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The Colorado County Feud

From the Texas State Historical Association:

As bitter as any other were the feuds at Columbus, Colorado County. Two great clans of cattlemen, the Staffords and the Townsends, had trouble that culminated in the killing of R. E. and John Stafford in front of a Columbus saloon on July 7, 1888. Larkin and Marion Hope, nephews of Sheriff Light Townsend, were accused of the deed. In the 1890s the Townsend family divided against itself. Former Sheriff Sam Reese, who had married a Townsend, grew bitter against the local political machine led by lawyer Marcus Townsend and Sheriff Light Townsend (the uncle of Marcus Townsend). On August 3, 1894, Marcus Townsend's follower Larkin Hope was murdered. Reese himself was assassinated in a street battle on March 16, 1899. Numerous engagements and killings followed, the last being another general shooting on June 30, 1906.

Feuds - The Handbook of Texas Articles


Here is an excerpt of the story:

Despite the unrest of Reconstruction, there were new fortunes to be made now that the war was over. In 1869, the railroad finally came to Columbus. The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway had reached Alleyton (three miles east of Columbus) by 1860, but the Colorado River still stood in the way. After the war, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway reorganized as the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway and finally made the big leap over the Colorado and into Columbus. The railroad made it much cheaper to ship out Colorado County cotton and bring in all sorts of consumer goods. But instead of riding the rails to market, Colorado County cattle were trailed north. At least one man, Robert Earl "Bob" Stafford, made a million dollars from Texas Longhorns, which were almost as numerous as grasshoppers in the region after the war. But prosperity did not bring peace to Colorado County. During the pre-barbed-wire days of free range and wild cattle (about 1875), a feud developed between the Townsend family—longtime pillars of Colorado County—and the Staffords, relative Johnny-come-latelies who had wasted little time in getting wealthy. No one knows exactly how the feud got started, but once it got going, it was a hot one. Things came to a head when J. L. "Light" Townsend was elected county sheriff. The Stafford faction tried to unseat him at succeeding elections, but failed.

The Townsend clan (Asa and Rebecca Harper Townsend and their nine children) had come to Columbus in 1838. Asa was involved in Texas politics by 1845, when he served on a committee involved with the annexation of the Republic of Texas to the United States. He was also director of the Colorado [River] Navigation Association and an active Mason.

Robert Stafford, born in Georgia in 1834, came to Texas in 1856 and settled in Colorado County, where he farmed and raised livestock on a small scale, using the l.C.U. brand. At the start of the Civil War, Stafford joined Hood’s Texas Brigade, but soon returned home and spent the rest of the war years building up his herd. After the war, Stafford, who was the oldest child in his family, was joined by five of his brothers, six or seven sisters, and assorted other relatives.

Cattle rustling was common in that time, and the Stafford clan and their employees soon gained a reputation as people not to be crossed, according to Colorado County historian Bill Stein. At least once, and probably twice, the Staffords sent their cowboys into the countryside to kill whomever they suspected of rustling. And, Stein says, a good many people ended up dead. Retaliation was inevitable, and one of the Stafford brothers was shot dead, with another merely wounded. But the violence didn’t hinder Bob’s empire building.

In 1869, he successfully drove a herd of cattle to Kansas. Emboldened by his success, he enlarged his business by buying up all the brands in his section of the county that were for sale. In 1872, he contracted to deliver beef to Havana, Cuba. He also sold cattle that went to pacified Indians out west. His fortune increased rapidly, to the point that he organized his own bank in 1882, of which he was president and sole owner. The following year, Stafford realized that he and his fellow stockmen could make more money off their beeves by shipping dressed, chilled beef to distant markets than by driving live cows up the long and arduous Chisholm Trail. He organized the Columbus, Texas Meat and Ice Co. and became its president. The Columbus, Texas Meat and Ice Co. built a $250,000 three-story plant on the site of the old Robson Castle in 1884. At the time, it was one of only three packing houses in Texas. The plant could process either 125 or 250 head of cattle per day, depending on who you believe, and could make 40 tons of ice daily. The company filled an order for an English syndicate and also shipped dressed carcasses to Chicago, New Orleans, Galveston, and other points via the new refrigerated rail cars that were the wonder of the age. The plant closed in 1891 and was later torn down.

In 1889, a group of progress-minded Colorado County citizens decided that the little 1855 courthouse no longer befitted a town of Columbus’s stature and they persuaded county commissioners to build a new one. Despite considerable opposition from county citizens who lived outside Columbus, the commissioners went ahead with their plans. But the project was plagued by delays. Citizens demanded that the brick be manufactured in Colorado County, so the schedule was relaxed. By April 1890, the foundation had finally been poured. The county decided to incorporate the laying of the new courthouse’s cornerstone into the county’s traditional July 4th celebration. But that date couldn’t be met, so it was delayed until July 7, 1890. At 11 that morning, about 3,000 folks from around the county began gathering on the north side of Columbus for a barbecue. About 5 that afternoon, they assembled in parade formation and marched down Milam Street to the courthouse square. The Masons of Caledonia Lodge #68 conducted the cornerstone laying and ceremony, and then the group paraded back to the barbecue grounds. At this point, the crowd began to disperse. Many went off to prepare for the big dance to be held that night at the Opera House. But about an hour before the dance was scheduled to start, Opera House owner Bob Stafford got into an argument with city marshal Larkin Hope, who was Sheriff Townsend’s son-in-law. What transpired between them depends on whose side you’re on, and some folks in Columbus still take sides over 100 years later. At any rate, the argument ended when Larkin Hope and his brother Marion shot and killed Bob Stafford and his younger brother John.

With the death of Bob Stafford, Colorado County went into rapid economic decline, Stein says. The new courthouse (like the opera house Stafford built in 1886) was to be a symbol of the prosperity that Columbus had come to enjoy. Stafford’s death ended any chance for the future success of the meatpacking plant, opera house, and a host of other endeavors associated with Bob Stafford. Within 20 years, there would be little of the Stafford fortune in Columbus.

There was considerable outrage over the Stafford killings, and many called for Townsend’s removal, but this was not effected until his death several years later. The feud did not cease to exist with these killings; in fact, it expanded. Before long, more than half a dozen area families were involved.

This story is strangely entertaining to say the least. It involved two grandsons of Robert Stafford 1755-1769. Both of the Grandsons were also named Robert, both born in Georgia in 1834. Robert E. Stafford and Robert F. Stafford moved to Texas at the same time and apparently left quite a mark there. Here are some sources.

Date of death sources:

8 Apr. 2006

Today in Texian History

June 07, 1888
R.E. and John Stafford were killed in a saloon in Columbus, Texas
as a part of the Stafford-Townsend feud in Colorado County.

Criminal Cause File No. 951: State of Texas v. Robert E. Stafford (1872) assault with intent to murder Sumner Townsend