Graham County, AZ History and Commentary


As we celebrate Arizona's hundred-year anniversary of statehood this year, it's probable the majority of its citizens in 1912 were breathing a sigh of relief. The Territory had finally gained admittance to the Union, despite its violent past history. Statehood meant a new beginning. The death penalty would be repealed in four years. Many thought, "we were finally civilized" and hoped there would never be the likes of another OK Corral Street Fight again. But, in 1918 there would be an incredible shoot-out deadlier than the 1881 Tombstone gunfight. In this one, unlike the Tombstone fight, the lawmen would get the worst of it. The Power Cabin Shoot-Out would divide public opinion, and still does. It would also change Arizona law forever.

This shoot-out was a real Arizona tragedy for in the end there were no winners, only long term suffering for both sides. It took place in Graham County on February 10, 1918 in isolated Kielberg Canyon in the Galiuro Mountains, some seventy miles southwest of Safford which was the county seat. In the summer of 1917, America was at war in Europe. Young men from Arizona were registering for the draft and being sent to the front. Pancho Villa was rampaging through Mexico and after the raid on Columbus, New Mexico, tensions were high along Arizona's southeastern border. Since 1915 the state-imposed Prohibition of illegal alcohol now seemed to take a back seat, even in Mormon dominated Graham County. In Arizona, patriotism had dramatically increased. Local newspapers, hysterically, wrote of German sympathizers in the state. The Industrial Workers of the World, a socialist labor union opposed to the war, loomed large in southern Arizona mines. Union members, known as Wobblies, threatened to halt production of copper essential to the war effort. Violence exploded in Bisbee with the deportation of 1,200 alleged Wobblies.

In the midst of all this, we find the Power family. The father, Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) Power was born in Texas in 1866. Optimistic to a fault, he was independent, self reliant, determined, and tough. He knew horses, cattle, and guns. Having been raised in West Texas, he knew what it took to survive in a harsh, unforgiving land and his children followed by example. As a young man of only 28 years old, he was widowed after his wife Martha died in a freak accident. He gathered his four children and his mother, known in the family as Granny, and moved several times, finally settling in Graham County, Arizona Territory in 1909 where his deceased wife's family (the Morgans) lived. Jeff Power had four children, Charlie born in 1890, John in 1891, Tom in 1893, and a daughter Ola May in 1894. Unfortunately, bad luck seemed to follow this family were ever they went; they were wiped out several times by drought or flood and lost their beloved Granny in a fatal buggy accident. Ola May died of an apparent poisoning. The oldest son Charlie, having had enough of the hard and contentious life in the Galuiro Mountains pulled up stakes and went to New Mexico. Jeff Power and his remaining two sons stayed; they worked cattle in the canyon and labored in the nine mining claims they had recorded. It was common knowledge of the ongoing feud between this family and the Wootan family, especially Kane Wootan, over grazing rights and cattle rustling. In my opinion, mineral right ownership and mining by the Power family was a major concern of Wootan's too.

Tom Power had supported Democrat R.F. McBride's candidacy for Graham County Sheriff but neither he or John voted for him - or anyone else. Kane Wootan, the registrar in Klondyke, barred them from the polls on grounds of illiteracy even though both Tom and John could read and write. They would not soon forget the public humiliation they suffered at Wootan's hands. Tom Power once said, "shake a tree in this country and a Wootan will fall out of it."

Jeff Power, a domineering father, and known as "Old Man" by his sons, had purchased several inactive gold mine claims in the area of their cabin. Some of the mining claims had been productive at one time and Jeff, ever the optimist, thought they could be productive again. Previously, he had hired a man to help him and his boys work the mines, build a road to them and handle the cattle and horses. Tom Sisson was hired for room and board, and the promise of wealth when any of the mining claims became productive. Sisson, about the same age as Jeff Power, was an old Army Scout and had recently been paroled from prison on a horse theft charge which he said, of course, had been a mix up.

Thus, in my opinion, the seeds were sown and the scene was set; Jeff Power needed the free labor from his sons and didn't want to lose them. He was forceful enough to dominate them. I believe he knew about the war raging in Europe but considered it not his family's fight and was willing to oppose anyone who thought different or tried to impose their will on him or his sons. Tom and John, in my opinion, also knew they were required to register for the draft. They later said, when they inquired at the Reddington, AZ, Post Office, that the postmaster there had told them the government was only taking enlistees and if that changed, then a Forest Ranger would notify them.

R.F. McBride, Kane Wootan, and Martin Kempton were all Mormon churchmen. McBride, was the newly elected Sheriff of Graham County, Kane Wootan became his deputy and Martin Kempton, his under- sheriff. As previously stated it is probable Kane Wootan had a long festering animosity toward the Power family, as did they toward him. In January 1918, Sheriff McBride, perhaps pressured by others, filed a complaint with local Justice of the Peace and fellow churchman, U.I. Paxton. He issued federal warrants for John and Tom Power for failure to register for the draft. McBride sent the warrants to Deputy U.S. Marshal Frank Haynes in Globe,and he immediately forwarded them to U.S. Marshal J.P. Dillon in Phoenix. Dillon had never heard of the Power brothers and his budget was exhausted. The cost of sending a Deputy U.S. Marshal on a 300 mile round trip wasn't his only concern. He questioned the legality of the warrants and wondered why McBride hadn't filed his complaint with a federal commissioner, as was customary. Failure to register for the draft was a federal crime and the Graham County Justice of the Peace was not a federal officer. Dillon took the warrants to the federal attorney for a legal opinion. In an obvious "CYA" move, the federal attorney demanded the elimination of all reference to federal offices on the warrants and complaints. He also advised Dillon to return the papers to the maker for these corrections. The necessary corrections were made and the request for funding approved.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Haynes was ordered to go to Safford and consult with Sheriff McBride. McBride would accompany Haynes and an additional posse member was also authorized. Martin Kempton, the under-sheriff, volunteered to go but McBride chose Kane Wootan instead because of his supposed knowledge of the area. McBride, not wanting to disappoint Kempton, said he could come along and "hold the horses." Only Wootan, McBride and Haynes were hired and would be paid by the federal government to deliver warrants to two men living on federal land who were charged with a federal crime. Kempton became the odd man out! On Saturday February 9, 1918 the four men arrived in Klondyke and then drove to the Haby ranch to borrow horses for the twenty-five mile trek up the mountain to the Power cabin. The Habys were friends of the Power family. They were known to be hospitable and accommodating to visitors, but in this case, Mr. Haby did not oblige them. The posse was heavily armed and according to Haby, they'd been drinking. He offered to ride up the mountain himself and bring the Power boys in peacefully. The lawmen refused his offer, and Haby refused to lend them his horses. The four men moved on to Kane Wootan's ranch, where three horses and a mule were available. After a light meal, they collected a few extra guns and rode into the dark cold night.

A light snow covered the ground on the morning of February 10, 1918. Just before dawn, Jeff Power rolled out of bed and threw a log on the smoldering ashes in the cabin's fireplace. John Power was already up preparing breakfast. Tom Power and Tom Sisson stayed in bed. The "Old Man" heard their two belled horses run by the cabin at a near gallop. Fearing a mountain lion was on the prowl and still in his long johns, he grabbed his rifle and slowly opened the canvas door. A nervous voice yelled out "throw up your hands!" A shot rang out and Jeff Power spun and hit the ground in front of the door. John Power rushed to aid his father but ran into a hail of bullets. A bullet creased his nose and wood splinters penetrated deep into his left eye. He opened the door a little and fired to his right and then to his left. Tom Power jumped from his bed and grabbed his rifle. He said later a ball passed so close to his neck that he felt the heat. He was headed to the south window when it shattered from gunfire coming from outside sending splintered glass into his left eye. Nearly blinded, he fired through the broken window at a shadow and saw it drop to the ground. The boys said later, Tom Sisson never took part in the shoot-out and was under his bed the whole time. In my opinion, this is certainly a debatable statement since empty shell casings from his rifle were found under his bed after the shoot-out.

The shooting was over quickly. In its aftermath four men would be dead, and two wounded. Jeff Power was lying outside the cabin door shot through the lung, bleeding, and having trouble breathing. The boys tried to make him comfortable but he died later that day. John and Tom recognized two of the bodies, that of Kane Wootan and Sheriff McBride. They apparently didn't know Martin Kempton. They also didn't know that Deputy U.S. Marshal Frank Haynes had quickly escaped from the shoot-out, becoming the sole surviving lawman. He apparently enjoyed that notoriety, as he later told his different and confusing tales of the shoot-out to the press and to the court in what many say was perjured testimony under oath.

They knew there would be hell to pay. So, Tom, John, and Sisson decided they had few choices. They could stay and face a lynch mob, ride out and surrender to the army on the border, or cross over into Mexico. Now fugitives from justice, they headed south.

Making a long story short, on March 18, 1918 thirty days after the shoot-out and a historic Arizona manhunt, the Third Squadron, 12th Cavalry stationed at Hachita, New Mexico, captured the trio in Mexico. The soldiers followed their tracks into Mexico and found themselves looking down the barrels of the beleaguered fugitives weapons. Their wounds badly infected, all suffering from dehydration, and emaciated from lack of food, the brothers and Sisson laid down their arms. When asked why they didn't resist and shoot it out, they said they wouldn't shoot "a soldier boy."

Thus began the journey into prison for the Power brothers and Tom Sisson. The trial was moved to Clifton, Arizona in Greenlee County. Many say they had poor representation but it probably would not have mattered who defended them. They were quickly convicted and sentenced on May 20, 1918. Tom, John and Sisson were sent to the Arizona State Prison in Florence for the rest of their natural lives with no hope of pardon or parole. Tom Sisson died in prison on January 23, 1957 and is buried in Phoenix. Tom and John made sure the old Indian scout had a proper burial.

The Power brothers, largely due to the efforts of Phoenix Republic columnist Don Dedera, eventually won parole on April 27, 1960. Governor Jack Williams signed Tom and John Powers' full and unconditional pardon on January 25, 1969 - nearly 51 years after that fateful Sunday morning in 1918. Tom Power died on September 11, 1970 of a heart attack. John Power died of natural causes on April 5, 1976. He is buried in the Klondyke cemetery in a plot he had prepared for himself next to the graves of his grandmother, his sister, his father and his brother Tom. May they rest in peace.

In reading and researching this story, it reaffirms the age-old addage "there's always two sides to every story." The more you read about this Arizona tragedy, the more opinions you will have regarding it. Who was in the right; who was in the wrong? It's not a black and white read and there are many gray areas on both sides. Of course, both sides blamed the other. The law officers, however, never identified themselves as such. Which begs the question then and now; does a citizen have the right to defend his home, property and life from invasion? There are other disturbing points of contention to be considered regarding this shoot-out and its aftermath. For example, Deputy U.S. Marshal Frank Haynes did no talking at the cabin. Instead Kane Wootan, a deputy county sheriff did the talking. Was Kane Wootan there to settle a score? One would think Deputy U.S. Marshal Haynes should have been in control of the situation and served the Federal warrants or was he inclined to think this situation was going to turn bad and stayed well in the back ground and under good cover?

Jay Murdock, a neighbor who attended to Jeff Power until he died said when Jeff was conscious, he repeatedly said "Why did Kane shoot me, I had my hands up." Murdock, an experienced hunter, knew an entrance wound from an exit wound. He noticed that blood gushed from the wound when Jeff's arms were raised. The bullet had made a clear passage from front to back. But when Jay lowered the man's arms, a muscle slipped over the hole and diminished the flow of blood! This, to me, is a clear indication that Jeff Power's hands were indeed up when he was shot in the doorway of his home.

Among the many questions one must ask; were Tom and John Power the only young men in 1918 to not register for the draft in Graham County? It is probable they were not. Could there have been other reasons, perhaps dark, why these Graham County law enforcement officials focused on them? The last question that should be asked; mineral rights versus grazing rights. Did someone want the Power family out of the area because they had acquired the mineral rights for much of it? Were they, the Power family, in possession of a productive mine or mines?

© Kevin Mulkins, 2012

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