Skeleton Canyon Shootout
A low level aerial view of the Peloncillo Mountains and Skeleton Creek, which leads to the entrance of Skeleton Canyon.
|Date||August 12, 1896|
|Location||Skeleton Canyon, Arizona Territory, United States|
- This event should not be confused with the Skeleton Canyon Massacres of 1879 and 1881.
The Skeleton Canyon Shootout was a gunfight on August 12, 1896, between members of the High Five Gang and a posse of American lawmen. Following a failed robbery of the bank in Nogales, Arizona, the High Fives headed east and split up. The gang's leader, Black Jack Christian, and George Musgrave got away, but three others, including Bob Christian, were engaged by the posse at the entrance of Skeleton Canyon, a historic gorge in the Peloncillo Mountains. However, the outlaws fought off their pursuers and escaped into New Mexico Territory.
The High Five Gang was centered around Black Jack Christian and his older brother, Bob, but, there were at least six others who rode with them at times, including Bob Hayes, George West Musgrave, Van Musgrave, Code Young, Sid Moore, and "Three Fingered" Jack Dunlop. After cowboying in Arizona for a while, on July 20, 1896, the High Fives held up a general store in Separ, New Mexico. Though they made off with around $200 and some merchandise, the gang was mostly unsatisfied with their plunder and ended up giving some of it away to local ranchers for food and lodging. By August 1, 1896, the High Fives were held up on the Babocomari grant, located in the San Pedro Valley, north of Fort Huachuca, Arizona. There they devised a plan to rob the International Bank of Nogales. According to authors Karen and John Tanner, a wealthy rancher and associate of Musgrave named Ed Roberts, arranged to have $10,000 in specie and bills ready at the bank so he could pay an "unpopular" tariff on the importation of some Mexican cattle. But, in reality, Roberts intended to have the High Fives steal the money when it was made available. So, on August 6, the clerks in the bank prepared for Robert's large withdrawal, which was scheduled to take place at 1:00 pm. The bank's president, John Dessart, had the money taken out of the vault and stacked on the counter. Meanwhile, the High Fives were riding to the bank. From the Babocomari they went southwest along Sonoita Creek, past the ruins of Fort Crittenden and Fort Buchanan, across the Sanford Ranch, through Calabasas, and then to Nogales, following the Southern Pacific Railroad. Sometime after 12:00 pm, the gang entered town and was riding along the railroad, down Morley Avenue, towards the bank. Most of the people were at lunch so Nogales was quiet.
The bank was located about 100 yards from the international border, and Nogales, Sonora, in a recently constructed two-story brick building, which also held a grocery store and a hardware store. According to the Tanners, Black Jack, George Musgrave, and Bob Hayes dismounted and went inside while Bob Christian and Code Young remained outside to watch the horses. However, one other account says that, instead of Code Young, Three Fingered Jack was the fifth man in the robbery. Inside the bank, the cashier, Major Fred Herrera, was sitting in a chair behind the counter while John Dessart was standing at a desk working on balances. Hayes covered the cashier, Black Jack watched Dessart and Musgrave moved behind the counter with a sack for the loot. Herrera then began handing stacks of cash over the counter to Dessart, who was filling the bag. While this was going on, Musgrave slowly walked to the back end of the bank. Through a double door, Musgrave saw four men having a meeting in the bank's parlor; Morgan R. Wise, of Washington D.C., W.L. Campbell of Calabasas, Robert Ekey, a Santa Cruz County rancher, and Judge Ed Williams, Ekey's attorney. At about the same time, a man named Major A.O. Brummel entered the bank to join the four men in the parlor. Musgrave quickly seized this man and moved him towards the back, but the incident temporarily distracted Black Jack so Dessart was able to use the mistake to run out the front door. At this point, Black Jack struck Dessart in the head with his rifle, causing a bloody wound, but the president made it out the door and, running down the street, he saw a man named Herry Lewis and told him to telephone the police. Black Jack was closely behind though and, with his pistol, he was able to keep Lewis from calling anyone.
Back in the bank, the sudden flight of Dessart and Black Jack distracted Musgrave and Hayes so it gave the five men in the parlor an opportunity to escape through the back door. Also, the bank's cashier, Major Fred Herrera, went for his pistol underneath the counter and then fired it at Hayes, who turned and ran through the front door, straight into Black Jack. Herrera then fired on Musgrave and hit him in one of his knees as he ran out the back door. Musgrave entered the hardware store through its back door and then joined the rest of the gang out front. As the gang was mounting up, a deputy customs inspector named Frank King opened fire with his side arm from across the street and wounded both Musgrave's and Black Jack's horses. Musgrave was then helped onto the back of Black Jack's horse and the High Fives started riding. Musgrave's riderless horse following closely behind. The High Fives went past the Montezuma Hotel, where a Treasury Department inspector named Ben E. Hambleton grabbed a rifle and mounted a horse to pursue. When they went by the Nogales Electric, Light, Ice and Water Company building, the gang was fired on by two employees and, at the end of town, they were attacked again by two more Nogales citizens. Karen and John Tanner say that "bullet marks scarred much of downtown Nogales, but there had been only two fatalities-a horse shot by the Winchester-toting Black Jack, and a mule, the victim of Major Huerrera's fusillade."
The Nogales citizen Diego Ramirez said that the High Fives made off with $40,000, however, Johnny Clarke, the son of one of the possemen that pursued the outlaws to Skeleton Canyon, said that "it was never known if they got away with the money or not." According to the Tanners, the gang definitely did not get away with $40,000, or even the $10,000 that brought them to Nogales. They also say that Musgrave instructed a resident of Huachuca Siding to tell John Dessart that the gang intended to rob the bank in Nogales again, though it never happened. Furthermore, the newspapers of both Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico reported that "not a cent was lost." Just outside of town, the outlaws rode east up Beck Canyon, where they split up. Black Jack and Musgrave went to Ed Robert's Ranch, located on the upper San Pedro, but Bob Christian, Bob Hayes and Code Young crossed the border into Sonora, near the San Antonio Pass in the Patagonia Mountains. They were pursued by a posse from Nogales, led by Customs Collector Samuel F. Webb, but the lawmen eventually abandoned the pursuit on August 8. From the border town of Lochiel, the posse traveled fifteen miles into Sonora, but had to turn around and go back because of the lack of fresh mounts. That same day, a man named Bob Forrest was arrested by Sheriff Camillus S. Fly in Bisbee and temporarily jailed in Tombstone for being a member of the High Five Gang. Forrest proclaimed his innocence, but he did say that before his arrest he went to Ed Robert's ranch to "get a pair of boots for Musgrave." According to the Tanners, within forty-eight hours, local newspapers went from accusing Forrest of being involved in the Nogales bank robbery to being no more than an "important witness."
When news of the robbery reached Tucson, Pima County Sheriff Robert N. Leatherwood went to Bisbee and organized another posse. It included, among others, Deputies Broderick and Doyle, Deputy Marshal Al Ezekiels, two customs inspectors, Samuel Webb and Miller, the famous Wells Fargo agent Jeff Milton, and Billy Stiles, a lawmen and future bandit. From Bisbee, the posse followed the High Fives' trail and, when they got to the border, Ezekiels was ordered to continue south with a few men, while Leatherwood followed Black Jack's trail with the main posse. While in Mexico, Ezekiels' posse cooperated with the Gendarmería Fiscal, commanded by General Juan Fenochio, and caught up with Bob Christian, Bob Hayes and Code Young at a place called La Cuerva, but the three got away and "successfully slipped back north of the border." On the morning of August 11, Sheriff Fly, Deputies Bill Hildreth, Burt Alvord and Will Johnson left Bisbee and headed east across the San Simon Valley to join up with Leatherwood, which they eventually succeeded in doing. By that time, Ezekiels' posse had returned from Mexico and was also riding to rejoin Leatherwood. When Ezekiels and his men were near Mulberry Wash in San Simon Valley, Jeff Milton sighted the three bandits and wanted to engage them, but Ezekiels refused to go any further. Milton later recalled: "We saw these fellows and we saw them coming out of the mulberry pasture. I says Damned if they ain't them, and the fellow in charge [Ezekiels] of them others they couldn't go. He says 'We'll run them out of the country.' And I says' that is what we want to do.' But he just quit. That was on the south end of the Chiricahuas. (sic)"
After they abandoned the chase, Ezekiels' posse camped overnight in Leslie Canyon, located on the ranch of Si Bryant, near the remains of Fort Rucker. On the next morning, Milton, Billy Stiles, a man named Randolph, and another man named Felix Mayhew, left Ezekiels and rode north through Dos Cabezas Canyon to board a train heading to Tucson. There they would obtain fresh horses and rejoin the pursuit. However, the pursuit ended the same day, when Leatherwood reached Skeleton Canyon. Milton later said: "I never run on to Black Jack and I'm glad I didn't. I might have got hurt. (sic)" Skeleton Canyon is a rugged pass leading through the Peloncillos, which connects the San Simon Valley of Arizona with the Animas Valley of New Mexico. Because of this, the canyon was a well-known haven for outlaws, who used it as a fortress on more than one occasion. At about 12:00 pm, on August 12, Leatherwood's posse was riding across the valley, along Skeleton Creek, when they spotted a lone bandit ahead of them. Deputy Doyle went after the man, but, as he was riding up a steep hill, he fell of his horse, injured his knee, and broke his weapon somehow. Unable to continue further, Doyle left the posse to go to Deming, leaving Leatherwood, Fly, Alvord, Hildreth, Johnson, and Inspector Frank Robson on the trail. At about 4:00 pm, Leatherwood and his men were near the entrance of Skeleton Canyon when suddenly "shots exploded from the underbrush seventy-five feet in front of the advancing lawmen." Robson was riding up front next to Leatherwood so, when the High Fives opened fire, the inspector was hit twice in the first volley, both in the head, as Leatherwood and the others jumped off their horses. Robson fell dead instantly and the remaining possemen leveled their weapons and returned the fire, killing one of the bandits' horses.
Under fire, Leatherwood retreated back to the rest of his men while his horse and that of Alvord and Robson ran off towards the High Fives. One of the outlaws seized Leatherwood's horse, but it was later reported to have been shot and killed during the fight. After killing Robson, the High Fives directed their fire at Deputy Hildreth, who was slightly wounded when a bullet grazed his neck. The bandits also killed his horse. Jeff Milton later recalled the story he was told: "Bill Hildreth got in behind a tree and they [the High Fives] were shooting and the bullets would knock the bark off on one side and then the other. And old Bob [Leatherwood] told me himself, said, 'Milton, did I run? I had one of these old long barrel rifles and I used it for a jumping stick,' when they got to shooting at him. Old Bill was the only one left then and was smoking them [the High Fives]. Do you know, I can't understand how a man can shoot at a fellow six or seven times and don't kill him. I don't understand. When old Bill got a chance to run-they [the High Fives] were shooting both sides of the tree-he got out. He remembered this fellow [Robson] and went back and got him." According to Karen and John Tanner, a confidant of the High Fives named Walter C. Hovey later revealed that Bill Hildreth had attempted to join Black Jack's gang, sometime before the shootout, which is why the bandits tried so hard to kill him that day. The Bisbee Orb reported on Hovey's explanation: "Hildreth was acting as a guide for the officers having been driving cattle in that county for years and knows all the water holes and places in the vicinity. The robbers knowing this and being acquainted with Hildreth desired to get rid of him." The gunfight lasted until sundown and by the time it ended the bandits had moved down to Robson's body to steal his rifle, his revolver, and his watch before mounting up to escape into the Animas Valley. When it became apparent that the High Fives were gone, the posse buried Robson's body and retreated.
On the day after the Skeleton Canyon engagement, Sheriffs Fly and Leatherwood telegraphed Tombstone: "They got two of our horses, we two of theirs. Think we wounded two, not certain, as they were concealed." The Tanners say that the sheriffs were likely being "too optimistic" in their telegram, adding that there was no evidence than any of the High Fives were wounded. On August 14, Burt Alvord returned to Tombstone where he reported that none of the possemen could even see the outlaws during the fighting. He also said that because the terrain was rough and because the posse lost three of their horses and didn't have a wagon, Robson was buried in an unmarked grave where he fell. That same day, the former Cochise County sheriff, John Horton Slaughter, Bert Cogswell, William King, and two Mexican men, joined Leatherwood's posse, somewhere around Mulberry Ranch, in western San Simon Valley, which was where they rested their horses. Immediately after the shootout, Bob Christian, Hayes and Young rode to the Gray Ranch, near Victoria, New Mexico, and robbed the place for some supplies. On the following night, the three bandits were held up in the mountains, near the Diamond A Ranch, when they were spotted by Tom Horn, the chief of the United States Army Apache Scouts. Horn was riding alone, searching for renegade Apaches, so he did nothing about the High Fives other than report that he saw them when he returned to Fort Grant on August 28. Meanwhile, Black Jack and Musgrave, who avoided Skeleton Canyon, were hiding somewhere in San Simon Valley. On the night of the shootout, the two raided a horse ranch belonging to the San Simon Cattle Company. Black Jack robbed the ranch hands, forced them to serve dinner, and then took two fresh horses for Musgrave and himself.
Black Jack and Musgrave are next found at the Mulberry Ranch on August 18, where just four days before Leatherwood and his posse rested. There they robbed the place and had dinner like they had done before. According to the Tanners, sometime after that, while riding through the valley, Black Jack and Musgrave came across Robert Hill and Will Pomeroy. Hill was Frank Robson's brother-in-law and he was heading to Skeleton Canyon to exhume Robson's body for reburial in Mesa. Black Jack and Musgrave used the chance to tell Hill that they were not involved in the skirmish and that they "professed a liking" for Robson, expressed sympathy for his widow, and offered "financial assistance". After that, the two outlaws headed for the Mexican border town of La Morita. Another posse tracked them there, but the trail eventually turned back into Arizona and was lost. Despite the fact that the High Fives were no longer in the Peloncillo Mountains, the United States Marshal of New Mexico Territory, Edward L. Hall, sent his chief deputy and brother-in-law, Horace W. Loomis, into the area to join Leatherwood's posse. On August 24, Loomis telegraphed Hall, saying that the "robbers were encamped behind breast-works of a formidable nature and had stood off the deputies [Leatherwood's posse] so successfully that a considerable force of men would be necessary to dislodge them." In response to Loomis' message, Hall telegraphed the Justice Department and requested help from the 7th Cavalry soldiers at Fort Bayard, New Mexico. Since they were already engaged in an Apache Campaign to clear the Peloncillos of renegades, the army had no objections to assisting the roving posses in their hunt for the bandits. However, neither the army nor the posses would be successful, not until after another string of robberies and shootouts that occurred over the next several months.
- Tanner, John Douglas; Karen Holliday Tanner (2002). Last of the old-time outlaws: the George West Musgrave story. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3424-0.
- "George West Musgrave". Retrieved June 26, 2012.
- "Old West Outlaws - D: Jack Dunlap (or Dunlop), aka: Three Fingered Jack (18??- 1900)". Retrieved June 26, 2012.
- Bill, O'Neal (1991). Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2335-4.
- Yadon, Laurence J.; Dan Anderson (2008). 200 Texas Outlaws and Lawmen 1835-1935. Pelican Publishing. ISBN 1-58980-514-3.