Forget every truth you hold to be self-evident: Arizona in the 1870s and 1880s was practically a Bizarro world version of our modern state. Back then, calling a man a “cowboy” wasn’t a compliment but fighting words. Mexico impatiently urged the United States to seal the porous border and stop Americans from stealing their property. And white males who disliked the federal government came to Arizona to get away from Republicans.
Ultimately, clashes between cattle-rustling cowboys and Mexican ranchers would trigger history’s most famous 30 seconds of gunplay – the gunfight at the O.K. Corral – and drive the U.S. and Mexico to the brink of war. But the economic origins of the conflict were much different from those of today. This was a beef about beef.
After the Civil War, demand for meat skyrocketed. Burgeoning cities – along with the U.S. Army and Native American tribes that were forced onto reservations – all needed to be fed. And just over the Mexican border were thousands of cows ripe for the dinner plate. Consumers weren’t finicky about where cattle came from, especially if it was cheap.
Enter a new breed of man: the “cow-boy.” They were mostly young, rootless fellows seeking adventure and easy money. Many were refugees from the defeated Confederacy who bridled under the victorious Union. They made money smuggling illicit alcohol and tobacco acro