The celebrated gunfight made Tombstone eternal, but less known was the violent past before Tombstone existed. It began with a couple holes in the ground, a bit south of the town.
Frederick Brunckow arrived in New York from Germany in 1850. He was 30 and had a mining pedigree. His Russian father and German mother afforded him the best of educations, witness his fluency in four languages. By 1856, he had hooked up with Charles Poston and the Sonora Mining Co. at Tubac. Poston would later be one of Arizona's leading founders.
In 1858, Brunckow had gone east, raised some capital, and returned to Arizona to establish an exploratory camp near the San Pedro River, where rumors of promising ore had circulated. The German-born engineer, bankrolled by the St. Louis Mining Co., hired Mexican laborers, a chemist named John Moss, cousins James and William Williams, and a German cook named David Bontrager.
In July 1860, William Williams left camp to purchase provisions. He returned to a grisly scene. His cousin and Moss lay dead in the cabin. A later search found Brunckow's body at the bottom of a mine entrance, with a drill bit through his midsection.
The cook showed up later with a story of his kidnapping by the Mexicans. That tale was corroborated by Mexican authorities. His sparing was initially thought to be influenced by his Catholic religion. Just maybe the Mexicans had a fondness for wiener schnitzel. This would not be the last of violence at the Brunckow mine.
For the next decade or so the mine went unworked, mostly due to the in-hospitality of the Apaches. The next adventurer to lay claim was an ex-marshal, one Milton Duffield. Milt was a large man who was not shy about using his size and shooting abilities to bully anyone in his path. Enter Joseph Holmes, who represented another group that laid claim to the Brunckow.
Keep in mine, lawyers and courts did not ply their trades concerning such things in desolate surroundings then. Older laws played out.
In June of 1874, Duffield rode up and found Holmes in one of the crude adobe cabins. He threatened to kill Holmes. Strangely, Duffield was not armed. Holmes was. The double barrel shotgun blast ended the dispute.
Holmes was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and received two years, one for each barrel, I guess. After two weeks in lockup, he broke free and disappeared into the Western vortex of the unknown. Surviving partners lost interest and the mine lay dormant, mostly due to the presence of the Apache.
The next adventurer to take ownership was Sidney DeLong. He and partners Tom Jeffords and Nick Rogers filled papers to claim the property in 1875. Jeffords was well known for his relationship with the Apaches, most notably with the great warrior Cochise. Rogers added to the Brunckow legend when he got killed by Apaches at nearby Sulphur Springs Valley.
In 1877, prospector Ed Schieffelin used the mine as a base to search the surrounding area for precious ore. He discovered a big silver ledge to the north; the location became Tombstone. As of 15 years ago, the remains of the Brunckow cabin still featured a recognizable assay oven used by Schieffelin.
In 1879, a badly stoned (think rocks) J. Van Houten was found in a ravine near the Brunckow. He died soon after without disclosing his attacker(s). Among the suspects were notorious bad boys Pete Spence (or Spencer) and
Frank Stilwell, who three years later would get his comeuppance from Wyatt Earp at the Tucson train station. (A coroner jury member labeled Frank "the most shot up man I ever saw.")
The boys were involved in a claim dispute of a mine close to the Brunckow. No convictions resulted in the matter of Van Houten's death.
While it's true that the Brunckow site did not deliver a bonanza, it, indeed, was the genesis for the enormous Tombstone silver find. The crude mine holes are still there, though fenced off for protection. Some of the main adobe cabin remains.
A cottage industry surfaced. The Brunckow has morphed into a ghost story. It has international flavor. Far away Germany has been well represented.
I came across three young German men who were camping in the remains of the cabin. They had spent the night. Two had seen and felt emanations of the violence from so long ago. One was not sure.
More than likely it was indigestion.
Too much sauerkraut.
Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western writer, lecturer and researcher. He can be contacted at email@example.com