger tree in line, but a rod farther from the window whose defender needed no further classification. The history of the next few minutes of the Westport Fight becomes repetitionary: there was another crashing report; another flying chip and another retreating Redbone. And so on. After the advance firing line of the attacking guerrillas had been in this way dislodged, man by man, some of the punctured hat rims and some with creased skins, Hiram the leader, recognized the importance of silencing that deadly window, risked a lightening quick shot whose aim had been carefully gauged before a narrow slab of the Redbones body had revealed his intentions. But Morrows had not even then been quick enough. When he snatched himself back into shelter, it was with a stinging sensation which told him he had been hit, and only with the greatest of difficulty was the Redbone leader able to keep on his feet as he backed slowly away, carefully keeping his tree in line of Watson’s unerring fire.
Steadily the retreat continued. The shooting abated and shortly ceased altogether. The hoofbeats of the Redbone’s horses were heard on the Cherry Winche road; apparently the attack had been at least temporarily abandoned.
The sun was now low in the timber; the lonely pine forest grew darker. The settlers at the store began to take stock. Dykes was dead, but wonder of a Frenchman, Musgrove still lived.
Sure that the Redbones would renew the attack at dawn the next morning, and possibly continue desultory firing throughout the night, the tired men in the desolate store held a conference. Then as soon as they could be reasonably sure that no skulking Redbone lurked for a final shot, the defenders of the Hatch store came cautiously from their improvised fortress.
Gordon Musgrove was removed to his home, and in spite of the desperate condition in which his assailants had left him, he eventually recovered, tribute to the doctor’s care and the fine example of the wonderful hardihood of the men who shaped the destiny of that rough frontier. Musgrove became a Baptist minister of the gospel and lived to the venerable age of eighty-nine.
At dark, Dr. Hamilton went to the home of the old Negro fiddler and instructed Uncle Rube to saddle his mule, take a circuitous route to the Steven’s home where he could secure a fast horse; then as soon as he felt it was safe, to push on to Sugartown and summon reinforcements in anticipation of a renewal of hostilities next day. The brave old darkey safely made his way out of the Redbone settlement and accomplished his mission.
The call for help was answered by a squad officer and six men who rode throught the danger zone during the night. These men relieved the exhausted garrison and remained on guard on Christmas Day. It was Sunday as well and the day passed monotonously, without incident. It was virtually certain however, that the Redbones would make another attack. Therefore, toward the middle of the afternoon a plan was adopted to forestall a renewal of hostilities. The situation was serious. The habitations of the settlers were scattered; roads and trails were through thickly timbered country and if general guerrilla warfare should break out, it could soon wipe out every family in the outlying settlements.
In this hour of extremity, the “White” settlers fell on the help of one man, Louis Lacaze’s brother, Soulonge Lacaze. For, in all that territory between the rivers there was no other settler whose decrees were known among whites, blacks and Redbones to carry up so true and accurate to the letter of their making as were those of this “Cajun” rancher. Whether the rugged pioneer’s word was given for the fulfillment of an obligation, or the enforcement of an agreement, no man had ever known Lacaze to depart a hair’s breadth from the program. And because of this reputation, the settlers by unaminous vote chose this “Cajun” to carry the flag of truce into the Redbone Camp. The headquarters of the Redbone Clan was Hiram Morrows’ home and riding calmly up to the house without a glance to either side, Lacaze called for the men to come out. No man appeared. But after a brief interval, during which the lone rider sat motionless and patiently waited, two women came slowly from the house, saluted their visitor respectfully and stated that the men folks were all away from home. It was Lacaze’s opinion that the women were stating an untruth, but not deigning to dispute their word, the ambassador replied so coldly and clearly that his voice could have been heard throughout the house before him.
“As you like,” he said. “I will tell you my business then.”
And leaning slightly forward in the saddle the Cajun, with a voice that was deep but quiet, continued slowly. “I warn you all now, that if there is a hair of another white man’s head hurt, anywhere in these settlements as long as I am here, we will make a black burn of you.” Wheeling his prairie pony a quarter turn closer to the gate before which the women stood, Lacaze tapped his broad chest with the butt of his riding quirt as he proceeded in a tone the very mildness of which told the hearers how deadly in earnest the old Cajun was. “I will see to it that there isn’t seed of a Redbone left this side of Sabine River.”
The Redbone women shrank closer together as their eyes glowered and remained fixed on the stern face above them. “We don’t want trouble Mister Soulonge; we want peace.”
And then, without moving a muscle or allowing his piercing gaze to release his transfixed listeners, the stately horseman answered with the ring of chilled steel in his tones; “we want peace and we are going to have peace.” After a few tense seconds during which it seemed that even the dark green leaves of the big magnolia tree above his head dared not move, Lacaze pressed his knees gently against his horse’s ribs and without further word rode off at a brisk walk down the grass grown trail into the shadows of the trees which closed behind him. Soulonge Lacaze had demanded peace while he lived in the Redbone country, but after making his mandate he did not long continue to reside there. Had he done so, the brave Cajun doubtless would have been blessed with that eternal peace which came to other settlers who continued to live in the Cherry Winche Valley; for bushwacking went on apace.
A convenient time came and Lacaze moved away from the Redbone settlements. Wives often have their way; they don’t like to have their husbands left in the woods, and so forth. Musgrove moved away. The Davises moved; old Rube moved.
Not long after the Westport Fight, the Moore & Hatch store burned to the ground. A little later Hatch’s historic old mill disappeared in another conflagration.
The site became known as the “Old Burn Down.” Hamilton, Moore and Hatch all escaped and never came back.
They used good judgment. Watson continued to be fast on the draw, but he camped one night alone, on the borders of the Cherry Winche country. In the glow of his camp fire he was a plain target. I have had pointed out to me the hollow where he was killed. It is in the pine hills near the site of the old New Hope Church. What the combined attack failed to do, Redbones working singly and in squads of twos accomplished. By deed and by warning, the “White” settlers were slowly but effectively ousted from the region. The process required several years to complete, during which the few remaining Anglo settlers burned very little oil in their kerosene lamps.
Civilization has not yet completed its reduction of this Cherry Winche country for the settlement of strangers there is tabu to this day. The Redbones won and as we view the valley and the land about, we are glad somehow that they did. For it is lovely there. The streams flow sweetly; sheep graze on the rolling hills and there is a peace over everything which makes Cherry Winche Valley more like it was a hundred years ago than those who have not seen it will believe.