In the earliest days in the mining camps around Tombstone, residents would camp wherever they found space. Once someone pitched a tent, no one challenged their right to be there. That spirit of friendliness ended in March 1879 when The Tombstone Townsite Company (TTC) laid out a townsite in a flat area called Goose Flats. The 320-acre site was in a grid that contained four named streets and 12 numbered streets. The townsite was named Tombstone after the first silver strike in the area. The TTC filed a townsite claim at the United States Land Office in Florence and recorded it at the Pima County Recorder's Office. Unfortunately, they made a significant mistake and failed to apply for a patent for the land, and that oversight would lead to years of frustration and fighting. For the record, a patent is a Federal Government instrument used to award someone the title to public land.
A lively real estate business grew in 1879 Tombstone even though the land belonged to the federal government. TTC began selling deeds to residents living on the lots in the city, but those deeds were worthless since TTC did not own the land. Thus, people who purchased TTC deeds were often put in the precarious position of defending their property rights from "jumpers" who may also want that exact location.
On November 1, 1879, a group of 42 citizens petitioned the Pima County supervisors to incorporate the village of Tombstone. They hoped that this legal action would help end the selling of bogus deeds. As part of the incorporation process, William Harwood was elected mayor, four men were elected to the Council, and Fred White was elected Marshal. By US law, an incorporated village could apply for a patent issued to the mayor, who would hold it in trust for the people living in the village. That trust would be administered according to regulations established by the territorial legislature.
At about the same time, Mike Gray came to Tombstone and bought out some original TTC owners. By the end of 1879, he had become one of the major players in the drama to follow.
In January 1880, there was another election in Tombstone. One of the original councilmen, Alder Randall, was elected mayor, and Mike Gray was elected to replace Randall on the Council. This change in city leadership set up the circumstances for the fraud to follow.
On April 18, 1880, TTC provided the capital for the mayor and Council to file a patent claim for Tombstone. One of the TTC owners went to Washington to help shepherd that process. Simultaneously, assuming that the patent would be issued to the mayor, the Council deeded 2168 city lots out of 2394 to TTC; the other lots had previously been deeded to other people. Immediately, a legal remonstrance was filed with the US Land Office, claiming that it was illegal for the mayor to deed all of those lots to TTC when it was intended to be held in trust for individuals living on the land. TTC then began pressuring people living on their lots to pay for their deeds.
Adding to the land ownership problem, several mine owners already had patents for a significant portion of the townsite (see the following illustration). The owner of the Gilded Age mine, Edward Field, protested to the US Land Office that the TTC had no legal authority to award deeds to property on his claim and federal mining law seemed to back that contention. In March 1880, Field filed suit against TTC to establish ownership of the surface of his claim, and the judge ruled in his favor. That meant that squatters on the Gilded Age claim had to do business with Field rather than TTC. Despite the judge's order concerning the Gilded Age, TTC continued to issue deeds for lots on the surface of that mine. Moreover, on November 16, an agent from TTC with a shotgun prohibited workers from entering the Gilded Age mine. Field went to Tucson "looking for his rights," and while he was gone, someone built a cabin over the mine shaft.
There were potentially three different groups that now claimed the right to issue property deeds: TTC, the mayor, and the mine owners. Understandably, citizens and business owners in Tombstone were concerned about making improvements on their property when they did not have a clear deed. As an example of the confusion, the October 24, 1880, edition of the Epitaph contained a notice from M. E. Clark (an alias for James Clark, one of the TTC partners) that people should not buy or negotiate with anyone else for his lots since they were "duly deeded to me by the Mayor of Tombstone." In that same issue of the paper, though, was a notice by Justice of the Peace James Reilly, that "M. E. Clark, in whose name the above notice is published, has never been in this Territory, nor can I find, after diligent inquiry, one creditable person who has ever seen him or her."
The townsite patent from the federal government finally reached Tombstone on November 5, 1880. Oddly, it was addressed to M. E. Clark, a TTC partner, rather than the mayor, despite the law stipulating that federal land patents would be issued to a mayor and held in trust for the citizens. A citizens League was then formed to file a lawsuit to get the matter before the court, but that lawsuit ultimately failed.
In December 1880, Justice of the Peace Reilly left town on business, and while he was gone, about 12 men pulled down the fence around his property and physically moved his house partially into the street since they said he was on TTC property without a deed. Marshal Ben Sippy stopped this proceeding, and the next day some men moved his house back into place.
In January 1881, another election was held, and John Clum was elected mayor along with four new council members. Clum waged war on the TTC and began issuing mayor's deeds to citizens who had improved property in Tombstone. During the spring and summer of 1881, several court cases were decided. One of the most important affirmed that Edward Field, the owner of the Gilded Age mine, had possession of the lots covered by the mining claim. After that, he was threatened using pictures of coffins and was shot at more than once. The other court cases, in general, were decided against TTC and found that it was illegal for the previous mayor, Alder Randall, to issue deeds to TTC rather than the citizens.
Over the summer and fall of 1881, the Vizina, Mountain Maid, and Gilded Age filed suits against squatters who had not negotiated with them for their lots, even if those people had purchased deeds from TTC.
There is evidence that the "cowboys" were terrorizing Tombstone citizens at the behest of TTC. In 1880 Marshal Fred White was gunned down after enforcing land ownership laws that tended to favor the squatters over TTC. During the summer of 1881, Marshal Ben Sippy took a "leave of absence" after several run-ins with TTC enforcers and was last seen on a train traveling through New Mexico. Some historians believe that his bones are at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft somewhere. In December 1881, there was an attempt on the life of Mayor John Clum, Judge Wells Spicer received a threatening letter, and Marshal Virgil Earp was shot and maimed. As a result of uncertain land ownership, people were hesitant to make improvements to their property. For example, in 1882 a city health official noted the large amount of stagnant water in the city, but people were unwilling to pay for a sewer system since they had no clear deed to their property.
Most of the principals in this story (the TTC partners, mayors, mine owners) left town in the 1890s and early 1900s, so most of the lawsuits became moot and disappeared. In the early 1900s, the mines were closing, leading to a decline in the Tombstone population. Since many of the working-class people left town, the question of land ownership became unimportant. However, the legacy of this land fraud persisted for nearly 70 years. In 1946 the Arizona legislature attempted to resolve the ownership of Tombstone property. They passed a law that specified that "…anyone in actual or constructive possession and who had paid taxes on a parcel for five years might apply for a mayor's deed." Perhaps this is a fitting end to a terrible chapter in the city's history.