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home : features : people, places & past May 1, 2016


1/24/2012 1:15:00 PM
Journey to the heart of Arizona
The true story of Joe Walker and Jack Swilling’s Arizona adventure
This photo of mountain man, trapper and guide Joseph Walker by famed photographer Mathew Brady was taken around 1860, about the time he set off on his Arizona adventure. Walker was 62 years old and living on his family’s Manzanita Ranch, south and east of San Francisco when he set off for the expedition.
This photo of mountain man, trapper and guide Joseph Walker by famed photographer Mathew Brady was taken around 1860, about the time he set off on his Arizona adventure. Walker was 62 years old and living on his family’s Manzanita Ranch, south and east of San Francisco when he set off for the expedition.
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Painting of a young Joseph Walker.

Steve Ayers
Staff Reporter


On or about May 1, 1863, a group of prospectors led by the renowned mountain man, trapper and guide, Joseph Walker began finding gold as they made their way up a previously unexplored stream that drained into the Gila River.

The discovery would lead to Arizona’s second big gold rush (the first being along the Colorado River), the settlement of central Arizona and eventually to Prescott becoming the territorial capital.

For year’s Walker received credit for having led the band of 25 men to paydirt. But in fact it was fate and Jack Swilling, a notorious character from Arizona’s early days, that deserve the credit.

According to Daniel Ellis Conner, the only member of the prospecting party to write a first-hand account, Walker was headed to the Verde River, or as it was known at the time, the San Francisco.

So how and why Walker ended up on the Hassayampa was a mystery to historians for many years.

Then a few years back, Prescott historian Al Bates solved the riddle.



Joseph Walker

Walker began his western ramblings in 1833 when he left Missouri for the Rocky Mountains. Within a year he made his way into what would become Northern Arizona.

Like most of his fellow trappers, Walker left few clues as to where he went. But through the accounts of some contemporaries, we know he trapped along the Bill Williams River and spent at least one season above the Mogollon Rim.

If he ever made his way to the Verde River, it was never recorded. But there is a strong likelihood he did. A man of his wanderlust, curiosity and observation skills stood little chance of missing the Verde’s enormous drainage or denying himself a chance to explore its offerings.

Assuming he did, it would explain why he felt, with all the streams flowing into and through it, there was a strong possibility that gold could be found.



Another adventure

Walker was 62 years old and living on his California ranch in 1861 when a prospector by the name of George Lount lured him out for another adventure.

Launt convinced Walker to lead his small group of prospectors to Arizona’s Little Colorado River, where Lount believed gold was to be found.

“Walker was never a prospector. His decision to go with Lount was purely for the sense of adventure -- to see country he had never seen,” says Bates.

The prospectors found no gold when they got to the Little Colorado, so Walker took them on to Colorado, where they spent much of the next year.

Then in fall 1862, Walker and 36 prospectors headed south out of Colorado into New Mexico. It was somewhere in northern New Mexico that Conner, a confederate sympathizer on the run from federal authorities, joined the party.



Jack Swilling

It is from Conner that we learn the party was headed to the “Frisco river.” In the mid 1800s, the Verde was widely referred to as the San Francisco River, due to the geographical misconception that it originated from the San Francisco Peaks.

And it is also from Conner that we get the first clue as to how Walker found his way to the Hassayampa.

Somewhere in southeast New Mexico he ran into Jack Swilling, another former confederate who had drifted east to work the mines at Pinos Altos, N.M. Swilling was hauling freight for the Army at the time of their fortuitous meeting.

Shortly after he met up with the Walker party, which by then had also been joined by a troop of Union soldiers, Swilling was recruited to help capture the Apache leader Mangas Coloradas, which he did. The soldiers subsequently murdered Mangas Coloradas.



West to somewhere

While Swilling finished out his military contract, Walker led most of his party, including some of the soldiers, on a reconnaissance into the unexplored center of Arizona, toward the Verde River.

According to Conner, Walker was gone about five weeks.

“There is certainly evidence to show Walker may have come to the Verde during that period and that he didn’t find anything, but it’s vague” Bates says. “We don’t know because Conner stayed behind in New Mexico.”

When Walker returned, he spent a month at Fort West, where Swilling had also returned.

And it is here that Bates believes Swilling convinced Walker that he should drop the notion that gold was to be found on the Verde and instead concentrate on a promising stream to the west of the Verde that he had discovered three years earlier -- the Hassayampa.



The smoking gun

Bates’ belief, and the evidence behind his interpretation of events, is based on a newspaper article he discovered a few years ago in the archives of the Weekly Arizonian.

Dated Jan. 26, 1860, the Tucson paper told about a pursuit of Apache raiders by hired guns of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, who called themselves the Gila Rangers.

Their leader was none other than Jack Swilling.

According to the article, the Indians, who were likely Yavapai, maybe Tonto Apache, maybe a mix, had escaped up a stream that Swilling and the other rangers described as being nearly equal in size to the San Pedro and flowing into the Gila River about 45 miles west of its confluence with the Salt River.

The account described the landscape along the stream as having “an abundance of fine timber, and a country for grazing and agricultural purposes, unsurpassed by any this side of Missouri.

“Some of the men who were of the party have worked for the last nine or ten years in the California Mines, and state that, in point of appearance, this new region has the finest indications of gold, of any they have ever seen.”

They were right.



What if

It’s difficult to say what would have happened if Swilling had not met up with the Walker party. Would Walker’s men have discovered the ore deposits of Jerome?

Would the Verde Valley, with its abundance of water and temperate climate have been the center of prosperity for the new territory, and the gold rich streams surrounding Prescott a backwater?

Bates, who serves as editor of the Territorial Times, a publication of the Prescott Corral of Westerners, says he became intrigued by the question of how Walker ended up on the Hassayampa about 10 years ago ago.

“It’s a fascinating story in itself and one that history has only touched on,” Bates says. “It’s my guess that Walker swapped tales of gold with everyone he met during his travels in the West. That’s probably how he got the idea to go to the Verde in the first place.

It appears that is also how Walker got the idea to instead go to the Hassayampa. Swilling perhaps had a better tale to tell. In the end, he was right. And in the end that’s what really matters.”

Taylor Waste

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