Making a Living with a Rifle and a Running Iron
by Jo Baeza
The art of cattle rustling reached a peak of perfection in northern Arizona in the 1880's and '90's.
A cowboy riding the open range with a Winchester rifle and running iron, inspired by dreams of having a little outfit of his own, had all day to think up creative ways of stealing cattle and getting by with it. A puncher with an inclination to brand his neighbor's calves was said to "throw a long loop!"
Small scale rustling started with the first cattle brought into the country from Texas and Utah. As one old time rancher put it, "You had to steal from your neighbor to stay even."
The completion of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad in 1881 brought more cattle, and more settlers. In 1884, The Holbrook Times noted: "...The whole northern portion of the territory seems to be undergoing a great change...Our plains are stocked with thousands of cattle, horses and sheep...We were astonished at the immense number of ranches that have been located during the last 18 months in this country alone."
Cattle rustlers from all over the Southwest moved into this last frontier like heel flies in May.
Members of Billy the Kid's Gang from New Mexico, and the Clanton gang from Tombstone, among others, moved into the remote White Mountains. Springerville was headquarters for most of the outlaw gangs, and was described by Judge A.F. Banta as "the worst town in the West."
The following item appeared in "Newsy Notes from St. Johns," dateline Springerville, June 17, 1886: "Ike Clanton shot a Mexican, and a unknown person burned Johnsons Hotel and Saloon, also that Pete Slaughter discharged all his bad men at once as soon as he arrived home from Texas, and that there has been in that town such an unusual reign of peace for so long that the people are growing fidgety and unsettled."
Range wars between Texas cattlemen and Spanish sheepmen raged on in the St. Johns area. The county government in St. Johns was corrupt, inefficient and in debt. (Apache County included all of what is now both Navajo And Apache Counties until 1894).
Holbrook was a railroad town with one Chinese cafe owned by Louey Ghuey, two hotels, two mercantile stores and five saloons. The St. Johns Herald reported: "The Salvation Army is going to visit Holbrook. A good field for operation."
Into this pastoral setting came the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, the third largest cattle company in North America. Cowboys called it the Hashknife Outfit" because the brand resembled the old hash knives used by chuck wagon cooks.
The Aztec Company of Boston purchased one million acres of former railroad land grant from the Atlantic and Pacific for 50 cents an acre in February, 1886. The range, in alternate sections along the railroad, stretched for 650 miles, from the New Mexico border to Lake Mary, south of Flagstaff. In places, the Aztec range was 80 miles wide, reaching from the Navajo Reservation to the Mogollon Rim.
The company bought both cattle and brand from the Continental Cattle Company in Texas which was going broke because of drought. In 1886, 33,000 head of longhorn cattle and a remuda of about 2,000 horses were shipped by rail from Texas and let off the train at stops all across northern Arizona.
Many of the Hashknife cowpunchers followed the outfit to Arizona. Some local boys were also hired to break broncs or help with roundup. Joseph Petersen of Joseph City said, "Most of the Hashknife cowboys I knew were good men, like Frank Wallace and Barney Stiles (wagon bosses). The outlaws just followed the outfit from Texas."
Former Hashknife cowboy Dick Grigsby said, "Hashknife men weren't mean like a lot of people said. There were a few hot-headed kids, but most were good cowboys."
The small ranchers, who had settled the country earlier, resented the takeover of the public land between the Aztec sections, formerly used by them.
The Aztec Company stated their position in a letter to their attorney in St. Johns: "The company objects most strenuously to entry upon its lands of any herds or droves which must necessarily occur when they cross from section to section."
Checkmated, many small ranchers felt that Hashknife cattle were fair game.
Some of the quick-trigger men working for the company kept small ranchers off the Aztec sections by intimidation, and some threatened and pistol-whipped settlers just to amuse themselves. One pioneer wrote bitterly, "Thousands of longhorns ate the grass; riffraff and hell-hounds out of Texas ate the rancher's beef."
Cowboys carried running irons and branded on the range whenever they found an unbranded calf, although the main branding from the wagons began in April. The Hashknife brand was on the right ribs; the earmark was a crop on the right ear and underbit the left.
Cattle rustlers worked almost as hard to make a living as the Hashknife cowboys. Since the brand was difficult to alter, the most popular method of stealing cattle was "sleepering" calves. Cow thieves would put the company earmark on Hashknife calves. During roundup, Hashknife punchers would see the earmark and assume the calves had been range branded. Cattle thieves would go back after spring roundup, pick up the Hashknife calves, change the earmarks, and put their own brand on them.
One inhumane rustler used to cut the entire Hashknife brand off the hide, and sew it back together.
Tom South, a Hashknife cook, stole a bunch of Aztec cattle and drove them to Colorado, where he bought a saloon with the money. When the saloon went broke, he returned to Arizona and hired on with the Hashknife again.
More than a few Hashknife cowboys got their start in the cow business with company cows.
It was not unusual to see calves with different brands sucking Hashknife cows. Most of the men "had something" on the others, and could blackmail their friends into keeping quiet. Some were reluctant to turn in their range pals. Loyalty to friends was a lot stronger than loyalty to absentee owners in Boston.
By the 1890's, Sheriff Commodore Owens and his Holbrook deputy, Frank Wattron, had rid the country of the worst of the outlaw gangs. The towns were relatively peaceful, but cattle thieves still plagued the giant Hashknife.
Even if rustlers were tracked down and arrested, the cases were usually dismissed for lack of witnesses. The worst penalty a cow thief could expect was a hung jury or retrial.
Anxious to show a profit to stockholders, the Aztec Company hired Bert Mossman, former captain of the Arizona Rangers, to manage the outfit. Mossman arrived in Holbrook in January, 1898, wearing a derby hat and city clothes. A cowboy named Charlie Fought met him at the depot and looked him over dubiously.
While they were having coffee at the Chinaman's, Fought told Mossman that three cow thieves had been reported heading for Snowflake. Without stopping to change clothes, Mossman rode south in sub-zero cold and captured the men redhanded with stolen beef. He and fought brought the prisoners in to Wattron, who deputized him.
From his first day on the job, Mossman declared war on cattle rustlers. His first official act was to fire 52 men out of 84 on the payroll. The winter crew was cut to 32 men, two at each line camp. Mossman put Frank Wallace and Pete Pemberton in charge of the two chuck wagons the outfit ran, and went after the cattle rustlers.
In June and July of 1898, each wagon branded about 200 calves a day, 16,000 in all. In the fall, the Hashknife shipped over 4,000 head of cattle and for the first time since its formation, showed a profit. That year, Bert Mossman sent 11 men to the county jail for cattle stealing.
It was too late to save the Aztec Company. The winter of 1899, a blizzard hit northern Arizona, killing thousands of cattle. Cattle prices dropped the following spring. In 1900, the company ordered Mossman to liquidate its holdings.
As late as the 1920's, old moss-backed cattle wearing the Hashknife brand were spotted in the mountains and canyons. IN the end, the outlaw cattle outlived the cow thieves.
The Lost Art of Cattle Rustling became an amateur affair once more as the new century dawned.