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Gang Warfare – Arizona Cow-Boy Style (1880)

Gang Warfare: Arizona Cow-Boy Style

In October, 1881, Tombstone diarist George Parsons described Curly Bill Brocius as “Arizona’s most famous outlaw at the present time.” Curly Bill inherited the dubious honor from Robert Martin, his companion in an attempted robbery in El Paso County in May, 1878. The holdup of an army ambulance went awry, leading to the pair’s arrest and conviction. The two avoided five years in the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville when they, along with several other prisoners in El Paso’s jail, escaped and high tailed it for Mexico just a few hundred yards away.

Martin and Curly Bill fled the calaboose in November, 1878. During the two years that followed, Robert Martin became the most wanted American outlaw in northern Mexico, a veritable bogeyman. Whether Mexican reports identified him correctly or simply assigned crimes to his name, à la Jesse James, the inevitable conclusion is that he was, by 1880, the most successful cross-border rustler along this section of the border. The repeated raids by Martin’s rustling gang were said by officials in Chihuahua to put entire towns at risk of total ruin.

North of the international border it was a different story. Although still a “bad character,” as one local newspaper described him, Bob Martin was assuming the guise of a respectable “settler,” a costume similar to that worn by Nick Hughes, the Clanton family, and other Arizona and New Mexico ranchers and butchers in league with the saddlers who rode the rustlers’ trails. Martin accreted a ranch near Cloverdale, New Mexico, a wife and child, and the appearance of putting down roots. North of the Mexican line, Martin gained little notoriety, but he continued to immerse himself in the criminal world of the rustlers who became known as the Cow-Boys.[1]

Martin was part of the scheme engineered by Pima County, Arizona Democratic Party leader William Oury, San Simon valley rancher Ike Clanton, and ne’er-do-well John Ringo, to subvert the Pima County election for sheriff in 1880.  Old pal Curly Bill missed taking part in the political hijinks as he sat behind bars in the Pima County jail, awaiting trial for the murder of Fred White, Tombstone’s city marshal.

While Curly Bill faced the bars in his cell, Bob Martin faced the fact that not even rustlers were immune from rustling. In November, 1880 it was reported that “For some time past the settlers and ranchmen in the San Simon Valley…have been subjected to a regular course of theft.”  Horses and mules were also reported stolen in southwest New Mexico. On the night of Monday, November 22, four men who, with a “good field glass,” had spied upon the San Simon ranch of “[George] Turner and [Henry?] Lindeman,”[2] made off with seven horses and mules. The rustlers, according to one report of what ensued, were “Stiles, Leonard and King; [with] the fourth being a stranger (possibly Bill Smith).” It is likely, based on their associations that the first two men were Luther King and Billy Leonard, two of the four whose later botched attempt to rob the stagecoach running from Tombstone to Benson, Arizona, inadvertently setting in motion events that led to the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The third man was probably Martin “Bud” Stiles, a Lordsburg saloon keeper by trade, but a close associate of the Cow-Boys who attempted to steal the Pima County election. One report said that Smith’s first name was Bill. Historians have suggested that he was James Smith, a Texas hard case known also known as Bill Smith and, more colorfully, as “Six-Shooter Smith, but in reality John Henry Hankins.[3]

A posse of five or six “settlers,” including Martin and Turner, pursued the thieves and stolen property, some sixty miles to the Animas Mountains, near Cloverdale, New Mexico.[4] The posse caught up with and engaged the rustlers at a place called Downing’s ranch. Here either “a few shots were exchanged” or the battle raged “from daylight… until three.” The citizens may or may not have killed or wounded one or more rustlers. Whatever happened, the citizens did succeed in recapturing as many as twenty-two stolen animals, which they drove back toward Turner’s ranch, some twenty miles south of the San Simon rail station.[5]

Two of the “settlers,” Turner and Martin, apparently first delivered four stolen animals to a Mr. Fitzgerald in Shakespeare before returning to Arizona. The outlaws, identified as “the King gang,” dogged their trail. Along the way, in a pass through the Peloncillo Mountains (either Granite Gap or Stein’s Pass, accounts differ),[6] they ambushed Turner and Martin. The first round of shots killed the two ranchers’ horses, and the second put a bullet in Martin’s head, killing him instantly.  Scampering away from the road, Turner concealed himself in the rocks. Spotting the outlaws’ horses, he opened fire in an attempt to improve his chances of escape. He may have killed one of his pursuers, but the return fire was too hot, with several shots whizzing through his clothing. Turner ran off, using the rocks for cover, and then, in darkness, walked ten miles to his ranch.[7]

The next morning, “an armed party of settlers” retrieved Martin’s body and buried it at Turner’s. Not long after, the same outlaws reportedly returned to Turner’s to steal stock, but were driven away. The ranchmen then countered with an attack on the gang’s hideout in the hills, but the rustlers were away. The ranchers began organizing “to better protect themselves.” On November 29, seven days after the original theft, Turner telegraphed Grant County Sheriff Harvey Whitehill that he and Martin had been waylaid and Martin killed. Turner begged the sheriff, “If possible send out four men to protect life and property. I will give $1,000 for the apprehension of these murderers.” That Turner would turn to Whitehill for protection is unsurprising in light of Whitehill’s reported association with Curly Bill.[8] Sheriff Whitehill dispatched Deputy Sheriff Dan Tucker across the line to the San Simon valley to find “these pets,” but no additional information on the killers ever came to light.[9]

The first reports from the Star and Citizen, both published in Tucson, depict a running battle between thieving “outlaws” and harried “ranchmen” or “settlers.” The Star’s suggestion that a “regular vendetta has been commenced in the San Simon valley and the end is not yet” hinted at a closer relationship between the parties than these first accounts describe. Later reports made it clear that the running battle was a squabble between men cut from the same cloth. The Star reported on December 1 that “The combatants are largely composed of men who left Lincoln county some 12 or 14 months ago under warm pressure.” The Citizen advised its readers three days later that the “dispute… over the ownership of some cattle” was a “war” among about “twenty of the Texas cowboys….”

In the first reports, the “man named Martin” is clearly identified as one of the settlers opposed to the stock thieves. He is one of the good guys. But the murdered man was indeed Bob Martin, the same man who once rode with Jessie Evans and Curly Bill and only recently preyed to disastrous effect on Mexican ranches. One Silver City newspaper, more informed than those in far off Tucson, accurately described Martin as “well known in Southern New Mexico, and… generally regarded as a bad character.”[10] His companion, George Turner, was one of those who, with Ringo, Ike Clanton, and Joe Hill, had recently treed Safford. Martin (Turner too) had adopted the veneer of respectability and may have intended to fully transition. He had not gone completely straight, but the family—he is one of the very few rustlers in the region known to have started one—indicates he may have had aspirations in that direction.

Cabinet level correspondence regarding Bob Martin’s depredations in Mexico continued for several months—as late as April 1881, in fact—but these letters all referred back to the Mexican complaints filed in the summer of 1880.[11] No fresh grievances were filed.  The outlaw leader who caused great tension along the international border simply disappears as an issue between the two governments.

After Martin’s death, no single criminal completely inherited Martin’s dreaded mantle inside Mexico. Nevertheless, the hydra-headed Cow-Boys continued to steal Mexican livestock by the thousands, prompting renewed Mexican calls for American government action. As the territorial borderlands became more and more populated, the rustlers became more enmeshed in the economic, social, and even political lives of U.S. towns and ordinary citizens, bringing increasing and unwanted attention to themselves. Pandemic crime along the border in Martin’s heyday benefited from deep shadows, pervasive corruption, and public acceptance. All three conditions persisted after Bob Martin’s death, but at diminishing levels. By 1881, encroaching civilization, growing demands for protection, and the stepped up defenses of governments on both sides of the international line, placed the Arizona Cow-Boys under increasing stress. Martin was not the last Cow-Boy shot by his rustling associates. Jim Wallace attempted to kill a drunken Curly Bill in a Galeyville saloon. In a squabble over ranch land, Leonard and King, two of Martin’s killers, were themselves shot to death in June, 1881. Their murderers were the Heslet brothers, said by some to be former Cow-Boys trying to shed their shady past. The Heslets were quickly murdered by other Cow-Boys led by Leonard and King’s buddy, Jim Crane. By the end of 1881, more than two dozen Cow-Boys were laid to rest by lawmen, Mexican soldiers, lynch mobs, and each other. As Bob Martin discovered one dark night in the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico, the rustler’s lifestyle was no longer dangerous only for their innocent victims.[12]


[1] For Martin’s domestication, see testimony in the case of Paul v. Shibell, Arizona Historical Society.

[2] “Lindeman” is possibly Henry Linderman, later a Sulphur Springs rancher who died in 1887.

[3] For information on Six-Shooter Smith, see Bob Alexander, Desert Desperadoes: The Banditti of Southwestern New Mexico. See also Grant County Herald and Southwest, Silver City Mining Chronicle, December 2, 1880, and Paul v. Shibell, testimony of Martin S. Stiles.

[4] The other posse men were Colt, Raymond, Dominguez, and an unknown associate.

[5] Arizona Daily Star, November 27 and 29, 1880; Arizona Daily Citizen, December 7, 1880.

[6] Granite Gap lies west of Lordsburg on NM 80. (Take the Road Forks exit off I-10 and drive south 11 miles.) New Mexico 80 follows the trace of the Granite Gap-San Simon Cienega route, a stagecoach and wagon road that replaced the narrow pass at Steins Peak. A seemingly monotonous landscape along I-10 takes on new interest as the dramatic Chiricahua Mountains emerge to the west. The Chiricahua Apache once roamed these mountains. Granite Gap, first mined in 1879, became a prosperous mining district. The Great Depression ended large-scale mining. Beyond, the highways descends into a wide arid valley leading to Rodeo, historically an important livestock shipping point on the El Paso & SW Railway.

[7] Arizona Daily Star, November 29, 1880; Arizona Daily Citizen, December 7, 1880.

[8] Arizona Daily Citizen, December 7, 1880; Silver City Mining Chronicle, December 2, 1880. For the association of Whitehill and Brocius, see Alexander, Sheriff Harvey Whitehill, 123, citing the later memories of Whitehill’s son Wayne. In his unpublished manuscript, Cesar Brock, 120, Lou Blachly records Brock as stating that Curly Bill “worked for Harvey Whitehill.” This particular statement may hold a kernel of truth surrounded by the old timer’s otherwise considerable outlaw balderdash

[9] Silver City Mining Chronicle, December 2, 1880.

[10] Silver City Mining Chronicle, December 2, 1880.

[11] See Pope to Adjutant General, United States Army, January 15, 1881, citing communication from Col. Hatch in October 1880; M666, Roll 211, AGO, RG94, NARA; Secretary of State Evarts to Secretary of War Ramsay, February 2, 1881; Mr. M Letter of April 13, 1881 M. de Zamacona, Ambassador of Mexico to the United States,  to James G. Blaine, Secretary of State, April 13, 1881 (M429, Roll 3); Blaine to Sec. Interior Samuel J. Kirkwood, April 19, 1881 (M429, Roll 3).

[12] Six-Shooter Smith supposedly died in a Texas gunfight in 1882, while Martin Stiles may have died of smallpox in 1882.