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Rise of Industrial America
The American West
Frontier Justice

Some historians have written that the West in the 19th century was not nearly as violent as has been portrayed, especially in films. When the federal writers interviewed Edward Riley and Elizabeth Roe in the 1930s, however, they recalled numerous examples of violent "frontier justice" that occurred in Texas in the 1870s. As you read these excerpts from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 , think about why ranchers took justice into their own hands. Do you think such action was justified? Why or why not?

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Edward W. Riley

"I started an hour before sunup, as usual when going to the mill. I had made a couple trips with father and knew there was excellent fishing in the Brazos River, on which stream the mill was located. Therefore, I was anxious to make good time going, so I would have plenty of time to fish, before or after I receive [?] my grist. About six miles from our home was a patch of woods. The road through the woods twisted and turned back and forth between the trees. Just before I arrived at the woods a desire to catnap came on me and when I reached the timber I was dozing. I was awoke suddenly by the team shying off the road. I reined the team back to the road immediately and then looked to find what caused the team's action. There at the side of the [?] was a [man hanging from?] a tree at the end of a new rope. . . .

"As you know there are certain things which happens during one's life which registers more strongly on a persons mind than others. Well, this sight at the early dawn of a spring morning is still with me and I can visualize the body easily and see the fellow plain as I did that morning right at this minute going round and round.

"When I saw the man I lost no time in whipping up the team to get away from the spot. I looked back two or three times and the man was still going round and round. I kept whipping up the horses and pulling my hat back on my head when my hair raised it off of my skull. I finally lost sight of the man going round and round and then my/ {Begin inserted text} hair {End inserted text} settled so I could give all my time to driving which I did to get out of the woods. . . .

"The man which went round and round, I learned afterwards, was proven guilty of stealing hosses . . .

"Rustling became so prevalent for a time that ranchers adopted and organized the [?] means of combating the menace. It became necessary for the ranchers to deal directly with the rustlers, because the law enforcement officals were not meeting the menace and depredations of the rustlers. In some instances the officals were coreced into refraining from adequately, dealing with the stealing and in a few instances the officals were involved with the rustlers.

"On the Trinity Creek bottom N.E. of Grandview there now is still standing an Oak tree which was the court house and temple of justice used by the [?] of ranchers who inforced their law. The tree is a large one and during its early period of growth it was bent out of its normal position. The tree grew in a slanting position and one special limb extends out in a straight level with the ground. During one two year period I know of 11 men whom were made good citizens by hanging at the end of a rope from that straight limb. The 11 hanged men were the results of 55 trials held under the tree.

"The results of the trials held under this temple of justice varied. Some of the accused were found not guilty, some were ordered to leave the country and some were given another chance, with a warning to [not come?] before the [?] again accused of being mixed in any rustling.

". . . At . . . those trials one man sat as judge. Witness were heard for and against the accused. After all the testimony was presented the verdict resulted from a vote of the members of the [?] present. . . .

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Elizabeth Roe

"I married Montgomery Roe in 1873, and a short time after we were married he enlisted in the Texas Rangers and served under Captain Willis Hunter. The company's headquarters were at Silver Creek.

"After my husband enlisted, I again lived in fear. I knew the danger his work incurred. The rangers had to contend with cattle rustlers, fights between cattlemen and between ranchers and sheep men, and with desperadoes.

"Those days the Rangers were called upon to do considerable burying. When some person's body was found, who had been shot or hanged, the Rangers were generally notified and they buried the body.

"I saw my husband and a couple of fellow Rangers bury the Cantrell women, who were sometimes called by the name of Hill.

"The Cantrell women were the leaders of a gang of cattle rustlers, and the rumor was that they were among the most troublesome rustlers in the State. The folks interested in the cattle business decided to stop these two women and hanged them to a tree near Springtown.

"The Rangers would generally receive word that somebody discovered a person hanging to a limb of a tree or one that had been shot. As a rule the report would be received a day or two after the incident happened. However, in the case of the Cantrell women the report did not reach the Rangers until a couple of weeks or more after the hanging. When my husband's party went to get the bodies; they found the bodies on the ground, but their heads were still held by the noose of the rope. These bodies had remained until decay had caused the bodies to separate from the heads.

"The Cantrell women were buried in a cemetery at Springtown. The graves were under a tree, and the Rangers tied the rope, with which the women were hanged, to a limb over the graves, as a marker for a rustler's grave."
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