Tax collectors preserve history.
It was in the spring of 1881 that the Arizona Territory Legislature created Cochise County, because of the rapid rise of Tombstone’s mining-based economy. The first tax collector for the newly formed county was Johnny Behan, its first sheriff, a major player in Tombstone’s early troubles and a key figure in the feud that would make Tombstone and Wyatt Earp legendary long after their glory days had gone.
Sheriff Behan chose as one of his deputies William Milton (“Billy”) Breakenridge, whose book Helldorado would be published in 1928. What does any government care about most? Taxes. Fittingly, one of Breakenridge’s first assignments was to help Behan collect taxes—a job that often meant long rides on horseback, with tax records in saddlebags. Breakenridge realized that Cochise County was home to cattle rustlers who were not known to be extremely civic-minded, and he struck upon a unique approach to collecting payment from those who stole: He hired the head rustler. Thus Curly Bill Brocius, who was a leader among the rustling gang before being killed by Wyatt Earp during his Vendetta ride (see related story in this issue, P. 44), actually rode alongside Deputy Sheriff Breakenridge as an assistant tax collector. Such was the beginning of Cochise County’s tax collection system.
A century later, in the spring of 1981, Marsha Bonham became Cochise County treasurer, only to find that many of the priceless records mentioning Tombstone’s legends were not inventoried and not accessible to researchers. Worse, they were not in clean, secure storage. In 1984 disaster struck when a water pipe broke in the old Bisbee High School, one of the scattered locations where these valuable artifacts were stored. It would fall to Bonham, a native to the area (her family had arrived in 1913 and her husband’s family in the 1880s) to save these documents.
Bonham quickly learned that the water damage could be stopped by freezing the papers and then later thawing them. By housing them at a local meat market, she preserved a part of Arizona Territory’s colorful past, a time when a deputy sheriff and a cow thief could team up to collect taxes for a fledgling county on the Southwestern frontier. Bonham has remained county treasurer ever since.
Today these tax records are no longer scattered; they are gathered together under one climate-controlled roof in Bisbee, Ariz., under the watchful eye of archives technician Kevin Pyles. An outstanding researcher in his own right, Pyles is happy to assist any historian or resident who wants to check the old records (tax rolls, delinquent tax rolls, tax certificates of sale, etc.) at the Cochise County Archives. The hours there are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The mailing address is 1415 Melody Lane, Building D, Bisbee, AZ 85603. You can also contact Pyles at 520-432-8430 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The archives are dedicated to preserving history, while at the same time sharing it. In Cochise County, as well as elsewhere around the country, the tax records of yesterday sometimes lead to new discoveries about our nation’s history.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.