“Unlike squalid old badge wearers such as John Selman and Wild Bill Hickok, John Slaughter was basically a very reserved sort of man. Nobody who wished to keep on calling terms with him overstepped that boundary.”
— Judge Clayton Baird, who rode with Slaughter
“Texas John” Slaughter was a Civil War veteran, trail driver, cattleman, Texas Ranger, famed Cochise, Arizona County Sheriff, professional gambler, and an Arizona State Representative during his lifetime. Before he died at the age of 80, he was a symbol of the American West and a much-celebrated hero.
John was born in Sabine Parish, Louisiana, on October 2, 1841, to Benjamin and Minerva Mabry Slaughter. However, when he was three months old, his family moved to a land grant near Lockhart, Texas, and began raising cattle.
Though schooled in Sabine and Caldwell counties, Slaughter’s formal education was brief. But the boy was a quick learner and found other opportunities to increase his knowledge such as learning how to speak Spanish and mastering cowboy skills from Mexican vaqueros. As a young man, he ranched with his father and brothers, and just before the Civil War began, he enlisted as a Texas Ranger with Captain John Files Tom’s company to fight the Comanche.
The diminutive, 5 foot 6-inch man, with penetrating black eyes and a sometimes stuttering voice, was determined to make his mark upon the world.
On March 9, 1862, he joined the Confederate Army, but by 1864 he was sent home because of an illness. However, after he recovered, he returned to service with the Third Frontier Division, Texas State Troops, in Burnet County, where he earned a reputation of a fearless fighter skilled with firearms.
When the war was over, he and his brothers established the San Antonio Ranch Company in Atascosa County, Texas, where they not only raised their own cattle but also transported herds to Mexico, California, Kansas, and New Mexico. They were some of the first to ever drive cattle up the Chisholm Trail. While he was in California on a cattle drive, he became an avid poker player, a compulsion that would follow him throughout his life.
On August 4, 1871, he married Eliza Adeline Harris and the two would eventually have four children, though only two would survive to adulthood.
In 1876, Slaughter was playing poker in a saloon in San Antonio, Texas, when he caught another player named Barney Gallagher cheating. When Gallagher won the hand, Slaughter challenged him with a gun and took back his losses. Later, the cheating man was so enraged that he followed Slaughter to his ranch where he told the foreman to call him out, intending to kill him. As soon as John came in sight, Gallagher shot him but missed. Slaughter returned fire, and Gallagher fell dead on the ground with a bullet in his heart.
By the late 1870s, Slaughter felt that Texas had become too crowded and left his wife and children in Texas while he went to look for a new place to settle in New Mexico.
He bought cattle but didn’t purchase any land in New Mexico. Leaving his cattle there, he began looking for land in southern Arizona. This was evidently taking him some time and he soon sent for his wife and children who joined him in Tucson. However, his wife died shortly afterward of smallpox in 1877.
Returning to New Mexico to get his cattle, Slaughter left his children in Arizona and traveled eastward. While camping on the banks of the Pecos River, he met a family named Howell, who had a 16-year-old daughter named Viola. John married the girl on April 16, 1878, and convinced the entire family to move to Arizona.
They first settled south of Tombstone before Slaughter bought the 65,000 acre San Bernardino Ranch near Douglas in 1884. From Arizona down into Mexico, Slaughter built a large and sophisticated operation that employed 20 cowboys and 30 families working the farmlands. John and Viola did not have any children of their own but adopted several children.
In 1886, Slaughter was elected Cochise County Sheriff, tasked with ridding Tombstone and Galeyville of lawlessness. Working closely with Wells Fargo Express Agent and former U.S. Deputy Marshal Jeff Milton, the two were deadly in tracking and capturing fugitives. During this time, Slaughter was known to have worn a pearl-handled .44 and carried a 10-gauge, double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun, which he called an “equalizer.”
Slaughter also made the “mistake” of hiring Burton Alvord as a Deputy Sheriff. Though Alvord quickly earned a reputation as an excellent tracker, bringing in several cattle rustlers and other wanted fugitives, he also was a heavy drinker. He would, within a few years, turn “outlaw.”
One of Slaughter’s first tasks was to bring in the Jack Taylor Gang, who had robbed a train near Nogales and shot at the train crew. He and his men heard the gang was hiding out at the home of Flora Cardenas. However, by the time they arrived, the bandits had fled. They then traveled to Willcox, then Contention, where they found gang members Manuel Robles and Nieves Deron sleeping at the camp of Manuel’s brother, Guadalupe Robles.
When Slaughter shouted for the two men to get up, a gunfight ensued, in which Guadalupe Robles, who had otherwise been an upstanding citizen, joined in. He was immediately shot and killed.
Manuel Robles and Deron tried to run away while still blasting their six guns. One bullet caught Slaughter’s ear, who returned the fire, killing Nieves Deron. Manuel Robles, though seriously wounded by a shot from Burton Alvord, was able to escape. Soon, the leader of the gang, Jack Taylor was arrested in Sonora, and Manuel Robles, along with Geronimo Miranda, were killed by the Mexican police in the Sierra Madre mountains.
In the meantime, Slaughter’s deputy Burton Alvord’s efficiency as a lawman began to slip by 1889 as his drinking had increased. Frequenting the many saloons of Tombstone, Alvord started to socialize with some of the criminal elements and was known to get into frequent scuffles. As Slaughter began to chastise his actions, Alvord soured on both the sheriff and the law. Alvord soon moved on, but Slaughter would receive criticism forever, having hired the man, especially when he turned full-blown outlaw at the end of the century.
By 1890, the lawless Cochise County had been mostly tamed, and Slaughter retired from law enforcement to tend to his ranch.
In 1906, Slaughter served briefly in the territorial assembly but concentrated primarily on his business investments and ranch. Eventually, he bought a meat market in Charleston and two butcher shops in Bisbee. So wise were his investments throughout the years that he also began to act as a “banker” for his neighbors, loaning money for mortgages when needed.
In his later years, his health began to deteriorate as he suffered from eczema on his hands and feet and high blood pressure. He died in his sleep at Douglas, Arizona, on February 16, 1922, after complaining of a headache the previous evening. He was buried at the Calvary Cemetery in Douglas, Arizona.
Imposing the law with his six-shooter and a sawed-off shotgun, Slaughter cleaned up Arizona Territory more than any other single individual. Along the way, he met and was much respected by other more famous Old West characters such as Wild Bill Hickok, Ben Thompson, Wyatt Earp, Big Foot Wallace, King Fisher, Sam Bass, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett.
One lawman who rode with Slaughter said of him, “He was like a spider spinning its web for the unwary fly.”
Today, the Slaughter Ranch has been fully restored and serves as a museum.