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COMMODORE PERRY OWENS

A man with a gunfighter's instincts and Hollywood looks.

Commodore Perry Owens was born in Hawkins County, Tennessee on the 29th July 1852 to Oliver H. Perry and his wife Lettie Perniecy West Owen.

There is some controversy over how a gunfighter got the first name of Commodore, a name that would mark him out for the rest of his life. Commodore’s father was named after the American naval commander, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry who defeated a British fleet at the battle of Lake Erie on the 10th September 1813. The gunfighter’s father was Oliver H. Perry Owens in honour of the naval commander.

So how did his son get the first name of Commodore? One contention is that he was born on the anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. However, as the battle was fought on the 10th September we can discount that one. Another reason given is that he was born on the same date as the Naval Commander but that’s not correct either because Commodore Oliver Perry was born on the 23rd August 1785. The last speculation is that he was born on the date of the Commodore’s death, but again this is wrong as he died on 23rd August 1819 at the age of 34. My favorite story is that his mother liked the name so she called him Commodore!

Not long after Commodore was born the family moved to Indiana where he was raised. The boy did not have a very happy childhood as his father was very domineering and the indications are that he was quite violent too. At the age of 13 Commodore ran away and probably never returned to the family home. He started working as a (1)cowboy in New Mexico and Oklahoma and later on in life admitted that he ran with “a gang of tough characters” at that time. A man was not a child for long out West but, as befits the man, his early life is shrouded in mystery.

Details about his early manhood tend to be speculative. One is when Navajo Indians tried to steal horses that he was guarding. He claimed that he had killed two of the warriors, which supposedly earned him the nickname ‘Iron Man’. However the known facts are that in September 1883 he was arraigned for the murder of a Navajo youth near the ranch of James Houck. Owens claimed that the boy was trying to rustle some horses when he shot him. He was subsequently acquitted of this murder by the Apache County Authorities. But his reputation began to grow as one who had red hair, a fiery temper and a fast draw.

Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens, Holbrook, Arizona

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He cut a fine figure of a man and was quite liked by the ladies, although he came in for some teasing over his name Commodore. I think he probably went along with the joking so long as it came from the ladies however it would take a courageous man to join in the joke. It is on record that around this time in his life he built a small ranch near the stage station just outside Navajo Springs near Holbrook, Arizona and stocked it with a few cattle. He called his little homestead the ‘Z-Bar Ranch’ but there is no record of him ever having registered the brand in Apache County.

The Making of a Lawman

In November 1886 Commodore was elected sheriff of (2)Apache County, which in those days was huge, covering 21,177 square miles in the northeastern area of the State. He also inherited warrants for the arrest of 14 men that the previous Sheriff had failed to serve.

The first few months were by Old West standards fairly quiet. Commodore arrested a few men for being drunk and shot two, one of whom died. Like all gunmen he inflated the number of men that he had shot claiming 17 at this point in his career. Gunfighters always inflated the number of men they killed, and with very good reason. If a man had to ‘go up against’ another gunfighter that man might think twice if he knew that the person he was facing had killed a number of men previously. There was an adage ‘never draw on someone unless you know you could win’ and most of the old west gunfighters took this to heart. Commodore was certainly not the only man who inflated his kills as a way of staving off trouble. In any case, by the late 1880’s Commodore was making a small reputation as a competent and efficient lawman.

He also stood out for other reasons: he was noted for his piercing blue eyes; he was very flamboyant in his dress, sporting goat-hide chaps and letting his red hair fall halfway down his back; standing 5 feet 10 inches he was above average in height for those times, and he was extremely good looking, being likened by one of his contemporaries to “a cross between Don Juan, a drugstore cowboy and Billy the Kid.” Commodore wore two six-guns with the butts pointing forward to facilitate his cross hand draw. He was regarded by those who knew him as a wonderful exponent of the revolvers with both hands, which his kill rate supported. It seems he was not much of a talker but had a reputation for honesty and nerve, and was well like by the ladies of the district which I’m sure comes as no surprise!

Now, in order to set the scene for the most important event in Commodore’s life, we need to understand the Pleasant Valley War. Pleasant Valley is about 40 miles south west of Holbrook, Arizona. Although the valley was in Gila County a lot of the violence spilled over into what was then Apache County.

Trouble started between two neighbouring families, the Grahams and the Tewksburys, sometime in the early 1800's when both sides were accused of rustling cattle from the “Texas Aztec Land and Cattle Company”. There was also an undercurrent of racial prejudice as the Tewksburys were half-Indian and were referred to “as those damn blacks” by the Grahams.

In 1885 the Tewksbury brothers introduced sheep into the valley, which became the last straw for the Grahams, who were cattlemen. Cattlemen believed that sheep destroyed the public grazing lands, and they said that sheep introduced a tick that attacked the cattle’s skin making the cattle ill and sometimes killing them. Ranchers also maintained sheep nibbled the grass so low that cattle could not feed properly; cattlemen and sheepherders did not get on well. So at this point the shootings began in earnest. A Basque sheepherder was the first to be murdered, being shot and robbed by Andy Cooper who was on the Graham family side. Andy Cooper was actually Andy Blevins but used the alias Andy Cooper as he was wanted for rustling and murder in Texas. The Blevins clan had moved from Texas en masse to escape arrests and had allied themselves with the Grahams in the Pleasant Valley War.

By late 1887 the Pleasant Valley War had turned very unpleasant indeed and on 2nd September of that year one of the worst incidents occurred. During the night the Graham faction staked out one of the Tewksbury’s ranches and in the early morning attacked and killed John Tewksbury and William Jacobs as the men went to get their horses. The Grahams kept the cabin under fire for several hours even though there were women members of the Tewksbury clan inside. In most range wars it was definitely not good form to kill or injure the women: range wars were very much a man’s fight. To keep the cabin under fire with the women inside would suggest that the war had moved into a very nasty (3)period.

A few days later in a Holbrooke store Andy Cooper was heard bragging that he had killed both Tewksbury and Jacobs. That claim has never been substantiated but the fact that he made the statement certainly incriminated him in the ambush.

Andy Blevins participates in the feud between the Graham and Tewksbury families. Pictured with Andy is his sister Lila.

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It has been estimated that the total number of deaths in the Pleasant Valle War reached as high as 34, which made it the highest recorded number killed in any range war in the US.

Although a lot of the violence in connection with the Pleasant Valley War had spilled over into Apache County, Commodore had up to a point been quite ambivalent about it. It seems that he and Andy Cooper had worked together as cowboys in the past and he might have shown some reluctance to arrest Cooper. However things came to a head when the Apache County Cattle Growers Association issued a warrant for the arrest of Andy Cooper for horse stealing. The Sheriff had been carrying this warrant around for two months but had not made any effort to arrest Cooper. The county seat at that time was located in St John’s and, at one of the regular meetings with the commissioners, Commodore was told in no uncertain terms to serve the warrant on Cooper or he would stand a good chance of being replaced as Sheriff.

In fairness to the commissioners they did say that they did not think that it was a question of fear on the part of the Sheriff. One commissioner said: “Nobody doubted the personal bravery of Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens. He and Cooper had been range pals, however it was the common belief that he was avoiding the arrest, feeling sure that one or the other would be killed; perhaps both, for each was a dead shot.” It sounds to me that being a commissioner was a lot safer than being the Sheriff!

The Holbrook Shootout

On Sunday, September 4th 1887 Commodore Perry Owens left St. John’s to ride the 50 miles to Holbrook to serve the warrant on Andy Cooper who was visiting the Blevins family home. Although he didn’t know it, he was also riding himself into the history of gunfighters of the Old West.

Early in the afternoon Commodore arrived in Holbrook and rode his horse to the livery stables. From there he went to the local drug store run by one of his deputies (4)Frank Wattron. It seems that Wattron offered to accompany Commodore but he refused the offer saying, “I am the Sheriff and I don’t want anyone hurt. I can take him alone.”

The Blevins house consisted of just four rooms, two in the front and two at the back. Both the rooms at the front had a door but there was only one door at the back of the house. Twelve people were packed into this small place, four men, three women and seven children including a babe in arms. The men in the house were Andy Cooper, John Blevins, 15-year-old Samuel Houston Blevins and a friend, or possibly a paying guest, Mose Roberts.

The Blevins House on the north side of the railroad tracks as it appeared around 1920.

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With a Winchester rifle cradled in his right arm Commodore walked to the house. He stepped up onto the porch and knocked on the front door. Andy Cooper answered the door with a pistol in his hand and the Sheriff said “Cooper, I have a warrant for you, let’s not have any trouble.”

Cooper replied, “What warrant?”

“The one I told you about for horse stealing,” replied the Sheriff.

Cooper said, “Wait.”

The Sheriff refused, saying. “Cooper, no wait.”

“Give me a minute, I’m not ready yet,” shouted Cooper and tried to shut the door.

Commodore didn’t hesitate a second, it was kill or be killed, the time for talking had passed. Dropping the rifle to his hip he fired through the wooden door hitting Cooper in the stomach, the bullet passing clean though his body. Cooper fell to the floor mortally wounded.

At that point the door in the left room opened and John Blevins pushed a pistol out of the door and fired a shot at Commodore who was about six feet away. The shot missed its mark but hit Cooper’s horse between the eyes killing it instantly. Commodore swung to his left just as Blevins shut the door. He fired again, the bullet passing through the door hitting John Blevins in the arm, so taking him out of the fight.

Now Commodore started to back out into the street to get a better look at both sides of the house so he could assess if there was any other danger. As he made this move he saw through the window that Cooper was crawling through the house with a gun in his hand so Commodore fired again. The shot passed through the side of the wooden house and hit Andy Cooper in the hip. Just at the time of the third shot Mose Roberts jumped through the window at the side of the house. Roberts looked at the Sheriff then started to run around the back of the house. Owens shot him, the bullet hitting Mose in the back and passing right through him. He managed to stumble to the back of the house and collapsed in front of the back door.

Inside the house 15-year-old Sam Houston Blevins picked up the gun of his mortally wounded older brother and started to run out of the house shouting “Where is that dirty son of a bitch, I’ll get him.” As Sam ran out of the house waving his brother’s gun his mother tried desperately to hold him back. Commodore saw him as yet another threat. He turned and shot again killing the boy instantly. The Sheriff had fired five shots, all of them hitting their mark, three men were dead and one severely wounded. In all, the gunfight had lasted around a minute. That minute made Commodore Perry Owens into a legend.

On his way back to the livery stable Owens was accosted by Justice of the Peace, A.F. Banta who asked, “have you finished the job?” Owens reply was short and to the point, “I think I have!” Commodore Perry Owens mounted his horse and rode out of town. It is estimated that his stay in Holbrook that day lasted just over (5)ten minutes.

After the Gunfight

Commodore had praise heaped on him from just about every quarter. The St. John paper gave him fulsome praise indeed: “Too much credit cannot be given Sheriff Owens in this lamentable affair. It requires more than ordinary courage for a man to go single-handed and alone to a house where it was known there were four or five desperate men inside, and demand the surrender of one of them.” I think that sums it up fairly accurately. It was in the days when there were good men and bad men. I think on the whole Commodore, by the standards of the day, was a good man.

Commodore Perry Owens, Sheriff from 1887-1888

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The problem he ran into with the public opinion after the shooting was that he had killed young Sam Houston Blevins. However boys became men very fast out West and anyone, no matter what age, waving a gun at you, had to be taken seriously. I feel given the circumstances of the fight Commodore made the right decision. If he had not shot and killed young Sam he would himself have been killed, and I don’t think I would be writing about his deeds today. He would have become just another unnamed lawman that history forgot.

Commodore finished his term as Apache County Sheriff but was not re-elected in November 1888. On January 1st 1889 he left the Apache County Sherriff’s Office. I think the main problem was that his style of law enforcement had run its course. Also his lack of a formal education did not work in his favour. However he was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshall and went on to become the first Sheriff of the new Navajo County in 1895, a position in which he served for two years. Towards the end of his career as a lawman he was still considered one of the best law enforcement officers, especially by the bad guys!

At the end of his term as Sheriff of Navajo County he did not seek re-election. He retired to Seligman, Arizona where he opened a general store and saloon. In 1902 he met and married Elizabeth Jane Barrett but they did not have children. The old lawman died on 28th May 1919 at the age of 67. He succumbed to Bright’s disease, an infection of the kidneys, and was buried at Flagstaff, Arizona. His wife survived him by 21 years, dying in San Diego on the 30th April 1945.

So ended the life Commodore Perry Owens, a true America lawman. I feel he should be remembered for much more than the Holbrook shootout: he was a man who devoted the best years of his life to bringing law and order, of a sort, to the Wild Wild West.

Footnotes

(1) Although he was so young Commodore would not have had much trouble getting a job as a cowboy. In those days ‘out west’ boys became men very quickly. In fact the term cowboy came about because most cowboys were just that – boys!

(2) At the time that Commodore Perry Owens was given the job of Sheriff Apache County it was very large indeed covering 21,177 square miles. In those days it also took in what is now Navajo County. It was not until 1895 that Navajo was formally created.

(3) When the cabin had been under fire for several hours a drove of wild pigs arrived and started to eat the bodies of the two corpses. John Tewksbury’s wife came out with a shovel and drove the pigs away then started to dig a grave for the two men. While this macabre incident took place the Grahams did hold their fire at last. As soon as Mrs. Tewksbury re-entered the cabin the firing resumed. There were no further casualties on ether side despite all the lead flying around and in the end the Grahams left.

(4) Frank Wattron and George Powell were two very dependable deputies who helped Commodore make a big difference in Apache County. I think he did not take up the offer from Wattron on this occasion as he thought a personal appeal to Cooper could resolve the problem of arrest in peaceful way.

(5) I think the reasoning for Commodore’s quick exit was that Cooper and Blevins were part of a large gang who might have had friends in Holbrook. After such a bloody shoot out it was more than possible that one or more of the gang might take a potshot at him. Getting away quickly would have given time for tempers to cool a bit. As with everything else he did on that day it was the reactions of a gunfighter that drove his instincts, not fear.

Jonathan Smith commented on 06-Jan-2017 04:27 PM
My Name is Jonathan Smith and I´m 13 years old. I live in Germany and I have wrote a book about Gunfighters (Revolverhelden die wahren Personen). I have contacted as many as 15 famous Historian about the old West too. I have a question about the article about Perry Owens. There is written that he claimed to have killed 17 men but the number is probably not true. Which number is then true in your opinion.
Bob Buckle commented on 06-Jan-2017 04:28 PM
Hi Jonathan, Thanks for your enquiry about Commodore Perry Owen and the number of men he is reputed to have killed. It is notoriously hard to come up with a definite number for any of the Old West Gunfighters, and Perry Owen is no exception to this rule. It has been said that he killed over 40 Navajo Indians and 17 white men. However, what we do know for definite is that he killed at least 1 Indian and 4 white men. Most of the Old West Gunfighters greatly exaggerated their ‘kill rate’ as a way of deterring other gunmen from getting into a shootout with them. Most gunfights were mostly at a range of no more than 15/20 feet and if you thought the man facing you had already killed 10 or more men you might think again before taking him on. So in answer to your question I think the number of ‘kills’ would be probably around the 6 to 8 mark. However Jonathan your guess could be just as good as mine and might even be better!

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