Pleasant Valley War

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Pleasant Valley War
Edwin Tewksbury in the 1890s, the last surviving Tewksbury who was involved in the feud.
Commodore Perry Owens as the sheriff of Apache County, Arizona in 1886.
A rare image of Tom Horn examining a lasso.
Frederick Russell Burnham in Arizona Territory during 1881.
Date 1882 - 1892
Location Tonto Basin, Arizona Territory
United States Graham Family
United States Blevins Family
United States Tewksbury Family
Commanders and leaders
Tom Graham 
Andy Blevins 
John D. Tewksbury 
Casualties and losses
20-34 killed

The Pleasant Valley War, sometimes called the Tonto Basin Feud, or Tonto Basin War, was commonly thought to be an Arizona sheep war between two feuding families, the cattle-herding Grahams and the sheep-herding Tewksburys. However, eyewitness reports show that sheep were not brought into Pleasant Valley until 1885, two years after the feuding between the Tewksbury and Graham factions began. Although Pleasant Valley is physically located in Gila County, Arizona, many of the events in the feud took place in Apache County, and in Navajo County. The feud itself lasted for about a decade, with its most deadly incidents between 1886 and 1887, with the last known killing occurring in 1892.[1] Of all the feuds that have taken place throughout American history, the Pleasant Valley War was the most costly, resulting in an almost complete annihilation of the two families involved.

1882 - 1885[edit]


During the late 1880s, a number of range wars—informal undeclared violent conflicts—erupted between cattlemen and sheepmen over water rights, grazing rights, or property and border disagreements. In this case, there had been quarrels between the workhands of both factions as far back as 1882. The early clashes stemmed from accusations of cattle and horse rustling leveled at both parties, and some of both the Tewksburys and Grahams were arrested on charges made by another rancher, Jim Stinson, that they all had taken part in rustling cattle from Stinson's ranch.

By 1884, after several years of clashes due to rustling accusations on both sides a feud was heating up.[2] There was also an undercurrent of racial prejudice against the Tewksburys who were half-Indian,[2] and therefore referred to as "damn blacks" by the Grahams and Stinson. Stinson made a deal with the Grahams to pay them each fifty head of cattle and see that they never served jail time if they would turn state's evidence against the Tewksbury brothers. The Grahams took the deal and went to work for Stinson with the expressed vow to drive the brothers out of Pleasant Valley. The case against the Tewksburys was thrown out of court for lack of evidence.

The notion that this was a sheep v. cattle range war came about in part because the first killing in the feud was the murder of a Basque sheep herder who worked for the Daggs brothers' sheep ranch in northern Arizona. In 1885, the Tewksbury brothers leased some sheep from Daggs, and they sent the sheep to Pleasant Valley with the Basque sheep herder. The Basque sheep herder was murdered and robbed by Andy Cooper, who was a member of the Graham faction. Overall, between twenty to thirty-four deaths resulted directly from the feud.

Once partisan feelings became tense and hostilities began, Frederick Russell Burnham was drawn into the conflict in 1884.[3] Initially he was not involved but was dragged into it and subsequently marked for death. Burnham hid for many days before he could escape from the valley. With the help of friends, he managed to get out of the feud district after several months during which he had a number of narrow escapes, accounts he recalls in his memoirs, Scouting on Two Continents.[4][5] Burnham is also portrayed as one of the gunmen in a related novel by Zane Grey, To the Last Man: A Story of the Pleasant Valley War.[2]

The Wells Outfit[edit]

A local cattleman, Fred Wells had borrowed a lot of money in Globe, Arizona to build back his cattle herd.[n 1] The Wells clan had no stake in the feud, but his creditors did. Wells was told to join their forces in driving off the Tewksbury cattle or forfeit his own stock.[9] When Wells refused, his creditors demanded immediate payment of the loans and sent two deputies to seize his cattle. Wells gathered his clan and cattle together along with a young ranch hand named Frederick Russell Burnham, who Wells had trained in shooting and considered almost a part of his family, and began driving his herd into the mountains, hotly pursued by the deputies.[2][10]

It was slow going to drive the cattle into the mountains and the deputies had no trouble overtaking the Wells clan. The deputies forced the girls and the mother to halt, which then set off the barking dogs. Burnham and John Wells, Burnham's close friend and the son of Fred Wells, rushed back. Just when they arrived one of the dogs bit a deputy as he was dismounting. The deputy drew and shot the dog, which then caused Burnham, John, and two of the girls to also draw their weapons. The dismounted deputy then fell dead, shot from a long distance by Fred Wells, and the other deputy raised his hands. The clan continued into the mountains with the captured deputy and then released him once their objectives were secure. The deputy returned to Globe and reported the incident.[10]

In Globe, a meeting was held to discuss the elimination of Fred and John Wells, and an "unknown gunman carrying a Remington six-shoot belt", that is, Burnham and his Remington Model 1875 sidearm and bandolier. Private posses were raised for raiding the opposition. Killings and counter-killings became a weekly occurrence. For the Wells outfit it became a sheer waste of human life in a struggle without honor or profit in another man's feud, and seemingly without end.[10]

Frederick Russell Burnham Escapes[edit]

Frederick Burnham's sidearm, a Remington Model 1875.

For Burnham, it became apparent that he had the worst of two worlds. His faction was losing and every man he killed created a new feud, a personal one, not winner take all, but winner take on all. Only nineteen years old and facing a grim future as a nameless gunslinger whose only "crime" had been to stand by his friends the Wells, Burnham went to Globe and looked up another friend, Judge Aaron H. Hackney, the editor of the Arizona Silver Belt newspaper.[n 2] On his way to Globe he was nearly killed by George Dixon, a well-known bounty hunter and cattle rustler who found Burnham hiding in a cave. Dixon held a Colt .45 to Burnham's head and was ordering him outside when someone outside the cave shot and killed Dixon. A White Mountain Apache nicknamed Coyotero had been tracking Dixon and he shot the bounty hunter through the heart just as he was capturing Burnham. Burnham immediately grabbed his Remington, moved behind a ledge, and shot Coyotero dead.[5][10]

Once in Globe, Burnham contacted his friend, the Silver Belt editor, and stayed hidden in his house. With this man's help, Burnham assumed several aliases and made the difficult journey out of the Basin. He eventually arrived in Tombstone, Arizona, and stayed with friends of the Silver Belt editor. Once in Tombstone, he began to reflect on the feud: "Now my mind began to clarify. I saw that my sentimental siding with the young herder's cause [Ed note: John Wells] was all wrong; that avenging only led to more vengeance and to even greater injustice than that suffered through the often unjustly administered laws of the land. I realized that I was in the wrong and had been for a long time, without knowing it. That was why I had suffered so in the Pinal Mountains.[5]

1886 - 1887[edit]

In February, 1887 a Navajo employee of the Tewksburys was herding sheep in an area called the Mogollon Rim, which until that point had been tacitly accepted as the line across which sheep were not permitted. He was ambushed, shot and killed by Tom Graham, who buried him where he fell.

Shootout at Tewksbury's Ranch[edit]

Graves of John Tewksbury and William Jacobs outside of Young, AZ

In September, 1887, a grisly incident occurred which has been the basis of many stories about the feud and which sparked a deadly chain of events. The Graham faction surrounded a Tewksbury cabin in the early morning hours and coolly shot down John Tewksbury and William Jacobs as they started out for horses.

The Grahams continued firing at the cabin for hours, with fire returned from within. As the battle continued, a drove of hogs began devouring the bodies of Tewksbury and Jacobs. Although the Grahams did not offer a truce, John Tewksbury's wife came out of the cabin with a shovel. The firing stopped while she scooped out shallow graves for her husband and his companion. Firing on both sides resumed once she was back inside, but no further deaths occurred that day, and after a few hours the Grahams rode away. "His wife denied this happened. The firing actually stopped because the gunmen heard a sheriffs posse headed toward the location. In truth it took four men most of the rest of the day to bury the bodies of the deceased about a foot down because the ground was so hard. They covered the bodies with a sheet and then piled rocks over them to keep wild animals from eating what was left of the bodies".[12]

Owens-Blevins Shootout[edit]

A few days later, Andy Cooper, or Andy Blevins, one of the leaders of the Graham faction, was overheard in a store in Holbrook, Arizona bragging that he had shot and killed both John Tewksbury and William Jacobs. The sheriff for Apache County, Commodore Perry Owens, was a noted gunman, and had a warrant for Blevins' arrest on an unrelated charge. Owens rode alone to the Blevins house in Holbrook to serve the warrant.

Twelve members of the Blevins family were present at the house that day. Owens stated that he had an outstanding warrant for Andy Blevins and asked him to come out of the house. Blevins refused. His half-brother, John Blevins, then came out the front door and fired a shot at Owens with a rifle. Owens returned fire, wounding John and killing Andy. A friend of the family named Mose Roberts who was in a back room, jumped up and through a window at the side of the house.

Owens, hearing the noise, ran to the side of the house and fired on the man, killing him. It is disputed as to whether Roberts was armed or not. Some reports indicate he was armed with a rifle, others alleged that he was unarmed. It has also been alleged that he only leaped through the window to avoid bullets that passed into his room. At that moment, fifteen-year-old Sam Houston Blevins then ran outside, armed with a pistol he had picked up off the floor next to the body of his brother Andy. With his mothers arms around him trying to hold him back, Owens shot and killed him, as the boy fired on Owens.

The whole incident took less than one minute but resulted in three dead and one wounded. Despite the shots fired at him, Owens was not injured. The afternoon made Owens a legend, but only added fuel to the fire of the feud. Owens was not indicted, and the shooting was ruled self defense without any trial. He was dismissed by the County Commission over the incident, mostly due to the boy being killed, regardless of the fact that the boy himself was armed.

Shootout at Perkins Store[edit]

In September 1887, Sheriff Mulvernon of Prescott, Arizona led a posse that pursued and killed John Graham and Charles Blevins during a shootout at Perkins Store in Young, Arizona.

Involvement of Tom Horn[edit]

It was most likely during this stage that outsider and known assassin Tom Horn participated, possibly as a killer for hire, but it is unknown which side employed him, and both sides suffered several murders to which no suspect was ever identified. In his autobiography, however, Horn writes: "Early in April of 1887, some of the boys came down from the Pleasant Valley, where there was a big rustler war going on and the rustlers were getting the best of the game." Horn says he was tired of working his mining claim and therefore was "willing to go, and so away we went." He then claims that he "became the mediator" of the conflict, serving as a deputy sheriff under three famous Arizona lawmen of the time: William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill, Commodore Perry Owens, and Glenn Reynolds.[13]

1888 - 1892[edit]

Over the next few years after 1887, several lynchings and unsolved murders of members of both factions took place, often committed by masked men. Both the Tewksburys and the Grahams continued fighting, until there were only two left.

In 1892, Tom Graham, the last of the Graham faction involved in the feud, was murdered in Tempe, Arizona. Edwin Tewksbury, the last of that faction involved in the feud, was accused of the murder. Defended by well-known Arizona attorney Thomas Fitch, the first trial ended in a mistrial due to a legal technicality.

The jury in the second trial dead-locked seven to five for acquittal.[14] Edwin Tewksbury died in Globe, Arizona in April, 1904. By the time of his release, none of the Grahams remained to retaliate against him, nor was there anyone on the Tewksbury side to have avenged his death had anyone killed him.

Cultural references[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ According to Lott, Burnham was drawn into the conflict by his association with the Fred Wells and his family;[6] Money states that it was the Gordon Family.[7] In his published memoirs, Scouting on Two Continents, Burnham does not name the family and states he did not wish to mention names that might re-kindle the conflict.[5] Burnham was friends with both of these families in Globe, so it could have been either, but in the undated manuscript he mentions his friendship with young Tommy Gordon and his family from Globe within the context of the feud.[8]
  2. ^ Arizona Silver Belt’s founding editor was Aaron H. Hackney[11]

Source notes

  1. ^ "Pleasant Valley History". Pleasant Valley Community Council. Retrieved 2007-07-07. 
  2. ^ a b c d Coppock 2014.
  3. ^ Boundless 2013, p. 158.
  4. ^ Forrest 1936, p. 15, 292.
  5. ^ a b c d Burnham 1926, Chapter III. The Tonto Basin Feud.
  6. ^ Lott 1981, pp. 80–1.
  7. ^ a b Money 1962, p. 331–6.
  8. ^ Burnham n.d, p. 95.
  9. ^ Lowe 2012, p. 178.
  10. ^ a b c d Lott 1981, Chapter 8.
  11. ^ Library of Congress 2014.
  12. ^ R.E. Voris
  13. ^ Tom Horn, Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter (1904); Doyce B. Nunis Jr., editor; Chicago: The Lakeside Press, R.R. Donnelley and Sons Company, 1987, pp. 317-318
  14. ^ "To the Last Man: Murder in Tempe". 


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The Plesant Valley War,
  • For information regarding tours to historical sites during Pleasant Valley Days, visit [1]