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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: A Harvey Girl Turns Cattle Rustler

The archives of the Old Trails Museum/Winslow Historical Society

It’s time for Scott Thybony’s latest Canyon Commentary. Today, we hear the story of Cecil Creswell, a former Harvey Girl and the only known female cattle rustler in the 20th century. Scott takes us to a stark, desolate landscape where Creswell lived alone on land she homesteaded.

She sat alone at night in a two-room house built with her own hands, reading Shakespeare by the light of a lantern. Her paintings of Southwestern landscapes covered the walls, and stored in a box were a few hand-written manuscripts. She had arrived in Arizona when she was 17-years old and went to work at the Harvey House in Winslow, wearing a starched white pinafore over a black dress. But now she no longer owned a single dress, and all she had to eat was meat stolen from other ranchers. The Harvey Girl had turned cattle rustler.

Credit Scott Thybony
The site of the Creswell homestead near Winslow.

The story of Cecil Creswell has brought me to the site of the ranch she homesteaded. Walking about the wreckage of her home, I think about a woman living alone on the edge of a dry river and the hardships she endured.

Like many of the Harvey Girls she soon married, but unlike most she soon divorced.  Her second marriage ended badly when she discovered her husband was already married. During an argument in a Winslow corral he drew a knife and stabbed her. And he kept stabbing. Despite being badly wounded she was able to grab a rock and knock him out cold.

Eventually she filed a homestead claim on a barren quarter-section of land outside town. The Harvey Girl became a hardscrabble rancher and worked the place alone. She dug a cattle tank by hand and headed into the mountains to trap mustangs, breaking them single handedly. She wore men’s clothing and a cowboy hat pulled down to her eyebrows. Riding into town she would tie her black stallion to a parking meter and trade for groceries, having no money. And when her food ran out she began rustling cattle.

She rode over the grasslands with her rifle always handy, and during a feud with a neighbor shot the horn off his saddle while he was sitting on it. Those who knew her said she wouldn’t have missed if she was aiming at him. “I know you are a crack shot with that rifle of yours,” the judge told her, “but I cannot tolerate you shooting at your neighbor with the darn thing anytime you chose.” Cecil had to surrender her guns for six months.

“All of the men feared her because she had nothing to lose,” said Winslow historian Janice Griffith. “She’d just as soon shoot them as anything, and they knew it.  She had been mistreated too many times to entirely trust men, but just because she didn’t trust them doesn’t mean she trusted women either. She wanted everybody to leave her alone.”

An investigation into missing livestock ended in the winter of 1954 when the sheriff and his deputy drove out to her place to serve a warrant. They were joined by livestock inspectors who discovered stolen calves in her holding pen. Before taking her to jail, the deputy let her go into the house alone, and suddenly the men heard what sounded like a door slamming. It was a single rifle shot. The sheriff and his deputy found her body inside, and continued searching the house. They were surprised by how spotlessly clean she had kept the place, the way a Harvey Girl might.

Over time Cecil Creswell had grown more reclusive as the loneliness and isolation set in. In her final years, she rarely spoke more than a few words to anyone. In this place of solitude she was left with little more than an endless sky pressing down. I head back to town the way I came, leaving the land to keep its own.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.
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