Commodore Perry Owens

Commodore Perry Owens
Commodore Perry Owens.

Commodore Perry Owens (July 29, 1852 - May 10, 1919) was an American-born lawman and gunfighter of the Old West. One of his many exploits was the Owens-Blevins Shootout in Arizona Territory during the Pleasant Valley War.


Early life

In spite of the assertions of his numerous biographers, the famed Arizona lawman Commodore Perry Owens was not born on the anniversary of the American naval commander, Oliver Hazard Perry's victory over British naval forces in the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. Owens was born July 29, 1852, not on September 10. His father was named Oliver H. Perry Owens in Commodore Perry's honor. Commodore was named by his mother. He was born in Hawkins County, Tennessee and raised on a farm in Liberty Township, Hendricks County, Indiana, but ran away from home at age thirteen to work on the ranches of Oklahoma and New Mexico as a cowboy. Owens is known to have been working on Hillard Roger's ranch outside Bartlesville, Oklahoma on his twenty-first birthday. In an interview given later in life, Owens admitted running with a "gang of tough characters" in his youth and was possibly involved in rustling, whiskey running and other depredations in the Indian Territory.[1][2]

By 1881, Owens was working as a ranch foreman for James D. Houck and A. E. Hennings in Arizona. There are a myriad of myths surrounding Owens' dealings with the Navajo during this period. In one incident, when attacked by Navajo locals who were attempting to steal horses he was guarding, he allegedly killed at least two warriors, and earned the nickname "Iron man" for his stance. In truth, in September 1883, Owens was arrested by Indian Agent Denis Matthew Riordan, for the murder of a young Navajo boy near James Houck's ranch in Navajo Springs, whom he shot while the youth was trying to rustle horses. Owens was subsequently acquitted of the murder by the Apache County authorities. Owens had red hair and had adopted the habiliment of a typical cowboy as evidenced by the famous photo which was taken in New Mexico during this period. He wore his hair long in his youth, often curling it up underneath his hat, was popular with the ladies, and often made fun of due to his unusual name. Around this time, he homesteaded outside Navajo Springs, Arizona, building a small dugout/cabin, well, and stables for his livestock near the stage station there. Owens is said to have his place the "Z-Bar Ranch", but this brand was not officially registered with the Apache County Recorder's Office.[1]

Lawman, gunfighter

Nominated by the People's Party and enjoying the support of the Apache County Stockgrowers Association, in November 1886, Owens was elected Sheriff of Apache County, Arizona. Apache County was split into two counties in 1895, with the western part becoming Navajo County. However, at the time when Owens was Sheriff, he was responsible for 21,177 square miles (54,850 km2) of territory. Though he had been elected by a margin of only 91 votes over Democratic candidate Tomas Perez, Owens was well liked within his jurisdiction, and often described as having a calm demeanor. Upon taking office in January 1887, Owens was entrusted with 14 bench warrants that had been left unserved by his predecessor, Jon "Don" Lorenzo Hubbell. Included among these were warrants for the Mormon gunman Lot smith, former Tombstone badman Ike Clanton, and rustler Andrew Arnold Cooper alias Andy Blevins. His first year was relatively normal, with nothing of consequence short of a few arrests of drunken cowboys and cattle rustlers, mostly around Holbrook, Arizona, with only three reported shooting incidents in which he shot at least two men. Only one of the men is believed to have died. Owens would claim in interviews to have killed 14 men during his career, but this claim cannot be substantiated.[1]

In September 1887 Owens attempted to serve the warrant he held for Andy Cooper. A native of Texas, Cooper had come to Arizona in 1885 with his brother Charlie Blevins, in order to escape arrest for crimes he had purportedly committed in Texas. The Blevins brothers were eventually joined by the remainder of the Blevins clan. Cooper was known to have killed three Navajos and was suspected of rustling a herd of horses from the Navajo reservation. Cooper's half-brothers from the Blevins family, including John Black and William "Hamp" Hampton were also suspected cattle rustlers. During this period, a range war had erupted in neighboring Yavapai County between the Graham and Tewksbury families, which would become known as the Pleasant Valley War. Cooper and the other Blevins brothers allied themselves with the Graham family, who were known as cattlemen in the area in opposition to the Tewksbury family, who had herds of sheep, but who originally were also cattle ranchers. Though the feud occasionally spilled over into his county, Owens seems to have remained neutral.[1][3]

On Sunday, September 4, 1887, Sheriff Owens, traveled to the Blevins' cottage in Holbrook, A.T. to serve the outstanding warrant on the outlaw and rustler Andy Cooper. There were twelve people present in the house that afternoon when Owens stepped onto the porch, including Cooper (the eldest Blevins brother), John Blevins, Samuel Houston Blevins, house guest Mose Roberts, the brothers' mother, Mrs. Blevins, John Blevins' wife, Eva, and their infant son, a family friend, Miss Amanda Gladden, and several children. Cradling a Winchester in his arm, Sheriff Owens knocked upon the door and, when Andy Cooper answered with a pistol in hand, the lawman told him to come out of the house, stating that he had a warrant for arrest. Cooper refused to comply and tried to close the door. Owens dropped the rifle to his hip and shot Cooper through the door, hitting him in the stomach. His half-brother, John Blevins, then pushed a pistol out the door to Owens' right and fired a shot at the Sheriff. He missed and killed Cooper's saddle horse which was tied to a tree in the street. Owens turned towards his assailant and fired, wounding John Blevins in the arm, and putting him out of the fight. Owens then backed out into the street so he could see all sides of the house. Seeing Cooper moving inside, Owens fired a third time through the front wall of the cottage striking Cooper in the right hip. A man named Mose Roberts, who was boarding with the family, jumped out of a side window. Roberts saw the Sheriff and immediately turned to run. Owens shot him, the bullet passing through his back and out of his chest. Roberts stumbled around the back of the house and fell in the back door. It has been alleged, by Arizona Sketchbook author Frank Brophy and others that Roberts was unarmed, and that he only jumped from the window to avoid Owens' third shot which passed through the front wall. However, the coroner's jury report indicated that a blood covered pistol was found near the backdoor of the cottage where Roberts had re-entered the home after being shot. After shooting Roberts, Owens chambered another round into his Winchester. At that moment, fifteen-year-old Samuel Houston Blevins ran out the front door, gripping his brother Andy's Colt's revolver, which he had taken from the mortally wounded outlaw. His mother attempted to hold him back, unsuccessfully. As the boy came towards him, Owens fired once more, killing the boy almost instantly. Shot through the chest, the youth staggered backward, dying in his mother's embrace. The whole incident took less than one minute and the shootout made Owens a legend.[4]

Locally, Owens was praised for ridding the county of one of its most notorious outlaws, Andy Cooper. Three separate coroner's juries found Owens' actions justifiable. While the Gunfight at Holbrook was lauded in most circles, Owens' lack of formal education became a liability and, as Apache County became more civilized, the constituency began to wonder if Owens had the skills to be as good an administrator as he was a fighter. Additionally, Owens had problems retaining his bonds and his sureties. Owens would have "twenty-three different citizens underwriting his honesty and effectiveness in office." There were also the outlaws Robert W. "Red" McNeil and "Kid" Swingle, who on separate occasions managed to escape Owens' custody, and his treatment of John Blevins, whom Owens held in custody even after Blevins had received a gubernatorial pardon for his attempt to shoot the sheriff during the infamous gunfight. Commodore Perry Owens finished out his term as Apache County Sheriff. However, he was defeated in the elections of November 1888 by his former deputy. St. George Creaghe. On January 1, Sheriff Owens left the Apache County Sheriff's Office.[5]

Later life

In the fall of 1892 Owens again sought nomination for the office of Apache County Sheriff, this time on the Democratic ticket, but lost out to Joseph Woods, who was defeated in the election by Republican W. R. Campbell. Owens went to work for Campbell as his Chief Deputy. In 1894, Owens ran again for the position of Apache County Sheriff, this time securing the nomination of his party, but was defeated by the Republican Candidate by a margin of 50 votes. There have been assertions that Owens also worked as a guard for Wells Fargo and as a special officer for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, though no documentation has been found to verify these claims. In August 1893, Owens was appointed to the position of Deputy U.S. Marshall under William Kidder Meade and was appointed by Governor Louis Cameron Hughes as the first Sheriff of the newly-created Navajo County in 1895, serving two years in this capacity. Owens appointed as his Under Sheriff his nephew by his sister Mary Francis, Robert Hufford. Owens' later law enforcement career lacked the drama and excitement of his days as Apache County Sheriff, but he was still considered a formidable opponent to the lawless element that remained in the territory.

After his term as Sheriff of Navajo County expired, Owens did not seek reelection. The former lawman retired to Seligman, Arizona, where he bought property and opened a general store and a saloon. While the other buildings have long-since been torn down, Owen's house still stands today. In 1902 Owens married a woman named Elizabeth Jane Barrett. The couple had no children. The census of 1910 shows Owens and his wife were residing in San Diego, California. Owens eventually returned to Seligman and on February 14, 1912 saw the Arizona territory he had helped to settle become the 48th state in the Union.

In the end the stalwart lawman turned entrepreneur succumbed to Bright's disease (or possible paresis of the brain) and died on May 28, 1919, aged 67. He left his wife an estate totaling over $10,000. Commodore Perry Owens buried in the Citizen's Cemetery in Flagstaff, Arizona. Elizabeth Jane Owens survived her husband by 21 years, dying in San Diego on April 30, 1945.[1] For Photograph see [6][7]


  1. ^ a b c d e[dead link]
  2. ^ The Arizona Republican, Feb 14,1898 8/2+
  3. ^ Pleasant Valley History at[dead link]
  4. ^ Coroner' Inquests into the Deaths of Samuel Houston Blevins, Mose Roberts, and Andrew Cooper. All documents available at the Arizona State Library and Archives in Phoenix, Arizona.
  5. ^ Leland J. Hanchett Jr., The Crooked Trail to Holbrook. 1993.
  6. ^ Find A Grave memorial
  7. ^ Last Will and Testament of Commodore Perry Owens which is held at the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records

Further reading

  • Earle Forrest's Arizona's Dark and Bloody Ground
  • Will C. Barnes's Apaches and Longhorns
  • Robert Carlock's The Hashknife: The Early Days of The Aztec Land and Cattle Company
  • A Little War of Our Own by Don Dedra
  • Gunfight in Apache County by Will C. Barnes (ed. Neil Carmony)
  • Commodore Perry Owens: The Man Behind the Legend by Larry D. Ball (published in The Journal of Arizona History Spring 1992)
  • Commodore Perry Owens : The Life of an Arizona Lawman (an excerpt) by David Grasse (2006 Arizona Historical Convention Paper)

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