The archivists’ code of ethics dictates that we don’t disclose what our researchers are looking at, so it’s pretty exciting when a patron publishes a book or works on a documentary that we can share! One of our dear patrons, Dr. Heidi Osselaer*, did quite a bit of in-depth research here at the archives in preparation for the beautiful Power’s War documentary that is screening at film festivals and winning awards all over the country. We’re thrilled that she agreed to answer some questions about her process researching for the film.
The Power’s War is known as the deadliest gunfight in Arizona history, and took place in the Galiuro Mountains early one morning in 1918. The saga involves fatalities, manhunts, and three men sentenced to the Florence prison for murder – but little substantive evidence exists to fill in the details of the story. Heidi discovered that the documentation was often shaky at best, that records went missing over time, and that the series of events have evolved into conspiracy theories and myths over time. Her research is a classic archives tale of the process of trying to create a narrative out conspiracy theories, missing records, and highly suspect documentation. One of the most thrilling and frustrating parts of working in archives is untangling these mysteries!
Q&A with Heidi
- First, can you talk a little about how you got involved in this project?
Heidi: “Three years ago local film producer Cameron Trejo came to me with a documentary film project, the Power Shootout. He gave me 2 books to read—Shootout at Dawn written by Tom Power and The Evaders written by Darvil McBride. He had been struggling to figure out what really happened at the mining shack deep in the Galiuro Mountains when four lawmen arrived on Feb. 10, 1918 to arrest Tom and John Power for draft evasion and Jeff Power and hired hand Tom Sisson for perjury in their testimony at the inquest of Ola May Power After skimming through both books, it quickly became apparent that neither version was accurate. Tom Power and Darvil McBride’s father, Sheriff Robert Frank McBride, were both participants—on opposite sides of Arizona’s deadliest gunfight. Clearly they were both biased. Several other books have been written, but there had been no systematic examination of public records. Barbara Wolfe, Passion, Prejudice and Power, had uncovered a handful of trial records and newspaper articles, but most other publications relied heavily on the somewhat dubious claims of old men with fading memories. Oral history is a wonderful resource, but in this case, with so few facts established and so many disparate versions of the shootout floating about, the truth became quite elusive. There was even a dissertation published on the shootout, not in History, but in Folklore—that’s how bad it got.”
- Can you tell us a little about the research you did for this project? What was your approach, and where did it take you?
Heidi: “My plan was to get a fresh view through the extant public records—tax assessments, property deeds, voter registration, criminal & civil court cases, census records. I started at Arizona State Library and Public Records, combing through existing documents for months on end. I traced the family lineage back to when the first Power to come to the new world from Germany in the 1780s, and followed these ancestors through their moves to Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and finally into Arizona. Along the way I have found relatives of the Power family living today in California who knew nothing about the story, and they have provided me with very useful insights. Ancestry.com is an amazing tool!
My final research trip was to the Power Cabin, located deep in the Galiuro Mountains of southeastern Arizona. When you are writing about something, it is important to experience it first hand, but I wasn’t too excited about this trip. I’m not the rugged outdoors woman, but my producer, Cameron Trejo, insisted I go on his 9th and final trip to film for the documentary. It is a beautiful place, but very remote. We spent three days camping out, and at night black bears scratched at my door for hours. No documents on this trip, just hundreds of photographs, but I came away with a much better understanding of the life of this family.”
- You’ve mentioned that a lot of what you learned from the research was not just what you found in the archives, but also what was missing. Can you talk about your experiences with this?
Heidi: “Many documents concerning this story are missing. Criminal and civil cases involving the Power family in New Mexico are noted in the dockets, but the actual case files are missing. And while Greenlee County trial documents are on microfilm at ASLAPR, the transcripts of the testimony have never been found. The U. S. Marshal records, housed at AHS Tucson, are very complete, except for documents related to the Power case. Some of the U. S. Marshal letters still exist in the Greenlee County trial records because they were introduced as evidence in the trial, but their copies and other correspondence seem to have been lifted from the US Marshall collection. There are hundreds of prison records at ASLAPR pertaining to the many decades that Tom Sisson and Tom and John Power spent at the Arizona State Prison at Florence, however, the trial transcripts and judge’s sentence and other court records that customarily go to the prison warden are missing from those prison files. There are always many souvenir hunters who take public records, even though it is a felony, and of course record keeping one hundred years ago was often haphazard, but in this case, I feel that there was a systematic effort to purge many records regarding the Power case from the public eye. Others who have researched this case agree. This has created the appearance that there was a conspiracy to cover up the truth. I’m not sure if that is true, but that is the outward appearance.
Finally, I was disappointed that the Graham County Historical Society has closed, and its excellent collection is no longer available to the public. The records of Judge Chambers, who was lead prosecutor in the trial, are held in this collection, and they are essential to understanding this pivotal character in the Power story. I hope that state historians and archivists work together to keep valuable local collections safe and available to the public. We cannot write the history of Arizona without them.”
*Heidi J. Osselaer received her undergraduate degree in history at the University of California, Berkeley, and earned both a master’s degree and doctorate in U.S. history at Arizona State University. Her research field is women in Arizona History. She has taught at Arizona State University, Tempe, Scottsdale Community College, and Phoenix College and has served on the Executive Board and the Scholars’ Committee of the Arizona Women’s Heritage Trail as well as the Editorial Board of the Journal of Arizona History and is a speaker for the Arizona Humanities Council. In April of 2009, the University of Arizona Press published her first book, Winning Their Place: Arizona Women in Politics, 1883-1950. She served as development producer and lead historian, and was interviewed as a historical expert for the 2015 documentary film, “Power’s War,” about Arizona’s deadliest shootout. She was also a historical expert interviewed for “Blood Feuds: Johnson County War,” forthcoming from Lion TV and American History Channel.