The Pleasant Valley War Comes to the White Mountains |
Bad guys from two of the world’s most famous outlaw battles, the Shootout at the O. K. Corral and the Pleasant Valley War, made it to the White Mountains where they met their fate at the hands of lawmen. The Pleasant Valley War raged near Young, Arizona, southwest of the White Mountains. That bitter conflict was later immortalized in Zane Grey’s To the Last Man.
It was the prototypical range war with Anglo cattlemen — the Graham and Blevins families — fighting Hispanic sheepherders — the Tewksburys. In the most famous passage from Grey’s book, the Graham/Blevins faction attacked the Tewksbury house, leaving John Tewksbury and a friend dead in the yard. As the gun battle blazed and hogs began to eat the bodies, Mrs. Tewksbury emerged with a shovel to bury them. The firing stopped until she returned to the house. That is the legend. The St. Johns Herald had a different version of the story. It said Mrs. Tewksbury found the bodies a half mile from the house and covered them with a blanket and wagon cover until an inquest could be held. While the Blevins faction dominated the early battles in the Tonto Basin, they did not fare well when they ventured above the Mogollon Rim into the White Mountains.
The impact of Pleasant Valley rustlers on the White Mountains was documented in the biography of William Flake. “By 1886, they were well organized, and were stealing hundreds of cattle and horses from our range. We knew they were being stolen, but could not find where they were being taken. We learned that the Blevins and Grahams had begun working together. Both had been stealing for a long time, and in fact it was largely the Grahams who had stolen Stinson’s [the pre-Mormon homesteader of Snowflake who had moved to Pleasant Valley] stock and driven him out of his range.
“They grew more bold; the Blevins family just moved into Canyon Creek, where a man named Adams had built a house, and had a small bunch of cattle. They stole nearly all of his stock and ordered him to leave or they would kill him. They were gun men, and he was not; there were six of them and he was alone, so he left the country.”
The Crooked Trail to Holbrook by Hanchett tells it differently. Andy Cooper, a half brother to the Blevins boys, found the Canyon Creek ranch unoccupied in 1886 and moved in. The owners, John and Will Adams, were in Utah on Mormon church business, but collected $200 from Cooper for the ranch on their return. The ranch was an ideal location for Cooper because it was just outside of Apache County, where he was a wanted man.
An advertisement in the St. Johns paper read: “Last February we lost Seven Hundred head of Merino Sheep, from a point near Pleasant Valley, in Tonto Basin, Arizona. Said sheep were STOLEN from the range, and supposed to have been driven toward ST. JOHNS, ARIZONA.” The victims offered a $1,500 reward for the arrest and conviction of the thieves and return of the sheep.
One of the most spectacular raids by the Blevins gang involved the theft of 75 horses from the Navajos, who sent 40 warriors into the Heber area to recover their stock. Race apparently trumped legality when Mormons hid a rustler from the Navajos. The Crooked Trail to Holbrook recounts a family story about one of the Blevins boys being chased down the trail by a band of Navajo. “He ran into their house asking to be hidden. James Shelley quickly covered him up with potatoes in the vegetable cellar and put his horse in the pasture with their other horses. Margaret Shelley handed out loaves of freshly baked bread with butter to the Indians as soon as they arrived at her home. When asked which way the rider had gone, she pointed down the trail.”
It wasn’t as if the Blevins-Graham faction were the bad guys and the Tewksburys wore white hats. The Crooked Trail details the theft of six mares and a stallion from the tiny community of Wilford. The horses were recovered by tracking them to the Tewksburys’ holdings below the Mogollon Rim. Hanchett also named James Tewksbury as a suspect in the robbery of the Mormon store in Woodruff.
In 1887, some of the best horses and cattle in Snowflake were stolen out of their barns. A posse tracked them to the Canyon Creek country, but lost them there. William Flake searched for 10 days before finding the horns and hide of one of his oxen along the trail. He gained the confidence of some local homesteaders, who named the rustlers and told him the horses had been taken to a stable in Phoenix. Flake rode hard for Phoenix and identified 35 stolen horses, which he recovered despite objections from the stable owner and difficulty with the local sheriff.
“On the way home across the trail, Father was riding out on the hills looking for more stolen stock, when he met three men,” the biography says. “He only knew one of them, Louie Parker, a nephew of the Grahams. They asked him what he was doing. He said, ‘I am looking for more of my horses that were stolen.’ Parker asked if he had found any more. He replied, ‘Yes, you are riding one of them.’ They laughed and asked, ‘Do you think you will take him?’ To this Father replied, ‘I guess not, you are all armed, and I am not, (looking at Parker) but we may meet again.’ ”
Z. B. Decker, who ran sheep on Decker Wash 16 miles west of Taylor, reported a run-in about that same time with the Blevins gang. Cooper had a spread called Longmore Ranch only one and a half miles west of Decker’s place. The Blevins gang told Decker to leave the area, but the sheep man responded by practicing with his gun.
“Upon returning to the ranch from a day on the range he found the ranch house burned to the ground,” wrote Jennings in Arizona Was the West. “With his rifle he started for the Longmore Ranch, feeling certain that the neighbors were trying to make good on their threat. Along the way he came upon Andy Cooper riding his mount. While greetings were exchanged, both were alert and tense. A squirrel ran up a tree and, without aim, Decker brought the little animal tumbling to the ground. With this action, Cooper moved on.”
The same no-aim killing of a distant squirrel was attributed to Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens. The Holbrook history claims the squirrel was shot “at a distance of about one mile.” Squirrels in the White Mountains must be glad modern-day lawmen have less to prove.
Decker continued to the Longmore Ranch and drew his rifle on two men who came to the door. “He asked if they were going to leave him alone or must he kill both of them now,” Jennings wrote. “They looked as if they were seeing a ghost. They had heard the earlier shot, and since Cooper had told them that morning that he was going to get Decker, they asked Z. B. if he had seen Cooper; the answer was that he had. They assumed that Cooper had become the victim of his own threat.”
The two members of the gang vowed to cause no more trouble.
In Elijah Was a Valiant Man, Palmer wrote about John Payne, another member of the Blevins gang abusing local Mormons. “In the course of a few months he had physically assaulted George Lewis, Spence Shumway and Emanuel Cardon. He had threatened to kill John Oscar Reidhead of Juniper if Reidhead would not leave his [Reidhead’s] land, and had evicted James Pearce from a homestead claim west of Taylor. In May he caught Niels Petersen several miles from home riding a partially broken and near unmanageable horse. Payne proceeded to savagely beat him with a loaded quirt [a whip with lead in the lash]. Because of the frightened and wildly thrashing horse Niels was unable to defend himself. He was also unarmed.” Petersen wanted to kill Payne, but Stake President Jesse N. Smith convinced him to let Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens take care of it. Payne, already arrested once by Owens, left for the Tonto Basin, where he soon became a casualty of the Pleasant Valley War.
About that time, the Apache Review reprinted an article from the Arizona Silver Belt in Globe, declaring the “Ranch of Tom Graham in Tonto Basin to be the rendezvous of thieves. Recently the Tonto post office has been robbed, the Watkins store burglarized and cattle and horses stolen from various points in the basin.”
Legendary White Mountain Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens was named for his father, Oliver H. Perry Owens, who in turn was named for the American hero Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry — the famous victor over the British on Lake Erie in the War of 1812. The unusual name added luster to the legend of the eccentric sheriff, whose wavy hair fell nearly to his waist in an out-of-date style worn by the Mountain Men of the previous generation. Owens, who came to the White Mountains as a cowboy, caught the attention of the county’s political elite when he was running the remount station at Navajo Springs. Although Navajo Springs was the first territorial capital, it had been so for only one day. By the mid-1880s it was just a stopping point for express riders passing along what would eventually become Interstate 40. The remote station was much harassed by Navajos, who felt entitled to the horses there. Owens’ aggressive action (some exaggerated reports said he killed as many as 50 Indians) led to charges of murder, but he was acquitted. The horse stealing dwindled as Owens gained a reputation with his rifle.
Owens shot down his adversaries without raising the Winchester to his shoulder to aim through the sights. He fired from the hip with deadly accuracy. For longer-range action, he used a Sharp’s rifle, carrying both guns in a single scabbard on his saddle.
Citizens suffering from rampant lawlessness drafted Owens to run for sheriff of Apache County, which then also included all of present-day Navajo County. The new sheriff was given a warrant to arrest Andy Cooper. Reports said the suspect was in Holbrook.
The St. Johns Stake history says Owens carried the Cooper warrant around without taking action for almost two months. “Some thought he was afraid of Cooper; some said he was waging a war of nerves; others maintained that they were old range pals and knowing that Cooper would resist arrest, Owens did not relish the prospect of a shoot-out between them.” Since the delay had spawned whispering, Owens knew the time for action had arrived.
It was known that the Blevins women had a house in Holbrook where their menfolk rested between skirmishes. On September 4, 1887, the sheriff rode into town to arrest Cooper.
Two days before, Cooper and other members of the gang had killed John Tewksbury and William Jacobs in the Tonto Basin. Holbrook-based Deputy Frank Wattron offered to go to the house with Owens, but the sheriff declined. “If I take a posse down there it is almost sure that several men will be killed, but if I go alone they can only kill one man,” the sheriff is quoted as saying.
Owens cleaned and oiled his Winchester and headed to the house.
“Before I got there, I saw someone looking out at the door,” Owens said in his report. “When I got close to the house, they shut the door. I stepped up on the porch, looked through the window and also looked in the room to my left. I see Cooper and his brother (John) and others in that room. I called to Cooper to come out. Cooper took out his pistol and also his brother took out his pistol. Then Cooper went from that room into the east room. His brother came to the door on my left, took the knob in his hand and held the door open a little. Cooper came to the door facing me from the east room. Cooper held this door partly open with his head out. I says, ‘Cooper, I want you.’ Cooper says, ‘What do you want with me?’ I told him the same warrant that I spoke to him about some time ago that I left in Taylor, for horse stealing. Cooper says, ‘Wait.’ I says, ‘Cooper, no wait.’ Cooper says, ‘I won’t go.’ I shot him. This brother of his to my left behind me jerked open the door and shot at me, missing me and shot the horse which was standing [be]side and little behind me. I whirled my gun and shot at him, and then ran out in the street where I could see all parts of the house. I could see Cooper through the window on his elbow with his head towards the window. He disappeared to the right of the window. I fired through the house expecting to hit him between the shoulders. I stopped a few moments. Some man (Mote Roberts) jumped out of the house on the northeast corner out of a door or window, I can’t say, with a six shooter in his right hand and his hat off. There was a wagon or buckboard between he and I. I jumped on one side of the wagon and fired at him. Did not see him any more. I stood there a few moments when there was a boy [Sam Blevins] jumped out of the front of the house with a six shooter in his hands. I shot him. I stayed for a few moments longer. I see no other man so I left the house. When passing by the house I see no one but somebody’s feet and legs sticking out the door. I then left and came on up town.”
The Apache County Critic, quoted in the James Madison Flake biography, gives a more detailed account of the killing of young Sam Blevins: “The sheriff had stood in his last position perhaps ten seconds, when Sam H. Blevins, (a youth of 15 or 16 years) rushed out, his mother after him, through the same door in which Andy Cooper was killed, with Cooper’s six-shooter in his hand. The boy and his mother were about four feet from the door; seeing the sheriff, she screamed, grabbed hold of her son and rushed for the door, but too late to save the life of the foolish boy, as Owens’ unerring rifle belched forth its fifth shot and the boy fell face down-wards at his mother’s feet, head and shoulders inside the door; the door through which he had stepped but a few moments before, but now a lifeless corpse ... .”
The fight lasted less than a minute, according to most accounts. Sam Blevins was killed instantly. Cooper died that night. Mote Roberts lived about 10 days, and John Blevins recovered. Unhurt in the house were Mary Blevins, the mother; John’s wife, Eva; two young girls and two babies.
The Critic gave this account of the aftermath: “Dead and wounded in every room, and blood over the floors, doors and walls. One little child, seven years of age, was literally bespattered with clots of human gore. The agonizing groans of the wounded, the death-rattle of the dying, mingled with the hysterical screams of the females made a sight that no one would care to see the second time.”
A coroner’s jury upheld Owens, saying he was discharging his duty when he killed the gang members.
Back in Pleasant Valley, gunmen killed Hamp Blevins, the father, and his other son, Charles, on September 22.
James Flake gave a slightly different account of the final battle in Pleasant Valley: “In October of the same year, I went into the Valley with Deputy Sheriff Joe McKinney following three men who had robbed a train near Navajo Springs. We met Sheriff Mulvernon from Prescott, John Francis from Flagstaff, and Glen Reynolds from Globe. We did not know they were coming in, but met Jim Houck on the trail and he took us to the camp. They had come to clean up the Valley. The next day, John Graham and Charley Blevins were killed. Tom Graham, Louie Parker and Adams, who were watching from the Block House, jumped on their horses and left the Valley. About 18 others were arrested.”
The St. Johns Herald reported that Bill Graham was stopped on the trail by Houck, who had been hiding in the bushes, waiting for one of Graham’s brothers. “Mr. Houck then discovered that it was Bill Graham, and told him to go on, that he did not want him. Instead of moving, however, he took a shot at Mr. Houck, which was returned by the latter with fatal effect. Graham succeeded in reaching his home, but died next day.” At least that was Houck’s account. Bill Graham had no opportunity to tell his side of the story.
The St. Johns Herald reported that the Blevins family had previous experience with the Texas prison system and added, “John Blevins, we believe, is the only one of six that is now alive, and he is at present confined in our county jail on a charge that will undoubtedly send him to the Territorial prison for quite a number of years. … Now four of them fill untimely graves, without coffins. … The father’s bones are, perhaps, bleaching in some wild and unfrequented spot, the flesh having been torn from them by wild animals, as his body has never been found. Verily, the way of the transgressor is hard.”
Even then, scores from the Pleasant Valley War were not entirely settled. One of the Tewksburys killed one of the Grahams in Phoenix five years later. Eventually, the case against the killer was dropped “at the suggestion of the Board of Supervisors,” according to a newspaper account. But law and order had won a major victory against cattle rustling on the western edge of the White Mountains.
John Blevins, wounded in the Holbrook shootout, was convicted for his role in the gunfight during a jury trial in St. Johns and sentenced to five years in prison. He was pardoned by the governor, according to The Crooked Trail. He later homesteaded a tract of land near Heber south of what is now Highway 260 where it crosses Phoenix Park Wash. He became an exemplary citizen and well-known fiddle player. This last survivor of the Pleasant Valley War died in 1929 in a one-car accident on the way to Tucson.
Owens became a local hero. The Apache Review doted on his pistols, saying, “Commodore Owens has two of the handsomest colts in the county.” Though he was worshipped for his Holbrook exploits, the cattlemen who had supported his election felt he was not doing enough to solve the rustler problem. They withdrew the bonds they had posted to guarantee his performance in office. Also, Owens had a great deal of trouble holding onto prisoners. In one case, Kid Swingle jumped off a train in New Mexico to escape him. In another incident, two prisoners sawed their way through the bars of the St. Johns jail. And on March 19, 1887, a Saturday night jail break created much excitement. All the prisoners fled, except Sol Barth, who refused to go. “Sheriff Owens says he was not away from the jail a great while, but when he returned, found the front door and the door leading into the hall both standing open,” the St. Johns Herald reported. “He hurried into the hall and was completely dumb-founded by finding the cell doors all standing wide open, and the occupants all ‘vamoosed the ranch.’ … That there were five doors unlocked — all having different locks and requiring different keys — to be unlocked in the dark and all done in the course of a very few minutes — shows, as well as proves, that they were unlocked by someone who had frequently locked and unlocked them before.”
The paper reported on the roundup of the escapees throughout the Southwest. John Brown was arrested in Socorro County, New Mexico. Red Murphy was captured in Cochise County, leaving George West at large.
Kid Swingle was found hanged after leaving Clifton with someone else’s horse, according to Rita Ackerman’s O. K. Corral Postscript.
Despite the recovery of most of the escapees, Owens did not run for re-election. He served as a guard on the railroad, and then, for a brief time, became sheriff and assessor of the newly created Navajo County. He had particular trouble with a red-headed robber-poet named W. R. McNeil. After the outlaw was wounded holding up the Schuster Brothers store in Holbrook, McNeil left this poem tacked to a tree for the pursuing sheriff:
I am king of the outlaws
I am perfection at robbing a store
I have a stake left me by Wells Fargo
And before long, I will have more.
They are my kind friends, the Schusters,
For whom I carry so much lead
In the future to kill this young rooster
They will have to aim at his head.
Commodore Owens says he would like to kill me
To me that sounds like chaff
‘Tis strange he would thus try to kill me
The red headed son-of-a-gun.
He handles the six shooter mighty neat
And kills a jack-rabbit every pop
But should he and I happen to meet
There will be a regular old Arkansas hop.
Owens continued to chase him. Once, according to History of Holbrook, Owens came upon a group of friendly cowboys while searching late into the evening for McNeil near the New Mexico line. The sheriff spent the night with the group, but woke up all alone with only this poem for company.
Pardon me, sheriff
I’m in a hurry;
You’ll never catch me,
But don’t worry.
The outlaw poet had a successful career until overconfidence led him to try to single-handedly rob a train in Utah. He was wounded in the leg by the conductor and sent to prison, where he studied engineering. Legend says he later sought out his former victims and even made restitution.
Owens soon drifted on to Seligman where he married 23-year-old Elizabeth Barrett when he was nearly 50. In a report published in the Holbrook history, J. H. McClintock said he saw Owens “in Seligman only a few months before he died [in 1919 at age 66]. He seemed a fish out of water, and I think his decease mainly was due to the fact that he didn’t have a saloon to loaf in.”
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