AMONG DALLAS COUNTY communities better known for their peaceful ways and well-ordered society is Lancaster, long a model of law and order. In the earliest days of its settlement, though, life in Lancaster was fairly rough and tumble. The open saloon—six of them, as a matter of fact—held sway there until well toward the end of the last century when they finally fell to the zeal of local optionist. Oldtimers could recall frequent visitations by men on horseback from neighboring Devil’s Neck firing their six-shooters recklessly as they raced through town.
It is true that Pat Garrett, the most famous peace officer in the West in frontier days, got his start in Lancaster. But that was before he gained renown as the sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, who killed Billy the Kid, thereby ending the career of murder and mayhem of young William Bonney.
Born in Alabama in 1850, Garrett was reared in Louisiana before heading for Texas with the intention of joining the famous Texas Rangers. He halted for several years in Lancaster, where he began •as a farmhand and cowboy. There he also became a close friend of Madison M. Miller, developer of Pleasant Run, early-day rival of the town of Lancaster. The two men planned to enter the Texas Rangers together, but Miller changed his plans after he fell in love with Polly Rawlins, daughter of Elder Roderick Rawlins, and married her.
After Garrett left Dallas County and achieved fame in New Mexico, some friends from Lancaster asked him how he could live in such a wild and lawless place as New Mexico. “Well,” Garrett replied, “Lancaster was just about as tough when I got there. You know, there was a killing almost every week and everybody in Lancaster carried a gun on his hip, unless he had two.”
The most famous outlaw ever to frequent the Lancaster area was Cole Younger, former Confederate guerrilla warrior from Missouri, who actually settled in Scyene in the eastern part of Dallas County during Reconstruction but bought considerable amounts of cattle in the Lancaster area.
Later, in 1876, Younger was captured after a bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, and spent twenty-five years in prison before being pardoned. He then became a model citizen and ended life as a platform lecturer denouncing Demon Rum.
The Lancaster area, or, rather, the Bear Creek community some six miles toward the Ellis County line on the trail to Corsicana, produced one of the most remarkable “lawmen” in Dallas County history. He was Virginia-born John C. Hatter, who reached Dallas County in 1849 and settled in the unusually remote Bear Creek area. Without any formal legal training or instruction in the duties of a minister, Hatter became an outstanding dispenser of frontier justice and religious decorum. He has been compared with Judge Roy Bean of the “Law-West-of-the-Pecos” fame, but he was a much more intelligent and compassionate figure, although he lived a much more obscure life.
Judge Newton Fitzhugh, of the Court of Criminal Appeals for Dallas County, a resident of Lancaster and a well-known historian of the Civil War period, has long been interested in the accounts of Hatter’s role as an unregistered jurist. Fitzhugh is convinced that Hatter was an extremely able man who became valuable to many in a frontier area that was almost devoid of lawyers, courts, clergymen, and other adjuncts of a more polished society.
One day there was a death on Bear Creek and Hatter agreed to make a coffin for the deceased. When it came time for the funeral no minister was available, whereupon a neighbor said, “John, H’ it’s up to you.” John officiated by reading Bible passages.
Soon afterward a wagon train reached Bear Creek, two days from John Neely Bryan’s ford of the Trinity, bringing a tall sixteen year-old lad and a girl in calico who had fallen in love and wanted to be married. Parents of both principals were agreeable, but there was no preacher or justice of the peace- to perform the ceremony. “If John can bury ‘ern,” remarked a citizen of Bear Creek, “there is no reason why he can’t marry ’em.” And so the young couple were united by Hatter in the holy bonds of matrimony.
In another instance a citizen of Bear Creek became seriously ill. Sensing his early demise, he demanded to be baptized. Hatter again obliged, carrying the sick man by wagon to a deep hole in the creek. It was midwinter and the water was very cold, but Hatter immersed the candidate for salvation, then dragged him out on the bank where a campfire helped break the chill of both men. By the next day the man was better and by the second day was pronounced well. “I nearly froze to death,” he recalled later, “but it was better to freeze now than burn in hell forever.”