Arizona’s deadliest shoot-out happened not in 1881, but in 1918 as the United States plunged into World War I, and not in Tombstone, but in a remote canyon in the Galiuro Mountains northeast of Tucson. Whereas previous accounts have portrayed the gun battle as a quintessential western feud, historian Heidi J. Osselaer explodes that myth and demonstrates how the national debate over U.S. entry into the First World War divided society at its farthest edges, creating the political and social climate that lead to this tragedy.
A vivid, thoroughly researched account, Arizona’s Deadliest Gunfight describes an impoverished family that wanted nothing to do with modern civilization. Jeff Power had built his cabin miles from the nearest settlement, yet he could not escape the federal government’s expanding reach. The Power men were far from violent criminals, but Jeff had openly criticized the Great War, and his sons had failed to register for the draft.
To separate fact from dozens of false leads and conspiracy theories, Osselaer traced the Power family’s roots back several generations, interviewed descendants of the shoot-out’s participants, and uncovered previously unknown records. What happened to Tom and John Power afterward is as stirring and tragic a story as the gunfight itself. Weaving together a family-based local history with national themes of wartime social discord, rural poverty, and dissent, Arizona’s Deadliest Gunfight will be the authoritative account of the 1918 incident and the memorable events that unfolded in its wake.
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A gun, a bottle of whiskey, and a pack of cards
Members of the Power family were always hill people. Early generations lived in small and scattered settlements on the rocky, thin soil of the hill country of Kentucky, Arkansas, or Texas, producing barely enough corn to feed themselves and their livestock. The impoverished conditions they lived in and their lack of education inspired outsiders to deride them and their neighbors as "crackers" and "clay eaters" in the nineteenth century, and "hillbillies," "white trash," "rabble," and "low-class" in the twentieth century.
Early generations of Powers were typical of nineteenth-century Americans who engaged in multiple migrations westward across the country, always looking to improve their circumstances. From the time of the American Revolution until just prior to the Civil War, the nation's population doubled every twenty years. There was constant demand for new land, so settlers pushed westward, encroaching on territory held by American Indians and the government of Mexico. In 1790 fewer than one thousand Americans lived west of the Appalachians, but by 1840, more than 7 million, or 40 percent of the nation's population, lived in the West. Members of four generations of the Power family would settle in at least ten different states and territories, often able to scrape together enough cash to buy a small plot of land, but occasionally, when times were tough, resorting to squatting on land they did not own.
The original patriarch of the Power family in America was born in Germany in 1770 and arrived in Pennsylvania as a young man, where he lived for a time before migrating to the newly opened backcountry of Kentucky around the turn of century. Samuel Power was the name of this Pennsylvania "Dutchman," and he was the great-grandfather of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Power, who would meet his end during the shootout that took place in the doorway of his mining cabin in Arizona in 1918. Samuel Power and his wife, a native of Virginia whose name is unknown, lived in Kentucky among people from Scotland, Ireland, and northern England — primarily Protestants known as Scotch-Irish — as well as families who had followed the trail forged by pioneer Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap from Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas.
Samuel Power's son was born somewhere in rural Kentucky in 1809, and this first Power male born in the New World was the first of four successive generations of men named Thomas Jefferson Power. Thomas Jefferson was completing his second term as president of the United States in 1809, and no doubt Samuel and his Virginian wife were eager to honor the president by naming a son after him. Over time the name Thomas Jefferson acquired significant meaning among Americans as a symbol of the virtue of the independent yeoman farmer. President Jefferson set great store by the ability of rural farmers and tradesmen to exercise good judgment in governing, because they held the "earthbound virtue of a simple and uncorrupted people." Passing down the name Thomas Jefferson may have been simply a custom in the family — Samuel and John were names given to male offspring in the family as well — but later events suggest the name Thomas Jefferson may have had special meaning for multiple generations of fiercely independent Power males.
Farmers, artisans, and indentured servants inhabited the region of Kentucky where the first generation of Powers lived. Typically, family members all lived together in a crude, single-room cabin hewn of oak, measuring about fourteen by sixteen feet. Children, hogs, and hounds were abundant, and privies, schoolhouses, and churches were rare. Self-reliance was essential to survival on this frontier, while genteel manners and an education were considered superfluous. Book learning was not a high priority in a subsistence economy, so school attendance among children was intermittent or even nonexistent. Poverty was so universal among these hill folk that it was barely noticed unless they ventured down their mountains into the river bottoms, where they might catch a glimpse of the cotton or tobacco plantations whose harvests benefited from the more fertile alluvial soil and the labor of slaves.
The first Thomas Jefferson Power probably had no formal education, but there is evidence he could read and write, and he was a trained blacksmith, a skill that, when combined with farming, allowed him to provide well for his family. Sometime in the late 1820s he married a fellow Kentuckian, Mary Lindsay, and their first child, Samuel, was born in 1830 while they were living in Anderson County, located between Lexington and Louisville in what is considered the outer Bluegrass region of Kentucky. The early inhabitants grew corn, wheat, and tobacco, and of necessity, they were hardy folk. They rarely had the means to buy or make coats or shoes, so they often did without them, even in the snow. Child labor was necessary to complete all the tasks at hand. Young boys spent much of their day hunting, fishing, and helping their fathers in the fields, while girls were needed to assist their mothers with the overwhelming domestic chores: cooking, sewing, washing, making candles and soap, and slaughtering animals, as well as caring for the sick and augmenting male labor during the planting and harvest seasons.
Although life was primitive for the early generations of Powers, amusements were abundant. Kentuckians were, and continue to be, "addicted to storytelling, many being expert raconteurs," and subsequent generations of Power men all proved adept at telling tall tales. Liquor too played an important role in their culture. In 1813 the first commercial distillery in Kentucky, located in Anderson County, where the Powers lived, began producing "Old Joe" whiskey, the oldest brand in the state. The people of Kentucky loved their whiskey, as well as horses, games of chance, and their fiddles. As Andrew Jackson noted, "I have never seen a Kentuckian without a gun, a bottle of whiskey, and a pack of cards in my life.'"
As the Power family grew, it moved often. First, in the late 1830s, the Powers moved across the Ohio River to Salem, Indiana, where Thomas's blacksmith skills were well suited for the mills, and where two more sons, Thomas Jefferson Jr. and John May, were born. After six or seven years they moved on to recently annexed Texas, where the first Power daughter, named Mary for her mother, was born in 1846 while the family was crossing the Red River. It is unclear whether the Power family spent time living on the Texas frontier, much of which was still controlled by Comanche Indians. They may have believed this land remained too raw and dangerous for a young family, or they might have heard of new opportunities in Arkansas. Sometime in 1848, the family became among the first settlers in the small town of Witcherville, located close to the western border with what was then called Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. Thomas paid cash for forty-one acres in Crawford County and served as county coroner, an indication that he was a trusted member of his community and sufficiently literate to navigate the paperwork required for the position. Two additional daughters were born after the family's arrival in western Arkansas.
Thomas Power's new land was in the Ouachita Mountains, where the soil was rocky. Unlike the Ozark Mountain region of Arkansas, with its abundance of oak and hickory providing rich organic material, the Ouachitas are ridged with pine forest, making the land far less fertile for farming. Residents lived in log cabins with stone chimneys and split-shingle roofs and tended their swine and cleared the land to grow corn, a continuation of the hog-and-hominy existence they brought with them from Kentucky, Tennessee, and other parts of the South. Although it is impossible to know with certainty the Powers' politics or religion, some assumptions can be made based on where and when they lived. As a poor, rural, white southerner, the first Thomas Jefferson Power was probably a Democrat, the party more popular among the small farmers in western Arkansas. He came of age during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, whose party supported western expansion and gave voting rights to almost all white male adult citizens. A central tenet of Jacksonian Democracy was "that individual liberty was constantly threatened by excessive power." The Whig Party rose in opposition to Jacksonian Democrats, but in the South, Whigs were almost always members of the upper class, not marginal farmers or skilled laborers like Thomas Power.
Evangelical religions touched the lives of many residents of Kentucky, southern Indiana, and Arkansas in the early 1800s. Methodist and Baptist ministers held camp meetings that lasted for days and attracted hundreds of worshippers. When the Power family arrived in Witcherville, there were a Baptist church and a Methodist-Episcopalian church in town, but public and private records are silent as to which denomination the Powers belonged. Family folklore reveals that later generations of Power women attended church regularly, while Power men were usually absent from services on the Sabbath, a common pattern found within rural southern families.
Although western Arkansas was a remote frontier when the Powers first arrived, that changed quickly in September 1848, when news of gold discovered in California reached the Arkansas Valley and Fort Smith, the county seat and a military outpost that was well positioned to benefit from the Gold Rush. The Arkansas River remained the major transportation artery in the region, and Fort Smith, the last navigable town on the western Arkansas frontier, lay on its banks. Before long, steamboats arrived filled with would-be Argonauts seeking to organize overland wagon trains to California. The town quickly drew an estimated three thousand prospectors, mostly single men from the South, and the streets were "crowded with California wagons and teams." What had been a backwater community was quickly transformed: a county court system was implemented in 1851, telegraph lines were laid in 1856, and the Butterfield Overland Stage line arrived in 1858, making the town an important stop on the mail line that ran between St. Louis and San Francisco. Thomas Power's blacksmith business thrived as he forged shoes for oxen, mules, and horses and repaired wagon irons for the caravans as they prepared for the journey to California. From his windfall he bought additional farmland worth $150, making him not exactly a wealthy man, but a man of some worth compared to his neighbors, most of whom owned no property at all.
The family spent more than ten years living in Arkansas, watching numerous wagon trains head west. The gold seekers leaving Fort Smith in the early days were primarily young men who often sent back word from California of the difficult conditions in the mining camps, where a lack of sanitation coupled with inadequate food supplies fostered disease. Inflationary prices gobbled up any profits made by day laborers — a gallon of whiskey cost thirty-five cents in Arkansas, while a glass of it cost twenty-five cents in the Golden State. Mining towns were meccas for gamblers, prostitutes, and alcoholics. Mary Power undoubtedly had little interest in bringing her young children into such an unhealthy setting, and so they remained in Arkansas, but by the late 1850s the composition of westward-bound wagon trains in Fort Smith changed. More families were drawn now to farming and grazing land in California or Texas, while others left the South because they were concerned the country might be advancing toward war over slavery. Sometime in the spring of 1860 Thomas and Mary Power, along with their five youngest children, who were between the ages of nine and twenty, embarked on the longest journey of their lives, traveling from Arkansas to California. Sam, their firstborn son, was almost thirty and married and chose not to make the trip west.
The dangers of the trip to California were many. Disease and accidents took the largest tolls, but fear of attacks by outlaws or Indians were also on the minds of travelers. It is not clear which route the Powers took. Most overland expeditions took the northern route out of Arkansas through Utah Territory, while others opted for the southern route through the territories of New Mexico and Arizona, along what is known as the Gila Trail. The southern route was less popular because there were long stretches without water, but the northern route held its own dangers.
In 1857, three years prior to the Power trek, 120 members of the Baker-Fancher wagon train left Fort Smith, headed toward Visalia, California, and were attacked by Mormon settlers and Paiute Indians outside Cedar City in southern Utah, in a valley named Mountain Meadows. It is unclear what precipitated the attack. Some suggest it happened in retaliation for the government crackdown on the Saints, while others believe it was simply a theft of much-needed supplies. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led by Brigham Young, had engaged in practices that provoked hostility among non-Mormons, including polygamy, while openly defying federal law. President James Buchanan sent in troops after his appointed officials died mysteriously or returned from the territory reporting that the Mormons were in rebellion. Although the Baker-Fancher party fought off their attackers for five days, they were finally forced to surrender and were then executed. Only seventeen children under the age of seven were spared, and those orphans were returned to Arkansas in the late summer of 1859 to much fanfare. The Power family would have been aware of the dangers on the trail and the Mountain Meadows Massacre before they left Fort Smith for Visalia, and in fact, many years later, Thomas Power's descendants would invoke the massacre after they had their own run-in with Mormons in Arizona.
Despite the dangers of the western journey, the Power family arrived safely in California in the fall of 1860, and Thomas paid cash for 160 acres of farmland just north of Visalia, in Tulare County in the San Joaquin Valley. Visalia was pioneered in 1852 and named by migrants after the town of Visalia in Kentucky, but it was clearly a quite different place. The San Joaquin Valley consists of flat, fertile farmland located on the watershed of creeks and rivers created from the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada. Here farming was done for profit, not subsistence. Upon his arrival, Power was a man of modest means. His real estate holdings were valued at $640 in 1860, making him one of the poorer, though not the poorest, landholders among his neighbors, but he had managed to save cash from blacksmithing and used it to purchase additional property. During the Civil War his fortunes rose because California was far removed from the battlefields that disrupted commerce in the East, and local farmers like Power profited by providing food for the Union Army. Sometime before 1870 Thomas Power moved his family north to Sonoma County, where he purchased fifty-four acres of farmland on rolling terrain in the community of Analy, just outside Santa Rosa. Before long he was growing three hundred bushels of wheat and hay each year in the sandy loam. He and Mary continued to raise hogs, but now also could afford two horses, a milk cow, and a honey-producing apiary, and in 1870 their operation produced $1,500 in income and their land was worth $2,500, four times what their holdings had been worth a decade earlier. In California, the four youngest Power children all attended school until they were eighteen, a luxurythe two oldest sons had not enjoyed growing up in the South. The youngest son, John, soon accumulated enough wealth as a farmer working with his father to allow him to speculate in real estate holdings all over the West.
Although Thomas and Mary and their youngest four children living in California were sheltered from the Civil War, the two older Power boys were thrust into it. The oldest, Sam, remained behind in Arkansas, where inhabitants voted to secede from the Union. The second son, Thomas Jefferson Jr., who had traveled with his parents to the West, volunteered for the First California Cavalry Company and fought for the North. Popularly known as the California Volunteers, the First Regiment under General Edward Canby had driven the Confederate Army out of the New Mexico Territory and into Texas prior to Thomas Jr.'s enlistment in February 1863 at Stockton, California. Private Power was twenty-three years old when he signed up for a three-year term for the Union cause and was assigned to K Company. He spent most of the first year of service in Los Angeles at Drum Barracks, where local authorities believed a Union presence was needed to suppress the Confederate sympathizers among the local population. His outfit left for the New Mexico Territory in the spring of 1864, traveling through Tucson and then on to Fort Union, located in the far northeast corner of the territory.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Arizona's Deadliest Gunfight"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
2. Texas Hill Country,
3. New Mexico Territory,
4. Frontier Honor,
5. Aravaipa Canyon,
6. The Gila Valley,
7. The Abandoned Mines,
8. The Great War,
9. Shootout at Dawn,
10. On the Run,
12. On Trial,
13. The Big House on the Gila,