The ‘draft-evading’ siblings survived, but four men died that day.
Arizona Territory, site of the 1881 gunfight near Tombstone’s O.K. Corral (see P. 28) and many other armed confrontations, became the state of Arizona 100 years ago, but that hardly put an end to frontier-style shootouts. On Sunday morning, February 10, 1918, four lawmen from central Arizona rode up Rattlesnake Canyon and into Kielberg Canyon in the 6-year-old state’s rugged Galiuro Mountains, ostensibly to arrest the Power brothers, cowboys turned gold miners, for draft evasion. As they moved down the ridge above the small cabin near the gold mine in predawn light, one of the lawmen spooked the Powers’ horses, which bolted and ran past the cabin where the Powers slept.
Jeff Power, father of brothers John and Tom, fearing a mountain lion was after the horses, rose from his bed, picked up his rifle and went to the door. “Throw up your hands!” one of the lawmen yelled. Seconds later a shot from outside struck Jeff in the chest and knocked him out of the doorway. Tom Power ran to the window of the cabin, and John went to the door. They returned fire as the lawmen’s bullets slammed into the cabin. The window shattered, and Tom took glass shards to his left cheek and eye. One of the shots he fired out the window mortally wounded Graham County Deputy Sheriff Martin Kempton. John shot Deputy Kane Wooton, killing him. A bullet hit the doorframe of the cabin, sending a long splinter of wood across John’s nose and into his left eye. Seconds later the Powers’ hired man, Tom Sisson, fatally shot Graham County Sheriff Frank McBride. The fourth lawman, Deputy U.S. Marshal Frank Haynes, ran back up the ridge to his horse and rode for help.
The Power brothers and Sisson carried the body of Jeff Power 200 yards to the entrance of their gold mine, where he soon died. In only seconds Arizona’s deadliest gunfight had claimed the lives of four men. While the brothers, each blinded in his left eye, stayed with their father’s body, Sisson rounded up the two horses and a mule the dead lawmen had ridden to the mine site.
The trio then gathered the meager supplies they had in the cabin, collected the guns and 600 rounds of ammunition the lawmen had brought with them, and rode in a falling snow from Kielberg Canyon down to Redfield Canyon and into the San Pedro River Valley. Along the way they encountered neighboring gold miners who had heard the gunfire and were curious about what had happened. “It all tightened down,” Tom Power said. “That thing tightened down.”
At the base of the Galiuro Mountains the brothers and Sisson swapped the lawmen’s mounts for fresh horses. They began a long, circuitous ride and walk that would take them to the Dragoon Mountains and across the Sulphur Springs Valley to the Chiricahua Mountains, setting off the longest manhunt in Arizona history up to that time.
The Power family, originally from Texas, had spent the two decades before the 1918 shootout as itinerants, moving from Texas to New Mexico Territory and finally Arizona Territory—ranching when they could and doing odd jobs, mostly in the New Mexico timber mills. They followed a route laid out mostly by hard luck— drought and disease that thinned their cattle herds and accidents that forced them to leave New Mexico in a hurry. Jeff Power’s wife, Martha “Mattie” Power (née Morgan), died in 1897 when a cabin roof collapsed on her while she was visiting a neighbor. That left Jeff with the children—sons Charlie, John and Tom and daughter Ola May—and later his mother, “Granny Jane” Power.
The family finally settled in Rattlesnake Canyon in the Galiuros. Charlie Power negotiated a deal to buy the land of a sheepherder named Pete Spence, and near the top of the canyon they set up a homestead they called Power Garden. They ran a small cattle operation until managing to buy a controlling share of a gold mine a few miles away in Kielberg Canyon. By then Charlie had sold his share of the cattle and left for New Mexico. Jeff and family worked the mine until the gunfight in 1918.
The mine’s productivity is open to question. Some reports claim it produced $65,000 in one year. Other sources say the mine never made the Powers a dime of profit. They prospered enough, however, to buy a string of donkeys to haul ore and an arrastra to process it. Arizona became a “dry” state in 1914—two years after statehood and six years before national prohibition—and Tom Power, by his own admission, at least dabbled in bootlegging. He implies in his book, Shoot-out at Dawn: An Arizona Tragedy, that Wooton and Haynes, two of the lawmen who came to arrest the Power brothers, were also somehow involved. Selling illegal whiskey was a profitable business —in 1918 gold sold for $18 an ounce while whiskey went for $20 a bottle.
Only months before the gunfight Granny Jane died in a runaway buggy accident near Power Garden. Soon after Ola May went into convulsions at Power Garden and also died. Her last word was“poison,” and her tombstone reads, POISONED BY UNKNOWN PERSON. A coroner’s inquest was inconclusive, and though she most likely died of botulism from improperly canned food, others have since attributed her death to a broken neck suffered in a fall. Her death remains one of the many unanswered questions about the Power family. In any case, in a matter of months the family had been reduced from five to three, then two after the fight.
John and Tom Powers, along with Sisson, were on the run for 27 days. Almost certainly they hadn’t brought along enough provisions to last anywhere near that long. People, whether acquaintances or strangers, must have helped them along their escape route, providing them with food, supplies and probably shelter. The Power brothers fled even though they maintained they had killed the three lawmen in self-defense, and a murder conviction wouldn’t have meant their execution. The state of Arizona, seeking to clean up its territorial days Wild West image, had abolished the death penalty. With a $4,000 reward offered for their capture, including a $1,000 dead-or-alive reward offer from Graham County, the brothers probably worried about unscrupulous bounty hunters. A bigger fear was that relatives of the four lawmen—all Mormons —would track them down.
After hiking across the snowy Chiricahua Mountains east into New Mexico and then south into Mexico, Tom and John Power and Tom Sisson surrendered on March 8, 1918, to a detachment of U.S. cavalry that had pursued them 20 miles into Mexico. Lawmen took the fugitives back to Graham County, where a jury convicted them of murder on May 20, 1918, largely on the testimony of Deputy U.S. Marshal Haynes, the lawman who had survived the fight at the Power cabin. Authorities sent the Power brothers and Sisson (though there was no evidence the latter had fired a shot during the gunfight, and both brothers swore he didn’t) to the Arizona State Prison in Florence for life. John and Tom Power were paroled from prison in the 1960s. But Sisson had died in prison in 1957. The widows of the three slain officers had received the Power gold mine as compensation for the deaths of their husbands. Clara McBride, widow of Frank McBride, bought out the others, and the McBride family continued to operate the mine into the 1940s.
A question lingers: Why had the four lawmen tried so forcefully to arrest the Power brothers? The United States in 1918 had identified “slackers” as public enemies. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was agitating for the arrest of all draft evaders, and gangs roamed New York City, beating, sometimes to death, draft dodgers. And in Arizona, authorities had indeed sworn out a warrant for the arrest of John and Tom for draft evasion. For their part the brothers claimed they had tried to register for the draft at the post office in Redington, Ariz., but had been turned away. The brothers also came to Safford, the county seat, regularly, so why didn’t the lawmen execute the warrant there? Instead they ventured out to the Powers’ home turf and brought along 600 rounds of ammunition. Clearly the lawmen were expecting a fight. Could the gold mine or bootleg whiskey have had something to do with the action that led to the deadly gunfight? The Power brothers never gave any public statements on the subject, though Tom in his book implies that gold, not the draft, was the reason for the attack. The lawmen’s motives remain a mystery. Tom Power died in 1970 and John in 1976, both of natural causes.
The story of the Power boys is the subject of Thomas Cobb’s forthcoming historical novel With Blood in Their Eyes (September 2012, University of Arizona Press).
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.