The early days of Gila County it earned the distinction of being among the West’s most violent counties. The many shootings in and around Payson contributed to that dubious distinction.
In his book Homicide, Race and Justice In The American West, 1880-1920, (University of Arizona Press), Clare B. McKanna Jr. studied three western counties: Gila in Arizona, Douglas in Nebraska, and Los Animas in Colorado. He found that the Wild West was in fact wilder than imagined. Here was a volatile mix of men, guns and alcohol, which produced an endless line of murders. Most men carried handguns, often concealed. Some towns had one saloon for every 50 residents. 96 percent of the killers were men; one in five victims were women.
Communities controlled by northern European whites seemed to tolerate violence, and juries did not have high conviction rates. Apache defendants however had little chance of a fair trial. In the 1880s Gila County reached killing levels of 70 per 100,000 citizens, approximately the murder rate in today’s Washington, D.C.
The wild character of the land was in part to blame. In this regard a geography lesson is necessary. On a state map Gila County looks like Arizona’s stepchild, wedged into the center and almost lost from view in the family portrait of counties. Its odd shape is bounded on the north by the Mogollon Rim, on the west by the Verde River and Mazatzal Mountain range, spilling eastward onto the Fort Apache and San Carlos Indian Reservations, and climbing the Pinal Mountains on the south to funnel down at Hayden and the Gila River. Rugged mountains and rivers to cross were the natural barriers that kept Arizona’s earliest settlers from entering these boundaries.
Even more forbidding than the geography were the fierce Western Apaches who considered the country their sanctuary long after the white invaders made Arizona a territory. The wild canyons and mountain forests were home to the Tonto, Pinal, White Mountain, and San Carlos tribes. This was their fortress, their hunting and gathering territory, and the traditional home of their ancestors.
In 1864, when Arizona was separated from New Mexico as a territory of its own, there were four original counties, all named for local Indian tribes. They were Pima in the south, Yavapai in the north, Yuma in the southwest and Mohave in the northwest. As the centers of population grew people insisted on local government and the Territorial Legislature carved out other counties. By 1879 there were three more, Maricopa (seated in Phoenix, which included Globe), Pinal (Florence), and Apache (St. John). Payson continued to be in Yavapai County, with its seat in Prescott.
Globe City had become one of the political power centers with its extensive mining investments, and in 1881 the Legislature formed Gila County from parts of Apache, Maricopa, and Pinal Counties. Yavapai continued to include Payson, Pleasant Valley, Tonto Basin, Pine and Strawberry.
The movers and shakers recognized the tax value of the growing cattle industry in the Rim Country, especially since the rich veins of silver and gold around Globe were rapidly depleting. Furthermore, many Rim Country settlers had lived in Globe before coming to Payson, and local folk found it closer to go to Globe for business and supplies than to go over the many natural barriers between Payson and Prescott.
In Payson there was an influential lawyer named John W. Wentworth, who found it increasingly hard to make the long trip to Prescott every time he needed to prosecute or defend a case and carry out other legal affairs.
Wentworth had come to Payson from Globe. There he had engaged in mining and local politics, and had been elected Globe’s first Justice of the Peace in 1884. Now in Payson, it was natural for him to align with those who pressed to have the Rim Country included in Gila County.
When the 15th Territorial Legislature was convened in Prescott, Jan. 21, 1889, a major bill was introduced to move the capital from Prescott to Phoenix. Vicious opposition was voiced from Yavapai and the northern counties, but Wentworth and the Globe politicians successfully traded their votes in favor of the move in exchange for a bill to annex the Rim Country to Gila County. House Bill #1, to move the capital, passed both houses and the legislators moved bodily to Phoenix before any further business was transacted. Once settled in the new community building in Phoenix, the Gila County expansion bill was tacked on to a bill empowering boards and supervisors to survey and define their county lines.
Gila County agreed to pay Yavapai County $11,000 on a five-year installment plan for the 1,500 square mile area. By June 29, 1889 the survey was done and the respective boards of supervisors had given it their seal.
The new area was designated the Payson Precinct and William Burch (one of Payson’s earliest settlers) was appointed Justice of the Peace. Merchant E. J. Bonacker was named Payson’s constable.
The first Gila County Courthouse was built on the corner of Oak and Broad Streets in Globe in 1881. It was a one story, rough surfaced block building with a basement that enclosed “one of the best jails in Arizona,” according to the Silver Belt newspaper Nov. 14, 1906. However, when the business of the county required a larger courthouse, the first one made way for the second, a more massive, three-story stone structure built in 1906-1907. Today that classic old courthouse in Globe is on the National Register of Historic Places, and serves as an art gallery for the Cobre Valley Art Guild. In 1976 the country complex was moved to modern facilities.
However, from the beginning the people in Payson and the northern part of the county continued to feel isolated from the seat of government. Almost equally distant from Prescott, Globe, Flagstaff and Mesa, Paysonites still found a trip to Globe encountered the least natural barriers. Even so, trips to the county seat were few and far between, and in many ways citizens liked the isolation. It made the beauty and forests, mountains and wilderness areas that surrounded Payson all the more attractive.
One of Gila County’s features is that 93 percent of the land is public domain. That is, National Forest, Indian Reservations, State and Federal owned land and reclamation projects. The 7 percent of Gila County that is privately owned provides little tax base, and the county has always struggled financially.
Neither did the establishment of the Payson Precinct help curb violence in the Rim Country. The killings continued, not by famous outlaws like Billy the Kid, but by folks obscure to the outside world.
The Pleasant Valley War began to rage in the Rim Country in 1887 and its sporadic outbreaks continued until the end of the century. Apaches killed the Meadows men in 1882. Knox Lee shot Andres Moreno in the back of the head in cold blood in 1887, just over the Rim above Strawberry. Cattlemen murdered sheepherder Al Fulton near Woods Canyon Lake in 1888. John Booth murdered young Billy Berry and his fellow sheepherder Juan Vigil in 1903; Bill Colcord shot and killed Jack Lane in front of the 16-to-1 Saloon on Payson’s Main Street in 1910. In 1885 Glenn Reynolds came to the Rim Country with cattleman Jesse Ellison, bringing experience in law enforcement from Texas. He had hoped to curb Gila County’s violence and was elected sheriff. However, on Nov. 2, 1889, his Apache prisoners, among them the Apache Kid, killed him while escorting them by stage to the Yuma Territorial Prison.
As we continue to explore the stories of Payson’s history we will encounter more fascinating events, both violent and peaceful, that arose out of the isolation of this unique wild-west town in Northern Gila County.