Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
I’m a bit tired of the Swamp, and I’ve been waiting for a new series of “Bosch” episodes on Amazon Prime. I’ll have to settle for a rerun of an essay that I wrote on Jim Roberts. Jim Roberts was not as famous as Wyatt Earp, but he may well have been the deadliest gunfighter and lawman in Arizona.
Jim Roberts was one of the last of the legendary gunfighters in Arizona. He survived the Pleasant Valley War, a range war between two families that began in 1882 and ended with one last killing in 1892.
The Pleasant Valley War is also known as the Tonto Basin War, Tonto Basin Feud, or the Tewksbury-Graham Feud. It was the longest-lasting and deadliest range war in the American West. Before it was over, 35 to 50 participants lost their lives in face-to-face shootouts and ambush killings. Some men just simply disappeared and were never seen again, in all likelihood ambushed in some lonely spot and buried where they died. By the time the war ended, there was only one man left in each of the feuding families.
The war involved other ranchers, cattle companies, sheep companies, and the hired assassin Tom Horn. The most notorious outside participants were the cowboys of the Hashknife Outfit:
The buckaroos of the outfit quickly gained the unsavory reputation of being the “thievinist, fightinest bunch of cowboys” in the United States. Gunfights soon escalated with the locals and the cowboys for various reasons. The cowboys fought what they perceived as rustlers and thieves preying on the company’s cattle, but they also targeted and harassed local ranches and farms that competed with the outfit. They also sided with the cattlemen during the war, harassing sheepherders in the region. On more than one occasion, Hashknife cowboys herded thousands of sheep into the Little Colorado River, where they drowned, or used horses to ride into a herd and scatter it. In 1886 there were twenty-six shooting deaths in Holbrook alone, which had a population of only about 250 people.
The Pleasant Valley War generated a great deal of publicity in the United States, and along with the Apache Wars in the Arizona Territory, played a part in delaying Arizona Statehood until Feb. 14, 1912.
Jim Roberts was raising horses west of Tonto Creek and one of his prize stallions was stolen. The Grahams were suspected of stealing the horse and he confronted them about the theft. They laughed at him so he sided with the Tewksburys. Before the war was over he shot and killed two of the Graham brothers and wounded three other men who had been fighting for the Graham family.
He was jailed in Prescott along with other participants in the range war but was released because no one was willing to come forward and testify against any of those involved in the feud. After the war had ended, the survivors on both sides of the fight considered him one of the deadliest gunfighters in a face-to-face confrontation.
Mining towns were looking for someone like Jim Roberts to maintain order where some problems could only be solved with gunplay:
Jerome was a typical western mining town with an abundance of boisterous, devil-may-care reprobates and dozens of saloons that remained open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Keeping the peace took a man with the bark still on.
One night three men escaped to the outskirts of town after killing a man over a card game. They sent a challenge to Roberts and a young deputy to come and get them. As the two lawmen approached the desperados Roberts said quietly, “You take the one in the middle and I’ll take the other two.”
When the youngster started to tremble, Roberts said in a kind but firm tone, “Step out of the way son; I’ll take ‘em all.”
A moment later all three killers were dead on the ground.
Jim Roberts took his last job as a lawman in the town of Clarkdale in 1927. He was 69 years old. He was a quiet man who didn’t drink or play cards. He never talked about his involvement in the Pleasant Valley War, and didn’t brag about his exploits as a lawman. A film company offered to pay him for his story; he refused the offer.
Youngsters around Clarkdale heard their father’s stories about Uncle Jim’s days as a famous gunfighter and lawman but all they knew about the Old West was gleaned from the western movies starring Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard and Tom Mix.
They asked questions such as, “Why doesn’t he dress like Tom Mix?” Why does he ride a mule instead of a horse? Why does Uncle Jim wear an old slouch hat instead of a wide-brimmed Stetson?
To all these questions Uncle Jim just smiled and went about his duty. In time they began to suspect the stories their parents told were just tall tales.
All those doubts were laid to rest on the morning of June 21st, 1928 when two Oklahoma bank robbers named Willard Forester and Earl Nelson held up the Bank of Arizona in downtown Clarkdale. They ran outside the bank with $40,000 and jumped into their getaway car. It was the largest robbery in Arizona history at the time.
They turned the corner just as Uncle Jim was making his rounds. Nelson spotted the old lawman and fired a shot that ricocheted off the sidewalk in front of him. As the car sped away Roberts drew his pistol from his hip pocket, took a deliberate aim and shot the driver through the head. The car careened off the road and into the school yard. Hollywood couldn’t have staged it any better if something spectacular was needed to show those youngsters the old gunfighter still had the right stuff.
Uncle Jim was late coming home to lunch that day and when Melia asked what kept him. True to his character, he simply said, “There was some trouble.” According to his son that’s all he ever said about the shootout.
Jim Roberts passed away from a heart attack on January 8, 1934, while makings his rounds.
A big tip of the hat to Marshall Trimble, the quotes about Jim Roberts as a lawman come from an article that Mr. Trimble wrote for True West magazine. Take the time to read Mr. Trimble’s biography by following the link that I provided for his website. His own story is interesting as an accomplished historian and storyteller.
If you’re interested in Arizona history, I highly recommend his book, Roadside History of Arizona. It is available from the Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, MT. His book is also available on Amazon; you will not be disappointed.Published in