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Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Sheriff and the Pants Tree: An Old West Story

Sheriff Carl Hayden of Phoenix had a problem. The conservative ladies of his city were up in arms over a public disgrace. They were shocked, shocked!, to see men like this walking their streets.

These men were Pima Indians, who came into town every Saturday during the first years of the 20th century in order to trade. They dressed in the traditional fashion, wearing only a breechclout. This left the rest of their bodies exposed, something the ladies didn't want to see. Whites, Mexicans, and Chinese didn't dress like that, and so they didn't want the Pima dressing like that either.

Hayden came up with a simple solution. He collected a bunch of old pants, hung them up on the branches of a tree just outside town, and told the Pima to put on a pair of pants before coming into town. Once they were done, they'd hang the pants back on the tree and go home dressed in their traditional (lack of) attire. The "pants tree" remained a Phoenix landmark for many years.

Hayden may not have been the first person to think of this. I've heard there was a pants tree outside Tucson as well for visiting Tohono O'odham.

Still the society ladies of Phoenix weren't satisfied. They complained that an old Pima chief was a polygamist, having no fewer than three wives. Sheriff Hayden rode out to visit the chief and told him that he could only have one wife. He had to pick one and tell the other two to go. The old chief thought for a long time. Then he looked at the sheriff and said, "You tell them."

Sheriff Hayden rode off. The chief got to keep his wives.

(Interestingly, a similar story is told about Comanche chief Quanah Parker, so this may just be a tall tale from the fronteir)

Carl Hayden is an Arizona icon. He was born in an adobe home on the Salt River near what is now Phoenix in 1877. His father ran a ferry boat business. Hayden became Maricopa County Sheriff in 1906, dealt with complaints from shocked ladies of society, and got a bit of fame in 1910 for foiling one of the last train robberies in the Old West.

He went on to serve in both houses of Congress for many years before retiring in 1969, the year I was born. It's not much of a stretch to go from the modern day back to a time when bandits robbed trains and half-naked Native Americans shocked the self-appointed guardians of virtue.


  1. The old west really wasn't that long ago, was it?

  2. What an amazing story! Isn't it interesting how these events seem so far removed, but they really were not that long ago? I think it is.

  3. Sounds like that Pima Chief was smarter than the sheriff. You never know what someone is going to complain about.

    Didn't those ladies have anything better to do than stare at the Indians?

  4. Love this post. Sheriff Hayden must've been a fascinating man.


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