The Night Riders of Reelfoot Lake

Photo galleries

TIPTONVILLE, Tenn. Jackie Vancleave slowed down a little when the conversation transitioned to the Night Riders of Reelfoot Lake.

He's been guiding on Reelfoot for 30 years, and he's the third generation of Vancleaves to make their living off the public water. It's a living that wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for the Night Riders making a stand 100 years ago.

It depends on which historical interpretation you're reading, or who you're talking to, as to how the Night Riders are remembered. Vancleave's position is obvious. Not to mention as he puts it his great grandmother was the wife of a Night Rider.

"There wouldn't be a lake, it'd probably be farm land," Vancleave said. "They would have drained it and cut the timber. No doubt about it."

The "they" Vancleave refers to is the West Tennessee Land Company, and a century ago they tried to buy Reelfoot Lake and suffered the consequences.

For seven months in 1908, masked horsemen became the law of Lake County and imposed their brand of justice with whip, arson, and shotgun. Their primary adversary was the land company, who planned to drain at least part of the lake and convert it to cotton production

Claims on the land existed prior to the earthquake, but the local population regarded the lake as public domain. When the West Tennessee Land Company quietly purchased old claims, the region's residents reacted violently.

The violence turned deadly on Oct. 19, 1908. Masked riders kidnapped Tennessee Land Company officers R. Z. Taylor and Quinton Rankin from Ward's Hotel in Walnut Log. Rankin was hung, but Taylor escaped into the lake. The Night Riders fired more than 20 rounds into the lake and Taylor was presumed dead.

When the New York Times ran a story on the event the next morning, the article said, "The body of Col. Taylor has not been found, but there is little doubt that he, too was slain."

But he survived by hiding under a cypress log and was found more than 24 hours later, wandering and disoriented.

With the situation officially out of hand, and the national spotlight on western Tennessee, Gov. Malcolm Patterson personally took charge of matters and arrived in the lake region with the Tennessee National Guard.

By the end of October, nearly a hundred suspects were incarcerated in a makeshift camp set up by the Guard. Two Night Riders died from harsh treatment inside the camp awaiting trial.

Six men were found guilty in the murder of Rankin and sentenced to death, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned their convictions in 1909, largely because public opinion was on the side of the vigilantes.

In 1914 the state officially took over the lake, ending the threat of private ownership.

Much of this history is from The Tennessee Historical Society.