(Editor's Note: We occasionally invite others to share their extraordinary stories, art, photographs, and videos with visitors to our SouthernArizonaGuide.com. Roger Naylor is a talented travel writer who writes mainly about Arizona. You can read more about him and his work at the end of this article.)
This is a great porch.
The shady veranda stretches along the entire front of the house. Views extend across green pastures streaked with wildflowers into the rolling hills of Mexico.
It’s a comfortable porch. It’s the kind of place where you want to settle in after dinner and enjoy a quiet hour or two as the evening cools.
John Slaughter, who was a Confederate soldier, Texas Ranger and Cochise County sheriff, loved this porch. He was sitting there one day with his family when a cloud of dust swirled up from the south. Pancho Villa and his army rode onto Slaughter’s ranch. After a forced march, the famished soldiers began killing and butchering cattle. Read More
Slaughter, in his 70s, pushed up out of his chair, strapped on his gun and ordered his horse saddled. He rode alone through the long grass meadow, across the border to confront Villa and his men. He was gone for a while but when he returned, he carried a sack of 20-dollar gold pieces. Even near the end of his days, Texas John Slaughter was not a man to be trifled with.
Fifteen miles east of Douglas, Slaughter Ranch is a little-known treasure of Cochise County. Its 300 acres are the remains of a cattle empire that once spanned more than 100,000 acres. The property is now a living museum. Everything has been restored to a late-19th-century appearance. The adobe ranch house has been carefully refurbished, as have numerous outbuildings. A white picket fence frames the wide lawn, gnarled trees drape the spring-fed pond and livestock graze the meadows.
‘Meanest Good Guy’
I’m standing on that same porch, gazing across the pasture into Mexico. It has been a spectacular monsoon season in this corner of the state, and everything is lush and green. As I admire the verdant oasis, I think about the old man swinging onto the saddle, no doubt stiffened by age, probably more perturbed at having to give up his porch chair than fearful of facing down a large number of armed men. For the former lawman, it was nothing new. Slaughter is one of those larger-than-life Western figures who have slipped through the cracks of history.
John Horton Slaughter was born in Louisiana in 1841 but soon moved to Texas. As a young man, he joined the Texas Rangers and later fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He raised cattle and was one of the first to drive herds over the Chisholm Trail. Slaughter stood just 5 feet, 6 inches tall and was prone to stuttering. But there was something about his penetrating dark eyes that warned people against taking him lightly.
Slaughter moved from Texas to Arizona in the late 1870s. His first wife died of smallpox before completing the trip. Slaughter met and married young Viola Howell soon afterward. At first, her parents disapproved because of the couple’s age difference — he was 38, she was 17 — but eventually consented and even lived with them at the ranch.
The Slaughters first settled south of Tombstone. This was during the mining boom, when men named Earp and Clanton walked the streets. In 1886, just five years after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Slaughter was elected Cochise County sheriff.
He wore a pearl-handled .44 and carried a 10-gauge shotgun. His method of keeping the peace was simple. He politely warned ne’er-do-wells to leave town. They didn’t get a second warning. He proved fearless in any kind of shootout and relentless when tracking outlaws. He never returned without a prisoner or, more often than not, the remains of a prisoner. One writer referred to Slaughter as “the meanest good guy who ever lived.”
Historians credit Slaughter more than anyone else with cleaning up the Arizona Territory.
Place of Tranquility
After serving two two-year terms, the lawman retired to his ranch. Slaughter had bought the great swath of land in 1884. The original Mexican land grant of 73,240 acres was sold in 1822 to Ignacio Perez. But Apaches drove him from his home just a few years later. Slaughter purchased the grant from the heirs of Perez, also buying up adjacent property to establish one of the most successful cattle ranches in the region.
Slaughter Ranch is now a National Historic Landmark. The ranch manager welcomes guests and offers tours of the buildings. In addition to the sprawling home are a granary, commissary, wash house, ice house and car shed. Each structure is a mini-museum, stocked with original and period furnishings and equipment.
Every room offers a new lesson about life on the frontier. Because town was far away, the Slaughters sold dry goods out of the commissary. Beef, vegetables and dairy products were preserved in the stone ice house. Ice blocks weighing 300 pounds were wrapped in sawdust and burlap and hauled by wagon from Douglas. The built-in china cabinet and fancy windows were ordered through the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. The single men working on the ranch ate standing up in the cowboy dining room.
Slaughter was fascinated by technology and had the first telephone in the territory. He also had six automobiles, although he never learned to drive.
As much as I love the history of the place, I spend most of my visit outside, drawn by the beautiful grounds and chorus of birdsong. The 1-acre pond is ringed by shade trees and populated by ducks and herons. A vermillion flycatcher flashes past me in a streak of vivid red. Hummingbirds buzz like bees. As I walk near the water, croaking bullfrogs leap from the bank by the bucketful. Benches and picnic tables are scattered about. I take advantage of most of them.
Atop the mesa east of the pond, ruins of an old fort can be seen. During the Mexican Revolution, the U.S. Army established a series of outposts along the border, including this one that was garrisoned until 1923. Pathways lead through the stone rubble and present extensive views of mountains and Mexico.
The trails from the outpost continue onto the adjoining San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge. The 2,369-acre refuge was established in 1982 to protect what remained of precious wetlands at the headwaters of the Rio Yaqui. This large marsh serves as a migration route for a variety of wildlife, including birds winging their way from the tropics.
In 2009, a rare blue mockingbird was spotted at Slaughter Ranch, only the fifth sighting in the United States. The event lured birders by the thousands to the far-flung oasis. Between San Bernardino and nearby Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge, at least 335 bird species have been recorded. The wetland habitats also support such threatened species as Yaqui catfish, chub and topminnow. The only remaining population of San Bernardino springsnails in the United States exists at the ranch.
I follow the trails into the refuge for a bit, but I don’t have time to go far. Besides, a bench by the pond is calling me.
Slaughter died in 1922. He is buried in Douglas. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if, on an evening, just past suppertime, the porch swing begins to creak as if someone just settled in and got comfortable.
Roger Naylor is a freelance travel writer whose articles have been published in the Arizona Republic and Arizona Highways Magazine. Follow Roger on Facebook.com/RogerNaylorinAZ; and Twitter: @AZRogerNaylor. Roger has also written Arizona Kicks on Route 66, a celebration of the Mother Road and Boots & Burgers.
You can read this story and others like in our book, Southern Arizona's Extraordinary History here.