Cora Viola Howell and cattleman John Horton Slaughter met in 1879 on the Howell ranch in New Mexico Territory.
Viola’s mother vehemently objected to her high-spirited daughter being courted by a man twice her age and her protests increased when she discovered John was a widower with two small children. Viola’s father, however, liked the bold cowboy and decided to throw his herd in with John’s and head for Arizona Territory.
On April 16, 1879, after a courtship of only a few weeks, and as the combined cattle herds headed toward Arizona, 18-year-old Viola married 37-year-old John in Tularosa, New Mexico Territory. Her life changed dramatically from her childhood days in Missouri where she had been born on Sept. 18, 1860, the great-great-granddaughter of frontiersman Daniel Boone.
Viola and John settled in Sulphur Springs Valley in Southeastern Arizona. John did not intend that his young bride be burdened with the care of his two children, but once Viola laid eyes on 6-year-old Addie and little Willie, not yet 2, she insisted on rearing them.
The Slaughters eventually moved into a two-room house south of Hereford along the San Pedro River. Juniper tree poles covered with mud served as the roof, while mud-chinked juniper branches made up the walls. Viola cooked over an open fireplace until she acquired a stove shipped from San Francisco to Yuma, then carted by wagon across the desert.
In 1881, the Slaughters headed for Deming, New Mexico Territory, to meet up with hired hands and head for the Rio Grande to pick up a herd of cattle. But the two groups missed each other and as temperatures plummeted, the Slaughter entourage bedded down on the desert floor for two chilly nights before uniting with the ranch hands. Yet, Old Man Winter was not through with them .
As they neared New Mexico’s Fort Bayard, a blinding snowstorm descended, leaving Viola and the rest of the party shivering under a blanket of snow for three nights. Viola suffered frostbite on one foot. “We had no tents or shelter,” she remembered, “and often in the morning we could hardly turn over for the snow on us.”
In 1883, John and Viola sold all their cattle and possessions and headed to Oregon to start another ranch along the Snake River. By the time they reached Boise City, Idaho, however, John was so ill from asthma and tuberculosis the couple turned around and returned to the arid desert where John’s maladies remained under control.
They purchased an old Mexican San Bernardino land grant that lay in the southeast corner of Arizona Territory and rambled across the border into Mexico. The 65,000 acres were lush with natural springs and streams and an abundant array of grasses that would fill the bellies of hungry cattle. When she first saw this land, Viola knew “our future lay within it. It was beautiful.”
Viola and the children stayed in Tombstone while their home was being built at San Bernardino. During this time, John served as Cochise County sheriff, much to Viola’s consternation. Fearful of guns, she removed the bullets from John’s pistols when he was at home, sometimes leaving the poor sheriff rushing out the door on an official call without the protection of a loaded firearm.
Viola had no tolerance for the loose women of Tombstone and refused to enter the notorious Bird Cage Theatre, touted by the New York Times as the “roughest, bawdiest, most wicked night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast,” although she later lamented she wished she had seen at least one show at the infamous saloon.
On the San Bernardino ranch, Viola found herself foster mother to a host of orphaned or abandoned youngsters. By 1896, Anglo, Mexican, African-American, and Native American children ran through the tall grasses and romped around the sprawling ranch house.
Five-year-old Lola Robles arrived in 1895 and stayed for 14 years. At age 14, Blanche Anderson and her 11-year-old brother, Frank, came to the ranch. Blanche only stayed a year but Frank remained until he enlisted in the Army during World War I. At age 2, Arthur Fisher’s parents left him at the ranch when they separated. Arthur remained a cowboy all of his life.
In 1896, John brought home a young Apache girl he had found in Mexico. He and Viola named the child Apache May and for four years, she charmed John and adored Viola. But in 1900, Apache May was playing too close to a pot of boiling water sitting over an open flame. Her dress caught fire, burning her beyond recovery. Both Viola and John deeply mourned the loss of Apache May.
The San Bernardino ranch prospered and anyone passing through the southern part of Arizona was welcome to partake of Slaughter hospitality. Usually feeding around 25 people each day kept Viola busy in the kitchen, but she always insisted on dining formally. Women were forbidden to wear divided skirts, and only John was allowed to sport spurs in the dining room.
Sometimes, poker games were allowed as an after-dinner pastime and Viola would shyly mention that she occasionally indulged in an innocent game. Then, as her guests gaped, she skillfully proceeded to shuffle the cards as if she had been playing poker all her life. Her gambling husband had taught her the skills and intricacies of the game.
For almost 30 years, the Slaughter ranch was the most important property in Southeast Arizona, with Viola managing the day-to-day operations of the house, gardens, orchards, laundry, dairy and small livestock.
But when John’s health started failing in 1921, the couple left their beloved ranch and moved to the town of Douglas. Eighty-year-old John Horton Slaughter, cowhand, rancher, lawman and true pioneer, died Feb. 16, 1922.
Viola remained in Douglas and in 1938, now almost 80 years old, she proudly rode through the streets of Douglas as grand marshal of the town’s rodeo parade. According to pioneer rancher Mary Kidder Rak, Viola “stole the show.”
Cora Viola Howell Slaughter died April 1, 1941. As one of Arizona’s true pioneers, she embraced the complexities and difficulties of ranching as she did life — with an exuberance and gusto inbred in early western women.