03 January 2011

A Shootist at Deadwood and Other Arizona Places

Since the route to California, and through the southwest territory was already set, it was easy for the traveler to agree to be a shootist for an easterner. There was no rush in this journey, so there was ample time to travel slowly, stop where appropriate and shoot whatever suitably got in the way. During numerous weeks, the wild country was filled with suitable targets whom did not realize they would be at the wrong end of a shotgun's blast.

It was March 3, 1881 when Frank Stephens started westward, starting his taking of a myriad of victims. The results of his journey are well known in the historic annals, with details subsequently given for nearly every victim.

The killing started at Galeyville (now called Paradise), in the southern Arizona Territory, then onward to Cave Creek and to Morse's Mill and other localities in the western extent of the Chiricahua Mountains.

Despite the many deaths Stephens wrought, he was able to stay for about three weeks at Morse's Mill. His cash money for food and shelter was good. Suitable hospitality and ample opportunities for taking meant an extended stay. Each day he ventured forth, fully loaded, to find more victims.

He was not cavalier in his endeavor, as each victim was carefully attended to after its demise. It was spring in the desert country, and the seasonal freshing made the land especially attractive in the variety of victims continually presented.

On April 1st, shootist Stephens started for Tucson. Riding along in his wagon, with a shotgun ready for close-up use - for his purposes a pistol would not suffice - his eye was roaming the vegetation along the trail, in case an unlikely victim appeared.

The route went through Sulphur Spring Valley before reaching the frontier town of Tombstone. After a days' voyage along the trail, Stephens stabled his horses at the livery, found a suitable place to stay where he cleaned up before getting a hot meal.

While in town, his gun was put away, as his targets were elsewhere and he did not need to have any firearms to cause a ruckus among the local residents or unruly shootists of another sort.

His schedule meant he was early to bed, and early to rise. In the early morning hours, he'd walk around town, or perhaps get the team and wagon ready for a longer outing to the surrounding countryside. When the designated targets came in view, they got a load of buckshot, and after gathering a few victims it was time to return to a place suitable for preparing them for their final destination.

It was the wild shootists' regular routine. Whether he caught the attention of the local newspaper isn't readily apparent, but a visitor of his sort in town for an extended stay, could have easily been a subject of interest to the local publisher, even though his known and intended victims never had anything to say.

The local constabulary were probably aware of his intentions, but once they knew the particular facts, they probably ignored him as an eccentric.

Once the local killing fields had been visited to a sufficient extent, provisions were bought at a local mercantile to provide the supplies essential for the subsequent days through southern Arizona.

Once Stephens left Tombstone, undoubtedly using his own conveyance as he was on his own schedule, he tarried two to three days at Cienega Station, before reaching Tucson a few days later, on April 18.

This city was a haven, with all the necessities for the traveler of the early 1880s. There was a place to keep his conveyance, numerous options available for comfortable sleeping, and stores where his necessities could be purchased.

Most importantly, the place was comfortable and surrounded by wild lands with the targets which were the essential and primary focus for his journey. The easterner wanted a collection of victims, and Stephens was providing suitable results.

The easterner, William Brewster, received the results: 650 skins of which he wrote about with great zeal in an national bulletin, listing the identities of the victims, their particular features, and even describing the young of adults which were killed. Neither age nor sex mattered.

Shootist Tally

During his journey of a few months - which ended in July at Riverside, California - there were 650 known fatalities described in Brewster's report, issued in several installments since it was too lengthy for a single article in the bulletin. A couple of the skins of his victims are in the collection of the United States National Museum in Washington, D.C.

Stephens was a intent shootist, whose target was the variety of wild birds, and the results of his blasting are impressive. Overall, there were 164 individual species killed according to the reported tally. For some, there were multiple taking, especially for the most unusual or lesser known entities, including the following types of birds, which were represented to a greater extent in the published report: Lucy's Warbler (17 skins), Crissal Thrasher (12), Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (10), Strickland's Woodpecker (10), Scaled Quail (9), Bell's Vireo (8), Bendire's Thrasher (7), Brown-crested Flycatcher (7), Summer Tanager (6), Black-throated Sparrow (6), Gray Hawk (6), Olive Warbler (6) and Gilded Flicker (6).

A tally according to locality, indicates the larger number of specimens reported came from the Tucson area (133), then Camp Lowell which was in the same vicinity (52). Other denotable sites are: Santa Rita Mountains (50), Chiricahua Mountains Area (38) with the name revised from Chiracahua Mountains as there are previous records for this site so the name was revised to deal with temporal differences, Morse's Mill, Chiricahua Mountains (24), and Cienega Station (18 records).

In the published report of fatalities, there are sixteen records denoted for Tombstone, representing the following fifteen species represented by specimens: Ash-throated Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Brewer's Sparrow (four specimens), Canyon Towhee, Canyon Towhee, Cassin's Kingbird, Common Poorwill, Crissal Thrasher, Gila Woodpecker, Gray Flycatcher, Hammond's Flycatcher, House Wren, Lark Bunting (several large flocks in the vicinity), Northern Mockingbird, Scaled Quail and Vesper Sparrow.

A number of these species of the spring, occurred also during the summer, or were permanent residents.

Stephens Specimens

According to Brewster's report of the journey, he received all of the specimens collected, of which there were more than 600.

Brewster's article issued soon after Stephens completed his journey, did not indicate where the final fate of the bird skins, i.e., where they finally ended up as specimens lying in a cabinet.

Though only about 350 distinct observations were conveyed in the published article, additional records which were not given in the published article, went to various American museums. The online "Ornithological Information System" indicates further details indicate the variety of museums which apparently have specimens collected by bird shootist Stephens.

There are pertinent records in the following collections:

¶ American Museum of Natural History: a specimen of Toxostoma dorsale dorsale collected on May 25, 1881 at Tucson
¶ Delaware Museum of Natural History (one specimen): a skin of Vermivora luciae collected at Tucson on April 19, 1881
¶ Field Museum of Natural History (23 specimens): the records do not indicate the collector, but the dates and sites given conform to period when Stephens was collecting specimens in Arizona
¶ San Diego Natural History Museum (10 specimens)
¶ United States National Museum (12 specimens): these records indicate Stephens and William Brewster as the collectors, though Brewster was not the actual collector, but had the specimens in his collection
¶ Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology (records of eggs/nest for four species): from Tucson

The skins records of Stephens are a prime example of the difficulty in comprehensively considering the ornithological history for a particular place or a specific collector.

In this particular case, the published article contains a bit more than half of the recorded specimens. A couple of museum collections have additional details for a few more specimens. Other museum records have pertinent records but do not include an attribution to the collector, though dates and locations conform to the place and time when the person where skins were taken.

The different sources with the variety of given information, makes it extremely difficult - impossible actually - to compile an accurate and thorough list of the species denoted by a particular bird collector. There are too many sources to consider, a lack of pertinent information in some cases, and other attributes preventing a single-source search which would suitably convey the bird collection efforts of Stephens.

Stephens eventually sold his collection to the San Diego Society of Natural History.

Successful Journey

Stephens obviously safely came and went - despite his carrying of a shotgun loaded and ready to shoot something obvious - perhaps, because perhaps once he was recognized as some "eccentric" interested only in birds - he was ignored by law enforcement, citizens, and local rowdies.

Undoubtedly, some of the birds reported by Stephens were about Tombstone when the celebrated gun-slinger affray occurred at the OK Corral, on October 26, 1881.

However he conducted his journey, his skins represent a unique tally of local bird residents with the specimens representing many distinct western subspecies for which little information had been previously available.

Stephens' efforts are unique in presenting a birdly perspective for a frontier town of such significance in the annals of western history.