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Part 1 Denison: Proving Ground for Famous Texas Ranger, Jesse Lee "Red" Hall

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Edward King, author, and Wells Champney, artist, toured the 15 U.S. ex-slave states for the whole of 1873 and spring and summer of 1874 for Scribner’s Monthly. Edward published his travel journal in his book, The Great South, in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1875. Edward describes the deputy sheriff who he met in Denison in 1874, “Red” Hall, who would become a famous Texas Ranger:

“The existence of such an immense frontier, so near to the newly settled districts of Texas, enables rogues of all grades to commit many crimes of impunity, for, once over the border [the Red River], a murderer or horse-thief can hide in the hills or in some secluded valley until his pursuers are fatigued, and can then make his way out in another direction.

So frequent had this method of escape become, at the time of the founding of Denison, that the law-abiding citizens were enraged; and the famous deputy sheriff, “Red Hall”, a young man of great courage and unflinching “nerve,” determined to attempt the capture of some of the desperadoes. Arming himself with his Winchester rifle, and with his belt garnished with navy revolvers, he kept watch on certain professional criminals. One day, soon after a horse-thief had been heard from in a brilliant dash of grand larceny, he [Red] repaired to the banks of the Red River, confident that the thief would attempt to flee.

In due time, the fugitive and two friends appeared at the river, all armed to the teeth, and while awaiting a ferry-boat, were visited by Hall, who drew a bead upon them, and ordered them to throw down their arms. They refused, and a deadly encounter was imminent; but he finally awed them into submission, threatening to have the thief’s comrades arrested for carrying concealed weapons. They delivered up their revolvers and even their rifles, and fled, and the horse-thief, rather than risk passage-at-arms with the redoubtable Hall, returned with him to Denison, after giving the valiant young constable some ugly wounds with his fist. The passage of the river having thus been successfully disputed by the law, the rogues became somewhat more wary.

“Red Hall” seemed to bear a charmed life. He moved about tranquilly every day in a community where there were doubtless an hundred men who would have delighted to shed his blood; was often called to interfere in broils at all hours of the night; yet his life went on. He had been ambushed and shot at, and threatened times innumerable, yet had always exhibited a scorn for his enemies, which finally ended in forcing them to admire him. When he visited me on my arrival in Denison, he remarked, “I shall see you in Sherman on Monday, as I have some prisoners to take to court there;” but Monday morning, as I was starting for Sherman, he informed me that when he awoke in the morning, he was surrounded by armed men; a pistol was held under his nose; and he was told that he was arrested at the instance of the United States Marshal, to whom some one had been retailing slanders concerning him. Even as he spoke, he was vigilantly guarded by armed men. But in the afternoon, he was free again—once more in authority, and awing the ruffians into proper respect.” (1)

Jesse Lee (Leigh) “Red” Hall

Jesse Leigh Hall at age 20, born in Lexington, North Carolina, moved to Texas in 1869. He changed his middle name, Leigh, to Lee soon after moving to Texas. No one knows why. Jesse taught school briefly before entering his law enforcement career. Jesse ditched teaching to sign on as city marshal for Sherman, Texas. When Denison became an instant boom town in 1872, Jesse served as its deputy sheriff. Contemporaries gave Jesse the nickname “Red” because of his canopy of fiery red hair and mustache.

Red’s deputy sheriff position in Denison proved him successful at controlling dangerous outlaws on the northern border of Texas. In turn, Red’s Red River exploits led to the Texas legislature appointing him as its Sergeant at Arms. The Sergeant at Arms is charged with keeping peace on the floors of the legislative chambers and administrative work. Later, Red will draw from his North Texas border experience as a Texas Ranger on the Texas-Mexico border and the South Texas western frontier.

Artist Frederic Remington characterized Red as "…a gentleman of the romantic Southern soldier type, and he entertained the highest ideals, with which it would be extremely unsafe to trifle." (2)

Roiling South Texas Criminal Affairs

In 1874, Texas elected Governor Richard Coke. Governor Coke began his administration with a mission to cut government expenses. But, securing the Mexican border (sounds recently familiar) and curbing the Kiowa and Comanche raids on the South Texas western front thwarted his mission. Governor Coke appointed Captain Leander McNelly to head the Special Force of Texas Rangers in 1874. Several criminal factions inflamed Texas citizens by 1875.

Texas merchants, complicit in sending stolen cattle and hides to Mexico, and Mexican banditos stealing from and murdering Texans on Texas soil fueled Texan’s outrage. John “King Fisher”, a dandy, controlled a large amount of range land where he hid stolen cattle and innumerous Mexican desperadoes. The Sutton-Taylor feud featuring John Wesley Hardin fired up again with heinous results. The Kiowa and Comanche refused to recognize the Texas-Mexico border.

By 1876, Governor Coke and the Texas legislature considered McNelly rogue. McNelly enjoyed state-wide popular support for his standoff called the “Las Cuevas Affair” in the Nueces Strip between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande in 1875. McNelly set out to capture 300 head of stolen cattle located in Mexico and its rustlers. President Hayes sent federal troops to the South Texas border with orders to await Major Andrew J. Alexander before moving into Mexico.

McNelly, through a network of spies, learned that a ship with the capacity to hold 250 cows was scheduled to leave a sea port in Mexico. Because time was of the essence, McNelly moved his men ahead into Mexico with no support from federal troops. McNelly returned with one-third of the cattle and no thieves after killing numerous men on Mexican soil who might have been involved in Texas cattle rustling.

McNelly then failed at capturing King Fisher because of terrified witnesses even though he had again secured a broad network of spies. “He [McNelly] appeared before a legislative committee and told of the impossibility of accomplishing anything in counties where a despotic brigand held sway over powerless local authorities.” For the same reasons, McNelly fell short of halting the Sutton-Taylor feud. (3)

Red Hall: Texas Ranger

In July 1875, the Texas legislature appropriated $40,000 to add 53 men to McNelly’s force to combat Mexican bandits, rogue outlaws, and Indians in South Texas. Twenty legislative members convinced Governor Coke to place their Sergeant at Arms, Red Hall, as lieutenant under McNelly. The legislature mustered out the Special Force of Texas Rangers one day and mustered in the Special State Troops under McNelly the next. Hall received a cold reception because McNelly chose his own officers. Soon, McNelly took to bed with tuberculosis. As commander of the Special State Troops, Hall quickly earned the respect of his men and Sergeant John B. Armstrong a.k.a. McNelly’s Bulldog—loyal servant to McNelly.

The Sutton-Taylor Feud*

This Texas feud began over Civil War sympathies and the hard times following it in 1866 and ended in 1899. Much of its action took place in DeWitt County, Texas. When Red took command of the Special State Troops, he found himself in a situation reminiscent of his Denison years: “…a hostile sheriff, a terrorized community, a scarcity of witnesses to testify against men everyone knew to have been the killers.” **

A group of masked men forced a respected doctor and his son out of bed and executed them on September 19, 1876. Red moved his command center to Clinton, Texas, and within a month had procured enough witnesses for a grand jury to indict seven men. Red, outfitted with 16 Rangers and arrest warrants, busted into a wedding party that the indicted men were attending and arrested the accused. A judge refused them bail and ordered the arrested men to secure jails in other jurisdictions. ***

A 22-year entanglement of legal wrangling ensued; court records disappeared. In the end, a single man, Ben Taylor, was convicted, and Governor Sayers pardoned him in 1899. The governor’s conscience would not permit him to commit an aging Confederate veteran to Huntsville Penitentiary. (3)

One man, in 1876, John Wesley Hardin, a Taylor gunman, remained at large. For reasons other than participating in the Sutton-Taylor Feud, Red set out with a fury to capture Hardin. Hardin was a wanted man, in 1871, Hardin killed seven men trailing cattle on the Chisholm Trail and three more in Abilene, Kansas.

Stay Tuned for Part 2: Why Red Hall Pursued Bonham, Texas, Gentleman Outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, with a Fury 


* Read more about the Sutton-Taylor Feud here:

** When Red served as deputy sheriff in Denison, it was the U.S. Marshal Service that he found hostile.

*** Many Texas jails at the time were easily escapable.


Red Hall


(1) King, Edward. The Great South: a Record of Journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. W. G. Blackie Printers, Glasgow, 1875. pages 160-161, 177-178.

(2) Remington, Frederic. How the Law Got into the Chaparral: Conversations with Old Texas Rangers. rpt., from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, December 1896, Austin: Jenkins, 1987.

(3) Utley, Robert.  Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers Oxford University Press, USA, May 2002. pages 167- 169, 171. 

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