This family feud simmered quite awhile before it ended in the early 1900’s in eastern New Mexico, in an area now known as Quay County. The feud began in east Texas during the Civil War when the two patriarchs of the Spikes and Gholson families crossed paths, or should I say just “crossed.”
John Wesley Spikes (see this week’s Tombstone Tuesday article here in case you missed it) was a member of the Texas 12th Cavalry, whose job was rounding up draft evaders. During the Civil War men were often recruited with the “point-of-a-gun” rather than willingly join the cause.
One day in 1864, Samuel Gholson was in the town of Kaufman (Spikes lived in the county at the time as well) stocking up on supplies when he was approached by one of Spikes’ men. Sam Gholson was the son of Albert Gholson who fought Mexico for Texas independence years before. Sam, who rode with the Texas Rangers, had also distinguished himself in the Indian wars. His family’s illustrious history apparently made no impression on Spikes’ men.
Sam was conscripted for service at gunpoint and marched off to Galveston (without being allowed to take his provisions home) to serve the Confederacy, even though he insisted that the war was essentially over. According to one family historian, Sam was a bit of a “hot-head”. He told the two recruiters that when the war was over he would kill them – and kill them he did when he returned to Kaufman.
No evidence exists that any action was taken against him for the killings. One historian hypothesizes that perhaps John Wesley Spikes had no knowledge of Gholson’s “arrest” by his men and that’s why Sam didn’t kill him at the same time. Nevertheless, it appears that the feud just lay dormant for quite some time.
Around 1880 Sam moved his ranching operations to Crosby County, just west of Lubbock. Sometime after John and Julia Spike’s last child Samuel Israel was born in 1883, the family also migrated west to Crosby County – including six sons Jeff, John, Ernest, Fred, Dick and Sam as well as three of their daughters and their families. The Spikes family had their share of challenges those first years after settling in Crosby County, and there is no evidence suggesting there were problems with the Gholson family, at least none that made headlines or the history books.
However, after John was kicked by a horse and died in 1892, tensions would begin to escalate. In 1893, John Wesley’s son John purchased ranch land next to the Gholson spread. Apparently, though, Sam Gholson had been harboring resentment against the Spikes family all along. He threatened violence which never materialized, perhaps because John eventually sold out to the St. Louis Cattle Company.
For two families who didn’t really like each other much, they sure had a knack for following each other around. After John, Dick and Ernest Spikes moved their operations to eastern New Mexico in 1899, the Gholsons moved their operations there too. The Spikes had settled in an area north of Redonda Mesa (southeast of present-day Tucumcari) and the Gholsons settled in an area south of Redonda…. “neighbors” once again.
In a 2007 article entitled Old Texas Feud Settled in New Mexico, author Don Bullis describes Sam Gholson:
A word about Sam Gholson is in order. He was a bully of a man, used to getting his own way. He did not tolerate those who opposed him (witness the fact that he’d killed the two recruiters), although he seems to have been well regarded by those with whom he got along. Famed Texas Ranger James Gillett described Gholson this way: “I thought he was the finest specimen of a frontiersman I had ever seen. He was probably six feet tall, with dark hair and a beard. He was heavily armed, wearing two six-shooters and carrying a Winchester in front of him, and was riding a splendid horse with a wonderful California saddle.”
One has to surmise that neither family was pleased to be the other’s neighbor once again. Other factors which played a part in the escalation of tensions were two-fold. The XIT Ranch had an expansive operation (approximately three million acres) just across the New Mexico-Texas line and, as would often happen in those days, cattle would wander off. Some made their way to eastern New Mexico and were “rustled”. With virtually no law enforcement in place, tensions arose between the XIT and the farmers and ranchers of eastern New Mexico.
Another factor was the Mesa Hawks gang, led by Henry Hawkins. The gang was known for train robberies and cattle rustling, among other things. Their hideout was near the Spikes property and the Spikes family was quite possibly acquainted with the them, at least that’s what Gholson believed. To Sam Gholson, ex-Texas Ranger, this must have seemed an opportunity to rid the world of both the Hawkins gang and the Spikes clan since surely the law would back him up.
The XIT was determined to address the rustling problem with their own brand of frontier justice, hiring gunmen to patrol just west of the Texas state line – Don Bullis referred to it as an “extra-legal force”. Being an ex-lawman himself, Gholson developed a working relationship with the “good guys” and established a cover for what would later take place.
When some of Gholson’s cattle went missing, he didn’t blame the Hawkins gang who were known cattle rustlers – he blamed John Spikes and his family. Sam brought his case to the XIT hired guns and convinced them that the blame should be placed squarely on the Spikes family. Sam rode along with the posse of Texas hired guns to question John, who as it turns out, was not home at the time. They waited until Dick Spikes came along.
As they were questioning Dick, two other riders came upon the scene. When they observed what was taking place, they fled as they were being fired upon by the posse. One man escaped, but the other man, a Spikes employee, was captured – whereupon Gholson wanted to administer justice and hang him on the spot. He was, however, taken back to Texas and Dick Spikes was told to leave the area.
In early 1902, Sam Gholson again attempted to rid himself of the Spikes clan when he organized another posse of twenty men. This time he set up an ambush in a canyon. When John, Fred and Dick Spikes rode into the canyon, what happened next was chronicled by historian Dub Bedingfield:
One survivor said that the posse opened fire without warning. Another report was that the posse called for them [the Spikes brothers] to surrender for questioning and that the Spikes opened fire. Another report was that when the posse threw down on them, the Spikes turned and tried to run and the posse them opened fire.
Whatever actually happened the aftermath was clear: Dick Spikes was killed instantly, along with his horse; John Spikes was seriously wounded and later bled to death; Fred Spikes had been shot in the back and lower body, but was able to ride away on his wounded horse (the horse died soon afterwards). Fred made his way to a sheep camp where he was attended by a sheep herder who saved his life.
Gholson and his posse simply rode away and left the two bodies to rot. Sam would claim that the posse consisted of sworn lawmen who engaged cattle rustlers – thus, neither he nor the posse were ever charged with the killings. Quite a stretch of the truth, however, since the posse was made up of Texas lawmen who accosted the Spikes brothers in New Mexico Territory. Yet, Sam Gholson must have felt he had accomplished his goal – he had rid the world of two Spikes brothers. The Hawkins gang left the area, perhaps influenced by Gholson’s “frontier justice”. Sam Gholson remained in the area and died on February 19, 1926, interred in a Tucumcari cemetery.
In 1929 the XIT Ranch commissioned Texas historian J. Ewells Haley to write an historical account of the ranch. One chapter was dedicated to the Spikes brother and the ambush which ended their lives. Haley put forth the theory that the Spikes brothers and the Hawkins gang were working together. Fred Spikes, still alive at the time, took issue with the book’s claims and sued for over two million dollars.
Before the case could reach the courts, the XIT agreed to settle with the Spikes family if Fred would drop the suit. Publication of the book was immediately ceased and several hundred copies of the book recalled. The University of Oklahoma Press eventually reprinted the book, sans the Spikes chapter. Anyone finding a copy of the original version of the book, however, can expect to pay a steep price for its rarity.