Did you know… John Slaughter?(October 2, 1841 – February 16, 1922)

Tales of the Old West

“Texas” John Slaughter

When you think of Gary Cooper in the old Western movies, the strong silent type who got the job done, the real-life version was John Slaughter.

John was born in western Louisiana, and grew up in Sabine County, Tx. He learned Spanish, riding, roping, poker, and shooting from the Mexican vaqueros.

He formed a cattle company with a partner, and in the days when the motto was “No law west of the Pecos”, drove cattle north from Mexico to the railroads in Kansas – a target for bandits going south, because of the thousands of dollars he carried, and a target for rustlers going north, anxious to cut out a few head of cattle that no one would notice – except John. He’d been an Indian fighter, Texas Ranger, Confederate soldier, and now, trail boss.

Encountering a famous rustler, Bitter Creek Gallagher, John didn’t bat an eye – he anticipated the rustler’s return, after beating him off once, chose the ground, and the time, and waited. Sure enough, the rustler stupidly came back, holding a sign that meant parley – but also carrying a shotgun. John divined his intent, and at the first move of a hand to raise the shotgun, quickly shouldered his rifle and fired. Gallagher’s horse spooked, throwing him – he dropped the shotgun and raised a Colt – the last thing he ever did. John drilled him three times in quick succession.

John was not physically imposing – only five feet six inches, dark hair, eyes, and beard, with skin the color of the copper Arizona sand. Grim, silent, and extremely intelligent, with a strong sense of honor, John could be a great friend, or a deadly enemy.

John’s reputation grew, rivaling the legendary cattle king Chisum. A few years after the Gunfight at the OK Corral, men from Tombstone came and asked him to run for sheriff. The Clantons were still there, the pay was low, and the risks were high. But the townspeople were desperate – the town was more lawless than it had ever been. In 1886, John became sheriff of Cochise County.

His law and order formula was simple – obey the law, or get out. Anyone who refused could look forward to a permanent stay on Boot Hill. Fast and deadly with any type of gun, he preferred to capture and kick out the bad guys – but if they insisted, he obliged them with a serving of lead. He had little use for courts – he investigated, and made himself judge and jury. His Winchester often enforced his orders.

John married Eliza Adeline Harris on August 4, 1871, and had four children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Like the fictional wife in “High Noon” Eliza stuck by John through all the scrapes and dangers. He had many enemies. When Eliza took sick and died, John married Viola Howell, eighteen, at Tularosa. Viola too proved a valiant companion. Once when expecting an ambush, John told her to drive on like hell if they showed up, not to pause for him jumping to the ground. She did as instructed when bandits came from two directions, zigzagging her team through the sagebrush and over the rocks. John leaped down from the buggy, rolled, and came up firing. He dusted himself off, walked to where Viola was waiting and sent the undertaker back with a wagon and an escort for the dead. Just another day at the office for John Slaughter.

John retired from his sheriff job leaving a record matching the finest traditions of the Old West. There are many more stories of his bravery, his dealings with the Clantons, and other bandits of the area during his term as sheriff. He returned to his cattle empire and made it a marvel of beauty and efficiency. He governed 100,000 acres of splendid range.

In the 1920s, John fell ill, and moved to an apartment in Douglas, Az, where he was found dead February 16, 1922. One of the true legends of the West had passed into memory.

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