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Brown County Historical Society Scrapbook: Frontier cowboy

Staff Writer
Brownwood Bulletin
Donnie and Ronnie Lappe

For two years after his arrival in Brown County, Henry Ford worked as a cowboy on the Forsythe Ranch, working cattle ranges along the Colorado River and the Pecan Bayou. During that time, he worked as a trail hand on cattle drives to New Mexico. While on one drive he showed an exceptional ability to use a six-shooter in an incident described by R.D. Forsythe, which occurred on a ranch near Santa Fe. After the cattle had been delivered to the buyer, Bud Forsythe played in a poker game. A Mexican in the game was evidently a poor loser. Without warning, he jumped from his chair, with knife in hand. He intended to stab Bud Forsythe. Ford was observing from across the room. He quickly drew his pistol and shot the Mexican three times, saving his employer’s life.

In 1871, Henry Ford left the Forsythe Ranch and was employed by W.L. “Uncle Billy” Williams, who, with his brother John, also had a large cattle operation in Southeast Brown County. In September of that year, he married Josephine Jones. When Spring came in 1872, He bought his own cattle herd with borrowed funds and remained a stockman until 1876. During those years, he and his young family lived in the Brown County community named “Williams Ranch” which began in 1856 as a frontier trading post on land settled by John Williams. By 1876, the town was sizeable with several general stores, a hotel, livery stable, stage stop, blacksmith shop and at least two saloons. This part of Brown County and parts of San Saba, Hamilton and Comanche Counties were cut out to create Mills County.

By 1900, Williams Ranch was non-existent. There is a graveyard at its site. By the 1870’s, it had the reputation of being one of the rowdiest town on the Texas frontier. Texas Rangers were often summoned to help control the tough characters who used the area as a retreat from authorities. Cattle rustling, horse thieves, duels, gambling and even mob hangings occured. In 1874, John Wesley Hardin and his associates hung out there. It was there that Hardin had his first confrontation with Brown County Deputy Sheriff Charlie Webb, who he later killed in a bar shooting in Comanche County. He claimed it was self-defense. He was tried and sentenced to prison. Prior to the Webb incident, Hardin reportedly provoked an argument with Eugene DeLartique, Josephine Ford, Ford’s brother-in-law, in which DeLartique outdrew the infamous killer. Those who were present were probably astonished to see Hardin escape death by apologizing. Henry Ford may have been there that day to observe those tense moments.

Native Americans were constantly raiding Brown County ranches during the years that Henry Ford lived at Williams Ranch. He personally was involved in at least two skirmishes with Native Americans. The first one occurred when they stole several horses and ran for Native American territory. A group of men, including Ford, followed the trail for thirty miles and surprised the Native Americans while they were butchering a cow. Details are sketchy, but several years later, Ford recalled the episode in a letter to W.L. Williams in which he wrote that they were riding side by side at the time they decided to charge the Native Americans. His first thought was to start shooting, but Williams said no, hold your fire because they were going to have to fight hand to hand. Unfortunately, there was not a record of the outcome of that skirmish.

Another Native American fight was mentioned in another letter written by Henry Ford. On that occasion, William Epley’s horses were stolen and the subsequent chase included Ford, Epley, Ben Clark, Alfred Conner and two others who Ford identified only as Mr. Walton and Mr. Keith. The Native Americans were caught while camped. Most of the horses were recovered and much of the Native Americans equipment was captured.

In 1876, Henry Ford had become well-liked and respected by those who knew him and it was evident he was well educated. He could speak several languages including Greek, French and Spanish. He was a talented mathematician and was often called upon by acquaintances for assistance in business matters.

Henry Ford’s friends encouraged him to run for office. He did not want to and did not file to run, but the voters elected him anyway as County Clerk. He was a partner in the Coggin Ford Bank with the Coggin Brothers.

Taken from research by Lex Johnston, Henry Ford’s great grandson, that was printed in Book 11 of the Brown County Historical Society’s In the Life and Lives of Brown County, which books are for sale by the Historical Society.