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The Underwood-Stamper Feud


The Feud

The UNDERWOOD-STAMPER feud seems to have started about the spring of 1877. All sources discovered to date blame John Richard Tabor, nephew of the third wife of Old George, for causing the feud. All the accounts of Tabor are rather uncomplimentary toward that gentleman. He was called a compulsive gambler who had difficulty eluding his creditors, but he finally managed to land a job as Rowan County clerk. In this capacity he became actively involved in a scandal regarding mutilated circuit court records and, as a result, he lost his job.

About this time Tabor decided to take a shot at James Carey for reasons unknown (one wonders if this could have been the same James Carey previously knifed by Jesse Underwood?), and had to leave town in a hurry.

Next Tabor apparently decided to try his hand at horse-stealing, so teamed up with an acquitted murderer, John Martin, who had just successfully dispatched his brother-in-law. Tabor and Martin proved inept at horse-stealing and were arrested as they tried to take the 'hot' Rowan County steeds down the Ohio River. Somehow the two scalawags made bail and headed with their families for Tabor's uncle-in-law, Old George, to ask for his protection, claiming they intended to 'go straight' (why anyone intending to go straight would take up with George Washington Underwood during this time period is a matter for serious question).

Old George, recognizing the obligation toward kin, helped get the two families settled nearby, much to the consternation of George Stamper, Squire Holbrook and other neighbors. But it appears the bail-jumpers didn't take to farming because before long one of the Stampers discovered one of his best horses had vanished. Tabor, Martin and Alexander Pendland (Pendlum) were immediately suspected of the theft and open warfare commenced, according to 'Eastern Kentucky References', which quotes 'The Vanceburg Courier' of 20 Jun 1877, with conflicting locations given for the first major fight, either Laurel, a branch of the Kinniconick, or the first fork of the Tygart, on 'Wednesday or Thursday of last week.'

Estimates of the number of combattants involved differ, ranging from 25 to 70 on each side. The newspaper reported that, among others who were shot, were Martin Pendland and Old George Underwood, the latter in the head (which didn't seem to faze him for long)."

After this battle, the Stamper-Holbrook faction seems to have decided that it might be safer to take up the fine art of 'bushwhacking', picking off Underwoods and their allies by ambushing them. At this juncture the man who, all sources said, started the whole bloody fracas, John Richard Tabor, lit out for other parts.

By 11 Jul 1877, it was reported that six men had been killed and nine wounded and a company sent by the Governor was expected to help stop the 'disturbance.' Soon the Covington Light Guards arrived and somehow managed to arrest Old George, young George, Ulysses Grant Underwood, John Underwood, three Underwood daughters and a daughter-in-law, a Negro woman and boy, and General Harlan Williams.

One report said William Underwood escaped by exiting out a window, but another version claimed he wasn't a part of the action at all. If the above persons were arrested, they must have almost immediately posted bail or escaped because it was soon noted that only Old George, John and a African-American were still in jail while 'the entire gand of outlaws' was again on the rampage, burning and killing.

The valuable horse, whose disappearance had started the whole problem, now showed up under the saddle of John Martin, sending the Stampers into a further frenzy and forcing the prompt return of the horse, which action cooled the situation temporarily."

The Alexander Pendland (Pendlum) was shot from ambush and died shortly afterward and the Stampers announced that no one had better go near the house of mourning. Old George retaliated by saying that, 'no man or set of men would keep him from calling on a dead neighbor', according to Coates, and, with that, he started out for the Pendland (Pendlum) house.

Old George, then about 63 years old, took eight bullets that trip in an ambush, one of them taking out an eye, but he managed to turn his horse toward the safety of 'Fort Underwood', where he took to his bed.

The bushwhackers headed for the home of George Lewis Underwood, where they ambushed him, seriously wounding young George in the Stomach. About this time, some of the Underwoods, Elverton in particular, got a little riled and Stamper's son-in-law and a friend named Glover were killed.

Coates says these two had been bragging about being the killers of Pendlum (or Pendland). The harried townsfolk once again sent an appeal to Governor McCreary for help and that gentleman dispatched forty armed troops."

Before the state forces arrived, Jesse Underwood, the wandering fugitive, returned to eastern Kentucky, married a Miss McClure on 1 Jan 1878 in Rowan Co., KY and decided to try patching up the feud involving his family. With a lot of effort on his part, he and his brother, William, were surprisingly able to get both sides to come to a temporary truce. Thinking he'd accomplished what he'd set out to do, Jesse then decided to move his own family west, probably hoping to settle in Iowa (he may have had a first marriage in that state, because Coates mentions that he had children, and another source says his wife was an Iowa girl).

With a party made up of his new bride, his sister-in-law, a man named McClure (who was probably a relative of his wife?) and one named Vest, Jesse arrived on 7 Jan 1878 in Lewis County, Kentucky. What Jesse didn't know was that Sheriff Hiram T. Warder, Deputies James Cooper, John Ruggles and Al O. Watkins and a posse were hot on his trail. They caught up with the unsuspecting travelers near Concord and started firing. Jesse returned their fire, killing Ruggles.

The posse emptied its guns, wounding Jesse and McClure, though Jesse then escaped on foot and hid in a schoolhouse. The Sheriff took the two remaining men and the two women to a nearby farmhouse. Jesse, wearing the dead deputy's hat because he couldn't find his own and in some pain due to his wounds went to the Lewis (Louis) Ruggles house (this Ruggles being kin to the just-killed deputy) and told them he wished to surrender."

Even though Jesse was subsequently freed of charges in Lewis County, before he could be released a warrant arrived from Bath County, KY for his arrest on a charge of murder (the much earlier saloon shooting of George Trumbo). Bath County was understandably nervous (and with good reason, as it turned out) about trying to keep Jesse in its jail and officers there kept requesting more and more guards to see that he stayed in jail. But all to no avail as once again Jesse successfully avoided trial, with some help from his friends, in the form of a jail-break.

The uneasy truce established earlier by Jesse and William Underwood was still being recognized by the Underwoods and Jesse rejected more than one what he called 'easy' opportunity to kill Squire Holbrook and his son. But the Stamper-Holbrooks had other plans and proceeded to break the truce by ambushing Elverton Walker Underwood while he and his young daughters were out in their fields, plowing and planing corn.

Coates says that it was at this time that the previously wounded son, George Lewis Underwood, succumbed from his wounds, and it is true that his passing was noted on the 1880 Mortality Schedule for Carter Co., KY with the further notation that Dr. Steele was in attendance. This compiler believes that, with the contrivance and blessing of the said Dr. Steele, George Lewis somehow made good an escape, leaving behind an official, but phony death record.

The family had at least once previously staged a fake, though unsuccessful, funeral for Jesse, but this time it appears that they may have succeeded with their scheme. Because if George Lewis died of his wounds in Aug or Sep of 1879 (2 different dates were given), then who is the very much alive George listed with his "widow" and children in Wyoming, Bath Co., KY on the 1880 Federal census?

But it was at this point that the feud entered its final and most deadly stage. Mandy men on the Stamper-Holbrook side were killed during a siege on 'Fort Underwood.' George Wolfford quotes Claib Jones, a killer in his own right, who then claimed to be fighting on the side of the Underwoods, as saying that at one point in the siege they were running dangerously low on firing power, but Old George's sister, who Claib said had as much courage as the men, came to their rescue by running in guns and ammunition to the beleagured defenders.

This female gun-runner had to be Phebe Underwood Young, who was then probably older than old George. Anyway, when it appeared that the Underwoods would be able to go right on "killing crows", as they referred to it, the other side gave up their hiding places behind the trees for the time being and went home.

The feud continued. Squire Holbrook was the next victim, falling dead in his yard, most sources felt at the hands of Jesse. William Underwood, who many said had not even taken part in the feud, except to try to stop it, stopped a bullet instead while seated with his family at supper in his home in Rowan County.

On 9 Oct 1879, when Old George stepped out of his secure 'fort' for firewood, he was once again wounded by concealed bushwhackers. Jesse managed to get to the house safely shortly after that and was appalled by the condition of his father, who was being cared for by two daughters, Jesse's wife and Elverton's widow (Coates also includes George Lewis' 'widow' among the nurses and she could have still been there at this time, in order to strengthen the story of young George's 'death'?).

On October 13, 1879, Captain J. N. Stewart, commander of the Carter County Guard, sent the following message to Governor Luke P. Blackburn, who had been a Confederate sympathizer. "The Underwood War has broken out afresh and one of the Underwoods was killed at his home Friday, and the old man is surrounded at his house and wounded. No one will bury the dead man. Old man Underwood is afraid of his life and his life is threatened. The civil officers are powerless and no one will obey them. Can't the military company here be ordered out to protect the citizens and preserve order?"

The governor requested that the sheriff do his duty in the matter. The sheriff responded that he would see to it that Jesse Underwood received a proper burial, but he never fulfilled his promise.

Bushwhackers now surrounded 'Fort Underwood'. Jesse made one successful sortie outside through the dog-trot to the other room of the house, but while trying a second attempt on 16 Oct 1879 he was felled by a shower of bullets. The women dragged the dying man indoors and tried what they could to save him, to no avail. The women started trying to dress the body for burial, while Old George, confined to his bed recovering from wounds, sadly looked on.

The hidden 'Regulators', suddenly becoming very brave, now that there were only women and severely wounded men to deal with, swaggered up to the door, their faces blackened in an attempt to disguise their identities, and demanded entry, saying that they wanted to make sure that Jesse was dead. Old George, unarmed, trying to rise from his bed, called out the names of Holbrook and Stamper, saying that their disguises didn't fool him and that they were going to pay for what they'd done. Coates said Annabelle Underwood (this may have been Margaret Ann?) tried to stop them from killing her father in his bed, but is was no use and the cowardly deed was done.

These cowards, who called themselves the 'Regulators', now forced the grieving Underwood women to cook a meal for them, which the murderers proceeded to eat in full view of the bodies of their victims. Then they posted an ultimatum, warning the Underwood women that they had less than two weeks to leave the area and threatened anyone who helped them bury their dead or in any other way offered them support.

Certain friendly neighbors ignored the dire warnings and came to the assistance of the women, helping them bury their loved ones. Elverton's widow and two of Old George's daughters defied the murderers and remained in the county.

If ever a house had good reason to become haunted, that house is 'Fort Underwood' and that rumor was soon circulating. It persists to the present time. The bullet holes and the blood were still visible years after the final shootout, until they were covered with clapboard outside and wallpaper inside.

The locals wouldn't go near the place after dark and many, including the father of the present owner, had occasion to meet up with the 'ghost' of Old George as he walked, patrolling his property.

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