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Who was Texas John Slaughter?

John Horton Slaughter, aka "Texas John" Slaughter, was a legendary lawman of the wild west who started his western adventure as one of the hundreds of hopeful cattlemen who drove their herds west to the then virgin ranges of the Arizona Territory (A.T.) in the 1870’s.

Although his moniker was "Texas John," Slaughter was actually born in Louisiana in 1841, but was brought to the then Republic of Texas as an infant. Ben, his father, was a rancher who started his livelihood by rounding up wild longhorns.

Growing up in the wilds of the Texas frontier, John had several brushes with the notoriously formidable Comanche (the name "Comanche" comes from the Ute name for them, kimatsi, which means "enemy"). Even then, John was known as a fair, but tough, man. When John fought in the Civil War with the Confederate Army, most of the action he saw was against Indians.

During the most violent times of the Indian Wars, Slaughter was with the Texas Rangers. Afterwards, he moved to New Mexico in the early 1870's and began ranching. It was then that speculation grew as to the methods he was using to acquire his cattle. In other words, he might have been putting his brand on somebody else’s cows.

Regardless of his possible less than upstanding cattle procurement methods, Slaughter was known as having a no-nonsense attitude toward troublemakers. It mattered little whether the agitators be Apache, Mexican or White…Texas John was determined to see that justice be done.

It was because of that determination that Slaughter was elected Sheriff of Cochise County during the violent and stormy years following the Cochise County War, which pitted Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers against the “cowboys.” He turned that no-nonsense attitude toward the cattle rustlers and issued an edict: “Get out or get shot.”

Most took his advice and left the county.

In the fall of 1876, Slaughter and "Bittercreek" Barney Gallagher were playing poker at the Commerce Inn in San Antonio. John caught Gallagher cheating and called him out. Afterward, Gallagher and a man named Boyd followed Texas John to John Chisum’s Ranch, where Slaughter’s herd was grazing.

Slaughter warned Gallagher and Boyd to leave, but a few days later the pair returned. Speculation was that the outlaws intended to steal some of Slaughter's cattle. They got into a confrontation and Gallagher fired his shotgun at Texas John, but missed. Slaughter, armed with his Winchester, didn’t miss.

Supposedly, Gallagher’s last words were, “I needed killin’ twenty years ago anyway.”

Texas John was charged with murder in the shooting. He claimed self-defense, speculating that Gallagher had been plotting to kill him over the incident while they'd been gambling.  John was arrested but released soon afterward.

After his first wife, the frail beauty Eliza Adelaide, died of smallpox, Slaughter met a spunky young girl while driving cattle to Arizona. Although he was much older, John was highly attracted to the nineteen-year-old Cora Viola Howell.  The Howells were also driving cattle and John moved his herd closer and closer to theirs, until the two finally merged.

When Viola's family finally agreed, she and John were married in the small town of Tularosa, New Mexico.  The Slaughters and Howells, now joined by marriage, then drove their combined herds on to Arizona, settling in the San Pedro River valley south of Tombstone in the settlement of Charleston.

It was there that John built Viola what would be considered a mansion in that day, having two rooms, where most homes had only one room.  The outer walls were constructed of juniper planks and it had an adobe floor, a huge improvement over the more common dirt floor. 

John and Viola opened and ran a profitable butcher shop in Charleston, before deciding to move farther south. They acquired the San Bernardino Ranch in 1884. The ranch had been settled in the early 1800's by Ignacio Perez, who acquired the land as a Mexican land grant. Apaches drove the Perez family off and the ranch remained an Apache settlement until Texas John purchased the land from the Perez family.

Always the peacekeeper whenever possible, John allowed the Apache to slaughter his steer for food.

However, in the famous photograph of Geronimo surrendering, John can be seen sitting for the picture, as he served as an army scout for General George Crook during the Geronimo Campaign. Many years later, the Apache war chief said if he could do one thing, it would be to “go back to Arizona and kill John Slaughter.”

In 1886, John was elected sheriff of Cochise County. It was a turbulent time, between the Indian Wars, conflicts with the Mexican Bandidos, the influx of miners trying to strike it rich, and gamblers, outlaws and cattle rustlers running honest folks off.

Armed with a shotgun, Slaughter spent the next four years ridding the county of the dangerous desperadoes. After his two terms as Sheriff ended, he continued to act as a deputy sheriff until his death in 1922.

Never known to back down, Slaughter continued to battle outlaws along the Mexican border. In 1898, he shot and killed a known thief named Peg Leg Finney, who made the mistake of showing up at Slaughter's ranch and then pulling a pistol on the former sheriff.

In 1899, a gambler and troublemaker named Little Bob Stevens apparently decided to improve his bad luck when he held up a roulette game in Tombstone before fleeing south. His luck ran out when he met up with Slaughter, who killed him.

At 60 years of age in 1901, Slaughter joined a posse after an outlaw who’d murdered a young woman, along with her son and daughter for $300, outraging a community. When Slaughter caught up to the man, it was said he resisted arrest…a plausible explanation for the countless bullet holes found upon the murderer's person.

The notorious Pancho Villa nicknamed John Slaughter "The Wicked Little Gringo" after John became enraged over Villa’s army stealing cattle and vegetables from the San Bernardino Ranch. Slaughter saddled up his horse, boldly rode alone into Villa's camp, and demanded restitution. It is said when Slaughter returned home, his saddlebag was heavy with Villa's gold. John was in his 70's at the time.

While the Wild West of the 1800s was no doubt a difficult and dangerous time and place to try to eke out an existence, men such as Texas John Slaughter paved the way. While this western pioneer's methods may seem questionable by today's standards, John's life can be summed up in this quote by an unknown observer in Tombstone:

"His name was Slaughter, all right, but he wasn't in any way the sort of man we used to call a 'killer'. He didn't like to shoot people. He did it simply because it was all in the day's work, was his duty and was for a good purpose."

Viola and John
John H. Slaughter
Slaughter's Cowboys
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Pancho Villa
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