In the 1870s, the Texas Rangers had their hands full responding to the lawlessness on the Texas frontier. Rustlers, stagecoach robberies and feuds stretched the Rangers’ resources to their limits.
Texas Rangers, under the command of Captain Leander H. McNelly, were forcing the end of the Seguin/Guadalupe County Taylor-Sutton feud when McNelly was ordered to Goliad to investigate widespread cattle rustling. His orders were to bring law and order to what was known as the Nueces Strip, a haven for drifters, criminals and rustlers. After the Civil War, this was a chaotic place plagued by gangs of marauding ex-soldiers where rustling was a major industry.
Into this area had moved a young man named John King Fisher who quickly established himself as the leader of the Strip. His ranch on the Pendencia Creek became the haven for drifters, rustlers and other criminals in the region. At times, his gang of rustlers numbered more than a hundred men.
He was an impressive figure, wearing an ornamented Mexican sombrero, black Mexican jacket, a crimson sash and two silver-plated, ivory-handled revolvers. He was both respected and feared in the Nueces Strip. On the road to his ranch, he reportedly placed a sign that read, “This is King Fisher’s Road. Take the other.”
Fisher made a good living by stealing cattle from Mexico and selling them in Texas.
He was arrested a number of times and charged with murder and rustling but managed to avoid conviction, usually by threatening anyone who might testify against him.
Over time Fisher became very proficient with a gun and in a dispute over the spoils of a rustling raid into Mexico, one of the men drew his pistol. Fisher immediately pulled his guns and killed three bandits in the shootout. He then was the undisputed leader of the gang. During the following months, he killed seven more bandits from Mexico who were rustling cattle from the valley ranchers. In the following years, Fisher seldom committed crimes against other Texas ranchers, instead, opting to raid and rustle cattle from across the Mexican border.
In 1876, he married Sarah Vivian and they had four daughters but no sons. Fisher then found religion and with his new family began a more settled life. In 1883, he became sheriff of Uvalde County.
This was a period when there were massive raids, pillaging, looting and murder by Mexican bandits because there was little law enforcement to stop the raids, led primarily by the Mexican rebel leader Juan Cortina whose army
numbered in the thousands.
In an attempt to reduce crime in the area, the Texas Rangers raided the Fisher Ranch and arrested Fisher. However, because there was very little evidence of his crimes, he was released after a “gentleman’s agreement” was reached that his cattle rustling into Mexico would end. The increased pressure of the Rangers in the Strip caused Fisher to retire from his rustling and he began legitimate ranching.
In 1884, while serving as sheriff of Uvalde County, Fisher trailed brothers Tom and Jim Hannahan to their ranch after a stagecoach robbery. The Hannahans resisted arrest and Fisher shot and killed Tom. Jim then surrendered and was taken into custody along with the stolen money from the robbery. For years after Tom Hannahan’s death, his mother would travel to Fisher’s grave, build a fire on top of the grave and dance around it. No one ever bothered her during her dances.
In 1884, while in San Antonio on business, Fisher met an old friend, gunfighter and gambler, Ben Thompson. Thompson was not liked in San Antonio because he had earlier killed a popular theater owner named Jack Harris. A feud over the killing had been brewing between Thompson and friends of Harris for many months.
Someone in Austin had telegraphed a man named Joe Foster that Thompson was coming to San Antonio and to watch for him.
Fisher and Thompson attended a play on March 11 at the Turner Hall Opera House and later went to the Vaudeville Variety Theater. There they ran into Foster and other friends of Harris and, in a shootout, both Fisher and Thompson were shot in an ambush from one of the theater boxes. Thompson fell and one of the ambushers ran up and shot him in the head. He suffered nine bullet wounds. Fisher was shot 13 times and was able to fire only one time, hitting a man named Coy, resulting in Coy being crippled for life. Foster, in an attempt to draw his pistol, shot himself in the leg which was later amputated. He died shortly thereafter. There was a public outcry for a grand jury indictment of those involved. However, no action was taken. The San Antonio police and the prosecutor showed little interest in the case.
Fisher’s body was returned to his ranch where he was buried. His body was later moved to Pioneer Cemetery in Uvalde. He was 30 years old.
Ranger McNelly suffered from tuberculosis and retired in 1876 due to deteriorating health. He died on Sept. 4 the following year. In World War II, the United States Liberty Ship SSLH McNelly was named in his honor.