Early law enforcement in Walton County was like other unsettled southern counties. Deadly.
The long arm of the law fell short in the 1800s with the less wealthy Southern counties having woefully meager tax bases. Many less fortunate counties without large towns found themselves unable to pay for protection, thus numerous regions depended upon a lone sheriff and his call-up posses. Deputies were expensive and those who could afford them were mostly found in larger municipalities.
Such was likely the case in Walton County.
Most courts did not follow a daily routine due to the expense of court officials. Courts were more commonly held once a month or, if lucky, once a week. Most found the courts impotent mainly because state attorneys received no compensation unless the subject on trial was convicted. One would think that this would lead the state lawyer to extra zeal, but areas for him to cover were extremely large. And due to the absence of law enforcement officers, the attorney would find little evidence collected to proceed with a case. The sheriff also received no regular salary, getting only arrest fees and a small percentage of tax collections.
Convictions were another problem.
In small counties, the settlers were normally related or closely aligned as friends. So procuring a jury was a nightmare. The amount of time to gather evidence spurred the defendant to intimidate or get rid of witnesses. Relatives threatened the witnesses also. So convictions were an uphill battle. Courtrooms filled with friends and relatives gave the proceedings an ugly air.
Like Appalachian mountain courts, many battles ensued outside the courthouse. The southern Allen Clan of a nearby state is the most notorious for courtroom violence. They simply walked in and shot dead the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and the sheriff.
The records show that it was up to the sheriff to find witnesses who were on the run and to find jurymen. Even worse, the impoverished reasoned that the poor man could not fight “money” in the courts and was at an immediate disadvantage if he was a victim.
Walton County was basically in the realm of that situation.
When the son-in-law of Morris Walden was gunned down at his home on a chilly September night in 1863, they gave up on law enforcement’s search for the killer and decided clan justice would have to be fulfilled. The discovered killer was caught plowing his field and each member of a hastily drawn posse put a hole in him so no one could be singled out.
There was never any court proceeding.
When a fellow by the name of W.D. Holly who lived on the east end of Choctawhatchee Bay killed his neighbor and his nephew, events boiled over. He was later found diseased in his cabin from various penetrations to the body. His score was settled by citizen justice and persons unknown.
Real unbiased justice was meted out when outlaws passed through a region. Then the communities, clans, and close-knit settlers would see that “outsider” justice was performed.
Other stories of early Walton no doubt abound with such circumstances. As more settlers moved into the area after the Civil War, the county finally achieved a formal courthouse located in Eucheeanna, and then later moved to DeFuniak Springs.
It was the beginning of Walton’s respectable justice -- not perfect by any means, but vengeful killing slowed, and the people of the county gained confidence in the legitimacy of court proceedings.
The roving judge and traveling state attorney became a thing of the past.
Fair winds to ye matey.
Chick Huettel is a long-time Walton County resident, writer and artist and a former TDC advisory committee member.