Cochise County Cowboys

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This article is about a group of outlaws in Cochise County, Arizona Territory. For the 1972 film, see The Cowboys. For cattle herder, see Cowboy.
"Cochise County Conflict" redirects here.
Outlaw Cowboy Ike Clanton

The Cochise County Cowboys were a loosely associated group of outlaw cowboys in Pima and Cochise County, Arizona Territory in the late 19th century. The term "cowboy" had only begun to come into wider usage during the 1870s, and in the place and time, "Cowboy" was synonymous with " rustler."[1] The cattle thieves frequently rode across the international border into Mexico and stole cattle from Mexican ranches, which they drove back across the border and sold in the United States.

The Mexican government lowered tariffs and added forts along the border, and cross-border rustling and smuggling became less attractive. The Cowboys then began to steal cattle and horses from neighboring American ranches, reselling them to unscrupulous butchers. They also held up stagecoaches, stealing the strongboxes and strong-arming passengers for their valuables. In some instances, they killed drivers and passengers.

Modern media, such as the film Tombstone, have repeatedly and mistakenly depicted the Cowboys as a formally organized gang. But the roughly 200–300 Cowboys were in fact a loosely organized band of friends and associates who teamed up for various crimes and came to each other's aid. Their notoriety today is due to the death of three of their associates in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, where they were opposed by Virgil Earp and his brothers, Wyatt Earp and Morgan Earp, along with Doc Holliday.

Origins and background[edit]

Tombstone in 1881. The town had a population of about 4,000 with 600 dwellings and two church buildings.
For information on Cowboy vs. town interests, see Cochise County in the Old West.

Tombstone, Arizona was one of the last frontier towns in the American Old West. Outlaws from all parts of the Western territories felt the pressures of encroaching civilization and the increased presence of lawmen and the courts, backed up by growing populations of farmers and citizens desiring law and order. The town had boomed in less than 18 months from about 100 miners living in tents and shacks to more than 7,000 people by December 1, 1879, when Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp arrived in Tombstone.[2]

Virgil Earp had been appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County in Prescott and directed to relocate to Tombstone to concentrate on suppressing the Cowboys' illegal activities. He arrived with his brothers Wyatt and Morgan.[3] He appointed Morgan as an undersheriff, and Wyatt looked for business opportunities. When those didn't work out, Wyatt Earp started riding shotgun for Wells, Fargo & Co., guarding their silver bullion shipments. He was appointed as an assistant Pima County sheriff for a period, and Virgil Earp was hired as Tombstone's city marshal in the middle of 1881.[3]:54[4]

Cowboys as outlaws[edit]

The word "cowboy" did not begin to come into wider usage until the 1870s. The men who drove cattle for a living were usually called cowhands, drovers, or stockmen.[5] While cowhands were still respected in West Texas,[6] in Cochise County the outlaws' crimes and their reputation grew such that during the 1880s, it was an insult to call a legitimate cattleman a "Cowboy." Tombstone resident George Parsons wrote in his diary, "A Cowboy is a rustler at times, and a rustler is a synonym for desperadobandit, outlaw, and horse thief." The San Francisco Examiner wrote in an editorial, "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country ... infinitely worse than the ordinary robber."[7] Legal cowmen were usually landowners and generally called herders or ranchers.[8]

The term cow-boy, once applied to all those in the cattle business indiscriminately, while still including some honest persons, has been narrowed down to be chiefly a term of reproach for a class of stealers of cattle, over the Mexican frontier, and elsewhere, who are a terror in their day and generation."[9] There were said to be strongholds in the San Simon Valley where the bandits concealed stolen cattle until re-branded and sent to market, and where no officer of the law dared to venture. They looked upon rustling cattle from Mexico only as a more dashing form of smuggling, though it was marked by frequent bloody conflicts on both sides.[10]

On September 16, 1991, thirty days before the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Tombstone Epitaph wrote about the "Cow-boy Nuisance" in Arizona:

It has come to pass in this county that life and personal property are unsafe; even in the town of Tombstone it seems as if one of the leading industries is to be destroyed. There is not a teamster to-day who is not in fear and dread of the cow-boys, or so-styled "rustlers" depriving him of his hard earnings... How must such men feel to be robbed by a hand of thieves and cutthroats, who take pride in announcing to the public that they are "rustlers!" Where is the teamsters protection? Can you find any officers who will follow, arrest and recover your property? If you can, I would like to see him... These chaps seem to have no difficulty in evading the law, while others, not inclined to work, daily join the band and they are increasing fast in numbers. Our town is filled with spies watching every move of the officers and imparting their information to their comrades... Men who come to examine different mines outside of town, when they learn how the cow-boys stand fellows up, do not wish to run such risks; they quietly take the road they came and get into civilization as soon as possible.

The notoriety and power of the Cowboys spread from coast to coast. Well-known members of the group included Phin, Billy, and Ike Clanton; Tom and Frank McLaury; William "Curly Bill" Brocius; "Buckskin Frank" Leslie; Johnny Ringo; and Pony Diehl. Virgil Earp thought that some of the Cowboys had met at Charleston, Arizona, and taken "an oath over blood drawn from the arm of Johnny Ringo, the leader, that they would kill us.'[11] Three Cowboys were killed by lawmen in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881.[5]:194 Others were later accused of trying to kill Virgil Earp and of assassinating Morgan Earp. Wyatt Earp's posse killed four more Cowboys when they ran down those identified as taking part in the attacks on his brothers.

Virgil Earp told the Arizona Daily Star on May 30, 1882, that:

They know that Arizona is about the only place left for them to operate in as an organization. With a complete breaking up of their company threatened in event of losing their hold where they are now, they resist official interference with the greatest desperation."[12]

He estimated that the Cowboys numbered nearly 200, and that during his time in Cochise Territory about 50 had been killed.[13] A modern estimate put the number of Cowboys at about 300.[14]

Business owners vs. The Cowboys[edit]

Many of the ranchers and Cowboys who lived in the countryside were resentful of the growing power of the industrialists from the Northern states, who increasingly influenced local politics and law in the county. The ranchers largely maintained control of the country around Tombstone, due in large part to the sympathetic support of Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, who favored the Cowboys and rural ranchers.[15] He grew to intensely dislike the Earps. Behan tended to ignore the Earps' complaints about the McLaurys' and Clantons' horse thieving and cattle rustling. As officers of the law, the Earps were known to bend the law in their favor when it affected their gambling and saloon interests, which earned them further enmity from the Cowboy faction.[16]

Political and regional conflicts[edit]

Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan.

Under the surface were other tensions aggravating the simmering distrust. Most of the Cowboys, including the Clantons and McLaurys, were Democrats and Confederate sympathizers from Southern states, especially Texas. They considered the business owners and the lawmen, especially the Earps, to be Northern Republican carpetbaggers. The Republican Earps were politically oriented as well. They also disagreed fundamentally about the use of resources and land. Northern-style capitalism was contrasted against the traditional, Southern-style, "small government" agrarianism of the rural bandit Cowboys.[17]

Economic conflicts[edit]

According to Virgil Earp, the Cowboys were saddlers, men who lived in the saddle. Their primary occupation was raiding haciendas in Sonora, Mexico for cattle. They sold the cattle in Tombstone to cooperative butchers. When they couldn't find cattle to steal, they robbed stages and engaged "in similar enterprises". He said that as soon as they had money to spend, they roared into Tombstone to spend it freely in the saloons, dance houses, and "faro banks".

The Cowboys' generous spending habits earned them friends among the business men in town, who welcomed them. There the Cowboys freely expressed their opinions publicly, loudly, and with little opposition. When the Cowboys broke the law, the business men feared to alienate their customers and hesitated to support the lawmen when they confronted cattle thieves or stage robbers.[13] Virgil said, a lawman "doing his duty must rely almost entirely upon his own conscience for encouragement. The sympathy of the respectable portion of the community may be with him but it is not openly expressed."[13]

Known criminal associates[edit]

Tombstone sheriff and constituents, an illustration from Mexico, California and Arizona; Being a New and Revised Edition of Old Mexico and Her Lost Provinces

The lines were not always distinct between the outlaw element and law enforcement. Doc Holliday had a reputation as a killer. He was friends with Bill Leonard, who was implicated in a stagecoach robbery. On March 15, 1881, three Cowboys tried to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying US$26,000 in silver bullion (about $637,538 in today's dollars) near Drew's Station, just outside of Contention City. It was en route from Tombstone to Benson, Arizona, the nearest rail terminal.[18]:180 The Cowboys were later identified as Bill Leonard, Harry "The Kid" Head, and Jim Crane, assisted by Luther King.

Brothers Frank and Tom McLaury had a ranch outside of Tombstone, which they may have used to receive and sell stolen Mexican cattle. When six U.S. Army mules were stolen from Camp Rucker, Wyatt Earp assisted the U.S. Army in a search. They found the animals on the McLaurys' Ranch on the Babacomari River. They also found the branding iron used to change the "US" brand to "D8".[5]:288 Cowboy Frank Patterson and other Cowboys promised to return the mules, but showed up two days later without the animals and laughed at the lawmen.

Pony Diehl was mentioned in the records of the events leading up to and after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He was suspected of being involved in numerous robberies and cattle rustling, and was suspected of being involved in the theft of US Army mules, alongside Sherman McMaster.[19]

The Clanton family, led by Newman Haynes Clanton, had a ranch in a valley outside Tombstone that was likely used as a point for selling stolen Mexican beef. He was assisted by his sons Ike, Billy, and Phin Clanton. Old Man Clanton was involved in the robbery, murder, and torture of a number of Mexican smugglers in the 1879 Skeleton Canyon Massacre, who were ambushed on their way to Tucson. He was killed on August 13, 1881 by Mexican soldiers in a retaliatory raid along the Mexican border at Guadalupe Canyon. Ike Clanton repeatedly threatened the Earps and Doc Holiday in the days leading up to the shoot-out on October 26 at the OK Corral. Unarmed, he ran from the gunfight.

Cowboys and the law[edit]

Frank Stilwell had previously been accused and acquitted of two murders. He was named a deputy county sheriff by Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan beginning in April, 1881. He was dismissed four months later for "accounting irregularities" relating to the collection of taxes.[20] Law enforcement officers who came into conflict with the Cowboys included Fred White, killed by Curly Bill Brocius in what was ruled an accidental shooting. Virgil Earp was at times both U.S. Deputy Marshal for the Southeast Arizona Territory and Tombstone City Marshal. Wyatt Earp had been the Pima County deputy sheriff from August to November 1880.

On June 28, 1881, Virgil was appointed by Tombstone Mayor John Clum as the permanent Tombstone City Marshal and was paid $150.00 per month.[21] He was to enforce all town ordinances, including the city's ban against carrying a deadly weapon. John J. Gosper, Secretary of State for the Arizona Territory and acting governor due to John C. Frémont's virtual abandonment of his post, interviewed both Sheriff Behan and Deputy U.S. Marshal (and Town Marshal) Virgil Earp.[22]

Gosper interviewed Behan, who blamed Earp for not bringing the Cowboys under control, and Virgil Earp, who similarly blamed Behan. Gosper expressed his dismay with both lawmen to Washington, D.C. in a report in September 1881:

Weapon ordinance[edit]

To counter the ongoing problems with weapons in Tombstone, the biggest city and county seat, its city council passed an ordinance on April 19, 1881, that prohibited anyone from carrying a deadly weapon in town. It required everyone to deposit weapons at a livery or saloon soon after entering town. As City Marshal, Virgil Earp was charged with enforcing this ordinance.[23]

Ordinance No. 9
"To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons" (effective April 19, 1881).
Section 1: "It is hereby declared to be unlawful for any person to carry deadly weapons, concealed or otherwise [except the same be carried openly in sight, and in the hand] within the limits of the City of Tombstone.
Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.
Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance."

After the gunfight on October 26, 1881 in which three Cowboys died, the Earps and Holliday had to defend themselves against murder charges filed by Ike Clanton. The defendants cited the weapons ordinance during the preliminary hearing held by Justice Wells Spicer.[24] In his ruling exonerating the lawmen of murder, Judge Spicer he described Frank McLaury's insistence that he would not give up his weapons unless the marshal and his deputies also gave up their arms as a "proposition both monstrous and startling!"[25]

Earp and the Cowboys conflict[edit]

Virgil Earp had been appointed the Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County on November 27, 1880, before he arrived in Tombstone. Wyatt was appointed assistant sheriff for Pima County from July 27 to November 9, 1880. After town marshal Fred White was killed on October 30, 1880, Virgil was appointed to replace him, gaining the position permanently in June 2, 1881. Virgil hired his brother Morgan as a deputy town marshal, and occasionally called on Wyatt for assistance.[3]:113–114

The Earps had repeated conflicts with some of the Cowboys, particularly Ike Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury. This tension eventually resulted on October 26, 1881, in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Frank, Tom, and Billy Clanton were killed during that shootout.

Most historians have considered the McLaurys and the Clantons to be outlaw Cowboys.[7] Billy Claiborne fled the Tombstone gunfight and later claimed he was unarmed. Frank McLaury was known as a good shot. Ike Clanton was not well-liked because of his drunkenness, while his brother Billy was considered level-headed and hard-working.[26]:185 Some townspeople were particularly fond of young Tom McLaury.[26]:185 Billy Clanton and the McLaurys were landowners and commanded some respect in town.[26]:185 The men were so popular that the Nuggett said after the gunfight that the Cowboys' funeral "was the largest ever witnessed in Tombstone."[26]:185

Earp vendetta[edit]

Main article: Earp Vendetta Ride
Wyatt Earp first sought the Cowboys who ambushed Virgil Earp in Charleston, Cochise County, seen here in 1885.

On December 28, Virgil Earp was ambushed on the streets of Tombstone by hidden assailants shooting from the second story of an unfinished building. The doctor removed 5.5 inches (140 mm) of humerus bone and he lost the use of his left arm. The main suspects were Ike and Phin Clanton, and Pony Diehl. Wyatt was appointed as Deputy U.S. Marshal to replace Virgil; in turn, he deputized Sherman McMaster, "Turkey Creek" Jack Johnson, Origen Charles, Smith and Daniel "Tip" Tipton. On January 23, 1882, Wyatt Earp obtained arrest warrants for Ike and Phin Clanton and Pony Diehl, and led his posse after them. The lawmen searched in Charleston but were unsuccessful.[27] Ike's hat had been found at the scene of Virgil's shooting, but on February 2, 1882, seven fellow Cowboys provided him with an alibi, saying that he was in Charleston at the time. Charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.[27] Due to insufficient evidence, the Cowboys were not prosecuted for the attack.

On Saturday, March 18, 1882, at 10:50 pm, Morgan Earp was killed by a shot in the back while playing billiards. Pete Spence, Frederick Bode, Frank Stilwell, "Indian Charlie" Cruz, and one other individual were charged as suspects. The judge could not indict them because the primary witness was Spence's wife, and there is a law against a spouse having to testify against a spouse. The Cowboys went free.[27][28]

Wyatt, Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, and a posse of deputies including Cowboys "Turkey Creek" Jack Johnson and Sherman McMaster guarded Virgil on his way to the train station in Tucson. McMaster had been a Texas Ranger in 1878–79, during which his unit captured and held Curly Bill Brocius as prisoner for five months. He was also accused of stealing U.S. Army mules and a robbing a stage with outlaw Pony Diehl. They found Frank Stilwell lying in wait and killed him. A second person, possibly Ike Clanton, was also seen but escaped. When Pima County issued warrants for the Earps' arrest in the murder of Frank Stilwell in the Tucson railyards, Sheriff Behan deputized Johnny Ringo, Pete Spence, Johnny Barnes and about 17 other Cowboys to pursue and arrest the Earps. They were unsuccessful.[27]

Bat Masterson and Luke Short were faro dealers for Wyatt for a while at the Oriental Saloon, but both left in April 1881. Lou Rickabaugh, the owner of the Oriental Saloon, was also from Dodge City. Other known Cowboys included Billy Claiborne, Curly Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo, Frank Patterson, Milt Hicks, Bill Hicks, Bill Johnson, Ed Lyle, and Johnny Lyle. In February 1882, Diehl was running from the law, as a warrant was issued for his arrest relating to a January 1882 stagecoach robbery. He eventually was arrested for numerous crimes, including cattle rustling and robbery, and was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison at Santa Fe, New Mexico. He escaped in February 1885, but was recaptured after four days. He was returned to prison and not released until March 1887, where his name disappeared from public records, though there are some accounts he died in a gunfight.[29][30]:181


With the deaths of several Cowboy leaders and the departure of the Earp family, the dominance of the outlaw Cowboys waned. Arizona Territory Governor Frederick Tritle visited Tombstone on April 3, 1882, and put a posse of 30 men under the command of Deputy U.S. Marshal J.H. Jackson. Because Arizona was still a territory, Congress approved all of its expenditures. Tritle telegraphed President Chester A. Arthur and asked or an appropriation of $150,000 from Congress to pay for the costs of rooting out the unlawful elements. He also asked for the power to suspend local officials for six months.[31] The U.S. Congress was unwilling to allocate the funds needed to form such a group. Unable to create a group of rangers, Tritle instead called for the formation of volunteer militia to pursue hostile groups of Apache.[32]: 195

To combat the depredations of the outlaw Cowboys, General William T. Sherman, following a tour of Arizona's eastern and southern counties, recommended suspension of the Posse Comitatus Act to allow the U.S. Army to aid in restoring order. Based upon the recommendations of Sherman and Tritle, and following consultation with members of the U.S. Senate, President Arthur issued a May 3, 1882 decree threatening to use military force if the criminal element did not disperse.[32]:198 Use of the U.S. Army to enforce the law was not necessary as the outlaw Cowboy problem diminished over the next few months.[32]:200


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