John Slawson, agent of the Cliff mine

Ed. Note: This feature is the first in a return to our series: Copper Country’s Past and People

John Slawson was a man with a new family and a bright future. Slawson was the agent of the Cliff mine, about six miles west of Eagle River. This was a prestigious position, considering the Cliff was a world-renowned copper producer, known for masses of pure copper, many weighed by the ton. Slawson ran the mine efficiently. He was good at his trade.

When the Central Mining Company was organized in 1854, it was a copper lode Slawson had discovered.

Oddly, however, Slawson became bitter at some point, if not downright mean. At Leopold’s General Store near the mine, Slawson publicly berated women for shopping. Workers at the mine, the story circulated, were forced to eat cornmeal by Slawson when the last ship of the season brought no flour. He called in the sheriff when workers went out on strike. But he lived well. In 1860, Slawson had three servants, a 13-year-old and an 18-year-old, both girls from Saxony. The third servant was a 20-year-old African American, born in Tennessee.

The Cliff mine shut down in 1870, and Slawson did other things. In 1881, a friend from Boston, Joel Parker Whitney, bought a copper mine near Santa Rita, in Grant County, New Mexico, and asked Slawson to examine the properties. Parker bought up other claims, which he patched together into the Santa Rita Copper and Iron Company, and he hired a crew of Cornish miners to work the mine. He then offered Slawson the job of managing the men, as well as the mine, and Slawson, having nothing better to do at the time, accepted the position.

Slawson undertook his tasks with the same high level of skill he had displayed at the Cliff and Central mines. The Santa Rita mine was converted from horse-driven whims to steam-powered hoists. He made other improvements that greatly increased the efficiency and production of the mine.

While in Arizona, Slawson made friends and enjoyed his reputation as a first-rate mining man. But his mean streak, which became apparent back at the Cliff in Keweenaw County, seemed to have intensified in Arizona.

About a year after Slawson arrived in Grant County, a man named John Risque developed an interest of some sort in some gold mining prospects around Clifton, Arizona. Known primarily for copper deposits, Clifton was also known as a wild mining camp, as well as a haven for outlaws. Billy the Kid’s stepfather, William Antrim, was a miner in the area. The Clifton area was inside the White Mountain Apache reserve, which through the manipulation of greedy mine investors and corrupt politicians, had been opened to mineral prospecting without the consent of the Apaches. The Apaches were not giving up their land without a fight.

On an April morning in 1882, Slawson was a member of a party that was to ride deeper into the Apache reserve to inspect some illegal mine sites. The members of the party were warned not to attempt such a foolish venture by long-time residents who had survived Apache uprisings in the past. They were warned; they knew better. Slawson should have known better. He had lived in Arizona for over a year and he had heard the stories. Yet, of the five men, only one of them had a rifle. Slawson and two others were armed only with pistols, and the fifth member was not armed at all.

They rode out of town, on their six-mile trip. They never made it. Strung out along the trail, Slawson was among the first killed, shot out of the saddle before he could draw his weapon. Two others were killed, also. Their bodies were stripped and mutilated. The two remaining members lived to tell the tale.

Slawson’s death under such circumstances leaves one wondering about many things. What was he doing in a town known for its violence and outlaws? Back at the Cliff mine, why had he become so mean-hearted? Why had he left the Copper Country, anyway, was he seeking adventure? Having three servants, he certainly did not need additional wealth. And why did he ride into Apache country illegally, armed only with a pistol? Was he that cocky, or was it suicide? There may be a clue to the peculiar behavior displayed by John Slawson.

Back in early 1849, John Slawson was a man with a new family and a bright future. In April, his wife gave him a son they called Wille. Then, in July, Willie died. Three months later, on October 4, his wife Pricilla died, at the age of 24. Pricilla and Willie were the first two laid to rest in the new cemetery near Eagle River.

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