Arizona’s Pleasant Valley War

the 1880s, Arizona territory was the scene of a range war between cattle ranchers and sheep herders which killed dozens of people and delayed the State’s entry into the Union.


Ed Tewksbury.                      Image from Wiki Commons

It all started as a dispute between two families.

In 1881, Ed Tewksbury moved from San Francisco to Arizona with his Native American wife, one daughter, and four sons. They settled in the Pleasant Valley, near the town of Young. Here, Ed established a cattle ranch known as “The Flying V”. Shortly afterwards, Tewksbury somehow met John and Thomas Graham, Irish immigrants who were living in Ohio, and told them about the plentiful grazing land in Arizona. The Graham brothers established a ranch in Pleasant Valley in 1884, and the two families were friends.

But things quickly turned sour. Arizona was a rough and lawless place, and like so many other frontier ranchers, both the Tewksburys and the Grahams took to cattle rustling, stealing herds from neighboring ranches and rebranding them as their own. One of these victims was James Stinson, who filed charges with the local authorities and sent a group of his cowboys to confront the Tewksburys at the Flying V. Tempers flared, guns were drawn, and two people were wounded.

Stinson now offered the Grahams a deal—he would give them a large herd of cattle if they agreed to testify against the Tewksburys. Despite the Graham’s testimony, however, the charges against the Tewksburys were dismissed for lack of evidence. That brought about an armed confrontation between the Tewksburys and Stinson at his ranch, in which several people were shot and wounded. Shortly later, Stinson sold his ranch and left town.

But now there was simmering resentment between the Tewksburys and the Grahams. There were disputes over grazing areas and water rights. Then, in 1886, the Tewksburys took a step that would lead to open warfare: they introduced a large flock of sheep onto their range land.

In the West, there had always been friction between cattle-ranchers and sheep-herders. They were competitors for the best grazing land, and sheep flocks tended to use more water and to graze the desert plants more thoroughly, sometimes leading to overgrazing. There was also a social element to the conflict: the cattle-ranchers tended to be wealthier and have bigger holdings, while sheep-herders tended to be poorer and have smaller properties. Like the Tewksburys, who were part Native American, sheep-herders also tended to be Indian or Mexican, introducing a racial element into the situation. So when the Tewksburys introduced sheep into an area that had until then been entirely devoted to cattle-ranching, feelings became intense, and people chose up sides. The Grahams and Tewskburys found themselves once again opposed to each other, and the lingering bitterness over their previous feud would add fuel to the fire.

After much argument and threats, a de facto agreement was reached: the sheep would be allowed to graze in some areas, and the rest would be reserved for cattle. But in February 1887, the Tewksburys broke the truce by moving part of their flock into a new area. The result was violent: one of the Tewskbury’s Navajo herders was shot and killed, and his sheep were driven off.

The resulting range war lasted for five years. In a series of raids and ambushes, masked gunmen from both factions shot at each other, often accompanied by lawmen from two different counties. Estimates of the number of deaths go from 20 to 50.

The most intense bloodshed happened in the summer of 1887.  In August, William Graham was ambushed in front of his house and shot. He lived long enough to tell the sheriff that it was Ed Tewksbury who had shot him. Tewksbury, in turn fled the area and was tried and convicted of murder in abstentia. In September, a posse of Graham gunmen surrounded one of the Tewskbury family homes and poured rifle fire into it for hours. The siege stopped when one of the women came outside with a shovel to bury John Tewksbury and William Jacobs, who had been killed.

By the end of 1888, every adult male in both families had been killed except two—Ed Tewksbury and Tom Graham. The Pleasant Valley War had come to a standstill.

But it was not quite over yet. In August 1892, four years later, Tom Graham was shot at his home in Tempe AZ. Before dying, he told the police that it was Ed Tewksbury who had killed him. Tewksbury was arrested and convicted, but was granted a retrial for procedural reasons. This resulted in a hung jury, and then in an acquittal. During the initial trial, Tom Graham’s widow Annie tried to shoot Tewksbury with a pistol she had smuggled inside her dress.

Ed Tewksbury died of natural causes in Globe AZ in April 1904, the last survivor of an Old West range war that had wiped out two entire families. By some reports, the violence convinced the US Congress that the Arizona Territory was lawless and uncivilized, and its application for statehood was delayed for years until the feud was over.

Several victims of the Pleasant Valley War are buried in the cemetery at Young AZ. The nearby Perkins Store, scene of one of the shootouts, is now a museum which interprets the history of the conflict.


2 thoughts on “Arizona’s Pleasant Valley War”

  1. Not the kind of story that believers in Manifest Destiny want to hear. Similar stuff happened in South Africa – one of the Boer Republics actually had a civil war – but at school during the apartheid era, we were never told of this. We only heard the heroic tales.

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