History Features

The Arizona Rangers

Raising a force of hard-riding, courageous frontier defenders.


The dawning of the 20th century brought little improvement to the notorious reputation Arizona had earned during the tumultuous years of outlawry and the Indian Wars. The close proximity to Mexico and the rugged mountain wilderness in the eastern part of the territory made Arizona the sanctuary of choice for outlaws who had been driven out of other parts of the Southwest.

The remoteness of the terrain made pursuit and apprehension of these desperadoes next to impossible. Local ranchers lacked the ability to combat the gangs who brazenly rustled cattle on both sides of the border. Cattle rustlers operated in broad daylight and even bragged about it. Many ranchers feared the outlaws so much that when a posse did enter a remote area, they were reluctant to point fingers, for fear of retribution after the lawmen left.

County lawmen were not legally allowed to cross into another county in hot pursuit. Residents desperately cried out for a force of territorial rangers who would not be bound by county lines.

In 1901, Gov. Nathan Oakes Murphy decided to take strong action against the smugglers and rustlers by organizing a company of lawmen patterned after the storied Texas Rangers. Succumbing to pressure from the troubled parts of the territory, the legislature passed a bill to establish the Arizona Rangers on March 21.

They were mostly colorful, hard-riding cowboys. Some were former soldiers with a natural ability to handle firearms. All were excellent horsemen, trackers and well-suited to take on the tough job against the Mexican border smugglers and large outlaw gangs that were still terrorizing the border country, even as the Old West was fading from reality into myth.

The governor’s first chore was to hire a leader. He needed a man with a proven ability to handle the task. He persuaded Burt Mossman to ramrod the outfit; Mossman was the former superintendent of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, better known as the Hash Knife.

Using the old adage, “it takes a thief to catch a thief,” Mossman set about putting together a tough bunch of lawmen. Not that they were former outlaws themselves, but more than one likely had taken a step or two on the wrong side of the law.

During the next few years, the Arizona Rangers would be the darlings of the press. But the storied Arizona Rangers of 20th-century fame weren’t the first to bear the name Ranger in the territory.


Arizona’s First Rangers

Arizona’s first Ranger may have been one of the founders of Phoenix, Jack Swilling.

In 1858, he joined Arizona’s first gold strike on the Gila River, a few miles east of Yuma. Frequent Tonto Apache raids on the prospectors led to the forming of a militia called the Gila Rangers. The men elected Jack leader.

On January 7, 1860, while leading a punitive expedition against Apache Tonto raiders, Swilling and his Rangers came upon the Hassayampa River, previously unknown to white men. The area was too remote and dangerous to explore for gold, but Swilling would return at a later date. Meanwhile, new gold discoveries in the Pinos Altos region in May 1860 drew him to what is today western New Mexico.

That year, a group of citizens proposed creating an Arizona territory that included all of New Mexico, roughly south of the 32nd Parallel. Provisional governor, Dr. Lewis Owings of Mesilla, authorized the raising of Rangers to protect the settlers from bands of marauding Apache. The well-known frontiersman Jim Tevis, who spoke the Apache language, was ordered to raise the first of three companies of Arizona Rangers. He headed to the gold camp at Pinos Altos to recruit Rangers and to prospect.

The gold rush incurred the wrath of Mangas Coloradas and his Mimbres Apache who began attacking the prospectors and settlers. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the fighting between the North and South was of little relevance to the prospectors at Pinos Altos, who were busy defending themselves against the Apache.

Sherod Hunter, a rancher in the Mimbres Valley, joined the Arizona Rangers at Mesilla in May 1861. Shortly thereafter, military governor John Baylor appointed him captain and gave him orders to raise a company of Arizona Rangers for frontier defense.

On July 18, 1861, Swilling was appointed lieutenant of Capt. Tom Mastin’s Arizona Rangers at Pinos Altos. By August, Hunter, Tevis, Swilling and the Rangers had been mustered into the Confederate Army.  The following February, the three officers led a 100-man cavalry into Tucson and raised the Confederate flag over the Old Pueblo.

The Confederates were driven out of Tucson a few months later. Many, including Hunter and Tevis, went back to Texas to join...

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