Murder in the County

Contrary to popular notion, Arkansas was part of the Old West along with Texas and the rest of those more familiar dusty southwestern places. Its western border joined up with the Indian Nations where many a weary marshal rode out with his bedroll and pistol carrying writs from the U. S. District Court at Fort Smith in a search for a steady stream of men rustling livestock, stealing horses, selling whiskey, or running from the law.

From its earliest days, Washington County, Arkansas, experienced some of the worst the Old West had to offer. At unexpected moments, county settlers faced their fellow man in acts of fatal violence. These murderous events not only ended hopeful lives but also forever changed those who survived them. Not to say that the murders in the county all stemmed from conflict along its western border—plenty of blood spilled within its communities and homesteads.

The fifty chapters of Murder in the County each focus on one violent incident. Through family histories, legal records, and newspaper accounts, the long-dead actors tell their shocking stories of rage, grief, retaliation, and despair.

Excerpt from Chapter 39 — The Death of Joe Rich

“A hint of fall had come into the air as September heralded the change of season. Blood stirred by cooler air and lubricated by alcohol rarely bodes well in a gathering of young men intent on proving themselves. On the evening of September 21, 1890, just such a scenario unfolded amid the busy streets of Prairie Grove.

“No doubt some wags later remarked they could have predicted violence between Mack Rollans and Joseph Rich. Both families had seen their share of trouble. Just a month earlier, on August 10, 1890, Joseph’s younger brother David Lee Rich was indicted for selling “ardent spirits” to a minor without a license. The previous year in June 1889, Mack Rollans had been indicted for wearing a pistol but later found not guilty…

“…That evening, Mack Rollans got in over his head. Some minor skirmish erupted within the gathered group, perhaps a question of the price, quality, or quantity of the liquor or a slurred insult about a woman, a family member, or some other trifling matter. In the ensuing fight, weapons entered the fray. Rollans pulled his knife. As such events have a tendency to develop, Rich soon fell dead.

Paperback, $23.95, Amazon

West Fork Valley — New Release!

Riverside Park, West Fork. Perfect display of how the river has shaped the land, creating high bluffs and rich bottom land.

I moved into the West Fork Valley in 1973. I had no previous experience here except, as a child, one train ride from Fort Smith to Fayetteville circa 1952 and then passing back and forth from Fort Smith to Fayetteville during the 1950s in our 1949 Chevy (and later our 1954 Chevy). Driving Highway 71 in those days provoked high tension whether we had to pull over to wait out a driving rainstorm or creep along due to impenetrable fog or shudder as big trucks zoomed past.

Mount Gayler provoked an outcry from me and my younger sister—could we stop and have pie at Burns Gables? Could we ride the train? Only one time that I remember did the journey involve stopping for a train ride, a thrilling dash along the tracks circling the pond, wind in my hair, grinning as the high-pitched whistle blew. Another time we sat around a table at Burns Gables to savor a slab of delicious pecan pie.

The landscape of high mountains and sheer cliffs made its mark in my memory. For years my amateur drawings portrayed hills of the same height marching off into the distance in ever faded color. I never understood why it seemed mountains should look that way until, as an adult, I took another look at the profile of the Boston Mountains framing the West Fork valley.

Passing through West Fork on our way north marked the last hurdle before finally reaching Fayetteville, but the only thing that lodged in my memory about the place was the rock “tourist court” along the highway. Then the green-and-white rotating light flashed through the sky at the Fayetteville airport, a magical sight in fog or rain. In those days on that two-lane narrow highway, the trip took nearly three hours.

Imagine my surprise when, in middle age, I discovered that I had ancestors buried at Brentwood and Woolsey! After the Civil War, my dad’s grandfather, Charles McDonald Pitts, moved from Johnson County, Arkansas, to the Brentwood area along with his mother Elizabeth and several brothers and their families. Charles’ mother and his first wife Easter (Parker) and newborn daughter Tennessee are buried at Brentwood as well as a young niece Eliza. Two brothers and some of their children are buried at Woolsey. Charles would remarry there, a local girl named Linnie Mae Rose who became my great-grandmother. The Pitts family moved away by 1900 to take up residence in the western part of the county.

Now, after nearly fifty years of living here, I can almost claim to be an old timer. But fifty years is nothing compared to the two hundred years of family heritage a few of the valley’s residents can claim. I wanted to know who came here first, who built these towns, what it was like to carve out a living in this rugged land. So I started digging.

The West Fork Valley, my new release, is what I found, a history of the watershed of the West Fork of White River, its natural wonders, its past, its people through 1900. It’s my great pleasure to announce this book to the world!

Visit the book page on this site for more information and purchase link.

The Old West

In the completion of my recent book, Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West, I discovered that three of the fifty murders profiled there were committed by members of the same family! Intrigued, I researched more about these folks and the result is now published under the title The Violent End of the Gilliland Boys. Fascinating and shocking, this story features more twists and turns than an Ozarks dirt road.

Christmas Day horse races 1872, Middle Fork Valley.  Young Bud Gilliland waits, eager for another chance at his neighbor Newton Jones. Only this time, after two years of sparring, Newton gallops up in a cloud of dust, aims his Spencer rifle, and sends Bud to a well-earned grave.

The death of Bud surely grieved his father. But before the curtains closed on these descendants of J. C. and Rebecca Gilliland in 1891, two other sons and a grandson would die a violent death while yet another grandson served hard time for murder.

What was it about the Gillilands?

This recounting of the family tracks their ancestry, their pioneer years on untamed land, and the hard work that made them one of the wealthiest families in Washington County, Arkansas. A fascinating tale of brash ego, brave gallantry, and plain old bad luck.

Paperback now available for only $9.95 at. Don’t miss it!