The Time Traveler took note of recent tragic events in Southaven and turned the dial back on the time machine to a fateful day in 1845 when a shootout erupted on the historic DeSoto County Courthouse Square, leaving one prominent citizen dead and at least two others injured.
The great writer Andrew Lytle, whom this writer personally came to know when bumping into him at the Monteagle, Tennessee post office many years ago, was the author of an acclaimed book, “Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company.”
It seems that Bedford Forrest’s uncle Jonathan had paid a security bond for a man named Martin Jones, which involved him in a dispute with a planter from Olive Branch named William Matlock. Forrest, the first constable and coroner of the DeSoto County seat of Hernando was just 24 years old. He was living uptown near the present-day site of the old Hernando water tower. He and his family would later move into a log home just down the street from the DeSoto County Museum on Commerce Street, then known as the Holly Springs Road.
On March 10, 1845, Matlock, his two brothers and an overseer rode into the town square of Hernando, similar to a scene right out of an old cowboy movie. According to Perre Magness’ account, “everyone in town watched as they approached, fearing violence.”
Bedford Forrest tried to intervene in the dispute, and seeing that he was outnumbered, argued that four men against one was unfair. It is said that Jefferson Matlock fired his pistol first, in the direction of Forrest but missed him. There would be a volley of more gunshots. Two Matlock brothers were struck in a hail of bullets and severely injured. Forrest apparently stood his ground, unflinching. He is said to have slashed and disabled the third Matlock brother after an onlooker in the crowd tossed him a Bowie knife when he ran out of ammunition. In the melee, Jonathan Forrest was killed, just a few steps from turn of events livery stable, which is now Losher Street, near the front entrance of the present-day Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi. The three Matlock brothers were arrested and held without bail, to be tried later for the murder of Bedford Forrest’s uncle Jonathan Forrest, who is buried on land owned by former longtime Chancery Clerk, W.E. “Sluggo” Davis. Murder victims were often buried outside town. His grave stands alone in an overgrown field along Holly Springs Road, near present-day Jefferson subdivision.
In another version of the story, more sympathetic to the Matlocks, Forrest engaged the men in an argumentative, threatening tone, and after one Matlock brother raised a stick at him, Forrest discharged his weapon. This version is derived from the Memphis newspaper, the American Eagle, of the time.
However, the newspaper was empathetic to the plight of Jonathan Forrest, who it described as being one of Hernando’s “most worthy and estimable citizens.”
But one of the actual participants, William Houston Matlock (1819-1878) described the turn of events this way: He said that he was severely wounded in the fight by Forrest’s knife and lost the use of it. Matlock said he and his wife Lucy and their children had gone to Hernando to buy property along with his two brothers. He noted that Jonathan Forrest ran a store and livery stable there. It seems that Jonathan Forrest cashed in on a security bond for Martin Jones, who had fallen on hard times, and Forrest seized his land when Jones could not pay. Jones’ land joined that of Matlock and “Old Forrest claimed three feet over my line. I did not like the way he was treating Jones, which was shameful,” Matlock wrote. “I appealed to Mr. Forrest but he would not listen. I even begged for mercy on behalf of Mr. Jones but the sour old man had hardened his heart.”
Days later, Matlock and his brothers James and Jefferson rode into town that fateful day of the shootout and learned that Forrest had apparently made threats against him. It seems that Bedford Forrest stepped out of the store to ask that the Matlocks not harm his uncle. William Matlock said he and his brothers had simply come into town to buy harnesses for their horses. One thing led to another and Forrest and Matlock said Jonathan Forrest had appeared out of the blue holding an old blunderbuss (old-time gun) in his hand. Jefferson Matlock is said to then shot old Jonathan Forrest dead. Bedford Forrest pulled out his two-shot derringer and fired back. A wrestling match ensued, then tempers waned, and the whole affair was admitted to have arisen out of a grave misunderstanding. Matlock would later serve under Forrest’s command in the Civil War.
This account is credited to Walter Phillips of Olive Branch, a Matlock descendant.
There is always two sides to every story. The Time Traveler learned this well during his 35 years as a journalist. However, legend and myth and the patina of time often color versions of events which happened long ago.
We shall never know the real version of this “shootout on the square.”
But suffice it to say, our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of the recent Walmart shooting in Southaven. Violence is as old as the Scriptures, and thankfully, so is peace.
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.