Feudin’ and Fightin’ Friday: The Jaybird-Woodpecker War

This little war fought in Fort Bend County, Texas had nothing to do with birds, but could very well be described as a race war.


In the early 1820s, the area which comprised Fort Bend County was settled as a so-called  “plantation district”.  By 1861 when it was time to decide whether to secede from the Union this Texas county was one of the largest slave-holding counties in Texas.  Not surprisingly, the slave holders voted 100 percent in favor of secession.

What became pure irony after the Confederacy was defeated, the strong 80 percent black population of the county became the dominant political force. Post-Civil War Reconstruction was, understandably, a hard pill for white Southerners to swallow. For years, the South had been dominated by the Democratic Party. Newly freed blacks in the South, however, had joined the Republican Party and teamed up with so-called “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” (Northerners that came down to the South and white Republicans) to form a coalition which, in many cases, left white Southern Democrats out of power.

Out of the white Southern Democrat resistance movement came groups like the White League and Red Shirts (paramilitary) and eventually the Ku Klux Klan. One group of white terrorists tried to prevent Republicans from winning in Louisiana in the 1868 fall election, literally by eliminating the competition – in one parish alone, almost two hundred freedmen were killed. In Louisiana, between 1868 and 1876 every election season included widespread violence against blacks (as well as fraud). On April 13, 1873, the Colfax Massacre (or Colfax Riot) occurred in Colfax, Louisiana in Grant Parish. According to this historical marker, 153 were killed that day, 150 of them being black. The marker proudly proclaims that day was the end of carpetbagger misrule in the South.

Now back to Fort Bend County, Texas circa 1888. The so-called Jaybird-Woodpecker War is thought to have been so named from a local “half-crazy” black man who would sing a song about jaybirds and woodpeckers – that may be more lore than fact. What is fact is that there were two political factions in the county – one composed of white Democrats calling themselves “Jaybirds” and the other faction referred to themselves as “Woodpeckers”. Now you would think it must be Jaybirds equals Democrats and Woodpeckers equals Republicans – not so fast – the Woodpeckers also referred to themselves as Democrats who had previously been elected as Republicans in the early years of Reconstruction.

As the election season heated up so did the rhetoric and eventually violence. On August 2, 1888, J.M. Shamblin, a Jaybird leader, was killed and the next month another Jaybird leader, Henry Frost, was shot and wounded. On the 6th of September the Jaybirds held a meeting in Richmond, the county seat, and afterwards blacks were warned to leave the county. Eventually the Texas Rangers were stationed in Richmond to keep the peace and supervise the November election.

On November 6, the election was held and all Woodpeckers were either elected or re-elected with the heaviest voter turnout in that county’s history. As you can imagine, that did not sit well with the other faction and hostilities continued. In the spring of 1889, there were two more Jaybirds killed. On August 16, 1889, everything came to a head in Richmond in what became to be known as the “Battle of Richmond”. It began near the courthouse when two Woodpeckers took shots at two Jaybirds. Pandemonium ensued as more members of each faction converged on the scene and joined the shootout. After about twenty minutes and several dead scattered around the area, the Woodpeckers withdrew, leaving the town in control of the Jaybirds.

When word of the conflict reached the office of Governor Lawrence S. Ross, he dispatched troops (Houston and Brenham Light Guard) to institute martial law and restore peace. The governor came as a mediator to negotiate a peaceful resolution – the result being that all elected Woodpecker and Jaybird officials resigned their offices, or at least were replaced by those generally acceptable to everyone.

In October, the Jaybirds made their group official by organizing under the name of “Jaybird Democratic Organization of Fort Bend County”. Its main purpose would be to maintain white political control in the county and deny blacks entry into their organization. The Jaybirds were successful for many years in maintaining tight political control, but in 1953 the Supreme Court in Terry v. Adams ruled that the group had violated the 15th Amendment of the Constitution which guarantees the rights of all citizens to vote, regardless of race or previous enslavement.

Race war over.


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