The Legendary Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens

Commodore Perry Owens came by his name in traditional American fashion. His father, Oliver H. Perry Owens, was named in honor of Naval Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie, which was the turning point for the west in the War of 1812. Oliver Perry Owens’ wife continued the tradition when she chose the name for their son, born July 29, 1852, in Hawkins County, Tennessee. She even went one better by actually making “Commodore” her son’s legal first name.

That unusual first name may have been part of the reason the young Commodore Owens grew up such an independent spirit. He ran away from home at the tender age of 13 to become a cowboy in Oklahoma and New Mexico, eventually settling outside Navajo Springs, Arizona. Owens was well liked wherever he went and was often described by residents of the territory as having a calm demeanor.

It was no surprise when, in November 1886, Commodore Perry Owens was elected sheriff of the 21,177 square miles that was known as Apache County, Arizona. When Owens took the badge in January 1887, there were 14 outstanding warrants for outlaws such as the Mormon gunman Lot Smith, former Tombstone outlaw Ike Clanton and the rustler Andrew Cooper (alias Andy Blevins).

Commodore Perry Owens

Caravan West replicates Sherriff Owen’s gun, gear, and clothing based on the only period picture that exists of the legendary sheriff.

The Blevins Shootout

On September 4, 1887, Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens rode into Holbrook, a tiny northeastern Arizona town known to be “too tough for women and churches” to serve a warrant he held for Andy Cooper. A native of Texas, Cooper had come to Arizona in 1885 with his brother Charlie Blevins in order to escape arrest for the murders he committed in Texas. Cooper was also known to have killed three Navajos and was suspected of rustling a herd of horses from the Navajo reservation. Cooper’s half-brothers from the Blevins family, including John Black and William “Hamp” Hampton, were also suspected cattle rustlers and allied themselves with the Graham family in the Pleasant Valley War. Cooper was known to be staying at his mother’s house in Holbrook, along
with the rest of the Blevins brothers.

Twelve people were present in the house: Andy Cooper, the eldest Blevins brother; his half-brother John Blevins; Samuel Houston Blevins; Mose Roberts, who was boarding with the family; the brothers’ mother, Mrs. Blevins; John Blevins’ wife Eva and their infant son; a family friend, Miss Amanda Gladden; and several children. With a Winchester .45-70 (either a Model 1886 or an 1876) in his hands, Sheriff Owens stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door.

Andy Cooper answered with a Colt pistol in hand, and after a brief exchange of words with Owens, Cooper stepped behind the door, closing it. Owens dropped the rifle to his hip and shot Cooper through the door, hitting him in the stomach. John Blevins pushed a pistol out the door and fired a shot at the sheriff. The shot missed Sheriff Owens’ head and killed Cooper’s saddle horse, which was tied to a tree in the street.

Owens fired back and hit John in the shoulder, putting him out of the fight. As Owens backed out into the street, he could see Cooper moving inside. Owens fired a third time through the front wall of the cottage, striking Cooper in the right hip.

Then Mose Roberts jumped out of a bedroom window, six-shooter in hand. Owens shot him, the bullet passing through Mose’s collarbone, shoulder and lung and lodging in the spoke of a wagon wheel. Roberts stumbled around the rear of the house and fell into the back door. Owens retreated about 20 feet and chambered another round in his Winchester. Fifteen-year-old Samuel Houston Blevins ran out the front door aiming his brother Andy’s Colt revolver. His mother attempted to hold him back, but the boy broke free and came towards him. Owens fired once more. Shot through the chest, Samuel staggered backward, dying in his mother’s arms.

In less than 60 seconds and with only five shots, Sheriff Commodore Owens killed Andy Blevins, Samuel Blevins and Mose Roberts, and left John Blevins wounded for life. Commodore Owens was unharmed.

Sheriff Owens’ shootout with the Blevins occurred shortly after the deadly shootout at Tewksbury’s Ranch that was part of the Pleasant Valley War. The Pleasant Valley “War” was actually a feud between two families of cattle rustlers, the Tewksburys and the Grahams, that lasted over a decade. 

While the Blevins shootout had made Sheriff Owens famous, he also had to deal with more famous bad men in his territory. Tombstone’s OK Corral instigator Ike Clanton and his brother, Phineas, had started rustling livestock from the Springerville area and drew the attention of Sheriff Owens. He received word that they had holed up on a ranch owned by their sister, Mary. In April 1887, Sheriff Owens appointed three lawmen: Albert Miller, Jonas V. Brighton and George Powell, a rustler who agreed to help get the Clantons in exchange for charges against him being dropped. On May 31, 1887, this posse, called the “Stock Association,” tracked the Clantons to Jim Wilson’s ranch on Eagle Creek.

Brighton approached the cabin and spoke to Ike Clanton at the door. As he tried to present the warrant, a gunfight erupted. Ike got to his horse and tried to escape, but Brighton shot him off his mount. When
the posse went to where Ike fell, they found he was dead.

There is only one known period picture of Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens, taken in 1886 at the time he was elected sheriff. Judging by the look on the sheriff’s face in that photo, as well as his holster and his hardware, Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens took his responsibility as a lawman seriously. Owens is shown with an Officer’s Model 1873 Springfield Trapdoor rifle against his knee and a Colt SAA revolver in a crossdraw holster hanging from his gun belt. This is the only verified photo of a hanging holster from the Old West period. The typical holster of the time, the late 1880s, was a Mexican loop holster worn over a narrow belt.

Commodore Perry Owens

Caravan West had this distinct cross-draw rig custom made to match Owens’ original, with a row for pistol bullets and a row for rifle ammo.

Peter Sherayko is a western historian whose Caravan West Productions supplied the guns and holsters for the classic Western Tombstone and just about every movie and TV Western made since then. A dozen years ago, Sherayko was working on a project to bring the Pleasant Valley War and Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens’ story to life. He was  intrigued by the holster Owens was wearing, the type of which had not been seen before and wasn’t seen after. “We don’t know who made it,” Peter explains, “so it may have been one of Commodore Owens’ own designs.”

We traveled to “Petezburgh,” north of Los Angeles, where Sherayko opened his impressive holster, gun and costume storerooms, so we could learn more about Sheriff Owens and the Pleasant Valley War. He would help us recreate the look of the famous Commodore Owens photograph. Peter has written a great book, The Fringe of Hollywood, about how to make an accurate Western, and he knows his stuff.

At Caravan West, Peter has assembled a group of men and women called the “Buckaroos”—actors who appear in Western films in full character. The “Buckaroos” are also skilled craftsmen in different trades of the Old West. Using an enlargement of the picture of Owens, Peter contracted one of the Buckaroos to make an exact replica of the belt and holster down to the border stamps on the holster for the proposed film project on Sheriff Owens.

As Peter has sometimes spent months tracking down exactly which model gun a historical character used, he explained the difficulty of using written accounts from the period, “It is important to note that in the Old West any Cowboy hat was a Stetson, any rifle was a Winchester and any sixgun was a Colt, so old photographs are really the only way historians can specifically identify guns and gun leather.”

Rick Groat, another one of Peter’s “Buck-aroos,” agreed to stand in as Commodore Owens. Wearing his long hair in a similar style to the late sheriff, Groat donned the chaps and clothes similar to those in the 120-plus-year-old photo. Using a charcoal blue, 7½-barreled Cimarron 1873 Peacemaker to stand in for Owens’ 7½-inch-barreled Colt in the replica holster and belt, we tried to duplicate the man and his arms. Owens had a 4-inch-wide belt that was typically used by buffalo hunters to carry both .45 caliber pistol ammo and .45-70 rifle shells. Since history is unclear on exactly which .45-70 lever gun Owens used the day of the Blevins shootout, Sherayko pulled out a beautiful ’76 and an ’86 so our Sheriff Owens could recreate the feel of that deadly day.

What became of Sheriff Owens? The former lawman bought property and opened a general store and saloon in Seligman, Arizona. In 1902, he married Elizabeth Jane Barrett, and the couple settled in San Diego, California. Ten years later they returned to the Arizona Territory he helped settle and witnessed its transformation into statehood on February 14, 1912, when Arizona became the 48th state in the Union. Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens died on May 28, 1919, at the age of 67. Owen’s house in Seligman, Arizona, still stands today.

This article originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.

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  • Dane Burns

    Got that wrong. Coroner’s inquest says a 45-60 so it was a 1876 Winchester. Not a ’86. ’76 was never made in 45-70

  • Mike Gaglio

    Great story! Thanks!

  • John Pätkau

    if it was a 45/70 it could not have been a 1876