Arizona Rangers moved into Bisbee

Harry Wheeler tombstone

Harry Wheeler was the third and final captain of the Arizona Rangers, but was best known as Sheriff of Cochise County. The modern-day Rangers, a volunteer group, added the last line to his monument at Evergreen Cemetery much after his death.

Arizona had been a territory since 1863, being brought into the Union sphere of influence largely because of the gold and silver it held, needed to finance the Civil War.

Later in that century, Arizona began lobbying for statehood and its attendant benefits. It continued to tout its mineral wealth as the major reason for acceptance. Arizona and its mines participated in a number of major fairs around the nation, and the world, with Bisbee’s fabulous minerals as centerpieces.

Bisbee, for example, was heavily represented at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 with a variety of museum pieces, including a gigantic (4.5-ton) block of azurite and malachite, which is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Despite the value of Arizona’s natural resources, with Bisbee heavily contributing, both in terms of wealth and beauty, folks in the East felt that the Wild West territory was too lawless to be admitted as an equal partner.

Wild West reputation

Emblematic of what was known of Arizona back East was the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the depredations, on both sides of the border with Mexico, of the group known as the “cowboys.” Smuggling, cattle rustling, murder and mayhem were frequently reported by the press.

Finally, the state saw the handwriting on the wall and took a major step toward cleaning itself up with the creation in 1901 of the Arizona Rangers. Patterned after the long-famous, and effective, Texas Rangers, the small body of lawmen were required by statute to be headquartered in the most lawless part of the state.

For the Arizona Rangers, lawlessness prevailed in its three sequential offices in Bisbee, its border town of Naco and its neighboring town of Douglas. All were on the border, with its problems of smuggling, and all were rural centers, surrounded by rangeland that was subject to illicit cattle business.

While this wouldn’t be the first group known as the Arizona Rangers, it was the first official organization. The territorial legislature originally authorized a captain, a sergeant and 12 privates. By 1903, the group had been successful enough, and the need appreciated enough, that the roster was increased to a total of 26 men. (That would provide the title for a short-run TV series in the late ’50s about the Rangers, which was pure Hollywood.)

Mossman was first captain

Gov. N. O. Murphy chose as its first captain a successful ranch manager from northern Arizona, Burton C. Mossman. Mossman agreed to serve for one year and moved on down to Bisbee. The Rangers got to work throughout the territory and ran into fierce resistance from criminal elements, especially cattle rustlers, that were preying on cattlemen throughout the vast, remote domain.

Burton Mossman

Burton C. Mossman, the first Arizona Ranger captain.

It was in the first year of its life (Oct. 9, 1901) that it lost its only active member, Carlos Tafoya (perhaps Tofolla), in a gunfight with rustlers in dense timber on the Fort Apache reservation in northeastern Arizona. During a shootout between several lawmen and a number of rustlers, Tafoya and an Apache County deputy, William T. Maxwell, were both killed.

Another Ranger, Jeff Kidder, was killed in Naco, Sonora, but technically he was no longer in the agency, having allowed his commission to expire. Kidder was not totally popular in Bisbee, where he been involved in a number of squabbles with locals.

Rangers’ succession and success

Mossman had agreed to a single year in the Rangers, and at the end of that term famously captured, just south of the border, Augustine Chacon, an infamous murderer from Graham County who had managed to escape the hangman. By posing as an outlaw interested in raiding the ranch of William C. Greene west of Bisbee, Mossman was able to get the drop on an ever-wary Chacon and finally send him to the gallows.

After leaving the Rangers, Mossman would acquire a butcher shop in Bisbee. He was succeeded by Tom Rynning, who would later become superintendent of the Arizona territorial, then state, prison. Later still, Harry Wheeler, best known as Sheriff of Cochise County in the teens, was the third and final Ranger captain.

Because of jealousy from elected law enforcement officials, the more free-wheeling, yet very effective, Ranger group was de-authorized by the Legislature in 1909. But it had done its job well, and a much more law-abiding Arizona entered the Union in 1912.

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