The Murderous Cattle Drive of 1890

The last major cattle drive into California on the old Southern Emigrant Trail was in 1890, though the trip is better remembered for another reason.

In the 1880s, Walter L. Vail was one of the leading cattlemen in Arizona. His massive Empire Ranch east of Tucson controlled most of the grazing for hundreds of square miles. In 1888 he decided to expand his operations into Southern California, beginning with a lease on the historic Warner Ranch in Northern San Diego County. He used the Southern Pacific railroad to move stock between the two ranches, shipping the cattle to Beaumont, and then driving them down to Warner’s.

In the fall of 1889 the Southern Pacific railroad suddenly increased their shipping rates into Southern California by about 25%. Arizona ranchers protested, but the SP refused to back down. In retaliation, the cattlemen decided to go back to driving their herds overland across the desert, as they had before the railroad was built in the 1870s.

Walter Vail took the lead in organizing the first drive. His brother, Ed Vail, got the job of actually accompanying the cattle on the trail, along with Empire Ranch foreman Tom Turner, seven or eight Mexican cowboys, and a Chinese cook. Ed Vail started a diary of the trip, describing their preparations. Supplies for the drive included flour, baking powder, beans, sugar, coffee, tea, matches, six cakes of soap, oil, molasses, salt, lard, bacon and beef. Vail lists the cowboys as Chappo, Nestor, Francisco, George Lopez, Jose Lopez, Jesus Elias, and Rafael.

On January 29, 1890, they set off from the Empire Ranch with 917 head. The 65-day trip that followed was typical of many of the old cattle drives, but hardly uneventful. The cattle stampeded several times, and often 100 or more head would stray. Over the course of the drive, 71 cows were lost — many in the brushy areas along the Colorado River.

Crossing the Colorado itself was a challenge. It was a wet winter, and the river was running high. Vail and Turner selected a spot south of Yuma to swim the cattle across. They hired Indian workers to dig a cut in the ten-foot high bank. Two hundred thirty head refused to swim in the deep, swift current, and Vail was forced to pay to have them shipped over the SP bridge across the river. “It would no doubt have been cheaper to have shipped all our cattle across the bridge at $2.50 a carload,” Ed Vail later wrote, “but we did not like the idea of depending on the railroad in any way on the drive.”

“Between nine hundred and a thousand head of beef steers, in charge of that enterprising and extensive cattle dealer, Mr. E.H. Vail, arrived here on Saturday last,” the Yuma Times reported. “They were forced to swim the Colorado River about three miles south of Yuma and are now on their way across the Colorado desert, overland. Three only were lost by drowning. This is Mr. Vail’s second trip across the desert. He had our wishes for as successful a drive as was his last.”

After crossing the river, another 113 head that were faltering were cut out and sent on by rail before they reached the worst stretch of the old Southern Emigrant Trail — eleven days from Pilot Knob to Carrizo Creek. Shortly after they left the river, around March 17, two young men rode up on a couple of very thin horses. They gave their names as Will and Frank Thompson, and asked if they could join the men in crossing the desert. Vail agreed, provided they did their share driving the herd. So the boys went to work, and got on well with the other cowboys.

There were several dry camps from Pilot Knob to the New River, then about 25 dry miles to Carrizo — the longest dry stretch of the trip.

“From our camp at New River we drove to Indian Wells, north of Signal Mountain,” Vail wrote in 1922. “Late on the next day we started for Carrizo Creek, which marks the western boundary of the desert. This was the longest drive without water we had to make in crossing the Colorado Desert. I think it was about forty miles. Our cattle had done well while camped at New River as there was more pasture for them there than at any place on the trail since we left the Empire Ranch. The country was open so we loose-herded them….

“We drove frequently at night as the days were warm on the desert. We hung a lantern on the tailboard of our wagon and our lead steers would follow it like soldiers. Before we had reached Yuma only one man was necessary on guard; so we changed every three hours, which gave the men more sleep, but it was rather a lonesome job for the fellow that had to watch the cattle.

“The road had a decided grade as it approached the mountains and there was much heavy sand most of the way which made it very tiresome. I am not quite sure how long we were making that part of the drive, as we had to rest the cattle every few hours. When we reached Carrizo we found a shallow stream of water in a wash, the banks of which were white with alkali. Not only the stream, but the hills, barren of all vegetation, were full of the same substance. I never saw a more desolate place in my life. In all of Arizona there is nothing to compare with it that I know of.”

The men finally reached the old Butterfield station at Carrizo on March 28, 1890, and turned the cattle out to graze.

The next day, Vail was surprised to see a carriage rolling into camp from the north. On board were Sheriff Gray of Maricopa County in Arizona, a deputy sheriff named Slankert, a rancher from Phoenix, and their driver. Sheriff Gray pulled Vail aside, and told him the two boys who had joined his cattle drive had stolen several horses from the rancher. They had tracked them as far as Yuma, then taken the train to Temecula and driven down to intercept them.

“I knew if the boys were sure that the men were officers there would be bloodshed at once,” Vail recalled. “It was a very unpleasant position for me as I really felt a good deal of sympathy for the brothers.” But at Sheriff Gray’s insistence, he introduced the men as miners, and invited them to supper.

“Both boys were in camp,” Vail wrote in his diary, “and after stopping about an hour the Sheriff and his deputies had a chance and making a rush on the boys disarmed them and ordered

them to surrender at the point of the sixshooter. One of them made a run and was shot dead by one of the deputies, the ball passing through his back and heart.”

In his 1922 recollections, Vail described the scene in more detail:

“…I was standing on one side of the chuck wagon and the elder brother was leaning on the tailboard, with the other brother standing near the front wheel on the opposite side of the wagon from me, I suddenly heard a scuffle and when I looked up I saw the sheriff and another man grab the older boy and take his gun. His deputy and an assistant were holding his brother on the other side of the wagon. They had quite a struggle and young Fox pulled away from them, ran around the wagon past me with the deputy in pursuit. He had run about a hundred yards up a sandy gulch when the deputy, who was quite close to the boy, suddenly raised his gun and fired. Young Fox dropped and never moved again. I was close behind the deputy, as I had followed him. When he turned towards me his six-shooter was still smoking and he wiped it with his handkerchief. ‘I hated to do it,’ he said, ‘but you have to sometimes.’

“I was angry and shocked at his act, as it was the first time I had ever seen a man shot in the back. I then saw the other Fox boy walking towards his brother’s body which was still lying on the ground. The officers who had him handcuffed tried to detain him, but he said, ‘Shoot me if you like, but I am going to my brother.’ He walked over to where the body lay and looked at it. Then he asked me if we would bury his brother and I told him he could depend on us to do so.

“Then I told the sheriff there was no excuse for killing the boy as he could not get away in the kind of a country. He replied that he was sorry about what had happened, but said, ‘You know, Vail, that I got my man without killing him, and that it was impossible for me to prevent it, as I had my hands full with the other fellow at the time.'”

After he quieted down, the older brother admitted that their names were really Will and Frank Fox, and that they had fallen in with a band of desperadoes after accidentally witnessing one of their crimes. He claimed they traveled with them for several months before they stole some horses and headed for Mexico. But the law had been hot on their trail, so the gang broke up and the Fox boys ended up joining the Vail drive.

Sheriff Gray and his men soon left Carrizo, with Will Fox still handcuffed, sobbing and cursing. What are you going to do about the body? Turner asked one of the lawmen. ‘Why, he’s all right. He can’t get away,’ he replied.

Before leaving Carrizo, the cowboys wrapped the younger Fox boy in a blanket and buried him where he fell under a pile of stones. Later someone set up a tall stone, and carved into it: “Frank Fox killed April 1 1890 age 15.” That crude tombstone (and several replacements) has long-since vanished, but Frank Fox’s grave can still be seen.

Frank Fox headstone, now missing. Courtesy of

The San Diego Union (April 3, 1890) had nothing but praise for the lawmen — “The whole thing was neatly done and reflects great credit on the Arizona Sheriff and his men.” The San Diego Sun saw things a little differently. “The officers had no warrants allowing them to make arrests in California,” they reported on April 19, “and the outrage is such that some official action by the proper authorities must be taken.”

Will Fox is said to have spent a few years at old Yuma Territorial prison. After his release, he came out to the Empire Ranch, still swearing vengeance against Deputy Slankert. But the men talked him out trying to kill him. Tom Turner’s nephew later claimed that Fox did kill Slankert, and showed up at the Empire Ranch “on a well-lathered horse,” picked up a fresh mount, and hurried off, heading south. Not long after that, a posse arrived, but Turner told them he hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. That story seems unlikely, since Slankert lived several hundred miles away in Phoenix. Turner’s nephew added that Fox soon “got a job on a cattle ranch in Mexico and later became the foreman of the ranch. He married and had a family down there.”

The story of the shooting of Frank Fox was told and retold by desert cattlemen for years to come. Cowboy historian Lester Reed heard it while on his first cattle drive through Carrizo in 1910. Almost 75 years later he told me:

“Old Uncle Ed Vail said this young fellow…was running up this little gully here and this deputy was after him with his gun. Ed Vail was right behind the deputy, yelling, trying to get this deputy not to shoot. And he shot anyway and killed the fellow.”

Five days after the shooting, the Vail cattle finally reached the Warner Ranch. Though they had lost 71 head, the drive was considered a success, and other Arizona cattlemen soon began planning their own cattle drives.

“A short time after our return,” Vail recalled, “a meeting of cattlemen was called at the Palace Hotel (now the Occidental) in Tucson…. The object of the meeting was to consider the matter of establishing a safe trail for cattle from Tucson to California. From our experience I was able to make some suggestions, viz., to build a flat boat to ferry cattle across the Colorado River; to clean out the wells at the old stage stations on the Colorado Desert, and to put in tanks and watering troughs at each of them and if necessary to dig or drill more wells. Without delay all the money necessary for this work was subscribed.

“When the Southern Pacific Railroad Company had heard of the proposed meeting they asked permission to send a representative and the cattle association notified the company that the cattlemen would be pleased to have them do so. Therefore, the Southern Pacific agent at Tucson was present….

“Soon after our cattle meeting we received an official letter from the Southern Pacific Company saying that if we would make no more drives, the old freight rate would be restored on stock cattle. The company kept its promise and it held for many years. Therefore, the trail improvements were never made.”

Local travel continued on the Southern Emigrant Trail, but the days of the great cattle drives to Southern California were at an end.

A Note on Sources…

Ed Vail (1849-1936) never tired of telling the story of his 1890 cattle drive, both in person and in print. Cowboy historian Lester Reed (1890-1984) remembered hearing it from him when he worked on the Vail Ranch in Temecula in the early 1930s. Reed later included the story in his first book, Old Time Cattleman and Other Pioneers of the Anza-Borrego Area (1963), though he mistakenly places it in 1886 — perhaps because that was the year of Tom Turner’s first drive to California. That error that has misled some later writers.

Mesa Grande pioneer Edward H. Davis (1862-1951) wrote the story for Desert Magazine in June, 1940 as a “Forgotten Tragedy of Carriso Creek.” He first heard about the killing in the 1890s from some of Vail’s men on the Warner Ranch. In his article, the date appears as 1882, apparently based on a tombstone that had marked the grave until just a few months before. Yet Davis knew better. In 1904 he had sketched the original tombstone and made notes about the story. His earlier account can be found in his notebooks, available on microfilm at the San Diego Historical Society’s Research Archives.

Author Frank M. King retells the story in his book, Longhorn Trail Drivers (Los Angeles, 1940), supposedly based on Tom Turner’s recollections, but seemingly drawn more from Ed Vail’s published account.

Ed Vail first seems to have written up his recollections in 1922. They were published as “Diary of a Desert Trail” in The Arizona Daily Star in 12 installments from February 22 to March 9, 1922. An editor’s note accompanying the first article places the drive in 1896, and a typographical error puts the SP rate increase in 1898, but Vail clearly states that they left on January 29, 1890.

These articles were revised and published as “The Diary of a Desert Trail” in Texasland magazine in three installments beginning in May, 1926. For some reason, the SP rate increase was placed in the fall of 1890, though the correct start date of January 29, 1890 follows. When this series was reprinted in 1973-74 in The High Country, someone decided to leave the first date uncorrected, and instead changed the departure date to 1891.

Fortunately, Ed Vail’s original diary has survived, which combined with contemporary newspaper accounts destroys any doubt about the year of the big Vail cattle drive. His little pocket-sized “Excelsior Diary for 1890” can be found in Special Collections at the library of the University of Arizona in Tucson (AZ 271), along with an interesting collection of Empire Ranch Papers.

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