This newspaper article was written by an editor who was present, or at least in the vicinity when the events occurred.

His name was George W. Symonds, of the Detroit Free Press. The article was reprinted in The Marion Daily Star (Marion, Ohio) on November 25, 1879.

Contributed by David Tucker (












            It was just at the close of the war that I first heard of the Underwoods, and met two of the boys, Jesse and Alfred. During my (?) I drifted about through the mountains, seeking an avenue of escape and late in November 1865, was at Hamilton’s X Roads, Elliott county, Ky. One day shortly after my arrival, two young men mounted on mules and heavily armed were pointed out to me as “the Underwood boys,” and I recollect the fact quite vividly now from recent events with which the name Underwood has been connected. When I saw them in Elliott county, the “war” was as yet a desultory skirmish. I think I made some inquiry as to who and what they were and was told that they were from Carter county, Ky., had been “home guards,” in sympathy with the Union, and had distinguished themselves by several daring raids. Once they entered Maysville, Ky., from which this is written. There were thirty-five of them, and they rode into town in midday over the Fleminsburg pike. They sacked general stores and rode their horses right through one clothing house on the corner of Second and Market streets.

            They were a large family, all were skilled in the use of firearms; all were brave and reckless, and it is not to be wondered that they made enemies. It was only a few days after the two brothers were pointed out to me at the X roads that Alfred Underwood, in particular, found the climate of Carter county unhealthy for him, and following the advice of the great Chappaqua farmer-editor, “went West.” It has been several times reported that he was dead, had been killed but it is pretty certain that he is alive and still a dangerous shot with the rifle and revolver. Some think that if he has not already returned to Kentucky, he soon will, to avenge the death of his kinsmen.

            In 1867 or ’68 Jesse Underwood became involved in a quarrel at Owingsville, Bath county. Old John Robinson’s circus was playing in the town, and a large crowd was in attendance. Large quantities of Bourbon whisky were consumed, and it was in a bar-room that the quarrel began. Words led to threats, threats to blows, and the heat of passion he drew his revolver and fired, killing a young man named Trumbo. He has always said that he fired at another man, and had not the slightest intention of killing Trumbo, toward whom he bore no ill-feeling. During the excitement over the killing he escaped from the town and made his way to Carter county, where he “took the bush” and for a long time defied the authorities. Finally he slipped out of the State, and locating in Iowa remained there several years.

            In the winter of 1877 John R. Taber and John Martin were arrested by the city marshal of Maysville, Ky., between that place and Cincinnati, charged with horse-stealing. Taber had at one time been a prosperous merchant in Hillsboro, Ky. A passion for whisky and cards soon swept away his property, however, and it is said that to procure the withal to gratify these propensities he several times overstepped the bounds of law. In 1870 he settled in Morehead, the county seat of Rowan, and speedily making friends, was elected clerk of the circuit court. In 1874 he became famous in Kentucky by being charged with mutilating the records, of which he was custodian, in the interests of one of the present appellate judges. This charge hanging over his head caused his defeat at the next election. Shortly thereafter he became involved in a personal difficulty with a hotel proprietor in the town and was in consequence compelled to leave Morehead. It was while he was wandering around that the alleged crime of horse-stealing was committed. His companion, John Martin, was at the time of the arrest under indictment for killing a man named Blair, a brother of Martin’s brother’s wife, for which he was afterwards acquitted.

            Taber and Martin were admitted to bail and pending their trial went to Carter county, rented a few acres of land from one of the Underwood’s and commenced hard work to raise a crop.

            A short distance from where they were located lived a family named Stamper. One morning some horses belonging to the Stamper’s were missing and Martin and Taber were charged with their theft. They denied the fact, and no positive proof being had against them they were not arrested. This did not satisfy the Stamper party, and they notified Martin and Taber to leave the country instantly, at the same time warning the Underwood’s not to harbor them. Taber left at once and it is stated, is now in the West. Martin’s wife was sick at the time and he did not go. His family were stopping with one of the Underwood’s, who was a second time ordered to send John Martin away, the Stampers promising to provide for his wife until she could be removed. His host had now become alarmed and told Martin he could no longer entertain him.

            George Lewis Underwood then invited Martin to come to his house which the latted did. A few days after the removal a similar notice was served upon George Lewis Underwood, which he disregarded. And shortly after he was shot from an ambush by a concealed murderer, the ball passing through his bowels and making a hole in his side through which all his food passed until his death last August. Then commenced the “Carter war.” Elwin Underwood and John Martin “took to the bush,” and two of the Stamper party were killed. One of the Underwood brothers and one of their partisans were also fired at from the bushes and killed. Armed bodies rode up and down the country or skulked among the hills and mountains, and that whole section was terrorized. The civil authorities were powerless to quell the tumult and Gov. McCreary ordered the militia to the spot to preserve order. The presence of the military seemed to intimidate the rioters and matters became quieter.

            During all this blood-letting Jesse Underwood was in Iowa, but on learning the condition of affairs, he returned home to share the fate of his kindred. After matters had become quieted he determined to return to Iowa and was passing through Lewis county on his way out of the State when he was pursued by Hiram Worder, the sheriff, and a large body of citizens. Coming up with the erring man, they called upon him to surrender, but his reply was a defiant yell, and by the orders of the sheriff he was fired upon and several times wonded. Jesse returned the fire and killed a youn man named Ruggles. he was finally secured and taken before a magistrate on the charge of murder. The examining court acquitted him on the ground that the pursuers had no warrant and the killing was done in self-defense. He was then taken to Bath county to be tried for killing young Trumbo years before. After an incarceration of several months in Owingsville jail he made his escape. It was often reported that he had left the State but he has ever since been skulking among the hills of Carter and Rowan counties, patiently awaiting an opportunity of revenge.

            Sometime in June last Elvin Underwood, while at work in his cornfield was fired upon by a concealed assassin and instantly killed. jesse swore at the time that when his brother George Lewis should die he would begin a war of extermination and would not desist until his enemies were all killed or driven from the State. On Sunday, August 24th, George Lewis Underwood was brought to the little cemetery about half a mile from Morehead, Rowan county, to be laid to rest, having never left his bed of pain since the cruel bullets struck him down in his manhood two years ago. All the clan came to see him laid away, and kneeling beside the grave swore with voices that trembled to avenge his death.

            On Sunday, September 5th Squire V. Holbrook, who led the party which shot George Lewis Underwoood went to a field near his house to catch some horses. He was accompanied by his son. The path to the field led through a dense undergrowth. Before he reached the field a rife ball whistled through the air and he fell dead. The son turned to face the assassin and saw the handsome face of Jesse Underwood peering through the bushes. It quickly disappeared and the young man could find no further traces of his father’s murderer. The news spread among the Holbrook faction and the next morning William Underwood, another of the brothers, and one who had never taken any part in the feud, was bushwhacked a short distance from his home and instantly killed.

            I was in Grayson, the county seat of Carter, when the news of William’s assassination reached me, and being provided with a good horse determined to ride over to “Fort Underwood” and learn if the report was a true one. I was provided with a letter of introduction to old George Underwood, and when near the “fort” came upon a body of armed men under a tre a short distance from the road examining the corpse of the murdered William Underwood. I dismounted and approaching the group inquired for George Underwood. An old gray-haired man, with but a single eye, limped toward me and I showed him the letter. He spelled out the contents and extended his hand.

            “This is bad business, sir,” she said, looking toward the spot where lay his murdered son.”

“To shoot an innocent man, who never harmed man, woman or child in his life,” interposed a young man, well dressed and heavily armed, who stepped toward us. “Billy never had anything to do with the trouble, and always tried to keep peace.”” The new-comer paused a moment, and then slapping the stock of his rifle with his clinched hand, cried fiercely; “But, by God, they shall pay dearly for his death.”

            “This is my son Jesse,” said the old man, and the young man grasped my hand heartily.

A pen picture of this noted outlaw, as I saw him that crisp autumn morning, bending over the body of his murdered brother and swearing vengeance on his murderers, may not prove uninteresting to the readers of the Free Press. Imagine then a man about thirty-five years of age, slender, not above medium height, a little stooped in his shoulders, keen-eyed, with a face smoothly shaved, except a heavy dark mustache, and hair worn long. Clothe this personage in a black Prince Albert coat, dark blue pantaloons tucked in his boot tops, a smoothly starched white shirt, standing collar and a neat black tie. Place on his head a soft slouch hat with the front rim turned down to shield the eyes. Buckle about his waist a stout belt, and hang from it two heavy Colt’s “navy” revolvers. Put in his hands a Sharp’s rifle at half-cock, his finger upon the hammer and the likeness is complete. He was a pleasant-mannered man, very gentlemanly, and talked without reserve about the terrible feud.

            The old man Underwood seemed to be a shrewd, ready-witted man and invited me to visit him at the “fort,” a rough log house, sitting right at the foot of the mountains, and surrounded all sides by dense forests. He told me he had never taken any part in the war, and did not fear for himself. I visited him at his castle and learned much of the history of the feud. It appears that for more than a generation there has been war between the Underwood’s and their neighbors. Occasionally there would be a collision, resulting in the death of one or more of the participants. It is a wild country among those mountains, and the frequent occurrence of “shooting scrapes” has tended to educate these rough people to look upon such affairs with but little concern. The outside world has heard something of the wild life of these isolated mountaineers through the newspapers, but the most exaggerated accounts have failed to do the subject justice. Old George Underwood was a man of wonderful constitution. He told me that in the last twenty-five years he had been shot at and wounded a score of times and bared his body to show the proofs. Wounds in both leags, the right thigh, several parts of the body, the head and neck, and one eye shot out, and yet, in spite of this disabling, he was able to limp about with his rifle ever ready, and two navy revolvers belted around his waist, on the alert for his enemies.

            Jesse stayed in the woods nearly all the time, and I saw but little of him, he visiting the “fort” only at night. Once, in speaking of the future and its possibilities he said: “I may be killed any day, but I shall die with a clear conscience, for this war has been forced upon me. I never wanted to fight but I can’t stand by and see my brothers murdered without lifting my hand against the murders. We are not in the wrong. They murdered my brother George because he dared protect an innocent man and a sick woman.”

            The better class of citizens in the county with whom I talked in reference to the feud were almost unanimous in the opinion that the Underwood’s were in the right, and had been hounded and persecuted by their enemies. It was evident to me that they were a family of brave men, and I always sympathize with bravery. I was at Grayson, the county seat of Carter on the 13th, when a man named Procter, living near the Underwood’s, came to town the bearer of startling news. The old man Underwood was seriously injured and Jesse was shot and dying. It created considerable excitement, and it was not long before the arrival of other parties gave us full particulars.

            On Friday afternoon, the 10th, old George Underwood stepped into his yard to get some firewood. As he was returning to the house he heard a cap snap and dropped the wood. As he did so some one fired from the bush and the ball took effect in the right shoulder and arm, inflicting a dangerous and painful wound. He fell, but recovering partially from the shock, succeeded in reaching the house. The women folks were immediately dispatched for a physician to dress the wound, but none would go the physicians in that part of the country having been ordered by the Holbrook faction not to render assistance to the Underwood’s, or they would be considered friends to them, and dealt with in a summary manner. Neither physicians nor citizens would go to his aid for fear of being drawn into the war. The women dressed the poor man’s wounds as best they could and dispatched word to Jesse who was in the woods. As soon as he heard of his father’s condition, he hastened to his assistance only to receive a mortal wound through the lung, just as he was entering the door. He was fired upon from the mountain side, about one hundred yards distant, the ball passing entirely through his body. Messengers were again sent out for physicians and aid. The death warning from the Holbrook party prevented any one from going to them. Imagine if you can the agony of these frief stricken women and crying children, shut up in that gloomy log house with their wounded and expecting at any moment to have the house burnt over their heads or the door forced open and their father and brother murdered before their eyes? Early Sunday morning Jesse breathed his last, and at the moment of his death the cowardly enemy, secreted in the brush near by the house fired a salute of three guns. Not satisfied with preventing physicians from going to the aid of the wounded, the Holbrook party issued a general warning that whoever attempted to bring the dead body out of the house for burial should die as he had died.

            I was obliged to leave for Morehead at night, and did not return until the next day at noon. I learned then that old George Underwood had sent to the judge of the county court, praying for protection and for assistance to bury his dead son. The message had arrived the day before, just after I left. Judge Warnock immediately made an order to cover the case and placed it in the hands of the sheriff. He hastily summoned a force of citizens to go with him and the deputies, and made arrangements to transport all the men who would go. So great was the dread of the Holbrook’s, that when the time arrived to depart but two men responded. The sheriff was powerless.

            Hearing that a farmer named Frank McFarran, living near Fort Underwood had expressed his willingness to go to the assistance of the besieged. I procured a horse and driver and rode out to the seat of war. Before I left, a gentleman handed me the following “notice” which had been sent to me in his care during my absence. The editor of a weekly paper in a neighboring town had been similarly “warned.” I preserved the original as a memento, and send a copy verbatim ad literatim:


“Upper Tygart, Karter co.,




                                                          “You ar hearby warn not to rite any

                                                          more lies About the Holbrook party.

                                                          you hav bi this act made yourselve

                                                          frendlee to the --------------underwoods.

                                                   you are marked Man from this day, and

                                                          will be Shot as was the Rest.”


            There was no signature to this delectable message, and I gave it little heed. I knew where McFarren lived and rode directly to his house. Only some frightened women were there, who begged me not to go to the “fort,” as the Holbrook’s had sworn “to kill me and the Independent man on sight.” Frank McFarren---all honor to him as the only man in all the country who had shown the true spirit of a brave man---had gone over to the “fort” early in the evening, accompanied by his daughter Agnes, word having been brought to him that the old man had been killed too. Leaving my horse I walked over to the scene of death. Jesse’s body had been buried near the house. When Mr. McFarren arrived it was in an advanced stage of decomposition, and old George had bee dead since the night before. From one of the women who was in the house at the time, watching over the dead body of Jesse, I gleaned the following particulars of one of the most cowardly and brutal murders that ever disgraced a civilized commonwealth.

            It seems that the night before a body of the Holbrook faction surrounded the house. They had blacked their faces to conceal their identity and demanded admittance, which was at first refused. They then held a consultation, and one of their number approached the door and asked for John Martin and Clarke White. They were told that they were not there. They then begged to be allowed to search the house, promising they would spare his life. This he at first refused to do, but consented at last, in deference to the wishes of the females in the house who were frightened nearly to death. They ordered him to pass out his gun, and he did so. Then the door was opened and fourteen or fifteen of the cowardly ruffians crowded into the house and began the search. They gathered up all the arms, consisting of an old sword, six guns, three bowie knives and several pistols. Then they showed their manliness by insulting the women and blaspheming the brave man who their cowardly bullets had killed, lifting the cloth from the dead face and making coarse jokes of which the swollen and decaying corpse was the butt. They remained about an hour, beguiling their time in this chivalrous manner. As they were preparing to depart, one of the ruffians asked old George to show them where he had been wounded. He leaned over to do so, and another of the party raised his gun and fired at the wounded, unarmed man. The ball took effect just above the right breast, and in twenty minutes thereafter the old veteran breathed his last.

            I returned to Grayson the next morning early to find the country in a feverish excitement. Although the last of the Underwoods living in the State had been ruthlessly murdered, the old man has four sons living in the West, three in Illinois, and one (Alfred) somewhere in the remote West, beyond the Mississippi. They will be apt to take up the gauntlet and avenge their murdered father and brothers. It was reported before I left that Alfred was either on his way home or had already returned, and a renewal of hostilities is momentarily expected. The whole upper part of Carter county is in the possession of an armed body of outlaws and murderers, who have so terrorized the country that the civil authorities are paralyzed, and there is no telling what will be the end.

Geo. W. Symonds, in Detroit Free Press.