January 27, 2019

Horsethief Basin: Heart of a Rustlin' Racket

The first use of the name “Horsethief Basin” in an Arizona newspaper was November 1st, 1911, but its history as the heart of a criminal syndicate stretched back 30 years prior.

In the end, the illegal activities there would continue for decades until a road to the site was finally built. 
“The pine-circled basin which lies a few miles southeast of the town of Crown King…gets its name from the thieves who stole horses from the ranchers, not only in (the immediate) region, but from all over the state.” 

As to be expected, documented primary sources for this criminal enterprise are scarce. Fortunately, Wagoner area rancher Nel Cooper published some of the area's oral history in 1966.

It was early in the 1880s when the operation became well-organized. “Rustlers used to steal horses in Mexico, central and southern Arizona, drive them up to the forested basin to holding corrals and alter their brands,” a second author wrote.

“The first white man to build a cabin in the area was a rustler named Horse Thief Davis. He was later joined by Horse Thief Thompson. Their cabin, known as Horse Thief Cabin, was not removed until 1938.”

Horsethief Basin was the perfect spot for such nefarious activities. The lake there provided plenty of free grass and water for the livestock “to condition them for top prices.” Additionally, the seclusion of the spot was guaranteed by lookouts. 

Soon, rustling operations extended down to Mexico and north to Utah. When the horses were rebranded and ready, they “would drive them north to Utah and Colorado where they’d sell them. Then, just to show no favoritism, they’d steal horses up there, drive them to Horsethief Basin and re-brand (them) before herding them down south to sell.”

However, the syndicate’s infrastructure did not end there. “Extending from (Horsethief Basin) in a westerly direction were several strategically placed corrals forming a loose chain—perhaps all the way west to California, certainly (at least) to Burro Creek, not far from the mining town of Baghdad.” 

“There were at least three of these hidden stations between Horsethief Basin and Wagoner,” Cooper wrote. “These were maintained for a twofold purpose—first, if the horses were to bring top prices, they must be in good shape…Second, and most importantly, it gave the thieves the opportunity of sending scouts to learn if they were being trailed by officers of the law or the rightful owners.”

The early histories and the explanations for the names of Dewey and Humboldt, Arizona. Includes the reason for their incorporation.

Years went by successfully, so the rustlers decided to expand their business and began to steal cattle as well. To us today, the modus operandi they used was particularly cruel and disgusting, but for Nel Cooper, an old rancher used to providing beef for America’s dinner tables, it was ingenious. 

“Many cows with unbranded calves were rounded up and penned on the high Bluff usually above the running water,” Cooper explained. “The calves were cut away from the mothers and driven on to another hidden place. Here they were probably branded—in the outlaws' brand of course.”

When the calves were safely on their way, the mother cows were stampeded over a cliff to fall several hundred feet below. “They were either killed out right, or so badly injured they died.”

“Soon the summer rains came bringing floods to wash away all (the) evidence. The calves were held until their brands were ‘haired-over,’ and they had grown into yearlings,” Cooper continued. “No one could lay claim to them, for there were no cows to mother them—neat wasn't it?” he asked.

In 1924, plans began to make Horsethief Basin a highly developed summer resort. A committee “made a survey of the (Bradshaw) mountains and returned a report quite favorable to the establishment of a resort in the Horsethief Basin area…(which was only) 62 miles by motor road from the center of the city of Phoenix."

“The scenic values of the region are unsurpassed,” the newspaper reported. “The basin is surrounded by high peaks from which magnificent views of the Gila, Salt, Aqua Fria, and Hassayampa valleys may be had.” They planned to build a resort capable of hosting 3000 people. “It (was) proposed that an auto camp be established in addition to the summer cottages.”

In February, 1925, a motion picture “showing the possibilities of the development of a vast summer resort area” at Horsethief Basin were presented at a dinner where “members of the state legislature were guests.”

A great deal of planning and effort went into the idea. However, progress was slow and by the time the Great Depression struck, only a road to the area had been completed and the grandiose resort plans were all but forgotten. 

At the time, many thought Horsethief Basin was ruined by the coming of the Depression. Today, many believe the Great Depression saved it.

Although resort plans were quickly scrapped, the area now had a road leading to it. So five years after the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was formed in 1933, it was tasked with developing the foundations of the Prescott National Forest’s recreational area that we see and love today.

The story of the work done in the Prescott (AZ) National Forest by the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 to 1941. Much of the work they accomplished is still in use today.

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“Nel Cooper Stories: True tales of the Wagoner, Arizona Area.” Self-published; copyright 1966, revised 1974.
Arizona Republic, 12/28/1924; Pg. 65, Cols 1-2.

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