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Looking at the Underwood War

Carter County Historical hosts James Prichard

By Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

Carter County has it’s share of Civil War history, some of it centered around the Underwood family and their band of “irregulars” and home guard. These unofficial troops defended Olive Hill and other surrounding communities from acts of aggression perpetrated on the communities of northern Kentucky and southern Ohio by Confederate troops and bandit raiders allied with the south. But it was the actions of the Underwoods after the Civil War, and throughout their own private war with the Holbrooks and their allied families, that brought the family name to infamy.

But even those conflicts are impossible to understand outside the conflict of the Civil War,
according to author and historian James Prichard, who spoke on the infamous Underwood War at an event sponsored by the Carter County Historical Society, the Olive Hill Historical Society, and the Carter County Public Library last week.

The Underwood family first came to Kentucky from Virginia, Prichard explained, settling near the Globe community, on Dry Branch off of Tygart Creek. The family lived a fairly typical settler life until they were drawn into the war when Morgan’s Raiders came through the area, and burned the farm and home of old George Underwood. This, Prichard said, kickstarted their involvement, with the formation of the Tygart Home Guard to prevent such future attacks. Though they were never regular soldiers, never mustered into formal military service or drawing any military pay, they protected the area as far away as Maysville to the northwest, Portsmouth, Ohio in the north, and Ironton, Ohio to the northeast.

If that had been the extent of their activities, the Underwoods might have been largely forgotten by all except family and the most dedicated Civil War historians. Though they were very political – staunchly Republican and Unionist in a time and place dominated by Democratic Party politics and divided Union and Confederate loyalties – and had reportedly engaged in some light larceny and horse thieving as part of their homeguard activities, this could have all been forgotten if it hadn’t been for the whiskey incident.

Though not directly related to the later conflicts with the Holbrooks and Stampers, this was the family’s first post-war brush with the law, and resulted in the death of a bystander, named Trumbo, when Jesse Underwood got in a quarrel with a Confederate sympathizer over the brand of whiskey he ordered – one named for Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

That incident gained the attention of authorities, and earned the Underwoods a reputation for staying one step ahead of the law. The actual feud would start, though, not with the Holbrooks, but with the Stampers and tenants of the Underwoods, two men named John Martin and John Taber. The Stampers accused Taber and Martin of stealing horses from them, and advised them to leave the county, threatening the Underwoods if they harbored them. While Taber left, Martin’s wife was sick, and they stayed with the son of old George, George Lewis Underwood, while she recuperated.

This didn’t set well with the Stampers who shot George Lewis for ignoring their demands. Martin and Elwin Underwood then killed two of the Stampers in retaliation. This started a feud that eventually drew a militia to the county, under order of the governor.

During all this Jesse Underwood was out of the state, and upon his return he killed a man when the Lewis County sheriff attempted to arrest him for his earlier brush with the law.

Though he was eventually taken, and acquitted on the second murder since the Lewis County sheriff had no warrant, after being delivered to Bath County to stand trial for the Trumbo murder Jesse escaped. Afterward Jesse’s brother Elvin was murdered while working in the cornfield and then George Lewis passed from the injury he received some months earlier.

This set Jesse on the warpath and, swearing vengeance on all involved in his brothers’ killings, on September 5, 1878 he ambushed and killed Squire Holbrook, who had led the party which shot his brother George Lewis. Holbrook’s son, who was with him catching horses when the shot rang out, swore he saw Jesse Underwood’s face peering back from the brush.

This led to a back and forth, until, after dealing Jesse a mortal wound, a group of masked men, insisting they only wanted to examine Jesse’s body to make sure he was dead, murdered old George Underwood in cold blood where the lame, one-eyed patriarch sat on the edge of his bed, in full view of the women and children in the family.

A grand jury investigation into the masked killers followed, but this incident spelled the end of the

Underwoods in Carter County, with Alfred Underwood staying out west in Kansas and Indiana – where he also faced accusations of horse thieving and possibly served time in prison.

Prichard said the biggest question surrounding the Underwoods – Unionists and Republicans in a state with a governor who was a Confederate sympathizer and Democrat who may have participated in the planning of a terrorist attack on New York – was whether they were “Ishmaelites (having their hand forced against others) or just plain outlaws?”

There are also a fair number of rumors and conspiracies, Prichard said, that claim the push against the Underwoods was part of a larger push to “civilize” the region in the interest of industrial growth. One story, he said, claimed that the EK Railroad wanted to get rid of the outlaws in the region – which included compatriots of the Underwoods in Elliott County – to expand the railroad south through the county and beyond. The reason the railroad stopped at Willard, Prichard said, was rumored to be because of the rough conditions in Cracker Neck, or present day Newfoundland, in Elliott County.

Regardless of the reasons, Prichard said, the outpouring of violence was undeniable and spoke to America’s long tradition of settling disputes and grievances with deadly force. This especially increased after the Civil War, he said, when advances in firearms made better weapons available at more affordable prices, and a lack of gun law enforcement bred outlaws and fueled a taste for vigilante justice.

“These were heavily armed men who were military veterans,” Prichard noted.

And, he said, though they were later overshadowed by other famous feuds, the Underwoods and Tollivers – subjects of another famous eastern Kentucky feud – did receive their share of press at the time, and actually spawned more violence than the more famous Hatfield and McCoy feud.

Prichard said he felt the love story angle of that feud is what made the story more intriguing to some storytellers than the more deadly and political fueled feuds of Carter and Rowan counties.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com



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