An American Family History

The Rowan County War -1885

The Tolliver-Martin Feud

Kentucky was originally a Virginia county and included the lands west of the Appalachians. In 1780, it was divided into Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln counties. Kentucky officially became a state on June 1, 1792.

On January 31, 1885, 66 year old, Warren Alderson, who was associated with the Tolliver faction was robbed and warned not to say anything against John Martin.

At 11 o'clock last night. Col. Warren Alderson, a merchant of this place, was awakened by his back door being battered, open with an ax. Jumping out of bed, he was confronted by three masked men, who, with pistols in hand, ordered him to open the safe. After scuttling and trying to outwit them, he opened the safe and they took $400, leaving $456 in checks. They struck him over the head with a pistol, snapped pistols in his face and said they wanted to kill him anyway, as he was a friend of Floyd Tolliver and should not say a word against John Martin. They knocked Mrs. Alderson down, aud were very abusive, cursing from their arrival until they departed. (The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 31 Jan 1885, Sat  •  Page 2)

On March 10, 1885, county attorney, Zachary Taylor Young, was shot, but not killed, by members of the Martin faction who had accused him of favoring the Tolliver faction.

Mr. Z. T. Young, County Attorney of Rowan, on the 7th inst., while returning to Morehead from a business trip in the county, was fired upon twice from ambush by unknown parties, the first shot taking effect in his right shoulder and passing through his right breast. The wound it is thought will not be fatal. It is supposed the shots were fired by friends of the late John Martin as Young was accused by them of favoring Tolliver's side in the late difficulties between the two factions. (The Evening Bulletin, Maysville, Kentucky, 10 Mar 1885, Page 2)

On March 16, 1885, Deputy Sheriff Stewart Baumgartner was ambushed murdered by the Tolliver faction. He had been appointed by Cook Humphrey and had been warned to leave the county.

"A Deputy Sheriff Shot From the Bush and Killed"
The Morehead Feud. Morehead, Ky.,
March 16.
Stewart Bumgardner, Deputy Sheriff, was shot from ambush about four miles from this place about four or five o'clock this evening. Excitement is high. It is said he sided with the Martin faction. This tragedy is another act in the bloody vendetta which originated in Rowan couuty in a quarrel at the August election between John Martin and Floyd Tolliver, which resulted some weeks later in Martin killing Tolliver. Martin was taken to the Winchester jail for safe-keeping, and shortly afterward was taken thence by A. M. Bowling (in jail here for murdering Marshal Gill at Mount Sterling about the last of February) and others, and then taken from the train at Farmer's Station by a mob with whom Bowling was in conspiracy, and shot to death.

W. C. Humphrey, the sheriff of Rowan couuty, and his deputy, Bumgartner, were active in trying to ferret out the perpetrators of the deed, and received anonymous notice that if he did not leave the county at once they would be killed. Since that time they have been going armed with a Winchester rifle and a navy revolver, even taking the weapons to their meals with them, expecting an attack at any moment.


On April 1, 1885 heavily armed Martin sympathizers barricated themselves at Carey (or Gault) House which was owned by Judge James Carey. The Tolliver supporters were at the Cottage Hotel or Anderson's store. A battle followed and the Carey House was abandoned and the Tollivers controlled the town.

"A Great Deal of Shooting Reported, but No Fatality"
The Governor Having; the Matter Investigated, With a View of Sending Troops if Necessary.
Imperial to the Courier-Journal, Morehead Ky., April 2.

Great excitement still prevails in Rowan county. Last night about fifty shots were fired at the Gault house, where the Martin faction are concealed, and tbe door was completely riddled with bullets. At 8 this morning three of the Tolliver faction went up near the Gault House and seven or eight shots were fired. The force on both sides has been increased to twelve men each. Four of the Toliver faction went up to the Gault House, entered the house, but no one was to be seen at the time. They shot two dogs and came away rejoicing.

Tbe Tolliver faction have possession of the town. No troops yet; they are anxiously awaited for. Real estate is cheap.

Another Report
Special to the Courier-Journal.
Mr. Sterling, Ky., April 3.
Rowan's riot still rages and tha fight waxes hotter. After an armistice of a few hours last evening hostilities were again renewed between tbe opposing factions. The Martin party, stationed at the Cottage Hotel, and Toliver's followers, at Anderson's store, opened fire upon each other some time in the night and kept up a rattling fusilade till about 10 o'clock this morning.

It is not known certainly whether any one was killed, as both parties kept within the walls of their respective barricades, but it is thought one man was wounded, and another some 800 yards from the battle-field and a non-participant was shot through the clothing. Several parties came to this place this morning on the noon train. More fighting is expected tonight. Both parties are armed with shot- gun, Winchester rifles and pistols. The end is not yet.

In May, 1885, Ed Pierce was arrested and found guilty of robbery. While in jail, he admitted to participating in Young's murder and also implicated Ben Rayburn. In his confession, he claimed to have been employed to kill the county attorney, Z. T. Young, by John Martin's family along with Sheriff Humphrey and Deputy Baumgartner.

Ed Pierce, the notorious mountain desperado, who was arrested in Greenup county a few days ago and brought to this place on an old charge of robbery, and who was also one of the leading spirits in the late Rowan county war, on yesterday sent for Col. Z. T. Young, of Morehead, who immediately came, and in company with the Hon. J. M. Nesbitt, a well-known lawyer of this place, repaired to, the jail, and Pierce, being brought from his cell, made a full disclosure of all the actions and purposes of the Martin faction in the recent disgraceful troubles in Rowan county.

Pierce revealed some startling and damaging facts, implicating Cook Humphreys, the present sheriff. Mr. Logan, a prominent merchant of Morehead, and eight or ten others whose names he gave. Pierce said that he and a confederate by the name Rayborn had been hired to assassinate Z. T. Young, Jeff aud Alvin Bowling and six others. They were to receive $50 for killing Young and $25 each for the others.

He says that they watched the road for Young and that Rayborn shot him. The only reason that he failed to kill him was that the snow blinded him. He also says that a woman named Sue Martin, sister to John, who was assassinated, is now at the head of the gang and that if Young persists in living in Rowan county they will certainly kill him. An effort will at once be made to bring the guilty parties to justice and lively times are expected. (The Owensboro Messenger, Owensboro, Kentucky30 May 1885, Sat,  Page 1)

On June 30, 1885, Ben Rayburn and Cook Humphreys and other armed men took refuge in the Martin house.

Craig Tolliver and Robert Misser of the Tolliver faction attempted to arrest Humphreys and attacked the house.

Rayburn was killed and Humphreys wounded. Craig Tolliver, Jeff Bowling, John Trumbo, Boone Day, Robert Messer, James Oxley, and H. Mason Keeton were arrested for his murder. One of the magistrates was a Tolliver supporter and he declared that there was no cause for trial. They were all released.

The Evening Bulletin
June 30. 1885. The Martin-Tolliver war has been resumed in Rowan County and anarchy again prevails, and there is no telling what the end will be unless the State promptly uses the military to suppress the trouble.

The Sheriff-elect, Cook Humphreys, a partisan of the Martin faction, refused to qualify and discharge the duties of the office, and the County Judge, in consequence, declared the office vacant. Humphreys armed himself, and, with a number of his friends, were quartered, on Sunday, at the Martin house.

Warrants wore issued for the arrest of Humphreys and placed in the hands of C. B. Tolliver, Marshal of Morehead, and Robert Misser, Constable of that precinct, but when they attempted to serve them they were fired upon by Humphreys and Tolliver was dangerously wounded.

About four o'clock the same afternoon Humphreys and another desperado named Rayburn attempted to escape from the house which was guarded by a posse, and were fired upon, Rayburn being killed instantly and Humphreys wounded, though he managed to escape.

The citizens are leaving the county, and those who have reached Mt. Sterling bring the most discouraging reports as to tho outlook. Tho leaders of each faction are summoning their friends, and a bloody outbreak is momentarily expected. It seems imperative that the military should be sent there without delay.

Morehead, June 28.
The war broke out afresh here to-day. One man has been killed, another mortally wounded, another disabled and a revival of hostilities is expected at any moment. A posse undertook to arrest Cook Humphreys and Humphreys shot and wounded Craig Toliver and was himself badly wounded and a man named Rayburn who was with him was killed outright. It is feared by many that the worst is yet to come, and that the long struggle of last winter and spring will be renewed. It will be remembered that there have been two parties to this feud all the time. It begun at the last August election over a quarrel which resulted in the killing of Floyd Toliver. Since then several other deaths have followed.

County Attorney Young was shot from ambush, Deputy Sheriff Stuart Bumgardner was waylaid and killed, one of the Martins was killed while a prisoner, and several pitched battles took place.

Craig Tolivcr and Jeff Bowling took the leadship of one party, while Logan Carey, Sheriff Humphrey and several others were at the head of their opponents. The difference was finally adjusted after two or three visits from Adjutant General Castleman, and both parties agreed to quit and he friends. Mutual distrust has prevailed, however, and a revival of the fight has been constantly anticipated.

Charges have been made that Cook Humphreys had hired a desperado named Ed. Pearce to kill his enemies, and to this Pearce made confession not long ago.  (Semi-Weekly South Kentuckian, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, 03 Jul 1885, Fri  •  Page 2)

Miss Sue Martin came down this morning having been released with her sister from jail. She is the sister of John Martin, who was mobbed, and tells the story of her outrages very graphically and pathetically. She states that after killing her brother Jobn, the Tolivers forced her father aud brothers to fly for their lives, and that she. her mother aud two sisters were left unprotected and at the mercy of the Toliver partisans; that she was in constant dread of being assassinated, and that her mother's house was ruthlessly burned, the women being turned out at midnight without any shelter, and all of their effects consumed; that she aud her sister were placed in jail upon no legal process and upon the meanest pretext; that after the posse had surrounded her house, and after Humphrey had wounded Toliver, the latter deliberately fired at her from the rear of the house and she barely escaped being killed.  (The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 30 Jun 1885, Tue  •  Page 1)

On August 9, 1885 Logan's trial was halted because the chief witness was absent.

Matters in Morehead. Special to the Courier-Journal. Morehead. Kt., Aug. 8.

The trial of Logan, the leader of the band of regulator. who killed old man Hughes at Gates Station, has come to a standstill on account of the absence of tbe chief witness for the Commonwealth, John Evans. A messenger was dispatched for him at his house, twelve miles from here, to summons him, but Evans refused to come, as his wife was in a delicate condition. Sheriff MeKenzie and a detail want after him, but had been forewarned had taken to the brush, and they came back empty handed.

The grand jury has indicted Craig Toliver for having beat, bruised, and imprisoned Sue Martin and her sister; John Sizemore for carrying concealed deadly weapon; Mrs. Vina Martin for selling poisonous food with intent to poison; James Fugett for resisting an officer: Coffee Premore for Sabbath-breaking, and those who burned tbe Martin house for arson. (The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 09 Aug 1885,)


Appalachia was the 18th century backcountry and many settlers were Scots-Irish. It includes southern New York, western Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia, West Virginia, eastern Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee and northern Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.






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©Roberta Tuller 2020
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