Tour guides report wildly different numbers about the population in early Tombstone and this article gets to the bottom of that question.
Tour guides in Tombstone like to tell guests how many people lived here in the 1880s; unfortunately, guides have reported wildly different numbers, some as few as 3000 while others report 20,000 or more. One enterprising tour guide even claims more than 100,000 people lived here during Tombstone’s heyday.
This report intends to answer the question, “How many people lived in Tombstone?” There are two sources for the numbers presented in this report: official United States census records and the Arizona territorial census completed in 1882.
United States government conducts a census every 10 years in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. The following table presents the results of the census for several years.
Notes: For some reason, in 1900 Tombstone was the only city in Cochise County to submit census information. The number submitted, though, seems abnormally small so there was likely an error in the enumeration process. The word “Phenix” was spelled that way in the census bureau reports for 1880 and 1890.
Territorial Census of 1882
In 1882 the territorial governor, Frederick Tritle, ordered a census to establish apportionments for the territorial "Council" (later named the Senate) and House of Representatives. The county board of supervisors appointed Billy Breakenridge to be the census marshal for Cochise County. The results of the census were discussed in the Epitaph newspaper in numerous articles over the summer and early fall of 1882.
On page 3 of the July 15, 1882, edition the Epitaph released the following counts for the largest communities in Cochise County: Tombstone, 5,300; Benson, 820; Contention, 452; Charleston, 423; Bisbee and vicinity, 410; Willcox, 324; Dos Cabozas, 245; Tres Alamas and Lower San Pedro, 298; St. Joseph, 212; Bowie and Tevis district, 125; All others combined, 1031.
Given the above, it seems that the population of Tombstone grew from 978 in 1880 to 5,300 in 1882 then shrank back to 1,875 in 1890. This growth pattern would not be unusual for a mining boom town.
In addition, on page 1 of the July 8th 1882 Epitaph, the following origins were reported from the 1882 census: Americans, 2880; Irish, 559; Mexican, 423; Germany, 300; English, 279; Canada, 254; and China, 245, with smaller numbers from 16 other countries (including one from the Hawaiian Islands).
Billy Breakenridge, the census marshal for Cochise County, was praised for his honesty and integrity so his 1882 count can be trusted. Tombstone was a boom town that was growing in the early 1880s, so it is likely that there were 5,300 people living here in 1882, but that number had shrunk back to 1,875 by 1890 since the established mines began curtailing their operations and no new mines were opening. By 1890, those seeking easy wealth were moving on to new opportunities in places like Alaska, leaving Tombstone with a declining population. The census counts eventually bottomed out at 822 in 1940. The following are reasonable conclusions from the numbers:
1. The maximum population was probably about 7,000 in about 1884. By this time the mining industry had stabilized, and no major new mines were being opened. It is unlikely that the population grew much larger than 7,000.
2. Everyone was counted. Some tour guides tell tourists something like "they did not count Mexicans" (or other groups). This is simply not true. Census enumerators (the people who collected data) were required to record the name, sex, and place of origin every person living in each household in the area, so we know that everyone was counted.
3. Several cities in Arizona were larger than Tombstone. Some tour guides like to present Tombstone as the largest city between St. Louis and San Diego (or other pairs of cities), but this is simply not true. At the very least, Tombstone has never been larger than Tucson, much less places like Denver, so it is not accurate to say that Tombstone was the largest city anywhere outside of Cochise County. It may be true that Tombstone was the fastest growing city in the west for a brief period, perhaps 1879-1882, but was never the largest city.