Note: This story is from my book Highway History And Back Road Mystery II.
The Indians called him the Iron Man because it seemed like their arrows and bullets could not hurt him. The boys at the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Holbrook, Arizona called him a dandy because of his long flowing hair and flamboyant manner of dress. The outlaws of the Mogollon Rim and high desert called him Hell With A Sixgun.
Commodore Perry Owens was all this and more. While gunfighters like Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and Johnny Ringo may have gotten more press, when men slapped leather and the lead started flying there was no man in the Wild West more fearless than the Apache County Sheriff.
Commodore Perry Owens was born in Tennessee on July 29, 1852 and was named after Navy hero Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who defeated the British fleet on Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
The Owens family moved to Indiana when Perry was still young and he grew up there, earning a reputation for his excellent marksmanship and his skill with horses. Being a handsome young fellow, he was quite popular with the local young ladies. Some claim it was girl troubles that caused him to move to Texas about the time of his eighteenth birthday. Others say it was just wanderlust.
Whatever the reasons were for the journey west, Commodore Perry Owens soon found work as a cowboy. He spent a couple of years wandering the west, working for a time as a buffalo hunter, supplying meat to railroad construction crews.
By 1881 he had drifted into Apache County, Arizona, which at that time included what is now Navajo County. He worked for a local rancher, and soon developed a reputation for his courage and calmness in the face of danger.
Navajo Indians regularly stole horses and cattle from the local ranches, and Commodore Perry Owens was quick to take up their trail. More often then not he not only recaptured the stolen livestock, but came back with a few extra Indian mounts as trophies.
There are many tales about Owens’ encounters with the Navajo. One says that he followed a trio of Navajo who were headed for Navajo Springs with several head of stolen cattle. Owens rode up on their camp and the Indians saw his long hair and thought he was one of the many half-breeds who lived in the area. Before they realized their mistake, Owens quickly shot two of them and the third one fled, leaving his dead friends and their stolen cattle behind.
Another story says that when a group of Navajo threatened him near Keams Canyon one time, Owens pulled his .50 Sharps rifle from his saddle scabbard and shot a squirrel off a cliff face nearly a mile away. Impressed with this demonstration of marksmanship, the Navajo decided to go off in search of easier prey. Another time, he was said to have single-handedly held off 100 Navajo warriors at the stage station at Navajo Springs.
Certainly many of Owens’ encounters with the Indians were inflated, either by his own account or the passage of time, but it is known that he did have several violent confrontations with the Navajo, and though the claim that he killed at least fifty Indians is probably exaggerated, there is no question that the Navajo considered him a fearless and formidable foe.
In 1886 Owens was elected Sheriff of Apache County, Arizona, making him responsible for enforcing the law in 21,177 square miles of territory. Most reports say Owens was well liked within his jurisdiction, and he is described as being soft spoken and having a calm demeanor. Many thought Owens eccentric. He wore a fringed buckskin jacket and silver-studded leather chaps, topped by a wide-brimmed hat. He wore his hair long and had a strange habit of taking a bath as often as once a week! He carried two six-shooters cross-draw and was a dead shot with either weapon from either hand. The local women all swooned over the handsome young sheriff and the local bad guys soon learned he was not a man to cross. Sheriff Owens was honest and meticulous with the money entrusted to him as sheriff and tax assessor at a time when Apache County government was slipshod at best and corruption was commonplace.
Owens spent his first year in office getting the drunken cowboys who hung out in Holbrook’s saloons under control and chasing cattle rustlers. He was involved in two or three shootouts and is reported to have killed one outlaw.
A full blown range war was in progress when Owens took office, and he soon found himself right in the middle of it. Known as the Pleasant Valley War, the main players in the hostilities were the Blevins and Grahams, notorious outlaws and rustlers, on one side, who were pitted against the Tewksburys, who had the nerve to bring sheep into the cattle country of the Mogollon Rim. By the time the bloody feud ended, 28 men would die. There were bush-whackings, lynchings, and back shootings on both sides.
Andy Cooper, also known as Andy Blevins, played a major role in the range war. He killed John Tewksbury and William Jacobs, and rustled horses and cattle wherever he could find them.
Cooper was holed up at the home of his half-brothers in Holbrook when Sheriff Owens rode into town on a Sunday afternoon in September, 1887. Owens carried with him a warrant for his arrest. Cooper had often bragged that no lawman was foolish enough to try to arrest him.
Several people inside the home were just sitting down to Sunday dinner when Owens called for Cooper to come outside and surrender. In the next few seconds all hell broke loose. Cooper’s half-brother, John Blevins, came to the door and fired a shot at the sheriff, missing his target and killing Andy Cooper’s horse instead. The fearless lawman’s aim would prove more deadly. Owens returned fire with his Winchester, killing Andy Cooper and wounding John Blevins.
A friend of the Blevins family named Mote Roberts jumped out of a side window of the house, firing at Owens along the way, and the sheriff returned fire, killing him. Ignoring his mother’s attempts to hold him back and keep him out of the gunfight, fifteen year old Sam Houston Blevins grabbed his brother’s sixgun and ran outside, firing wildly at the sheriff. Owens killed him as quickly as he had his other assailants. The entire battle lasted less than a minute, and cemented Commodore Perry Owens’ legend.
While many considered the sheriff a hero, others began to murmur that he had overreacted. Though the shooting of young Sam Blevins was certainly justified, some people still believed the killing of one so young was uncalled for. Obviously those people had never been in the heat of battle. Mote Roberts’ friends alleged that he was unarmed and claimed that he only jumped from the window to avoid the bullets that were tearing through the walls of the frame house. Owens stood by his claim that he shot the man in self-defense, and eyewitnesses to the event supported his description of the shootout. True or false, public opinion began to turn against the sheriff.
Some said it might have been different if the gunfight had happened out on the open range, but claimed that by confronting Cooper in town at a house filled with people, including women and children, Owens had disregarded public safety. The sheriff stood by his actions and was not indicted for the shooting, but was relieved of his duties by the County Commission. They also withheld his salary, but before leaving town he went to the courthouse and held them at gun point until they gave him his back pay.
Owens served in several law enforcement positions, including as a Deputy U.S. Marshall under William Meade, as a guard for the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, and as a stagecoach guard. He was appointed the first Sheriff of the newly-created Navajo County in 1895, spending two years in office. His later law enforcement career was not as action-filled as were his days as Apache County Sheriff, but Commodore Perry Owens was still considered a man to avoid among the lawless element that remained in the territory.
After his term as Sheriff of Navajo County ended, Owens moved to Seligman, Arizona, where he ran a store and saloon. Tales from those days say that his reputation went with him to Seligman and nobody ever got drunk and rowdy in his saloon.
In 1902, Owens married a woman named Elizabeth Barrett, and they lived in San Diego, California for a while before returning to Seligman. Commodore Perry Owens’ last years were hard on the old lawman. He suffered from several illnesses, and it is said he was haunted by the men he had killed over the years. In his final days he hallucinated that the Blevins were after him. He died at the age of 66, on May 10, 1919.
Today the warrant for the arrest of Andy Cooper rests in the archives of the Apache County court in St. Johns, Arizona, yellow with age. Across the back, Commodore Perry Owens had scrawled: “Party against whom this warrant was issued was killed while resisting arrest.” The Blevins house, where the bloody shootout took place, still stands at 216 N.E. Central Street in Holbrook and is used by the local Senior Citizens Association. A portrait of Sheriff Owens hangs in the Navajo County Sheriff’s office today.
Commodore Perry Owens is buried in the Citizen’s Cemetery in Flagstaff, Arizona, close to the campus of Northern Arizona University. Even in death he may still be haunted by the men he put under the ground – he is buried next to a soldier named Blevins. GPS coordinates at his grave are N 35o 11.230 W 111o 38.976.
Congratulations Marlys Shride, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of The Gecko In The Corner, the second book in my John Lee Quarrels series. We had 88 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.
Thought For The Day – Counting to 10 only makes it premeditated.