Chapter 1: the cowboys
The term cow-boy, once applied to all those in the cattle business indiscriminately, while still including some honest persons, has been narrowed down to be chiefly a term of reproach for a class of stealers of cattle, over the Mexican frontier, and elsewhere, who are a terror in their day and generation. There were said to be strongholds in the San Simon Valley where the bandits concealed stolen cattle until they were rebranded and sent to market, and where no officer of the law dared to venture. They looked upon rustling cattle from Mexico only as a more dashing form of smuggling, though it was marked by frequent bloody conflicts on both sides. On September 16, 1881, thirty days before the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Tombstone Epitaph wrote about the "Cow-boy Nuisance" in Arizona:
It has come to pass in this county that life and personal property are unsafe; even in the town of Tombstone it seems as if one of the leading industries is to be destroyed. There is not a teamster to-day who is not in fear and dread of the cow-boys, or so-styled "rustlers" depriving him of his hard earnings... How must such men feel to be robbed by a hand of thieves and cutthroats, who take pride in announcing to the public that they are "rustlers!" Where is the teamsters protection? Can you find any officers who will follow, arrest and recover your property? If you can, I would like to see him... These chaps seem to have no difficulty in evading the law, while others, not inclined to work, daily join the band and they are increasing fast in numbers. Our town is filled with spies watching every move of the officers and imparting their information to their comrades... Men who come to examine different mines outside of town, when they learn how the cow-boys stand fellows up, do not wish to run such risks; they quietly take the road they came and get into civilization as soon as possible.
The notoriety and power of the Cowboys spread from coast to coast. Well-known members of the group included Ike, Billy, and Phineas Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, Curly Bill Brocius, Billy Claiborne, Johnny Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Pony Diehl, Pete Spence, and Harry Head. Virgil Earp thought that some of the Cowboys had met at Charleston, Arizona, and taken "an oath over blood drawn from the arm of Ringo, the leader, that they would kill us." Three Cowboys were killed by lawmen in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881.:194 Others were later accused of trying to kill Virgil Earp and of assassinating Morgan Earp. Wyatt Earp's posse killed four more Cowboys when they ran down those identified as taking part in the attacks on his brothers.
Virgil Earp told the Arizona Daily Star on May 30, 1882, that:
They know that Arizona is about the only place left for them to operate in as an organization. With a complete breaking up of their company threatened in event of losing their hold where they are now, they resist official interference with the greatest desperation.
He estimated that the Cowboys numbered nearly 200, and that during his time in Cochise Territory about 50 had been killed. A modern estimate puts the number of Cowboys at about 300.
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