May 30, 2016

Sheriff's Exploits Were Hollywood; His Appearance Was Not

"Uncle" Jim Roberts
Jim Roberts wore a plain black, "eastern-sized" hat, with no band. He donned a plain white shirt and blue jeans; the side pocket worn white from the outline of his old frontier model, single action Colt. The gun looked as if it hadn't been shot in years and bore no notches. He had no holster and wore no boots. (*1)

But perhaps his greatest antithesis to the iconic image of the "Hollywood gunfighter" was Roberts' ironic relationship with horses. He developed a reputation for breeding some very fine ones, yet he would never ride one himself. So when one summoned the sheriff, instead of bolting in on a sweating steed, Roberts would mosey-up on his mule! (*1)

He was a man of few words. "Jim never did say much," one old-timer related, "and when he was angry, he didn't say anything." (*1)

"He always returned your greeting. Question him, though, and he would shut up like a clam," another said. (*1)

 To the local law-abiders, he was fondly known as "Uncle Jim."

Appearances aside, Roberts was a highly respected and lethal gunfighter who kept some of the rawest of Arizona's frontier mining towns in lawful order.

Roberts started his gunfighting career after he found one of his prize horses was stolen. The trail took him to the ranch of the Grahams in Pleasant Valley, who were feuding with the Tewksbury clan at the time. When Roberts confronted the Grahams, "they laughed at his allegations – prompting him to join the Tewksbury(s). Roberts made his accusations and possibly took stronger steps; no one knows. But one night he returned to his little cabin home, a pile of smoldering ashes." (*2)

This started The Pleasant Valley War; "a feud which ranks as one of the bloodiest in American history." (*1)

A proper telling of this episode would require book length. Indeed, Zane Grey did so in his docudrama novel: "To the Last Man Standing." Suffice to say that Roberts was, indeed, that last man. (*3)

However, the world will never know the complete details of the Pleasant Valley War, for Roberts vowed never to talk about it--not even to Zane Grey. (*1) (Interestingly, Grey eventually purchased the ranch land that Roberts had his horse stolen from.) (*2)

This vendetta lasted nearly 15 years and Roberts was considered "‘the most dangerous gun' in the feud. He is said to have shot and killed two of the Graham brothers and wounded three of their allies. Eventually, Roberts and other clan members were arrested and jailed in Prescott, Arizona – but later freed, because nobody would testify for either side out of fear of retaliation." (*2)

"The Pleasant Valley War left Roberts with a legendary reputation, but little else." (*1)

However, "in 1889, he was appointed a deputy sheriff by famous Sheriff Buckey O'Neill, who recognized Jim as the ‘best gun in the Pleasant Valley War' and assigned him to clean up Congress, (Arizona)." (*2)

ALSO ENJOY: The Colorful, Short Life of Mayor Buckey O'Neill
Biography of one of the most colorful men to reside in Prescott, Arizona: Buckey O'Neill. Had he lived, he would have probably been Arizona's first governor.

"In 1892, Jim was elected Constable in the (then) wild and crazy copper mining town of Jerome, AZ., then later elected town marshall in 1904. He also spent time as a lawman in Bisbee, Douglass and the Tombstone areas, before returning to Clarkdale...where he eventually ‘retired', and went to work for the United Verde Copper Company as a Special Officer, holding a Yavapai County Deputy Sheriff commission." (*2)

When it came to Roberts' gunfighting, "John Ryan, the last of his old-time deputies said, 'he was the best of them all.'" (*3)

"I've seen better trick shots," Ryan said, "but for plain, ordinary, business shooting, I'll take Jim Roberts." (*1)

Roberts employed a style of gunfighting that took nerves of steel. He knew that most gunfighters, trying to get off the first shot, would often miss. He, instead, would take an extra moment to take dead aim at his opponent's head (as that opponent's bullet went whizzing past!)  Roberts' "dead aim" was deadly, indeed. He would never miss.

"Roberts developed two distinguishing traits as a gunfighter. The first was that he scorned quick-shooting; the other man could always get the first shot. The second--well, it was that no opponent ever got off a second shot." (*1)

During these frontier times, "arresting was much less frequent than slaying the pestiferous person and attributing (his) death to 'lead poisoning.'" (*3)

Once, Roberts mounted up to go into the mountains after a Mexican desperado. He also took a smaller burro in anticipation of having to bring back the Mexican's corpse--he did. (*1)

Another incident involved a greenhorn deputy. "Three men (were) on the run from a card game where another man had been killed. Sheriff Roberts is said to have told his young deputy to take care of the man in the middle, while he took care of the other two – but seeing the young man's trembling hands, Sheriff Roberts said 'Get out of the way sonny, I'll take them all,' and he did." (*2)

In January, 1902, two criminals killed Jerome deputy Joe Hawkins and quickly fled. "Deputy Roberts caught up with them in nearby Camp Verde, and returned to Jerome with their bodies slung over his mule." (*2)

ALSO ENJOY: 1894 Gold Heist Foiled
True tale of how a former Prescott marshall saved a gold shipment with a clever ruse in 1894.

Perhaps Roberts' most colorful incident occurred when he was 71 years-old. Earl Nelson and Willard Forrester were professional bank robbers making their way across the country towards Mexico. They wanted to make one last heist before they headed to the border and they heard that the small town of Clarkdale would have in its bank the mining payroll for the month.

They prepared well. Inside their getaway car were 3 extra revolvers, a rifle, a shotgun, and a riot gun. They had 47 cans of roofing nails to scatter on the road behind them. In case they had to leave the car, they had a large supply of ginger, cayenne pepper and oil of peppermint to rub on their shoes and foil the pursuit of tracking dogs. They also had several days of food stored. (*1)

"They were experienced operators. Working their way west from Wichita, they had racked up in two short years, a long series of successful hold-ups." (*1)

There was one thing they did not prepare for in Clarkdale, however, and that was the crack shot of Uncle Jim Roberts.

With their eyes on the town's mining payroll, the criminals "marched into the bank about 11:00 (am) on June 21st, 1928." (*3)

While one lined up the customers and bank workers against the wall, the other "scooped up about $50,000 in cash into a gunny sack," and headed for their getaway car. (*3)

"Forrester climbed into the driver's seat, smiled to Nelson, and started (away). They had (just) engineered the biggest bank robbery in Arizona history." (*1)

But just as they passed Jim Roberts outside the general store, the bank's manager emerged with a hidden gun and fired two warning shots. In response, Nelson leaned out the car and took a potshot at Uncle Jim. He missed.

"Uncle Jim put down his (whittling) stick. Then with "both eyes open and both hands on the gun...he shot back--once. (From) 50 paces away in a fast moving car (and) at a bad angle, Forrester slumped over the wheel, a slug of lead in his brain." (*1)

"The car careened around in a crazy circle, hit a telephone guy wire and smashed to rest against the Clarkdale High School. Nelson, aged 22, jumped out and ran down the alley beside the building." Roberts, nearly fifty years his senior, tracked him down and took him prisoner! (*1)

Less than a year prior to this, Hollywood did knock on Roberts' door. "A movie company, on location for filming "To the Last Man," came to town and asked Uncle Jim to be technical director; offering him...more money than he had made his whole life!" But Roberts refused the offer. "The movie company did not believe he was serious. According to the old-timers, all fighting participants of the feud were dead except Roberts."(*1)

"Uncle Jim said he was sorry, but he still saw a reason: A man's word was something to be kept until he himself died." (*1)

Roberts had vowed never to speak of the Pleasant Valley Wars and he would not break that vow at any price.

Six years later, on the evening of January 8th, 1934, Uncle Jim was found lying on the ground at his post outside the general store. He had suffered a heart attack. A few minutes later, in the ambulance, Uncle Jim passed away.

At his funeral, he was well remembered. He passed away doing what he loved.

One could say that he "died with his boots on." That is, if he wore boots!

Tourist Tips:

Clarkdale, Arizona:

Nestled in the heart of the Verde Valley, Clarkdale is about a half-hour drive from Sedona, 10 minutes from Jerome and is adjacent to the Tuzigoot National Monument – featuring an 800-year-old Singaua Indian Pueblo and 42 acres of breathtaking trails. The historic town is built on two mesas overlooking the Verde River, while newer sections climb up the Black Hills and toward nearby Cottonwood.

Home to the Verde Canyon Railroad which was laid out in 1914, Clarkdale contains multiple sites listed on the National register of Historic Places, including the original "company town" site, mining and smelter sites, the one-lane bridge on Broadway and the Clark Memorial Courthouse. In addition, Clarkdale houses a vibrant downtown featuring restaurants, bars, an art gallery and a beautiful park, complete with a nostalgic bandstand where summer evening concerts are held.

CLICK HERE for Clarkdale's Calendar of Events

CLICK HERE for Info on the Tuzigoot National Monument

CLICK HERE for Info on the Verde Canyon Railroad

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(*1) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives. Vertical File: Yavapai County; Roberts, Jim. "Last of the Old-Time Shooting Sheriffs, by Cleveland Amory. (Drama in Real Life: LXVIII) (This was obviously a Reader's Digest article, but the date of publication was not recorded. However, source (*3), written in June, 1950, cites this very article as being in "the current issue" of Reader's Digest.)
(*2) Find a Grave: James Franklin "Uncle Jim" Roberts
(*3) Prescott Evening Courier; 6/21/1950; pg. 2 Col. 2

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