The Cowboys (Cochise County)
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The Cowboys were a loosely associated group of outlaw cowboys in Pima and Cochise County, Arizona Territory in the late 19th century. They included cattle rustlers and robbers who rode across the border into Mexico and rounded up cattle that they then sold in the United States. When the Mexican government lowered tariffs and added forts along the border, cross-border rustling and smuggling became less attractive, they continued to steal livestock and horses from neighboring ranches. 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 depicted The Cowboys as a formally organized gang. The roughly 200–300 Cowboys were in fact a loosely organized band of friends and acquaintances who teamed up for various crimes and came to each other's aid. Their notoriety today stems from the death of three of their associates at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, where they were opposed by the Earp family of lawmen, along with Doc Holliday.
Origins and background
Tombstone was one of the last frontier towns in the American Old West. Outlaws from all parts of the Western territories were crowded by growing populations of farmers and citizens desiring law and order. When Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp arrived in Tombstone on December 1, 1879, the town had already exploded in less than 18 months from about 100 miners living in tents and shacks to more than 7000 at the end of 1879. Virgil had been appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County in Prescott, Arizona. U.S. Marshal Dake directed him to relocate to Tombstone so that he could focus his efforts on the Cowboys' illegal activities. Virgil arrived in Tombstone with his brothers Wyatt and Morgan. He appointed Morgan as an undersheriff while Wyatt went to work looking for business opportunities. When those didn't work out for him later on, he took a temporary job riding shotgun for Wells, Fargo & Co., guarding their silver bullion shipments. Wyatt was an assistant Pima County sheriff for a period, and Virgil became Tombstone's city marshal in the middle of 1881.
Cowboys as outlaws
The outlaws' crimes and their reputation grew such that during the 1880s in Cochise County 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 desperado—bandit, 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." Legal cowmen were usually landowners and generally called herders or ranchers.
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." There were said to be strongholds in the San Simon Valley where they concealed stolen cattle until re-branded and sent to market, and where no officer of the law ever dared to venture. They looked upon the running off of stock from Mexico, as far as that was concerned, only as a more dashing form of smuggling, though it was marked by frequent bloody tragedies on both sides.
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 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."
Harper's magazine announced in March 1883:
It has attained a certain fame already for the doings of its "Cow-boys." The term cow-boys was at first applied to persons engaged in the cattle business indiscriminately, but while still including the honest sort, has been narrowed down so as to mean particularly a class who have become stealers of cattle, at first over the Mexican frontier, then at home, and terrorists generally in their day and generation.
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.' Three Cowboys died in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and others were accused afterward of attempting to kill Virgil Earp and of assassinating Morgan Earp. Four more Cowboys were killed by Wyatt Earp's posse when they ran down those who had been identified as participants in the attacks.
In May 1882, Virgil Earp estimated that the Cowboys numbered nearly 200, and that during his time in Cochise Territory about 50 had been killed. A modern estimate put the number of Cowboys at about 300.
Business owners vs. Cowboys
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 and who 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 with the Cowboy faction.
Political and regional conflicts
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, who saw the business owners and the lawmen, especially the Earps, as Northern Republican carpetbaggers. The Republican Earps were politically oriented as well. There was also the fundamental conflict over resources and land; of Northern-style capitalism contrasted against the traditional, Southern-style, "small government" agrarianism of the rural Cowboys.
According to Virgil Earp, the Cowboys were saddlers, men who lived in the saddle. Their primary occupation was raiding haciendas in Sonora, Mexico. They then 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. In town, the Cowboys freely expressed their opinion publicly, loudly, and with little opposition. When the Cowboys broke the law, the business men were fearful of alienating their customers and hesitated to support the lawmen when they confronted the cattle thieves or stage robbers. 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."
Known criminal associates
The lines between the outlaw element and law enforcement were not always distinct. Doc Holliday had a reputation as a killer, though modern research has only identified three individuals he shot. He was also friends with Bill Leonard, who was implicated in a stagecoach robbery. On March 15, 1881, three cowboys attempted to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying US$26,000 in silver bullion (about $635,386 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.:180 The Cowboys were later identified as Bill Leonard, Harry "The Kid" Head, and Jim Crane, assisted by Luther King.
Frank and Tom McLaury had a ranch outside of Tombstone that they may have used to receive and re-sell stolen Mexican cattle. When six U.S. Army mules were stolen from Camp Rucker, Wyatt assisted the U.S. Army and 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". 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.
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 son Ike, Billy, and Phin Clanton. Old Man Clanton was involved in the robbery, murder and torture of a number of Mexican smugglers on their way to Tucson in the Skeleton Canyon Massacre. He was killed 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. Unarmed, he ran from the gunfight.
Cowboys and the law
Frank Stilwell, who had previously been accused of and acquitted of two murders, 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. Law enforcement officers that 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 Marshall for the Southeast Arizona Territory and Tombstone City Marshall. 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 awarded the salary of $150.00 per month. He bore the responsibility for enforcing all town ordinances, including the city's ban on 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. Behan blamed Earp for not bringing the Cowboys under control. Gosper reported to Washington D.C. in September, 1881 that the Cowboys were out of control.
|“||The cowboy element at times very fully predominates, and the officers of the law are either unable or unwilling to control this class of outlaws, sometimes being governed by fear, at other times by a hope of reward. At Tombstone, the county seat of Cochise County, I conferred with the Sheriff upon the subject of breaking up these bands of outlaws, and I am sorry to say he gave me but little hope of being able in his department to cope with the power of the cowboys. He represented to me that the Deputy U.S. Marshal, resident of Tombstone, and the city Marshal for the same, seemed unwilling to heartily cooperate with him in capturing and bringing to justice these outlaws.
In conversation with the Deputy US Marshal, Mr. Earp, I found precisely the same spirit of complaint existing against Mr. Behan (the Sheriff) and his deputies. Many of the very best law-abiding and peace-loving citizens have no confidence in the willingness of the civil officers to pursue and bring to justice that element of outlawry so largely disturbing the sense of security, and so often committing highway robbery and smaller thefts. The opinion in Tombstone and elsewhere in that part of the Territory is quite prevalent that the civil officers are quite largely in league with the leaders of this disturbing and dangerous element.
Something must be done, and that right early, or very grave results will follow. It is an open disgrace to American liberty and the peace and security of her citizens, that such a state of affairs should exist.
The lawmen's duty was to stop the outlaws and given the opposition of the Cowboys it became a question of which side was going to drive the other out of the country first or kill them there.
To counter the ongoing problems with weapons in Tombstone, the biggest city and county seat, Tombstone's city council passed an ordinance on April 19, 1881, that prohibited anyone from carrying a deadly weapon in town and required everyone to deposit their weapons at a livery or saloon soon after entering town. As City Marshal, Virgil Earp was charged with enforcing this ordinance.
- 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 ordinances were cited by the defendants during the preliminary hearing held by Justice Wells Spicer. In his ruling exonerating the lawmen of murder, 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!"
Earp and Cowboy conflict
Virgil Earp was 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. When town marshal Fred White was killed on October 30, 1880, Virgil was appointed to replace him until an election was held 12 days later, and he got the job permanently on June 2, 1881. Virgil hired his brother Morgan as a deputy town marshal, and occasionally called on Wyatt for assistance.
The Earps had repeated conflicts with Ike Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury that eventually resulted on October 26, 1881, in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Frank, Tom, and Billy Clanton were killed during that shootout.
The McLaurys and the Clantons are considered by most historians to be outlaw Cowboys. 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.:185 Some townspeople were particularly fond of young Tom McLaury.:185 Billy Clanton and the McLaurys were landowners and commanded some respect in town.:185 The men were so popular that the Nuggett said after the gunfight that the Cowboys' funeral "was the largest ever witnessed in Tombstone.":185
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 Clanton, Phin Clanton, and Pony Diehl. Wyatt was made Deputy U.S. Marshal to replace Virgil and he deputized Sherman McMaster, "Turkey Creek" Jack Johnson, Origen Charles Smith and Daniel "Tip" Tipton. On January 23, 1882, Wyatt Earp led his posse and obtained arrest warrants for Ike and Phin Clanton and Pony Diehl. They searched for them in Charleston but were unsuccessful. 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, and the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. With insufficient evidence, the Cowboys were not prosecuted.
On Saturday, March 18, 1882, Morgan Earp was killed by a shot in the back while playing billiards at 10:50 pm. Pete Spence, Frederick Bode, Frank Stilwell, "Indian Charlie" Cruz, and one other individual were named as suspects. The judge could not indict them because the primary witness was Spence's wife. Once again the Cowboys went free.
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 prisoner for five months. He was also accused of stealing U.S. Army mule 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.
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 again running from the law, when a warrant was issued for his arrest relating to a January 1882 stagecoach robbery. He eventually was arrested for numerous crimes, to include cattle rustling and robbery, and sentenced to five years in prison at Santa Fe, New Mexico. He escaped in February, 1885, but was only out for only four days before he was recaptured. He was returned to prison and was finally released in March, 1887. He died within the year.
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