“One tough hombre:” Sheriff who tamed Tombstone, Arizona and beyond had roots in Sabine Parish and Sabine County

John Horton Slaughter
John Horton Slaughter

His name was Slaughter… John H. Slaughter, and he was also known as Texas John Slaughter.  He is credited with taming a notorious part of the Wild Wild West… in particular a large part of the Arizona Territory… geograpically specifically bringing lawfulness back to Tombstone, Arizona after the infamous 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Furthermore, he was the inspiration for a popular Walt Disney TV series in the 1950s, aptly titled, “Texas John Slaughter.”

Although I do not know specifically where (if anyone does, please respond), I do know that this old West gunfighter was born in 1841 in today’s Sabine Parish (back then, Natchitoches Parish), on what is described as a “Southern plantation near Many, Louisiana.”  His parents were Benjamin Slaughter and the former Minerva Mabry.

John Horton Slaughter was educated in Sabine County, near current Hemphill, Texas, and later in Caldwell County, Texas.

John Horton Slaughter
John Horton Slaughter

In the 1870s, he and his brother became cattle drivers near San Antonio, Texas, and the two formed a cattle-transporting company, the San Antonio Ranch Company, which drove cattle to Kansas via the Chisholm Trail.

In the late 1870s, Slaughter left Texas for New Mexico, where he traded cattle for a brief period.  Soonafter, he established a ranch in the Arizona Territory, having acquired the San Bernardino Ranch near today’s Douglas, Arizona (Cochise County).

Slaughter, with his rifle
Slaughter, with his rifle

In 1886, he was elected sheriff of Cochise County and served two terms as the county’s top law officer.  As sheriff, he helped track down Geronimo, the Apache chief, and Geronimo ultimately surrendered at San Bernardino. Slaughter fought for law and order with his six-shooter, a repeating shotgun, and with his Henry rifle.  He arrested hundreds of desperadoes, including members of the Jack Taylor Gang, and brought them to justice.

The Tombstone Jail was even once known as the “Hotel de Slaughter” for all the men who were put away there by Slaughter.

A legend of all sorts, Slaughter was known to return from searching from outlaws with only the horses and equipment of the outlaws he sought.

Slaughter was married twice, the first marriage from which two children were produced and though he and his second wife, Viola Howell Slaughter, never had any biological children, they adopted several.  Most noteworthy of the children they adopted was Apache May Slaughter, an Apache toddler adopted after she was abandoned by her parents while Slaughter was tracking her band who were responsible for killing white men in Arizona.

Apache May
Apache May

From Wikipedia:  “Apache May Slaughter became a young celebrity across Arizona, because many newspapers and publications speculated about the girl’s natural parents, her relation to the Apaches and whether those factors would affect her personality in the future and turn her into a violent person without morals.  Photographers were no strangers to the small girl; she was constantly pictured and appeared in most Arizona publications of the era.

“Apache May died at the Slaughters’ San Bernardino Ranch when one of her dresses caught fire as she was playing near a pot with boiling water. There were rumors at the time that were more likely true that the ranch hands, who were prejudiced against the little girl for being Indian, had actually set on fire the ranch.


“As a type of the true Westerner, John Slaughter was perhaps the most outstanding of any of the pioneers of Arizona from the dangers of the hostile Apache and for protection of early settlers from outlawry and depredation,” stated an article written in The Copper Era and Morenci Leader at the time of his death, in February 1922.

In its Feb. 19, 1922 edition reporting Slaughter’s death, The Tombstone Epitath wrote, “During his 10 years of office, (Slaughter) brought to justice many desperadoes who had been operating through the country and many attempts  were made to entrap him and take his life.  But Slaughter was too quick and too wise for them to cope with and in every case, he outgeneraled his foes.”

The newspaper article continued, “In passing of the venerable old pioneer, it can truly be said that Tombstone and Cochise County have lost one of the most constructive citizens they have had, and when news of his death at a ripe old age reaches the ears of the old timers of this county who fought with him, worked with and honored John Slaughter, it will be with a pang of regret which can only be fully realized by those who have met him and known him in his lie in the Southwest.”


In August 2015, The Arizona Republic featured a section entitled “Arizona’s True Tales” in which Arizona historian Marshall Trimble shared a brief look at some of the characters highlighted in his recently published book, “Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen.”  Included was Slaughter, described simply as “Peacekeeper.”  The article reads:

“John Horton Slaughter was one of the many drought-stricken Texas cattlemen who drove their herds to the virgin ranges of Arizona in the 1870s. He settled in Cochise County and eventually bought the historic San Bernardino ranch that straddled the Mexican border in south-eastern Arizona. He also brought law and order to a county that had been ravaged by outlaws and rustlers since its creation in 1881.

“Slaughter personified the 19th-century rawhide-tough breed that settled the wild Southwest border country. Slaughter was a no-nonsense man with dark, penetrating eyes. He always believed he was protected by a guardian angel and couldn’t be killed. The many times he stared death in the eye seemed to bear that out. “I’ll die in bed,” he declared and he did eventually, at a ripe old age.

“He was a product of frontier life, a lawless and violent post-Civil War era. He had no problem killing a man if he believed the man needed killing. He packed a pearl-handled .44 and a shot-gun. Some called him a good man and others said he was bad but they all agreed, John Slaughter was one tough hombre.

“Slaughter might have killed 20 men or more but he never said. One of his deputies described him as ‘a man of few words and he used them damn seldom.’

“After Slaughter became sheriff of Cochise County in 1887, he issued a stern warning to the rustler gangs, ‘get out or get shot.’ Most took his advice and left the country.

“In running outlaws to the ground, he sometimes acted as judge, jury and executioner. Nobody asked questions but law-abiding citizens were glad the undesirables were gone and wouldn’t return.

“He retired after two terms and returned to his beloved San Bernardino ranch. Years later, during the Mexican Revolution, Slaughter discovered Pancho Villa’s hungry solderos were butchering his cattle. Slaughter grabbed his gun, mounted his horse and rode boldly into Villa’s camp with fire in his eyes. He returned home later with his saddlebags full of shiny new $20 gold pieces.

“Not even Pancho Villa was willing to tangle with the old man Geronimo referred to as ‘that wicked little gringo.’ \

“His last gunfight occurred on May 4, 1921, when he was 81. A gang of border bandits, bent on robbery, attacked the ranch. Armed with his trusty pearl-handled .44, he drove off the bandits.

Standing only 5-foot-6, John Slaughter was small in size, but great in frontier stature. He’d been a lawman, cattleman, gun-fighter, businessman, pioneer, legislator, empire builder and even participated in the final campaign against Geronimo.

“Sometimes he was a bit careless about the legal niceties of the law but it was a hard country and it took men with bark on to tame it.”



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