My Great-Great-Grandparents Made Legal History Because of a Gunfight Over a Watermelon

My great-great-grandmother told a 130-year-old lie.

At least, I think she did. If she did not, her son could have been very liberal with telling the story of his father to his son.

The Gilliland family believed a Drew Lowe Gilliland was a Texas Ranger. The oral history my grandfather told of the grandfather he never knew, made the Texas Ranger sound very brave.

Legend has it that “Drew” went off on a secret mission on behalf of the US Government, chasing Shanghaiers in California for three years, leaving his pregnant wife behind.  “Drew” came home three years later, only to find his wife had remarried. The new husband apparently had gone into hiding out of fear of “Drew” (as my grandfather told the story). As a sign of peace, “Drew” left his guns at home, so he could go talk to his wife’s new husband in town. Sadly, Drew was shot in the back by someone he once arrested.

The story was always dramatic, with “Drew” dying in the arms of his wife, complete with crawling home on his hands and knees (never mind the other people in town who apparently saw Drew get shot). Four generations have had the name “Lowe” as a middle name in his honor.

Reality (evidenced in court documents and newspaper articles) tells a very different story. A reality discovered after my step-mother conducted extensive research on Ancestry.com. She always found it profoundly odd that “Drew” left a pregnant wife for three years. I always found other facts odd, like “Drew” being one of the original Texas Rangers, because that would have placed him several decades earlier in time.

The real history includes a second-degree murder conviction, a failed appeal, a pardon involving two governors, a habeas corpus writ based on the unconditional pardon and a my great-great-grandmother successfully securing a divorce.

A Saddler, Not a Ranger

There was no Drew Lowe Gilliland in the 1870s.  His name actually was Lorenzo Gilliland.  In one newspaper article he went by Low and another Lowe (newspapers also go back and forth in spelling the last name as Gilliland and Gilleland).

Lorenzo was born in 1851 and died in 1889. Lorenzo married a woman named Minnesota Dunn.

Lorenzo was a saddler in the Dallas area in the 1870s. The Texas State Historical Association described this time period as one of “general lawlessness.”

A man named Samuel Stevens publicly accused Lorenzo of stealing a watermelon and engaged in other antagonistic behavior towards Lorenzo.

Lorenzo started carrying a small gun in his pocket after being publicly insulted by Samuel Stevens.

Lorenzo encountered Stevens again in 1874. Samuel Stevens was armed and on horseback.

A fatal gunfight followed resulting in Stevens’ death.

Lorenzo was arrested a year later and convicted of second-degree murder.

Lorenzo was sentenced to hard labor for 10 years.

His son was born on May 13, 1875.

Pardon the Bad Timing

Minnesota Dunn petitioned Governor Richard Coke for a pardon of her husband.  After Governor Coke was elected to the US Senate, Governor Richard Bennett Hubbard, Jr., issued the pardon signed by Governor Coke, finding the gunfight had been in self-defense.  [Dallas Morning News February 26, 1887].

The pardon reached the prison the day after Lorenzo Gilliland escaped.  [Dallas Morning News February 26, 1887].  He had been imprisoned for 3 years.

Lorenzo spent 12 years hiding in California, not knowing he had been pardoned.  During this time, Minnesota had the marriage nullified, not on the basis of abandonment, but for Lorenzo’s murder conviction.

The Writ of Habeas Corpus

Lorenzo eventually learned that he had been pardoned and returned to Texas.

After returning to Texas, Lorenzo was arrested and tried for escaping from prison before a Texas Judge named Aldridge.  The Court held that Lowe’s pardon had been unconditional and could not be revoked by the fact Lowe escaped from prison after it had been issued.

A Man of Poor Character

August 30, 1887 Dallas Morning News

Lorenzo developed an extreme hatred of Chinese immigrants. This possibly developed while hiding in California and influenced by the vile Nativist politics that supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He simply might have been a racist all of his life.

Lowe had a “hobby” of following a Chinese man who, according to Lowe, was charged with the murder of a widow and a “large household of children” in Los Angeles, California. [August 30, 1887 Dallas Morning News].

Approximately a month after returning to Texas, Lowe conducted a “raid” on a group of Chinese men eating dinner to catch the “killer.”

The odd endeavor went poorly. It sounded like 19th Century version of racial profiling by a lunatic, complete with Lowe rambling about details of the “murders” and million dollar reward.

The story ended with Lowe being arrested for insanity.

No Riding Off Into The Sunset

According to one newspaper, “L.J. Gilliland” eventually became a deputy sheriff in Texas.

This was after at least one stay in a California insane asylum and one arrest for lunacy. [Special to the Gazette – Dallas Tex Aug 2,1887 & Dallas Morning News, September 14, 1888]

Lowe went to Whitewright, Grayson, Texas determined on seeing some Chinese men arrested for a [probably imagined] crime.

Lorenzo ended up in a fight with the local Marshall named Chowing who killed him on November 1, 1889. Lowe was 38 years old.  [Dallas Morning News, November 3, 1889]

Lorenzo Gilliland ruined his life over a watermelon; he was killed because of his racial prejudice and unstable mind.

Of Great Mistakes & Cries for Mercy

From the tone of the newspaper articles, it truly sounds like Lorenzo Gilliland needed advanced psychotherapy. To be fair, Lorenzo experienced the total destruction of his life, almost entirely self-inflicted beginning with the killing of Samuel Stevens. While Governor Coke believed Stevens’ death was in self-defense, Lorenzo did start carrying the concealed weapon after the watermelon incident. I cannot help but wonder if Lorenzo created the situation where he had to defend himself, because of the “raid” Lorenzo conducted on the Chinese men many years later.

Lorenzo Gilliland might have been completely in the right to kill Samuel Stevens in self-defense. The newspaper accounts make it sound like they had either been business partners of some sort or just did not like each other. Whatever the case was, Lorenzo’s killing of Stevens triggered a very long nightmare, including enduring hard labor as a convict for three years (the same amount of time “Drew” was supposed to be chasing Shanghaiers in California); escaping from prison the day he was pardoned and unnecessarily going into hiding for twelve years; losing his wife (again due to his own abandonment of her while on the run in California); never knowing his son; and experiencing the terror of 19th Century insane asylums.

The combination of all those trials would shatter most minds into tiny jagged pieces.

The real hero in the story was Minnesota Dunn.  God only knows how hard her life was trying to provide for her son while Lowe was in prison. She would married a man named Lemon, ultimately moved to California and successfully raised a son.

Minnesota Dunn told her son Drew a noble lie that lasted over 130 years. Drew lived his life believing that his father was a heroic Texas Ranger killed by an outlaw.  Drew Gilliland had a very successful career in law enforcement in Ventura, California, raising a son and a daughter, who were told the heroic story of their grandfather.

Unless….Ventura Sheriff Drew Gilliland knew the truth about his father and told a lie to my grandfather.

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Josh Gilliland
Josh Gilliland is a California attorney who focuses his practice on eDiscovery. Josh is the co-creator of The Legal Geeks, which has made the ABA Journal Top Blawg 100 Blawg for 2013 to 2016, and was nominated for Best Podcast for the 2015 Geekie Awards. Josh has presented at legal conferences and comic book conventions across the United States. He also ties a mean bow tie.