Taken from "Tales of the Bull Creek Country" by John H. Mitchell
A TRAGIC MORNING ON BULL CREEK
Of the many gun fights that occurred in the Bull Creek Country, one of the bloodiest took place the 28th of November 1898. On that late fall day a dispute over a line fence between the Meadows and the Bilyeu families resulted in a pitched battle. Three men died that day and the events leading up to that tragedy, the accounts of what happened and the after effects are well worth recounting here. The Meadows family was among the pioneer settlers of the Bull Creek Country. They traced their ancestry back to Israel Meadows who was born in Virginia and served in the Revolutionary War. Israel had a son, William, who moved to Kentucky and later to Missouri. One of William's sons was Alexander Meadows, a Civil War soldier and known as 'Old Bob'. This was to distinguish him from his son, Alexander, who was called 'Young Bob' or 'Bobby'. Another of Old Bob's sons was John Sanvern, nicknamed 'Bud'. Bud is one of the principal caharacters of this story. Like the Meadows, the Bilyeus were also early settlers in the area. Of French descent, the Bilyeus came to America to the Dutch colony at what is now New York. The branch of the family we are concerned with migrated to Tennessee and from there Isaac Bilyeu moved to Missouri. Isaac's son, John Witten Bilyeu, settled on the Old Wilderness Road near Spokane, Missouri, and one of his sons was Steve, also a main charactor in these acts. At the time of the battle, Steve was 52 years old; he was a prominent farmer and had served as a constable in Christian County. Steve Bilyeu and Bud Meadows owned adjoining farms on the west side of Bull Creek at the mouth of Dry Hollow. They had built a line fence separating their farms and had entered into an agreement as to the upkeep. As the years passed, the fence deteriorated and arguments arose over who was not keeping the agreement on repairs. Meadows served notice on Bilyeu that he was disolving the partnership and would remove his part of the fence rails. This action Steve said he would not allow. Apparently there were numerous confrontations between the two factions and Pete Bilyeu, Steve's son, reportedly took delight in heaping verbal abuse on Meadows. On occasions Pete had threatened Bud and forced him to perform degrading acts. Once Bud was made to bite the muzzle of a cocked rifle that Pete was holding. In those days, it was the practice of the County Road Department to permit the taxpayers to work out their tax bills by repairing the county roads. Such work was under way in the fall of 1898 and the work crew included both the Bilyeus and Bud Meadows. Due to the friction between the families, Bud requested to be allowed to work at a different location so he would not encounter the Bilyeus. When Pete Bilyeu learned of Bud's request, he became angry and threatened Bud with a pistol and compelled him to crawl on the ground and perform other demeaning acts. Matt Stevenson, who witnessed the incident, told Pete he was making a serious mistake. "That man will kill you for what you made him do," Matt warned Pete. "I saw it in his eyes." Pete scoffed at the warning, saying Meadows didn't have the nerve to kill anyone. But Matt recalled later, "Within three weeks, I helped lay Pete Bilyeu out." Some ten day prior to the fight the Bilyeus came upon Meadows as he was moving some of the rails from the fence in dispute. Once again, the Bilyeus were armed and Meadows was not, so Bud was compelled to retreat from the scene. But both sides knew the issue was not settled and there was soon to be a climax. Bud Meadows was a dangerous man. He was thirty years old and as described after the shooting, was of a calm and composed manner. Despite his quiet attitude he was not a man to be trifled with and certainly not one to be taken lightly. Bud owned a Winchester rifle that had a history all its own. The rifle belonged to Ike Lewis, leader of the baldknobber raiders who had stormed the jail at Forsyth, killed deputy Williams when he resisted and had taken John Wes Bright from the jail and hanged him to a tree across Swan Creek. Ike was killed later at a dance on Bear Creek where he had gone to get his daughter. Attacked by several men, Ike put up a terrible fight until the weight of numbers overpowered him. As was said later, "They finally whittled old Ike down." But that is another story and except for the rifle, has no relation here. Another of the main charactors was Frank Tabor. Tabor had married a daughter of Steve Bilyeu but there was an estrangement in the family and Frances Tabor had not been in her father's house for a long time. This probably was one reason for the Tabors siding with Meadows in the fight. At one meeting at the fence, Meadows and Tabor had forced the Bilyeus to back off and as the Bilyeus left it was reported Tabor climbed the fence and crowed like a rooster to express his derision at the Bilyeu's retreat. Frank Tabor was thirty years old-a thin and wiry man. His dark complexion bespoke of a possible Indian ancestor. The Tabors were early settlers in Taney County, migrating from Kentucky. Tabor was a nervous sort of fellow and some say he was the real instigator of the trouble-keeping the feud alive by bearing tales from one side to the other. Some twenty years later, Tabor met his death not far from the site of this tragedy and at the hands of other Bilyeus. That there was trouble brewing betweent he two factions was well known around the Bull Creek Country and it was evident there would soon be a showdown. On the previous Sunday, the preacher in one of the local churches had taken note of the situation and had appealed to the reason and good judgement of all concerned to arrange a peaceful settlement. But reason did not prevail in the minds of passionate men and so the stage was set that fatal Monday morning for the next act in the tragic drama. When the two factions appeared on the field that morning, there were witnesses aplenty. In the ensuing argument there was a first much shouting and fierce threats. Then it appeared a settlement might have been reached and bloodshed would be avoided. But then something went wrong-perhaps somebody made a wrong move or misjudged a move by someone else. A shot rang out, and then the firing became general and did not cease until there was a victor and a vanquished. Who fired first and why did that first shot get touched off? The survivors and witnesses all gave different versions, and in truth, in the confusion of the battle to have been otherwise would have been odd indeed. We will try to give the most lucid account from both sides and the true facts will probably lie somewhere in between. Following is the account given by Bud Meadows to a reporter of the Springfield Leader-Democrat and published in the 30 November 1898 issue of that paper. This account was given the day after the fight and no doubt explains the Meadows' version in clearer detail that later accounts, even those given in court. "I married a daughter of Hosea Bilyeu who is a first cousin of Steve Bilyeu, and live on a farm adjoining Steve and his family. A number of years ago, Steve and I agreed to keep up a line fence between our farms. I was to furnish the rails and Steve was to stake and rider it. About a year ago I went to Steve and told him his part was in bad condition and asked him to fix it, but he paid no attention to the matter. Several months later I again called his attention to the condition of the fence, and he spoke very short to me. I then made up my mind to compel him to fix the fence and went to Ozark where I consulted attorney J.C. West, who advised me to serve a written notice on Steve that I would hereafter keep up my half of the fence and would remove my rails from the half I was not to keep up. i served this notice on Steve and he was mad. Several weeks ago I started to remove the rails and went to Hosea Bilyeu, my wife's father, and asked him and his son, Martin, also Frank Tabor, and my brother Bob, who had married my wife's sister, to come over and help me Monday. They consented and were at my home early Monday morning. We went to the field without any guns and started to remove the rails. In a short time we saw Steve and his sons, Pete, age 26 years, and Jim, age 16 years, come with guns. i went to the house and got my Winchester and Hosea's and Martin's pistols, and my brother Bob's shotgun. When I returned, Steve told me I could not remove the rails where they were working until another time, but if necessary I would replevin the rails. We started to walk away and had gone but a short distance when somebody yelled to me to look out, and I turned instantly and saw Steve aiming his shotgun at me, and he fired. He missed his mark and I threw my Winchester to my shoulder and fired at Steve but missed him. I fired again and killed him instantly. I saw Mrs. Bilyeu, Steve's wife, coming toward me but did not take any further notice of her. Pete Bilyeu fired at Bob Meadows who responded-both men missing. Pete was taking aim to fire again when I shot him, killing him instantly. Mrs. Bilyeu attacked me at my back with a butcher knife and slashed me viciouly half a dozen times. I saw Jim Bilyeu with a revolver in his hand aiming at me but he was afraid to shoot as he might hit his mother. He called to his mother to get away and I realized I would get shot unless I acted quickly. By this time Mrs. Bilyeu was at my throat and I threw the Winchester down over her shoulder and aiming at Jim who was only six feet distant, fired. The aim was true and he dropped dead. I suceeded in getting away from Mrs. Bilyeu who was like a wild animal. She went to her husband and boys and found them dead and her sorrow was great. Hosea Bilyeu and his son Martin, had not fired a shot. We went to our houses and concluded to come to Ozark and give ourselves up to the sheriff.
I am sorry the affair had to occur, but Steve Bilyeu and Pete got what they deserved. I regret that I had to kill Jim who was a good sort of boy-but it could not be helped." John Henry Bilyeu, a brother of the slain Steve, gave the Bilyeu account of the battle, and it appeared in the Monday issue of the leader-Democrat, one week after the tragedy. John Henry's account which was supported later in court by the testimony of Elizabeth, Steve's wife, and joe her twelve year old son, stated that Meadows fired the first shot-killing Steve as he bent over to pick up a rail. This report also contended Pete was shot in the back of the head by Bud Meadows after he, Pete, had been felled by a shot from Bob Meadows. Joe also testified that Jimmy was shot, not by Bud Meadows, but by Hosea Bilyeu; and Jimmy realizing he was mortally wounded inquired of Hosea, "Why did you shoot me, Uncle Hosea?" Here it should be noted that Hosea Bilyeu was not Steve's brother, and therefore not Jimmy's uncle. Hosea had been raised by John Witten Bilyeu, Steve's father, and it is possible Steve's children were in the habit of calling him uncle. Hosea was the son of Jacob, a brother of John Witten, and so would have been a cousin to Steve. It has been the contention of the Bilyeu faction throught the years that Hosea Bilyeu was the one who shot young Jimmy. James Lewallen had been hired by Meadows to help on the fence and his testimony at the trial tended to support the Meadows version of the affair. (James Lewallen was a brother to Elizabeth who was Steve Bilyeu's wife.) Lewallen testified that after the Bilyeus fell and the Meadows party left the scene, he examined the bodies of the fallen men and their weapons. Steve had a double barrel shotgun with one barrel discharged. Pete had an old army musket which had been fired, and Jimmy had a revolver with a spent case in each chamber. A post mortem examination was conducted by a doctor from Ozark and it was announced that no inquest would be held as there were so many witnesses and there was no doubt as to what happened. But in the days that followed, and inquest was held and since the regular coroner was not available, it was conduted by Jacob Bilyeu, a brother of the slain Steve. Jacob was a constable and commonly called Squire. Following the shooting the bodies of the slain men were taken to their home and laid out in the same bed. That afternoon, a huge crowd gathered at the home. Mrs. Bilyeu was prostrate with grief as well she might be, having seen her husband and sons shot down, and herself engaged in a vicious struggle with their slayer. It was then her daughter, Frances who married Frank Tabor and become estranged from her family, made her appearance. The meeting of the two women was described as most dramatic-they both being stricken-and Frances Tabor made her peace with her mother. Burial of the three men was put off until the following Thursday due to a lack of caskets in Ozark. Homemade coffins were finally used. More than a thousand people attended the funeral, the largest gathering ever at a funeral in Christian County. Burial was in the cemetery at Spokane, and it was said the cemetery looked as though an army had camped there after the crowd departed. After the battle, Bud and Bob Meadows, and Hosea and Martin Bilyeu proceeded to Ozark where they surrendered to the sheriff and were place in jail. Frank Tabor also was jailed at Ozark where he had gone for medical attention. In the fray, Tabor had been shot in the leg-by whom it was never determined, but the doctor removed some pellets, described as turkey shot, from his leg. According to one report, Chris Meadows, a brother to Bud and Bob accompanied them to Ozark. Chris was not charged in the shooting bustayed in jail with his brothers and supposedly they took their Winchesters in the cell with them. That night a mob gathered and there was talk of storming the jail and lynching the Meadows men. The sheriff warned the leaders of the mob that would be a bad mistake as the Meadows had their rifles with them. After what had happened on Bull Creek that day, no one was anxious to face a Winchester in the hands of Bud Meadows, so the mob dispersed. In the days following the tragedy the tales told about it grew wilder and wilder. Willie Bilyeu, son of Hosea, was quoted as saying he was at the scene and glad to be there. Bud himself remarked to the reporters that the Bilyeus were all drunk that day-couldn't shoot straight and probably killed each other. This no doubt was a facetious remark, directed at the reporters who were hounding him. Many different versions were told of what happened. One account was how Bud Meadows was going to remove the rails and build another fence on his side of the line, parallel to and a few feet from the other fence. The space between such fences is called a 'Devil's Lane'. It occurs when property owners cannot agree on a common fence and each constructs his own. In another report, Bud Meadows, after he saw Steve and his sons coming with guns, went to his house for his Winchester which he set down in a clump of walnut sprouts. Hosea's sons, Willie and Jimmy, pleaded with Steve not to push the matter, but Steve and Pete paid no heed and started firing at Meadows. Their fire cut down the bushes just over Bud's head, showering him with leaves. bud then picked up his rifle and returned the fire, killing both Steve and Pete. Little Jimmy climbed on the fence and was shooting at Meadows with his pistol. Bud told him to cease fire or he would be forced to kill him also. Jimmy fired again and Bud then shot and mortally wounded the boy. In still another story, Jimmy, after being shot once, broke into a run, made a circle through the field and as he approached Meadows again, Bud shot and killed him. Over the years, the versions above and many more have been told and retold. However, Bud Meadows' version as he gave it to the news reporter has been the one that was never legally discounted. Meadows stuck to the same story through all the lenghty court proceedings and the state was never able to effectively disprove any substantial part of it. The accused men remained in jail until the grand jury convened at the February term of court at Ozark. The grand jury returned indictments against all five accused men, charging each with three counts of murder. The first trial was held at a special term of court the following April when Bud Meadows went on trial for the murder of Steve Bilyeu. The trial was held in a carnival atmosphere. At night the hills surrounding the town were ablaze with campfires of the spectators who had come to see the excitement. Only a small portion of the throng could squeeze into the tiny courtroom to observe the proceedings each day. Prominent attorneys from Springfield assisted the prosecution and others represented the
defendants. Witnesses became more and more plentiful, everyone seemed to know something of the affair. Since the country was in the midst of a disasterous drought with resultant crop failure, it was suspected many of the farmers were trying to supplement their pocket money with fees paid for
witnesses by the county. The newspapers made much of the account of a yellow dog they called as
witness. Actually, during the trial when evidence was being offered as to the wounds suffered by the deceased men, a stray dog was killed by the sheriff and the carcass subjected to shots by various firearms in a effort to determine the type wound each gun made. Whether any factual conclusions
were reached from these tests, the papers never released. Any tragedy is apt to have some lighter moments, and the statement of one unidentified witness provided some grim humor in this case. This witness testified he was present at the fight and when asked what he same, he replied "Well, I was there and saw three men shot down. Then I left as I thought there was going to be trouble." After a trial lasting several days, Bud Meadows was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison. His attorneys noted an appeal and Bud remained in jail where he had been since the day of the battle the previous fall. Trial of the other defendants was put off until the July term of court at which time Bob Meadows was to be tried for the murder of Pete Bilyeu. At the July court, since the Bilyeus charged that Pete had been shot in the back of the head, the prosecution requested that the body of Pete be exhumed to determine the nature of the fatal wound. an autopsy was performed by surgeons from St. Louis and Springfield, and they testified that the bullet had in fact entered the front of the head and exited from the back. This testimony by the medical experts resulted in the charges against Bob Meadows being dismissed.
In August of 1899, Hosea Bilyeu went on trial for the murder of Jimmy Bilyeu, and the indictments against the other defendants in Jimmy's death were dismissed. Again the court proceedings aroused great interest in Christian County and huge crowds gathered in Ozark. During this period a son of Chris Meadows died, and it was said not enough people were left on Bull Creek to form a funeral cortege.
One of the highlights of Hosea's trial was the appearance of John Witten Bilyeu as a witness for the prosecution. John Witten, father of Steve, was in his nineties at the time and very feeble. He testified he was at the scene of the shooting and that Jimmy told him before he died that Hosea shot him and he didn't know why as he had never harmed him. John Witten denied that he told Frank Tabor the morning of the fight that he could whip him 'Quicker than Hell could scorch a feather'. Bud Meadows was a witness for the defense and repeated his story that he alone killed all three Bilyeus. He gave a dramatic demonstration of how he used his Winchester in self-defense as the Bilyeus fired on him. Hosea taking the stand in his own defense, told substantially the same story as Bud. Purd Hayes was Hosea's attorney and made a spectacular appearance in court, dressed in the clothes Jimmy was wearing the day he was killed. The State could not refute the circumstances of the fray as related by Hosea and Bud, and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. hosea was freed and announced he was leaving the country.
An epidemic of sickness swept the Bull Creek Country in the summer of 1899. Bob Meadows was seriously ill with typhoid, and some of the court officials and two of the jurors were stricken. Elizabeth, widow of Steve Bilyeu, was taken ill as she walked along the street in Ozark. The illness together with the ordeal of all she had been through proved too much for her to overcome and she never recovered.
On 29 August 1899, after Hosea had been acquitted, Bud Meadows was released on $8,000 bond pending the ruling of the Supreme Court on his appeal. That court granted Bud a new trial and there the proceedings rested until 21 August 1900 when all the defendants were reindicted and trial set for the
Decembert term of court. On 12 December 1900, Judge Neville dismissed all indictments, and that was the end of the legal proceedings. The technicality Judge Neville used to dismiss the charges was the failure of the Bill of Indictment to give the location of the fatal bullet wounds in the bodies. This omission on the part of Prosecutor Long put the indictments at variance with Missouri statutes and the court had no alternative but to free the defendants. However it had become apparent before the last court session that another conviction would be almost impossible to obtain. The State lost the best chance of conviction when the examination of Pete Bilyeu's skull was requested. Opinions by medical experts refuted testimony that Pete had been shot in the back and with these opinions the charge of murder could be effectively answered with a plea of self-defense. Also, by the time of the second trial, the death of Elizabeth Bilyeu had taken the testimony of the State's star witness from the case. By this time most of the people had come to believe that Bud Meadows had been provoked by the Bilyeus and had been pushed into the fight, and he had proved to be more than a match for Steve and his boys. Also with more than two years of trials and legal maneuvering, the public and the courts had tired of the whole affair.
So some two years after the bloody battle on Bull Creek, Bud Meadows, released from all charges, moved to Stone County across the White River. He exchanged farms with Bone Terry, who like Bud had become involved in difficulties with his neighbors and wanted to locate in a different area. Hosea Bilyeu and his son Martin had moved to Stone County after Hosea's acquittal, and Bob Meadows later moved to the same area. Bud and Hosea settled on adjoining farms in the valley of Big Indian Creek and lived out
their lives there. They Bilyeu clan was understandably bitter and threats had been made to take revenge on Bud Meadows if the opportunity ever came. Oley Rysted recalls the occasin when two mule drawn wagons approached his father's gate at sundown. The drivers were Bud and Chriss Meadows, and they requested a night's lodging for themselves and their animals. Hill country etiquette required Mr. Rysted to accommodate the travelors and indeed he was happy to do so. Oley recalls that Bud kept his Winchester at hand at all times, when he ate it stood by his side and while he slept, it leaned against the bed. Bud Meadows lived out his years in peace on his farm in Stone County. it was stilll a rough community and prone to violence, but only one controversy is known to have involved Bud to any degree. A newcomer moved into the county and became involved in a dispute with the Bilyeus. On one
occasin he was given a beating by some of the younger Bilyeus, and he told Bud Meadows of his troubles. Bud became very agitated and told the man the only way to handle the Bilyeus was to kill a few of them. The man said he was not used to violence and didn't even own a gun. Bud loaned him his rifle, remarking that it had already killed three Bilyeus. Whether this was the original Winchester seems doubtful as Bud would not likely have loaned his favorite weapon, but no doubt he owned other guns. At any rate, the man took the rifle home and before long the Bilyeus came to his house and badgered him to come outside. The man begged them to leave him alone, saying they had already beaten him and he wanted no more trouble. But the Harrassers persisted and finally the man came out of his house. Bud's rifle came with him and in the ensuing fight one Bilyeu was killed the the others fled. bud testified in the man's behalf and he was freed as he had acted in self-defense. Bud Meadows rebuilt the McCullough church house near his home, the third church to stand on the site. Bud's house stood within sight of the church but it has been down for many years now. The chimney and foundation rocks are still laying where they fell. The trace of the old road can still be seen where it passed in front of the house by the concrete watering trough wither the name; J.S. Meadows. Just inside the McCullough cemetery is a
well kept plot with these graves:
J.S. Meadows Hosea Bilyeu 9 Jun 184
11 Feb 1867 Co B 23 Apr 1930
15 Aug 1945 50 Mo Inf
Other markers in the cemetery are the graves of Bud's and Hosea's wives, also of Bob Meadows and his wife. Bud Meadows died at the age of 78. He had lived through some of the most violent times of the Bull Creek County and was accused of many violent acts, some true, others probably not. But it seems every killing that happened along Bull Creek would have Bud Meadows name connected with it. It
was said he was the instigator if not the actual killer of the Mathews baby. Frank Payton was convicted of this crime but later released on his promise to name the real killer. But no one else was ever convicted. When Old Bob Meadows was killed from ambush, it was told that his son, Bud, fired the fatal shot. It was reported that the father and son had argued over the results of a horse race and true or not some people still believe it. They reasoned if Bud had not been guilty he would have tracked down his
father's killler. In Strangers cemetery at Spokane there are three graves side by side. One marker is inscribed; Stephen Bilyeu - Born Oct 25 1846-Killed Nov 28, 1898. Another small block has these initials; J.F.B. This is Pete's grave-Pete was only a nickname, his real name was John F. The remains in this grave would be minus the skull which was removed for evidence and probably wound up in some doctor's closet. The next grave is without a marker but no doubt is that of Jimmy. Elizabeth, who died in 1900 probably is buried close by her husband and sons but her grave has no marker. The line fence over which so much blood was shed is still in existence, marking the boundaries of the two farms. The shagbark hickory tree under which Jim and Willie Bilyeu tried to persuade Steve and his sons to avoid a
fight still stands in the field beside the trace of the old road that ran along Bull Creek. The history of the tragedy is buried in musty newspaper files and court records. The memories are recalled now by only a few - mostly those that were told of it by those who saw it. The bitter legacy of the feud passed down through the years. The old hatreds flared again twenty years later when Frank Tabor was killed by
Bilyeus on Snow Ridge above Bull Creek. Passage of time has slowly erased the memories and soon all that will remain will be history books recording another bloody event that happened in Bull Creek Country.
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