Colfax Riot

Easter Sunday, April 12, 1873

  • Alexandria "The Daily Town Talk" - December 14, 2005
  • In April 1873, tensions began escalating between blacks and whites. A brief gun battle took place on April 6 of that year when a small group of armed whites tried to get into Colfax, where a group of blacks had seized the courthouse. A few days later, a black man was killed by a group of whites.

    A riot erupted, during which the Carpetbaggers who had led the blacks escaped. When it was over, about 150 blacks and three whites were killed and federal troops were called in to restore order.

    The Colfax Riot of April, 1873
    By: Manie White Johnson

    56 pages, soft cover, no publication date - probably 1929.

    Eight years after the end of the Civil War there was a race riot in Colfax, La. created more by Radical Reconstruction government manipulations than by racial tensions. This is an account of the horrid affair which occurred on Easter Sunday, 1873. Two prominent Rapides Parish citizens - Capt. Dave Paul and Rev. Mike Smith - were involved. There were many citizens there from Grant, Catahoula, Vernon, Rapides and Winn Parishes. The author interviewed several who participated in the battle and used other primary source materials in presenting this interesting account.

    ISBN: 0-9646846-4-0
    Dogwood Press

    Grant Parish GenWeb

    Reconstruction: The Riot Tree, Grant Parish
    Source: Colfax Parish Library, folder of unpublished thesis on the Colfax Riot
    Unpublished paper written for English 163 by Mrs. Adele N. Ethridge, date unknown
    Submitted to USGENWEB by
    Gaytha Thompson
    540 May Drive
    Madison, TN 37115

    USGENWEB NOTICE: These electronic pages may NOT be
    reproduced in any format for profit or presentation by any
    other organization or persons. Persons or organizations
    desiring to use this material, must obtain the written consent
    of the contributor, or the legal representative of the
    submitter, and contact the listed USGenWeb archivist with
    proof of this consent. Files may be printed or copied for
    personal use only.


    A Historical Sketch of the Colfax Riot of 1873, during Reconstruction Days in Louisiana.

    Data taken from writer's own observations, from acquaintances with old
    citizens, and from Louisiana Historical Quarterly,
    v. 13, 1930, "The Colfax Riot, by White.
    v. 18, 1935, "The White League", by Lestage.

    Close beside the gravel in a quiet street of Colfax, Louisiana, is a slightly sunken area about three feet in diameter. Over this children run as they play in the street, and slow moving cows crop the soft grass as they feed along the street on either side of the gravel driveway. This scarcely noticeable spot is all that remains to mark the place where until a few years ago stood a tall pecan tree of the small nut variety common to the lowland forests of Louisiana. But this old tree, notwithstanding its beautiful, peaceful, widespread limbs, had witnessed scenes of anguish and bloodshed for it had had the fortune to grow not far from the court house during the stormy period of Reconstruction days.

    The tree was after that time know as the Riot Tree, and the reason for its name is recorded in the annuls of Louisiana's history.

    After the four terrible years of fighting in the Civil War (1861-65), the Legislature of 1864 elected by the Unionists in Louisiana adopted the thirteenth amendment which abolished slavery, and sent representatives to Congress. Lincoln recognized this Louisiana government but Congress refused to receive these representatives. Meanwhile, the Confederates kept up a government at Shreveport under Governor H. W. Allen while the Federals kept up one at New Orleans under B. F. ("Spoon" or "Beast") Butler. Under these conditions riots occurred in a number of places in the state. After the riot in New Orleans, in 1866, the rejection of the fourteenth amendment (making citizens of negroes) by the Louisiana Legislature of 1867, the passage of the Black Codes (rules to prevent negroes from gathering in idle unruly cords), Congress feared that the negroes were not safe under their former masters. Military rule was again established in Louisiana and a new constitution for the state made in 1868. H. C. Warmoth, a carpet bagger, and Oscar Dunn, a negro, were elected governor and lieutenant governor, respectively. Thus by 1869 carpet bag rule was in full power in the state, and as James Ford Rhodes, the historian, says of this period, "it is a sickening tale of extravagant waste, corruption, and fraud."

    At that time, as is still the case in the lowlands of Louisiana, the negro population was in excess of the white, and since most white men were debarred from voting because of having fought against the Untied States or having aided those who did so fight, officials were elected by carpet-baggers (northern men who came South to help the negro), scalaways (southern withe men who assisted negro rule), or negroes themselves. This state of affairs could scarcely be tolerated by the proud former masters of slaves, so a reform party was organized to replace the state government by a better one, but under Warmoth's influence the party advocated equal suffrage to black and white.

    In the election of 1872 both Democrat (loyal white citizens) and Republicans claimed the victory. While McEnery, for governor, and Penn, for lieutenant governor, were elected by a majority of white votes, Kellogg and Antoine (a negro) received the sanction of the Federal Government. President Grant sent Federal troops to uphold Kellogg and Antoine. Thus bitter antagonism resulted in Louisiana for the real citizens refused to acknowledge Kellogg but proclaimed McEnery governor. There were therefore, two governors in the state.

    The first open, forceful opposition to Kellogg from the conservative element was the event which occurred in Colfax in 1873.

    In December, 1872, two citizens of Colfax, Cazabat and Nash, were elected by the citizens of Grant Parish judge and sheriff respectively. These were commissioned by Governor McEnery, and took up their duties. In April, 1873, agents were sent to Kellogg at New Orleans to get commissions from him for these officials. The agents were well receive and Kellogg even announced in the New Orleans Republican that he had commissioned Cazabat and Nash, but he really commissioned two Republicans, Register and Shaw, for judge and sheriff.

    These men arrived in Colfax March 23, 1873, accompanied by a tax collector, a clerk (of Kellogg's choosing), a negro state representative, and a negro from Pennsylvania. Register and Shaw attempted to take up their duties in the court house, and secretly began to summon armed negroes.

    The white people, becoming alarmed, called a mass meeting April 1 to settle the difficulty. A small party arrived, but finding only a crowd of armed negroes present, departed at once.

    After four days a small party of whites came within a mile of Colfax where they were fired upon by more than two hundred negroes. The whites returned fire but retreated, pursued by the negroes. Agents both wrote and went to Kellogg for a settlement of this affair, but received no satisfaction. In the first week of April Sheriff Nash summoned a posse of men to settle this terrible condition. A small party, collecting four miles north of Colfax, soon grew into a small army, being joined by men from Winn, Natchitoches, and Rapides Parish, and on April 6 men from Catahoula Lake and Sicily Island came in. On April 12, on the banks of the Darrow, a mile out of town, lines were drawn up under Sheriff Nash. These men pledged to each other to rid the country of "Black Devils". Nash and a companion, under a flag of truce, forced a negro to bring Allen, the leader of the negroes, before them. Nash demanded that the negroes disperse and leave home rule to the white citizens. Allen refuse to do this.

    Negroes had already made many depredations on the property of the whites, continuing to roam the town armed, and openly making threats of destroying the white men, and of taking the white women as wives and servants.

    About noon on Easter Sunday, April 12th, the white men crossed the Darrow and advanced upon the negro quarters of the town. Then the skirmish began, the whites pouring volleys into the trenches which the negroes had constructed. The blacks fled in every direction, pursued by the whites. Many negroes were killed, and their leader, Allen, fled. Some took refuge in the court house, where they were surrounded by the whites. After some time the court house caught on fire, by what means is not known, and the negroes within raised a white flag of truce. At once the whites advanced to the house to make terms of peace, but were fired upon by the opened fire, killing many negroes, but few escaping.

    Some of those captured were taken by the whites and hanged upon the branches of the nearby spreading oak, others were imprisoned.

    By evening all was quiet, and white men again controlled the situation. Silently the white bands dispersed and negroes were allowed to bury their dead, some of which they placed int he trenches about the court house and covered with earth.

    Nine of the white leaders were afterwards indicted, brought before Federal Court, and finally had their case referred to the Supreme Court which decided that the states, not the United State, should settle this case, thus proving that the fourteenth amendment had added nothing to the rights of citizenship, under the constitution, but merely prevented the denial of the right of citizenship. Thus this riot served to place the South on the way to home rule by the white citizens.

    And the Riot Tree, which had done its part also towards this end, stood long as a reminder that peace and order had been won by courage and determination.

    Today, in the Hall of Fame in the Congressional Library, Washington, D. C., there hangs a picture of this famous tree, through the town of Colfax know it no more; for in 1930 the tree which bore on its trunk a metal plate inscribed "The Colfax Riot Tree, April 13, 1873", was struck by lightning. The next year its dead body was cut down to prevent its falling on the street.

    It would be but an act of justly appreciative memory of those who fought and of those who died in defense of home and country if the present parish of Grant would mark the site of the old Riot Tree with a column, for thus is history often recorded for future generations.

    Mrs. Adele N. Ethridge
    Baton Rouge, La
    Journalism 101
    Written for The Bugle
    1000 Words.


    Writer of this article has lived for the past ten years within two blocks of the Court House herein mentioned; has witnessed the recent exhuming of bones of the slain negroes mentioned; has heard many of given facts rehearsed by old citizens; particularly by the late Judge J. H. Williams; once see the picture of the tree in the Hall of Fame. Some of the data used is from Louisiana Historical Quarterly, v 13 1930, "The Colfax Riot:, by Miss White, and v 18, 1935, "The White League in Louisiana", by H. O. Lestage, Jr.

    The Colfax Riot of April 1873 ended Reconstruction in the South. According to Grant Parish historians, Louisiana’s “carpetbag” governor, William Pitt Kellogg, sparked the conflict when he issued commissions to two sets of officials in Grant Parish, one elected by whites, the other elected by blacks. A group of about 300 armed blacks forced the whites out of office and the town of Colfax until whites regrouped and fought back. About 125 blacks took refuge in the parish courthouse where the battle focused. Whites set the courthouse roof on fire. Blacks waved a flag of truce but fired upon a delegation of whites as they approached, mortally wounding two, historians say. Angry whites shot blacks as they fled the burning building. In all, about 150 blacks and three whites were killed during the riot. As a marker on the courthouse lawn states, this event “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

    More information from another viewpoint on the Colfax Riot.

    Current Comment
    There are only two relics now visible today. One is a cannon used in the Colfax Riot of April 13, 1873 on Easter Sunday. It is now a garden piece at Melrose Plantation kept and preserved by the late Mrs. C. G. Henry. This cannon, a little 24 incher made by the Mills factory of New Orleans, was sent to the white people by Captain William F. Boardman, owner and Captain of the Steamship, W. F. Moore. Another relic, an old brick building which was at one time a syrup mill belonging to William Calhoun. This building is the only remaining one standing in Colfax from the time of the Riot.

    The Colfax Riot originated from the fact that Governor Kellogg, after the election of 1872, sent out recognition of two sets of officials for Grant Parish with the view, it is alleged, of bringing about just such results as a riot between the white and colored races. The riot was to give Louisiana one of its darkest pages in history. As in nature, there has to be a storm before the elements become at ease again, and such was the result of the Colfax Riot which was to gain National scope because of this one Easter Sunday when nearly 100 Negroes were killed and three white men and more than thirty more of each race were wounded and crippled for the rest of their lives. This one riot set the wheels in motion which was to break the Carpetbaggers' hold on all of the Southern States. The officials in Washington realized that the State of Louisiana was on the verge of a Civil War within its borders and that the enemy was not the Negro but the Federal and State officials who were in power and that such could again spread all over the Southland.

    Steve Kimbrell, a well-to-do-Negro land owner of the Montgomery area, went among the Negroes who had took part in the riot but had escaped and asked them all, "Where are your leaders, the ones who led you to do this thing?" and true enough the Carpetbagger leaders had departed the day before on a Steamer for New Orleans. Governor Kellogg, not to be outdone, issued orders to confiscate all of the firearms of the Louisianians. Lieutenant John Hamilton of Company C of the 7th Infantry replied, "That is impossible. If the arms are taken, it will violate their Constitutional rights and in the event the guns are taken, they will acquire two in their place." Thus the seizure of arms was attempted but was stopped.

    Encompassing an area of 700 miles, Grant Parish was established in 1869 from the southern portion of Winn Parish and the northern portion of Rapides Parish. Created by Radical Republicans during the postwar occupation of Louisiana, Grant is known as one of the "Reconstruction parishes."

    Obituary for J. Wash Wiggins

    The Monroe News-Star

    Friday, October 1, 1909
    Page 1 & 4, Column 3 & 3

    J. Wash Wiggins Died in Penitentiary. He led Reconstruction Fight in Grant Parish.
    Was Captain of a Company of whites During the Colfax Riot - Given Christian Burial by Officials.

    Baton Rouge, Oct. 1.- Yesterday morning at 5:07 o'clock, J. Wash Wiggins died in the penitentiary, aged sixty-six years. Mr. Wiggins was sentenced from Harrisburg, Catahoula parish, and was received here March 28, 1898, eleven years, six months and one day ago on a twenty-year sentence for manslaughter. In some respects Mr. Wiggins was perhaps the most noted character that has died in these walls for a number of years. He served in the war for the Confederacy under General John McGrath in the Eleventh Louisiana regiment. After the war he was prominent in politics of his section and represented his parish in the legislature for one term. He was also distinguished as a a reconstructionist and was a captain in the famous Colfax riot on Easter Sunday, 1872, wherein the negro government of the newly created parish of Grant was put to rout. In this he was assisted by the late captains W.S. Peck and C.C. Nash.

    Here in the walls, Mr. Wiggins was a model prisoner. Being in bad health he was never put at any kind of work and for the last several years he has almost continually kept his bed.

    Being a veteran, Captain B.L. Barrow, in charge of the walls, arranged for his burial in the soldiers' burial ground in Magnolia cemetery, raising the funds by private subscription. Mr. Wiggins served in the war with Captain Barrow's father. Gen. John McGrath and Major Moore gave permission for the site of the grave in the soldiers' plot in Magnolia cemetery.

    Several days before his death Mr. Wiggins asked the chaplain to publish a statement to the world after his death. He said that he was at peace with God, and had been treated well by all the prison authorities and had nothing against a single person in the whole world. He was told by the chaplain that his body would be interred in Magnolia cemetery and not in the potters' field, and this appeared to please him very much.

    His funeral was held this afternoon from the walls, the prisoners, Captain Barrow the chaplain and wife, also Mrs. Richard Selzer, Mrs. C.C. Devall and Mr. Mondow, the factory guard, being present. Mrs. Devall officiated at the organ, and Mrs. Selzer sang and the chaplain said the service. After the services the captain, chaplain and the ladies mentioned went to the cemetry (sic), where the last service for the dead was read at the grave.

    Mr. Wiggins leaves a wife, son and daughter, all residing at Jonesville, Catahoula Parish.