This Day in Texas History: Governor Edmund Davis Imposes Martial Law in Walker County

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This Day in Texas History: Governor Edmund Davis Imposes Martial Law in Walker County

This Day in Texas History:
(from the Texas State Historical Association archives)

Governor Edmund Davis Imposes Martial Law in Walker County

February 20, 1871

Governor Edmund J. Davis

Governor Edmund J. Davis

On this day in 1871, martial law was declared in Walker County.

Lawlessness was widespread during Reconstruction, and Republican efforts often seemed to exacerbate the problem. The so-called Walker County Rebellion, which led to the declaration of martial law, followed the murder of a freedman and the attempted trial of four white suspects.



In 1870 anarchy prevailed across much of Texas despite years of military occupation. The Radical Republican-dominated Twelfth Legislature approved sweeping anticrime measures proposed by Governor Edmund J. Davis.

Crucial components, such as the State Police and state militia, brought criticism to Davis and his supporters. These instruments of order also brought the administration into conflict with localities even as Davis tried to protect key political constituencies and solicit the support of those who viewed him with suspicion.

A major challenge to Davis’s authority followed the murder of Walker County freedman Sam Jenkins in December 1870. Jenkins had testified against several whites in a case of assault, and his corpse appeared along a road outside Huntsville several days later. An investigation by State Police Capt. Leander H. McNelly led to the arrest of four whites: Nathaniel Outlaw, Joseph Wright, Fred Parks, and John McParrish. With tensions high, state district judge J. R. Burnett acquitted Parks, finding the others guilty on January 11, 1871. Before the men could be escorted to jail, gunfire broke out in the courtroom, and both Wright and McParrish escaped with the aid of Huntsville citizens. Outlaw failed to escape and was taken into custody by the State Police.

Despite cautions from Burnett that draconian measures might only inflame tensions in Walker County, Davis considered martial law early on. By February 6 Burnett himself begged for troops as tensions rose in the area. State senate reaction to Davis’s handling of the Hill County Rebellion prevented immediate reaction. On February 15 Davis ordered Adjutant General James Davidson to Huntsville with orders to declare martial law upon arrival. Arriving on February 20, Davidson imposed martial law on Walker County with the authority to try citizens before a military tribunal. On February 22 the adjutant general established a court martial.

In the trials that followed ten citizens faced charges, resulting in seven convictions. Crimes ranged from aiding the escapees to not answering the call for a posse. Nathaniel Outlaw received five years imprisonment. Sheriff Cyrus Hess, accused of negligence in allowing the jailbreak, received a fine of $250. All the defendants, except Hess, received pardons by the end of March 1871. Outlaw sued the governor and adjutant general, winning a $20,000 judgment that was overturned in 1872. Taxes assessed Walker County to defray martial law costs amounted to $7,621.09, or seventy-five cents per person.

The actions of the Davis administration in Walker County, especially the ultimate pardon of Nathaniel Outlaw, drew fire from various quarters. Davis’s desire to bring order to Texas conflicted with his own efforts to improve his popularity. Moreover, the imposition of martial law- however justified- served to fuel accusations of tyranny against Davis and the Republicans.


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