Traveling from California to Wickenburg in the 1860s via the White Tank Mountains
I collect old photos of Phoenix and sometimes the only things that are recognizable are mountains. And, like everyone else who looks at these photos, I often wonder why people were there back in those days? Of course nowadays we have air conditioning, and freeways, and Starbucks, but back then what were people doing out there, traveling across the desert? And the answer is easy in the 1860s - gold. Lots of it.
The amount of gold that was taken from the Vulture Mine in Wickenburg in the 1860s must have been amazing. So much so that apparently cost was no object when it came to getting things shipped in from California. And I'm not talking about luxury items, I'm talking about basic necessities of life. Because Wickenburg back then would have been about as desolate a place as you can imagine. They had gold, and they had water. Everything else had to be shipped in.
By the way, if you're looking for Phoenix on that map, don't bother. It's not there yet. For reference, look for Rio Salado, which is Salt River, and you can get some idea where Phoenix is nowadays, which is mostly north of it. The Rio San Francisco (Verde) is at right, which is the eastern edge of the Salt River Valley.
Bringing in supplies from California meant shipping them from San Francisco and bringing them up the Gulf of California. Take a look at a map - it makes sense, but it's a long way! Then things had to make their way up to Arizona City (now Yuma), along the Gila River (overland, pulled by mules usually), to Maricopa Wells (just north of where the town of Maricopa is nowadays), and then north across the Gila River and the Salt River. And as difficult, and dangerous, as that was, the worst of the trip was ahead, going northwest along the eastern edge of the White Tank Mountains.
And it wasn't just dying of starvation or thirst that made that trip so dangerous. There were several groups of people, especially the Apaches, who resented this trespassing on their land. And if you look at all of this from the Apache's point of view, this must have looked crazy. People were risking their lives, traveling across the desert, in order to dig in the ground for gold.
Now look at the map again. Actually there were two groups of people back then who were willing to pay just about anything for the basic necessities of life, like food. In addition to the gold miners around Wickenburg, there were the soldiers stationed at Fort McDowell. And in that space between them, along the Salt River, some smart entrepreneurs, like John Y.T. Smith, and Jack Swilling, figured that if they could establish a city there, they could make some money. They did. It's called Phoenix, Arizona.
Posted by Brad Hall