Power Brothers Part 1: Shootout at Power Cabin

This is the true story of John and Tom Power, brothers who resisted the WWI draft in Arizona. In 1918, a posse came to arrest them and killed their father with his hands raised in his own doorway. The gunfight between the Powers and the posse was the deadliest in Arizona history…

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Old man Power didn’t want his sons to be cannon fodder.

The oldest boy, Charlie, tried to enlist in the army to fight in the First World War, but failed the physical. Thomas Jefferson Power told his younger boys, John and Tom, not to register for the draft.

If Europe wanted to go to hell, that was Europe’s business. It had nothing to do with their family in the Gila Valley of southeastern Arizona. They had a gold mine to work.

* * *

On February 9, 1918, Deputy US Marshal Frank Haynes, Sheriff Frank McBride, and Deputy Martin F. Kempton left Pima drinking whiskey. They were on their way to arrest John and Tom Power for failing to register for the selective draft. “You better not go up there drinking,” somebody told the lawmen.

“It’s all right,” they said. “We’re not going to bring back any prisoners.”

They picked up Kane at the Upchurch Ranch near Klondyke. Marshal Haynes was officially the leader of the posse, but in the mountains Kane took control.

Kane Wootan was an ambitious man. He was a volunteer deputy, cattle inspector, and upstanding member of the Mormon Church. He was husky and tall, a man who used his size to intimidate—though that tactic had failed with these newcomers.

Kane had no doubt the plan would work. The raid on those damned Texan slackers would get him elected sheriff and once the Powers were dead, Kane’s family would take their mine. It was all going to be just like his daddy, Bill Wootan, planned.

He raised the whiskey bottle and celebrated. Daddy was going to be proud of him.

The four lawman mounted three horses and a sorrel mule. Long after dark, they came to Joe Bosco’s place. Later, Joe and his wife would testify in court the men were drunk. The Boscos kept them there two hours, trying to sober them up with coffee. Wait till daylight, Joe told them. I’ll go with you and there won’t be any trouble.

That wasn’t what Kane wanted.

They rode to Rattlesnake Springs. On the way there, Kane fell off his horse. He climbed back on, cursing in the dark. They passed the old Power house at the Spring and thought they heard the door clank. “Come out!” they yelled and fired into the empty house.

The lawmen rode on.

* * *

Jeff Power woke before dawn on Sunday, February 10, to the cold of the log cabin. There was fresh snow on the peaks of the Galiuro Mountains. He rose from bed in his long johns and started making a fire.

John got up too, lit an oil lamp, and went to build a fire in the kitchen cookstove. His twenty-five year old brother, Tom, and their hired hand, Tom Sisson, lay in their bunks, faking sleep till the cabin was warm.

They heard a sudden ringing of bells and loud hoofclops.

John had two mares they allowed to graze above the cabin with bells around their necks. The horses were coming at a gallop, sending the dogs into a barking frenzy.

Jeff picked up his .30-30, thinking a mountain lion was after the mares.

He opened the door. From out in the darkness, a voice shouted, “Throw up your hands! Throw up your hands!”

Jeff was startled. He knew he was an easy target standing in the lighted doorway. Jeff dropped the rifle and raised his hands in the air.

Three shots cracked—fast. Jeff spun around and fell on his back in the dirt in front of the cabin.

Power cabin, photo by Michael L. Shoen,  beautifuldixiecanyon.com

Power cabin, photo by Michael L. Shoen, beautifuldixiecanyon.com

John rushed to the door and tried to pull his father back inside. The attackers fired again. John ducked back into the cabin. He ran to his bed and grabbed his Winchester .404 (or so sources claim, though it was more likely a .405).

He went to the door, got off two shots to the north, and turned and fired twice to the south. As he was shooting, four more quick shots came from the dark. A slug blew off half the bridge of his nose. Slugs hit the doorjamb and an old saddle hanging by the door. Splinters and pieces of leather punctured his left eye.

Tom Power was crossing in front of the east window with his .35 Winchester. A bullet shattered the glass, sending slivers into his face and left eye. He couldn’t see anything out of his wounded eye.

Tom turned and ran toward the window on the south side of the cabin. The glass shattered. He glimpsed a figured outside the window and fired.

John was staggering away from the front door, face covered in blood. Sisson sat stunned on his bunk.

They waited—no more shots came.

The brothers could see their father lying wounded. They could see two bodies motionless on the ground. There was also a third corpse at the south end of the cabin.

John and Tom ran out and picked their father up. They carried him into the cabin. Jeff Power had been shot in the chest.

“Why did Kane Wootan shoot me when I had my hands up?” Jeff kept saying. He didn’t want to stay inside. He got out of bed, stumbled outside, and went across the dry wash in front of the cabin. “This is as far as I want to go,” he said and sank to the ground.

Their father lay dying. The brothers brought some bedding from the cabin and made a pallet.

They recognized two of the dead men as T. K. Wootan and Sheriff Frank McBride. Kane had an exit wound in his back as big as three silver dollars. The third man was a stranger.

John and Tom had just killed three lawmen and a fourth—Marshal Haynes—had escaped.

 

The shootout at the Powers’ cabin sent the state of Arizona into hysteria. Support for the Powers’ actions—the killing of three lawmen in self-defense—was eclipsed by hatred for draft dodgers, “slackers” who refused to fight for the US government in Woodrow Wilson’s foreign war. The state would force the Power brothers to pay for their rebellion.

Fred Andersen’s article “There Is No Way to Escape the Violent End of the Arizona Frontier” (Journal of the West, July 1994) sums up the heart of the conflict. “Above all there is the question of absolute individual freedom versus the rule of law… Over the previous two decades, Progressivism  had been the rising political movement in America, and Progressives had long lamented the excessive individualism of Americans which had thwarted their attempts at reform.”

The story of the Power brothers, true American heroes, should be told. Thomas Cobb, author of Crazy Heart, has written a novel about them titled With Blood In Their Eyes, but the best nonfiction work, Shoot-out At Dawn, is out of print and used copies are expensive.

Disinformation about the brothers was widespread in 1918, newspapers libeling them with every edition. The lies told about the family must be countered.

So far, no book published on the Powers has included an historical overview of large-scale events like conscription and the First World War. To understand what happened to the Powers, you have to understand the spirit of the times.

Cameron Trejo is producing and directing The Power Shootout, an upcoming documentary. Heidi Osselaer of ASU is a producer and researcher for the film. The trailer for the documentary looks fantastic.

I hope the film brings this injustice to the public’s attention. Until then, I’ll try to tell the story as best I can.

Most of the following information comes from Shoot-out At Dawn, by Tom Power and John Whitlatch. The Power Boys by Roderick J. Roberts was an excellent source, invaluable for this writing. Anyone seriously interested in the Powers must own a copy of Roberts’s work. Power, Passion, and Prejudice by Barbara Brooks Wolfe was also very helpful, as was The Power Family of Graham County, Arizona by William Ryder Ridgeway.

The commentary on newspaper articles and events of the day is entirely mine, much of it angry. The press was corrupt and told lies without restraint. Far too often, rumors were taken for truth.

John and Tom Power have been dead many years now. They’re at peace in a world without lies or war. They left no descendants to defend their name in this world, but I’m happy to do that for them.

* * *

Thomas Jefferson Power

Thomas Jefferson Power

Thomas Jefferson Power grew up on a ranch near Fredericksburg, Texas. He met Sebe Morgan’s daughter, Martha, and began courting her.

Jeff and Martha were married on a dusty road outside Junction, Texas. “We was goin’ to get married anyway,” he’d tell neighbor Jay Murdock years later. “So when we happened to meet that preacher out that way we just got off our horses and got hitched right in the middle of the road.”

In the spring of 1890, he left West Texas with Martha, their infant son Charles, and Jeff’s mother Jane Power. They came to Grant County, New Mexico in two wagons. Jeff bought a hundred and sixty acres and started work for the LC Land & Cattle Company.

The Power family grew and prospered. John Grant was born on November 11, 1891. Thomas Jefferson, Jr, followed on May 16, 1893. Their sister, Ola May, was born November 29, 1894.

Jeff leased part of his land to a farmer named Reede, who started building a dug-out. He raised big forked posts to hold a ridge-pole, then used heavy logs for rafters which he covered with brush and dirt. When Reede finished the crude house, Martha and Grandma Power went to look it over. Minutes after they stepped inside, the ridge-pole collapsed and buried them.

Jane was unhurt. She dug herself free. The ridge-pole had struck Martha, though, and she was pinned under it, dirt piled on top of her.

Reede stood in the doorway, uninjured. Jane screamed for him to help her dig Martha out, but the man just stood there in some sort of weird shock. Jane ran two hundred yards to the Power home and shouted for help.

When Jeff reached the ruined house, he shoved Reede out of the doorway. He moved the ridge-pole aside and dug through the debris to his pregnant wife. Martha was dead.

Widowed at twenty-eight, Jeff became restless in Grant County. He took his mother and four young grieving children and roamed Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado.

Years of hard luck. Getting work wherever he can find it, scraping to get by. He saves what he can. In El Paso, he meets a man named Turner. They decide to go to work for a lumber company in New Mexico.

He works in a sawmill in Alamogordo—there isn’t enough money in it. He goes up into the mountains to cut logs. Grandma Power takes care of the kids.

Jeff comes down from the mountains and some of the restlessness in him is gone. The family returns to Grant County. Jeff Power starts his own brand again just after the turn of the century.

For a time, his luck seemed to change. By 1903, his calf tally was 1,145—making him a successful man. Then two years of drought. He was forced to sell off most of his cattle. When the rains came in the winter of 1905, the river rose to wash the land away, destroying the Power ranch and the remaining herd.

His sons hired out as farmworkers, cowboys, freighters, and blacksmiths. They went to school a few months out of the year.

In 1907, the Power family moved to southeastern Arizona where Bill Morgan, the brother of Jeff’s late wife, was ranching. Jeff started homesteading eighty acres of land west of Wilcox. The oldest son, Charles, bought land at Rattlesnake Springs. Four years later, Jeff sold the land at Wilcox and moved to the Spring.

By 1918, Jeff was in his mid-fifties, still rugged and strong. John and Tom thought of him as a mild quiet man, calm and easygoing. He always got up early and cooked breakfast, letting Ola May—who he called “baby”—sleep a little longer.

Jay Murdock claimed Jeff’s heroes were outlaws, Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Jeff Power was a self-reliant man who had no use for laws or government. The family lived in the remote Galiuros—they couldn’t depend on police to “protect” them. All the Powers, including Grandma Jane and Ola May, knew how to use a gun. If there was trouble, they’d protect themselves.

 

Charlie Power

Charlie Power

 

Charles Power was remembered by people in the Gila Valley as a comic figure. He’d been homesteading a hundred and sixty acre ranch, but abandoned the land and sold his small herd to buy a used car, a Michigan, according to Jay Murdock. He eventually traded the car for a motorcycle which broke down on the way to Lordsburg, New Mexico. He left the bike leaning against a tree and walked away in disgust. Family members teased Charlie about his wheeling and dealing.

Charlie tried to enlist in the army against his father’s wishes, but failed the physical. “…they were very close,” Zola Claridge said, “all the family except maybe Charlie. He just couldn’t get along with his father, and so he was always going off somewhere to work.” Charlie left for New Mexico in 1915.

John Power

John Power

John Power stood five feet seven inches. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and he’d killed men in New Mexico. Horse thieves had stolen some of his father’s horses and John’s own mare, Old Maude. He was very fond of the mare and decided he wasn’t going to let them take her. John got an outfit together and trailed the thieves. He came up on their camp and called down to them, telling them to give up. They went for their guns. John killed one and the second man ran away. John got all the family’s horses back, plus the thieves’ entire outfit. It was so profitable and easy, he spent the next few years chasing horse thieves. He was shot at least once in the course of the work.

One time, John found a colt lying beside her dead mother. He carried her home, fed her from a bottle, and named her Connie. The two mares, Maude and Connie, would follow him wherever he went.

In 1918, John was twenty-seven years old. “John was awful quiet,” an area rancher told Roderick Roberts. “Seemed to me like he didn’t care for people near as much as animals. He was always talkin’ quiet to horses and dogs… and they loved him; horses and dogs would follow him around whenever he’d come on to the place.”

Tom Power (left) with cousin Bert Morgan

Tom Power (left) with cousin Bert Morgan

Tom Power was a man who loved talk and fun. He had many friends. He stood five feet eight inches with brown hair and brown eyes. Like John, he was skilled with a gun and a topnotch blacksmith. Tom cowboyed for various ranchers, worked as a mechanic and in the mines around Copper Hill.

Tom and a buddy named Scarborough bought a used Hudson and overhauled it. The pair went into the bootlegging business under the protection of Sheriff Frank Haynes, the man who’d later participate in the raid on the Power cabin. They acquired two Model Ts and used the cars to sell whiskey in Gila County. They’d walk into the sheriff’s office and get loaded with Haynes and the deputies.

Ola May Power

Ola May Power

Ola May Power spent her life in the country, often miles from the nearest neighbor. Every morning and evening as she left the cabin to feed and water the livestock, she’d be followed by the chickens, the dogs, the cow, and her cat, Tombo. Ola May was very shy, but she never failed to attend the dances held at Klondyke and she was popular with the young men of the region.

In 1910 and 1911, Ola May was going to school at Mountain View, northwest of Wilcox. At that time, the Powers lived about two and a half miles from the school. Ola May walked back and forth each day. She hated school because her teacher had it in for her. The woman would tell her, “Even the Mexican children know more than you.” Finally, Ola May had enough of the harassment. The much smaller girl jumped on the teacher and started pummeling her with her fists.

Ola May would play a pivotal role in the tragedy that was to come. Close neighbors and friends said John and Tom loved their sister, but others in the Gila Valley suspected something unspeakable.

“Ola May is the reason the shootout happened,” filmmaker Cameron Trejo says. “She is the reason.”

Eventually, Tom Power returned to mining and bronc busting—there were too many competing bootleggers. Meanwhile, the Power family had sold their cattle to buy a three fourths interest in an abandoned mine eight miles south of Rattlesnake Spring.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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