Friday, October 18, 2013

The Hashknife Outfit of Arizona

Nancy Farrier here wondering if any of you have ever read Zane Grey’s books, most of which were set in 1800’s Arizona? I loved those books when I was growing up and especially the Hash Knife Outfit. There were always cowboys gone bad and the good guys who brought them to justice. In doing some recent research, I came across the name of the man credited with cleaning up the Hashknife Outfit and decided to learn more about them.

The Aztec Land and Cattle Company of Boston, the third largest cattle company in North America, opened operations in Arizona in 1884. In 1886, they moved their headquarters to Holbrook, Arizona, where they purchased one million acres of land at 50 cents an acre, land lush with vegetation that
hadn't been overgrazed. The parcels they bought were not consecutive, but came in sections of 640 acres each, with a section of public domain land in between those owned by the ALCC. So, although their holdings were huge, they were spread out and required more men to maintain the cattle.

After purchasing the land, the company bought the Hashknife brand, over 32,000 head of cattle and
2,000 horses from the Continental Cattle Company in Texas. Continental no longer needed the brand or the livestock. Due to a severe drought they were going out of business.

The cattle were loaded into railroad cars to ship to Arizona, along with any of the cowboys who wanted to sign on to work for Aztec. The railroad cars stopped all along the way from Flagstaff to Holbrook, Arizona to let out cattle and cowboys at each stop. What should have been easy, considering the amount of land and grass, became fraught with difficulty.

There were already settlers and independent cattlemen using the land. Although Aztec had a huge acreage, the cattle didn’t understand the need to stay in their particular section of land. Fencing such a large range wasn’t practical, so disputes over land and water were natural. The Hashknife cowboys didn’t care. Since they were part of a large company, they turned out the cattle and didn’t pay attention to anyone else’s stock.

The other problem came from the cowboys themselves. There were some who were respectable and responsible, but the majority of them were a rough lot. When they came to town to spend their pay, they also brought with them that element of roughness. Tempers flared. Arguments were settled with guns. The town of Holbrook began to regret having the Aztec Cattle Company in their midst.

In 1887, Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens brought law and order to Holbrook. Within two years he and his men ousted the worst of the offenders from the county. Although the violence calmed down in the towns, the Aztec Ranch still had plenty of cattle thieves, many of them working for the company at the same time they were stealing the cattle.

The Aztec Company hired Burt Mossman in 1898 to manage their outfit. The first thing Mossman did was to fire 52 of the 84 men working for Aztec. He put others he trusted in charge of the cattle operations and went after the cattle rustlers. During his first year, Mossman sent 11 men to jail for
rustling. The Aztec Company began to show a profit, but too late. A severe blizzard killed many of their cattle and in 1901 they sold their ranch to the Babbitt brothers.

After studying this history, I realized Zane Grey’s book, The Hash Knife Outfit couldn’t be accurate as far as the cowboys were concerned. He wrote about an outlaw gang called the Hash Knife Outfit, not a ranch or group of cowboys. Still, his setting was in Northern Arizona and he had the nefarious nature of the thieves correct. I still have a great fondness for his stories.

How about you? Have you ever read any of Zane Grey’s books? Have you ever been to Holbrook? There are some wonderful sites to see there.

Nancy J Farrier is an award winning author who lives in Southern California in the Mojave Desert. She loves the Southwest and interesting historical past. Nancy and her husband have five children. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Karen Ball of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:


  1. Would you believe that as much as I love westerns, I've never read a Zane Gray book? I need to one day. This was an interesting post, Nancy. Just think how much money Aztec must have lost.

    1. Thanks, Vickie. You should try a Zane Grey story some day. They were wonderful books. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I have been to Holbrook but don't remember what I saw there! Interesting research. I have not read Zane Gray. sharon, CA

    1. Thank you for commenting, Sharon. I loved the Petrified Forest when I visited Holbrook.

  3. Hi, Nancy!

    No, I haven't read any of Zane Grey's books, nor have I been to Holbrook. Thanks for the interesting post - I had never heard of The Hashknife Outfit.

  4. Thanks for the interesting post! I have not read Zane Grey, but I had read almost all of Louis L'Amour's books while I was growing up. I enjoy reading about past history.

  5. I'm just finishing the book, The Hash Knife Outfit. I grew up in Holbrook, prior to I-40, Flagstaff and Cottonwood. My family came into Arizona in 1878 and were some of the first into the Snowflake/Taylor area. One of my Great-Aunts, Katie Hatch, became lost in the forest near McNary just before her 7th birthday. Unfortunately, her remains weren't found for nearly three weeks. This is the fourth Zane Grey book that I have read this summer.