Arizona Podcast #13 - History: Red Knolls; Marcos' de Niza's Big Red House
Somewhere off US Highway 70, turning the wrong way on Bryce-Eden road, in the middle of the long and wide Gila river valley, I had Karen worried.
“Yeah, this is it!” I was practically giddy by this point. We were 180 miles into our journey to Bonita Springs vineyard near Willcox, 250 miles from home. I had vaguely mentioned wanting to stop to Karen, but I knew she couldn’t guess what was in store.
The narrow, heavily-rutted and washed-out farm road on which we were driving lay between two cotton fields, just turning white with the first fluffs of the season.
I steered the truck between ruts and large holes, and at one point while crossing a broken culvert, the truck performed a gymnastic manoeuver involving only three wheels.
As we crawled closer to the imposing-yet-unimpressive mud hill that was our destination, only a mile from the highway, my mood vacillated between concern for my truck’s well-being and the feeling you get when opening presents on Christmas morning.
Karen had yet to share my enthusiasm.
Nearly five hundred years ago, a Spanish friar named Marcos de Niza was sent by his King to explore Northern Mexico and what is now Southern Arizona. In 1539, seventy years before the first English settlement at Jamestown, Fray Marcos rode north from Culiacan.
After almost 600 miles, his party had only reached the top of the Gulf of California.
“Aquì supe la costa se vuelve al Poniente; muy de recìo, porque hasta la entrada deste primer despoblado que pasè, siempre la costa se venìa metiendo del Norte…”
“Here I knew the coast turned toward the west, very quickly. Up until the first uninhabited stretch i passed, always the coast kept going north.”
Not far from Rocky Point, de Niza and party turned east and headed inland. They picked up the current-day San Pedro river, then known by its Nahuatl name, Nexpa, and followed it north towards the valley of modern-day Sierra Vista.
He describes this part of the journey as “so full of people and so full of food you could feed three hundred horses. It is very lush, like a vineyard; every half league and every quarter league a new neighborhood and in every village tales of a wealthy kingdom in the north called Cibola.”
As Fray Marcos moved from village to village, contacting new and distinct native groups, he collected more and more information on a ‘Kingdom’ far to the north called Cibola. He met people who made the 30-day journey from northern Mexico to Cibola once a year to earn a living. They went to trade goods or labor for Cibola’s main trade currency, a new type of animal that piqued Marcos’ curiosity.
“Aquí en este valle, me trujeron un cuero, tanto y medio mayor que de una gran vaca, y me dijeron que es de un animal, que tiene sólo un cuerno en la frente y que este cuerno es corvo hacia los pechos, y que de allí sale una punta derecha, en la cual dicen que tiene tanta fuerza, que ninguna cosa, por recia que sea, deja de romper, si topa con ella; y dicen que hay muchos animales destos en aquella tierra; la color del cuero es a manera de cabrón y el pelo tan largo como el dedo.”
“Here in this valley, They brought me an animal hide one and a half times as large as a big cow... “ “...and they say there are many such animals in this land; The color of the hide is like a goat, and the hair is longer than a finger.”
The many villages of the Zuni in western New Mexico acted as major trade hubs between the plains indians from east of the Rockies and the Southwestern cultures from the Sonoran desert southward. Marcos was told that the “Lord” of the seven cities lived in one of them; Ahacus, and that he had other men rule the six other cities in his stead.
What Marcos called a kingdom, after the feudal vassalage common in Europe, was actually a council or trade guild of the cities ruled by consensus. The cities weren’t necessarily united under a common leader.
Marcos wrote more and more of the promise of Cibola. The Coronado expedition would later mistakenly infer from these reports that Cibola was a city of gold and gems on the level of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan. This misunderstanding lead to the embarrassment of a protesting Fray Marcos upon returning to Cibola with Coronado. The image of wealth Coronado had built up in his imagination didn’t match what Marcos had literally said in his reports, and Marcos was ostracized for being a liar. This reputation is not deserved as Marcos’ own reports never explicitly described such wealth.
We’re talking about Fray Marcos for a reason, but this episode isn’t solely about his journey, not to mention the larger Coronado expedition that Marcos’ reports of riches inspired. This story isn’t solely about the native peoples of southern Arizona and northern Mexico, nor of the Zuni pueblos 15 mountainous days to the Northeast. It’s not only about the white settlers of the Gila valley who now inhabit the area.
This story is about a forgotten pile of mud.
Red Knolls has featured prominently as backdrop to the stories of the peoples of its surrounding valley over the millennia. It stands out of place along the Gila River valley in eastern Arizona near Safford. It has stood for countless centuries past, the very last remnant of a large prehistoric lake bed, melting away grain by grain with every monsoon rain. It will be only a few more eons until the 12 story tall natural fortress that looms over the farmland of the wide valley succumbs to the elements and melts away completely.
Deeply creviced, riddled with window-like caves and faced with natural mud columns, it evokes the canyon-temple ruins of Petra from Indiana Jones and the last crusade. It stands and over a hundred and thirty feet tall, and its natural semicircular amphitheatre is wider than either the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum at the state fairgrounds or even America West Arena downtown (currently called Talking Stick arena.)
Fray Marcos would go on to Cibola in the summer of 1539, finally reaching the city but turning back without entering it. His servant, Estevanico, a black moor from the south of Spain, was sent ahead to Cibola. Estevanico, who until reaching Cibola had been extremely popular with the natives (even going so far as to be offered women, and amassing a following of 50 or more followers) ended up unwittingly offending the leader of Cibola with what is thought to have been in their culture a symbol of death, and was killed as an evil omen.
Marcos returned to Culiacán and in his report stated that “The population [of Cibola] is so great as to match Mexico City” and that he wanted to enter the city but refrained out of fear of being killed as was Estevanico. Marcos did not fear for his own life in this situation, for his faith was solid; He did not want to provide the Spanish with a reason to exterminate the native population.
One thing that is conspicuously missing from Marcos’ relación that is present in his later recountings is a place he names “Chichilticalli.” In Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the mesoamerican and southwestern tribes, “Chichilticalli” means “big red house.”
During Coronado’s expedition the following year, Castañeda’s relación (or recounting) of the expedition stated that Marcos described the red house as a camping spot along his route near the rio Xila, but this description was problematic for many reasons.
One, the Coronado expedition had already diverged from Marcos’ path by the time they reached southern Az, and so finding the same “big red house” would be impossible.
Two, because the Nahuatl phrase “Chichilticalli” was not a proper noun to the natives who used it to describe a place, it was like saying ‘You know, the big house over there by the cottonwood tree’ and not ‘The White House where the President lives’. This makes the phrase unhelpful when asking other natives about “The Red House” because there were hundreds of red houses throughout the region.
And Three, Melchior Diaz was sent up the rio Tizón (the colorado) to the rio Miraflores (Gila) and made it all the way past the future site of Phoenix to Casa Grande, which is a big house, but which isn’t red.
There are at least three possible locations of the Chichilticalli of Fray Marcos’ report - I believe that Red Knolls was Marcos’. It lies directly on his path over the mountains between the rio Nexpa (san Juan river) and the rio Xila.
Diaz’ was Casa Grande, and Coronado’s was a large dwelling near Willcox, possibly part of a ruin complex called Kuykendal. Additionally, there is a modern-day Chi-Chil-Tah, New Mexico, near the site of Hawikkuh ruins, one of the fabled 7 cities of Cibola.
In a way, each of the Spaniards found their own Chichilticalli.
Red Knolls was host to a native village before the arrival of the Spaniards, and to this day a complex agricultural system can be seen on the shoulders of the mountain across the river from Red Knolls. Rocks from the hillside were laced together in polygonal lanes which caught and concentrated scant rainfall to grow Agave plants for food and fiber. Check our website, arizona.fyi/redknolls for satellite photos of these ancient fields.
After the Spaniards arrived, and for hundreds of years until the mid-19th century, they employed various forms of vassalage and control of the natives of New Spain. The most egregious of which was know as the “encomienda” system, a grant by the Spanish Crown to Spanish colonists in America conferring the right to demand tribute and forced labor from the Indian inhabitants of an area.
After the Mexican war for Independence, the newly established Mexican government continued exploiting native labor. The eventual acquisition of the area as a spoil of war by the United States improved relations for a few scant decades until friction with the native populations proved too much.
After 400 years of slavery and exploitation by Spain and Mexico, the US would begin relegating the native populations to reservations to languish in poverty.
For a time, the natural fortress lay in ruin, its peoples removed, its columned walls silent.
The natural amphitheatre would be first used by Anglo settlers as a perfect corral to hold cattle, and as a shelter from the valley winds. The land around Red Knolls became ranchland, and later farmland, and upon the arrival of Mormon settlers who named it Eden, after a town of the same name in Utah, it was incorporated into Graham County.
In the 1910s and ‘20s, the knolls became popular as a venue for Easter pageants and shows, put on by the Eastern Arizona College and Gila College in nearby Safford. Every year for many decades the Knolls played host to elaborate sets and costumed performers and thousands of people on crisp spring evenings under the stars and surrounded by natural beauty.
In 1927, Universal Pictures completed filming exterior scenes for what at the time was known as Thunder Hoof but was released as Wild Beauty (1927) using Red Knoll as backdrop. 36 men and 4 women were involved in the scenes as well as more than 1,000 horses.
A soldier returns home from World War I with a beautiful black horse that he saved on the battlefield, and names Thunderhoof. He enters the horse in a local race, hoping to earn enough money to save the family ranch of the girl he loves. However, the crooks intent on taking the ranch manage to capture a notorious wild horse and enter it in the same race, believing that it can beat Thunderhoof and thereby ensure that they're able to take the
Among the pageants and plays performed against the desert fortress walls were:
“The House of Rimmon”, 1930, a Ben-Hur style biblical epic featuring roman centurion costumes;
“The Prince of Egypt” in 1933, complete with a giant sphinx head sculpture;
“The Desert Song” in 1935, an operetta including scenes depicting Arabians, French Army officials, and “native” Moroccan tribes;
After the pageants of the 30’s, Red Knolls was used for Sunrise Services on Easter in the fifties, for Mormon plays in the 60’s, a venue for firework celebrations in the 80’s. Red knolls drops from the papers after 1988, and today is used as a dumping ground for construction supplies and as a party spot for teenagers from Safford.
Karen stared at me incredulously from the passenger’s seat.
I parked the truck at the mouth of the crescent and dismounted. I stepped over a rusty home air duct and a pile of fiberglass insulation, and carefully picked a line over the thousands of rusty nails covering the whole of the amphitheatre. The air trembled heavy with the buzzing of a million bees from some black cave amongst the columns at the back of the circle.
Karen caught up and we stood at the exact center of the amphitheatre.
It was, in a word, Otherworldly.
The organic, alien mud columns and monochrome pallette, the insidious buzzing of gargantuan insects, the nearly perfect geometry and the incredible acoustic properties combined to impart the feeling of standing on the shores of a primordial sea a billion light-years away.
“Conquistadores”, the seventh yearly pageant in 1934, was written by a Gila valley resident and was attended by almost 3,000 people.
It was described in the papers as: “Such a story is admirably adapted to the inspiring setting to be found at the outdoor auditorium, and Arizona’s heritage of the period represented makes the play especially timely and fitting.”
I find these incredibly apt words, considering the pageant was to be performed in the embrace of Marcos de Niza’s Chichilticalli.
I’d like to thank you for listening to another episode of Arizona.FYI. Check out our website at arizona.fyi for some extra content and ways to reach us, and if you’d like to send us feedback, corrections or suggestions, please do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
11 - History: Pearl Hart, Arizona's Lady Bandit
Crouched low in a creosote bush, deep in a high-desert canyon, Joe Boot contemplated his predicament. He was armed with a loaned pistol, preparing to step out and rob a stagecoach - to steal money and perhaps to kill if things went south. Thing was, Joe wasn’t a hardened criminal. Joe’s heart wasn’t really in this. Joe had only come to Arizona from Chicago to make his fortune as a gold prospector. On the final leg of his journey out west, he had met up with a beautiful woman who also had spent time in Chicago, and convinced her to follow him to his gold claim.
Across the mountainous dirt Stage road opposite Joe, the mastermind of the hold-up lay in wait. At 5 feet 1 and just barely over 100 pounds, the outlaw Pearl Hart didn’t command an imposing presence. Pearl Hart is just the opposite in appearance of what would be expected of a woman stage robber. She is a slender little brunette, less than 5 feet high, and weighing scarcely a hundred pounds. Blue eyes peering from beneath dark eyelashes. She confesses to being 28 years old, but she looks much younger except when, in anger or determination, the hard lines show about her mouth and eyes. An old soul, a street urchin on the dirty Victorian industrial streets of Chicago, a petty thief and by age 14, a runaway hobo-tramp.
Unfortunately, Joe’s gold claim didn’t work out. After several days with no color in their pans, Pearl grew restless. Pearl was no longer content to play house with a city-boy-turned-prospector in the wilderness. And after a life of excitement and danger, Pearl wanted to go home to Canada. She began to hatch a plan to fund her next chapter.
On May 29, 1899, to a resume already quite full with hobo-tramp, bootblack, street urchin, prostitute, opium dealer, morphine addict, Madame and petty thief, Pearl Hart was to add Stage-Coach Robber.
Fifteen years before, as a girl of 13, Pearl and her younger sister ran away from their Ontario, Canada home. Ending up in Chicago, the pair took to the streets, sleeping wherever they could, scrounging for meals and working as boot-blacks and shoe-shines. Pearl wore the clothes of the boy bootblacks, disguising herself to fit in with the crowd of street urchins and make a little cash.
The two girls existed on the streets of the city for several months until one auspicious day when Pearl spied a pile of unsupervised Watermelons. After concealing one of the Watermelons and fleeing the scene, she was caught only a block away by the police. The incognito sisters were remanded to a boarding school for wayward boys, whereupon their sex was immediately discovered and they were transferred to a girls’ reform school.
Their tenure at the academy was short-lived, however. Pearl was at this point becoming skilled at escaping captivity and pulled the classic ‘tie your bedclothes into a rope’ trick to allow them to escape their second floor room. She then used her nightdress to help her sister climb over the wire-bound fence on the edge of the property. The sisters escaped into the night, and procured suits of boys’ clothing the next day.
They hopped a train northwest out of Chicago, to Helena, Montana and eventually wound up in Victoria, British Columbia. There they stayed for a few months, eventually working their way back to Chicago via rail. By the time they returned to Chicago, Pearl’s sister had fallen ill and had become homesick. As soon as she felt well enough to travel, Pearl took her back home to Canada.
Pearl, now 16 years old, had become a seasoned tramp. She was a feisty dare-devil and couldn’t remain at home. Her parents didn’t know what to do with her and came to the conclusion that unless restrained, their daughter would end up back on the road. To that end, they committed her to a boarding school near Montreal, where Pearl would supposedly be kept under watch and reformed.
It was only four months before pearl was again escaped. During her stay in Montreal, Pearl had met a man named Hart and they struck up a relationship. Hart assisted in Pearl’s escape and the two eloped to Chicago, but it was only a short time before they began to quarrel. Hart became abusive, and after a fight one day, Pearl returned home to her mother in Ontario.
Pearl and Hart reconciled, separated, reconciled, separated many times over the next few years. During this time, Pearl had two children, a boy and a girl, whom she sent to live with their grandmother, who had moved to Ohio.
In 1893, Pearl and her husband found themselves working at the Chicago World’s Fair. While her husband worked as a carnival barker, Pearl became enamored with the spectacle of cowboy life that was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
When the fair ended, Pearl’s wanderlust and Hart’s abusive nature lead her to leaving, and Pearl hopped a train west to Trinidad, Colorado in the company of a piano player whose name is generally given as Dan Bandman, though she refers to him as Dan Borderman later when recounting how she met him in a boarding house.
The names of Pearl’s acquaintances are quite suspicious - and one could be forgiven to think that she pulled a trick like that in the movie the Usual Suspects upon her interrogation, giving the men in her life made-up names using objects from the jailhouse and situations from memory.
This period of her life was described by Pearl thusly;
"I was only twenty-two years old. I was good-looking, desperate, discouraged, and ready for anything that might come. I do not care to dwell on this period of my life. It is sufficient to say that I went from one city to another until some time later I arrived in Phoenix".
It’s said that in Phoenix, she worked as a madame and a prostitute, a cook for the mining camps, bartender, laundry-worker and saloon-girl. She is rumored to have robbed her Johns while working as a prostitute, to have been running a Morphine and Opium house and dealing fake prescriptions for such. She was generally living as freely as she pleased without regard to the law or her future.
In the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper in 1904, 1909, and reprinted as liberally as Pearl was infamous, the legend of this period was inflated again and again as each new writer put their own spin on Pearl’s story.
In 1899 Pearl received a letter from her brother, in which she learned her mother was ill and needed money to pay her doctors. At this point she left Phoenix for Mammoth, Az - northeast of Tucson on a cart driven by two Mormon brothers.
Here on the cart, Pearl was introduced to the brothers’ other passenger, Joe Boot, again a name of suspicious veracity. As fate would have it, Joe was from Chicago, striking out west to take over a gold claim he’d purchased. He and Pearl hit it off, and with the glint of gold in her eye, Pearl followed him to the claim. It was after a few weeks of hard labor, prospecting for gold in the Arizona desert with nothing to show that Pearl grew restless. She needed the money to visit her mother in Ohio, and Joe’s gold claim wasn’t panning out.
“Joe Boot, the man who freighted his goods over to Globe with me, told me he had a mining claim and offered to go out with me and try to dig enough metal to get a passage home to Canada. We went out to the claim and both worked night and day. It was useless. The claim was no good. I handled pick and shovel like a man, and began wearing man’s clothes while I was mining there. I have never worked so hard in my life… When we found there wasn’t a sign of color in the claim I was frantic. I wanted to see my mother. It was the only wish I had. Boot sympathized with me, but he had no money and could not get any. He proposed that we rob the Globe stage. I protested. He said it was the only way to get money.”
While Pearl maintained that the robbery was Boot’s idea, it became increasingly clear that that was not quite the case. Pearl, who had introduced Joe to morphine abuse and her own special brand of manipulation, was believed to have suggested strongly to Joe that they should rob the stagecoach that served Globe, Az. Of course, in that way that men can lose their better judgment in the thrall of pretty women, Joe could do nothing but agree.
So, crouched low in bushes astride a stage line deep in a high-desert canyon, Joe and Pearl awaited their destiny.
They leapt from cover as the Globe stage rounded the bend and threatened the driver. , The stage didn’t have a shotgun messenger to defend it as stage robberies were by this time rare. They encountered little resistance as they unloaded the passengers and stripped them of $450. Pearl then gave each passenger back a single dollar so they could buy dinner upon returning to town, and she and Joe beat a hasty retreat on their horses.
Various reports disagree on whether the bandits were lost or were intentionally confusing their trail. They travelled at night, and Pearl later would recount feeling bad omens on one portion of their ride away from the scene of the crime.
As they were descending the canyon walls towards the creekbottom, they began to hear chiding wails on the wind. Pearl began to feel uneasy and her imagination ran wild. Perhaps it was the laughter of native ghosts at Pearl’s misfortune in being lost; perhaps it was the wails of wayward souls trapped in purgatory and escaping on the evening breeze, welcoming her to hell. It wasn’t until they had descended to the creekbottom they discovered the source of the ghostly noise - hundreds of Colorado River toads.
A guilty conscience produces its own demons, and Pearl and Joe heard them loud and clear that night.
According to her self-reported legend, during this flight she was surprised by a mountain lion, whom she shot and chased for two miles. Later, Joe’s horse fell into a river and both nearly drowned. They were accosted by the souls of the damned. Pearl got to live some of the romantic western stories she had heard from her time watching Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
After a few days on the run in unfamiliar territory, the Pinal Sheriff’s posse had caught up with the pair near Benson, close to the border southeast of Tucson.
From the Wilkes-Barr Pennsylvania newspaper - “Girl bandit was nervy” -
“After a desperate flight for liberty, during which she tried to get the drop on the pursuing Sheriff, Pearl Hart, the Lady Bandit, has been landed in the county jail with her male accomplice, Joe H Boot. The Sheriff says the woman is a very tiger cat for nerve, while the man is a weak, morphine-depraved specimen of humanity, lacking both nerve and intelligence.”
The sheriff’s posse happened upon the pair sleeping near a lit campfire. Pearl was awakened by gunfire, and leapt to her feet only to be staring down the barrels of two winchester rifles.
From the place of their capture, they were taken to Benson and then on to Florence. After Pearl’s trial she was transferred to the Tucson jail, since Florence had no facilities for women. The room that was to be her cell was only lath and plaster, and it didn’t hold the slight Houdini for long. She escaped with the help of a fellow prisoner, Ed Hogan, and was recaptured near Deming, New Mexico 12 days later. The Border Vidette newspaper from Nogales states Pearl “...is a morphine fiend, and upon the advice of her physician the jail authorities have been authorized to provide her with a dose of the drug every morning and every evening. It was at the morning dosage her escape was discovered.”
The Cincinnati Enquirer, on 20 January, 1900, romanticizes Hart’s legend wildly in reporting the Tucson escape.
“It must have been some deft work to loosen the stones and mortar ofd that wall, eight feet abovr the street and fully ten feet above the floor of the cell, which was sunk below the ground level. That all this work was down on the outside is evident from the fact that not a particle of mortar dust was found in the cell. Nor had the meek-eyed prisoner been allowed any sharp instrument not a pen-knife or a pair of sharp scissors with which she could have dug out the mortar… It is now thought that she secured the aid of a former lover, Tim Pendleton, who was absent from his home at Tucson...Though he had never visited the girl in jail, it is believed that he had kept up some kind of communication with her. The Tucson jail juts up directly on one side upon a narrow street without the precaution of a jail yard and outer wall, as is usual with most prisons. A night guard is posted on the roof of the jail, upon which the Sheriff depends to prevent escape of prisoners as much as the bars of the jail itself.
Against such a combination of safeguards it was a dangerous venture to rescue the young woman. But Arizona lovers are as desperate as devoted, and it was hardly to be expected that a nervy girl who would hold up a stage would have a lover any less daring than herself.
The rescue which followed this attempt was more thrilling than romantic elopement.
Pearl Hart’s escape was made at 3 o’clock in the morning and it is thought she was one of the pair of cowboys seen riding out of town shortly after that hour.
It is not known positively that Pearl Hart had ever committed any other act of highwaymanry than the stage near Globe last May. But the reputation of that one bold act is enough to make all stage and railroad travelers in that region feel uneasy on hearing of her parting company with the Sheriff at Tucson.
Eventually Pearl was recaptured and sent to trial. At the trial, her sob story about her mother’s illness bought an acquittal from her jury. The judge, so furious at the acquittal for stage robbery, reconvened the trial for interference with US mail, and Pearl and Joe were sentenced seperately to Yuma prison.
Pearl received 5 years, Joe, thirty. Joe only served a few years at Yuma, becoming a prison trustee and eventually being allowed out with use of a wagon for work detail. He and a group of prisoners made a break for it - the lookouts turned a gatling gun on the men and though over a thousand rounds were fired, none hit Joe Boots.
Pearl became a celebrity upon her arrival at Yuma Territorial prison, giving press interviews and posing for photographs. During her time at Tucson, she had been given a bobcat cub by a fan, and was photographed with it for Cosmopolitan magazine. This attention continued at Yuma, where the warden assigned her to a cell that included a small yard where she could entertain the press and pose for photographs.
Hart spared no time in using her status as the only female in a men’s prison to win favors and special treatment for herself.
In 1902, Hart received a pardon from Territorial governor Brodie, on the condition that she leave the territory and never return. Publicly, Hart claimed she was needed in Kansas City to play her part in a play put on by her sister about Hart’s life of crime.
It was rumored in the 1960’s that Hart had become pregnant while in prison at Yuma in a manner which would embarrass the prison, and that may have lead to her pardon; Hart didn’t have a third child, so whether or not this was truthful or was a ploy to get out of prison is disputed.
Regardless, Hart ended up in Kansas City, MO as Mrs. L.P. Keele, where she was again arrested for receiving stolen goods in the cigar store she managed. She was acquitted and faded from the public eye.
Hart’s later life fell into legend and memory, and much like Elvis, stories would from time to time crop up of people finding her alive and well after her reported death. Gila County lore has it that she moved back to Globe and lived into the late 50’s. Others say she married a rancher at Dripping Springs near Winkleman, under the name Pearl Bywater.
However Pearl’s story actually ended, she made her mark as one of Arizona’s most notable celebrity bandits, and started the celebrity prisoner trend - of which Eva Dugan, Winnie Ruth Judd, Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias are but a few.
9 - History: The Walnut Grove Dam Collapse
Dan Burke was on a mission of Grave importance. He had been sure of it. He had the know-how, the moxy, the grit, the juevos needed to deliver his message.
He knew the path down the tight twisted river canyon better than most, he had the best horse his employer could put to field.
And he already had his payment burning a hole in his pocket as he left Walnut Grove lake in the middle of that rainy afternoon.
Dan also had hazy, ominous nightmares of biblical rains, screaming women, and destroyed saloons full of drowned corpses.
What Dan didn’t have was consciousness.
The tavern was part of a large tent city which had sprung up to house workers building a second dam downstream of Walnut Grove, a beautiful lake community in the hills between Prescott and Wickenburg.
150 people called the tent city home, and being a Friday night, most were in attendance.
The music was loud, the air in the tent-tavern was hot and sweaty in defiance of the rainy February chill, and the patrons were raucously enjoying themselves. Dan, already drunk, struggled to find the words above the din to convince the bartender of the imminent and biblical danger that threatened the town.
He would be found the next morning in a ranch house on high ground, sleeping off the night’s buzz by the famed sheriff Bucky O’Neill.
February 21st, 1890 - Friday. A wet winter and a higher-than-normal snowpack in the mountains south of Prescott, combined with a punishing six inches of rain over three days, lead to a humongous amount of water flowing down the Hassayampa river near Wickenburg.
Normally this would be quite notable, but not especially dangerous. Were it not for the dam built across the river at Walnut Grove, east of People’s Valley in 1887, it might have been remarked upon as a regular ‘gully-washer’ downstream at the town of Wickenburg.
But the dam at Walnut Grove caught the brunt of the melt- and storm-water and the reservoir it headed began filling at an unprecedented rate. The level of the lake rose so quickly, the local saloon was under 6’ of water in a few hours. Quick action by its owner and patrons bore its store of whisky to higher ground.
Homes were inundated, and the health-spa-like sanitarium was flooded and its patients displaced.
At the dam proper, the supervisor worried over the spillway and valves. He knew the spillway hadn’t been constructed large enough; built cheaply and with little belief in the possibility of such a confluence of events as it faced this afternoon, the spillway had been neglected.
It had been recommended that the spillway be dug 55’ wide and 12’ deep. It was a mere 15 across and 8’ at its deepest point. A spillway allows the dam to overflow safely, directing excess water downstream and safely away from the dry base of the dam.
Walnut Grove’s was too small, and the lake began to flow over the lip of the dam.
In a modern dam, this would not be a fatal problem; Concrete facing and smooth drops would allow water to fall into the river below. But in 1890, dam construction was a little less sophisticated.
Walnut Grove Dam was made of stacked rock faced with a thin coat of cement. It was designed well, and should have been sturdy, but the construction crew that created it didn’t fill the cracks of the larger stones with smaller debris as called for in the plans. This allowed the larger stones to settle together and compromise their strength as the water from the lake washed over them.
The Superintendent saw the writing on the wall and decided he had to warn the towns downstream to expect high water. At 1:30pm on Friday afternoon, he turned to the company’s blacksmith; the man that knew the canyon best.
And that brings us back to Dan Burke.
See, Dan was a drinker. A well-known drinker to everyone except his boss, who had not known him to tie one on while on the job. But Dan loved him a good saloon, and a good bottle of whisky was all he needed to spend a night in blissful ignorance. When his boss handed him a wad of bills and instructed him to ride downstream to warn everyone of high water, Dan accepted with gusto. As he left, the Supervisor set to work trying to expand the spillway with dynamite.
20 miles down the trail, Dan drew his bulk up to the bar at Goodwin’s groggery and ordered his second whisky of the day. He had stopped on the way down the canyon to procure a draught of whisky in a beer bottle from the Cameron ranch, and having consumed it all on the ride, was thirsty for more.
His stop at the tavern was well-intentioned but ill-thought-out and proved to be a death sentence for over a hundred souls.
At 1:45am Saturday morning, the Walnut Grove Dam collapsed.
At the first turn of the canyon below the dam, the water reached 80’ up the walls. 4 Billion gallons of water were released on the unsuspecting tenants downstream, and the reservoir emptied itself in a matter of minutes.
The little town of Seymour below the main dam was erased from the face of the earth immediately.
At two minutes past 2am, the water reached the lower dam site, 18 miles downstream. At five minutes past 2, the water reached Pipe Line City, 6 miles below that.
Soon the waters were roaring through Box Canyon, just northeast of Wickenburg. They would soon destroy the orchards and fields of Henry Wickenburg, the former mine owner and namesake of the town and threaten the hundreds of people living there.
From The Arizona Weekly Citizen in Tucson, 1 March 1890; “Saturday morning, thirty-one white people and 3 chinese were known to have drowned. How many more were swept without warning into eternity, cannot be definitely known till the Hassayampa and Gila rivers, with the overflowed lands on either side have been searched down to Yuma, and perhaps, even then, many a soulless body will float in the Stygian gulf of California and lie on the ocean’s depths till Gabriel’s horn shall blow.”
In the coming weeks after the disaster, bodies were found 80’ up the canyon walls, battered, stranded, left to die.
A clothes iron from the chinese laundry was found 100’ above the river floor nestled in a crevice. The safe from Bob Brow’s saloon was reportedly washed away, containing over $7000 in gold coin. Some say it’s still there, buried along the Hassayampa to this day.
Yavapai county chose to bear the cost of the disaster recovery and to ultimately try and recover the damages from the company that built the dam.
Dan Burke was arrested by Sheriff Bucky O’Neill and spent a few days in jail, but was ultimately released because Arizona law had no provision upon which to prosecute him.
The legacy of the disaster can still be seen in satellite photos of the canyons of the Hassayampa above Wickenburg, and in the massive sand and silt flood plain of the Hassayampa between Buckeye and Wickenburg.
The dam itself is nothing more than a few rusted cable stays and road cuts. Walnut Grove lake, once a recreational mecca for hundreds of miles around, hosting boat races, health retreats, saloons, farms, miners and their families - dried up and with it hope for rebuilding.
The towns of Seymour, Walnut Grove, Wagoner, and the tent cities and cabins of the Hassayampa river gorge today lie in ruin and play host to naught but rattlesnakes and dust. Only a trained eye and a knowledge of what had been would belie any trace of habitation.
Were it not for Arizona’s greatest historical disaster, The land between Wickenburg and Prescott may very well have been a thriving metropolitan community, rich in resources and trade. Today, what little remains is home to only a few ranchers and tenacious mining claims.
You can visit the site of the dam, though you’ll need to stop at the Cooper ranch to ask permission to cross the ranches. You’ll head to Wagoner road, off the 89 by Kirkland, southeast of Prescott. The Gold Bar Ranch offers a Bed and Breakfast and camping opportunities, as well as fishing in their pond and recreation opportunities. You can check them out at goldbarranchbb.com
Well, that’ll just about do it for this episode of Arizona.FYI podcast, thanks for listening!
Be sure to check out our homepage at arizona.fyi for all of our resources, discuss episodes, etcetera.
And if you want to send us questions, comments, or ideas for future shows please drop us a line at email@example.com
Again, thanks for listening and remember, when you’re out there exploring our state, don’t forget to bring us along.
5 - History: Ancient Civilizations of the I-17
Arizona's longest history lies scattered and eroded across sandblasted Mesas and inaccessible Canyons.
It is hinted at by 1000 year old hand-carved images in massive patina-ed boulders standing as Billboards. Their Petroglyphed faces Hocking the location of nearby water and Villages. describing local customs and trade opportunities.
It is characterized by shards of pottery discarded after its useful lifetime is so much cracked Tupperware.
Lonely skyscrapers of 150 rooms and 6 stories witness countless sun rises as they erode to ever decreasing piles of flat stones. Civilizations older than the nations of Europe came and went. Trading between their neighbors, sharing their cultures,mixing ideas and relations.
On Black Mesa, a 50 room castle overlooks the Agua Fria River. It squats just over a mile from where weary modern Travelers enjoy the view at Sunset Point.
7 centuries ago it would have towered 50 feet above the brown grassland Mesa. It was home to over a hundred people. Across the canyon, less than two miles distant, another castle house for 50 people could communicate by line of sight.
More than four hundred and fifty of these castles and houses dot the Mesa tops between Black Canyon City and Cordes Junction. This distance is a short journey of only 18 miles today. The skeletons of the hundreds of houses can be seen spread across the mesa as blueprint-like walls huddled together and covered by desert scrub.
These homes, castles, farms, and cultural centers were built by the people of the Perry Mesa tradition. Not a single entity, not a single people, not a single culture or tribe, the Perry Mesa tradition was made up of migrants, refugees, and Castaways from areas all over Arizona.
The Sinagua, the huhugam, the prescott, and other unidentified cultures contributed to the inhabitants of the Mesa villages.
Ceramics have been found here but were made of non-local material. They were shared between Pueblos, which hints at permanent non-local trade and a shared resource between residents.
To think that where there is currently only Antelope and grass around Sunset Point, a civilization of 10000 or more lived, farmed, celebrated, traded, warred, loved and died for hundreds of years is absolutely stunning, and this is only one small area! Black and Perry Mesas are only 8 miles to a side.
Growing up in Arizona, and being taken to a ton of museums, I never really internalized the scale of these civilizations. Looking at pottery and recreated pueblo houses gives a glimpse into a small village’s life -- but what it doesn’t show you is that that village was only one of 200 villages within sight of each other. That your village wasn’t just 100 people, it was 10,000 or more.
The Perry Mesa ruins stand Testament to the permanent residences of the Mesa and Pueblo peoples but for the people of the valleys, far from stones with which to build, there is little that survives. One of the most impressive and lasting accomplishments of these valley people were their canals, many of which have been expanded for our use today.
The canal system was begun around 450BCE, and was built over fifteen hundred years by hand. It rivalled the Water Management accomplishments of even the ancient Egyptians.
From the headwaters of the canals a massive network of villages supported a Priestly class whose purview was distribution of water.
Pueblo Grande, a complex of ruins one can visit near Sky Harbor airport near downtown Phoenix, was one such Headquarters.
The villages farther away from the canal inlets were responsible for connecting themselves to the system. At the Pueblo mound headquarters, consultation and organization could be offered and dams and Gates could manage the water that villages received Downstream.
80000 people relied on the turn of a gate to sustain the 110,000 Acres of Farmland across the Salt River Valley.
2 - History: The Glanton Massacre at Yuma Crossing
Hello and welcome to another episode of Arizona.FYI - My name is Mark and today’s story is an interesting look at a seedier side of the Wild West - the Glanton Massacre at Yuma Crossing.
In its fictionalized form, it is called one of the best novels of all time. This fictionalized account is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. This is the same guy who wrote “No Country For Old Men,” and if that is any indication to you of the complexity of his prose, I am not going to be able to do his narration justice. I would like to note that none of the research for this episode comes directly or indirectly from the novel.
My research has turned up several conflicting accounts of the events we’ll cover, and the novel is most definitely an embellishment on the truth. While it’s well researched by McCarthy, it relies quite heavily on a single account by one of the “bad guys” we’ll be talking about. I would recommend checking out the book, though be warned it does revel in fetishistic descriptions of violence. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it is quite an interesting and engaging story.
So, without further Ado; The Glanton Massacre at Yuma Crossing
The Gold Rush is in full swing, Mexican and American prospectors known as 49’ers were heading west through what was then Mexico, and is now southern Arizona along the Gila river. The stream of migrants, numbering often 100 a day, were headed to the placer gold deposits of California by way of Yuma.
If you’ve ever driven to San Diego on I-8 through Yuma, you’ve seen the miles and miles of sand dunes. You might know them as Glamis or Imperial; though their true name is the Algodones dunes. These are the same dunes where Jabba the Hut’s party barge threatened the plucky young heroes and which were the setting for Tatooine. They were also the dunes where Kurt Russell fought the Goa'uld in Stargate, and today are prime recreation for dune buggies and ATVs.
This stretch of featureless desert between Yuma and Mexicali was the most dangerous of the entire trip from the east. Water was non-existent, grazing lands for exhausted horses and oxen were nowhere to be found, and not a single tree afforded shade for tens of miles around. Travellers on this southern route, after having crossed the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, were greeted to an even more desolate and disheartening wasteland plain called California.
The stretch was described as ‘a purgatory to be crossed as quickly as possible.’ Travellers had to choose between the vast, muck-slowed salt-marsh desolation of the Salton Sink and the sun-baked sandblasted death of the Algodones dunes, dipping down into Mexico at Yuma and returning near Calexico. Two waterless marches of more than 25 miles each were bookended by disgusting wells that smelled of decay and were surrounded by bones. This was followed by another trek of 20 miles north to the salty New River in California.
The only reason this apocalyptic wasteland was considered viable was the then-fresh tragedy of the Donner Party’s cannibalistic wintry demise in the Sierra Nevada on the northern route two years previous. It still weighed heavily on the mind of anyone planning travel to California.
In 1847, the Mormon Battalion beat a path into the sand south of the dunes of the Salton sink, digging a few key wells as they went which would be used for decades after. In the subsequent year, a legion of US Dragoons travelled the route, reclaiming the wells from the burying sands. Even with the aid of the wells, the Dragoons lost mules who “died in harness, their tongues swollen in the mouths for lack of water and the men not much better off.”
During the few years of the Gold Rush, these trails through the desert became relative highways. Groups of miners regularly encountered one another or ran across recently vacated campsites. The desert floor became littered with articles left by owners too weary to carry them through the blistering journey. Gun barrels, fragments of harnesses, casks, broken wagons and discarded supplies lay half-covered by the sands. Unfortunately, the desert was most hard on the beasts of burden crossing the field. It was “..a perfect Golgotha -- the bones of thousands of animals lie strewn about in every direction.” “The hot air was laden with the fetid smell of dead mules and horses, and on all sides misery and death seemed to prevail.”
A man named Samuel Chamberlain, one of Glanton’s gang of Apache scalp hunters, who we’ll learn about in a moment, described his journey thusly: “Away to the north the black mountains of California seemed to recede as I advanced. At noon we halted for two hours, then once more resumed our solitary way. I was getting weak, my heavy arms weighed me down like lead. I had drawn my waist belt tighter and tighter, until I was shaped like a wasp. On we went for hours, but the black mountains seemed as far off as ever. Long into the dark night we stumbled on until we sank exhausted on the sand… All day we kept on, lying down now and then, and then staggering on, trying to gain on those craggy peaks which always fled before us.”
In September of 1849, Lieutenant Cave Johnson Couts of the 1st US Dragoons established Camp Salvation at Calexico to provide reprieve to travellers who made it through the trek. Leaving a garrison of soldiers, he moved east across what he termed “the Grand Sahara desert of California” and established Camp Calhoun on the Colorado River at its confluence with the Gila. From these two camps, he distributed rations and water to hungry travellers and secured their passage. Come December he closed both Camp Calhoun and Camp Salvation and returned to San Diego.
The travellers kept coming.
November 1849: Dr. Abel L. Lincoln accompanies one Reverend Howard and his wife on a trip out west from St.Louis. Attached to their wagon is a boat they will eventually launch when they reach the headwaters of the Gila River near today's New Mexico border. Before the dams and Civilian Conservation Corps works of the twenties and thirties, the big rivers of Arizona ran permanently. The Salt, Colorado and especially the Gila were navigable by riverboats which could bring cargo and passengers across the state. The Gila was even used as a way to bring shipped goods from the Sea of Cortez all the way to Phoenix entirely by water.
The party drifted downstream past the empty Salt River Valley where the ancient ruins of a vast former civilization lay dormant and waiting to be discovered by Swilling & Co. 17 years later.
The party left the boat at Yuma and continued on to the placers in California. Dr. Lincoln stayed for a month or so before returning to the Colorado River to build a ferry using the boat he had brought with him. Lincoln’s Ferry was doing a brisk business in the spring of 1850, and he was transporting over a hundred people a day.
The Quechan aggressions and thefts, which began petty enough, escalated due to migrant reprisals, and soon enough emigrants who would camp with Lincoln began asking him to secure the ferry.
Coincidentally, about this time, a Texian (which is a person who lived in Mexican Texas before the Republic was created) named John Joel Glanton arrived with a gang of men at Lincoln’s Ferry. Glanton was born and raised in South Carolina and Tennessee. By age 16 he was an outlaw whereupon his family travelled to Texas.
Glanton then participated in the fight for Texas’ independence, and later, in the Mexican-American war. In 1847 he was implicated in the killing of a Mexican civilian in Magdalena, Sonora. Witnesses claimed it was murder; Glanton claimed the civilian had failed to obey his orders as Sentry to halt. The coverup of this event brought his commander into conflict with General Zachary Taylor (Later President Taylor) and resulted in Glanton fleeing the US Military Police.
Some accounts of the man say his fiancé was killed by Lipan Apaches in 1835 near Gonzales Texas when Glanton was but 16 years old. The story goes that when his fiancé and another woman were stolen by the Apaches in a raid, Glanton participated in a rescue attempt to save them. Both women were executed and scalped during the attempt, and from this point on, Glanton harbored an obvious hatred for the tribe. This hatred for the Apaches, encouraged by a bounty on Apache scalps set by a Mexican General, combined to turn Glanton into a monster.
Some say that even before even hearing of the bounty, Glanton maintained a smokehouse filled with dried scalps as trophies of his revenge.
Due to his greed and his dubious morals, Glanton led his gang into murdering and scalping peaceful agricultural Indians and Mexicans to claim as bounty. This drove the state of Chihuahua to put a bounty on the gang, pushing them into the neighboring state of Sonora. Soon, the Glanton gang wore out its welcome there too, and fled north into Arizona.
Glanton continued collecting scalps even after the bounty could no longer be collected, and as he and his gang terrorized their way across Arizona on their way to San Diego, they encountered Dr. Abel Lincoln’s ferry where they persuaded the Doctor that they could help him secure it from the Quechan tribe.
For a few weeks, Glanton’s gang kept the peace and enjoyed handsome wages from the ferry business for their efforts. Of course, being sedentary and working for a wage didn’t satiate their wanderlust, and they began wrestling more and more control from Lincoln.
The fares they extorted from the migrants escalated, and the gang began stealing possessions from them. Some they would even send naked and destitute into the desert towards San Diego, where they would die of exposure. Horses were stolen, women violated, and bodies began anonymously washing up at Yuma Camp downstream.
At one point a military company from Kentucky headed by a General Anderson, required crossing at the ferry. Balking at Glanton’s exorbitant fee to cross, they built a ferry down-river, eventually crossing and continuing on to California.
This ferry was either taken over by the Quechan Indians or given to them by General Anderson (reportedly including a certificate of authenticity). They hired a man named Callahan to run it and compete with Glanton’s ferry. Within days, it was burned and Callahan’s body was found sans head.
Lincoln, by all accounts a good man, had by this point lost his taste for adventure in the west and regretted hiring Glanton. He locked himself in his cabin during much of Glanton’s reign and was rarely seen in camp. Meanwhile, Glanton was amassing the spoils of his gang's exploits into a chest in his quarters, and eventually travelled to San Diego to bank his profits. While there, he and his gang got into a saloon brawl and ended up killing a US Soldier. After bribing the jail guard, Glanton returned to the ferry. In his absence, his gang had been raising a wall to protect their operation while raping and pillaging any travellers unlucky enough to arrive at the ferry site.
The depravities of the gang continued for some many days after the killing of Callahan and the burning of the Indian ferry; until on April 23rd 1850, a band of 15 to 20 Quechans entered Glanton’s camp. They were led by a warrior named Caballo en Pelo (or Horse’s Hair.) The Quechans came under the auspices of brokering peace with Glanton and possibly continuing their ferry operations. They dined with Glanton and Lincoln, and after the meal the camp dozed in the mid-day heat.
While three of Glanton’s gang went to cut poles for the ferry operation, a small contingent of the warriors approached them offering to assist in the labor. At some point Glanton’s men became suspicious of them and chased them off with pistols. When the three men arrived back at their houses, they were fired upon by the waiting Quechans. One of the men took an arrow to the foot, and the three fled to a boat moored along the river. Dodging missiles left and right, until finally firing a pistol volley which sent the Quechans scattering, the men escaped downriver.
After several days hiding out, they returned to the ferry where they were fed by some of the Mexican inhabitants. The Mexican ferry-workers told them what had happened to Glanton and his men. What was left of Glanton’s gang left and eventually made it to San Diego where they wrote Dr. Lincoln’s father and enclosed his posthumous letter.
Public opinion on the massacre of Glanton’s gang was split; Some called it a baseless and an unforgivable aggression of the Quechan people. Others, citing the fact that only Glanton's gang (and unfortunately Lincoln by association) were targeted, proved that the killings were revenge or a sort of police action. This was substantiated by the peaceful settling-down of the Quechan people after the gang had been disposed of and the fact they had left alive the Mexican ferry workers and the other American travelers camped across the river.
The three men who had escaped, all members of Glanton’s gang of scalp hunters, thieves, and murderers, reached San Diego. Due to their testimony, a town-hall discussion resulted in a petition to the Governor to “punish a terrible murder committed on the American citizens there.”
This resulted in the Gila Expedition, which in July of 1850, cost the state of California $113,000 (over 3 million dollars in today’s money). The expedition set out four months after the massacre, and after some initial skirmishing with the now-peaceful Quechans, the troops set up camp, exhausting their supplies over the next few weeks. The governor ordered the commander to disband his forces and return in September. Due to the cost of this endeavor and subsequent aggressions in the California Indian wars, the state of California nearly bankrupted itself.
I’d like to read one particularly biased article that I came across that I think is a good example of the “Whitewashing” typical of the American treatment of native peoples;
The article, which is sourced from a deserter from Glanton’s gang more than three decades after the events, gets many of the facts of the matter wrong. It frames the situation as a legitimate business operation that fell prey to an “Indian uprising” and paints Glanton as a blameless victim of Indian aggression.