Friday, June 1, 2007

Outlaw Days in Old Itawamba County: Homeguard Leader, Deputy U.S. Marshal and Detective Stokley Roberts

During the Civil War and days of Reconstruction, many atrocities were committed by bands of outlaws in Itawamba County. Many of these outlaws roamed the hill country of eastern Itawamba County along the Alabama state line. During the Civil War Stokley Roberts was in charge of the homeguard and during the Reconstruction years served as a deputy U.S. Marshal and later a lawman and detective. Roberts gained quite a reputation in Itawamba and surrounding counties.

Roberts was born January 23, 1824 in Alabama, the son of John and Sarah Mullins Roberts. In Itawamba County he married Laney Elizabeth Spearman, daughter of Itawamba planter, Elijah and Sidney Cotten Spearman. For many years Roberts made his home near his father-in-law’s plantation just north of Tremont on the old Cotton Gin Road. The Spearman family owned several thousand acres of land in the Bull Mountain Creek bottomlands.

During 1874 Roberts moved his family to the old John Rogers farm just south of Fulton where he purchased 160 acres of land (now inside the city limits of Fulton on South Adams Street) from the Rogers estate and around 1899 he and his wife moved to Coryell County, Texas. On a Monday morning , January 25, 1904 his body was found in the Leon River near his home about three miles north of Gatesville. The evening before he had left his home to go across the river to check on some cows and hadn’t returned. It was thought he had fallen in the river and drowned.

There are many tales told about Stokley Roberts, commonly known as “Stoke,” in northwest Alabama and northeast Mississippi. One interesting tale of many, is his capture of the head of the Miller gang out of Alabama. The following was taken from the Itawamba County Works Progress Administration Historical Records Survey:

“An interesting story of the combating of crime in Itawamba County was that of an outlaw by the name of Miller who sold whiskey in Itawamba, Monroe and adjoining Alabama counties for a period of 55 years. Miller succeeded in evading capture for many years until Stoke Roberts and Cleave Barnes took up his trail. They soon had Miller captured and carried him to Aberdeen jail. Miller was a heavy drinker and when he was put in jail and whiskey denied him, he became frantic. The night before he was to be sentenced he asked for a pencil, paper and a light. These were furnished him and he wrote a letter to his wife telling her that Stoke Roberts and Cleave Barnes had taken his life and urged her family to take revenge on these men.

After the letter was written Miller took his life by cutting his throat with his pocket knife. His body was taken back to Marion County, Alabama to be buried. After his funeral Miller’s family shook hands over his grave and swore that they would get revenge for his death.

A mob of about fifty men were organized who boasted that they were going to blow Fulton off the map and kill Roberts and Barnes. By the time the mob got across the state line into Mississippi, a few men learned what was going on and they hurried to Fulton to notify the citizens of the mob’s intention to destroy the town. Thirty or forty young men and boys formed a breast work across the highway outside of Fulton and made ready to defend the town. Guards were placed and the men stood ready with shotguns loaded with buck shot with orders to shoot any man who failed to halt and give an account of himself.

An unknown man supposed to have been a friend of the Miller gang slipped out of Fulton and met the mob seven miles east of Fulton and told them of the defensive measures the men of Fulton had taken to protect themselves.

When the mob found out what was going on, they decided it would not be wise to attack the town, and returned to their homes. However, guards were kept on duty for a number of months expecting the mob to return.

Some months later Stoke Roberts located and captured another member of the Miller gang and placed him in jail in Fulton. Several nights later about 35 men rode into town, secured the keys to the jail, took the prisoner out, and fired a 25 gun salute as they left town. Itawamba County has had no further mob or riot experience since.”

Illustration from The Life and Adventures of John A. Murrell and death information about Stokley Roberts from the January 28, 1904 edition of the Dallas Morning News.

The old Stokley Roberts family cemetery on the homeplace in the town of Fulton.

1 comment:

kali said...

Thank you so much for this informative history! Stokley was my ggggrandfather, and there is a lot of information here that I had not heard before.