The word “Cowboy” used in Tombstone had a different meaning from the iconic image it now brings to mind. It was a derisive reference to the chronic lawbreakers and thugs who drifted through Tombstone, drawn by boomtown wealth and a scarcity of lawmen scattered through the Territory.

Though sometimes labeled as such, “Cochise County Cowboys” were nothing close to an early example of organized crime. They were an amorphous, ragtag assortment of rovers whose actual number varied but was never close to the excited estimates of news accounts at the time.

Nearby Mexico offered a prime target for Cowboy crimes, smuggling goods like liquor, tobacco, blankets, and jewelry or often just robbing other smugglers. They rustled regularly from the large cattle herds just across the border at a time when stealing from Mexico wasn’t regarded as stealing at all. When they had money, in the words of one contemporary, “they ride into town, drink, gamble, and fight. They spend their money as free as water in the salons, dancehouses, or faro banks.”

In 1880, Mexico cracked down on the Cowboys with a string of forts to patrol the smuggling/rustling routes. This forced some Cowboys to operate closer to home in a broader range of crimes, and a pair of stage coach robberies in the months preceding the “Gunfight” escalated tensions and increased headlines demanding something be done about “the Cowboy Menace.”

None of the characteristics used to identify “Cowboys” fits the Clantons and most definitely not the McLaurys. To be sure, they often had contact with “Cowboys,” but most everyone in the Territory did at one time or another. We’ll refer to those occasional dealings as we look more closely at these two doomed ranching families.

By Michael Biehn and Jim Anderson