By John Hernandez
Oracle Towne Crier
Tom Wills was born on Jan. 17, 1866 in Mariposa County, Calif. At a young age his family moved to Bakersfield, Calif. where his father Harrison Roland Wills was successful in the stock business. In 1883, he moved to Arizona and settled in Agua Caliente, now a ghost town near Gila Bend, and a year later moved to the San Pedro Valley. He began working as a cowboy there. It has been said that he worked nearly every ranch along the lower San Pedro Valley. He gained a reputation for being a hard worker and highly skilled with a rope and horse. Before long he had his own ranch near Mammoth.
Around 1893 Tom joined the Charlie Meadows Wild America show. This was a wild west show and would later be called Arizona Charlie’s Wild West Show. They participated in the Chicago World’s Fair and traveled around the country. Abraham Henson, “Arizona Charlie” Meadows, is credited with organizing the first Payson Rodeo along with John Collins Chilson in 1884. The Payson rodeo is the oldest continuous rodeo in the world. Part of Tom’s job was driving the original Concord stagecoach that traveled regularly between Benson and Tombstone and was robbed a number of times. They would reenact stage robberies with Tom fighting off the bandits. He also competed in the “Cowboy Tournament” (rodeo) in bronc riding and steer roping that was part of the show. During a show in San Francisco, Tom’s horse fell on him, the horn of the saddle striking him in the chest. He was seriously hurt and laid up for some time. In California he also set the world’s record for steer roping at 25 seconds in 1893. This might seem a long time for those familiar with rodeo but in those days, they roped full grown steers and the steers would get a 75 foot head start. In 1901 at a rodeo in Tucson, his record was broken by a cowboy from Texas named McGonnigle. Tom was also competing that day in Tucson.
At a wild west show in Tucson in December of 1894, Tom Wills put on an exhibition of riding that was the highlight of the show. He rode a horse known for killing two men that had never been successfully ridden. A reporter from the Arizona Weekly Citizen described the ride of a genuine Arizona cowboy.
“Tom Wills is the man, of San Pedro, and well known in Tucson especially after yesterday. He is about 27, brown and sinewy, and more graceful on a horse than off one. He has been in the saddle for many years, and saying he is an expert with a riata and handling horses and cattle is putting it mildly. On the Juan Elias ranch belongs a man killer. This man killer is a horse, a vicious big strong sorrel, of fine blood, whose proportions of viciousness and deviltry are 100 per cent each. As a horse he has taken pride that no man had conquered him. Talk of buckers! He could curve his back till the center of his vertebrae was two feet higher than the rest of him. If that would not suffice, wild plunging and falling over backwards could unhorse his rider. The horse has killed two men, the second of whom believed that not withstanding one man had died under him he could stay with him and bring him to subjection,” described the reporter.
“Tom Wills has signified a willingness to ride any horse on earth, and this man killer in particular. He declared he could conquer the brute and he did. Yesterday the horse was brought out, holding back and acting ugly from the first. A blind was put on him and he was saddled. Then Wills lightly mounted and removed the blind. All the savage bucking by the other broncos was child’s play to what followed. He made his back into a short and very high bow and jumped all four feet off the ground. His head went low. Then he reared. He plunged and snorted all the while Wills clung like glue. The horse then tried to kill Wills as he had his other victims, by rearing and falling backwards on him, but the rider got out of the way, and as the horse got up he was in the saddle again. The brute was brought to subjection after more fighting, and was finally ridden about, tame as any horse on the grounds. The man had conquered.”
Tom left the wild west show and began building up his ranch near Mammoth. In 1895 he married Elizabeth Chamberlin, daughter of Joseph Chamberlin founder of Willow Springs Ranch near Oracle. The Chamberlains also had a stage stop there and founded the town of Manleyville, named for one of Joseph’s sons Manley. Wills also became partners with Frank Daily and purchased the Inter-Ocean Ranch from E.O. Stratton. The ranch was located on the northeast slopes of the Catalina Mountains. He became one of the prominent ranchers in the area.
Tom was coerced by friends to enter politics in 1900. He was elected as a Pinal County Supervisor. The same year at the Tom Wills’ ranch in Mammoth, a noted gunman, Tom Burns was shot and killed by Willis Miller, one of Wills’ cowboys. Miller shot Burns after Burns attacked him with a shovel. The shooting was called justified as it was self defense. Tom Wills had witnessed the incident and testified on Miller’s behalf.
Wills was known to be a little wild in his younger days. His western style humor included his willingness on a whim to shoot the glasses off of a bar or the lights out in the tavern where he was drinking, leaving the saloon in darkness. His friends never let him forget those days. He was reputed to have been involved in a couple of fatal gunfights but I could find no documentation to support this.
In 1902, Wills was at the center of a political controversy when he ran for Sheriff of Pinal County. A number of Democrats did not want to support the incumbent candidate, also a Democrat, W.C. Truman. The party split into two different factions and each had their own candidates for the available county positions. Wills’ campaign manager and a big supporter was Tom Weedin, owner and editor of the Florence Blade-Tribune newspaper. He would help Tom get elected.
Some of his exploits while Sheriff included bringing back to Florence from Globe, W.T. Armstrong, the former Sheriff of Gila County, who had been arrested for cattle rustling. Armstrong was out of prison and on parole for a previous conviction for cattle rustling in Pinal County. Wills would arrest Juan Alvarez, a Yaqui Indian, for killing two men with a mesquite branch used as a club in a fight at the town of Maricopa. He tracked and captured seven cattle rustlers about seven miles northwest of Tucson. Wills would investigate the double slaying committed by Robert “Texas Bob” DeVance in Gamble’s Saloon in Kelvin. During his last year of office in 1906, he took a leave of absence to travel to Colorado, Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming to hunt elk and bear. He made it a point to visit Wyoming during the big Cheyenne Rodeo which he entered. He was heralded there as the champion roper of New Mexico and Arizona. He would win second money in the steer roping contest.
Wills chose to run for the board of supervisors instead of a third term for sheriff. This probably allowed James McGee to be elected as the first Republican sheriff of Pinal County. Wills was elected and would go on to become chairman of the board. While a supervisor, he was arrested in 1907 by the Arizona Rangers on a warrant from Texas for a forgery charge that happened 15 years prior. It turned out that while traveling in the wild west shows, he had written a bad check thinking he had funds in the bank to cover it. He traveled to Texas and cleared up the charge. He was active in the Arizona Cattle Growers Association and served as their vice president for a while. In 1909, he supported keeping the Arizona Rangers when the territorial legislature was attempting to disband them. He said he believed in their ability to run down horse thieves and cattle rustlers. In 1910 he was elected as a Pinal County representative to the Arizona Constitutional Convention which would help set the stage for Arizona becoming a state.
Wills became involved with organizing the rodeo contests for the annual territorial fair. In 1912, he was named supervisor of cowboy sports and events for the first Arizona State Fair. He also helped organize and judge rodeo contests in Prescott and Payson. At the Payson rodeo he helped his old friend Charlie Meadows “Arizona Charlie”. One of the cowboys Tom helped bring to the rodeos he organized was the silent western movie star Tom Mix.
Besides his cattle business, Tom was involved in mining. Newspaper articles show he partnered in a claim with one of his deputies, William Kellogg. He was also partners with Pasqual Figueroa. They were said to have discovered a promising gold vein located in the mountains about 15 miles west of Mammoth. In 1904 while Wills was helping drill a well on the John Brown ranch, it was reported that a strong flow of gas had been encountered. The water in Mammoth was also known to have colored spots which looked like oil. It set off a frenzy of people drilling for oil along the San Pedro near Mammoth. Oil speculators leased land from the local ranchers and drilled for oil. No oil would be found but it would lead to some nice artesian wells being discovered.
Tom Wills would live in Mammoth, Oracle, Florence and in his final years in Tucson where he died in 1940. He is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery. He was a cattleman, Pinal County Sheriff, county supervisor, member of the Constitutional Convention and a real cowboy. He is one of Arizona’s and the Copper Corridor’s pioneers and will always be known as the “Man of San Pedro”.