The Wild West In The Rim Country

Chapter 1: A culture of violence


A recent article in The Arizona Republic opened with these words, “When the Colt Single Action Army revolver officially became Arizona’s state gun … it was more than just a symbolic nod to the past.”[1] The article continued, affirming that firearms are part of Arizona’s politics and economy as well as its legend and lore.

This seems like a fitting introduction to a series of stories about violence in the Rim Country. The final 20 years of the 19th century were decades of violence, and during that time Gila County had the second highest homicide rate in western America. There was “the presence of a regional culture of violence … in Gila County, Arizona.”[2]

Several factors contributed to this culture of violence. The sparse, far-flung population made law enforcement slow and difficult. Bandits and robbers felt these areas had opportunities that more populated settlements did not offer. At times, to speed up the process of “justice,” mobs of citizens would take the law into their own hands and lynch offenders.

Secondly, there was the inevitable clash between settlers and the Native Americans. The Apache tribes had been in full control of these central mountains for several hundred years, and a war with the Apaches broke out when European Americans discovered how desirable the area was for ranching and mining. In the 1860s the U. S. Army began an invasion of the Rim Country to pave the way for settlement. One rancher, King S. Woolsey led a citizen militia into the area and scouted out Apaches all the way from Prescott and the Verde Valley to the headwaters of the Gila River. Although they stumbled on to many native camps, they did not catch a single Indian, their march being quite evident to the Tontos.

Woolsey reported to the territorial governor, “We have followed the trail of the Apache to his home in the mountains, and have learned where it is located. We have dispelled the idea of vast numbers that has ever been attached to that tribe. A few hundred poor, miserable wretches compose the formidable foe so much dreaded by many. They will be brought to terms speedily, or exterminated I cannot doubt, when once the government shall know how small is the enemy by which so much annoyance has been caused.”

However, it would take a bloody, 20-year war to accomplish what Woolsey envisioned.

Another factor contributing to the culture of violence was the disproportionate number of men to women, reducing the needed “gentle touch” that would later bring more sophistication to the area. There was a volatile mix of rough-hewn men with their ever-present guns and a high volume of alcoholic beverages. In his book McKanna cites some towns that had one saloon for every 50 residents. Lethal quarrels often occurred over “too much foam on the beer, drinks on credit, fifty cent bets, pool wagers, and many other minor issues.”

Not so frivolous was the range war that broke out in the 1880s. Cattle ranchers defended their grasslands against sheepherders who “trespassed” in areas claimed exclusively by the cattlemen. The resulting feud in Gila County resulted in perhaps the most bloodletting between competing factions in American history, until the violence of mafia mobs in the 1920s and ’30s.

Not only were permanent sheep ranchers establishing themselves in Gila County, but thousands of sheep were being driven semi-annually between the high country summer grasses and the desert winter ranges. Since sheep apparently pulled the grass up by its roots as they grazed, it infuriated the cattlemen. The cattle nipped off the grass, leaving the lower part of the plants to rejuvenate. Furthermore, it was the practice of the shepherds to burn over the grass annually so it would return fresh for their flocks in the spring.

However, most sheep ranchers as well as many experts believed that damage to the range was not so much due to sheep as to overgrazing by too many cattle. By the 1890s the Rim Country was populated by far too many head of cattle, and the land was simply unable to revitalize itself. Vast amounts of erosion resulted, shrinking the available grassland.

In order to conserve the land the government created the National Forest System. The Land Revision Act of 1891 was the first step. Property owners in California who saw ranchers, miners and lumber interests doing irreparable harm to America’s watershed had pressed for it. At first the government attempted to control the problems by establishing Forest Reserves. The Black Mesa Forest Reserve was created in August 1898, encompassing the Rim Country, which is the Mogollon Rim (called the Black Mesa by the area’s Native Americans) to the Mazatzal Mountains, and from Camp Verde to Fort Apache. Eventually the Coconino, Sitgreaves, and Tonto National Forests were cut from this large reserve, the latter being established in 1905. The basic purpose of the National Forests was and is to protect the watersheds, as well as to provide recreational opportunities for the public.

Forest Ranger Lewis Pyle said, “The hardest thing I ever had to do for the Forest Service was when they put the goats off the Tonto. I had to tell one or two old couples that lived out here that they had to move their goats off. The goats were their only livelihood.”

Included in the National Forest plan was setting aside sheep driveways, broad grass highways within which the shepherds were obligated to keep their herds as they drove them back and forth between the high country and the desert. This proved difficult to do, especially in the unmarked wilderness areas of the mountains. Sheepherders and cattlemen in the Rim Country continued their growing animosity, and more than once it resulted in murder.

Homicide is such an extraordinary form of criminal behavior it arrests public attention like no other crime. Because there is such scrutiny in murder cases, there is much documentation of the stories, in the form of coroner’s inquests, court records and newspaper coverage. It has always seemed worth telling and retelling these murder mystery tales that occurred in the Rim Country from the middle of the 19th century well into the 20th century.

Local folks have recounted most of them for years around campfires, dinner tables, in local social centers and over back fences. The details often vary from one telling to the next, but the stories never grow too old to be told again. With the passing of time and closer research, new facts are often discovered that give them new life — and newer residents in the Rim Country need to be caught up on the local lore.

We launch a series to explore the Wild West atmosphere that enlivened many a boring and routine day for settlers in the Rim Country. Thinking chronologically, we will begin in 1868 with a chief packer in the Army murdered by Apaches. From there we will look into the stories that gripped local attention and gossip over the next 50 years. Along the way we will keep in focus that there is something else about Gila County besides murder. Repeatedly local residents would tell of a beauty that filled their souls, of lifting their eyes to the hills for inspiration, of breathing deeply the clear air, and singing the sweet ballads of Rim Country life.

Join now in these tales of mystery, violence and adventure.

NEXT: The Packer and His Mountain

[1] “Armed: The Laws, Lore, and Lifestyle of Guns in Arizona,” by Dan Nwicki and Dennis Wagner, July 10, 2011.

[2] Statistics and quote from the book by Clare B. McKanna Jr., “Homicide, Race and Justice in the American West,” University of Arizona Press. The highest homicide rate for this period was in Monterey County, Calif.


Pat Randall 5 years, 5 months ago

Makes good story telling but how far from the truth?


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