Monday, May 9, 2011

Cowboys in the news, 1882

Cowboys of Arizona, W. W. Rogers, 1882
According to the newspapers, cowboy-related trouble in Arizona and New Mexico got so bad, no less than an American president saw fit to speak out against it. Shortly after taking office in 1881, Chester Arthur had this to say:

A band of desperadoes known as “cowboys” from ninety to 100 men, have been engaged for months in committing acts of lawlessness and brutality, which the local authorities have been unable to suppress.

A correspondent’s write-up for the Cleveland Herald, later published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, January 5, 1882, clarifies for readers that there are two kinds of “cowboy.” One is a cattle herder, and there are “several thousand” of them.

The ideal cowboy has long hair, big boots, leather pants, buckskin shirt, and the broad white hat, with spurs as big as saucers.

These cowboys pose no problem until they get paid, when they head for town where “there is no limit to their outrageous conduct.”

They get drunk, gamble, fight, and shoot recklessly at friend or foe. A long plug of black tobacco, a couple of revolvers, and a heavy knife are sure accompaniments of a cowboy.

Killing another man is a badge of honor, “so that friendship or kindred ties are no barriers to the cowardly bullet.” If they don’t like a man, they may shoot a cigar out of his mouth. A stovepipe hat is sure to attract gunfire. Shooting up a town, they are said to have “murdered old men, babies, and women.”

Tombstone, Arizona, today
The writer, in Youngstown, Ohio, is getting all this first-hand from a visiting businessman who has “mining interests” in Tombstone. He reports that law officers in Tucson and elsewhere have engaged these ruffians and, with some loss of life, have on occasion driven them out of town. Law enforcement, however, is not always reliable. In some municipalities cowboys have been able to put a sympathetic sheriff in office by stuffing the ballot box.

Having drawn a picture of this class of “coarse and cowardly” marauders, the writer goes on to describe the truly criminal band of outlaws who go by the name of Cowboys. There are maybe only100 of them, but they have the “moral support” of cowboys in general.

Tucson, Arizona, 1880
They steal cattle, hold up express wagons and rob railroad trains. They are the sworn enemies of law enforcement and have even threatened to kill the mayor and marshal of Tombstone. Should these desperadoes make an attempt on the town, the citizens have been organized to appear in force with guns at the sound of an alarm.

The writer then turns to the “brave, upright” lawmen of the region who strike fear in the hearts of this criminal element. Three of them, the Erks [sic] brothers have proven themselves fearless and ready to kill. One of them now serves as marshal of Tombstone, even as “a dozen of these dirty, unwashed, unshaved, cowardly wretches” have conspired to murder him.

One of the most bloodthirsty of these is a Horst Holt, whose killing of a Clerk Powers was a “cold-blooded, brutal murder.” This same Cowboy had “gouged the eyes of an old man out of his head to satisfy the blood-thirsty cravings of a crowd of admiring brutes.”

Wild Bill
For contrast, there’s a long profile of the late Wild Bill, who is remembered as

a scout, strongly built, gentlemanly, brave, and courteous. In civil life he was as quiet in his manners as a woman, but when aroused as aggressive as a wildcat.

Folklore threatens to take over from straight news reporting as the writer describes Wild Bill’s remarkable skill with guns. Up against a dozen men, he could spin in a circle, firing both six-guns with deadly aim. Those still left standing quickly flee.

On one occasion, the story goes, a cowboy surprised Bill and pushed his gun under Bill’s chin. Talking as if to someone behind his assailant, Bill said, “Don’t hit him. He don’t mean it.” When the cowboy glanced behind him, Bill shot him dead.

On the same day, the Chicago Daily Tribune, reports from Denver that a Texas cowboy shot an employee, Charles King, at a ranch between Cheyenne and Deadwood. The cowboy, Ed Graham, had apparently been rebuked for abusing a horse. After shooting King twice in the bowels, he took two horses and left.

While someone went for a doctor, Graham returned and shot King again, this time through the head. King is remembered as “a jovial, good-natured fellow, not quarrelsome.” The 20-year-old Graham is described as having “black hair, dark eyes,” and is “slimly built,” with “a rather sallow complexion, Southern accent very pronounced.”

An item in the February 9, 1882, Chicago Daily Tribune notes that Acting Arizona Governor Gosper has been making a special case to Congress for new legislation. He reports that a band of 25-50 cowboys have been responsible for most of the crime in Cochise County. He includes among them “skilled cattle thieves and highway robbers.” Most are white, but some are Mexican.

Chester Arthur, 1880
Besides the cowboys, there is a larger group of those “who keep up a secret partnership with robbers and profit by their lawlessness.” Civil order has so broken down that “the more lazy and lawless elements of society have undertaken to prey on the more industrious and honorable classes.”

According to the report, an added problem is that many sheriffs do little to enforce the law. They are either intimidated or “from personal motives, they desire to curry favor with the disorderly element of society.” The Governor asks for the authority to remove them from office for “neglect of duty” and to replace them.

In response, we learn that President Arthur has urged Congress to modify the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. This Act prohibited the use of federal troops in local and state law enforcement. Modifying the Act, it is argued, would permit the use of the military in bringing law and order to the Territories. Congressmen from the former Confederate states are expected to oppose the proposed legislation.

Further reading:

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Max Brand, Best Western Stories


  1. Love that shot of Arizona in 1880! Cowboy was a real negative word (for many) and yet shifted 180 degrees twenty-five years after President Arthur's comments. All thanks to the pulps and early flicks.

  2. David, you're right. Add to that the Wild West Shows and early novels like THE VIRGINIAN. I also think folks have always secretly enjoyed the romance of lawlessness - it shows up over and again in our popular culture.

  3. Wild Bill looks a lot like Hickock, a fine lawman by all accounts. This material is superbly discussed in Casey Tefertiller's Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, which is superbly researched and greatly respected.

  4. Good look back. I especially like the line: "These cowboys pose no problem until they get paid" That's one way to keep them out of trouble, but it probably wouldn't last long.

  5. Cheyenne, thanks.

    Leah, there's more.

    Richard, I have a copy of Tefertiller's book and look forward to reading it.

    Sage, as a rule, cowboys were spenders and not savers.

  6. hahahah. sound like a bunch of lost criminals!

  7. That Ed Graham must've had a helluva temper or mean streak. not uncommon in those days or these either, e.g., road rage, with people shootin' at you for possibly gettin' in their way or cuttin' too close.

  8. Doubt I would have survived long in that world although I can build a pretty dandy fire.