Jack Swilling

Jack Swilling

John W. "Jack" Swilling (April 1, 1830 – August 12, 1878) founded the city of Phoenix, Arizona, in 1867. To be sure, others had seen and commented on the abandoned Hohokam canals, but it was Jack Swilling who had the vision to organize and create the first successful modern irrigation project in Arizona's Salt River Valley. The "Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company" started the small farming community of Phoenix that since has swelled into a major metropolitan area.

Swilling earlier had an important, but mostly forgotten, role in the opening to settlement of the previously unexplored central Arizona highlands. His discoveries resulted in a major gold rush to the new area, and this in turn led to the establishment of Arizona’s first Territorial Capital at the brand-new town of Prescott.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of Territorial Arizona knows of Jack Swilling. He pops up in different places and roles in almost all histories about early territorial days, but never as a complete person. Early on he was a teamster, prospector, mine and mill owner, and a saloon and dance hall owner. He also was a visionary, a canal builder, farmer, rancher, politician, and public servant. Remarkably, all of this was accomplished while he suffered from periods of excruciating pain resulting from earlier injuries.


There are large gaps in the record of his early years, but here is what is known. Jack Swilling was born on April 1, 1830, at Red House Plantation, Anderson, South Carolina, to George Washington Swilling and Margaret Farrar Swilling, the eighth of their 10 children. George Swilling was the son of the plantation manager, while Miss Farrar was the owner’s daughter. Definitely not a suitable match, thus there was much consternation when the young couple eloped. It took three years for her parents to accept the match.

In time, George Swilling became owner of the plantation. When Jack Swilling was 14 the family moved from South Carolina to Georgia. Three years later he and an older brother enlisted in a mounted battalion of Georgia volunteers for service during the Mexican War. After service overseas—they traveled to Mexico by boat—the two young men returned to Georgia. Jack Swilling drops out of sight for a time then although he was reported in Georgia for the Christmas of 1849.

The next recorded events in his life are his marriage at Wetumpka, Alabama, in 1852 to Mary Jane Gray and the birth of their daughter Elizabeth a year later. By his own statement, Swilling in 1854 suffered serious injuries—a broken skull and an inoperative bullet lodged in his back—in unknown circumstances. Those injuries plagued him for the rest of his life and led to a dependency on drugs and alcohol. In 1856, on his 26th birthday, something happened to cause him to leave permanently for the West. There has been a raft of speculation about his reasons for leaving, but nothing is actually known.

There is over a year’s break in the record, but he apparently joined the Leach Wagon Road Company at Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the summer of 1857 as a teamster, probably staying with the slow-moving oxen-drawn wagon train until its arrival at Mesilla New Mexico Territory almost a year later. Now his path grows easier to trace, especially when early Arizona newspapers begin to record his various exploits and adventures.

The years between Swilling’s arrival in Arizona in 1858 and the founding of the Phoenix settlement almost a decade later were active and varied ones, and included enough noteworthy events for a lifetime. Following are some highlights.

After his arrival in Arizona, Swilling kept right on going and wound up in southern California where he joined in a gold rush near Los Angeles. A few months later he was drawn back to Arizona by the gold rush at Gila City (just north of Yuma) where he also worked for the Overland Stage Company. He was elected captain of the “Gila Rangers” militia company that was formed for protection from Apache stock raids on the miners and the stage company. The “Rangers”—with the support of warriors from the friendly Maricopa Tribe—made a January 1860 expedition to the unexplored Bradshaw Mountains of central Arizona to “chastise” Apache raiders. That expedition resulted in some noteworthy discoveries: Existence of the Hassayampa River and traces of mineral riches, including gold, in an area also well suited for ranching and farming. However the area was too remote and dangerous for exploitation at that time.

Soon afterwards, the Gila City gold deposits ran out and Swilling followed his good friend Col. Jacob Snively to Pinos Altos, where he both mined and ran a saloon and dance hall. When the Union Army withdrew from New Mexico Territory (including what is now Arizona) at the beginning of the Civil War, the men of Pinos Altos formed a militia company they named the Arizona Guard for defense against Apache attack. Swilling was elected second in command of the company, or First Lieutenant, and kept that rank when the Arizona Guard was absorbed into the Rebel Army when the Confederacy took control of New Mexico Territory and split off the separate Confederate Territory of Arizona.

After a time spent defending against Apaches and acting as the "de facto" police force for the area around Pinos Altos, he led a portion of the Arizona Guard that took part in the Confederate invasion of the Gadsden Purchase area. He was involved in the noted incident at Ami White’s flour mill at the Pima Villages when Union Captain James McCleve was captured. Swilling was not at the battle of Picacho Pass, despite later reports, since he was busy at that time escorting prisoners McCleve and White from Tucson to Mesilla.

After the Confederate invasion of the West collapsed, Swilling became a civilian employee of the United States Army, first as a dispatch rider between General James Carleton’s California Column and Union forces up the Rio Grande, and then as a scout in an anti-Apache campaign. Near the end of that employment, he encountered the Joseph R. Walker exploratory party near Pinos Altos when Swilling led the capture of the dreaded Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas. Shortly thereafter he convinced Walker and his group that there was gold in the central highlands of the new Arizona Territory. He then guided them to where the first Yavapai County mining district was formed just a few miles south of present Prescott on May 10, 1863. They called it the Pioneer Mining District, and the rules they adopted were the area’s first recorded laws.

Swilling left the Walker party shortly after the formation of the Pioneer Mining District and joined up with the Paulino Weaver/Abraham Peeples exploratory party which arrived in the area shortly after the Walker group. He made a small fortune from the unusual surface gold mine at Rich Hill between Wickenburg and Prescott. News of his successes spread eastward when two large nuggets from Swilling’s claim sent to General Carleton were forwarded for presentation to President Abraham Lincoln.

Next, he was briefly part owner of a flour mill in Tucson apparently in partnership with his neighbor Charles Trumbull Hayden. Quickly tiring of Tucson, he returned to Yavapai County where he prospected, owned gold mines and gold milling operations, and farmed. In addition he also was the mail contractor between Prescott and the Pima Villages below the Salt River Valley on the Gila River. And then he had the inspiration to form the Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company that would reopen the Salt River Valley to farming.

In the midst of all this activity, Jack Swilling wooed and wed a lovely young Mexican woman of Spanish heritage named Trinidad Mejia Escalante. The details of their courtship are unrecorded, but Trinidad did leave behind a romantic story of their earliest encounter. Her story was that as a fair-haired, blue-eyed child of 11 or 12, with her head covered by a sunbonnet to protect her fair skin, she came to Tucson from Hermosillo, Mexico, in a wagon train with her widowed mother. On reaching Tucson and anxious to see their new home, Trinidad stuck her head out of the rear of the covered wagon where she saw, and was seen by, a small group of “gringos” who were riding by. When one of the horsemen stopped to gaze at her she was so embarrassed that she fled back into the wagon and to her mother’s side.

That “gringo” was Jack Swilling, and she heard him boast to his companions, “I’m going to marry that girl!” And he did, on April 11, 1864, at Tucson’s St. Augustine’s Cathedral when Trinidad was about 17. Over the next 14 years they had seven natural children, five girls and two boys, and adopted two Apache orphans, a boy and a girl.

On November 16, 1867, he formed the Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company at Wickenburg. Soon after, a small group of men headed by Jack Swilling started construction of the first modern-era irrigation canals in the Salt River Valley. The following summer the first crops of wheat, barley and corn were harvested.

Swilling claimed a quarter section south of Van Buren Street between 32nd and 36th Streets for his own farm. He built a home there in a common frontier style, two buildings separated by a covered breezeway, sometimes called a dog run. What was unusual was the home’s size. In a time when typical frontier homes were less than 500 square feet, his nine-room home was over 47 hundred square feet and required 96,000 adobe blocks for its construction. His farm was a local showplace, featuring an artificial pond with tame ducks, a vineyard and an orchard with a variety of fruit trees.

He was involved in the planning and construction of additional canals, including the first ditch south of the Salt River in partnership with an old acquaintance, and business partner, Charles Trumble Hayden, Tempe’s founder and father of long-time Arizona Senator, Carl T. Hayden.

In the early days, Jack Swilling was one of the most prominent leaders of the Phoenix settlement and he was its first postmaster and first justice of the peace. However, once Phoenix was well established and the so-called “original townsite” was located over three miles to the west of his holdings, he lost interest and moved his growing family back to the Yavapai Mountains. There he mined, farmed and ranched in and around the area of Black Canyon City until, tragically, he became a suspect in a stagecoach robbery near Wickenburg.

Probably the worst misperception about Jack Swilling is the “fact” most often remembered; that he died in prison after conviction for that stagecoach robbery. This recollection is far from correct. He did die while in custody, but not as a convicted felon. He died in the Yuma County jail (not the Territorial prison) of natural causes while awaiting a hearing on a trumped up charge, and his innocence was established soon after his death.

Briefly, the facts of Swilling’s incarceration and death are these: By the spring of 1878, he and his family were living in the small mining community of Gillette, Arizona, a few miles south of today’s Black Canyon City. His health was failing, and his drinking had become a problem. Trinidad Swilling suggested that he go on a trip to recover and rebury the remains of their old friend, Col. Jacob Snively, who had been murdered by Apaches in a wilderness area called White Picacho.

While Swilling and two companions were on this journey of “Christian charity,” three hooded men—one tall, one medium size, and one short—robbed a stagecoach near Wickenburg. Tragically this description matched that of Swilling and his companions and they became suspects in the robbery. His tendency to tell wild tales while drinking also was a factor. A series of legal complications brought him to Yuma where he died in the county jail while awaiting a hearing. The real robbers—led by a man Swilling and others had publicly accused—were identified only after Swilling’s death.

His rapidly decomposing corpse was quickly buried in a Yuma cemetery well before his family could be notified. If there ever was a grave marker it is long gone and the precise location of Jack Swilling’s remains is unknown.

After his death, Swilling’s unwarranted reputation as a badman grew so fast that by the end of the 19th Century a prominent Arizona historian would write of him as a “typical desperado.” There were voices in his defense, but to little avail; malicious tales quickly buried the facts.

Quite possibly the cruelest blow to Swilling’s image was the misinterpretation of his only known photograph. What was intended as a joke has since been given a much more sinister interpretation. We can only guess where and when the photo was made, but we do know why. Trinidad Swilling years later told how her husband took their adopted Apache son with him to the photographer so he could pose as a very bad man with his Indian bodyguard. This she said was done in order to make fun of rumors, and to amuse his family and friends.

Unfortunately, the photo has since been taken quite seriously as an indication of Swilling’s status as “one bad hombre.” The most frequently published version of the picture is retouched and the boy’s image is erased.

In addition to the picture, Swilling made other contributions that helped his negative legend. By many accounts he was a joker and yarn spinner and while drinking he spread tall tales about his exploits to all who would listen. That, for example, is one reason he became a suspect in the Wickenburg stage robbery.

Most importantly, he was disingenuous about the details of his early life, in particular about his first marriage; changing the marriage location from Alabama to Missouri and changing his first wife’s status from deserted to dead. This misstatement about his first family can be justified as an attempt to protect his unknowingly bigamous second wife and their children from embarrassment, but it did add greatly to the confusion about his past and led to some of the wilder fables later published about him.

Trinidad Swilling remembered Jack Swilling as a kind husband and father with one serious flaw. In her eyes this flaw came from his ever-changing ambitions that caused him to quickly cash out valuable assets far below their true worth in order to finance each exciting new venture. For example he sold his valuable Phoenix property for only $3000.

Friends remembered Jack Swilling as an honest, hard-working, and generous man always ready to help those in need of a meal or a place to sleep. He was known to put his own life at risk for others, literally riding to the rescue when help was needed in the face of Apache attack. Not that Jack Swilling was an angel, far from it. He apparently was twice a man killer, once in self-defense and once in an accident. (That’s a far cry from the dozen to 16 victims some have claimed.) On another occasion he was charged with assault to commit murder when he “cowhided” (flogged) a man in Phoenix for “slandering a lady.” A jury found him not guilty.

In the end his use of a combination of narcotics and liquor—to relieve the pain caused by old injuries—these taken together ruined Jack Swilling’s health and his reputation.

Data from: Jack Swilling: Arizona’s Most Lied About Pioneer, Albert R. Bates, Wheatmark Publishing Co., Tucson, AZ, 2008

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