The Open Range & Stock Laws

By Harold Graham

Mississippi became  a state in 1817. The early settlers who came before and after this  date (and primarily from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia), were  mainly farmers and brought with them livestock consisting of cattle,  horses, swine, sheep, and other animals.

There were no  fences. This was not a great issue as long as the state was sparsely  settled, but as new settlers continued to pour into the early  counties of Wayne, Marion, Lawrence, and Franklin (in particular),  officials decided they must do something to reduce the problem of  livestock from trespassing [1]  on the property of landowners. The Board of Police Commissioners  (the forerunner of the Board of Supervisors) adopted a system of marks and brands. Each livestock owner was to mark or  brand his livestock and to register these marks and brands with the  Board of Police Commissioners. Needless to say, while this system  helped to identify the owner of a rogue cow, it did not solve the  problem. Cattle and swine continued to roam at will.

Although a costly  and time-consuming process, the only viable alternative to prevent  livestock from roaming at will was the construction of fences.

Most of the first  fences were made completely of wood, one of the most favorite being  the split rail fence. Wood was plentiful in Mississippi when stone  was not; therefore, few fences were made of stone.

Many of the early  farmers resented the notion of having to build fences. They also  often showed a disregard for public roads, often building fences  across them. When told that they had to build gates to allow for  passage on the road, some of the landowners showed their contempt by  building the required gate, but charging a toll for anyone who  wanted to pass through the gate. One early traveler through Lawrence  County mentions having to pay toll eleven times as he crossed the  county.

It was well after  the Civil War that barbed-wire fences became common in Mississippi.  This new-fangled fence grew in such popularity that by 1900 most of  the farming land in Mississippi (well, almost) was under fence.  There was always, of course, the maverick farmer who chose to ignore  the system.

There was also a  prevailing practice of most farmers to turn their livestock out in  the fall and winter to forage in the woods and fields. If the  livestock wandered onto someone elses property the animals were  either returned or boarded for a fee. While this system created in  most cases a minimum of animosity, sometimes it resulted in  violence. We share such a story with you next.

Hyatt  Remanded to Jail Without Bond
Man Who  Killed P. A. Jeter Recently Must Remain
In Prison To  Await Action of Grand Jury
[2]

A special to the Picayune from  Hickory gives the following account of the tragedy which occurred  north of Hickory several days ago, brief mention of which was made  in this paper last week, and the result of the preliminary trial.

The trial of T. J. Hyatt,  charged with killing P. A. Jeter, was concluded here yesterday, and  Hyatt was committed to jail to await the action of the Grand Jury.  The trouble which led to the killing arose over some stock belonging  to Jeter which was taken up by Hyatt some time in the early part of  the fall, for which Hyatt assessed damages against Jeter.

Last week Jeter took up some  hogs belonging to Hyatt and notified him at the same time that he  had done so, and asked him to send and get them. Hyatt went  immediately to Jeters house and asked him where the hogs were, when  Jeter replied that they were in a stable.

Hyatt then told Jeter to turn  them out, when Jeter asked him where his dollar was. Hyatt told him  that he had plenty of money and could pay him. Jeter told Hyatt that  he had been lying to him all the year. Hyatt drew a gun on Jeter and  told him he must not call him (Hyatt) a liar. Jeter called to his  wife to bring him his gun, but before she could reach him Hyatt  stopped her, and Mr. Carpenter, a friend of both men, told them that  neither of them needed a gun, and Hyatt then dropped his gun and  went home.

Ira Jeter, a 10-year-old son of  Jeter, testified that he and his father were in Hickory Saturday,  the day of the killing; that on their way home that afternoon they  were overtaken by Hyatt and two of his sons, that Hyatt drove up to  their wagon and got out of his buggy, and walked to the side of  Jeters wagon, when Jeter asked him what he was doing there. Hyatt  replied that he was going to kill him, at the same time firing one  shot, which took effect.

The trial was held before  Justice of the Peace Leroy Dease, with George C. Tann representing  the defendant, and J. L. Hopkins, an attorney of Chicago, and M. P.  Foy, of Decatur, representing the prosecution. Several witnesses  were introduced for the state and they testified that Jeter was not  armed when they reached him.

[1] Yes, we know that livestock do not  understand trespassing, but that does not change the  consequences of their actions.

[2] The Newton Record, January 2,  1907. Thanks to Patsy Gary for sharing this story with us.

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