Death-Defying Riders of the Pony ExpressSifting through the myths to uncover the gritty truths about Pony Express riders.
When America’s first Pony Express rider set off on April 3, 1860, from St. Joseph, Missouri, launching a coast-to-coast transfer of news and messages that would take 10 days instead of months to arrive, pioneers hailed the news with joy.
Yet what seemed so monumental in 1860 was already old news in 1861. The telegraph promised instant communication. Instead of riders racing back and forth with your news, a series of electric current pulses would transmit messages over wires.
But first those wires needed to be strung across the nation. And thus, the Pony Express rider remained a vision of death-defying courage crossing the prairies and deserts when one steamboat pilot struck out on his stagecoach journey, abandoning his Mississippi River life to travel across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. On his way to his destination in Nevada Territory, this adventurer came face to face with destiny.
“In early August 1861, near what is now Mud Springs in remote western Nebraska, Twain saw an Express rider,” so said Christopher Corbett, author of Orphans Preferred, at this summer’s Western Writers of America convention in Kansas City, Missouri.
Corbett continued to set the scene: “The stagecoach driver had been promising him that he would see one, and Twain had taken to riding on top of the coach to take in the view, wearing only his long underwear. The entire encounter took less than two minutes.
“Writing entirely from memory (with his brother’s diary to stimulate him) in Hartford, Connecticut, 10 years later, Twain wrung an entire chapter of Roughing It from that moment. He thus initiated what many a chronicler would continue after him: he preserved the memory of the Pony, with perhaps a little embellishment.”
Of course, when the budding journalist was traveling on that stagecoach to Nevada Territory, he wasn’t yet known by his nom de plume. He was still Samuel Clemens. But by the time Roughing It got publishedin 1872, the world knew him as Mark Twain.
No Stetson, No Pistol, No Buckskins?
In his humorous American travelogue Roughing It, a favorite book of many to this day, Twain gave one of the most noteworthy descriptions of Pony Express riders, clothed differently than how they are popularly pictured.
“The rider’s dress was thin, and fitted close; he wore a ‘round-about,’ and a skull-cap, and tucked his pantaloons into his boot-tops like a race-rider.
“He carried no arms—he carried nothing that was not absolutely necessary, for even the postage on his literary freight was worth five dollars a letter….
“His horse was stripped of all unnecessary weight, too. He wore a little wafer of a racing-saddle, and no visible blanket.
“He wore light shoes, or none at all. The little flat mail-pockets strapped under the rider’s thighs would each hold about the bulk of a child’s primer.”
Isn’t that kind of shocking? An actual Pony Express rider did not wear a big ’ol cowboy hat—he wore a skull cap! He did not wear a fringe coat, nor did he carry a pistol! And his saddle didn’t have bulging mail packets on the side!
What seems odd at first, only because of numerous artistic representations that contradict the description, actually makes sense when one remembers: the lighter the ride, the faster the speed.
One of the partners behind the Pony Express, Alexander Majors, explained the saddle’s slim pockets, in his 1893 autobiography, Seventy Years on the Frontier.
The business letters and press dispatches were printed on tissue paper, which allowed for a light weight required for transporting the mail quickly via horses (usually a thoroughbred on the Eastern route and a mustang for the rugged Western terrain). The weight was fixed at 10 pounds or under; each half of an ounce cost $5 in gold to transport.
A rider’s desire to keep the weight as light as possible also explained why Twain’s rider didn’t carry a gun.
“Along a well-traveled part of the trail (as where Twain encountered him), a rider wouldn’t have to think about carrying a gun,” says Paul Fees, the retired curator from the Buffalo Bill Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.
“At night, or through more dangerous territory, I suspect he would arm himself. The revolver of choice, apparently, was the Colt Model 1849 percussion pocket revolver in .31 caliber.”
Now we know why the 80 chosen to be riders were called the “pick of the frontier.” To put your life on the line so you could faithfully meet the 10-day schedule required grit and gumption. Yet Pony riders must have felt the gamble was worth the gig; their $50 a month salary was good pay in the days when a skilled blacksmith made $33.
Okay, so we’re making the mochila lighter and, for the most part, tossing any firearms, but what about the attire? Would a Pony Express rider really go without his cowboy hat, his boots and his buckskins?
Dressing for Success
Hold your horses! Your notion of what that Pony Express rider looked like during his short-lived yet impressive career may still be somewhat accurate. Although one aspect does not appear to be true to history at all.
“Boots were the main footwear, although it wouldn’t be out of line for some riders to wear leather moccasins if they had them as normal footwear,” says Elanna “Quackgrass Sally” Skorupa, who has ridden the Pony Express trails for more than 25 years and is the only member of the National Pony Express Association to belong to all eight state divisions (she even carried the Olympic torch for the Pony Express!).
The clothing changed with the seasons and was as varied as the riders themselves, Skorupa says, adding, “Hats of all shapes and styles would have been worn…. Wool, calico and cotton shirts, wool britches and homespun sackcloth would have been the norm. I have heard mention of some gloves and even perhaps some gauntlets, but these were very young men, so their personal items would have been few.”
Twain’s rider just had a penchant for a skull cap over a cowboy hat and light shoes over boots. And instead of a buckskin fringe coat, he wore a…round-about? That’s not such a familiar term.
Turns out, a round-about is a fitting choice for someone looking to literally lighten the load on his shoulders. It is a short, close-fitting jacket. Readers may be familiar with the ornate version of this jacket, worn by U.S. Dragoons of the Antebellum era, military historian John Langellier says.
Picturing Twain’s Pony rider in a short jacket, tucked-in pants, light shoes, skull cap and minus a pistol may make logical sense. (And he possibly wore boots. Twain was contradictory on this point. Perhaps his rider changed footwear for the terrain?) Each rider’s style adjusted with the seasons and topography, and beyond that, he wore what felt comfortable and light for the task at hand.
Yet getting Twain’s rider to gallop in the Pony Express movie in our minds may prove difficult. After all, the popular idea of how a Pony Express rider should look is best portrayed in Frederic Remington’s The Coming and Going of the Pony Express. His Pony Express rider is superbly clad in a buckskin suit, with his cowboy hat flared up to the sky and his trusty pistol strapped to his waist.
But the master cowboy artist got this attire wrong.
Romancing the Pony
“I have seen several artists clothe these riders in buckskins,” Skorupa says, “and usually the Pony Express rider is portrayed older than the young age of the true riders.”
Then she twists the knife in: “I have never found any evidence of the riders wearing buckskins.”
Oh, say it’s not so. Yes, the artist was a New Yorker, but his bloodlines link him to the esteemed American Indian portrait artist George Catlin, to the founder of Remington Arms Eliphalet Remington, to Mountain Man Jedediah Smith and even to our country’s first president, George Washington. He’s not the caliber to swap the real for the mythic!
When actually, that’s somewhat Remington’s appeal as an artist. When he tried out sheep ranching in Kansas in 1883, he found the work boring and rough. He was more of a pseudo-cowboy. He had real-life adventures that gave him an honest connection to the frontier world he was depicting, but you could never call him a bona fide frontiersman. His style was more hearty and breezy than scrupulous, and if he wanted his Pony Express rider to wear a buckskin suit, then truth be damned.
Even so, Remington paid proper homage to the Pony Express rider’s history. In the dead of winter, blinding snow all around him, his rider gallops off, having just changed his horse at one of the relay stations that made the endeavor such a success (the stops gave both horses and riders time to rest without gaps in the service of delivering the mail). All the inappropriate weight the artist threw onto his rider clothing-wise, he more than made up for in the overall tone that these riders were boys and young men to admire, who set forth in any kind of weather, in unforeseen worlds of danger, to do a job well done.
Perhaps Remington and all the others who clothed these daring riders in buckskins were paying too much attention to “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s portrayal of them.
“For three decades a representation of the Pony Express was a spectacle at every performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” Buffalo Bill biographer Don Russell wrote. “No other act was more consistently on its program. It was easy to stage, and it had the interest of a race, as well as re-creating a romantic episode.”
Russell pointed out that “almost nothing was written about [the Pony Express] for half a century after its brief existence” and later added, “It is highly unlikely that the Pony Express would be so well remembered had not Buffalo Bill so glamorized it; in common opinion Buffalo Bill and Pony Express are indissolubly linked.”
Remington would have known of Buffalo Bill’s Pony Express presentation. He studied the Wild West show cast for his illustration published in Harper’s Weekly on August 18, 1894. He, like many Americans, undoubtedly saw Buffalo Bill as a buckskin-clad Pony Express rider on the September 19, 1888, cover of Beadle’s Dime New York Library.
We should forgive Remington for his buckskin suit rider, even as we reshape our world view to imagine one of these brave souls wearing a skull cap instead of a cowboy hat. After all, without the romance, would we even remember these Pony Express riders today?
The arrival of Mormon colonists from Utah in 1876 heralded the first permanent Anglo-American settlements in northern Arizona. Even though cattle ranching was one of the territory’s largest industries, it was still in its infancy in the area around Flagstaff until the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1881.
John Young, a son of Mormon leader Brigham Young was one of the earliest settlers. He was contracted to deliver 50,000 railroad ties for the new line. He built a camp for his tie cutters in what is today Fort Valley, a few miles north of Flagstaff. The threat of Indian raids caused Young to turn the camp into a fortress, which he called Moroni, after the Mormon angel. A log cabin 75 feet long acted as one side of the bastion. The other three sides of the square consisted of railroad ties set in the ground on end.
The arrival of the iron-bellied locomotives in 1881 marked the real beginning of the cattle business in northern Arizona. Young and several companions organized the Mormon Cattle Company, stocking the virgin ranges around Flagstaff for the first time on a large scale. By 1883, the price of cattle was $50 a head, up from $15 a head just two years earlier. That same year Young teamed up with a group of Eastern capitalists, led by Colonel Jake Ruppert Sr. father of the man who would own the New York Yankees during the heyday of Babe Ruth. They founded the Arizona Cattle Company, headquartering at Fort Moroni.
Young, a polygamist, didn’t stay in the business long. In 1885, a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was forced to sell his share and make a hasty exit for the hills.
After Young left, the outfit build several new buildings at Fort Moroni and renamed it Fort Rickerson, in honor of C. L. Rickerson, an officer in the New York based company. During its heyday, the Arizona Cattle Company, or A1, ran some 16,000 head on some of the finest cattle country in Arizona. They ranged from south of Flagstaff near Lake Mary, north to the Grand Canyon, and from Ash Fork on the west, to the Little Colorado on the east on 132,000 acres of land purchased from the railroad at fifty cents an acre.
In 1885 the absentee owners selected a field manager, a colorful, blustering ex-Chicago fire captain named B. B. Bullwinkle, who literally talked his way into heading up one of northern Arizona’s largest cow outfits. In spite of his inexperience, Bullwinkle learned the cow business quickly. His commanding presence more than made up for his lack of knowledge, and the ranch flourished with the captain at the helm. He erected fences, built barns and bridges on the ranch. He even strung a telegraph line from Fort Rickerson to Flagstaff. His range boss was a hard-riding cowboy named Jack Diamond, who held the job until the company folded in 1899.
Bullwinkle was a gentleman who liked pretty women, fast horses, and poker. The epic poker games the flamboyant captain engaged in with other cattlemen were a reflection of the prosperous times in the business. In one game, with just the turn of a card, the captain held three aces, became the new owner of 762 cows, and a big stock ranch.
A few days after that historic poker game, in 1887, Bullwinkle was killed when his horse took a fall while he was racing another cowman at breakneck speed into Flagstaff.
The Arizona Cattle Company prospered a few more years before a prolonged drought and overstocked ranges drove the company out of business in 1899. That year range boss Jack Diamond shipped a record 10,000 head to market. But the good times were gone. That same year the Hash Knife outfit went bust closing the book on a colorful chapter in Arizona history.
The first trip I took by train was an hour-long journey from my hometown in Norborne, Missouri, to Walt Disney’s hometown in Marceline, Missouri. I was seven and the 200-square-foot depot where I purchased my ticket was a hub of activity. The station agent was a one-man show, answering phones, selling tickets and handling the baggage. I was preoccupied with the framed pictures of various destinations trains could take travelers that lined the walls of the depot. Brochures with fold-out maps of faraway locations filled the shelves below pictures of Colorado, Oregon and Wyoming. Those images and maps made me want to go west.
The Norborne Depot fell into disrepair and was eventually torn down. The depot in Marceline is now the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Many notable stations have been converted to museums. Historic rail lines, locomotives and passenger cars have been restored and beckon visitors to embark on excursions to entertain and educate.
A heritage rail trip today offers a ride into yesteryear. Passengers discover the joy of rail travel and learn about the men and women who built our nation’s great railroads…and made train travel possible for everyone wanting to see the West.
When the last spike was hammered into the steel track of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, Western Union lines sounded the glorious news of the railroad’s completion from New York to San Francisco. For more than five years an estimated four thousand men, mostly Irish working west from Omaha, and Chinese working east from Sacramento, moved like a vast assembly line toward the end of the track.
Editorials in newspapers and magazines praised the accomplishment and some boasted that the work that “was begun, carried on, and completed solely by men.” The August edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book reported, “No woman had laid a rail and no woman had made a survey.” Although men had handled the physical task of building the railroad, women made significant and lasting contributions to the historic operation.
The female connection with railroading dates as far back as 1838, when women were hired as registered nurses/stewardesses in passenger cars. Those ladies attended to the medical needs of travelers and also acted as hostesses of sorts, helping passengers have a comfortable journey.
Susan Morningstar was one of the first women on record employed by a railroad. She and her sister, Catherine Shirley, were hired by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1855 to keep the interior of the cars clean and orderly. The feminine, homey touches they added to the railroad car’s décor attracted female travelers and transformed the stark, cold interior into a more welcoming setting.
Miss E.F. Sawyer became the first female telegraph operator when she was hired by the Burlington Railroad in Montgomery, Illinois, in 1872. The following year Union Pacific Railroad executives followed suit by hiring two women to be telegraph operators in Kansas City, Missouri.
Inventor Eliza Murfey focused on the mechanics of the railroad, creating devices for improving how bearings on a rail wheel attached to train cars responded to the axles. The device—or packing, as it was referred to—was used to lubricate the axles with oil which reduced derailments caused by seized axles and bearings. Murfey held 16 patents for her 1870 invention.
In 1879, inventor Mary Elizabeth Walton developed a system that deflected emissions from the smokestacks on railroad locomotives. She was awarded two patents for her pollution-reducing device.
Nancy P. Wilkerson, a cattle rancher’s daughter from Terre Haute, Indiana, created the cattle car in 1881. Using a rack and pinion mechanism, she devised sliding partisans that separated the livestock and compartments for food and water troughs.
From the mechanical to the ornamental and a combination of both, women like civil engineer Olive Dennis and architect Mary Jane Colter made their mark on the railroad in the late 1890s. While employed with the Baltimore and Ohio, Dennis introduced reclining passenger seats and individual window vents that not only allowed fresh air into the car, but also trapped dust. Railroad lines across the country quickly adopted the refinements.
Mary Jane Colter was the chief architect and decorator for the Fred Harvey Company. Harvey developed the Harvey House restaurants and hotels that served rail passengers on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. Colter designed and decorated Harvey’s eateries and inns. She considered the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona, to be her finest work.
In addition to Colter’s architecture and decorating style, the “attractive and intelligent young women of good character” who worked at the Harvey Houses throughout the West further enhanced Fred Harvey’s establishments. Dressed in their starched, black and white shirts, bibs and aprons, the always beautiful Harvey Girls served cowhands, trainmen and travelers from Dodge City, Kansas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“The girls at a Fred Harvey place never look dowdy, frowsy, tired, slip-shot or overworked,” an article in the June 22, 1905, edition of the Leavenworth Times noted. “They are expecting you—clean collars, clean aprons, hands and faces washed, nails manicured—there they are, bright, fresh, healthy, and expectant.”
Two of the most desirable locations for Harvey Girls to work were the Cardenas Hotel in Trinidad, Colorado, and the El Garces in Needles, California. Both were beautifully situated and uniquely designed. The El Garces was referred to as the “Crown Jewel” of the entire Fred Harvey chain.
Soiled doves capitalized on the business opportunities the completed railroad line introduced. Ambitious madams acquired their own cars and transformed the interior into parlor houses. Independently contracted locomotives would transport the rolling houses of ill repute and the wicked women aboard to various cowtowns along the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Highly principled ladies were able to make just as much of a fortune from the railways as disreputable women. Sarah Clark Kidder, the first female railroad president, proved that women were just as capable of running a rail line as men. In 1901, Kidder took over as head of California’s Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. The rail line, which hauled lumber, farm produce and gold destined for the United States Mint in San Francisco, flourished during her twelve-year rule.
Cora Mears Pitcher took over as president of the short line Silverton Northern Railroad in southwest Colorado in 1931. Her father, Otto Mears, built the railway in 1885 to support the lucrative mining business in the area. The Silverton Northern Railroad ran from Silverton up the Animas River to Eureka. Cora took great pride in assuming responsibility for the line and in preserving the memory for her father who operated a successful copper mine in the region.
Famed stage actress Lillie Langtry made traveling by rail a glamorous experience. The interior of her private car, named the Lalee, featured upholstered seats, carved woodwork inlaid with silver bands, plush carpeting and a ceiling of diamond-shaped form on a light tinted lavender background. In 1904, Lillie and the Lalee traveled to Val Verde County, Texas, to meet the well-known Justice of the Peace Judge Roy Bean. The judge was a great admirer of Lillie’s and had written her several times expressing his devotion. Sadly, the judge had passed away before the actress’s visit.
Popular playwright and actress Eleanor Robson Belmont also traveled across the country in her own private car. Velvet curtains and a crystal chandelier adorned her palatial suite. “A private railroad car is not an acquired taste,” she told a reporter with the San Francisco Call Chronicle Examiner newspaper in 1906. “One takes to it immediately.”
Publisher and author Miriam Leslie might have done more to promote traveling by rail than any other woman in the 19th century. In 1877, she embarked on an extravagant five-month train trip from New York to San Francisco. Onboard the Union Pacific she visited popular Western locations including Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Denver. Miriam referred to the ride across the frontier as “exhilarating” and looked forward to seeing every square mile of the towns and cities on the itinerary.
“Wyoming was like a new world. No wilder or more grandly lonely landscape has yet unfolded,” Leslie wrote. “Going to sleep in Cheyenne we awoke in Denver, our car having been attached during the night to a train upon the Denver Pacific Railroad. Denver lies broadly and generously upon a great plain sloping toward the South Platte, with the grand sweep of the Rocky Mountain chain almost surrounding it. A large number of handsome houses have been built on the western side of the city, facing the mountain view; and one foresees when Denver is forty instead of twenty years old, this will be the fashionable and charming quarter.”
Besides the Denver Pacific Railroad, Miriam enjoyed numerous treks on other short line railways like the Virginia and Truckee Railroad that connected to the Central Pacific. “There is a rise of 1,700 feet from Carson to Virginia City whither we were bound, and the train winds heavily up between mountain walls of dust-brown rock,” the author wrote of her journey through Nevada. “Not a tree, shrub, herb, nor blade of grass grew. There was nothing with life or motion in it except the brawling Carson River, which plunged magnificently down between these mountains on even a steeper grade than the road winds up. What a daunting view!”
Leslie’s articles about the trip were published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a popular publication she co-owned with her husband. She also wrote A Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate, a book about the journey. Leslie described in glowing terms the many scenes she passed en route from New York to California and served as a travel guide for readers coast to coast. The transcontinental tour cost more than $20,000.
Women inspired to embark on a railroad journey after reading A Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate were required to follow a number of rules for the trip. According to the Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, a woman was to be punctual and dress in plain, dignified clothing. She was to carry nothing more than a traveling satchel, or a fashionable carpet bag if staying overnight. The carpet bag was to contain grooming items, a mirror, reading material, crackers or a sandwich, a large shawl, night clothes and a woolen or silk nightcap. Women were to sit quietly and not fidget. Such behavior was cited as a sure indication that she was either ill-bred or ill at ease in society.
The appalling behavior of a giddy mail-order bride and her groom were the subject of much talk when they boarded the Union Pacific Railroad in Riverside, California, in 1886 heading to San Francisco. An article in the Riverside Daily Press on July 10, reported that the blissful couple were fawning over each other so much that their fellow passengers complained.
“Now what’s the use of it? When a couple get married and go off on a bridal tour, why so misbehave themselves as to be ‘spotted’ by every man, woman, and child on the train for ‘fresh fish?’, the story read. “How silly the thing must appear to them when they look back after a period of six months. Are we fools when in love, and are we idiots when we marry?”
A baggage man scolded the mail-order newlyweds but they only held on to one another more tightly. Four of the women aboard formed a committee and promised to take the matter to the legislature if the railroad company could not protect its passenger from rude behavior. The conductor came to speak to the women and ask them not to hold what had happened against him or the railroad.
“Well, the long and short of the matter was that the passengers rode 150 miles wishing they had not gotten on the train, and resolving that the thing would never happen again—never,” the Riverside Daily Press article continued. “The women all agreed that they would
Wanted Dead or AliveHit the road and follow the trails of 10 famous manhunts of the Old West.
Among the stories of the Old West, few are more exciting than the manhunts that pitted frontier authority against those who would kill, plunder and rob. Back in those days, folks were spread out quite a bit and, at the same time, law enforcement was spread pretty thin, too. As you will see in these tales, the military had to sometimes step in, and armed citizens often had to augment the authority of their peace officers or, in some cases, handle a situation by themselves.
Keep in mind that these events occurred years before the Miranda case (1966) and other niceties that made life a little safer for law-breakers. And, lawmen were chosen for their courage, their ability to handle firearms, and their willingness to spend days in
the saddle while on the trail of outlaws. Formal training rarely existed.
Outlaws, lawmen and the winning of the West have graced a thousand songs and stories. The frontier West was rarely like it has been depicted in the movies and on television. But one thing that you can say for sure, it was always interesting.
Here are 10 of my favorite manhunt tales of those early days.
1. 1872 – 1873 U.S. Army vs. The Modocs Redding, California to Klamath Falls, Oregon
In 1872, Modoc tribe members were extremely unhappy with their existence on the Modoc/Klamath reservation in Southern Oregon. They weren’t getting along with the Klamaths and the Indian agent wasn’t supplying the food and other necessities that had been promised. Finally, one of their tribal leaders, Captain Jack, led nearly 200 Modocs off the reservation to take refuge in the lava beds on the Oregon/California border. Almost immediately, complaints began coming in from area settlers about thefts and plundering by the Modocs.
In late 1872, or early 1873, the U.S. Army, under the command of General Edward Canby, stepped in to return the Modocs to the reservation. Canby’s original goal was to talk them in peacefully, if at all possible. Accordingly, he set up a peace tent near the lava beds and invited Captain Jack to come parley. Captain Jack may have had other ideas.
On April 11, 1873, Captain Jack and some of his men met with General Canby, Reverend Eleazar Thomas and other army officers. Some believe that Captain Jack went to the meeting with the intent to murder the soldiers, believing that this would make the army leave the Modocs alone, but the truth is, Modoc warriors pressured Jack into the planned attack. Regardless, an argument soon broke out and the Modocs began to pull knives and guns. In the melee, General Canby and Reverend Thomas were both killed before the Modocs fled back into the vastness of the lava beds.
In a series of skirmishes, the army was not winning, even though they were even using artillery on the Indians ensconced in the lava beds. However, many of the Modocs had had enough and, by early May, began to surrender. Captain Jack was captured on June 4, 1873. Following a military trial, Captain Jack and Black Jim, Schonchin John and Boston Charley were hanged. Some 150 other Modocs were shipped to Indian Territory. The army had won, but at a heavy price.
On the Modoc Trail of the U.S. Army and Captain Jack
Northern California and Southern Oregon offer numerous historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of the tragic story of Captain Jack and the Modoc War.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums & Monuments:Lava Beds National Monument, Tulelake Museum, Tulelake, CA; Siskiyou County Historical Society, Yreka, CA; Klamath County Museum, Favell Museum, Klamath Falls, OR
Lodging: Winema Lodge, Tulelake, CA; Coffee Creek Ranch, Coffee Creek, CA; Lake of the Woods Lodge & Resort, Klamath Falls, OR
2. January 1875 Pinkertons vs. Jesse and Frank James Kearney to St. Joseph, Missouri
By 1875, the James-Younger Gang had been robbing banks and trains for almost ten years. In 1874, the Adams Express Company was so upset with their losses that they put the Pinkerton Detective Agency after the gang. Several Pinkertons were quickly killed when they tried to infiltrate Clay County, Missouri. It has been said that Allan Pinkerton was so furious that he swore to burn them out, if that’s what it took.
On the night of January 25, 1875, a posse led by Pinkerton investigators surrounded the home of Jesse and Frank James’ mother, Zerelda Samuel, believing that the two outlaws were present. Those same investigators later claimed that they threw a smoke bomb into the house to force the outlaws out. Their “smoke bomb” turned out to be a regular bomb that promptly exploded. The explosion killed a young half brother to the Jameses and mangled their mother’s arm so badly that it had to be amputated. Frank and Jesse were not even at home. The entire state of Missouri was infuriated by the attack; and while the Pinkertons were humiliated, they fought on with local authorities to try and capture the James Boys.
On the Missouri Trail of the James Boys and the Pinkertons
Western Missouri offers numerous historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of Jesse and Frank James.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums & Monuments: Jesse James Farm, Kearney; Pattee House Museum, Jesse James House Museum, Pony Express National Museum, St. Joseph;JesseJames Bank Museum and Clay County Museum, Liberty
Lodging: The Elms, Excelsior Springs;Whiskey Mansion Bed & Breakfast, St. Joseph
3. September 7, 1876 Northfield vs. the James-Younger Gang Northfield to LaSalle, Minnesota
We’ll never know for sure what caused the gang to rob a bank in Minnesota. It might have been to just try out new territory or it could have been the fact that Adelbert Ames, a hated former governor of Mississippi, lived there. Historians have suggested both ideas, but a consensus has never been reached.
Whatever the reason, the gang rode into Northfield like they had done in previous towns, with with some outlaws looting the bank while other gang members shot up the street to keep the townspeople at bay. This just didn’t work so well in Northfield because the citizens were already nervous about these strangers wearing gun belts and sporting rifles on their saddles.
In the bank, one employee refused to unlock the safe and was quickly killed. Another employee was wounded as he escaped the robbery. The gunfire in the bank had already attracted citizens out in the street. Instead of running, the citizens armed themselves and began to fight back. Outlaws Bill Stiles and Clell Miller were killed. And, as the rest of the gang made their escape with precious little loot, all of them were wounded, except for Frank and Jesse, who were amazingly unharmed.
Large posses were quickly on the gang’s trail, causing the Youngers and the Jameses to split up. Two weeks later, a posse caught the Youngers near La Salle, Minnesota. In the ensuing fight, Charlie Pitts was killed and Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger were captured, having been wounded again. Frank and Jesse were in the wind. And, to our knowledge, no one ever tried to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, again.
On the Minnesota Trail of the James-Younger Gang
Southern Minnesota offers numerous historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of the James-Younger Gang.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums & Monuments:Northfield Historical Society, Northfield; Brown County Historical Society Museum, New Ulm; Watonwan County Historical Museum, Madelia
Lodging:Archer House, Northfield; The Grand, New Ulm; Grandstay Hotel & Suites, Madelia
4. August 24, 1877 Texas Rangers vs. John Wesley Hardin Comanche to Huntsville, Texas
Premier Texas gunfighter John Wesley Hardin had racked up a number of kills during his turbulent career. But he brought the full wrath of the Texas Rangers down on himself when he killed Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb in Comanche, Texas, in May of 1874.
Tired of this sort of conduct by Hardin, the Texas Rangers put John B. Armstrong on his trail. With a nice piece of detective work, officers soon learned that Hardin’s Texas relatives kept receiving mail from a man in Florida. Armstrong soon learned that Hardin was hiding out in various towns on the Alabama-Florida line.
Investigator Jack Duncan and local officers located Hardin on a train in Pensacola, Florida. Legend has it that when he saw the long-barreled Colt in Armstrong’s hand Hardin yelled, “Texas, by God!” and went for his own gun. Armstrong promptly combed Hardin’s hair with that long-barreled Colt and shot another member of the gang who had pulled a gun. Hardin’s own gun had supposedly caught hung up on his suspenders, causing him to fail to get off a shot.
John Wesley Hardin was transported back to Texas, where he was convicted of murder and sentenced to Huntsville Prison, where he served 17 years. Just 18 months after Hardin’s release from prison, on August 19, 1895, Constable John Selman killed him with a shot to the back of the head in El Paso’s infamous Acme Saloon.
On the Trail of John Wesley Hardin
Texas offers numerous historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of John Wesley Hardin and the Texas Rangers.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums and Monuments:Bullock State History Museum, Austin; Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum, Waco; Pioneer Village Living History Center, Gonzales; Old Jail Museum, Gonzales; Gonzales Memorial Museum, Texas State Prison Museum, Huntsville; Concordia Cemetery, El Paso
Lodging: The Driskill, Austin; Colcord Hotel, Waco; Alcalde Hotel & Grill, Gonzales; Woodbine Hotel & Restaurant, Madisonville
5. 1880 The Texas Rangers vs. Jesse Evans Lincoln, New Mexico to Presidio, Texas
By 1880, Jesse Evans had about worn out his welcome in Lincoln County, New Mexico. The Lincoln County War had wound down and the law was making things too hot for Jesse and his friends.
Jesse and the boys decided that pickings might be easier in the Davis Mountains of west Texas. Being a bit short of funds, they rode in to Fort Davis and robbed the Sender & Siebenborn Store, as well as taking money from any citizens who happened by.A posse was quickly formed but was only able to catch one of the outlaws.
Texas Ranger Sgt. Lamar Sieker quickly brought a detachment into the area and started an investigation. An informant told the Ranger that Jesse Evans and the rest of his gang were in the area of Presidio, some 100 miles south of Fort Davis. Leading a pack mule, Sieker and five Rangers headed south toward Presidio and the Chinati Mountains.
The Rangers spotted the outlaws as they rode toward the mountain and a running gunfight ensued. The outlaws took cover behind some boulders on the top of the mountain and began to pour the lead at the Ranger posse. Riding up to within forty yards of the gang, the Rangers fought back. Ranger Bingham was shot through the heart and Graham, one of the outlaws, also was killed. Jesse Evans and his two surviving companions wisely surrendered.
Jesse Evans was tried, convicted and sent to Huntsville Prison. After having served his sentence and been released, the outlaw disappeared.
On the Trail of Jesse Evans and the Texas Rangers
The road from Lincoln, New Mexico, to Presidio, Texas, offers historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of Jesse Evans and his battle with the Texas Rangers.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums & Monuments:Lincoln Historic Site, Lincoln, NM; Presidio County Courthouse, Fort Leaton State Historic Site, Marfa, TX; Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis, TX; Texas Ranger Museum, Waco, TX
Lodging: El Paisano Hotel, Marfa, TX; El Fortin del Cibola, Presidio County, TX; Hotel Limpia, Veranda Lodge, Indian Lodge, Fort Davis, TX; Colcord Hotel, Waco, TX
6. July 14, 1881 Pat Garrett vs. Billy the Kid Lincoln, New Mexico to Fort Sumner, New Mexico
In the aftermath of the Lincoln County War, Henry McCarty aka Billy the Kid, was sentenced to hang for murder and remanded to the Lincoln County jail until the execution could be carried out. In April of 1881, the Kid murdered deputies James Bell and Bob Olinger while making his escape.
From April to July, Sheriff Pat Garrett bided his time and gathered information that would lead to the Kid’s location. In July, probably from an informant, Garrett learned that the Kid was most likely in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory. Taking two deputies with him, Garrett quietly made his way to the old fort, now turned village.
At about midnight on the 14th, Garrett left his two deputies outside while he went into Pete Maxwell’s house to see what he could find out. While sitting and talking to Maxwell, who was already in bed, Garrett was shocked to see Billy walk into the room from a door that led to the outside. Garrett fired two quick shots, one of which hit the Kid in the chest and killed him.
Over the years, it has been argued whether the Kid had a pistol, a knife or was unarmed. To a frontier lawman, none of that mattered. On top of all of his other violent acts, Billy the Kid had killed two of Pat Garrett’s coworkers and, we may assume, friends—although many doubt Garrett and Olinger were more than professional acquaintances. Garrett’s attitude was that, if the Kid wasn’t armed, he should have been.
On the Trail of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
New Mexico offers numerous historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’s final shootout.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums & Monuments:Lincoln Historic Site; Ft. Stanton Historic Site; Fort Sumner Historic Site/Bosque RedondoMemorial; Hubbard Museum of the American West, Ruidosa; Old Fort Sumner Museum and Billy the Kid Museum,Fort Sumner
Lodging:Ellis Store Country Inn, Lincoln; The Wortley Hotel, Lincoln; Shadow Mountain Lodge & Cabins, Ruidosa; Billy the Kid Country Inn, Fort Sumner
7. March 24, 1882 Wyatt Earp vs. Curly Bill Cochise County, Arizona
To say that Wyatt Earp was fed up would be an understatement. The Cowboys, as the folks in Cochise County, Arizona, called the outlaws, had murdered his brother Morgan and crippled his brother Virgil. As a deputy U.S. marshal, with a pocket full of warrants, Earp formed a posse and hit the trail. One could probably say that the outlaws’ civil rights were not high on his list of priorities.
On March 24, Earp led his posse up to Iron Springs (later called Mescal Springs) and rode right into the outlaws. Earp’s posse fled, thinking that he was with them. But Earp had unshucked a shotgun from his saddle scabbard and dismounted. About that time, Curly Bill Brocius took aim on Wyatt with his own shotgun. Curly Bill missed and Wyatt didn’t. Having fired both barrels of his shotgun into Curly Bill, Wyatt used his revolver to put a bullet into Johnny Barnes, who later died from the wound.
Wyatt’s clothes were torn with bullets, but Earp was not hit. Still under fire, he hitched up his gunbelt and rode to cover. Earp later found out that the outlaws had carried Curly Bill’s body off and buried it on the Patterson Ranch.
Some believed that Curly Bill was not killed in this fight, though Wyatt and others always maintained that he was. The fact is that Curly Bill Brocious was never heard from again.
On the Trail Wyatt Earp and Curly Bill
Southeastern Arizona’s Cochise County offers numerous historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of Wyatt Earp and Curly Bill.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums & Monuments:O.K. Corral and Historama, Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, Boothill Graveyard & Gift Shop, Tombstone; Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum & Cowboy Hall of Fame, Willcox; Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum, Bisbee
Lodging:Tombstone Monument Ranch, Tombstone; Virgil’s Corner Bed & Breakfast, Tombstone
8. 1886 Teddy Roosevelt vs. The Boat Thieves Medora to Dickinson, North Dakota
The 1880s found future president Theodore Roosevelt ranching near Medora, North Dakota, along the Little Missouri River. One spring morning, as the ice in the river was beginning to break, Roosevelt found that someone had made off with the boat that he used to get to the other side of the river and tend to his livestock.
Suspecting some neighbors who lived nearby, Teddy and two ranch hands quickly got to work and built a flat-bottomed scow so that they could go after the thieves. After three days on the river, Roosevelt and his cowboys came up on the thieves’ camp. He arrested three men that he identified as Finnigan, The Half Breed and The Old German. Then Roosevelt waited eight days for the river to thaw, spending the time guarding prisoners and reading books, all the time keeping a double-barreled 12-gauge between him and the outlaws.
Finally, running short of supplies, Roosevelt decided to walk his prisoners overland to the sheriff in the town of Dickinson. Some 36 hours later, Teddy delivered his captives to the sheriff and, being a sworn deputy sheriff, collected his fees and mileage amounting to $50. He might have worn glasses and been from Back East, but the word soon got around that he was not one to mess with.
On the Trail of Theodore Roosevelt and the Boat Thieves
Western North Dakota offers numerous historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of Theodore Roosevelt and the boat thieves.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums & Monuments:Theodore Roosevelt National Park, The Château de Mores Interpretive Center, Joe Ferris General Store, North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, Medora; Dickinson Museum Center, Dickinson
Lodging:Rough Riders Hotel, Medora; Bar X Guest Ranch & Horse Camp, Medora; 1026 Oasis Inn, Dickinson
9. October 1892 Coffeyville vs. The Dalton Gang Meade to Coffeyville, Kansas
On October 5, 1892, the Dalton Gang pulled either the most daring stunt, or the stupidest stunt, of their outlaw career. Bob, Grat and Emmett Dalton, along with Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers, elected to hold up two banks at once in the Daltons’ old hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas.
The boys just made a few really stupid mistakes. They rode into town wearing phony-looking disguises that only called attention to them. They failed to case the banks ahead of time and did not have a good escape route planned. And they let Grat Dalton, not one of the sharpest knives in the drawer, be the leader in one bank.
Things went to pieces in a hurry, with the double robbery taking too long. Citizens discovered the twin crimes and began shooting even before the gang got out of the banks. In the confusion, Grat Dalton killed the town marshal in an alley, and the gang killed three citizens.
Hemmed up in an alley, trying to get on their horses, the outlaws were converged upon by townspeople who killed the entire gang except Emmett Dalton, who was shot so many times that he should have died. It was said that Bill Doolin had also been with the gang, but had held back, claiming that his horse was lame. If so, it just shows that Doolin was a whole lot smarter than the rest of the Dalton Gang.
On the Trail of the Dalton Gang
Southern and Western Kansas, from Meade to Coffeyville, including a side trip to Dodge City, offers numerous historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of the Dalton Gang.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums & Monuments:The Daltons Defenders Museum, Condon Bank in Historic Perkins Building, Coffeyville CVB,Coffeyville; Meade County Historical Museum, Dalton Gang Hideout & Museum, Meade; Boothill Museum, Dodge City
Lodging: Regal Inn, Coffeyville; Lakeway Hotel: Bed & Breakfast, Meade; Boothill Casino & Resort, Dodge City
10. August 1896 Heck Thomas vs. Bill Doolin Lawson to Guthrie, Oklahoma
Bill Doolin’s turn finally came in 1896. After the demise of the Dalton Gang, of which he was a member, he formed his own wild bunch and kept on following the outlaw trade. Among other things, they shot up a group of U.S. marshals in Ingalls, Oklahoma Territory. Captured in Arkansas by Bill Tilghman, Doolin soon escaped from the jail in Guthrie.
In August of 1896, Deputy U.S. Marshal Heck Thomas set up surveillance on the home of Doolin’s father-in-law in Lawson, Oklahoma Territory. Late at night, the posse saw a man walking from the house, up a trail, in their general direction. When it was determined that it was Bill Doolin, the posse opened up. Doolin returned fire, but he was shot several times, and killed dead on the spot. Heck Thomas got the credit for killing Doolin, having centered the outlaw’s chest with a load of buckshot.
Folks have always debated if Thomas’s posse had called on Doolin to surrender. Most likely they did, but maybe, as in the case of Frank Hamer and Bonnie and Clyde, Doolin couldn’t hear them over the sound of the gunfire. We suspect that Heck Thomas didn’t much care.
On the Trail of Heck Thomas and Bill Doolin
Central Oklahoma offers numerous historic sites, scenic byways and heritage communities to explore on the trail of Heck Thomas and Bill Doolin.
Historic Sites, Parks, Museums & Monuments:National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City; Oklahoma Territorial Museum, Summit View Cemetery, Logan County Historical Society, Guthrie; JM Davis Arms & Historical Museum, Claremore; Woolaroc Museum, Bartlesville
Lodging: Pollard Inn, The Stone Lion Inn, Guthrie; Colcord Hotel, The Skirvin Hotel, Oklahoma City
Jim Wilson is a retired Texas peace officer, a former sheriff and a lifelong student of Western history. The Big Bend country of West Texas is his home.
The True Blue Story Behind the West’s Toughest Trousers:
Digging through the ashes to uncover the tale of the frontiersman who made blue jeans possible.
Everyone knows his name, and everyone thinks they know his story. He’s Levi Strauss, the man who made the first blue jeans possible. But he’s also a figure of grand myth because the company he founded lost its historical records in the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, California. The real story was left in the ashes, but after spending 24 years as the company’s historian, I can right the historical record.
he week of December 10, 1894, was drizzly and cold in Benson, Arizona Territory. When the Southern Pacific shrieked into town, the passengers who stepped off the train were bundled up against the chill. Two of them were substantial, bearded men who walked directly into the lobby of the Grand Central Hotel. There, they signed the register: Adolph Sutro and Levi Strauss.
The clerk, no doubt pleased to have such distinguished men as guests, gave them first-class rooms, reasonable rates and the best of meals, just as the Grand Central advertised. The clerk and the hotel’s other guests thought they knew the identities of these illustrious visitors. But they were wrong.
The two gentlemen were impostors.
The real-life Sutro and Strauss were in San Francisco, California, that week, attending to their personal business.
Sutro, a Comstock Lode icon who invested his mining tunnel fortune into real estate, had just been elected mayor of the city and was preparing for the upcoming visit of Gen. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. Strauss, the president of Levi Strauss & Co., was a merchant, philanthropist and the man behind the popular copper-riveted denim “Two Horse” work pants. He was in court telling Judge JCB Hebbard why he couldn’t serve on the grand jury that term.
Whoever those men in Benson were, the faux Sutro and Strauss had themselves a good time, playing off the recognition of celebrities many thought they knew well.
A Figure of Grand Myth
For decades, the Levi Strauss & Co.’s story about Strauss, the founding of the company and the invention of blue jeans went like this: Strauss was born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1829, came to America and worked with his brothers in New York and Kentucky, then took a clipper ship to San Francisco, California, in 1850. There, he noticed that miners’ pants kept ripping, so he made a pair out of some tent canvas that he’d brought with him from New York. Later, he worked with a tailor in Reno, Nevada, to put rivets in the trousers and, at some point, dyed them indigo blue.
It’s a fun story, but it’s pure fabrication. Here’s how it really happened.
Bavarian-born Strauss emigrated with his mother and sisters to New York in 1848. His two older brothers were already there, and he worked in their wholesale dry goods business.
In 1853, Strauss took the Panama route to San Francisco to open up a West Coast branch of the family business, distributing the fine dry goods that his brothers shipped to him. His customers were general stores and men’s haberdasheries, and they served the small villages and growing cities of the frontier West.
In 1871, a Russian immigrant named Jacob Davis, living in Reno, Nevada, started making work pants out of cotton duck and denim material, reinforcing the stress points with metal rivets. He wanted to patent this innovation, but needed a business partner. He turned to his fabric supplier, Strauss, and the two men received U.S. patent #139,121 on May 20, 1873. Within weeks, Levi Strauss & Co. began to manufacture and sell copper-riveted blue denim “waist overalls.” These two immigrants had invented the most American piece of clothing: blue jeans.
Strauss had his finger on the pulse of so much that we associate with the West, starting with the riveted pants. He knew that the Western states were filled with workingmen who labored as ranchers, lumberjacks, railroaders, teamsters, cowboys and miners. Those tough trousers were just what the tailor ordered.
But Strauss’s interests ranged farther, and his fame brought influence and, sometimes, danger.
Blow His Head Off
Take the case of Antonio Gagliardo. He was a failed store owner from Calaveras County, California. After declaring bankruptcy in 1885, he took off for Los Angeles. Recalling his former dry goods supplier, the wealthy and well-known Strauss, Gagliardo mailed Strauss a request to find him a store clerking job. Strauss sent him $50 and a kind note, but instead of being grateful, Gagliardo exploded with rage.
He wrote Strauss again and told him he had 10 days to get him a job or he would “blow his head off.”
Strauss had friends in San Francisco who knew Gagliardo, and they advised him to call the police, but Strauss said the poor man was simply “overexcited by his troubles.”
When Gagliardo showed up in San Francisco, though, Strauss finally paid attention and alerted the chief of police, who had the man arrested and tossed in jail. The case never came to trial because Strauss refused to prosecute. Why?
Gagliardo “promised to refrain from carrying his sanguinary promises into execution.” He kept his promise.
Some of Strauss’s customers were famous, and even infamous.
Shaffer & Lord, of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, sold Strauss’s riveted clothing and dry goods for many years; who knows how many customers were perusing their shelves as the shots from the O.K. Corral rang out nearby on that October day in 1881?
Joseph Goldwater bought dry goods from the firm in San Francisco and then took off for the “land of the rattlesnake and the tarantula” without paying, turning the goods over to a partner in Yuma named Isaac Lyons. Hearing that the law was on their trail, Goldwater and Lyons barricaded themselves into a store, armed with shotguns. When the U.S. marshal showed up, though, they quietly surrendered.
Whoever his customers were, Strauss had a strong pulse on his business. Transportation was key to commercial success for his California merchants, so he was especially interested in improvements in shipping. When he could, he had a hand in these improvements. In 1895, he gave $25,000 to help thwart the “Octopus”—the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had a stranglehold on Western freight rates. Strauss, sugar magnate Claus Spreckels and others founded the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railway, which, for a time, gave shippers, large and small, an alternative to the Southern Pacific, and it was later sold to the Santa Fe Railroad.
Not So Serious?
Strauss was serious about commerce, and looking at his stern face in his surviving photos, you would think he was serious about everything. But the historical record offers hints that he also had a warm and even hilarious side.
In 1888, he let one of his customers use his books to check the credit ratings of mutual store accounts. The customer, dry goods merchant Henry Lash, sometimes sent his 18-year-old son Samuel in his stead. Samuel was always in awe of the famous Strauss and deeply impressed that the great man insisted on being called Levi and not Mr. Strauss. As Samuel later said, “I still remember Levi Strauss as one of the finest, kindest and friendliest gentlemen I’ve ever met.”
Then there’s hilarious: in the late 1880s, the company began to print colorful flyers about the riveted clothing, with illustrations demonstrating the strength of the pants. In 1897, the firm put a new flyer into circulation. It featured a man in a red shirt and riveted denim trousers, hanging onto a fence by his hands and knees, as a large dog grips the man’s pants with its jaws. On the fence is a large handbill advertising the Levi Strauss & Co. patent riveted clothing. At the bottom of the flyer are the words, “Never Rip, Never Tear, I Wish They Did Now.”
That’s funny enough, but here’s the best part: the man on the fence is Strauss. This says a lot about the founder’s personality and his belief in the power of advertising. It’s hard to imagine any of his contemporaries allowing themselves to be a figure of fun in the name of sales.
Toughie with a Soft Spot
When Strauss died in 1902, newspaper headlines called him a merchant and philanthropist. Yes, he had built a multi-million dollar business, but he was also a man of deep compassion. He created scholarships at the University of California in Berkeley that are still in place today. He gave thousands of dollars to disaster relief all over the world. And he left equal amounts in his will to San Francisco charities aimed at children and the elderly.
Tributes to his character filled newspaper columns in the days after his death, and stories were shared at his funeral, all laudatory and heartfelt. But for my money, the comment made years later by one of the women who worked at his blue jeans factory sums him up best.
“He was tough, but a fine fellow.”
A member of Western Writers of America, Lynn Downey is the historian emeritus for Levi Strauss & Co. and author of Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World, published by University of Massachusetts Press.
The Toughest News in the WestThe Tombstone Epitaph lives on…and on.
The Old West was filled with colorful names—none more so than The Tombstone Epitaph, the oldest continuous newspaper in Arizona.
Former Apache agent John Clum, who was just 29, helped found the paper soon after arriving in the silver mining boomtown in early 1880. He’d already owned and operated a publication in Florence, so he was no novice to the business.
When he got to Tombstone, Clum enlisted a couple of partners to put the operation together (the ownership group changed several times over the next two years).
Clum claimed that he came up with the name himself, contrary to stories that others had suggested it. That first issue included a Clum-authored article that trumpeted, “No Tombstone is complete without its epitaph,” evidence of the publisher’s Eastern education and natural wit.
Clum, who headed the local vigilante group and became mayor in January 1881, was pro-Republican, pro-business and pro-law ’n’ order, and so was his newspaper.He was friends with the Earp brothers and the Epitaph made no bones about its opposition to the Cowboy faction.The coverage of the famed 1881 street fight was decidedly one-sided in favor of the Earps and Doc Holliday.
Clum pulled up stakes in 1882 and sold his interest in the newspaper. The owner over the next several years is hard to track, and the newspaper’s political stance bounced back and forth. Tombstone began to fade after the silver ran out later that decade. The Epitaph continued to publish, but only on a weekly basis by the 1890s.
But it was still vital to the community. Thirty years later, the Epitaph helped finance and oversee Tombstone’s first Helldorado celebration in 1929.Researchers began using its archives to write books and articles, and the paper itself featured more Old West historical sketches, helping to keep the local heritage alive, even as the town declined.
But the modern foundation was established in the mid-1970s, when Michigan businessman Harold Love entered the picture. Love had a dream of Tombstone as a tourist destination, so he bought up and renovated several Tombstone landmarks, including the O.K. Corral, Schieffelin Hall, the Crystal Palace—and the Epitaph.
Love and his associates made a deal with the University of Arizona, whose journalism students would gain real-life experience by putting out two local news issues per week.Meanwhile, a new national and international edition would print history articles on a monthly basis.
That arrangement has worked well for more than 40 years, with many subscribers to the two editions accessing the papers online.There’s no end in sight.
If Tombstone is the “town too tough to die,” then the Epitaph is the “newspaper too strong to write its obituary.”