Fannin County, Texas

Killings in Bonham in 1866 

The Walk-About Tour around the Square in Bonham gives this account of a killing on the Square in Bonham in 1866:


When General Henry McCulloch arrived in Bonham in 1863 to take command of the Northern Sub-District of the Confederate Army, one of his first charges from his superiors was to ferret out the large number of suspected army deserters and possible Union agents who were believed to be present in the Red River Valley. In addition to placing Col. James Bourland in charge of tracking down these suspects, McCulloch also seemingly employed double agents to assist with the arrest program.

Two of these agents were a father and son team, L. L. Harris and Cap Harris. The I860 census shows an L. L. Harris, Shoemaker and a C. R. Harris residing with a Miller family near the community of Orangeville in southwest Fannin county.

The Harrises were suspected by an element of Bonham society as being Union spies. In fact, that persona seems to have been fostered at the behest of Gen. McCulloch. In a letter from Col. Bourland to McCulloch, he reported at the enrolling clerk in Wise County had stated that L. L. Harris “was sent here by the Federals as a spy.” McCulloch’s response was that “I use (Harris) both against Yankees and our disloyal citizens, and of course, if he is useful, he must appear to be a Federal.”

In February, 1864, Cap Harris was captured with a group of men from Bonham about a day’s ride from Ft. Smith Arkansas. The group, composed of Union sympathizers and Confederate deserters, was trying to reach Union forces. After being imprisoned for about a month, Harris was released and returned to Bonham where the circumstances of his capture were well known. It was widely held that the Harrises were responsible for Dr. Penwell’s arrest in his flight to Ft. Smith.

The affair came to a climax on this spot nearly 2 years later in a showdown between the Harrises and Daniel W. Byars, a Texas Ranger serving as a CSA Lieutenant. According to eyewitness J. H. McDaniel, he and Byars were walking along the north side of the square in Bonham. As they approached the law office of Col. Samuel A. Roberts, Cap Harris jumped from the doorway and shouted, “goddamn you, draw your pistol” and began firing his own weapons. Byars returned the fire.

Another account says that Byars and young Harris had met earlier in the day when Byars swore at Harris and called him a “Fed.” Harris went home, told his father what happened, armed himself and returned with his father looking for Byars. After Cap Harris had fired the first shots, his father stepped between him and Byars and entered the law office where he told the men there, “Gentlemen, I am a dead man. God have mercy upon me.” He then fell dead from gunshots exchanged between Byars and his son.

As Byars returned the fire, Cap Harris was shot once in the abdomen. Some report that he managed to stagger across the street before falling on the steps of the courthouse. He lived until the next day. Father and son were buried in the same grave.

The war between the states had ended 8 months before the shooting as Bonham residents were trying to recover from the devastating losses of war. Union government officials filed murder charges but Col. Bourland paid Byars’ bail of $1,500 then allowed him to avoid northern justice for the next forty-seven years. In 1911 , an attempt was made to bring the case to trial and in February, 1912, after eye-witness testimony, defense attorney J. S. Merrill moved to quash the indictment and the case was officially closed. 

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There are numerous articles in the Bonham News of 1911 regarding this incident at the time of the arrest of Byars at that time.


​An article on June 30, 1911 tells the story of the arrest of Byars, then 75 years old, for a murder 46 years earlier.


​An article on July 14, 1911 tells the story of a witness to the event in 1865.


​An article on August 1, 1911 is a reprint of an article from the Greenville Messenger supporting Daniel Byars.


​An article on October 3, 1911  discusses the postponement of the case.


The following article is from the Bonham News, April 12, 1912.


A Vision of Capt. Harris' Killing in 1866

Mrs. Lina Baker Sias, Former Bonham Resident, Relates Story


Lina Baker Sias, who during the time of the Civil War, was engaged in teaching in Bonham together with her husband, and who, we understand, is a most highly respected lady, passing her declining years at her home in Schoharie, New York, has given us permission to publish an article on Texas in the Sixties. This article was written by her seven years ago, before it was known that the Byars case would be set for trial in our District Court. [see below] The fact that many of Bonham's older citizens remember Mrs. Sias and her husband will make the article doubly interesting to them.


As most of the readers of the Bonham News know, Dan Byars was arrested on the charge of murder in 1866, just at the close of the War. He left Bonham and spent most of his life from that time on outside the state as a fugitive from the hands of the law. Mr. Byars has raised a large family, which has grown into manhood and womanhood, none of them knowing that such an indictment was hanging over the head of their father until less than a year ago, when he was brought to Bonham by Sheriff Leeman, on the charge of murder. About two weeks ago his case was brought up for trial and was dismissed from court.


The following is the article of Mrs. Sias, who in her girlhood days, was a warm friend of the unfortunate Harris:


"Would you like to send a letter to your father?"


This question was a sore temptation for it was put to me during our Civil War, when opportunity for sending letters was rare. I had not received a line from my Northern home for eighteen months.


My boyfriend who put this question, had gone South with his father some three years before Fort Sumter was fired upon. Now he was eighteen and liable to the draft. He was in a hurry and spoke to the point.


"Nearly all of my kinfolks are in the North, so is my mother's grave. I am about to be forced into the Confederate Army. There is not power enough on earth to make me send a bullet at a soldier in blue, and as I cannot leave in daylight, I am going to skulk out in the darkness."


The true name of the young man who said this was Riley Harris, but he was called "Cap." for the same reason that Claude Melnotte was called "Prince," because he "looked and acted" like a captain.


"When do you go?"


"Tonight"


"Alone?"


"No, there are thirty-two of us."


"Anyone I know?" "Yes, Dr. Penwell. He is tired of this country and is striking out for Illinois where he has property that needs his attention. His wife and son will follow him as soon as they are permitted to leave. Some of our number are young men like myself, who have not yet taken the oath of allegiance, but who, if they do not flee, will be obliged to do so. Many of the party are strangers to me. Well, shall I carry a letter for you?"


I shook my head. "Should you be captured and a letter of mine be found on you, we would be compromised."


Then I placed my father's address in his notebook and he promised to write to him.


"What route do you take since you are giving me your confidence?"


"We are to strike across the Indian Territory for Fort Smith -- then to Missouri. I am going to Buffalo, New York."


He arose and clasped my hands. There was neither doubt nor fear in his blue eyes. At the door he lifted his hat and returned to say, "My visit to you has been made openly. Tomorrow you will be questioned about this call. Say that I came to bid you goodbye, and that I told you I was on my way to join Gen. Gano's Brigade."


I watched the comely, fair-skinned boy leap into the saddle. A smile, a touch of his hat and he was gone. With daylight came the news of the flight. Friends and relatives of the fugitives were questioned. It was well for me that Cap had put an answer in my mouth, for I was interviewed by one high in authority, and could not have dissembled quickly enough to have avoided detection.


It was an easy matter to trace the flying men as far as Red River, but the roads were but paths and the population scarce in the Territory, so the Choctaws were engaged to join the chase. When I heard this my shivering heart foretold capture and havoc.


Then fell four days of suspense. There was more or less of suspense in all our days, for we had no telegraphs, cars or newspapers -- no means of definite knowledge, but lived on the uncertainties of rumor. We had reason to believe a skirmish had taken place between the pursuers and pursued. Some had been killed on both sides. "Not one had escaped." That rumor was emphasized. Later we learned that the horses, watches and money of the fleeing men had been taken by their captors. The convicts were stripped of almost every article of their clothing and then driven into a stockade.


There were a few deserters among the fugitives. All the sickening details of a court martial went from one home to another. After this came tales of outrage; which I would like to forget.


"Not one had escaped." Then young Harris was either dead or in that rude prison.


A week later Gen. Henry E. McCullough read from a soiled scrap of paper he had received as follows: "You have shaken me by the hand and spoken kindly to me. You have the power to take me from this pen, where I am dying of cold and abuse, and grant me a personal interview. The memory of your mercy to the unfortunate prompts me to send you this plea."


A week later and Cap Harris rode into town by the General's side.


There was but little prospect of any portion of the army of the Republic entering the Lone Star State. It was so remote from the center of strife that the conflict would be decided before Texas was invaded. But that did not make either life or property secure. The refuse of society, the riffraff that floats before a real army, spread over that fair land.


Hands of marauders herded together, assuming generally the name of their leader. They were well mounted, well armed, usually wearing the Confederate uniform, although by no means serving under a commission.


When foraging they divided into groups, and offered to pay for the food they needed, which in nearly all cases was refused with the remark, "We never take money from soldiers." Sometime this answer was the offspring of fear, but it was mostly given in spirit of pure patriotism. Did not these men carry guns and wear the grey? So they munched biscuit and fried chicken and rode wherever their fancy carried them in search of brawls and booty. From the wrongs wrought on individuals by these rascals, many a blood curdling tale could be told. They knew the strength of each small military post; when to be offensive, and when to cringe.


Warmly had the youthful runaway expressed gratitude for his release to Gen. McCullough. But he did not conceal his love for the old flag he was born under, and frankly confessed that the only regret he had about what he had done was being foiled. Patiently the good General listened and advised.


A home guard was needed. Since he had learned the folly of attempting to escape, would he consent to put on the Confederate colors and protect his home? The young man said, "Yes," and then sighed.


Cap. Harris's beat lay across the public square in front of the Courthouse. Two hundred outlaws rode into Bonham, high-headed as honest men. They soiled the atmosphere with their vulgar boasts and profanity. They swaggered about looking for chips to knock off someone's shoulder. Presently Dan Byars, one of the gang, spied young Harris on duty.


"Stand you -- Abolitionist," he cried. Harris walked on. Then a volley of insults issued from the free booter and his two friends by his side.


Harris tried not to listen, but his chest heaved with indignation. "If I'd had you in a coop, you wouldn't have got out so easy. I'd kept the iron bracelets on your wrists and riveted another pair on your -- Yankee legs."


Harris' nostrils dilated, but he did not break step or speak.


"If a Choctaw had brought me that pretty scalp of yours, I'd have given him two bits for it. Yes, I'd like to see it dangling from my belt, I would by G--."


Then he fingered an imaginary scalp and laughed loudly.


"Defend yourself," cried Harris, white with rage.


Dan Byars did defend himself by jumping behind a tree.


"Come out from behind that tree and fight like a white man," shouted Harris. A flash from the side of the tree went a shot at the lad. His answering bullet went into the heart of the oak.


The loud voices and firing had brought all in the vicinity to the doors and windows, and among the lookers on was Mr. Harris. He sprang to the road, threw up his hands and commanded, "Riley, don't shoot."


In an instant he lay with his face in the dust. The arms he had stretched to save his only son had not time to fall before his breast was pierced by a ball, sent by Dan Byar's hand.


Cap's gun rang on the earth and he bounded towards his prostrate father. Another flash came from behind the oak. There they lay with only the road between them. The hands they had extended towards each other did not quite meet. Riley was carried to an open door and a pillow placed under his head, but the flow of crimson could not be stayed and the boy's beautiful body grew white as a sea shell; and the lids were pressed over his blue eyes.


An hour later an arrest was made and Byars was thrust into jail. Before bedtime his followers had broken into jail and released him; not stealthily, but with whoop and much unnecessary noise. Then the villians made a triumph march out of town. Were they pursued? No! And for the best of reasons. There was not force enough left in Bonham to re-capture a prisoner guarded by two hundred men.


The next day father and son were lain side by side in one grave. The coffins were lowered by slaves. Riley's school mates loved him and were there. A good minister took his place at the head of the wide grave, and he was the only white man in that burial place. A little at one side stood Mrs. Harris with dull, glazed eyes. Her three-year-old daughter stood by her side. No hymn of comfort had been sung, no condoling sermon preached, either at the church or desolate home. The low voice of the minister broke the awful silence. All heads were bent in prayer. Young Harris' half-sister went to the verge of the grave and looked in, then at the bowed heads about her, "What made you put Cap in the ground?" she asked, lifting her face to the Minister.


He took her hand and tried to go on with his prayer. She gave a little jerk at his hand with both hers and said in a loud, crying voice, "I want Cap, and I want my papa." He took her in his arms. She placed one hand against his shoulder and pushing him back, looked him straight in the face and asked again: "What did you put my papa in the ground for?" "Your papa is dead, my child," said the man in a quivering voice. Then he tried to gather the little thing closer to his breast, but she leaned farther back, and lifting her face skyward, wailed, "No, no, my papa isn't dead! I want my papa -- and I want Cap."


Then the minister left the grave with the child in his arms, followed by the stunned mother and sobbing schoolmates, and not even one Amen was said over the graves of the murdered men.


Written in 1903.


[It is only justice to Daniel Byars to state here that he denies killing the father of Cap Harris. He says he does not know how he was killed, but thinks it was by a stray bullet, probably from the gun of his son. -- Editor]

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An article in the Bonham News on April 30, 1912 disputes the previous article.


NOTE:  The Bonham News report on March 22, 1912 that in the case of Dan. W. Byars, charged with the murder of the Harrises in 1865, the indictment was fatally defective, and was quashed on the motion of defendant's attorneys.