Bayou Macon scene of Reconstruction violence

By Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent

Bayou Macon flows from its headwaters in Arkansas into Louisiana, seeking its way south for 18 miles. Located between the Boeuf River to its west and the Mississippi River to its east, in the 1800’s, the waterway was a key transportation route for north Louisiana. Cotton and othergoods were shipped south to New Orleans on steamers and traders in smaller boats peddled their wares up and down the bayou. Running parallel to the Mississippi River, the bayou passed thetown of Floyd the parish seat of Carroll before it split into East and West and then the ancient mounds of Poverty Point, before reaching Delhi on the main road across north Louisiana.

Further south, the bayou passes near Winnsboro and Gilbert before emptying into the Tensas River.

According to one legend, Bayou Macon was named for Samuel Mason, leader of group ofnotorious bandits who plied their treachery up and down the Mississippi River from Illinois to Natchez. Mason was a Revolutionary War patriot who turned river pirate, robbing boatmen on the waterways and travelers on the Natchez Trace. It is presumed the bayou was named for the outlaw because of its treacherous nature and swift currents.

One tale says Samuel Mason was killed near Lake Concordia in 1803 by two equally infamous criminals. Mason and his gang had committed so many heinous crimes along the Natchez Trace that a reward of $2,000 was offered for his capture. While hiding out in the swamps near Lake Concordia, the gang was joined by other highwaymen who supposedly beheaded Mason and attempted to present the head for the reward but were jailed themselves for their own misdeeds.

During the late 1800’s, the bayou was called “Macon” and “Mason” interchangeably, but the latter name eventually died out, leaving the little river known today exclusively as Bayou Macon.

The bayou was wild country in those days. Boats moving up and down the water in the late 19th century might as well as been on the equatorial Amazon for the lack of civilization on its banks.

It was prime territory for bandits.

In his book, outlaw Cole Younger related several stories about his service in the Civil War and afterwards around Bayou Macon. He describes his guerilla unit as fighting to keep the Yankees out of northeast Louisiana, especially Union patrols attempting to steal cotton: “Five miles from Tester’s Ferry on Bayou Macon we met a cotton train convoyed by 50 cavalry. We charged them on sight. The convoy got away with ten survivors, but every driver was shot, and four cotton buyers who were close behind in an ambulance were hung in a cotton gin near at hand. They had $180,000 on them, which, with the cotton and wagons, was sent back to Bastrop"

After the war, Younger and members of the Jesse James gang reportedly frequented the Bayou Macon area as a safe haven. In one of the few Louisiana newspaper articles to mention the James or Youngers, the November 24, 1876 issue of the Ouachita Telegraph in Monroe cited Jarrette as a brother-in-law of the Younger brothers who: “lived, we believe, some two years ago, near Delhi, where he was visited, since the war, by one or two of the Youngers He was compelled to leave that vicinity because of being suspected as one of the murderers of a German stock-trader near Delhi. He was, we believe, a member of Quantrill’s partisans during the war."

The accounts of crimes committed on Bayou Macon or nearby during the Reconstruction years after the war are numerous. A sampling:
In July 1868, an attack under the cover of darkness occurred on the Brannin Plantation on Bayou Mason in Franklin Parish. King South, an African American, reported he was awakened by gunfire and saw 25 armed men attacking the quarters of black families. Four plantation workers were killed and three wounded. Smith hid in a cornfield during the assault and heard one white man say they intended killing all those who had voted the Radical (Republican) ticket, white or black, who had served in the (Union) army."

South said he faces of the attackers were blackened, but he recognized some of the voices. After shooting all the black men who had not fled or hidden, the gang continued to the Johnson Plantation to make another attack. The July 25, 1868, issue of New Orleans Republican reported the raid was just one of many atrocities committed in Franklin Parish to rid the area of Republicans, noting no one would travel the roads in the parish for fear of being attacked.

The March 9, 1877, issue of the Ouachita Telegraph reported a Franklin Parish warehouse on Bayou Macon was destroyed by fire. The warehouse had a considerable amount of freight in it, and it is supposed was first plundered and then burned. No clue to the perpetrators of the fiendish deed has been found up to this writing. Steps were immediately taken to identify the perpetrators of the deed, and a number of men were arrested and placed in the hands of Constable W.A. Craig. Later in the night, a group of armed men seized the prisoners and lynched them from trees on the road between Delhi and Harrisonburg.

On July 4, 1868, a boat of traders working its way down Bayou Macon was attacked. The trading boat had entered the bayou some ten days previous, and was floating quietly down toward the Tensas River, stopping to trade at points along the route. The boat was owned and managed by a Mr. Arbuckle, accompanied by his wife, and assisted by a Mr. Graham, the wife’s brother.

When the party was within two or three miles of the Tensas River, and while Graham was at some distance from the boat, three disguised men attacked, killing Arbuckle in his wife’s presence, and making off with $1,500. Action by local citizens was swift after suspicion fell on Henry A. Lewis and A.B. and T.L. Norris. Arrest warrants were obtained, and the two Norris men arrested. Lewis escaped. Newspapers reported, “These young men belong to the oldest and most distinguished families of the neighborhood. Their fathers are well-known planters and merchants, formerly of great wealth, and still, of the highest standing. It seems almost incredible that persons of such character and breeding should have engaged in what the preliminary examination shows to have been a deliberate conspiracy as well as a foul and cruel murder; still our information is such as to leave no room for doubt that they have been at least been suspected and arrested."

A preliminary examination before Judge Buie of Franklin Parish resulted in sending the accused before the District Court. The testimony was strong against both the accused, Tom Norris being identified by Mrs. Arbuckle and Graham. The accused offered no witnesses, behaving on the trial, according to the Franklin Sun, with “indifference and even levity.”

A strong guard was put around the Franklin Parish jail in Winnsboro to ensure their safety. One night, 60 to 75 armed men appeared at the jail and ordered the guard to surrender, demanding the keys to the jail. The guards had no alternative but to do so. The mob removed the chains from the two. A.B. Norris was led out and attempted to run, but was soon secured, and a rope tied around his neck and hanged from a thorn tree.
Other men fought Thomas Norris in the jail as he resisted desperately. He saie would give all the particulars if they would not hang him. When he was taken out, an attempt was made to hang him beside his brother, who was already dead, but the limb broke and they both fell to the ground. The two were then run up on another branch and placed back to back. A placard written in neat capital letter was affixed to the thorn tree:
THE MURDERER’S AND ROBBER’S REWARD! HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY. YOUNG MEN, BEWARE AND TAKE WARNING FROM THEIR EXAMPLE.

With the exception of some cries from the hapless men, every thing was carried out quietly, and accomplishing its work, the mob dispersed as suddenly as it appeared. The brothers hung until the next morning when the coroner arrived and held an inquest over them. The bodies were then delivered to their relatives, dressed, decently coffined, and taken down to the family graveyard for interment.

On Saturday, July 25, 1874, a stock dealer and trader named Ulmer appeared in Delhi with considerable money. Much of his time was spent with two young men of the place, of good standing and very well connected. That afternoon, Ulmer disappeared, and two days afterwards his body, with rifled pockets, was found in Bayou Mason, several miles north of Delhi. News accounts reported Ulmer was found with his “body bearing evidence of foul play.”

The announcement created a sensation in Delhi, and parties went out in search of the murderers. Suspicion at once fell upon the young men who kept company with him and was strengthened by the announcement that the men had fled the area. A vigilance committee was at once organized, and the people moved out and around the country in pursuit of the suspected highwaymen. Local legend attributes the robbery and murder to the James-Younger gang, one of the few crimes they were accused of in their Louisiana safe haven. No arrests were ever made.

Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston and proud graduate of Louisiana Tech. Among his books are NEITHER FEAR NOR FAVOR: Deputy U.S. Marshal John Tom Sisemore and GREETINGS FROM RUSTON: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana, available from www.amazon.com .

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