Sheriff Owens and the “last man standing” range war

September 4, 1887

On this day Commodore Perry Owens, sheriff of Apache County, Arizona Territory, went out to serve a warrant on a Texas outlaw named Andy Blevins for the murder of a sheep herder. It was how Sheriff Owens came to win the second most famous gun fight in Arizona history.  

Known as the Holbrook shootout, the lawman had earned the reputation as a crack shot.  He approached the house in Holbrook, where Blevins, alias Andy Cooper, (left) and an assortment of brothers and cousins were living.   He had a Winchester across his arm.

As the sheriff approached, Andy fired from behind the door.  The bullet from Owens’ Winchester hit Blevins full in the chest, killing him instantly.  Blevins’ oldest brother, Robert, fired on the sheriff next and was killed with a single shot. An unfortunate brother-in-law, Moses Roberts, jumped through a window, perhaps only to escape the violence and was shot dead by Owens, as well.  

Sixteen-year-old Sam Houston Blevins was the fourth to fall.  He was killed when he went after the lawman with his dead brother’s six gun.

The carnage lasted less than a minute, according to members of the sheriff’s  posse, witnesses to the event.  Only a single Blevins, Andy’s brother, John, survived. 

The shootout helped end one of the bloodiest frontier feuds on record, known thereafter as the Pleasant Valley War.  It started as a grazing dispute between families and factors of cattle rancher Tom Graham and sheep herders headed by John Tewksbury.  

Five years earlier a third-party, Jim Stinton, had accused both the Grahams and Tewksburys of rustling his cattle and stealing his horses.  His legal case was dismissed but Stinton (left) harbored an intense dislike for sheepmen or perhaps some racial animus, for the half-Native American Tewksburys.  In an effort to further indict the Tewksburys, he offered the Graham clan 50 head of cattle each for giving false testimony against them.

The two parties continued to argue over grazing rights on public lands, traditionally the sole purview of the cattle ranchers.  By 1886, it was illegal to run sheep past the Mogollon Rim. Named for 18th century Spanish governor, Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon, the rim is located in present-day Gila County and is the near-geographic center of Arizona.  At the time it was a boundary separating sheep herding in the north from cattle grazing in the south.  

When the Tewksbury brothers leased sheep from the Dragg Brothers Ranch and hired a Basque herder to drive them into Pleasant Valley, south of the rim, more trouble erupted.  The Graham’s ranch hand, the aforementioned Andy Blevins, had shot and killed the Basque herder.  In addition, an unknown assailant beheaded a Ute herdsman near the Graham ranch.  No one was ever arrested but Tom Graham was suspected of the crime.

Killings and counter-killings became almost routine during the two years between 1885 and 1887.  In all an estimated 25 people died during the Pleasant Valley War.

Even crack-shot lawman Owens hadn’t been able to completely stop the violence. however.  A number of lynchings and unsolved murders followed the Holbrook shootout while the Grahams and Tewksbury’s continued to deplete their numbers until only two were left. 

When Tom Graham (right) was murdered in Tempe, Arizona, in 1902, Edwin, the last of the Tewksburys was arrested.  Defended by Thomas Fitch, who had won the case against the Earps and Doc Holiday after the O.K. Corral, Tewksbury was granted a mistrial and acquitted in his second trial.  By the time he was released from prison following his acquittal there were no Grahams left to administer “frontier justice” for Tom Graham’s murder.  The last man standing, Edwin Tewksbury, (right)  died in 1904 in Globe, Arizona.

As for Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens, he was defeated for re-election in Apache County and later appointed sheriff of the newly formed Navajo County.  He gave up law enforcement after that, becoming a succesful entrepreneur with a general store and saloon in Seligman, Arizona.  He died in 1919 at age 67 and is buried in Flagstaff. 

Tim Country Museum, 700 S Green Valley Parkway, Payson, Arizona, covers the history of Gila and surrounding area from its ancient peoples to the cowboy culture of the more recent past.  Steps away is the reconstructed  Zane Grey cabin overlooking Green Valley Park.  Grey, perhaps the most famous Western writer of his generation, first visited the area in 1929 and a number of his books were set in the vicinity. 

Just 30 minutes from Payson, the Mogollon Rim Recreation Area, site of the events in the Pleasant Valley War.  The Rim CountryMuseum and Zane Grey Cabin are open 10 to 4,  Sunday and Monday, and Wednesday through Saturday.  Closed Tuesdays. Combined admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students 12 to 18 and children under 12 free.  For more information on the museum and cabin go to,  call (928) 474-3483 or write   PO Box 2579, Payson, AZ. 85541  For mor information on Mogollon Rim Recreation Area call the visitor center at  (928) 333-4301. 

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

♦Head On West strives for historic accuracy and relies on a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.