Part I: William [Bill] Oury, Tucson’s first mayor, says the “so-called” Camp Grant Massacre of “defenseless” Aravaipa Apaches was justified and the results were good for Tucson. At the time most, perhaps all Tucson residents agreed. His wholehearted formal defense of Tucson’s bloodiest and most formative event is presented in its entirety in Part II of this article.
But Mr. Oury’s early life and the nature of Tucson in the 1870’s help us moderns to better understand our pioneer’s attitudes and reasons for vigilante violence.
Tucson Pioneer William (Bill) Oury: The Early Years
Mr. Oury hailed from Virginia and settled in Texas where, as a young man of 22, he was a loyal and courageous soldier at the Alamo when its defenders faced General Santa Anna’s army. He was spared the fate of the other defenders, such as Travis, Bowie, and Crockett, because he was sent as a courier to get reinforcements before the siege. A few weeks later, he was with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto when Santa Anna was captured.
Two years later, he joined the Texas Rangers and was widely acknowledged as an excellent Indian fighter against the Comanches.
At 25, Mr. Oury was fighting for Texas against Mexicans in battles at Mier and Tamaulipas. He was captured and spent months in a hellhole of a prison in Mexico City, but was eventually released. At 28, he enlisted in the Texas Mounted Volunteers and again fought Mexicans, this time at Palo Alto and Monterrey.
In 1849, at the age of 32, he married a Mexican senorita, Inez Garcia, and the couple headed for the California goldfields. Their search for gold was largely unsuccessful.
Mr. Oury is known to have participated in at least two duels. He killed both challengers. No one ever questioned his fighting skills, tenaciousness, resourcefulness, competence, or courage. Or if they did, they didn’t live long to tell about it.
William Oury & Family Arrive In Tucson
When he, his wife and family of three children came to Southern Arizona in 1856, he took up raising stock. He would have been more successful if various bands of Apaches had not stolen his cattle multiple times.
In ’57, 40-year-old Bill Oury, was appointed agent for the Butterfield Overland Mail Company at Tucson. It was his business until 1861 when the route was closed because of the Civil War. All the soldiers in Arizona were called back east to fight and the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoaches had no protection from the Apaches.
And the stagecoaches definitely required protection. Granville (younger brother) Oury’s wife, Mina, arrived in Tucson from St. Louis on a Butterfield stage. She penned this entry in her diary about what she witnessed as the stage passed through Apache Pass [near the ruins of present-day Fort Bowie].
Every foot of ground for hundreds of yards around our camp has been the scene of the most heart-rendering murders and butcheries. The stage has been attacked twice very recently at this very spot (Apache Pass), the passengers and drive killed, the horses either killed or carried off, and the stage burned.
A train of four wagons and nine men were attacked, five of the men shot, and the other four tied to a wagon-wheel and left to burn to death. Their charred remains were seen long after.
Within 30 steps of us, the mutilated bodies of five Mexicans were found burned and nearby is a tree where the skeletons of six Indians swung for two years. [This hellish scene was certainly courtesy of the great Chiricahua chief, Cochise.]
Yet, the Butterfield stage usually arrived in Tucson on time. Some on the stage were travelers just passing through on their way east or to the West Coast. But the stage also brought passengers who would stay and become neighbors.
The stage brought the U.S. Mail of course; not only much anticipated letters from friends and family, but also newspapers with accounts of what was happening in faraway places, like San Francisco, New York, and even Europe. The arrival of the Butterfield stage was a very big deal.
“When the coaches came into town they did so with a flourish and a bang, after careening down Main Street of the Old Pueblo to pull up in a shuddering stop at the office on the corner of Pearl and Pennington Streets [about a block west of the present City Hall].
A man seated beside the driver would blow loudly upon a long horn to warn teamsters, pedestrians, urchins, burros, and ox-driven wagons to make way for the Tucson stage.
Mr. Oury watched the stages come and go hundreds of times in his four years with the line. The old round adobe tower, with the words, “Stage Depot, Tucson,” became a familiar and beloved sight. It was his bailiwick, his province, from the business office inside to the corral in back where he kept spare parts for the stages and great mounds of hay and grain for the horses.” [From William Sanders Oury: History-Maker of the Southwest by Cornelius C. Smith, Jr.]
In 1859, Mr. Oury, along with Sylvester Mowry, purchased the Tubac Arizonian, moved it to Tucson, and went into the newspaper business. You can learn more about the Weekly Arizonan at the Tubac Presidio. From time to time the Tubac Presidio gives printing demonstrations.
During the American Civil War and afterwards, he was a committed supporter of the Southern Cause, as were many Tucson pioneers. His younger brother, a lawyer and fellow Tucsonan, Granville Oury, was elected Arizona delegate to the Confederate Congress in Richmond, VA.
Bill Oury: First Tucson Mayor, First Pima County Supervisor
When President Lincoln signed the law making Arizona a U.S. Territory in 1863, Governor Goodwin appointed Bill Oury Tucson’s first mayor. Three years later, acting Territorial Governor McCormick appointed Bill to serve on the first Pima County Board of Supervisors.
In May of 1871, Tucson, then capitol of Arizona Territory, became an official municipality with a population of about 3,200. Sydney Delong became the first elected mayor. In the same election, William Oury was elected to the first Tucson City Council along with other prominent pioneers including Charles O. Brown, proprietor of the Congress Hall Saloon and Sam Hughes, who also served as Arizona Territory’s adjutant-general.
We can reasonably imagine the tension within this first city council. They had a fast-growning town to govern, but Oury was a stanch Democrat who had supported the Confederacy and the others were firm Republicans who were strong Union men.
In 1873, Mr. Oury was elected sheriff of Pima County and served in that capacity for the next 4 years. A few years later he was appointed Clerk of Pima County Board of Supervisors and was the keynote speaker at the celebration of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s arrival at Tucson in March 1880.
By 1883, Tucson’s population had grown to over 7,000 and things were changing rapidly … too rapidly for Bill Oury. So he moved out of town to his Tanque Verde Ranch to raise his prize short-horn cattle. Drought and other conditions rendered the enterprise unprofitable. His savings and land holdings dissipated quickly.
The next year he was elected first president of the Arizona Pioneer’s Historical Society. That same year, he was appointed Deputy Collector of Customs.
In 1887, Mr. Oury died in poverty at the age of 70.
A Street Named Oury
In 1903, William and Granville Oury were honored for their many contributions to early Tucson when a street in Barrio Anita was named for them. In 1931, a park in the same neighborhood was named Oury Park. However, by 2001 the Ourys were largely forgotten and the park was renamed David G. Herrera and Ramon Quiroz Park.
Through all of his personal accomplishments and civic service to Tucson and Pima County, William Oury is best remembered for his leading role in the Camp Grant Massacre.
Camp Grant Massacre: Was It Justified?
In April 1871, Mr. Oury was the leader of the Tucson civilian militia (aka “Citizen’s Safety Committee”) that perpetrated the Camp Grant Massacre, killing as many as 144 defenseless Aravaipa Apaches, mostly women and children, and taking 28 very young Indians as slaves to be sold in Tucson and Sonora.
How Tucson’s Leading Citizens Committed Mass Murder and Got Away With It
Southern Arizona Guide has a 3-part feature on this formative Tucson event. I wrote it and concluded that many of Tucson’s most prominent pioneers were accomplices to mass murder, including: businessman and civic benefactor Sam Hughes, investor and politician Hiram Stevens, rancher Jesus Elias, merchants Louis Zeckendorf, Albert Steinfeld, Edward Fish, and Sydney DeLong, and newspaper editor John Wasson, whose rabid editorials vilified the Apaches, grossly exaggerated accounts of Apache depredations, and inflamed the racist passions that led to the massacre.
Sam Hughes’ wife, Atanacia, actually sat in her Tucson home and made the bullets used by the Anglos and Mexicans to kill the unarmed Indians who tried to escape the slaughter.
At the conclusion of a very public trial in Tucson, they were all exonerated. The jury took 19 minutes to determine that the killing of the Aravaipa Apaches was justifiable homicide. Even President Grant, who had been outraged when he heard about the “massacre” and called it “purely murder”, had to respect the verdict of the court.
Mind you, no Apaches were allowed to testify. The Indians were not even represented by council. The trial was a complete sham.
However, unlike these formidable Tucson pioneers who would not permit the Apaches version of the event to be heard, I now give our pioneers the opportunity to defend themselves and tell their side of the story.
Justification or Rationalization?
Fourteen years after the Camp Grant Massacre, Mr. Oury gave a carefully-constructed, compelling defense of his actions and that of the militia he led. His was a formal presentation to the Society of Arizona Pioneers, the organization that became the Arizona Historical Society. Mr. Oury was a founding member. You can call it a justification or rationalization, as you please.
Very few of his claims would hold up in a modern court of law. But you be the judge, with the certain knowledge that Lt. Royal Whitman, to whom the Aravaipa Apaches had surrendered and whose troops were responsible for protecting them, contradicts Oury’s account in the most important details. Whitman’s official report is presented in Part III.
The Aravaipa Apaches Could Not Have Committed The San Xavier Raids
In particular, Whitman gives a compelling explanation why his Apache prisoners-of-war could not have committed the raids that Oury claims as the reason for this brutal retaliation. Whitman, on a regular schedule, physically counted the number of warriors in their rancheria along Aravaipa Creek every two to three days. Immediately prior to the raids at San Xavier for which Oury and the others claimed had been committed by Aravaipa Apaches, all the warriors had been accounted for by the soldiers.
Moreover, employing outright lies, hearsay, and malicious rumors, Oury attempts to destroy the reputation of Lt. Whitman in order to shift the blame and justify mass murder. Whitman was, by most accounts, a competent and honorable soldier who tried to help the beaten and starving Aravaipa Apaches. In doing so he was badly maligned by Tucson newspapers and leading citizens following the incident.
Tucson Had Powerful Economic Reasons To Keep Apaches Stirred Up
Remember also that these prominent Tucson citizens had an economic interest in keeping all Apaches fearful, distrustful, and stirred up. They did not want the Indians to become farmers and ranchers and thus self-sufficient as was the Grant Peace Policy toward Native Americans. Why?
Our most prominent pioneers were making fortunes selling beef, hay, grain and other supplies to the Army at the many forts around Southern Arizona. If the Indians became pacified and productive farmers and ranchers, the troops would leave Southern Arizona and Tucson’s economy would dry up; along with the locals’ fortunes.
As a result of the assault on the Aravaipa Apaches, the other bands became far more distrustful of the local civilians and the soldiers’ ability to protect them. So the Apache Wars continued for another 15 years and Tucson’s businessmen continued to reap extraordinary profits.
Revenge and Bigotry
Certainly revenge for Apache raids was motive. But so was racial bigotry. None of our pioneers considered that they were trespassing on Apache lands, lands that were essential for Apache survival. None considered that their very presence in such large numbers reduced the Apaches’ natural resources and that the Indians had to raid in order to survive.
Our pioneers were a hard working, resourceful bunch, but self-reflection was not their strong suit. In his later years, only Sydney DeLong, among all the perpetrators, admitted publicly that he regretted what they had done.
That said, in fairness I must add that all of these pioneers contributed mightily to civilizing early Tucson and made it a place to properly raise a family … meaning a Mexican, Anglo, or Jewish family… not an Apache family.
All contributed to the civic good, including substantial personal wealth to the establishment of the first churches, schools, roads, utilities, sanitation, and other civic institutions. In these endeavors, particularly important were the fraternal organizations.
Tucson Was A Dirty, Lawless Town
In the early pioneer era from the late 1850’s through the 1880’s, Tucson was a dirty, lawless hamlet, at least as violent as 1880’s Tombstone, that evolved from a population of less than 500 to more than 7,000. The upstanding citizens were often compelled to defend themselves and their property against thieves and murderers. When in public, all were armed. Lynchings were infrequent but they occurred.
From a present-day perspective, what our pioneers did was sometimes morally questionable, but nonetheless understandable. Had we lived in that time and place, most of us would have done the same. Hopefully, we have learned from the lessons of history.