Uncle Jim

An account of lawman James Franklin Roberts

One may recall from The Pleasant Valley War that the long-running feud (lasting nearly fifteen years) was anything but pleasant for the folks in Gila County, Arizona.  Right in the middle of this dangerous melee was a man named James Franklin Roberts, whom everyone called “Uncle Jim.”

Roberts would not fit in well with modern society, but he was a man of his times — just what was needed to rid Arizona of thoroughly bad men, most of whom would sooner shoot you as look at you.  And he did this by ruthlessly pursuing bad guys, and then saving the taxpayers the cost of a trial by shooting them (well, some of them) dead. 

James Franklin Roberts

Jim Roberts (1859-1934), although born in Missouri, became one of the earliest Anglos to settle the Arizona Territory.  Some say that his exploits rivaled those of either Virgil or Wyatt Earp in Tombstone.  As with the Earps, not much was known about Uncle Jim Roberts until recently.

In 1887, Roberts raised horses on his ranch near Tonto Creek.  When one of his prized stallions turned up missing, an initial investigation suggested that the animal was liberated by one of the Grahams from over in Pleasant Valley.  Jim Roberts rode over to the Graham ranch and confronted them about the missing horse.  All Jim received in exchange for his trouble was disrespectful laughter.  The incident caused Roberts to side with the Tewksbury clan during the Pleasant Valley War.  According to some, Jim Roberts became “the most dangerous gun” in the entire feud owing to the fact that Roberts ended up killing two of the Graham’s and three of their “hired guns.”

Not long after this confrontation, lawmen arrested Roberts and charged him with murder [Note 1]; Roberts was set free because no one would (or could) testify against him.  Eventually, Roberts sold his ranch and moved to Congress, Arizona — a gold mining center and the location of the Congress Mine [Note 2].  In 1889, Sheriff “Bucky” O’Neill [Note 3] hired Roberts as a deputy and charged him with “cleaning up Congress.”

In 1892, Roberts was elected to serve as a constable in Jerome, Arizona — a copper mining town that, with around 3,000 miners working several mines, was known as a wild and dangerous place.  According to legend, Uncle Jim was unhesitant in pursuing bad men — but he was always fair in his dealings with suspected criminals.  For example, when anyone challenged Roberts with a sidearm, Roberts always gave his opponent the first shot.  Well, not every old west gunman was proficient with his sidearm.  Roberts didn’t have that problem — the man was deadly with a pistol — and while the miscreant was always offered the first shot, he never got a second.

In 1894, a shooting erupted in a Jerome saloon when two men apparently disagreed with the faro dealer about the fairness of the game.  Uncle Jim killed one of the men who resisted arrest; the second man, having reconsidered his options threw up his hands.  Later that year, Roberts was slashed by a knife while attempting to arrest a drunk, but the man was subdued; Roberts’ wound was minor.  Then, after a brawl involving two Mexicans — during which one of them was killed, Roberts tracked the victor to Mingus Mountain, eleven miles south west of Jerome.  Finding the man in an abandoned cabin, Roberts called for the man to surrender.  Full of anger, ruffled pride, and maybe a bad hangover, the Mexican refused.  Gunshots were exchanged.  The Mexican’s hangover went away once Roberts shot him in the head.     

In May 1897, James F. Parker [Note 4], Cornelia Sorata, and former Prescott constable Louis C. Miller broke out of the Yavapai County Jail; in the process, Parker shot and mortally wounded assistant district attorney E. L. Norris.  Parker made his escape on the back of one of Sheriff George Ruffner’s prized horses from a livery across the street from the jail.  Wounded during the escape, Lou Miller eventually returned to his family home in Jerome where Uncle Jim re-arrested him without incident.  Cornelia Sorata (a Mexican charged with attempted murder) was killed during the jailbreak.

Roberts didn’t fit the Hollywood image of an old west lawman.  He didn’t ride the brilliant stallion, nor wear a ten-gallon hat.  He dressed in regular clothes, wore street shoes rather than boots, carried his gun in his trousers pocket, and rode a mule.  It was his calm demeanor that caused folks to begin referring to Roberts as Uncle Jim.  He didn’t speak loudly, just directly … but in matters of law, his deadly stare and quiet tone was enough to give bad hombres a bleak premonition for their immediate future.  The thing about Roberts was that whenever he went in search for a criminal, that fellow’s days were numbered if he resisted arrest.

In one instance, Roberts and his deputy set off in pursuit of three men who, during a card game, ended up killing a fourth man.  Who knows why?  Roberts and his posse of one found the men who had already decided they didn’t want to be arrested, much less appear in court.  Roberts’ deputy was a young, inexperienced lawman who at the moment of the confrontation came down with a severe case of the shakes.  Realizing that he would not be able to rely on his deputy, Uncle Jim reconciled himself with the idea he’d have to take on all three.  He brought these men back to town draped across the backs of their horses.

In 1902, two criminals shot at killed Deputy Charles J. Hawkins and then fled the scene.  Roberts tracked the men to Camp Verde.  When he returned to Jerome, both men were slung over his mule.  It was another closed case.

When Willard Forrester and Earl Nelson arrived in Clarkdale on 20 June 1928, they intended to rob the Arizona State Bank.  The bank was flush with cash from a mine payroll shipment scheduled for the next day.  Forrester and Nelson were part of what remained of the Kimes/Terrill Gang in Oklahoma [Note 5].  The next afternoon, Forrester and Nelson parked their stolen car in front of the bank and went inside.  After herding the manager, tellers, and several patrons into the vault, Forrester and Nelson helped themselves to around $50,000.00.  As the robbers sped off, the bank manager ran to his  desk, took out a shotgun, and fired after the vehicle.

Jim Roberts, who was on foot patrol, heard the shot and ran to the corner of a street intersection — arriving there just as the getaway vehicle drove by.  It might have gone well for Forrester and Nelson had they not irritated Roberts by shooting at him as they drove past.  Roberts, who was just then a bit put off, took out his revolver, took a two-handed stance, and fired at the speeding vehicle.  Willard, who was driving, was shot through the head and the vehicle crashed into a utility pole.  As soon as the vehicle came to a stop, Earl exited the vehicle and fled on foot.  Uncle Jim, who was then 68 years old, chased after Nelson and placed him in custody.

James Franklin Roberts passed away on 8 January 1934 of natural causes.  While making a regular foot patrol in Clarkdale, he suffered a heart attack and died.  He was laid to rest at the Valley View Cemetery in Clarkdale. 

Sources:

  1. Koch, M.  The Kimes Gang.  Author-House Bloomington, 2005.
  2. Stanley, J.  Arizona Explained: James Parker, Outlaw.  The Republic, 2014. 
  3. Wagoner, J. J.  Arizona Territory 1863-1912: A Political History.  University of Arizona Press, 1970.

Endnotes:

[1] Everyone surviving an old west gunfight stood in the dock to answer murder allegations.  Coroners’ inquests or preliminary judicial proceedings usually determined whether the charges would stand for trial. 

[2] Gold was discovered in 1884, but the town’s real growth may have come from the Santa Fe, Prescott, and Phoenix Railroad that passed within three miles of the mine.  The town remained prosperous until the mid-1930s, but little remains of the original townsite today.  Congress, Arizona today is a bedroom community just outside Wickenburg.

[3] William Owen O’Neill (1860-1898) was an Arizona lawman, newspaper editor, miner, politician, and gambler — nicknamed “Bucky” because in gambling, he frequently “bucked the tiger” … played against the odds … in card games.  O’Neill’s father was an immigrant from Ireland around 1850 who settled in Pennsylvania.  O’Neill migrated to Arizona c. 1879, arriving, it is said, on the back of a burro.  Bucky O’Neill was killed during the Spanish/American War while serving as a captain in the Rough Rider’s Regiment.

[4] The story of James Fleming Parker is not unusual in the late 1800s.  He had a tough life, with his mother passing away when he was ten years old and his father committing suicide four years later.  On his own at a young age, he never developed much respect for the law and found himself in jail more than a few times for such things as burglary and borrowing cattle without a permit.  He was particularly upset when an Atlantic & Pacific train killed a couple of his ponies who had wandered onto the tracks and then refused to pay his claim for damages.  So James decided to rob one of their trains, which as it turned out, didn’t work to his advantage.  Still, the people of Yavapai County had some sympathy for Parker up until he killed Norris.  Parker was hanged on 3 June 1898.

[5] The Kimes/Terrill Gang was led by Matthew Kimes and Ray Terrill who were active in robbing banks in prohibition Oklahoma.  All of their robberies were high-profile cases, including the murder of lawmen, to which was added their frequent escapes from jails and prisons.  Gang members reputedly swore a blood-oath to free each other from jail should they ever be captured, or die in the attempt.  To the extent that Roberts knew about this blood-oath is unknown to us.  By 1927, the gang leaders were either in prison or dead, but members of the gang continued to threaten law and order wherever they went.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, Arizona Territory, Gunfights and such, History, Justice, Oklahoma. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Uncle Jim

  1. Andy says:

    The image of fearless lawman Roberts riding a mule in street shoes is stuck in my mind. While he might not have been a colorful character in the Southwest tradition, Roberts is certainly one to be admired.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. kidme37 says:

    I’ve been to Jerome. Interesting place. One evening, the lady sheriff drove all the guys home from the saloon when it closed.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “who was then 68 years old”. What’s your point?

    Liked by 1 person

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