The Pleasant Valley War, sometimes called the Tonto Basin Feud, or Tonto Basin War, was commonly thought to be an Arizona sheep war between two feuding families, the cattle-herding Grahams and the sheep-herding Tewksburys. However, eyewitness reports show that sheep were not brought into Pleasant Valley until 1885, two years after the feuding between the Tewksbury and Graham factions began. Although Pleasant Valley is physically located in Gila County, Arizona, many of the events in the feud took place in Apache County, and in Navajo County. The feud itself lasted for about a decade, with its most deadly incidents between 1886 and 1887, with the last known killing occurring in 1892. Of all the feuds that have taken place throughout American history, the Pleasant Valley War was the most costly, resulting in an almost complete annihilation of the two families involved.
Edwin Tewksbury in the 1890s, the last surviving Tewksbury who was involved in the feud..
During the late 1880s, a number of range warsâ€”informal undeclared violent conflictsâ€”erupted between cattlemen and sheepmen over water rights, grazing rights, or property and border disagreements. In this case, there had been quarrels between the workhands of both factions as far back as 1882. The early clashes stemmed from accusations of cattle and horse rustling leveled at both parties, and some both the Tewksbury's and Grahams were arrested on charges made by another rancher, Jim Stinson, that they all had taken part in rustling cattle from Stinson's ranch.
There is also an undercurrent of racial prejudice against the Tewksburys who were half-Indian, and therefore referred to as "damn blacks" by the Grahams and Stinson. Stinson made a deal with the Grahams to pay them each fifty head of cattle and see that they never served jail time if they would turn state's evidence against the Tewksbury brothers. The Grahams took the deal and went to work for Stinson with the expressed vow to drive them out of Pleasant Valley. The case against the Tewksbury's was thrown out of court for lack of evidence.
The notion that this was a sheep v. cattle range war came about in part because the first killing in the feud was the murder of a Basque sheep herder who worked for the Daggs Brothers sheep ranch in northern Arizona. In 1885, the Tewksbury brothers leased some sheep from Daggs, and they sent the sheep to Pleasant Valley with the Basque sheep herder. The Basque sheep herder was murdered and robbed by Andy Cooper who was one of the Graham faction. Overall, between twenty to thirty-four deaths resulted directly from the feud.
Once partisan feelings became tense and hostilities began, Frederick Russell Burnham was drawn into the conflict in 1884. Initially he was not involved but was dragged into it and subsequently marked for death. Burnham hid for many days before he could escape from the valley. With the help of friends, he managed to get out of the feud district after several months during which he had a number of narrow escapes, accounts he recalls in his memoirs, Scouting on Two Continents.
Commodore Perry Owens as the sheriff of Apache County, Arizona in 1886.
The Wells Outfit
A local cattleman, Fred Wells had borrowed a lot of money in Globe, Arizona to build back his cattle herd. The Wells clan had no stake in the feud, but his creditors did. Wells was told to join their forces in driving off the opposition's cattle or forfeit his own stock. When Wells refused, his creditors demanded immediate payment of the loans and sent two deputies to attach his cattle. Wells gathered his clan and cattle together along with a young ranch hand named Frederick Russell Burnham, who Wells had trained in shooting and considered him almost a part of his family, and began driving his herd into the mountains, hotly pursued by the deputies.
It was slow going to drive the cattle into the mountains and the deputies had no trouble overtaking the Wells clan. The deputies forced the girls and the mother to halt which then set off the barking dogs. Burnham and John Wells, the son of Fred Wells and Burnham's close friend, rushed back. Just when they arrived one of the dogs bit a deputy as he was dismounting. The deputy drew and shot the dog, which then caused Burnham, John, and two of the girls to also draw their weapons. The dismounted deputy then fell dead, shot from a long distance by Fred Wells, and the other deputy raised his hands. The clan continued into the mountains with the captured deputy and then released him once their objectives were secure. The deputy returned to Globe and reported on the incident.
In Globe, a meeting was held to discuss the elimination of Fred and John Wells, and an "unknown gunman carrying a Remington six-shoot belt", that is, Burnham and his Remington Model 1875 sidearm and bandolier. Private posses were raised for raiding the opposition. Killings and counter-killings became a weekly occurrence. For the Wells outfit it became a sheer waste of human life in a struggle without honor or profit in another man's feud, and seemingly without end.
Frederick Russell Burnham in Arizona Territory during 1881.