William Breakenridge was, like many of the men of the old West, a jack of all trades: freighter, surveyor, lawman, railroad detective. In 1931, he tied a lifetime of experience in all of these jobs together and published a fascinating and historically valuable memoir entitled Helldorado. In straightforward, unadorned prose, in which the narrative is carried primarily by the inherent excitement and interest of the incidents described, Breakenridge provides a realistic picture of life in the southwest during the last quarter of the 19th century, and a first-hand look at many of the legendary figures of the time.
Born in Wisconsin in 1846, Breakenridge traveled to Colorado to work with his brother in the freight business while he was in his late teens. He eventually wound up in Arizona, where he served as a deputy under Cochise County sheriff John Behan, during the troubles between the Earp and Clanton factions (which arose largely out of a clash between the Republican, industrializing forces represented by the mine owners, big-spread cattlemen and bankers on the one hand, and, on the other, the old-time, free-range ranchers that were primarily associated with the Democratic Party and included an astonishing number of rustlers and smugglers). Although Behan and Breakenridge were both Democrats, and Behan had a number of tense encounters with the Earps, the author writes without rancor, and his accounts of the violent events of the times appear to follow the known facts.
Perhaps his greatest talent as a lawman was what the editor of this edition, Richard Maxwell Brown, refers to as “his mastery of cowboy and outlaw psychology.” Amiable, honest and fair, Breakenridge was successful at serving warrants and making arrests in towns where other lawmen feared to set foot. He rarely had to use a gun, and only shot and killed one outlaw in his career as a deputy sheriff (in a raid that was botched by an overeager, politically ambitious volunteer). He was personally acquainted with such notorious rustlers and gunmen as “Curly Bill” Brocius and John Ringo, and even secured the former’s assistance in helping him to collect taxes in the more lawless parts of the county:
The idea of my asking the chief of all the cattle rustlers in that part of the country to help me collect taxes from them struck him as a good joke. He thought it over for a few moments and then, laughing, said, “Yes, and we will make everyone of those blank blank cow thieves pay his taxes.”Add to the mix Indian fighting, tracking murderers in Old Mexico, and chasing gangs of train robbers, and you’re looking at the extremely active life of an adventurous, brave and intelligent man. This is a fine addition to any library of the American West.
Next day we started and he led me into a lot of blind canyons and hiding places where the rustlers had a lot of stolen Mexican cattle, and introduced me something like this: “Boys, this is the county assessor, and I am his deputy. We are all good, law-abiding citizens and we cannot run the county unless we pay our taxes.”
He knew about how many cattle they each had, and if they demurred, or claimed they had no money, he made them give me an order on their banker Turner. Curly had many a hearty laugh about it. He told them that if any of them should get arrested, it would be a good thing for them to show that they were taxpayers in the county.