Monday, February 8, 2010

The kid and the commodore -- 08-02-10

Commodore Perry Owens rode in from the south, reining in his blooded horse atop the rise overlooking Holbrook. The Little Colorado below was an ocher ribbon fringed with gray-green willows. Far away to the northeast, the flat-topped hills of the Painted Desert spread pinks and blues across the horizon. He hooked a leg over the saddle horn and contemplated the rowdy cowtown. It looked peaceful that Sunday, September 4, 1887, but the Sabbath was about to be broken by gunfire. Sheriff Owens carried a warrant for the arrest of that kid Andy Cooper . . . much as he dreaded serving it.

Not that he was a coward. He'd proved he wasn’t. The Snider Gang lost nine men in the Round Valley gunfight, for instance. But he'd been in office since January and the Cooper warrant -- for stealing Navajo horses -- was still outstanding.

When Commodore Perry Owens drifted into northern Arizona in 1881, people soon learned the long-haired cowboy had iron nerves and an uncanny skill with horses. John Walker hired him to guard Wells Fargo and army remudas at Navajo Springs.
Navajos regularly tried to steal the horses, but many fell to Commodore Owens's Sharps .50. He could hit a squirrel a mile away with that gun. He reckoned he'd killed at least 50 Navajos by the time he became the sheriff of Apache County.

If the Indians got away with a few horses, Owens would raid them right back, often bringing back more mounts than he'd lost. Andy Cooper sometimes went with Commodore on those sorties. He was a cheerful young man, good with animals. But he had a hot temper and a quick trigger finger. If anyone in the territory could match Commodore Perry Owens with a Colt's, it was Andy Cooper.

When Owens inherited a warrant issued by the county court on March 26, 1886, accusing Andy Cooper of stealing 40 Navajo horses, he ignored it. To him, stealing Navajo horses was no crime. "Kid, I'm sheriff now, so you just stay out of town when I'm here," Commodore said to Cooper. "Or I'll have to serve that warrant on you."

The Sheriff took the warrant to Taylor, leaving instructions with the deputy in the town to serve it if Andy ever showed up. Owens put the warrant out of his mind because Zach Decker, the Mormon gunman, lived in Taylor; Andy would probably steer clear.

Now things had gotten out of hand. The Sheriff was forced to serve that damned warrant. He kneed his mount toward the crossing at Berado's store.

Much of the trouble began in 1884, when the Aztec Land and Cattle Company -- the Hashknife Outfit -- brought 40,000 cattle into Apache County. The Texans who came with Hashknife cows into Arizona were hard men. And they partook freely of other people's stock.

Mart Blevins settled on a rawhide ranch at the headwaters of Canyon Creek late in 1884. With him came four sons -- Hampton, John, Charles, and Sam Houston -- his wife Mary, and daughter Mesa. Mart had a fifth son, Andy, who took the last name of Cooper after a scrape in Llano, Texas. When Andy first came to Arizona, he drove a Hashknife chuckwagon.

In 1884, Commodore Perry Owens had a horse ranch at Cottonwood Seep, about 10 miles south of Navajo Springs. People came from all over to buy his blooded stock, and to see his skill with firearms. Someone would throw a tin can in the air and holler, "Commodore!" In an instant both his guns were out. Lead smashed into the can long before it hit the ground. Shooting with right-hand gun, then left, he'd keep the can moving until it was too shattered to roll.

Although the Commodore's blond hair reached nearly to his waist, no one kidded him. He spoke with a quiet Oklahoma drawl, but he decked anyone who disparaged his hair or the way he wore his guns butt forward. At five foot ten, he wasn't a big man, but once something started, he never said "quit."

Down in Pleasant Valley, the feud that would bury 28 men heated up.

Jim Stinson was the first cowman in the valley, settling on Cherry Creek with 1,200 head of cattle the Mormons traded him for his ranch at Snowflake. He was preceded by mountain man John D. Tewksbury and his three half-Indian sons -- John Jr., James, and Ed -- and followed by Tom and John Graham, natives of Iowa, who set up a ranch upstream from Stinson two years later.

At first the Grahams and the Tewksbury boys were fast friends. But a quarrel over stolen cattle ruined that friendship. After that, eyes narrowed and hands moved toward gun butts whenever a Graham and a Tewksbury passed on the trail.
Above the Mogollon Rim, the Daggs brothers ran thousands of sheep. But A-One Bar cowboys kept them off lush pastures among the San Francisco peaks, the Hashknife outfit barred them from ranges to the east, and Pleasant Valley ranchers guarded the passes off the Mogollon Rim so Daggs' woollies couldn't get in.

By 1886, the rift between the Grahams and the Tewksburys was common knowledge. And the Daggs brothers decided to take advantage of the feud. They offered the Tewksburys a lucrative deal to guard Daggs sheep into Pleasant Valley. They accepted, and the drive began.

The ranchers stood agast as the woollies poured into Pleasant Valley. Suddenly the enmity between honest cowmen and rustlers evaporated. They faced a new, much larger threat. Andy Cooper was among the crowd that gathered at the Graham ranch one autumn day in 1886 to consider what to do about the sheep. So was Tom Pickett, who had ridden with Billy Bonner.
Andy wanted action. Kill all the sheep and every man with them, he said, but Tom Graham said no. "There must be no killing and no destruction of property," Graham ordered.

"Give them sheep a hold in the valley and there won't be enough grass left for a grasshopper come spring," Cooper countered. "I'll lead the boys. We'll make a raid that'll end it all, and damned sudden."

Graham ordered him to stay put, and faced the young gunsharp down, even though Graham himself had no reputation as a shootist.

Graham's brand of guerrilla persuasion -- shots in the night that holed coffee pots and frying pans -- didn't force the sheep out of the valley. Later, Andy led a rougher bunch. They stampeded sheep over cliffs, shooting any survivors. And they beat up the herders.

In Holbrook, sheepman Sam Brown and druggist Frank Wattron headed the citizen's committee that drafted Commodore Perry Owens into running for sheriff of Apache County.

Incumbent J.L. Hubbell's trading post was an important stop on the outlaw trail. Violence was rampant. Hardcases run out by the Texas Rangers flocked to northern Arizona for respite. Even the Clanton gang, ousted from Tombstone by the Earps, moved back to their New Mexico ranch and started stealing Arizona cattle.

On November 4, 1886, 500 landowners voted for Commodore Perry Owens and his law-and-order platform; 409 voted for Hubbell. A pall of black-powder gunsmoke hung over Holbrook as the citizens celebrated Owens's victory. Friends organized a dance in honor of his election, with music by a Mormon band from Saint Johns.

Later, his chief deputy, Joe T. McKinney, recalled: "Commodore Owens had a great reputation as a brave man and many wonderful things were promised and expected after he was in the sheriff's office. Lawlessness was everywhere."

Owens moved into the Barth Hotel in Saint Johns and started as Apache County sheriff in January 1887. He appointed strong men as deputies -- Osmer Flake, Lon Hawes, Joe Hershey, John Scarlett, Frank Wattron, Joe McKinney, and the Tewksbury partisan who later turned the Pleasant Valley quarrel into a vendetta, James D. Houck.

The Pleasant Valley conflict turned bloody in February. Shots were fired at one Navajo herder early in the month, but he shot back. The cowboys left for easier pickings. Some days later another Navajo herder was found shot dead. The cowboy roughnecks had declared war.

The Hashknife outfit put John Payne, a big ruthless Texan, in charge of moving sheepmen off Hashknife range. Paine and his riders gave ultimatums to Tewksbury partisans: Leave, or else.

With the sheep out of Pleasant Valley, things cooled down a bit. One sheepherder was dead, but people felt he was just a Navajo. The dead sheep were another matter. They cost the Daggs -- and the Tewksburys -- money. But more than that, the brothers rankled at losing to the Grahams.

As the storm brewed, Commodore Perry Owens rode endless miles to uphold the law in his domain. He left the warrant for Andy Cooper's arrest gathering dust in Taylor, but served countless others. Lawbreakers went to jail, or left the country.
Then Mormon teamsters started losing horses. They would leave their teams hobbled at night and often wake up to find the horses gone, with the hobbles left behind to taunt them. Apache County Critic Editor Frank Reed wrote: "The leader of this gang of rustlers has been cited as one Andy Cooper, who was classed as being a horse thief desperado of the most daring stamp, and the boldest man in his operations as had ever cursed the west."

Nevertheless, Commodore Perry Owens ignored Andy Cooper. As he brought in lawbreaker after lawbreaker and collected license fee after license fee (he was liable for fees that went uncollected), Commodore's reputation grew. But horses and cattle continued to disappear, and the local papers continued to remind Sheriff Owens about Andy Cooper.

For months, Andy Cooper and John Payne ramrodded the wild bunch that harassed the sheepherders. The next casualties hit close to home. Ignoring the advice of his sons, Mart Blevins rode away from his Canyon Creek ranch one morning in late July 1887, looking for missing horses. He was never seen again. Some thought the Navajos killed him, others said horse thieves. Seven years later, a rancher on Cherry Creek found a human skull near a rusty rifle that had belonged to Mart Blevins.

Two weeks passed without word of Mart. The Blevins brothers were convinced sheepmen had killed the old man. Will Barnes, Arizona historian and owner of the Long Tom ranch, was at a Hashknife roundup camp south of Holbrook when John Payne, Hampton Blevins, and six others rode up on August 10. Payne announced they were headed for Pleasant Valley in search of Mart Blevins, and to "start a little war of our own." Barnes and the wagon boss tried to talk the riders out of violence, but Payne's job at the Hashknife was to get rid of sheepmen, so arguments against force meant nothing to the rowdies.

The horsemen passed the deserted Blevins ranch at the head of Canyon Creek -- the Blevinses had rented a house in Holbrook for their womenfolk -- and trailed down Canyon Creek, keeping an eye out for signs of the old man. Finding none, they headed for the Middleton ranch, where John Payne had ordered everyone to "leave, or else."

Jim and Ed Tewksbury, Jim Roberts, and Joseph Boyer were at the Middleton spread when Payne, Hamp Blevins, Tom Tucker, Bob Glasspie, and Bob Carrington rode up. Payne repeated his ultimatum, saying the occupants hadn't left and they'd have to pay.

According to Jim Roberts, Hamp Blevins reached for his pistol. Jim Tewksbury, deadly with a saddle gun, shot Hamp dead. Jim Roberts fired at John Payne, clipping his ear and splattering the side of his head with blood. Another Tewksbury bullet killed Payne's horse. He jumped away from his mount, but took only two or three strides before Tewksbury bullets dropped him lifeless near the body of Hamp Blevins. Tom Tucker was shot through the lungs; Glasspie and Carrington escaped untouched.

After the Middleton ranch shootout, Andy Cooper and the Graham faction may have gotten the idea that the law had sided with the Tewksburys. Deputy Sheriff Joe McKinney refused to investigate, saying it wasn't his jurisdiction (The Tonto Basin is in Gila and Yavapai Counties; McKinney was an Apache County deputy). Deputy James Houck, a former state assemblyman from Apache County, was a Tewksbury partisan. William Mulvenon, sheriff of Yavapai County, led a posse into Pleasant Valley but failed to arrest a single Tewksbury, even though he had ten warrants. His posse met a group of Graham men led by Andy Cooper at the Perkins store. Andy saw the officers were empty-handed and told them the cattlemen would "take matters into their own hands" and exterminate the sheepmen if the sheriff did not arrest the Tewksburys.

Pleasant Valley being outside his jurisdiction, Apache County Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens still found no reason to serve the warrant outstanding on Andy Cooper.

The Pleasant Valley War is also known as the Graham-Tewksbury feud, but none of its first victims bore those names. The Grahams may not have been involved at this point, because of Tom Graham's orders against killing. Andy Cooper, though, was another matter. His father was missing, his brother dead. He wanted action. So he usurped leadership of the Graham riders every chance he got, hoping to get a Tewksbury in the sights of his guns.

Owens's own deputy pushed the battle past the point of no return. On August 17, 1887, Deputy James Houck killed young Billy Graham from ambush. Suddenly, a range war between cattle and sheep interests became a personal vendetta between Grahams and Tewksburys.

The warrant for Andy Cooper's arrest lay in Taylor, ignored. So the county board of commissioners called Sheriff Owens in for an accounting. Will Barnes was there. "...They asked him why he had not made the arrest. His reply was that he had not been able to locate Cooper." Barnes told the board that he had seen Cooper in Holbrook two days before. The board told Owens to arrest Cooper within ten days or be ousted from office.

Now, as his horse dipped its head to drink from the Little Colorado, Owens considered his odds.

In the few days since the board's command, more men died in Pleasant Valley. Tom Graham, who had been against a shooting war, now wanted to avenge his young half-brother. Graham, Cooper, and a group of riders descended on the Tewksbury ranch as dawn broke September 2, 1887.

They caught John Tewksbury and William Jacobs about a mile from the Tewksbury home, and killed them. The cowboys kept the remaining Tewksburys pinned down inside the house. Hogs came and rooted at the bodies. But when they started to maul them, Mary Ann Tewksbury, John's wife, couldn't stand it. She braved the Graham guns to bury her husband and his friend in a shallow grave she scraped out with an old shovel. Cowboy chivalry protected her.

Commodore Owens rode slowly down Holbrook's Main Street, south of the tracks. He stabled the sorrel at Brown & Kinder's livery. Frank Wattron walked over from his drugstore, a shotgun under his arm, to tell Owens that Andy Cooper had bragged of killing one of the Tewksburys and another man he did not know. He asked if Owens wanted help.

"I don't want anyone hurt in this matter," Owens said. "They've been telling all around the country that I was afraid to serve these Cooper warrants, and a lot of other stuff. I'll show them that I'm not afraid and take him single-handed or die a-trying. You just sit back and watch me do it, that's all I ask."

Owens was in the livery stable cleaning his pistol, when John Blevins came for Andy's horse. "Your man's leaving town," Sam Brown told the sheriff. Owens put his six-shooter back together and walked out of the livery stable with his Winchester .45-60 in his hand.

A few minutes later, Andy Cooper and Sam Houston Blevins were dead, Mose Roberts was dying, and John Blevins was wounded.

At the inquest, Commodore Perry Owens gave this testimony:

. . . I went and got my Winchester and went down to arrest Cooper. Before I got there, I saw someone looking out at the door. 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 seen 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 door 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 says, "I have a warrant for you." Cooper says, "What warrant?" 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 aside and a 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 (Mose 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 to 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 Houston Blevins) jumped out of the front of the house with a six shooter in his hands. I shot him. I stayed 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.

It was signed C.P. Owens.

Owens's version of the gunfight was seconded by several witnesses: C. O. Brown, Will C. Barnes, Frank Wattron, Frank Reed, and William Adams, among others.

The coroner's jury found no fault with Owens.

The Sheriff was a hero for but an instant. Often he served warrants on dead men. Deputy James Houck viciously lynched Jim Stott, James Scott, and Billy Wilson. The Saint Johns Herald wrote: "The common people are beginning to think that our territory has had enough of desperadoes as 'peace' officers, who parade about with abbreviated cannon strapped to their hips. ...The trouble with the desperado-class of officers is that they shoot whom they please, and are acquitted on the plea that their victim 'had it in for 'em' and the shooting was in self defense...."

The Board of Supervisors became antagonistic, often disallowing Owens's expenses. He once had to threaten them at gunpoint to get paid. He didn't run for a second term, choosing instead to become a guard for the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. Later he was a Deputy U.S. Marshall under M.K. Meade.

Eventually, Owens moved to Seligman where he ran a saloon. At the age of 50, he married Elizabeth Barrett. She was 23. The couple had no children. In his sixties, Owens' mind failed. Born July 29, 1852, and named after the hero of Lake Erie, Commodore Oliver Perry, Owens died May 10, 1919. He lies buried in an unmarked grave in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The warrant for the arrest of Andy Cooper rests in the archives of the Apache County court in St. Johns, yellow with age. Across the back, Commodore Perry Owens had scrawled: "Party against whom this warrant was issued was killed while resisting arrest."

# # #

Chuck Tyrell


  1. A fascinating chunk of history, Charlie, and a fine new blog.

  2. Thanks. I'll try to keep it interesting.


  3. Martin Blevins was my great-great Uncle. There are always 2 sides to every story. Have you ever considered the Blevins side?
    Someone certainly should! Even Zane Grey stated that no one would really know the truth! I can tell you one thing ~ There is always a woman in it! No one bothers to look for the facts and follow the money ~ and/or the woman!
    S. Cravey Boss

  4. I enjoyed your article about the Pleasant Valley War.
    Dont know if this will be of interest to you or not, but my name is Michael Bast and I produced a documentary about the Pleasant Valley War about 9 years ago called Forgotten Gunfighters. It also recounts the shootout in Holbrook. I just recently uploaded it onto youtube for the first time and I wanted to invite you to view it and feel free to share it with others if you would like. Have a good one.