Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
After the Civil War, some men in Winn Parish banded together to form what was to be a home guard, serving as “regulators” to control the behavior of recently freed slaves and oppose the Republican government of “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.” Before long, some elements of the group turned to banditry and murder, terrorizing north central Louisiana for years.
These outlaws preyed on families moving west after the Civil War. Forced to seek new opportunities, many crossed the Mississippi at Natchez and continued their journey west on what was known as the Harrisonburg Road. Most were headed to Texas or further points west with all their earthly possessions. On that trail between Natchez and Montgomery, possibly as many as hundreds of travelers were robbed and murdered. Victims are said to have been tossed into wells along the Harrisonburg Road.
The bandits, known at the Kimbrel-West gang, or the Nightriders, robbed and killed along the east-west thoroughfare crossing Winn and Grant Parishes from Natchez, Mississippi to Nacogdoches, Texas and points west. Cross-country travelers were easy marks since their disappearance might not be noticed for months. Even when locals like newly freed slaves were victimized, the disarray of the disputed Reconstruction government and the power of the gang precluded any significant law enforcement action against the culprits.
The West-Kimbrell gang were Louisiana’s most notorious outlaws during the Reconstruction era. In 1870, the Ouachita Telegraph noted the outlaws, who had “been operating as highwaymen with unvarying success ever since the close of the war, and perhaps before its close, and have sent unheralded and unprepared into eternity the soul of many an innocent victim, stimulated thereto solely by an ungodly greed for gain.”
In 1866, the gang murdered U.S. Army Lieutenant Simeon Butts who was assigned to the Freemen’s Bureau in Jackson Parish. Butts was carrying a payroll from Natchitoches to the Bureau office in Vernon when he was waylaid in Winn Parish.
Numerous murders of freed slaves and white men alike were attributed to the band. Arrest warrants were issued against various gang members, but local authorities had difficulty apprehending them, either through indifference, fear, or the outlaws’ cunning. The legends indicate the Nightriders killed far more people than the James-Younger gang and other better-known outlaws.
The Clan’s reign of terror did not end until Easter Sunday in April 1870 in Atlanta, Louisiana. Local citizens confronted the band, killing all but one. Lawson (“Laws”) Kimbrel escaped only to be hanged for murder in Texas in 1873.
Until recently, little beyond social media discussions publicly acknowledged the story of the Nightriders. Nearly 150 years after the Nightriders were eliminated, several steps have been taken to honor the victims. In 2017, a group erected a marker at what is believed to Lt. Butts’s final resting place in Kistachie National Forest in Winn Parish. In December, the Grant Parish Preservation Board and Grant Parish Planning Commission approved and installed a historical marker at the intersection of Louisiana Highway 500 and U.S. 167 in Packton. The marker was erected on the Grant-Winn Parish line near the Harrisonburg Road where so many victims met their demise. Grant residents Trevor Fry and Kenny Bullock were among those pushing for the marker.
Now, students of Winn Parish history are raising funds for a similar sign at Wheeling, the center of West-Kimbrel Clan activity. Historical markers are custom made and can cost thousands of dollars. Well-known Winn historian Gregg Davies is spearheading the effort.
While written accounts of the Nightriders are sparse, some have attempted to tell the story. Richard Briley’s 1962 book, Nightriders: Inside Story of the West and Kimbrell Clan, was the first attempt to record the Nightrider story. However, Briley was fed a good bit of fictional material by the parties he interviewed during his research. Morning Light: A Novel of the Nightriders of Louisiana by Joe Durham is a fictionalized account of the outlaws. It was published in 2013. For The Legend of the Nightriders, Jack C. Peebles consulted a number of historical documents for his version of the story. The author of several novels, Ashley Blake addressed the clan’s story in 2016 with Nightriders. His version is a blend of history and fiction using detailed descriptive character imagery.
The most recent telling of the story is Pad Pennywell by Patrick Horn, a novel from the perspective of a former slave forced to work for clan leader John West. In Horn’s fictional story, Pennywell and his wife are traveling to Texas when attacked by the outlaws. The two are forced to work for West and they learn of the gang’s nefarious operation and vow to stop them.
Horn was brought up in Atlanta the site of the execution of the West-Kimbrel Clan hearing stories of the gang from his grandfather. He incorporated them into his novelized account of the real Pad Pennywell who died in 1912.
In an interview, Horn stated one of his reasons for writing the novel was to save the story for Pad’s descendants, some using the West name and others Pennywell. Horn noted people at the time of the killings usually didn’t get involved unless they were directly confronted but that “the West-Kimbrel Clan finally went too far and got what was coming to them.” Horn views John West as a psychotic murderer, but since the gang was not known beyond the local area, few people are aware of them today, much less their place as prolific serial killers.
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com
Blake’s and Horn’s novels are available at amazon.com and other online bookstores. The other books are out of print but can be found through secondhand vendors like eBay and Amazon.