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A Guide to the John Wesley Hardin Collection, 1874-1931 (Bulk: 1874-1895)

Descriptive Summary

Creator: Hardin, John Wesley, 1853-1895.
Title: John Wesley Hardin Collection
Dates: 1874-1931 (Bulk: 1874-1895)
Abstract: The letters in this collection date from 1874 to 1931. The bulk of the letters cover Hardin's arrest and imprisonment. Several of the letters describe in detail Hardin's version of the Webb killing and lynching of Hardin's relatives as well as his own arrest, trial and incarceration. There is good documentation of the 1894 Gonzales County election controversy in which Hardin was deeply involved. The correspondence also offers insights on 19th century Texas life, i.e. politics, reconstruction, the Texas Rangers, the State Police, the Taylor-Sutton feud, prison life, farming practices, and country social life and mores. The collection also contains handwritten legal exams and papers as well as family photographs.
Identification: Collection 088
Extent: 3 boxes; 1.5 linear feet
Language: Materials are written in English.
Repository: Southwestern Writers Collection, Special Collections, Alkek Library, Texas State University-San Marcos

Biographical Note

John Wesley Hardin was born on May 26, 1853 in Bonham, Fannin County, Texas, the second of James Gibson and Elizabeth Cartwright Dixon Hardin's eight children. Hardin's father was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher and named his son after the founder of the Methodist sect.

J. G. Hardin moved the family frequently during Hardin's childhood. They settled in Moscow, Polk County, in 1855, then moved in 1859 to Sumpter, Trinity County, where J. G. Hardin taught school. In 1861, J. G. Hardin passed the bar and moved the family to Livingston, Polk County, Texas where he taught school and practiced law.

After the war, in 1865, the family returned to Sumpter. In 1868, the 15 year old John Wesley Hardin killed his first victim, a former slave. Texas was ruled by the military according to congressional reconstruction policies and Hardin believed that he would not receive a fair trial. He fled and later claimed to have killed three soldiers who were sent to arrest him and that his relatives and neighbors helped him bury and hide the evidence. In 1869, his father sent him away from the area to teach school in Pisga, Navarro County, where other relatives lived. He left the school after one term to take up more lucrative pursuits. He developed his skills in gambling and became enamored of horse racing. By the end of 1869, Hardin by his own admission had killed a freedman and four soldiers. In December of that year he killed Jim Bradly in a fight after a card game. His life subsequently became a pattern of gambling, saloons, fights, and killing.

In 1871, Hardin visited his relatives, the Clements, in Gonzales County. J. G. Hardin's sister Martha Balch had married Emmanuel Clements and Hardin was close to his first cousins, Mannen (or Manning), Joe, and Gip. They convinced him to go with them on a cattle drive to Abilene, Kansas. Hardin used his gun often on the drive. Among his victims were an Indian who shot at him with an arrow and five Mexicans with whom he had argued for crowding his herd. In rough and ready Abilene, Hardin fraternized and sparred with Wild Bill Hickock and Ben Thompson. When his cousin Mannen Clements was jailed for the killing of two of Clements' cowboys, Hardin made arrangements with Hickock for Mannen to escape. Later Hardin killed a man at his hotel and fled Abilene fearing arrest by Hickock.

Hardin returned to Gonzales County, Texas, where he and the Clements piled up indictments (Marohn 44). Hardin married Jane Bowen on February 29, 1872. Jane was fully aware of Hardin's way of life and remained totally loyal to her husband through all the vicissitudes of their married life. Hardin was frequently apart from Jane, often to avoid the law. In August 1872, Hardin was wounded after being shot by Phil A. Sublett who had lost money to Hardin in a Trinity City Saloon. Hardin tried to hide out while he recovered but finally gave himself up when his whereabouts were discovered. Along with an indictment for assaulting Sublett, Hardin had several other indictments outstanding when he was arrested. He was sent to Gonzales County at the request of Sheriff W. E. Jones who held warrants against him (Marohn 56). He broke out of the Gonzales County jail with the help of Mannen Clements.

On February 6, 1873, Hardin's first child Mary Elizabeth (Mollie) was born. In April, he killed J. B. Morgan in a Cuero barroom, one of the two killings for which he would ultimately be convicted. The same year, he became embroiled in the Taylor-Sutton feud as a leader of the Taylor faction. Hardin was related by marriage to the Taylors and both Taylors and Suttons relied on the loyalty of kin. Hardin and Jim Taylor killed the powerful and ruthless Sutton supporter, Jack Helm. In March of 1874, Hardin and his older brother Joseph aided Billy and Jim Taylor in their assassination of the leader of the Sutton faction, Bill Sutton, as he boarded a boat in Indianola on his way to New Orleans. After Bill Sutton's murder, Hardin put together another cattle drive and journeyed to Comanche to say goodbye to his family. On May 26, he was celebrating his winnings from a horse race, drinking at the Comanche saloons, when he met up with deputy sheriff Charles Webb from neighboring Brown County. Webb was killed and the crowd turned against Hardin and his companions. Hardin escaped but his father, brother Joseph, and other kinsmen were arrested. Joseph Hardin and two cousins were taken from jail at night and lynched. Hardin, vowing to avenge his brother's death, fled Texas followed by his wife and daughter. Under the name of J. H. Swain he relocated in Florida among his wife's relatives. He later moved his family to other Bowen relatives in Pollard, Alabama across the Florida border. John Wesley Hardin, Jr. was born August 3, 1875. A daughter, Callie, (later renamed Jane Martina and called Jennie) was born July 15, 1877.

In 1873, Reconstruction had ended in Texas with the election of Richard Coke over radical Republican E. J. Davis. As soon as the former confederates were returned to power, the populace was eager to see an end to the violence and lawlessness which had been rampant since the end of the war. Coke re-established the Texas Rangers in 1874, in part to reinforce local law enforcement in their ineffectual fight against cattle thieves, gangs and feudists. He created a Special Force whose first duty was to end the Sutton-Taylor feud. In 1877, John B. Armstrong, a second Lieutenant in the Special Force, requested that he be commissioned to find and arrest the fugitive Hardin. A Dallas detective Jack Duncan was hired to live undercover among Jane Hardin's relatives in Gonzales County in order to learn where Hardin was. Jane's brother, Brown Bowen, also a fugitive hiding in Alabama, betrayed their whereabouts when he wrote his father and told him that his sister Jane sends her love. Armstrong and Duncan went to Pensacola Junction in Florida and made arrangements with the sheriff to arrest Hardin on the train as he was returning home to Alabama on August 23, 1877. They overpowered Hardin and transported him back to Texas where they lodged him in the Austin jail. Under heavy guard by the Texas Rangers, Hardin was taken to Comanche County and tried for the murder of Charles Webb in September of 1877. He was convicted to 25 years in the state prison but appealed the sentence on technical grounds. He was returned to Austin October 6, 1877 to await his hearing. Hardin's brother-in-law, Brown Bowen, was also in the Austin jail sentenced to die by hanging for the murder of Thomas Haldeman. The Bowens asked Hardin to take the blame for the Haldeman murder. Hardin refused maintaining his innocence. Jane Hardin stood by her husband, thereby estranging herself from her father. Brown Bowen was hung proclaiming Hardin was the guilty one to the very last.

In June 1878, Hardin's conviction was upheld. He entered prison in Huntsville on October 5, 1878. He made several unsuccessful attempts to escape and was harshly punished each time. Eventually he settled into prison life, joined the debating society, attended Sunday school and studied law. In January 1892, Hardin was sent to Cuero, Texas where he plea bargained a 2 year concurrent sentence for the 1873 murder of J. B. Morgan. He was released from prison February 17, 1894 after 15 years and 5 months with time off for good behavior. He rejoined his children in Gonzales County. His wife Jane had died November 6, 1892.

Hardin's attorney wrote Governor Hogg for a full pardon based on the fact that Hardin had completed his sentence and was "behaving in an orderly manner." (Marohn 180) The pardon was granted on March 16, 1894. Hardin then passed a law examination and set up practice in Gonzales. He became embroiled in a controversy with W. E. Jones in Jones' campaign for Gonzales County sheriff. Hardin supported Jones' opponent and charged that Jones had helped him escape from prison in 1872. When Jones won a close election, an embittered Hardin left Gonzales and moved to Junction where his brother Jeff was living. By December, he opened a law office there. In January he married the 15 year old Callie Lewis but she left him soon after.

A kinsman, Jim Miller, asked Hardin to come to Pecos in far West Texas to give legal assistance in his feud with the Pecos County Sheriff, Bud Frazer. Miller was suspected of several murders himself, and when Hardin consented to help him, he was walking straight back into his old way of life. The Miller case ended with a hung jury and Hardin drifted to El Paso. He set up a law office there but soon let his practice slide. He again frequented saloons, gambled, drank to excess and got into fights. On August 19, 1895, John Selman, with whom Hardin had been arguing, shot Hardin in the back of the head as he threw dice at the bar of the Acme Saloon.

Scope and Content Note

The letters in this collection date from 1874 to 1931. The bulk of the letters cover Hardin's arrest and imprisonment. Several of the letters describe in detail Hardin's version of the Webb killing and lynching of Hardin's relatives as well as his own arrest, trial and incarceration. There is good documentation of the 1894 Gonzales County election controversy in which Hardin was deeply involved. The correspondence also offers insights on 19th century Texas life, i.e. politics, reconstruction, the Texas Rangers, the State Police, the Taylor-Sutton feud, prison life, farming practices, and country social life and mores. The collection also contains handwritten legal exams and papers as well as family photographs.

1874 Letters: There is only one letter from this year. On September 18, Hardin, on the run after the Webb killing in May, writes to his father to make a payment to his cousin, Mannen Clements. In a postscript, Hardin tells his father to destroy the letter after it is read.

1875 Letters: There is one item from the year 1875, a bill dated September 25 from Joseph DeMartini of Jacksonville Florida to J. H Swain. In his autobiography, Hardin says he was in Jacksonville using the alias of Swain from July 1875 to July 1876. (Hardin, 110-112)

1876 Letters: There are scraps of bills and invoices from Jacksonville, Florida dating from May until January. Present also is the first letter from Hardin to his wife. It is dated September 8 and he writes he will send for her when he has set up a business.

1877 Letters: The Hardins contacted their families in April to let them know for the first time since they left Texas how they had fared. They are answered by Jane's uncle Joshua Bowen (May 6) and Hardin's uncle Robert E. Hardin (alias R. E. Barnette, May 9. See Marohn 104). Both responses relate the state of affairs in Texas, update the Hardins on their respective relatives and mention the status of the Sutton-Taylor feud factions. After Hardin was captured by John Armstrong and Jack Duncan on August 23, 1877, he writes Jane from Decatur Alabama on August 25 explaining what happened and hinting that he might be able to escape. He accuses her brother Brown of being the cause of his capture. The majority of letters in September and October are letters of support from the family. Hardin is tried in September and convicted of Second Degree murder. He is returned to the Austin jail October 6 to await his appellate hearing. Letters from the family lament his sentence, and encourage him in his appeal. Beginning in November, the Hardin family urges Jane to return to Texas. Other letters of interest are a letter from Doc J An which mentions his knowledge of the detective who arrested Hardin, October 13; from Hardin's mother, Elizabeth, recounting the family version of the Webb killing, October 26; from Hardin giving his wife a detailed account of what happened on the day of the Webb killing and mentioning Brown Bowen who is also in the Austin jail, December 5, 1877; and again from Elizabeth Hardin discussing her family's tragedies and asking Jane what exactly had been Hardin's occupation, December 14, 1877.

1878 Letters: Jane Hardin and her children arrived at Hardin's mother's home in Bennett Station in North Texas in February. Brown Bowen is sentenced to hang for the murder of Tom Haldeman and on March 11, Hardin complains that Brown is blaming him for the murder. He tells Jane that her father has been the cause of the indictment against him for the murder of J. B. Morgan in 1873. On March 26, Hardin writes Jane that Brown got Mannen Clements indicted for the Paten Patterson killing of July 25, 1872. Brown Bowen was hung on May 17 and Hardin, in a May 18 letter to Jane, describes how her sister and father begged him to take the blame for the Haldeman murder, tells why he refused to do so and describes Brown's hanging. On May 19, Mattie Bowen writes her sister Jane how she found Brown's corpse waiting for her and her father when they returned home to Gonzales County from Austin. Hardin learns his conviction has been affirmed in June. Jane Hardin quarrels with her mother-in-law and Hardin writes her in August to mend her relations with his mother. (The reasons for the quarrel are not given.) An August 3 letter from Mannen Clements to Jane also urges her to end the quarrel and advises her not to worry Hardin with her problems. Jane and the children go to Austin in the same month and are able to visit with Hardin in the Austin jail. On September 16, 1878 Hardin is taken under Ranger guard to Comanche for sentencing and he writes Jane describing his travels. On October 5 he enters the Huntsville penitentiary to serve a 25-year sentence as #7109. Jane returns to his mother in Red River County. Hardin's letter writing in prison is restricted and letters are read by prison authorities. By December he has found a guard, J. C. Outlaw, who will slip out letters for him. Hardin writes in his autobiography (127) that he immediately began planning his escape. His letters are circumspect but in a slipped out letter of December 28 he describes an escape attempt. He does not admit blame but says he was punished.

1879 Letters: In his letters to Jane, Hardin often expresses his love for her and the children. On January 9, 1879, he reminisces on their courtship in uncharacteristic detail. Later he apologizes that he exposed their courtship conversation which intimates how very aware he is that his letters are being read by others. In a letter of February 23 which he is slipping out through a guard, he warns Jane to be careful about what she writes, to pretend that she only wants him to be released legally. Letters to Jane of January 26 and February 9 also go into more detail about conditions at prison mentioning escape attempts and punishment. On February 9, Hardin tells Jane about Mannen Clements' legal troubles and that her sister Mattie married Oliver Odom. While Jane is still in Bennett he repeatedly urges her to be considerate of his mother and family. Jane leaves Hardin's mother around April 4 and goes to Austin. By May, she is living with Mannen Clements' family in San Saba County. In a May 11 letter to Mannen Clements, Hardin asks him to give information to Texas Rangers, Lee Hall and J. B. Armstrong, which will help them convict members of the mob who lynched Scrap Taylor. (Hardin relates in his autobiography that Scrap Taylor was lynched by Suttonites after the Webb murder). Mannen Clements is in Austin to take care of an aggravated assault charge mentioned in an earlier letter. In June Hardin is put in boot shop and writes he has become a good fitter and cutter. On June 19, 1879, Sally Jane Clements, wife of Joseph Hardin Clements, writes Jane about an Indian raid against nearby settlers in West Texas. In August and September, Hardin's mother and family are moving around looking for another place to farm. November 2, Hardin tells Jane to enjoy her stay in Gonzales where her family lives and advises her to "let bygones alone." He is most likely referring to the animosities between Hardin and the Bowens over the Bowen's part in Hardin's arrest and Brown Bowen's hanging.

1880 Letters: There are only five letters and one four-side page of school exercises belonging to Edward Bowen from this year. None of the letters are to or from John Hardin. In May, Elizabeth Hardin writes to Jane in Gonzales that Hardin has had his letter writing privileges taken away after he has been caught planning an escape in clandestine correspondence with Mannen Clements. In August 1880, Hardin attempted escape again and these attempts undoubtedly are the reason he is unable or unwilling to write. (Marohn, 150)

1881 Letters: On June 3, 1881, Hardin writes Jane again after a long hiatus. He explains, in a rather circumspect manner, why he had not written. He is basically saying that since he could not be frank with her (he is possibly referring to his escape attempts and punishment), there was no point in writing at all. He also offers her the opportunity to leave him since they are forced to live apart. He indicates a prison superintendent convinced him to write his mother after she repeatedly wrote asking what had happened to him. He claims that he has decided to make no more attempts to escape and hopes now to gain early release by earning good time or being pardoned. On July 3, 1881, Hardin writes that he worships on the Sabbath, belongs to the Moral and Christian Society and is secretary of the Debating Society. Once again he offers Jane her freedom if she thinks it is in her best interest. In a letter of August 14, he acknowledges that Jane has responded that she wants to remain his wife. He again gives reasons why he did not write her for so long including "to Keep you out of a disgraceful correspondence Something I cannot mention Now." On September 25, Hardin once more offers Jane her release if she wants it. He asks her to write and offers to give her advice on how to educate the children if she wants it.

1882 Letters: In a letter of February 26, Hardin writes that he is glad Jane has chosen to wait for him. In his next letter of April 2, he tells her that he wants to see her but not in stripes. Hardin's mother is writing from Gainesville in May and Hardin's sister, Matt Smith, moves to Lampasas Springs after her husband Bright's house burns down. The children are growing and Hardin's letters increasingly discuss their upbringing beginning with Sep 3. There is one letter from Jane's father Neill Bowen, the only letter of his in the collection. It is written from Pollard, Alabama to Wad who is probably a resident of Gonzales County. Some have thought Wad was Wes but the contents of the letter indicate rather that Neill is writing to someone who has family in Florida and is living in the free world.

1883 Letters: There is only one letter from this year written to Jane Hardin by her sister. Hardin writes in his autobiography that he tried to escape in 1883 without success. In the fall, he became very ill from an abscess to an old gun wound received in 1872. When he is well enough, he is put to work in the tailor shop. (Hardin 131-133)

1884 Letters: Hardin's letters begin to appear on prison forms. He writes Jane two letters in this year indicating he spent most of the year sick from his wound.

1885 Letters: In May, Hardin's mother Elizabeth died at the age of 58 in Ennis, Texas. In August, Hardin asks prison superintendent Ben McCulloch for proper medical treatment saying he has been suffering for two years. In September, Hardin writes Jane that he is feeling better after 2 years of sickness and that sickness prevented him from writing more. His two oldest children begin to write him.

1886 Letters: Hardin begins to write his children directly, giving them advice on the importance of education and the proper way to behave.

1887 Letters: Hardin continues to lecture wife and children using more biblical quotes and religious references. He explains to his children that he was unjustly imprisoned.

1888 Letters: Hardin writes flowery letters instructing Jane and the children on how they should behave. In a February 5th letter, he tells Jane his release date has been moved up because of his good conduct. He promises that if released, he will try to purge himself of his "wicked intemperate ways." On June 24, he defends his past as the actions of a brave man fighting all foes. He has never surrendered and he stood up against the mob. On October 7, Hardin tells Jane to tell the children all about him and that they should imitate his virtues and avoid his faults.

1889 Letters: All the letters from this year are addressed to the children but the body of the letter often contains individual messages to each member of his family. Hardin continues to claim he is imprisoned unjustly. In the July 14 letter to his daughter Jane, he relates his version of the Webb killing, his brother's lynching, his arrest and trial. He also expresses sorrow that Jane's father, Neill Bowen has died. In October he asks Jane why she is not writing.

1890 Letters: In an April letter, Hardin attacks successive Governor's administrations from Davis to Ross. He writes that he has endured 13 years of slavery in prison and the 10 years before he was in "tragic battle" with Yankee soldiers and their supporters. In a November letter, Hardin tells Jane to keep her good looks since he expects to be free in three years. He adds that he will continue to battle for his rights, and for the children to cease writing for the present. In every letter, Hardin gives advice on the behavior of the children.

1891 Letters: Many of these letters are addressed to Jane Hardin written by John and various other family members. Following a Southern familial custom, John continues advising Jane on the behavior of the children. In an April letter, John pleads with Jane to teach the children “that it is cowardly to lie to Steal to rob […] to murder or to violate any law civil.” Hardin also receives a letter from L.A. Whatley, Superintendent of Penitentiaries, detailing additional prison time Hardin has accrued on account of his “misconduct” and relates to Hardin’s that his term will thus expire on January 22, 1894, if Hardin “will be acquiescent and obedient to the rules.”

1892 Letters: Letters from the Fly and McNeal law firm are of interest here, such as one letter dated May 18, in which W.S. McNeal writes to Hardin reassuring him that his case “is a good one and will be of great benefit with the governor in obtaining a pardon for you.” Also of interest here are the heartfelt letters that Hardin sent to his children. In an August letter to his son and two daughters, Hardin writes that “Your papa” desires to greet his family with “Kisses of love and tender caresses emblematic of his deep and Sinceere [sic] affection for each of you.”

1893 Letters: Considering that Hardin was released from prison the following year, many of documents contained here are not surprisingly related to Hardin’s case (with various references to the murder of J.B. Morgan); including formal interaction with state legislators and Governor J.S. Hogg.

1894 Letters: Recently released from prison, Hardin is involved in prolific correspondence with various persons including sheriffs, attorneys, and local merchants. Of peculiar interest are several bills Hardin received from J.P. Randle, P. Levyson, and (responding to a request for a law book catalogue) Gilbert Book Company.

1895 Letters: One singular article of interest here is Hardin’s business card—as an attorney at law in El Paso. The card is fixed to a note, which reads, “This card and about 80 others were found in Hardin’s room after he was killed in 1895.” One humorous letter dated July 11, from J.H. Flynth, asks Hardin to “please tell me when you was convicted the first time and what was your sentence […] for the purpose of settling a dispute here in regard to the matter.” This was answered in a script that (to this writer) appears to be J.W. Hardin’s, but was written “in regard to Mr. Hardin,” and is unsigned.


Access Restrictions

Open for Research. Photocopies of Hardin collection material will be provided for general reference. Original material from this collection may be accessed with special permission only.

Index Terms

Hardin, John Wesley, 1853-1895.
Frontier and pioneer life--Texas.
Hardin, Jane Bowen (wife of Hardin – died 1892 )
Spellman, Ernest donor

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

John Wesey Hardin Collection, Southwestern Writers Collection/Texas State University-San Marcos

Acquisition Information

Donated by Ernest Spellman whose mother was the daughter of Hardin's eldest daughter Mollie. Spellman and his father, Elmer, both attended Southwest Texas State University. Deed of gift is dated December 3, 1982.

Detailed Description of the Collection


The inventory for this collection is currently unavailable. Please contact the Southwestern Writers Collection, Special Collections, Alkek Library, Texas State University-San Marcos for more information regarding this collection.