Covering a nearly perfectly square 83 by 84 mile area in the southeastern corner of the state of Arizona, Cochise County was carved out of the eastern portion of Pima County on February 1, 1881. Named after the famous Chiricahua Apache war chief Cochise and purchased from Mexico in 1853, the area that is now Cochise County has a long and storied history that predates the United States of America. The first European contact with the land that would become the county came in 1528, when the remnants of the groundbreaking but ill-fated Narvaez Expedition were shipwrecked off of the coast of modern-day Texas.
The four survivors of the expedition, Spanish explorers Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Estevanico (de Carranza’s North African slave) decided to make their way to the Spanish stronghold of Mexico City. With the help of indigenous people native to the region, they traveled west into modern-day Arizona, and south, through the San Pedro Valley, located in what is today the western edge of Cochise County.
The men would eventually finish their journey, becoming the first non-native people to navigate and travel the South-West. Cabeza de Vaca would later sail home to his native Spain, and in 1542 he published his account of the ordeal, “La relación y comentarios,” or “The Accounts and Commentaries,” an account that included the Old World’s first introduction to the land that would become Cochise County.
Over 300 years later the county would get its namesake when in 1861, following the murder of several of his family members by the US Army, the leader of the Chiricahua Apache (whose territory covered the land that would later come to be known as Cochise County) came to an agreement with his father-in-law, the chief of the Mimbreños Apaches, to take advantage of the escalating American Civil War and drive the encroaching non-natives off of Apache land. That leader was named Cochise, and he’d wage a decade long guerrilla campaign against both the Confederacy and the United States, sheltered safely in the virtually impenetrable mountains of Southeast Arizona.
A born leader and savvy tactician, Cochise and his warriors would use hit and run tactics to terrifying effect, striking out from the hills, sacking a settlement, and fading back into the mountains before the army could leverage their massive advantage in numbers and firepower, or even prepare any sort of effective response. Hidden and tightly ensconced in their home territory there, the Chiricahua were virtually unassailable, able to easily resist or evade all attempts by the US government to root them out. For ten years Cochise and his band hid in the mountains, fiercely resisting the encroachment of outsiders onto his peoples’ territory.
In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant personally ordered Civil War hero General Oliver O. Howard to find Cochise, and put an end to his raiding. Grant and Howard, despairing of ever removing the Chiricahua by force, elected instead to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict.
In 1872, General Howard was granted safe conduct into Chiricahua territory, where he met with Cochise. Working through an interpreter, the general offered the Apache war chief peace terms: in exchange for stopping the raids, the Chiricahua would be given reservation land in the East, where they’d have government protection and a guarantee of sovereignty. Cochise refused. He’d stop the raids and lay down arms, but only if the reservation he was given was right there. He wanted the Dragoon and Chiricahua Mountains that his people called home.
General Howard agreed.
Cochise was 67 years old, and would die peacefully two years later, having never been dislodged from his mountains. Twenty years after he began his war, the mountains that he and his people fought from would be part of a county that, to this day, bears his name.
The very same year that Cochise County was created, an act of violence in the small mining town that then served as the county’s seat would forever define and typify not just one county, but an entire region and epoch of American history. The name of that town was “Tombstone”, and the events that occurred there on October 26, 1881 would catapult that name and the names of the men involved into American myth, and, more so than any other happening, come to epitomize the Wild West.
The Gunfight at the O. K. Corral would be over in 30 seconds, and would remain a footnote in Arizona history until nearly half a century later, when Stuart N. Lake described it in his 1931 biography, “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall”. While the events of the book were heavily dramatized, the remarkable tale of the heroic and skillful lawman taking righteous vengeance on the dastardly outlaws that had gunned his brother down caught hold of America’s imagination, and hasn’t let go since.
In reality, Wyatt Earp was one of the less experienced Earp brothers. He had come to Tombstone to get away from a career in what he called “lawing”, but his plans fell through and he ended up deputized alongside his far more seasoned brother, Virgil Earp, a veteran of the Civil War and an experienced gunfighter and lawman. Although it’s likely that prior to the famous shootout, Wyatt Earp had never fired a shot in anger, his image as an invincible, implacable bringer of justice was cemented in popular culture, and his legend, and the legend of his companion ‘Doc’ Holliday, has only become more ingrained in American folklore. Since the release of his biography in 1931, nary a decade has gone by without someone trying their hand at telling the story of Wyatt Earp and the Shootout at the O.K. Corral, cementing Tombstone and Cochise County as the very epicenter of Wild West folklore.
County Seat Overview and History
Founded as a mining town in 1880, Bisbee, Arizona has been the county seat of Cochise County since 1929, when the seat was moved from Tombstone. Named after mine financier Judge DeWitt Bisbee, the town has a long and interesting history that began in 1877, when a detachment of US army scouts and cavalry was sent to find and root out renegade Apaches operating in the nearby Mule Mountains.
The detachment didn’t find any Apache warriors. Instead, they found the telltale signs of lead, copper, and silver all over the mountains. The news soon spread with the help of an opportunistic, hard-drinking prospector named George Warren who duped the soldiers into entrusting him with their discovery, and a claim was staked (Karma would catch up to George Warren several years later, when, in 1880, he lost the entirety of his share of the enormously lucrative Copper Queen Mine after drunkenly wagering it on himself in a footrace against a horse.) That claim would attract prospectors and speculators from all over the country, including the town’s namesake, Judge DeWitt Bisbee, who provided the financial backing for the famous Copper Queen Mine, a site that survives to this day as a living museum.
The early predictions of mineral wealth were, if anything, too conservative. Prospectors found vein after vein of valuable ore buried deep in the Mule Mountains, and the city boomed as ton upon ton of extraordinarily pure ore was pulled out of the ground. By the dawn of the 20th century, Bisbee was the largest town between St. Louis, Missouri, and San Francisco, and the home of some of the most lucrative mines in the world. That success brought people from every corner of the globe and walk of life, and soon, Bisbee was the most cosmopolitan city in the South-West. An oasis of culture, the city was the site of a whole range of Arizona firsts: first ballpark, first library, and first golf course (an impressive feat of engineering for the first years of the 20th century, given that Bisbee is situated on the western edge of the Chihuahuan Desert,) all of which still stand, monuments to the city’s boom-town days.
Along with success and enormous population growth came vice, and Bisbee was the home of one of the largest and most vibrant entertainment districts in the west, the notorious Brewery Gulch. Home to over 50 saloons at the peak of the town’s growth, Brewery Gulch was a thriving avenue of brothels and rowdy bars, a living reminder of the town’s former life as a rough and tumble mining camp. Some of those saloons survive to this day (albeit in slightly tamer form) and are open for business to those looking to relive a bit of Bisbee’s rustic and rugged past.
Successful as it was, Bisbee was not free from greed and iniquity. The same mines that were the lifeblood of the city gave rise to a series of brutal labor disputes, the most infamous of which would profoundly alter public policy not just in Arizona, but throughout the entire nation. The fallout from the so-called “Brisbee Deportation” would reach the highest echelons of the American government, capturing the attention of President Woodrow Wilson himself.
The incident that would come to be known as the Brisbee Deportation began in 1917, when the city’s miners furnished a list of demands to the city’s three main mining firms; Phelps Dodge, the Calumet and Arizona Co., and the Shattuck Arizona Co. Of the three, Phelps Dodge was by far the largest, owning the lucrative Copper Queen Mine, as well as the city’s only department store, the hospital, the city’s largest hotel, the city library, and even the town newspaper. The miners’ demands included an end to physical strip searches (conducted at the end of every shift to ensure that they weren’t smuggling out valuable ore), basic safety changes (such as not detonating explosives while the miners were inside the mine), and a shift from a payment system that renumerated the workers based on quantity and quality of ore mined (which was largely out of their control) to a flat rate of $6.00 a day. If the demands weren’t met, the miners would strike.
The mining firms flatly refused all of the demands.
On June 26, 1917, the strike was called. Over 3000 miners walked off, leaving the mines staffed by less than a quarter of the normal workforce. The mining firms immediately sent a message to the Governor of Arizona, Thomas Edward Campbell, requesting that a detachment of either state militia or federal troops be sent to break the nonviolent strike. Occurring as it did during the height of America’s involvement in the First World War, the mining firms’ representatives suggested that the strike was In fact an Axis plot to halt the acquisition of vital war material, an act of sabotage that required an immediate federal response.
Both President Wilson declined to send the military in to break the peaceful strike, electing instead to send the state’s first Governor and noted labor ally, George W. P. Hunt, to negotiate a mutually agreeable end to the demonstration.
Dissatisfied with this arrangement, the president of Phelps Dodge, Walter S. Douglas, a self avowed union breaker, gathered together a group of mining executives, along with the county sheriff and executives of the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, and conspired to break the strike by force, then kidnap and deport from the state any man that refused to work in the mines, renounce the miners union, or who was a noted member of a labor organization or involved in the organization of the strike.
To accomplish this task, the mining firms formed a posse, deputized by the county sheriff and composed of over 2,200 men from the surrounding area. The posse moved into the town just before dawn on July 12, 1917, carrying firearms and lists of known strikers. The armed deputies of the posse moved through town, seizing control of telegraph stations and telephones to keep news of the incident from leaking out. They detained journalists and soon had a stranglehold on the city, preventing the world at large from learning of the deportation until the act was done.
The posse pulled men from their homes, and robbed and looted the local shops, throwing the town grocer in with the striking miners. As they were arrested, the men of the town were marched at gunpoint to the ballpark, where they were placed under guard by an automobile-mounted machine gun. Those who weren’t recorded union members were given an ultimatum: get back in the mine, or leave the state.
The men who refused, or who were avowed union members or strike organizers were again lead out at gunpoint, this time to waiting cattle cars furnished by the mining firms’ friends at the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad. Shoved into cars covered ankle-deep in manure, the nearly 1300 men were told that they’d be lynched if they ever returned to Brisbee. The train left at just past 11 AM, stopping briefly to take on supplies at a station 10 miles outside of town, where hundreds of armed men and two machine guns stood watch over the unwilling passengers, ensuring that escape was impossible.
The train would travel east for nearly 16 hours, an almost 200 mile journey through scorching desert heat without food or water, arriving and being refused at several stops before finally being allowed to unload in Hermanas, New Mexico. The striking miners were now far from home, in a strange state, all of them without a cent to their name.
The expulsion resulted in a minor humanitarian disaster for New Mexico, as the state authorities scrambled to find acceptable accommodations for close to 1300 men. A near panicked message to President Wilson brought relief in the form of a US Army escort to Columbus, New Mexico, where the miners were housed in a federal tent city set up to hold Mexican refugees.
The mining firms’ posse would rule the town of Brisbee with an iron fist for the next four months, arresting and deporting hundreds more citizens. Despite the efforts of President Wilson and the federal government, no one involved with the Brisbee Deportation was ever successfully prosecuted, and only a bare handful of deportees ever returned home or received compensation from the mining firms. The kidnapped men largely made do as best they could, and faded into history.
While a terrible miscarriage of justice, the Brisbee Deportation was a watershed moment for the city, Cochise County, and the nation as a whole. The incident sparked widespread debate over the role of private citizens and state government in policing labor, and the right of the federal government to interfere with a state’s ability to decide who moves through its borders, a dispute that would eventually find its way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
While mass deportations would happen again in the United States, they would all be at the behest of the federal government. Never again would a state kidnap and displace citizens without due process on behalf of a private organization. The Brisbee Deportation would remain a singular and extraordinary event in the history of American labor disputes, and Brisbee itself would eventually recover. Though the mines would dry up by the mid-20th century, the city remains a vibrant tourist town with an interesting history and a unique heritage. Never a huge city, and smaller now than it was at its peak, Brisbee has nonetheless had a huge influence on Arizona and the nation, and its small size belies a fascinating Old West pedigree and lively history that stretches far longer than you’d expect from the shadow of what was once a tiny desert mining camp.
County Courthouse Overview and History
Located in the town of Tombstone, the historic Cochise County Courthouse was first built in 1882, only three years after the town was incorporated, and one year after Cochise County was formed. Constructed at the cost of $50,000 (the equivalent of approximately $1,240,000 in 2018), the construction of the courthouse was a fundamental part of why the people of the county elected to split off from Pima County, located far to the west. In addition to suffering from rampant crime and lawlessness, the town of Tombstone and Cochise County at large had no easy way for the resident miners to file claims, deeds, or other documents necessary to their trade. Prior to its construction, the nearest courthouse to Tombstone was nearly 70 miles away in Tucson: an unpleasant, potentially hazardous two-day ride through open desert and rocky, mountainous terrain.
Housing all of the county’s officials, including its treasurer, sheriff, and other law enforcement personnel, the courthouse was, relative to the other local buildings of the age, huge and imposing. One of the largest buildings in the Arizona Territory at the time of its construction, the courthouse was 76 feet wide at its wings, and 88 feet long. Befitting a town and county newly awash in mineral wealth, it was also one of the most elegant. A dignified, cross-shaped building in the Territorial Victorian style, the courthouse is constructed of red brick and white stone, with a pillared porch and balcony overlooking the entrance, gently pitched roofs, symmetrical windows, and a peaked, central lookout tower rising a story above the second floor.
A commanding presence in the otherwise chaotic and lawless town, the courthouse was instrumental in bringing order and rule of law to the region. In its time, the building acted as the headquarters of famous lawmen, like Sheriff Johnny Behan, infamous for his feud with the Earps, and ‘Texas’ John Slaughter, whose heavy hand scourged the county of outlaws. Its jail, too, at times held legends: Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday themselves slept a night behind its bars following the famous Shootout at the O. K. Corral, though they were soon exonerated, and the outlaws responsible for the infamous Bigbee Massacre were incarcerated there before finding their way into the history books when they became the first men to be (legally; one of their conspirators was dragged out of the jail and hanged from a telegraph pole by an angry mob a month prior) hanged in Tombstone.
In 1904, the county had an extension built onto the rear of the building, expanding the jail and courtroom, and lengthening the building to 116 feet. By then, Tombstone’s boomtown days were long gone, the silver mines that were the city’s lifeblood having variously been flooded, or dried up years prior, and its population slowly but surely contracted, having fewer than 700 citizens by the turn of the 19th century. Still, Tombstone held on, largely propped up by the courthouse and its status as the administrative center of the county.
In 1929, that status came to an end. The people of Cochise County elected to move the county seat to Bisbee, by then far larger than Tombstone, and still economically booming. A massive, Art Deco style courthouse was built there and finished by 1931, the same year that the last administrative official left Tombstone.
A sprawling, modern building, the Bisbee Courthouse serves Cochise County to this day. Trading in Wild West charm for modern amenities, this courthouse has never hosted legendary gunfighters, but is far better suited to the trials of the modern legal world.
As for the old Tombstone Courthouse, it stood empty for the better part of 30 years, until it was restored in the late 1950s, becoming a registered state park in 1959. Today, it continues to operate as a historical museum, and a window into Tombstone and Cochise County’s colorful frontier past.
Established in 1881, the office of Cochise County Sheriff is an integral part of the region’s legendary Wild West heritage. The inaugural office holder, Johnny Behan, was infamously friendly with the outlaw Cowboys that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday shot down at the O. K. Corral, and the fourth holder of the office, Texas John Slaughter, was a former Texas Ranger and Civil War veteran who had a hand in hunting down and capturing the renegade Apache medicine man and war leader, Geronimo.
Briefly inheriting the position of undersheriff of eastern Pima County from Wyatt Earp himself, Johnny Behan was elected as the first Sheriff of Cochise County when it split off from Pima County in 1881. A former miner, saloon keeper, and minor political appointee, Behan came into conflict with the Earp brothers almost immediately.
Allegedly annoyed by an incident in which Wyatt used the threat of Behan to recover his brother Virgil’s stolen horse from a member of the outlaw Cowboy gang (a group that Behan was infamously close to), the sheriff refused to name Wyatt as his undersheriff. Earp insisted that the position had been promised to him in a backroom deal as payment for agreeing not to run against Behan in the election.
The friction continued to build when the Earp brothers were appointed city marshals, a position that resulted in the lawmen frequently being at odds with one another, as the Earps periodically arrested members of the Cowboys gang and Behan let them go, an arrangement that culminated in the Earps handing the outlaw Luther King over to Sheriff Behan, and Behan quite literally walking him in the front door of the courthouse and out the back.
The friction came to a head following the famous Shootout at the O. K. Corral, when the Earps and their associate Doc Holliday gunned down most of the Cowboys gang. Behan had attempted to get both factions to disarm, but was unable to prevent the incident, and would afterwards arrest both Wyatt and Holliday for murder, testifying against them at a preliminary hearing, though the marshals were ultimately exonerated.
Behan would again pursue Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday during their legendary vendetta ride against the remaining Cowboys, following the assassination of Morgan Earp, but wouldn’t catch them. Sheriff Behan would hold a grudge against the Earps for the rest of his life, frequently decrying them in the press.
Five years after the Earp brothers’ famous shootout with the cowboys, a man named John Horton Slaughter would be elected sheriff. Every bit as imposing as his name would suggest, Slaughter was a former Texas Ranger who had once hunted a cattle rustler and card cheat across state lines, gunning him down on the grounds of a mutual friend’s ranch.
Grim eyed and taciturn with a short, well groomed beard, Texas John Slaughter would virtually depopulate the county of outlaws in his two terms as sheriff, the most famous incident coming at the very beginning of his tenure when he and his men tangled with the Jack Taylor Gang, killing some and scattering the others. While most of the outlaws would escape, they’d never again be the menace that they were, and the remainder of them all met violent ends at the end of a hangman’s rope or a lawman’s bullet, or were caught and jailed.
Another of Slaughter’s famous exploits came when he assisted the United States Cavalry in pursuing and capturing the Apache leader, Geronimo.
A protege of the county’s namesake, the Chiricahua Apache warchief Cochise who had resisted Mexican and American incursions onto his territory for so long, Geronimo was a medicine man and leader of the Apache guerrillas who refused to be moved from the Chiricahua reservation following a series of attacks on American settlements.
Sheriff Slaughter’s knowledge of the area proved invaluable in the manhunt, the craggy hills of southeast Arizona having confounded the efforts of unaccustomed soldiers hunting Apache guerrillas for a generation or more. Geronimo at last surrendered, and was captured and brought East, where he lived out the remainder of his life on a reservation.
Texas John Slaughter retired in 1890, leaving Cochise County mostly tamed. He spent most of the remainder of his life tending to his ranch, and died peacefully in 1922 at the age of 80.
Today, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office is based in the county seat of Bisbee, and maintains the county’s jails, as well as policing the unincorporated areas of the county. In addition to Civil, Communications, Detention, and Patrol Divisions, the office operates a SWAT team and a Search and Rescue Posse. Additionally, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office operates a single helicopter: an Airbus EC130T2, code named ‘Geronimo’.
City/Town Police Departments
Cochise County’s nearly 125,000 citizens are served by multiple municipal police agencies, most with their own colorful histories, as well as the county sheriff’s office, tasked with providing general police services to unincorporated areas.
Many of the county’s municipal police departments have colorful histories of their own. The county seat of Bisbee established its own municipal police department in 1880, a year before the county was split off from neighboring Pima. The Bisbee Police Department was granted the sometimes unenviable job of policing a rowdy mining town, a proposition that was made all the more difficult by the presence of Bisbee’s infamous Brewery Gulch, a notoriously lawless red-light district.
The Bisbee police were involved in a few notable incidents, including the Bisbee Deportation, wherein striking miners were detained at gunpoint and illegally forced out of the state, and the Bisbee Riot two years later when a group of African-American soldiers from the 10th Cavalry Regiment were involved in a scuffle with law enforcement, an event that quickly escalated into an all-out street battle that ended with over 100 rounds fired, and at least 8 people were shot, including a female bystander who was struck in the head by a stray bullet. The federal government (who had been surveilling local law enforcement following the Bisbee Deportation) concluded that there had been a concerted effort by local authorities to provoke the African-American troopers into a fight, and, ultimately, no soldier was seriously punished for the riot.
Another local department, the Sierra Vista Police, was established as a one-man station in 1957. The tiny department lead a relatively peaceful, rustic existence, until a sudden burst of grisly child murders in 1967 brought jurisdictional conflicts with state and federal authorities, as well as modernization, lead by the department’s chief, C. Reed Vance.
When the serial child murderer Steven Huff, who had coined the grandiose title of ‘The Phantom’ in the taunting notes he had sent to the police, was apprehended, it was the Sierra Vista Police who had picked him up on a hunch from Chief Vance. As a result of their efforts, Huff would spend the next 50 years behind bars.
Other municipal agencies include the Douglas Police, serving the town of Douglas, a smelting town incorporated in 1905 to process copper ore from nearby Bisbee; the Huachuca City Police, serving Huachuca City, a tiny rail town just north of Fort Huachuca, established in 1958; and the Benson Police Department, serving the town of Benson, established in the far west of the county in 1880 to serve as a rail terminal for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
First built into the county courthouse in Tombstone in 1882, the Cochise County Jail has held a host of legendary heroes and villains of the Old West. The jail, at one point or another, housed both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, arrested and incarcerated for a night by Sheriff Behan, as well as members of the outlaw Cowboy gang that they faced in the famous gunfight at the O. K. Corral.
The original Tombstone jail saw use almost immediately when, in 1883, a botched robbery at the Goldwater and Castaneda general store in Bisbee claimed the lives of four people, including a deputy sheriff and a pregnant woman.
Five outlaws rode into town on the evening of December 8th intending to loot the shop while its coffers were full, payroll having been delivered shortly prior. Three of the men burst into the shop, leaving two to stand watch, and held the proprietor at gunpoint, forcing him to open the safe. When he did, they discovered that they had mistimed the robbery: payroll hadn’t arrived yet, and the safe was virtually empty.
As the robbers inside looted what they could, the two standing watch were confronted by a citizen of the town, J. C. Tappenier. When Tappenier refused to retreat back into the local saloon, one of the outlaws shot him through the head with his rifle.
The noise of the gunshot brought deputy D. Tom Smith, who, announcing himself as a lawman, was immediately gunned down.
As the outlaws fled, they shot anyone in sight, including the pregnant Annie Roberts, who they mortally wounded, and a fourth bystander, who they shot in the chest. Both victims would die within the day, and a further victim would be shot in the leg but recover.
The five men were soon captured (one of them having neglected to wear a mask during the robbery) as well as a sixth alleged conspirator, John Heath, who was accused of playing a part in the formulation of the robbery plan.
Both the five robbers and Heath were convicted, the latter based entirely on testimony provided by a prisoner who received a reduced sentence for his cooperation. The five outlaws were sentenced to hang, while Heath was to live out the rest of his days at Yuma Territorial Prison.
On the morning of February 22nd 1884, a mob of Cochise County citizens stormed the jail. Dissatisfied with Heath’s having escaped the hangman’s noose, they held the jailers at gunpoint and demanded that he be handed over to them. The jailers, outnumbered, had no choice but to comply.
John Heath was dragged to the middle of Tombstone and hanged from a telegraph at approximately 8 AM, having used his last words to attest to his innocence.
The five perpetrators of the massacre would be legally hanged outside the county jail a little over a month later, on March 28th. Over a thousand people attended the execution.
When, in 1929, the county seat was moved from Tombstone to Bisbee, the county jail went with it. The most recent iteration of the Cochise County Jail is a modern steel and concrete complex built in 1985, just over a century after the original was completed.
In 1959 the old Cochise County Courthouse in Tombstone was converted into a museum, and the county jail with it. A replica gallows stands next to it.
Today, the Cochise County Jail is administered by the Detention Division of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, and houses approximately 250 inmates.
Directions From Bisbee to Phoenix
Located on the US-Mexican border, the Cochise County Seat of Bisbee, Arizona is located about 207 miles to the southwest of the state’s capital city of Phoenix.
The journey from Bisbee to Phoenix takes around 3.5 hours, and is an easy drive northwest, traveling into the interior of the state from Bisbee to Benson along AZ-80, then a straight shot on I-10 W, past the city of Tucson and onto Phoenix.