The Wild West In The Rim Country

Chapter 4: A man named Starr

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Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

The Houston Mesa, where the Houston brothers ranged cattle, can sometimes have an odd steer or two roaming through the brush. In the background is the Mogollon Rim and in one of its canyons Sam Houston was shot and died.

He is a man of mystery, and while none of the Rim Country pioneers knew him personally, he left his name indelibly on the landscape east of Payson. The namesake of Star Valley spelled his name with two Rs — Starr — but his first name is lost. However, his legend and murder have continued to the present time, kept alive by early settler families.

Mr. Starr may have come from Oklahoma Indian Territory, where a decade later an infamous family of outlaws made headlines as bank robbers and killers. The family, like Belle Starr and her Cherokee husband Sam, were a blood mix of Anglo and Native American.[1] The only similarity in the folklore is that Mr. Starr, upon arriving here, married a Tonto Apache woman.

Raymond Cline in his reminiscences said, “Mr. Starr had come here in the early 1870s, married an Indian woman, and lived in a dugout south of my house here, in the ridge north of the meadow.”[2]

Starr had braved settling here during the last days of Apache domination in the Rim Country. By marrying one of the tribe who often camped in the valley he incurred the wrath of the Apaches, who at some point murdered him, “possibly about 1875.” A variation of the story was told by old-timers to Ranger Fred Croxen in the 1920s. It stated that, “Starr was married to an Oregon Indian (woman) and had two sons who owned 320 acres of land in the southwest part of Phoenix in the early years.”[3] 

Cline, whose ranch was located where all this took place, said the grave is located south of the old house, near the place of Starr’s original “dugout.”  Ranger Fred Croxen added, “he is buried just southwest of the barn, on the ridge. When they fenced the barn they built the fence so his grave would be on the cienega side of the fence and would not be trampled by stock.” Other indications for the location of the grave include, “Starr was buried near the old blacksmith shop on the Cline ranch,” and “Six or eight round field stones in a line” mark the gravesite.

A year or so after the murder of Mr. Starr, another pioneer, John Asbill, came to Starr Valley. He became acquainted with Starr’s wife, who was still camping in the area. Asbill temporarily lived in the “dugout” Starr had occupied and learned from the Indian woman what he could about Starr and the murder. Apparently not intending to settle here permanently, Asbill discovered that Starr had relatives named Houston in Visalia, Calif., and proceeded to notify them of Starr’s murder as well as word about the good grass land afforded by the area.

According to Raymond Cline, “The three Houston brothers came here in 1876 to see what kind of a layout Mr. Starr had. When they looked it over they liked what they saw and decided to move and locate here. They went back to Visalia and were going to bring a herd of cattle in 1877. It seemed that 1877 was an awful dry summer, so they waited until late in the year to start, and arrived here with the cattle in 1878.”

Asbill was still living in Starr’s dugout, but he turned the stake over to the Houstons and moved on to the East Verde River, near Flowing Springs. The Houston family made Starr Valley their ranch headquarters. They dug a cellar, covered it with a roof and lived there while building a house and a barn.

photo

Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

This is the house originally started by the Houston brothers and home of subsequent Starr Valley ranchers. Nearby is the grave of Mr. Starr, murdered by Apaches.

The next years saw a parade of familiar Rim Country family names own and operate the ranch: Franklin, Lazear, Beard, Pyle and eventually Raymond Cline.

The Houston brothers had a sister named Catherine who took care of the household and cooking after the buildings were up, until she married J. W. Wentworth. He owned a saloon and boarding house on Main Street Payson called Tammany Hall, after the infamous New York political machine. Later the Wentworths moved to Globe where he became a prominent politician and never lost an election held for many offices at both the county and state levels.

Andrew Houston had married Mary Fuller, and when she died in childbirth he moved to Tempe and raised racehorses. He would bring them back to Payson for the summer races. William Houston became a teacher in the area schools. Both William and Andrew died at the Arizona Pioneer’s Home in Prescott. The Houston brothers and sisters (there was another sister named Fanny) were cousins of the Texas Republic’s famous Sam Houston.  

It was the brother Sam Houston who gave Starr Valley another mysterious death to ponder.

There are several versions of Sam Houston’s death. It happened in the early 1890s, and was narrated by Anna Mae Deming, who repeated what she heard from John Lazear. Other sources were the words of Lena Chilson and Arden Ezell, as well as a newspaper clipping from the Prescott Courier newspaper. Of them all, the version told by Arden Ezell has the most authentic ring to it, based on the report of those who were present at the time.

Sam Houston was roping an unbroken horse in a box canyon on upper Ellison Creek, part of the Houston’s grazing allotment.[4] The Houstons ran cattle and horses all the way from their summer camp on the Rim, south to Sunflower, and their winter range included the Houston Mesa and the Houston Pocket. In roping the horse his reata (lasso) caught on his holstered six-shooter, which fired into his leg and severed an artery. The horse returned to the ranch riderless, but the only persons there were Joe Ezell (doing some rock mason work) and Sam’s sister Catherine. The two of them trailed the horse back and found Sam Houston dead. He was sitting on the west side of the box canyon in the shade of the evening, his mortified hands trying to hold together the severed artery. In another version, they found him still alive and he told the story of how it happened before he died.

After Sam died his brother-in-law John Wentworth was appointed to administer the estate. The wide-ranging cattle were gathered and sold, prospering family members from the proceeds. The grazing rights were sold to the Clear Creek Cattle Company of Winslow, Ariz.

Yet another version of Sam Houston’s death was claimed by Lena Chilson. She believed that Mormons from Pine were trying to get the Houston ranch, and they murdered Sam, making it look like an accident.

So the folklore surrounding murders in Gila County continued to swirl at camp fires and saloons and wherever neighbors gathered to recount the days gone by.

Next: Murder in Diamond Valley

[1] For the story of the Starr outlaws, see Wild West magazine, Volume 2, #3, and Old West magazine, Winter 1997.

[2] Raymond Cline interview with Stan Brown can be found, on tape and in transcript, at the Rim Country Museum in Payson.

[3] Ranger Croxen’s record of local place names can be found at the Rim Country Museum.

[4] Ranger Fred Croxen’s version states that, “Sam Houston was killed near the old Merritt place under the Rim on the head of the East Verde.”

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