I know what the cowboy Jim Hughs was thinking that July afternoon, of 1881. He was thinking he was about to get very, very rich. He was a hand on the Clanton Ranch 12 miles outside of Tombstone, and experienced in the rustling parties that stole cattle in Sonora, Mexico, and sold them to the butchers in Arizona. But this hot afternoon, he was after not after beef, but silver. On the trail below, 15 riders were leading 30 burros northward through the narrow confines of Skeleton Canyon. On the burros' backs Jim Hughs believed was either $75,000 or $40,000 or $2,500 worth of silver Mexican Peos. Unfortunately Hughes and his little gang of desperate rustlers had not thought to ask one simple question. Where had all that silver come from?
All Mexican legal tender was produced by 11 privitley operated mints, such as the large one in Hermosillo, Sonora. They bought refined ore directly from mines and converted it into silver and gold centavos and pesoes (above) of various denominations. In 1884 the United States Treasury Department cautioned potential investors in Mexico, "The bulk and weight of silver currency is a serious embarresment." That was putting it mildly. The report went on to explain, "...grouped around the doors and enterances of the principle banking houses, professional porters...gain a livilihood by carrying loads of coins....from one part of the city to another." The weight of the silver meant commerce in Sonora would only move as fast as men and burros could carry it. And spies could travel much faster than that - faster even than a man could dream.
By 1881 there were close to 6,000 miners north of the border in Arizona, following the silver veins beneath the Tombstone Hills, and extracting and refining the ore had become only the second most difficult task in mining. The greater challenge was feeding the miners. Vegetables and fruit spoiled within minutes in the 100 degree temperatures. Canned goods had been available for almost a century, but the double seal can, which was truly air tight, would not be invented until 1888. It was still common, particularly in the desert, to open cans only to find spoiled food inside. That left Tombstone miners surviving on sourdough bread, potatoes and legumes - all of which required scarce water to prepare. And then there was meat.
The story told by Jim Hughes, was that he had been sitting in a Sonoran cantina when he overheard members of the "Estrada Gang" celebrating a successful raid on the town of Monterrey. Amid the boasts about banks robbed and churches looted, the bandits planned to transport their booty across the border for safe keeping in the United States. As unlikely as the details of this story may be, it was clear that Jim Hughes heard something about a silver caravan and hurried north to the hilltop Clanton ranch. There he informed Billy Clanton, and an ambush party quickly formed.
A cow had the advantage of delivering its self to the kitchen back door. By 1880 there were 8,000 cattle along the San Pedro River Valley, north of the border. But it took 100 acres of sparse Arizona mesquite and prickly pear, and 2 to 3 years to raise a cow to slaughtering age. Writing for the short lived Tombstone Daily Nugget, columnist Richard Rule admitted the unpleasant truth, "There is no doubt that most of the cattle sold in the vicinity of Tombstone... are stolen.". Rustlers were the most successful ranchers in Arizona, a state of affairs encouraged because the businessmen and women of Tombstone had little incentive to inquire as to the source of the beef, only its price. Continued the observant Mr. Rule, "A good many of the cowboys...live in the guise of simple cattle farmers. Those who make a business of stealing...have a pretty good reputation". The fundamental advantage - and flaw - of capitalism, is that people ask few questions as to where your money came from, only how much you have. And the more money you have, the fewer questions they are inclined to ask. And that rule was about to begin working against the rustlers.
Just about the time Jim Hughes was taking a bead on the bandits in Skeleton Canyon, life long corporate railroad man William Barstow Strong (above) was being promoted to President of the Boston based "Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" railroad. His advancement was a reward for his dedication to the corporate goal of reaching a Pacific port.
The problem was the Southern Pacific railroad controlled all rail lines and ports in California. And beginning in 1876, the Big Four owners of the SP had even laid rails east along the 32nd parallel from San Diego, reaching Tuscon, Arizona in 1880 and crossing the San Pedro River at Benson. Southern Pacific President Charles Crocker could boast, "The earnings we have achieved since reaching Tuscon have been great" The SP had reached El Paso, Texas in May of 1881. Faced with this road block, the resourceful Mr. Strong had cast his eyes upon the broiling Sonoran port of Guaymas.
As the Mexican riders reached a formation called the Devil's Kitchen, near the New Mexico entrance of Skeleton Canyon (above, left center), Hugh's finger tightened around the trigger of his rifle. His shot was instantly joined by the gun shots of his 8 partners Six of the Mexicans fell in the first volley. However, the noise panicked the burros, and they bolted. So the Americans switched targets.
What William Strong promised new Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in 1877 was that railroads would bind his nation together. Under Mexican subsidiaries, and funded by Mexican government subsidies, the AT&SF built the Mexican Central Line, which drove 800 miles north from Mexico City to the Rio Grande River where it connected with the AT&SF in El Paso Texas.
At the same time Strong's Sonora Railroad started in Guaymas on the gulf of California, and headed 900 miles east toward the Central Line in Monterrey. But from the moment the Sonora Railroad reached the state capital of Hermosillo - in December of 1880 - profits tempted the construction north, 175 miles to the American border, where it could connect with an 88 mile long spur of the AT&SF, the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad, which would reach the mill town of Fairbank, Arizona, just 9 miles from Tombstone, in 1882.
When the smoke cleared there were 25 burros, dead or screaming in the narrow canyon. The 11 remaining Mexican riders surrendered. According to the legend the Americans climbed down the canyon walls and silenced the wounded animals. And then they executed the human witnesses. And only then did the realization slowly dawn upon the cowboys that they now had now way getting the silver out of the canyon. Legend claims they buried the hoard, intending on returning to fetch it later. But my guess is, there was very little silver in the burro's loads. The ambush had been a bust.
By the hot dry summer of 1881, the mining town of Tombstone and its satellites of Fairbank, Charleston, Contention and Bisbee (above), were close enough to the rail lines that not only could silver ore make its way out, but luxury goods and cattle could make their way in. And there were 8,000 cows now being raised in the San Pedro Valley, and the railroads were able to deliver beefier cows to within miles of the Tombstone mines. And these were not the scrawny hardy Texas longhorns but heftier, blooded stock fed on the rich grasses from wetter climes. Even though 6% of the cattle could be expected to die en route, the price per pound delivered by rail lowered the profit margin for the rustlers, and promised to soon drive them out of business.
Just about a month after the Skeleton Canyon massacre - on Thursday, 11 August, 1881 - 7 Americans camped for the night just south of the Mexico border, in Sonora, in Guadalupe Canyon. Historians and western affectionadoes still argue about what these venture capitalists were doing on such a popular smuggling route, at the junction of three jurisdictions - Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora, old Mexico. But the simplest explanation seems the most likely. They had invested their sweat equity in stealing 80 head of cattle in Sonora, and were driving them back to the United States to sell and butcher them, thus destroying the evidence.
During the night the cattle were restless, and the leader, Newman Hays "Old Man" Clanton (above), sent Harry Ernshaw and Billy Byers out to guard the herd.
Just at dawn, on the morning of Friday, 13 August 1881, the two men rode back into camp, where Newman Clanton had started breakfast. Charley Snow, 19 year old Dixie Lee" Gray and Billy Lang, were just waking up. But James Crane were still in his bedroll, having arrived the night before. Greeting the returning men as they dismounted, Charley Snow heard something the others missed, and started to draw his gun. That was the signal for the ambush to explode. Snow was killed by the first shot. Gunfire then cut down Old Man Clanton as he bent over the campfire.
Billy Byers started to run, "...but had not gone forty feet when I was shot across my body, but I didn’t fall, and in a few more steps was hit in my arm, knocked the pistol out of my hand and I fell down.” Harry Ernshaw and Billy Lang (above) sought cover behind a bush, before trying to run as well. Billy Lang was shot dead and Harry was wounded, a bullet slicing off part of his nose. But he kept running. Young "Dixie Lee" Gray was hit three times in the chest and died on his bedroll.
Byers later told the Tombstone Nugget, "When I saw the Mexicans begin stripping the bodies, I took off what clothes I had, even my finger ring, and lay stretched out with my face down, and as I was all bloody from my wounds...they never touched me, but as one fellow passed me on horseback he fired several shots at me, one grazing the side of my head, and the others striking my side, throwing the dirt over me. But I kept perfectly still and he rode on.”
Harry Ernshaw made it on foot 15 miles north to the new Gray ranch in the Animus mountains where Dixie Lee's older brother John was waiting. They returned the next morning with a wagon and 20 men. They found Billy Byers wounded and delirious, wandering in the desert. Charley Snow's body had been scavenged and was buried where it lay. The bodies of Old Man Clanton, Dixie Lee Gray and James Crane were all loaded on the wagon and carried to the Gray Ranch were they were buried. The anarchy at the border had reached a new level.
If it was not clear before to the rustlers and thieves in and around Tombstone, Arizona, it was certainly clear now. My guess is that just before he died, Old Man Clanton, thought that life was getting very hard for an unrestrained capitalist in this part of the country.
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