Legends and Cowboys: 6 of Arizona’s Best Stories of the Old West

Legends and Cowboys: 6 of Arizona’s Best Stories of the Old West

Photo courtesy of Canva

By Britteny Dee

September 11, 2023

The OK Corral is one of the most well-known locations in the Old West.

Chances are you’re familiar with the famous gunfight that took place there between the Earps and Doc Holliday against the Cowboys. But these iconic individuals aren’t the only folks who made their mark on Arizona’s Old West during epic gunfights, battles, ambushes, and skirmishes.

Keep reading to learn more about some of Arizona’s most infamous Old West legends.

Pete Kitchen

Pete Kitchen was one of southeast Arizona’s first pioneers—and the epitome of perseverance. While many settlers moved after troops who had been stationed in the area for the ongoing Apache Wars left the area in 1861 to assist in the Civil War, Kitchen stayed put.

At his fortresslike home, which had a 24-hour armed guard, Kitchen endured countless Apache raids, during which many of his livestock, workers, and even his son were killed. But he remained vigilant, thwarting attacks from the Apache and quickly becoming a local legend because of his courage and skill. 

Kitchen created a cemetery where he buried his enemies as well as the friends and family members he lost. Eventually, his ranch was turned into a museum and later converted into a restaurant, though a fire at the eatery in 2011 damaged many irreplaceable artifacts from the home.  

Olive Oatman

At age 14, Olive Oatman watched most of her family die. On their way to the Colorado River with several other Mormon families, the Oatmans split from their group, and soon after were approached by Native Americans in search of food and guns. The tribesmen attacked the family and took Olive and one of her younger sisters hostage. The girls were taken to a village and used as slaves for a year before being traded to the Mohaves, with whom Olive seemed to live a more assimilated life. Her sister, Mary Ann, died of starvation while living with the Mohaves. Olive lived four years with the tribe and was given a face tattoo during her time with them. 

In 1856, Olive was reunited with her brother—who had also survived the ambush that killed the rest of their family—after successful negotiations by authorities at Fort Yuma for her return. Much about Olive’s time with the Mojave Indians is still unknown and many rumors persist. Her tattoo made assimilating back into white American society difficult. 

The town of Oatman, located in Mohave County, is named after Olive. A book, Life Among the Indians: Captivity of the Oatman Girls, was published about Olive in 1857, though a more contemporary book titled The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman provides a more nuanced telling of her story. 

​​Canyon Diablo and the Apache Death Cave

It doesn’t get much wilder than Canyon Diablo, the Old West settlement that had a reputation for being “meaner than Tombstone.” With no law enforcement in the area, Canyon Diablo quickly became home to outlaws, gamblers, and drifters who enjoyed the many 24-hour brothels, saloons, and gambling dens.

The town got its name from a nearby canyon, the site of a legendary 1878 battle between a group of Apache raiders on the run from Navajo. The Navajo trapped the Apache in a cave, now known as the Apache Death Cave, within the canyon and lit desert brush on fire to suffocate those inside. The few who were able to escape the cave were shot down and killed. 

For years following the massacre, Native American tribes avoided the cave, believing it to be cursed. 

Skeleton Canyon Massacres

Skeleton Canyon was the site of several Old West battles, most notably the 1879 and 1881 Skeleton Canyon massacres. The first occurred after a group of cattle rustlers attacked a ranch in northern Sonora. In response, Mexican Rurales were sent to Arizona for revenge, but as they entered Skeleton Canyon, they were met with gunfire. All but three were killed.

Two years later, outlaw Curly Bill and a group of men attacked Mexican smugglers carrying silver to Arizona through Skeleton Canyon. Several smugglers were killed, but those who survived reported the event, and this time around, the Rurales successfully ambushed the cowboys. This ambush later became known as the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre.

Battle of Apache Pass

Cochise County hosted its fair share of conflicts in the Old West, with one of the more major events being the Battle of Apache Pass. As the California Volunteers were traveling through modern-day southern Arizona, they were attacked by a group of Apache men. It is believed this fight was fueled by a desire for revenge stemming from a conflict that happened a year earlier in the same area. 

Despite having many advantages in this battle, the Apaches were defeated and about 60 of their men were killed. Following the battle, Fort Bowie—now a national historic site—was built to protect the trail that led through Apache Pass and Apache Spring, an important water source.

Pleasant Valley War

The Pleasant Valley War spanned almost a decade and was one of the most violent battles in the Old West. The showdown started as a feud between two families but grew to include Arizona lawmen, hired guns, cattlemen associations, and many others. The ongoing fight over property lines and grazing rights was most deadly between 1886 and 1887.

It’s unclear exactly how many people died in these battles, but it’s widely considered the bloodiest range war in American history.

READ MORE: 5 Latino Urban Legends That Will Keep You Up at Night


  • Britteny Dee

    Britteny has worked as a professional writer for more than a decade. She launched her career as a features writer in New York City, covering fashion, food, hospitality, and beauty. She has contributed to a wide range of publications, including Bitches Who Brunch, International Business Times and Glam, and has worked with famous faces such as Kate Upton and Nigel Barker throughout her career. She is currently a freelance writer focused on a variety of lifestyle topics, including travel, fitness and food.

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