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Pleasant Valley War

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Title: Pleasant Valley War  
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Subject: Sheep Wars, Deep Creek Murders, Sheepshooters' War, Thomas Fitch (politician), American frontier
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Pleasant Valley War

Pleasant Valley War
Edwin Tewksbury in the 1890s, the last surviving Tewksbury to be involved in the feud.
Commodore Perry Owens, as Sheriff of Apache County, Arizona, 1886-1888.
A rare image of Tom Horn examining a lasso.
Frederick Russell Burnham in Arizona Territory during 1881.
Date 1882 - 1892
Location Tonto Basin, Arizona Territory
Graham Family
Blevins Family
Tewksbury Family
Commanders and leaders
Tom Graham 
Andy Blevins 
John D. Tewksbury 
Casualties and losses
20-34 killed

The Pleasant Valley War, sometimes called the Tonto Basin Feud, or Tonto Basin War, was commonly thought to be an Arizona sheep war between two feuding families, the cattle-herding Grahams and the sheep-herding Tewksburys. But, eyewitness reports document that sheep were not brought into Pleasant Valley until 1885, two years after the feuding between the Tewksbury and Graham factions began. The Tewksbury family, who were part Indian, had started their operations as cattle ranchers, and racial slurs were bandied about from the early years of conflict.[1]

Pleasant Valley is physically located in Gila County, Arizona, but many of the events related to this feud took place in neighboring Apache and Navajo counties. The feud lasted for about a decade, with its most deadly incidents between 1886 and 1887; the last-known killing took place in 1892.[2]

The Pleasant Valley War had the highest number of fatalities of such civilian conflicts in United States history, with an estimated total of 34 deaths, and the near annihilation of the males of the two feuding families.

1882 - 1885


During the late 1880s, a number of range wars—informal, violent conflicts among civilians—erupted between cattlemen and sheepmen over water rights, grazing rights, or property and border disagreements. Tom Graham and John D. Tewskbury started as friends but, over the years, their business competition grew more fierce.[3] From 1882 on, when both the Grahams and Tewksburys were operating cattle ranches, their workers had quarrels and tensions went up and down the line. Accusations of cattle and horse rustling were traded between both groups. In addition, another rancher, Jim Stinson, accused members of both families of rustling cattle from his ranch, and had them arrested.

By 1884, after several years of clashes due to rustling accusations on both sides, a feud was heating up.[1] Racial prejudice appeared to have been part of the conflict; the Tewksburys were half-Indian, and were referred to as "damn blacks" by the Grahams and Stinson.[1] Stinson made a deal with the Grahams to pay them each 50 head of cattle and see that they never served jail time if they would turn state's evidence against the Tewksbury brothers. The Grahams took the deal and started to work for Stinson with the expressed goal to drive the Tewksbury brothers out of Pleasant Valley. But, the case against the Tewksburys was thrown out of court for lack of evidence.

In 1885, the Tewksbury brothers leased some sheep from brothers named Daggs in northern Arizona. They hired a Basque sheep herder to take the sheep to Pleasant Valley. He was murdered and robbed by Andy Cooper (aka Andy Blevins), a member of the Graham faction. This is counted as the first killing in the feud. The connection to bringing in the sheep to Pleasant Valley caused it to be classified as a range war, increasingly between sheep and cattle ranchers. Overall, an estimated total of 20 to 34 deaths are attributed to the Graham/Tewksbury feud.

Wells outfit

Fred Wells, another local cattleman, had borrowed a lot of money in Globe, Arizona to build back his cattle herd after some reverses.[n 1] The Wells clan had no stake in the feud, but his creditors did.

Wells was told to join their forces in driving off the Tewksbury cattle or forfeit his own stock.[8] When Wells refused, his creditors demanded immediate payment of the loans and sent two deputies to seize his cattle. Wells gathered his clan and cattle together, joined by his young ranch hand named Frederick Russell Burnham. Wells had trained him in shooting and considered Burnham almost a part of his family. They began driving his herd into the mountains, hotly pursued by the deputies.[1][9]

The deputies had no trouble overtaking the Wells clan. The deputies forced the girls and the mother to halt, which set off the barking dogs. Burnham and John Wells, Burnham's close friend and the son of Fred Wells, rushed back. Just when they arrived, one of the dogs bit a deputy. The deputy shot the dog, and Burnham, John Wells, and two of the girls drew their weapons. The deputy fell dead in front of them, shot from a long distance by Fred Wells, and the other deputy raised his hands. The clan continued into the mountains with the captured deputy and released him after securing their herd. The deputy returned to Globe and reported the incident.[9]

Once partisan feelings became tense and hostilities began, Frederick Russell Burnham became drawn into the conflict, defending the Wells family and particularly John and his father Fred.[4][10] After being drawn into it, he was marked for death. Burnham hid for many days before escaping from the valley. With the help of friends, after several months he left the feud district, having a number of narrow escapes. He recounted this period in his memoir, Scouting on Two Continents.[11][6] Burnham is also portrayed as one of the gunmen in a related novel by Zane Grey, To the Last Man: A Story of the Pleasant Valley War.[1]

In Globe, a meeting was held to discuss killing Fred and John Wells, and their unknown gunman (Burnham). Private posses were raised for raiding the opposition. Killings and counter-killings became a weekly occurrence. For the Wells outfit, it became a sheer waste of human life in a struggle without honor or profit in another man's feud, and seemingly without end.[9]

Frederick Russell Burnham escapes

Frederick Burnham's sidearm, a Remington Model 1875.

Burnham realized that he was in an increasingly impossible position. His faction was losing and every man he killed created a new feud, a personal one, not winner take all, but winner take on all. Nineteen years old, he faced a grim future as a gunslinger whose only "crime" had been to stand by his friends the Wells. Burnham went to Globe, where he sought help from an older friend, Judge Colt .45 to Burnham's head, Dixon ordered him outside, but was shot and killed by a party outside the cave. Coyotero, a White Mountain Apache, had been tracking Dixon and killed the bounty hunter as he was capturing Burnham. Burnham grabbed his Remington, moved behind a ledge, and shot Coyotero dead.[6][9]

Once in Globe, Burnham contacted Hackney and was hidden in his house. With his help, Burnham assumed several aliases and made the difficult journey out of the Basin. He eventually arrived in Tombstone, Arizona, and stayed with friends of Hackney. Once in Tombstone, he began to reflect on the feud:

"Now my mind began to clarify. I saw that my sentimental siding with the young herder's cause [Ed note: John Wells] was all wrong; that avenging only led to more vengeance and to even greater injustice than that suffered through the often unjustly administered laws of the land. I realized that I was in the wrong and had been for a long time, without knowing it. That was why I had suffered so in the Pinal Mountains.[6]

1886 - 1887

In February 1887 a Navajo worker of the Tewksburys was herding sheep in an area called the Mogollon Rim. Until that point, it had been tacitly accepted as the line across which sheep were not permitted. He was ambushed, shot and killed by Tom Graham, who buried him where he fell.

Shootout at Tewksbury's Ranch

Graves of John Tewksbury and William Jacobs outside of Young, AZ

In September 1887, the Graham faction surrounded a Tewksbury cabin in the early morning hours. They coolly shot down John Tewksbury and William Jacobs as they started out for horses.

The Grahams continued firing at the cabin for hours, with fire returned from within. As the battle continued, a drove of hogs began devouring the bodies of Tewksbury and Jacobs. According to some accounts, although the Grahams did not offer a truce, John Tewksbury's wife came out of the cabin with a shovel. The firing stopped while she scooped out shallow graves for her husband and his companion. Firing on both sides resumed once she was back inside, but no further deaths occurred that day. After a few hours the Grahams rode away.

"His wife denied this happened. The firing actually stopped because the gunmen heard a sheriffs {sic} posse headed toward the location. In truth it took four men most of the rest of the day to bury the bodies of the deceased about a foot down because the ground was so hard. They covered the bodies with a sheet and then piled rocks over them to keep wild animals from eating what was left of the bodies".[13]

Owens-Blevins Shootout

A few days later, Andy Cooper, aka Andy Blevins, one of the leaders of the Graham faction, was overheard in a store in Holbrook, bragging that he had shot and killed both John Tewksbury and William Jacobs. Commodore Perry Owens, newly elected Sheriff for Apache County, was a noted gunman. He had a warrant for Blevins' arrest on an unrelated charge. Owens rode alone to the Blevins house in Holbrook to serve the warrant.

Twelve members of the Blevins family were present at the house that day. Owens stated that he had an outstanding warrant for Andy Blevins and asked him to come out of the house. Blevins refused. His half-brother, John Blevins, came out the front door and fired a shot at Owens with a rifle. Owens returned fire, wounding John and killing Andy. A friend of the family named Mose Roberts, who was in a back room, jumped up and through a window at the side of the house.

Owens, hearing the noise, ran to the side of the house and fired on Roberts, killing him. It is disputed as to whether Roberts was armed or not. Some reports indicate he was armed with a rifle, others alleged that he was unarmed. It has also been said that he went out the window only to avoid bullets that passed into his room. At that moment, 15-year-old Sam Houston Blevins ran outside, armed with a pistol picked up next to the body of his brother Andy. Owens shot and killed him, as the boy fired on Owens; Sam died in his mother's arms.

Witnesses said the gunfight took less than a minute; it resulted in three dead and one wounded. Despite being fired at, Owens was not injured. The afternoon made Owens a legend, but only added fuel to the fire of the feud. Owens was not indicted, and his shootings were ruled as self defense by the three coroner's juries called to review each death. The cases were never prosecuted.[14] Some questions were raised and, as Apache County developed, voters decided to replace him. He lost to a former deputy in the sheriff's election of November 1888.[15]

Shootout at Perkins Store

In September 1887, Sheriff Mulvernon of Prescott, Arizona led a posse that pursued and killed John Graham and Charles Blevins during a shootout at Perkins Store in Young, Arizona.

Involvement of Tom Horn

It was most likely during this stage that outsider and known assassin Tom Horn participated, possibly as a killer for hire, but it is unknown which side employed him, and both sides suffered several murders to which no suspect was ever identified. In his autobiography, however, Horn writes: "Early in April of 1887, some of the boys came down from the Pleasant Valley, where there was a big rustler war going on and the rustlers were getting the best of the game." Horn says he was tired of working his mining claim and therefore was "willing to go, and so away we went." He then claims that he "became the mediator" of the conflict, serving as a deputy sheriff under three famous Arizona lawmen of the time: William Owen “Buckey” O’Neill, Commodore Perry Owens, and Glenn Reynolds.[16]

1888 - 1892

Over the next few years after 1887, several lynchings and unsolved murders of members of both factions took place, often committed by masked men. Both the Tewksburys and the Grahams continued fighting, until there were only two left.

In 1892, Tom Graham, the last of the Graham faction involved in the feud, was murdered in Tempe, Arizona. Edwin Tewksbury, the last of that faction involved in the feud, was accused of the murder. Defended by well-known Arizona attorney Thomas Fitch, the first trial ended in a mistrial due to a legal technicality.

The jury in the second trial dead-locked seven to five for acquittal.[17] Edwin Tewksbury died in Globe, Arizona in April, 1904. By the time of his release, none of the Grahams remained to retaliate against him, nor was there anyone on the Tewksbury side to have avenged his death had anyone killed him.

Cultural references

  • Well-known Western author Zane Grey wrote a book based on the Pleasant Valley War, entitled To The Last Man: A Story of the Pleasant Valley War. In his novel, the two main families were called Isbel and Jorth. Burnham is portrayed as one of the gunmen. [1]
  • The 1992 television movie, Gunsmoke: To the Last Man features Matt Dillon, hero of the television series Gunsmoke, in the Pleasant Valley War.
  • "DRAG-A-LONG DROOPY" (1952), a comic, animated cartoon depicting the cattle-sheep range wars.
  • Forgotten Gunfighters: The Pleasant Valley WarFilm maker Michael Bast created a documentary film for television, .

See also



  1. ^ According to Lott, Burnham was drawn into the conflict by his association with the Fred Wells and his family;[4] Money states that it was the Gordon Family.[5] In his published memoirs, Scouting on Two Continents, Burnham does not name the family and states he did not wish to mention names that might re-kindle the conflict.[6] Burnham was friends with both these families in Globe, so it could have been either, but in the undated manuscript he mentions his friendship with young Tommy Gordon and his family from Globe within the context of the feud.[7]
  2. ^ Arizona Silver Belt’s founding editor was Aaron H. Hackney[12]

Source notes

  1. ^ a b c d e f Coppock 2014.
  2. ^ "Pleasant Valley History". Pleasant Valley Community Council. Retrieved 2007-07-07. 
  3. ^ Forgotten Gunfighters: The Pleasant Valley War, on Rally Tube, accessed 4 October 2014
  4. ^ a b Lott 1981, pp. 80–1.
  5. ^ a b Money 1962, p. 331–6.
  6. ^ a b c d Burnham 1926, Chapter III. The Tonto Basin Feud.
  7. ^ Burnham n.d, p. 95.
  8. ^ Lowe 2012, p. 178.
  9. ^ a b c d Lott 1981, Chapter 8.
  10. ^ Boundless 2013, p. 158.
  11. ^ Forrest 1936, p. 15, 292.
  12. ^ Library of Congress 2014.
  13. ^ R.E. Voris
  14. ^ Coroner' Inquests into the Deaths of Samuel Houston Blevins, Mose Roberts, and Andrew Cooper. All documents available at the Arizona State Library and Archives in Phoenix, Arizona.
  15. ^ Leland J. Hanchett Jr., The Crooked Trail to Holbrook (1993)
  16. ^ Tom Horn, Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter (1904); Doyce B. Nunis Jr., editor; Chicago: The Lakeside Press, R.R. Donnelley and Sons Company, 1987, pp. 317-318
  17. ^ "To the Last Man: Murder in Tempe". 


Further reading

External links

  • The Plesant Valley War,
  • For information regarding tours to historical sites during Pleasant Valley Days, visit [1]
  • Forgotten Gunfighters: The Pleasant Valley War, on Rally Tube
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