Prescott's Debt to Jack Swilling
By Al Bates
Jack Swilling (born John), was born in Anderson County, South Carolina on April 1, 1830. He had a reputation for kindness and was known to never turn away a hungry stranger from his door. But he had a dark side. Reports said he killed a dozen or more men. He once shot and killed a man in Wickenburg in self-defense, then scalped him. He was addicted to morphine and alcohol.
He arrived in the Salt River Valley in 1867. He was fascinated with the ancient Hohokam ruins and artifacts. Earlier an army lieutenant had reported that the ground was littered with axes, hammers, other implements, and pottery. Swilling was especially interested in the extensive network of canals the ancient Indians had dug to irrigate their fields. He returned to view the canals several times until one day he realized they could be used by farmers. Shortly afterwards, he and several partners began rebuilding the system to bring Salt River water to the valley.
The army at Fort McDowell had irrigated an experimental farm using a reconstructed Hohokam canal a year earlier. Later four officers from the fort staked out a water claim on the Salt River and incorporated a prospective business to reactivate another Hohokam canal structure not far from present day Scottsdale. By January 1, 1868, Swilling's home area, where up to 50 more pioneer homes had been built by this time, was known as Pumpkinville. It was fitting since pumpkins grew all over. Swilling had planted them along the canals. In March or April, though, Swilling and pioneer Darrell Duppa renamed it Phoenix.
It was a good area for a new town since it was virtually free from attacks by Yavapai and Apache Indians. This was not because of the military at Fort McDowell, but because the area was the territory of the Pimas, a traditional enemy of the Yavapais and Apaches. Their fear of the Pimas was said to be so great that when they planned raids on nearby towns of Prescott and Wickenburg, they would go miles out of their way to avoid the Phoenix area. Troubles eventually arose over water. It started when white settlers homesteaded land along the Gila River east of the Pima reserve and diverted water for their farms. This left the Indians down river with no water. Disputes broke out and eventually the Indians took action: they moved onto and camped on the settlers fields. This didn't help matters so the Pimas rode their horses through the newly plowed fields. The settlers retaliated by shooting the horses out from under them. Some tried to shoot the Indians too, but fortunately their aim was too bad.
Swilling called the military at the fort and a meeting was arranged at his house between the post commander Captain George B. Sanford, the Indian agent, and several Phoenix residents. Sanford thought the government should handle it. The dispute wore on for ten years. Serious violence was prevented by the Fort and Swilling's leadership in the community. But as more people came in, Swilling's influence got smaller. About 1870, settlers agitated for a central town area, and Swilling felt his settlement should be the center of the new town. But because of the numerous Hohokam ruins in his area (now the site of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport), his recommendation was rejected and a new site to the west was selected. Soon the new town was surveyed and named Phoenix, despite the fact Swilling's settlement had the same name. Within a short time lots were for sale. The second town grew in population and influence and became the county seat in 1871. Swilling had opposed the idea and had even hired people to stuff ballot boxes in favor of Milltown, a small town across from his settlement that had a store, restaurant, bar, post office, and flour mill. Within a few months after the election, Swilling sold his farm and began looking for new irrigating ventures on the upper Gila River and on the Salt River east of Phoenix.
He didn't come up with any ideas so he moved north to Black Canyon and the Agua Fria River in 1873, where he prospected. In a short time he found gold and silver. A mine named Tip Top was born and a mill was built around which grew the town of Gillette. No sooner had Swilling settled in his new home than he found himself facing a stagecoach robbery charge. This was because of a remark he had made one day in 1878 in a saloon. He had just returned from a trip with a friend and cracked a joke that he would have to rob a stage to get some ready cash. The innocent remark came to the attention of a Wells Fargo detective who was in town who was there to arrest the culprits of a recent Wells Fargo express and U.S. mail robbery. Swilling knew nothing about it because it had occurred while he was out of town. But he was suspected anyway because he was known to have had little money when he left but had many $20 gold pieces when he came back.
The evidence was circumstantial but he and his friend were charged with robbery and jailed at Prescott in Yavapai County. The judge ruled there was insufficient evidence for a trail and they went free. Then someone noticed the robbery had occurred in Maricopa County not Yavapai, so they were rearrested and taken to the Yuma County jail to await the decision of a grand jury and trial on charges of robbery. Jail officials would not let him have his morphine medication while he was in jail. He wrote a letter in which he declared his innocence and predicted that he would be found dead in his jail cell from his suffering. Sure enough he was found dead in his jail cell on August 12, 1878, dead of natural causes. The men who actually robbed the Wells Fargo stage later confessed and Swilling's friend was released from prison. Swilling's friends in Phoenix took up a collection to help his family.
J.W. (Jack) Swilling History of Arizona, Thomas Edwin Farish, Vol. 2 1915, pg. 251
J.W. Swilling, known as Jack was born in the state of Georgia
in 1831. He emigrated to Missouri in early life and there
settled down. After having resided in that state some four
years, his wife died, leaving one child, a girl who afterwards
married and lived in Missouri.
About the year 1857, Swilling migrated to Texas where he
remained for two years when he came to Arizona, and was in
the employ of the Overland Mail Company for quite a length
During the Rebellion, Swilling was a lieutenant in Captain
Hunter's company of volunteers in Baylor's regiment and
occupied himself with thirty of his men in protecting settlers
and others from the Indians along the Rio Grande in Southern
New Mexico and along the road to Tucson Arizona. When the
Confederates were driven out of New Mexico, Mr. Swilling
remained in Arizona and a few months afterwards was carrying
the express for the soldiers and acting as guide for them
through the country. The following winter he joined the
He was one of the party that accompanied Colonel Jack
Sniveley, a veteran of the Texas War of Independence,
and General Houston's private secretary in a prospecting
trip when the mines of Pinos Altos were discovered and
Swilling, it is said, was at the head of the party that
discovered Rich Hill near Weaver Creek in the lower part
of Yavapai County in 1863.
In 1867 Swilling organized a company and built the first
canal from the Salt River, now known as the Town Ditch,
which was intended to reclaim four thousand acres of land.
This canal was completed in 1868, all the lands under it
were located by settlers during the following years and
quite a settlement was made in what is now the city of
Phoenix. This name was given to the new settlement by
In 1871 Swilling organized a company which built the Tempe
Canal. Shortly after this, he moved to the Black Canyon
and located a farm. In the meantime he had married a second
time (Trinidad Escalante) and moved his family to his new home.
During his residence at this place, the Tip-Top, the Swilling and
other mines were discovered and the town of Gillett
started up three miles from Swilling's residence.
Swilling was known as a kind hearted, generous man, public
spirited and always ready to assist any needy man. He went
on periodical sprees, however, in which he drank heavily
and also used drugs. The year preceding his death, he was
drinking heavily and while on one of these jamborees, in
April 1878 his wife formed a plan to get him out of town
and sober him up. She secured the services of George
Munroe and Andrew Kirby to join Swilling and go the
White Picacho Mountains and exhume the bones of his
old friend, Colonel Sniveley from the place of their
burial seven years previously, Sniveley having been
murdered there by the Apaches while on a prospecting
trip, and to bring the remains to Gillett for burial.
The party went out, accomplished the object for which
they went, and during this time the stage was held up
near Wickenburg and plundered. When the news reached
Gillett that three men had stopped the mail coach, and
that one large man and one small man had done the job,
Swilling, in a jocular way, remarked to George Monroe:
"George, that fits us, one big man and one little man,"
whereupon he and Munroe were arrested and taken to Prescott.
Rush and Wells were their attorneys. They had an examination
before Judge Carter, and their discharge was ordered but
before they were released the Marshall found that the
robbery was committed in Maricopa County and took them
from the Prescott jail to Yuma for safekeeping and to
await their examination. Evidence was secured for the
prosecution of a kind intended to convict regardless of
justice. The examination was somewhat of a persecution;
the depositions for the defense, taken by stipulation
with the U.S. Attorney, were ruled out and the prisoners
were held in $3,000 bail which was about to be furnished
when the sad news reached his family and friends of
Swilling's death, although innocent, within the walls of
Yuma Prison. He left a wife and five children, besides
numerous friends to mourn his death. He died on the 12th
day of August, 1878 at the age of 47 years. Munroe was
discharged, no indictment ever having been found against
On March 30, 1862, Confederates possibly under the command of Lieutenant John W. "Jack" Swilling36 were torching the hay stored for the use of the Union army at Stanwix Station, an abandoned stop on the old Butterfield Overland Stagecoach route located on the Gila River, about 80 miles east of Fort Yuma. While they were engaged in this activity, they encountered the vanguard of a force of 272 men, sent from Fort Yuma to the rescue of the hapless Captain William McCleave (captured by Hunter at the Pima villages on March 18). This Union force was commanded by Captain Wllliam Calloway. The Confederates fired at the approaching Yankee soldiers, wounding Private William Semmilrogge of the First California Cavalry in the right shoulder (Semmilbrogge survived the wound). The Confederates then fled, pursued by a detachment of Union horsemen under Captain Nathaniel Pishon. They eluded the pursuit, and by hard riding were able to bring word of the skirmish to Tucson by April 5, when Hunter's official report was made.37
Captain Hunter, upon learning of the approaching Union force, did two things. First, he disposed of his prisoners, paroling Captain McCleave's nine-man escort and sending them back to Fort Yuma, and sending McCleave and miller White under guard to Mesilla, on the Rio Grande.38 The escort assigned to convey McCleave and White to Mesilla was none other than Lieutenant Swilling, who had just returned from the engagement at Stanwix Station. Swilling left for the Rio Grande with his prisoners by April 6, 1862 (Swilling thus could not have commanded the Confederate forces at the upcoming battle of Picacho Pass...he was many, many miles away when the battle occurred. That Swilling was present at the said battle is one of the most persistent myths surrounding that event, found even in very recent history texts).39 Second, Hunter stationed a picket detachment on the Fort Yuma-to-Tucson road at a place called Picacho Pass. This detachment consisted of Sergeant Henry Holmes and nine men.40 There was at that place a former station of the old Butterfield Overland Stagecoach line, as well as a spring, and the elevation of Picacho Peak afforded a sweeping view of the surrounding country...a perfect observation point for pickets watching for invaders from the north.
The Union force encountered by the Confederates at Stanwix Station soon moved on to the Pima Villages, and thus the stage was set for the westernmost battle of the War Between the States, the Battle of Picacho Pass. Captain Calloway, the Union commander, heard upon his arrival at the villages of the Confederate picket post at Picacho Pass.41 Calloway had orders to attempt the capture of Tucson, and he realized that the pickets stationed at Picacho could warn the Confederate commander there of his approach. He therefore determined to capture them, and thereby preserve the advantage of surprise for his attack on Tucson.42
Calloway divided his force. Leaving the Pima Villages on April 14, he personally led the main force of cavalry and infantry from the Pima villages directly down the Tucson road. He also detached two squads, one under the command of Lieutenant Ephraim C. Baldwin, and another of 12 men under the command of Lieutenant James Barrett, and ordered them to circle around the eastern and western faces of Picacho Peak, entering the pass from the south and cutting off the retreat of the Confederate pickets holding the pass. Barrett made better time, and arrived at the pass on April 15, 1862, while Lt. Baldwins party and the main body were both still some miles away. He had orders to wait for the main body, but like Custer at the Little Big Horn 14 years later, he disobeyed orders and attacked immediately.43
Barrett sighted the Confederate campsite, and ordered his men to charge. Barrett fired his revolver and shouted for the three Confederates then at the campsite (Sgt. Holmes, and Privates John Hill and William Dwyer) to surrender. The surprised Confederates threw down their arms as the Union cavalrymen swept into the encampment, and the Unionists made them prisoners. However, the noise of Barrett's firing and shouts alerted the other seven Confederates to the danger, and they gathered together in a defensive position in a nearby thicket. There they prepared a nasty surprise for this brash Union officer and his men.
Barrett, learning from his prisoners that other Confederates were nearby, ordered his men to mount and move to flush them out. Barrett's civilian Scout, one Mr. John W. Jones, pleaded with the Lieutenant to go in dismounted, knowing that the mounted men would present perfect targets. It is likely that Jones also feared that the poor quality California horses on which the Union troops were mounted would likely pitch their riders at the sound of gunfire. Barrett refused to heed the words of this civilian, mounted his horse, and led his men into the thicket. The civilian scout's warnings proved prophetic...the advancing bluecoats were met by a volley of gunfire as they entered the thicket which, as Captain Calloway later reported, "emptied four saddles." Calloway doesnt specify how the saddles were emptied, so whether the four Union riders were victims of accurately-aimed Confederate bullets, or were ignominiously dumped from the saddle as their horses reared in fear at the sound of he Confederate guns, is open to debate. 44
Barrett now ordered his men to dismount, and to advance on foot. For the next ninety minutes the two sides fought desperately in the mesquite and sahuaro thickets on the slopes of Picacho Peak. When the shooting ended, three of the Unionists lay dead, and three others were wounded. The dead were as follows...Lieutenant James Barrett, shot through the neck; Private George Johnston, Company A, First California Cavalry, shot through the heart; and Private William S. Leonard of Company D, First California Cavalry, shot in the back (the bullet ranging upward exiting out of his mouth).45
The Union dead were buried where they fell on the battlefield, and a rough wooden cross was erected to mark the spot. Interestingly, only one of them remains there today. In 1892 the Army removed the remains of Privates Johnston and Leonard to the national cemetery at the Presidio, in San Francisco, California. The remains of Lieutenant Barrett were not found at that time, however, and it would not be until 1928 that his remains would be found. Southern Pacific Railroad workers stumbled upon the remains only yards away from the railroad embankment they were constructing. These workers erected a stone monument over the gravesite in honor of the Lieutenant and the two other Union soldiers who died in the westernmost battle of the War Between the States. The monument has since been removed to Picacho Peak State Park, where it can be seen today. But Lieutenant James Barrett lies still where he fell in 1862.46
The three Union wounded were Corporal Botsford and Private Tobin of Company "A", First California Cavalry, and Private Glenn of Company "D" of the same Regiment. Private Tobin narrowly escaped death...he was shot in the forehead, but his hat decoration deflected a bullet that would almost certainly have been fatal otherwise. The other two received wounds that were less serious, and all three made full recoveries.47