June 23

This Day in History

Old West

Jun 23, 1878:

Frontiersman Martin Sweeny is murdered

Martin Sweeny, a former Indian agent and Arizona mining entrepreneur, is murdered near Tombstone, Arizona, in a dispute over a mining property.

Though he would never become famous, Martin Sweeny's adventurous life and violent death is illustrative of the path many young men followed in the Wild West of the later 19th century. Born in Massachusetts in 1845, Sweeny heeded the siren call of the West at the age of 23. After bouncing around the Southwest for a time, he found a position as a blacksmith on an Apache Indian reservation in Arizona in 1868. There he learned the Apache language and absorbed their culture, and he developed a genuine appreciation for the Apache's ability to thrive in a desert climate that so many Euro-Americans found intolerable.

In 1874, Sweeny's sympathetic appreciation of Indian ways won him a position schooling some of the pro-government Apache in American military tactics. The Indians, who were used as soldiers in the ongoing conflict with other hostile Apache bands, reportedly became excellent soldiers under Sweeny's guidance. Three years later, when several bands of Apache under the chiefs Geronimo and Victorio reluctantly agreed to surrender, Sweeny was given the delicate diplomatic task of escorting the warriors to the reservation.

The head agent of the Apache reservation resigned suddenly that same year, leaving Sweeny temporarily in charge. Soon after, the government offered Sweeny the job permanently. That a 32-year-old former blacksmith from Massachusetts was a suitable candidate for such an important federal position was indicative of the opportunities a talented young man could find in the American West.

After careful consideration, however, Sweeny turned down the position. For the past several years, he had been taking advantage of another golden frontier opportunity: mining. In 1872, Sweeny began investing in several promising mines near the town of Tombstone, Arizona. By 1877, at least one of them, the Grand Central, was becoming a paying proposition. Sweeny decided he would do better as a mining entrepreneur than as an Indian agent.

Mining in Tombstone, however, proved to be more dangerous than dealing with the Apache. During the late 1870s, Tombstone was already becoming notorious for its lawlessness. The town soon became a haven for dangerous men, including such famous gunslingers as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and John Ringo.

In 1878, Sweeny clashed with one of his partners in the Grand Central mine, a hotheaded man named Oliver Boyer. On this day in 1878, Boyer confronted Sweeny near the mine. An argument between the two men over the mine quickly became heated. Although Sweeny was a notoriously tough character and a dangerous man with his fists, he did not carry a gun. Boyer, however, carried a revolver. In a fit of rage, Boyer shot and killed the unarmed Sweeny.

Just as Sweeny's life reflected the unusual opportunities the West offered ambitious young men, his death reflected the harsh and decidedly unromantic deaths some of them suffered. For every famous face-to-face shoot-out like the one at the O.K. Corral, there were dozens of cowardly murders where the victims were shot in the back, ambushed, or otherwise caught defenseless like Martin Sweeny. For the crime, Boyer was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

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