McGee, not Babeu, first Republican Sheriff in Pinal

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By John Hernandez

On the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office website there is a statement listed under “About PCSO” that outlines Sheriff Paul Babeu’s background and history. The statement reads: “Sheriff Babeu won his first term in 2008 [… and] became the first Republican elected in the history of Pinal County (founded in 1875).”

This statement is not historically accurate. It takes away a man’s legacy that was duly earned with his service as a deputy, Arizona Ranger and the Sheriff of Pinal County. That man was James E. McGee.

James McGee was born Jan. 2, 1870 in Crawford County, Arkansas. At the age of five, James traveled from Arkansas to California with his family. Their journey by “prairie schooner” took over a year.  

The family settled in Tulare County where James’ father Benjamin took up farming. James grew up here and received his education in the public schools and working around the family farm. He also learned to trail and track animals and men. He moved to Arizona. in 1893.

In 1894, he helped capture Oscar Rogers, a notorious train robber, at Adondo Wells about 35 miles from Yuma. Rogers and some other men had robbed a Southern Pacific Railroad train near Maricopa Station.

A few weeks later McGee was offered a job as a Deputy Sheriff for Pinal County. He accepted the position and began his career in law enforcement. After the Arizona Rangers were established in 1901, McGee often found himself riding with a ranger while looking for cattle rustlers and horse thieves. In 1904, McGee was offered an appointment in the Rangers and accepted. By 1905, he was promoted to Sergeant by Captain Tom Rynning, leader of the Arizona Rangers.

As a Ranger he helped arrest cattle rustlers, horse thieves, robbers and murderers. In 1906, at the mining camp of Silver Bell near Tucson, he caught and arrested Ramon Castro, who had beat his wife to death with a hammer.

That same year in Silver Bell, McGee had a narrow escape from death. Librado Marcus had become enraged at McGee for arresting a friend of his. Marcus snuck up behind McGee and placed his cocked pistol against the back of McGee’s head. Without turning, McGee reached behind him and grabbed Marcus’ gun. Marcus pulled the trigger but the hammer fell on McGee’s thumb. McGee was able to wrestle Marcus to the ground and arrest him. McGee would resign from the Rangers later in the year to run for Sheriff of Pinal County.     

In the Nov. 14, 1906 edition of the Bisbee Daily Review newspaper, it was reported that “James McGee, until recently a Sergeant in the ranger company, was elected Sheriff of Pinal County at the election last week. He was a candidate on the Republican ticket. It is stated that Mr. McGee is the first Republican Sheriff ever elected in Pinal. He is regarded as a good officer and is known to a good many in Douglas, having made many trips here during his service as a ranger.”

McGee had run against Democrat John G. Keating. Although Keating took the vote in Florence 72 to 62, when the votes from the rest of the county townships came in, McGee won in a landslide with 315 votes to Keating’s 228. Keating replaced Sheriff Thomas N. Wills from Mammoth who had been elected to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors. McGee would be re-elected in 1908.

In 1911, he lost the election to Democrat Charles Foreman however, Foreman died before he could take office. The Pinal County Board of Supervisors, made up of Democrats, decided to appoint Democrat E. J. McCarthy to the position of Sheriff.

McGee refused to give up his position as Sheriff and challenged the Board’s decision in court. In November of 1912, McGee won the court decision and was reinstated as Sheriff of Pinal County. He would serve until April 1914 when he died suddenly while in office. He is buried in the old historical cemetery in Florence.

His replacement was selected in a unique way by the Pinal County Board of Supervisors. They placed the names of three candidates in a hat and had an independent party draw the name. Henry Hall was the selection.   

As Sheriff, McGee made the arrests of “Big Ed” Fondren and A.J. Daggs, the murderers of Bob Stewart and George Hunter at Superior. One paper called it the “Superior Massacre.” Hunter and Daggs had been brutally killed in an ambush along with one of their horses and their two dogs. The killings were over a mining claim. Hunter was a deputy sheriff of Pinal County at the time of his death.

In April of 1908, McGee led the hunt for Simon Escalante and Ramon Marquez from Mexico. The two Mexicans had been hanging around the town of Mammoth for days occasionally working as cowboys. One morning, they entered the saloon of John Dubois to rob him. They shot Dubois twice in the arm and once in the neck and then fled with some money and Dubois’ gun. Dubois lived but could not identify the robbers only giving a physical description of them and that they were Mexicans. Seven days later McGee and his Deputies tracked and caught Marquez and Escalante and charged them with the shooting. They were found in possession of Dubois gun. In 1913 while entering a bar in Ray-Sonora to break up a fight, McGee was forced to shoot Luccio Mendoza.

An Arizona Republic reporter once wrote of McGee: “Few Sheriffs have equaled him in efficiency. As a rider and rifle and pistol shot he probably surpasses all other Arizonians, and he does not know what fear is. The criminal element of the county, and it is not small, has great fear of him.”

Author’s note: This article was not written to take away from Sheriff Babeu’s accomplishments but to correct an error. His election as a Republican in a county that has historically voted Democrat was quite an achievement although the last election showed that the county is trending Republican. The issue of being the first Republican elected in the history of Pinal County was played up in many national and state television news reports and newspapers. We only hope a correction is made, at least on the Pinal County website. It is only fair that Sheriff James E. McGee retain his rightful place in history.

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