The Hashknife 

hashknife
Hashknife Cowboys

The arrival of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad in 1881 opened up the virgin grasslands of northern Arizona to large scale cattle ranching. The territory’s most spectacular ranching enterprise, the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, better-known by its hashknife brand, was running some 60,000 cows and 2,000 horses on two million acres of private and government land.

The absentee-owned outfit was literally surrounded by rustlers who preyed on the herds like a pack of wolves. Many of the rustlers were not outlaws by trade but small ranchers who felt they had a right to rustle Hashknife stock because the New York investors was grazing cattle on public lands.

To expedite the building of transcontinental railroads the federal government awarded the railroads like the Atlantic and Pacific 20 alternate checkerboard sections on both sides of the tracks. The railroads in turn sold the land to private corporations. The even numbered ones remained government property. Thus, if an outfit like the Aztec bought a million acres their cattle could actually graze on twice that amount. The nesters figured that if the big outfits could graze their cattle for free on public lands then they should have a right to harvest a few of those cows.

It was estimated that a million and a half cows occupied the ranges of Arizona. All those cows naturally attracted the lawless element and soon the ranges were overrun with horse thieves and rustlers. One report claimed 52,000 cows were rustled in one year alone.

The situation had become so desperate that, in the fall of 1887, the Apache County Stock Association hired a range detective to eliminate a few of the most rapacious outlaws in hopes of putting the others to flight. Only two men in the organization knew the identity of the regulator and they were sworn to secrecy. The association used its entire savings, some $3,000, for bounty money, and used its political persuasion to have the hired gun appointed a United States deputy marshal. The gunman, acting as judge jury and executioner, moved with swift vengeance. Cold and calculating, he shot down two well-known rustlers, who “resisted arrest.” He then read warrants over their dead bodies. The six-gun justice served up by a mysterious avenging angel was enough to strike terror in the hearts of the rabble and sent many of them scurrying for other pastures. This mysterious range detective’s identity was kept a secret but it’s believed it was Jonas V. “Rawhide Jake” Brighton, a former bad man who became a hired gun for law and order. He’s best remembered as the man who shot and killed Ike Clanton.

Despite the associations hiring range detectives, convictions for outlawry were rare; the Hashknife went fourteen years without getting a single conviction for rustling. That changed in 1897when the company hired a rawhide-tough Scots-Irishman named Burt Mossman to boss the outfit. Mossman was a man of great ability and he was finally able to get a few convictions but it wasn’t enough to save the company. It failed three years later. In 1901 Mossman was named first captain of the Arizona Rangers.

What do you think?

Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian, board president of the Arizona Historical Society and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen; History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu