Those Bombastic Frontier Gazettes and Their Irrepressible Fighting Editors!

Excerpt from In Old Arizona by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.

Following that magnetic trail west and hot on the harbingering heels of fur trappers, prospectors, cowboys, merchants, politicians and preachers, were frontier fourth estaters armed with crude little hand presses and big-time dreams.

Wherever folks wandered in the rugged, vast lands of the West during the second half of the 19th century, there remained a desire to keep up on happenings “back in the states.” Local events such as the location of the newest gold strike and political issues were always a curiosity. For many, the local newspaper was not only a link with the outside world, but provided the sole means of entertainment and culture to an anxious, news-starved popu­lace. It didn’t take much to start the presses rolling. All you needed was a printing press, a bundle of “readyprint” (a syndicated supply of news and advertising), a “shirt-tail full” of type and dogged determination to succeed in the face of mighty tough odds.

There were no schools of journalism in those days, as evidenced by the rough grammar and bad spelling found in old newspaper files. Few editors had any kind of business background and were oftentimes in financial trouble before the ink was dry on the first issue. Early editors and publishers (they were usually one and the same) were a hard lot to stereotype. Some were torch carriers for justice, seekers of truth and champions of liberty; others were ruthless, writing with pens seemingly dipped in acid, and still others stylized their observations in a humorous, light-hearted vein. The personality of the editor, his strengths and weaknesses set the tempo and flavor of their respective chronicles.

Few became wealthy and only a handful became famous.

Some editors were, no doubt, answering some high calling. Others wanted something less physically demanding than digging for gold, and not all would-be editors fulfilled those high-minded dreams of setting up a newspaper. The Arizona Daily Star, on July 3, 1883, reported the “Honorable C. A. Franklin has abandoned his purpose of starting a newspaper in Phoenix and in lieu of that, last Saturday started a faro bank.”

Sometimes other factors determined if and how long an editor remained in business. Lindley Branson of the Jerome Sun incurred the wrath of the powerful but secretive William Andrews Clark, owner of the United Verde Mine. When Branson tried to glean information on the wealth of Clark’s ore deposits, the copper magnate leaned on the paper’s advertis­ers to withdraw their support. Without advertising, the paper folded, forcing Branson to seek greener pastures.

Irrepressible John Clum, town mayor and editor of Tombstone’s Epitaph, had to call off his war with the corrupt Cochise County Ring and move on, after members of that group bought controlling interest of the paper and forced his resignation. On one occasion, Clum barely escaped town with his life when assassins fired on the stagecoach he was riding.

Arizona's First Printing Press in Tubac, Tubac Presidio Museum
Arizona’s First Printing Press in Tubac, Tubac Presidio Museum. Photo Credit: Kevin Korycanek

News and events, especially those of a political nature, were spiced with a great deal of editorializing, much of it libelous and laced with raw vitriol. Occasionally some irate citizen took personal exception to these editorial remarks. Frontier protocol called for a face-to-face settlement of the issue. Soon after Edward Cross started Arizona’s first newspaper, the Tubac Weekly Arizonan, he found himself engaged in an Old-West style shootout with a local political figure and mining company owner named Sylvester Mowry. Mowry was promoting separate territorial status from New Mexico, while Cross preferred instead a judicial district to provide law and order. In 1859, the flamboyant Mowry published a series of articles in an Eastern newspaper depicting Arizona as a peaceful paradise, ready for territorial status. When Cross indignantly published a series of rebuttals, Mowry was infuriated. This verbal acupuncture led to Tubac’s most famous duel.

Tubac, at that time, was a picturesque community on the banks of the Santa Cruz River with a population of some 600 residents living in a handful of mud adobe shacks with cowhide doors. As might be expected, the locals were evenly divided on the issue of how much embellishment was necessary to present the western part of the New Mexico territory in a more favorable light. A short time earlier, Kit Carson had publicly pronounced the land so poor that even a wolf would starve to death. Both sides sought to draw attention to the plight of citizens in the isolated area hundreds of miles from the territorial capital of Santa Fe. Before the government in Washington would provide adequate aid and assistance to the beleaguered region, Arizona had to become a separate territory. On this, both factions agreed. The rub came on how to go about getting Washington to act. Cross felt that the rosy picture of the region painted by Mowry might have disastrous results on tenderfoots and greenhorns lured to the area ill-equipped to survive on the frontier. Most of those present on this June day in 1859 were armed with pistols, rifles and bowie knives.

Cross and Mowry had decided to settle the issue armed with Burnside rifles at 40 paces. Both men fired three rounds with neither side scoring a hit (history records that a stiff gale was blowing that day). In the fourth volley, Mowry’s rifle misfired and after some argument as to whether he should have another shot, editor Cross demanded his antagonist be allowed to shoot. Cross then folded his arms on his chest and faced Mowry, who graciously pointed his rifle in the air and fired. The bloodless duel was ended and honor satisfied. Both contestants walked towards each other, shook hands, then led a large delegation of spectators to the local mining company store where a 42-gallon barrel of prime whiskey was waiting. In the aftermath of the episode, Mowry purchased the press and moved it to Tucson to use as his own political mouthpiece.

Many a newspaperman became a “one-man Chamber of Commerce” for their respective communities and one of the foremost was Prescott’s John Marion. The lure of Eldorado had brought jackass prospectors into the Bradshaw Mountains in 1863, the same year Arizona officially became a territory. In the Spring of 1864, a wilderness capital was established on the banks of Granite Creek, in the heart of Yavapai Indian County, called Prescott after noted historian William Hickling Prescott. The town Prescott was not yet three years old, when Marion became editor of the Miner. Bands of marauding Indians preyed upon citizens within sight of town. Marion’s predecessor, Emmet Bently, had been ambushed and killed by hostile Yavapais in Skull Valley. Mincing neither words nor opinions Marion was the most vociferous of Arizona’s editors in decrying the atroci­ties in the territory. On January 22, 1870, he published a list giving dates and location of white men bushwacked by Indians around Prescott.

When President Grant sent a Quaker named Vincent Colyer to Arizona as a peace commissioner to the Indians, Marion characterized the emissary in print as a “red-handed assassin” and a “cold-blooded scoundrel.” He continued to lambaste Colyer with a series of editorials of which most noteworthy is one which said, “We ought, injustice to our murdered dead, to dump the old devil into the shaft of some mine and pile rocks upon him until he is dead. A rascal who comes here to thwart the efforts of military and citizens to conquer a peace from our savage foe deserves to be stoned to death like the black-hearted dog that he is . . .”

Marion didn’t reserve all his vitriolic wrath for Indians and he had no equal when it came to abusive acupuncture. When Tucson took the territorial capital away from Prescott in 1867, Marion blamed territorial governor Richard C. McCormick. John Wasson, editor of the McCormick-owned Tucson Arizonian responded to Marion’s attacks in a mildly-worded editorial: ‘The Mirier has been more filthy than usual …”

Marion quickly retaliated, “So says the liar, affidavit man, scavenger, scullion and valet de chambre for McCormick & Company. We dare this abominable beggar to show where we have been filthy. But this is a way thieves and blackguards have for drawing attention from their own foul deeds and he would like to shift the odium to some decent man’s shoulders. Back dog, to your foul kennel.” Marion also took exception to what he consid­ered high-handed politics, on the part of’ Tricky Dick” McCormick saying, “through ignorance of baseness of purpose, McCormick has, for the last two years usurped and used power vested solely in the Legislature, and, squabbling the records of various coun­ties … his littleness, (McCormick stood only 5′ 5″), who by soft soap and flunkyism, has wormed his way into the gubernatorial chair of a territory he has helped to impoverish.”

Earlier, Marion vented his wrathful tirades against Judge Sidney de Long, Wasson’s predecessor at the Arizonian. Using a recent photograph to describe Judge de Long, Marion attacked with typical pugnaciousness: “Mr. De Long looks well in a picture,” Marion said, “his head and face indicate that he belongs to the Caucasian type of man, his forehead is still suited for flattening out tortillas; his nose projects some distance from his face, and is, we think, large enough to ‘smell a mice.’ His mouth appears to have been well-cut with some dull instrument, either a crevice spoon or a shovel; and the eyes—those glorious ‘yorbs’ look like empty egg shells—we mean to preserve this picture by having it framed with ‘brass’ and mounted on a braying ass so as to represent the pious judge in the act of blowing his trumpet for the patriot McCormick.”

For the most part, De Long ignored these tirades by the young upstart from Prescott. The one-sided feud ended soon after, when De Long left the paper and entered the mercantile business.

Rivalries between territorial editors were epic, especially during Marion’s time. John Wasson of Tucson’s Arizona Citizen and De Long’s replacement at the Arizonian, P.W. Dooner and especially Judge William Berry of the Yuma Sentinel at one time or another, all felt the stinging wrath of Marion’s acrimonious pen. Berry and Marion had been friends during Prescott’s early days, but became bitter rivals over a political race. Although Berry was a practicing attorney, the title “judge” was honorary. One of Judge Berry’s character weaknesses was over indulgence in strong drink, something Marion capitalized on in their long-standing feud. Marion questioned Berry’s right to the title of judge, although he did concede that the editor of the Sentinel was a good judge of bad whiskey. Few people ever bested John Marion.

Marion continued to volley his patented diatribes at editors and politicians throughout the territory, or anywhere else for that matter. His verbal harangue, colorful and bombastic, sold news­papers. One of his self-describing editorial comments sums up his tumultuous life as a fighting editor, “They tried to get my scalp, both the Injuns and the white men, but damn ’em, I’m still here.”

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