September 22, 2019

Old Black Canyon Rd was a Stagecoach Robber's Paradise

When it comes to stage-robberies in Yavapai County, the road from Prescott to Wickenburg may have had the most infamous heists, but the Old Black Canyon road was the route that was pinched with alarming regularity.

Part of the reason must have been a topography conducive to ambush. In particular two spots on the route were reported as the scene of the crime many times. One was “two miles north of Gillette;” the other was 10 miles north of that same city “at the foot of Arrasera Creek Hill.”

The first robbery that was of notice to the newspapers involved the murder of the lone passenger, a Mr. Thomas. On the evening of November 27, 1897, three Mexicans approached a stage traveling south from Prescott about 2 miles north of Gillette. The driver, William C. Ayer, related the account:

Ayer had “commenced the assent of the short steep hill,” when he noticed immediately ahead 3 men running towards the stage shouting to one another, “Pronto! Pronto!” When they reached the lead horses they divided, two running down the right side of the coach, while the third covered the driver. One of the Mexicans immediately went to the stage door and placed “his pistol so close to Mr. Thomas…as to burn his clothing, (as he) began to fire at him.” The robber who was covering the driver took hold of the reigns “and in English, ordered (him) to stop driving and get down.”

This and Wells-Fargo were the two
stage lines on Black Canyon Rd.
Soon two men were firing upon the passenger Thomas when they opened the door and began to stab him with a large knife. Thomas fell to the floor of the stage cabin and the robbers set their attention on the driver, Ayer. They took his revolver, pocket-watch and money.

While they were doing this, Thomas opened the coach door and spilled-out, falling on his face in the road. “Recovering in a few minutes from the shock of the fall, he got on his hands and knees, and crawling to one side, lay down and was robbed immediately of all his valuables,” Ayer related. Then they ordered him to open Thomas’ trunk and they “coolly proceeded to pick out what they wanted.” They then forced Ayer to “assist them on unhitching the horses, which they leisurely mounted and rode off in the direction of Prescott.”

Before they left, Ayer asked why they were so determined to kill his only passenger. They replied, “Este hombre es no bueno.” Thomas had been a foreman at the Tip-Top Mine (perhaps a cruel one.)

This began a string of stage robberies so frequent, that some received only the slightest mention in the newspaper.

One group of enterprising criminals robbed both the north and southbound stages at the same time! The evening of August 28, 1882, the stage from Prescott arrived in Phoenix in a sad state. Two Wells-Fargo strong boxes had been smashed open during “the most daring robbery ever perpetrated in the Territory.”

Two miles north of Gillette the stage driver observed “two horses secured to a tree a short distance ahead and a few yards from the road,” the paper described. As soon as “the driver remarked ‘robbers’…two men,” their faces covered by silk handkerchiefs, “sprang from behind a mesquite bush, and with shotguns leveled, ordered the driver to halt.”

The robbers told him to “come down from there” and to put his hands up. They then told the other 8 or 10 passengers to do the same. They shook everyone down before turning their attention to the strong boxes; “smashing them open with a large rock, which had apparently been placed by the roadside for the purpose.”

While rifling through the mail and taking all the cash, the criminal’s full plan was revealed. The stage that was heading north back to Prescott was heard coming up the road. “Hurry up,” one said to the other, “the other one’s coming!”

The one opening the mail seemed to have little concern. He calmly continued his task until the north-bound stage was within just a few yards when the two leveled their shotguns at the second stage’s driver. Six to eight more passengers were relieved of any valuable possessions and another strong box was smashed and rifled through. Two prominent passengers, Dr. Ainsworth of Prescott and Capt. Gordon of the 6th Calvary, were heading north to Prescott and lost around $400 apiece. The robbers found little in the Wells-Fargo strongbox on this stage.

A few of the victims complained. One asked for one dollar back so he could buy breakfast. The robbers gave him two. Another protested that he was “flat-broke” and was returned $3. Some pointed out the sentimental value of jewelry taken and those were returned as well. The two stages were then ordered to continue on their way. Eventually, both robbers were caught.

True crime story of two nurses who planned to murder a resident of the Arizona Pioneers' Home in Prescott.

In 1883, an old-man named Givens was trailed from the scene of a robbery to his home. He tried to allude being tracked the same way most robbers did: by covering his feet in gunny sacks. He “moved about in different directions,” often crossing over his own path. However, a group of 3 Indians, hired by the sheriff, “unraveled his walk around” and finally found a clear trail where Givens had finally taken off his foot cover.

Givens used to be a road agent; was poor, and in feeble health. “The fact that the stages been robbed on two previous occasions at the same place and in about the same manner, points to Givens as the perpetrator of all three robberies,” the newspaper inferred.

Indeed, Black Canyon road became an extremely popular spot for robbing highway men. Fourteen occurred there in 1884 alone. The modus operandi was becoming standardized and easy. One man would board the stage as a passenger at a stop prior to the place where it would be ambushed. Then, when his partner(s) would stop the stage, the accomplice inside the cabin would draw his gun and hold the passengers at bay. Too often the perpetrators were never caught.

Of course, there were no credit cards nor traveller’s checks in that day and people often travelled with all the cash they needed for their trip. In addition to their money, jewelry and other valuables were surrendered. Of keen interest to the thieves was the coach’s strong box which could be storing large amounts of cash or gold.

Not always, however. In January, 1884 the thieves must have been disappointed when the opened strongbox revealed nothing more than two bottles of patent medicine.

Another robbery in October netted the robbers one bottle.

When one driver resisted in June ‘84, the robbers shot at his head. “He turned at the last moment causing the discharge to miss,” the paper reported, “but blackening his face from the powder.”

A second stage robbery occurred that same month at the foot of Arrasera Creek Hill about 10 miles north of Gillette. The lone passenger, named Robinson, wanted justice and his belongings so fiercely that he accompanied Deputy Sheriff Nichols and two other citizens, and returned “to the scene of the robbery" to help track them himself. “He proposes to continue the search until the men are found, or until all traces of them are hopelessly lost.” Robinson was armed at the time of the heist and claimed “he could have killed one of the robbers, but feared the other would kill the driver.”

True tale of how a former Prescott marshall saved a gold shipment with a clever ruse in 1894.

Those who travelled became fearful, while the general public became irate. One newspaper called on the legislature to make stagecoach robbery a hanging offense. Rewards were often offered and hunting these thieving highwaymen became a bit of a cottage industry. Unfortunately, the bounty hunter’s lust for the reward money, coupled with the Territory’s desire to bring these outlaws to justice, led to innocent men being imprisoned on several occasions.

Most notable of these was the case of Jack Swilling. A revered pioneer even in his own day, Swilling was the man who provided Phoenix its water. On April 19, 1878, Swilling, who was in ill-health, arrived in Gillette with 2 other men and headed for the saloon. Later that evening word arrived that a stage had been robbed “when Swilling, who was drinking, jocularly remarked, ‘why it was I, George Monroe and Andy Kirby who took in the stage.’”

Lawmen trailed the robbers toward Gillette, but unfortunately, they confused the trail of the robbers with that of Swilling’s. When they entered Gillette, they heard the “boasts Jack had made, and caused his arrest. He was with Kirby, brought to Prescott, and before any examination could be had, was spirited away to Yuma where he died in prison, and all upon circumstantial evidence,” the paper lamented.

One frequent stage-robber was a Gillette blacksmith named Henry Seymour who robbed 3 stagecoaches amounting to an ill-gotten gain of $69,000. After loosing some of the loot in a poker game, people became suspicious and caught him trying to rob a fourth stagecoach.

Seymour was sent to prison never revealing the location of the loot nor was he known to have gone back to Gillette to recover it. Evidently, the treasure is still hidden among the ruins of the ghost town.


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