The Hashknife Outfit
Length: 2273 words (6.5 double-spaced pages)
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Section 1: Introduction
When the Aztec Cattle Company ("The Hashknife Outfit") first got to northeast
Arizona, they found knee-high grass as far as they could see. They moved cattle from
Texas to Arizona and just kept bringing in more and more. They ran those cattle on
about 2 million acres of land between Flagstaff and New Mexico. The cattle grazed the
grass off and the drought that had already started kept more grass from growing in.
There was already very little water, so the cattle started dying off by the thousands.
Country that used to look like an ocean of grass turned into a dried out, wind
blasted desert. During this same time, the railroads were being put in across the country
and cattle were starting to be shipped on trains. (This meant higher transportation costs
when cattle prices were starting to go down.)
Some of the worst parts of Arizona's history was caused by the Hashknife Outfit
and its cutthroat hired help. Mormon settlers were harassed, robbed, and run out of the
country. Cattle were stolen from the settlers and other ranches. But the worst problems
from the Hashknife cowboys was had by the sheepmen and the towns people. Towns like
Holbrook were the scenes of killing, drinking, whoring, and troublemaking. The
sheepmen were harassed, their sheep killed, and sometimes got themselves killed.
Section 2: The Search
The Hashknife Outfit pioneered large-scale cattle ranching in Arizona; but their
overgrazing scarred the land, drought and hard winters killed the cattle, and their
criminal behavior made its mark on Arizona's history.
The "Hashknife brand resembled a cooking utensil used by chuckwagon cooks to
chop up meat and potatoes for hash. The brand was owned by the Aztec Land and Cattle
Company and was used to brand thousands of cattle. Many cattle ranches came to be
known by their brands instead of by their company names because it was easier for
people to remember--that's why the Aztec Land and Cattle Company was called the
"Hashknife Outfit".(my mom--Arizona family verbal tradition)
"The Hashknife Outfit was established in northern Arizona in 1884. A
shareholder in the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad persuaded a group of Eastern investors to
purchase a million acres of grazing land offered for sale by the railroad. The new ranch,
called the 'Aztec Land and Cattle Company', brought in 33,000 head of Texas Longhorn
Cattle, a large remuda (herd of saddle broke horses) of horses, and the Hashknife brand"
When the stockholders of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company were first meeting
to form the company, cattle prices were already headed downward.
Many people in the
cattle business already felt that most grazing ranges were overstocked. During this same
time, the railroads were making their way across the country, and cattle were beginning
to be shipped by train. This meant faster transportation of the cattle, but was very
expensive, (it also meant the cattle reached the feedyards in much poorer condition), and
cattle prices were getting weaker. The investors in the Aztec Land and Cattle Company
didn't realize that their investment in cattle ranching was on shaky ground before they
ever started. They just went on ahead and bought alternating sections (the railroad
owned every other section in Arizona) of land clear across northern Arizona from the
New Mexico border to Flagstaff (Carlock n.p.; & family verbal tradition).
When the Hashknife Outfit first got to Arizona, they found knee-high grass as
clear across the Colorado Plateau as far as they could see. It's impossible to believe that
now, but back then it was like a prairie. They brought in more and more and more cattle
until they had about 2 million head. The cattle grazed the grass off and the drought that
had already started kept the grass from ever growing back (Trimble 15).
By 1892 and 1893, there was hardly any grass left and almost no water. A
Mormon historian, Joseph Fish, (LDS Family History Center, Joseph City, Arizona) said
that the cattle all around them were dying by the thousands. Land that had first looked
like an ocean of grass was looking like a dry, wind blasted desert. In the winters the
cattle starved to death and died of thirst because there was more snow than usual (the
snow froze and crusted over so the cattle couldn't find any feed). In that area, the wind
never stops blowing, so what moisture could have come from the snow to grow grass just
blew away (my mom--Arizona family verbal tradition).
Most of the other ranchers were already selling out and moving on, or shipping
their cattle to better areas like California. The Hashknife Outfit was controlled by
stockholders and railroad people who didn't live in Arizona and they liked to ship the
cattle by train (expensive) to Kansas to the feedlots. This caused the Aztec Land and
Cattle Company to lose alot of money and even more cattle. Cattle prices were still
falling (because the "Big 4" meat packers, Armour, Swift, Morris, and Fowler, were
fixing prices by over filling the meat market with their own cattle), so the Aztec Land and
Cattle Company had to start selling off land to pay for their expenses and make up for the
losses (Carlock n.p.).
The over-grazing of the land and the drought caused an even bigger problem
when the monsoon season rains finally came. Their was no grass or brush left to hold the
soil down, so the torrential rains and flash-flooding washed away millions of tons of soil
and carved out deep, miles long, washes and ditches. This meant that the grass would
never grow again in northern Arizona like it had been before the Hashknife Outfit
Because of the drought, the floods, the overgrazing, bad decision-making, cattle
rustlers, run-ins with outlaws and sheriffs, and losing half their land because it wasn't
surveyed right (and the railroad was going broke, so they couldn't give them more land or
their money back), the Aztec Land and Cattle Company sold most of their cattle for less
than they paid. In 1897, they shipped out 693 railroad cars full of cattle from Holbrook--
24,000 head of cattle(Carlock, np). They then sold huge amounts of land to the federal
government to make U.S. Forest Service national forests (family verbal tradition--yes, our
family really was there long enough to tell stories about it down through the generations).
The Hashknife Outfit spent most of 1898, 1899, and 1900 gathering and selling
off their cattle. By December of 1900, the Hashknife's "army" of cowboys, hired hands,
and cutthroats was down to just 2. The company mainly had to depend on their
neighbors to help them gather the remnants (last remaining cattle)--this took another 2 or
3 years (my mom--family verbal tradition).
In 1902, there was only one man left as an employee of the ranch. He was there
just as a caretaker for the last horses and the property. All of the cattle had been sold off,
and the Hashknife brand was sold to the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company (Tinsley,
135). The Aztec Land and Cattle Company did still own much of the land and did not go
bankrupt. Land sales paid off their debts then and sales plus grazing leases have kept
them in money ever since.
Some of Arizona's most "colorful" historic events were centered around the
Hashknife Outfit and its lawless hired help. "Aside from some written memorandum and
files, preserved by the Atlantic and Pacific Railway Company, the historical events that
took place in the decade of the 1880's in northern Arizona were scantily documented.
Because the land was so vast, it sometimes took days for information to reach the
settlements, and some news was never reported...not even belatedly" (Durham 261-263).
A lot of the more well known happenings took place on or near or at the hands of
the Hashknife Outfit. Mormon settlers came in and homesteaded land, but they didn't
bother the ranches in any other way. They just worked the land, but the cowboys and
ranchers thought they were in the way. A lot of Mormon families tell stories of when
their ancestors were attacked or hurt or burned out by Hashknife cowboys.
Most of the cattle rustling was done by small time thieves stealing from the
Hashknife, but the cutthroats who were hired guns for the Hashknife did their share of
stealing, too. Through these tough characters, the Hashknife gained power and control of
the area by size and numbers. Many stories (verbal family traditions of Arizona families-
-like mine--that have been in Arizona since many years before the railroads or Hashknife)
are told by people in northern Arizona whose families have been there since the railroad
of the things done to people by the Hashknife cowboys.
One story is about 3 innocent men who were hanged just outside the present town
of Heber. One was a horse trader who had family back East with money. When things
weren't going well with the horses, the family sent the guy money. Rumors started that
he was stealing and selling other people's horses. He was also always very nice to let
people stay in his home when they were on the road. Some of the outlaws that worked
for the Hashknife were said to take things into their own hands and hung the horse trader
and two travelers who were visiting in his home. No one ever stood trial for the hangings
Another thing that happened, that didn't start as anything to do with the
Hashknife, but soon was made worse by the outlaws, is known as "The Pleasant Valley
War." Pleasant Valley is mostly all south of the land owned by the Aztec Land and
Cattle Company, but it was close enough for them to become involved. A cattle rancher
named "Stinson" was losing alot of cattle to some rustlers named "Graham" who'd been
riding for him, and to some sheepmen named "Tewksbury"--who were also hired by him
and stealing his cattle. Even though the rancher tried to have them all hung, no court
ever found any of them guilty.
The Grahams started running cattle on their own place, and just naturally hated
sheepmen. Like most cattle people those days, they felt that the sheep men and their
fences, and the way the sheep overgraze the grass, were why cattle weren't doing very
good. For a while, sheepmen actuall made more money than the cattle men, and that
really made alot of people (most were cattlemen originally from Texas where sheepmen
had already gotten in their way) very angry.
The outlaws and trouble makers who worked for the Hashknife Outfit, a cattle
operation, usuall did everything they could to keep settlers and especially sheep people
from crossing Aztec Company land. A lot of old stories are told there about flocks of
sheep being driven into the river and drowned, or herds of horses being stampeded over
the top of them.
While the Hashknife cowboys were causing all this trouble, the Grahams and the
Tewksburys were making more trouble for Stinson, who had had his fill of all of them,
too. A mistake was made by one of the Tewksbury's, who apologized to Stinson, and one
of Stinson's hired men used the excuse to start trouble. In self-defense, the Tewksbury
man shot at the hired hand and hit him in the leg. The hired hand rode straight over to
the Grahams and told them he'd been attacked (That was the first shot of the Pleasant
Valley War.) (Carlock n.p.).
The Tewksbury was sent to Prescott for trial, but died before the hearing. The
Tewksbury's blamed his death on the Grahams. More sheep were being brought onto the
Tewksbury's ranch about this same time. Soon one of the Tewksbury's shepherds was
killed--it was never "proven" that the Grahams killed him. This killing led to more
shooting and killing and the involvement of the "Blevins" gang--employees of the
Hashknife Outfit--of Holbrook. The killings went on, back and forth for almost 5 years
until the last of the Grahams was dead, the last of the Tewksburys left the area, and
Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens of Holbrook had killed the Blevins'(Carlock n.p.).
Other stories tell of barroom brawls (one bar in Holbrook was actually renamed
"The Bucket of Blood Saloon" because of the killing), shooting up the towns in and
around Holbrook and Winslow, settlers who were burned out, killed, or "went missing,"
and many more troubles as long as the Hashknife Outfit was in business.
Section 3: Conclusion
The land no longer looked like a tall-grass prairie; it was a desert with huge
ditches gouged out. The Hashknife Outfit had brought so many cattle into a dry grazing
area, that they had completely destroyed the natural grasses. The droughts and freezes
had succeeded in finishing off what little cattle business was left after the starvation.
When the Hashknife cattle started dying off and were eventually sold out, and the
once gigantic cattle power was gone, northern Arizona settled down to a peaceful, quiet
place. Well, for as quiet and peaceful as a frontier state that still had unsettled Native
Americans, lawless fugitives, gamblers and miners could get.
There was very little bloodshed after the Blevins gang was killed off at the end of
the Pleasant Valley war. The harrassing and killing that the Hashknife's hired guns were
known for was part of a past era that couldn't exist with more modern laws, lawmen and
people. Although there were some small events with outlaws, shootouts, and the
occasional Indian, the wildness of the frontier in Northern Arizona was a thing of the