Jaybird–Woodpecker War

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Jaybird–Woodpecker War
Date 1888–89
Location Fort Bend County, Texas, United States
Outcome Jaybird victory
Deaths 7

The Jaybird–Woodpecker War (1888–89) was a feud between two United States Democratic Party factions fighting for political control of Fort Bend County, Texas, in the southeast part of the state. The Woodpeckers (many of whom had been Republican during Reconstruction) included a number of whites and virtually the entire African-American population of the county. The Woodpeckers had controlled the county government by winning elections since the Reconstruction Era. The Jaybird faction, which included a majority of the white population in the county, wanted to oust blacks and their white allies from the county administration. Murders were committed against persons in each faction in 1888 and 1889.

On August 16, 1889, a gunfight broke out at the county courthouse, in which four persons were killed, including the sheriff. The Jaybirds won the fight and seized control of the county government soon afterward, with the collaboration of Governor Lawrence Sullivan Ross, who established martial law in the county. The effects of the Post-Reconstruction feud echoed in local politics for decades. The Jaybirds effectively disfranchised the African Americans in the county by using a "whites-only" ballot in preliminary party voting from 1889 until 1953, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that this was unconstitutional.


The conflict allegedly derived its name from Bob Chapel, a local African-American man who was said to sing about jaybirds and woodpeckers. The Jaybirds were white Democrats opposed to the participation of blacks in local politics, as an alliance of blacks and whites (formerly Republican) had elected county officials for 20 years since Reconstruction. The Woodpeckers were nominally Democrats, too, with representatives elected largely by black voters. An election was held November 6, 1888, that was supervised by Texas Rangers. All of the Woodpecker candidates were elected or reelected (many had won election in 1884) to their slate of office.

This engendered further hostilities from the Jaybirds. In the spring of 1889, Kyle Terry, then a Woodpecker official appointed as the tax assessor, murdered Ned Gibson, a leader of the Jaybirds. He had been on his way to testify in an unrelated cattle-rustling trial against a friend of Terry's being held in a neighboring town. Terry was arrested but posted bail and moved to Galveston, where he was gunned down by a group of Jaybirds in 1890.

Retaliatory murders occurred on both sides, including the 1889 killing of the local sheriff Tom Garvey (a Woodpecker). The violence culminated in the Battle of Richmond, the county seat, on August 16, 1889, when Sheriff Garvey was killed. A total of seven people were killed in all these incidents. Following this, Governor Lawrence Sullivan Ross declared martial law and dispatched troops from the Houston Light Guards, along with more Texas Rangers. He arrived with the Brenham Light Guards to negotiate a settlement. As a result, the county government was reorganized under the control of the Jaybird faction. This was formalized through a meeting held on October 3, 1889, and the former officeholders were told to leave town.[1]

Subsequently the Jaybirds held a meeting on October 22, 1889, creating the "Jaybird Democratic Organization of Fort Bend County". It dominated local politics for decades into the 1950s. The faction established a "white-only" preliminary ballot for county offices. This effectively disenfranchised African Americans because the only competitive contest was that within the Democratic Party. A similar white primary measure was adopted by the state legislature in the early 20th century. The Jaybird Democrats retained control until their provision was overturned by a ruling by the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953).

By that time, two white primary processes authorized by the state government had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court; the second was in Smith v. Allwright (1944).


  1. ^ Yelderman, Pauline (June 15, 2010). "Jaybird-Woodpecker War". Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved February 22, 2014. 

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