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The City of Mud Boxes 

Meet J. Ross Browne: Irish native, world traveler, esteemed writer and unimpressed Tucson visitor, 1864

"A city of mud boxes, dingy and dilapidated, cracked and baked into a composite of dust and filth; littered about with broken corrals, sheds, bake-ovens, carcasses of dead animals, and broken pottery; barren of verdure, parched, naked, and grimly desolate in the glare of a southern sun."

— J. Ross Browne on Tucson

By the time J. Ross Browne got to Tucson in January 1864, he had already made his way through some of the worst that Territorial Arizona had to offer.

He had seen the body of a crucified Apache lashed to a wooden cross near Maricopa Wells, and another murdered Apache near the Gila River, mummified in the Arizona sun, hanging by the neck from a mesquite tree.

He had visited the graves of the pioneer Oatman family, famously slaughtered by Indians some 15 years before along the Gila River, their daughters carried off into captivity.

He had crossed deserts without water, wildernesses without roads, rivers without fords.

Tucson, he thought, would offer respite. As a "jaded and dust-covered traveler," he later wrote in a series of articles for Harper's Magazine and in his best-selling book Adventures in the Apache Country: A Tour Through Arizona and Sonora, 1864, he was hoping "to enjoy all the luxuries of civilization which an ardent imagination may lead (a visitor) to expect in the metropolis of Arizona."

But instead of a gleaming city, he found a hellhole not unlike "what Sodom and Gomorrah must have been before they were destroyed by the vengeance of the Lord."

In one of the most damning screeds in the annals of the pioneer West, Browne described Tucson as "a city of mud boxes, dingy and dilapidated, cracked and baked into a composite of dust and filth; littered about with broken corrals, sheds, bake-ovens, carcasses of dead animals, and broken pottery; barren of verdure, parched, naked, and grimly desolate in the glare of a southern sun.

"Adobe walls without whitewash inside or out, hard earth-floors, baked and dried Mexicans, sore-backed burros, coyote dogs, and terra-cotta children."

Browne, an Irish-born American, had already written five books, most of them lively chronicles of his peregrinations around the globe. His Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, published in 1846 and reviewed by none other than Herman Melville, future author of Moby-Dick, recounted his voyage on a whaler from New England to the Indian Ocean. Much of it was written in his usual jocular style, and illustrated with his comical drawings, but it exposed the dank and dreary world of whaling crews, and the downright abuse they suffered onboard.

Subsequent books had traced his journeys through the Middle East and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. He had written of the mistreatment meted out to Indians in California, and the depredations in degraded mining camps in Washoe County, Nevada, 1864.

But nothing, he claimed, prepared him for the villainy of the Old Pueblo.

Its inhabitants were no better than their dismal surroundings: "Soldiers, teamsters, and honest miners lounging about the mescal-shops, soaked with the fiery poison; a noisy band of Sonorian buffoons, dressed in theatrical costume, cutting their antics in the public places to the most diabolical din of fiddles and guitars ever heard; a long train of Government wagons preparing to start for Fort Yuma or the Rio Grande—these are what the traveler sees, and a great many things more, but in vain he looks for a hotel or lodging-house.

"The best accommodations he can possibly expect are the dried mud walls of some unoccupied outhouse, with a mud floor for his bed; his own food to eat, and his own cook to prepare it; and lucky he is to possess such luxuries as these."

Admittedly, Browne had happened on the town at a bad moment. Only 10 years before, the slice of Arizona that lies south of the Gila River had been wrested from Mexico by the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. Hell-raising Mexican soldados had marched out of the dusty Tucson presidio, only to be replaced by their hell-raising American counterparts.

The Pueblo, not yet Old, had only seven years to acclimate to the new yanqui regime before the Civil War erupted in 1861. Federal troops departed Arizona to fight Confederates in New Mexico, and once the soldiers were gone, violent encounters between whites and Apaches escalated. The unprotected residents of Tubac fled en masse to Tucson.

Plenty of Arizonans, angry that the feds had abandoned them, turned rebel; a small battalion of Tucson Confederates even battled with Union troops at Picacho Peak in 1862. Loyalties somersaulted rapidly. In February 1863, just a year before Browne turned up, Arizona briefly became a Confederate Territory. Almost as quickly, Lincoln reeled it back to the Union side, and decreed Arizona a U.S. territory.

In the chaos, Tucson had become a "paradise of devils ... a place of resort for traders, speculators, gamblers, horse-thieves, murderers and vagrant politicians," Browne wrote. "... If the world were searched over I suppose there could not be found so degraded a set of villains as then formed the principal society of Tucson. Every man went armed to the teeth, and streetfights and bloody affrays were of daily occurrences."

The soldiers were worse than useless. While starving farmers were abandoning their fields and miners their claims, well-fed soldiers were wildcatting around Tucson, dedicating themselves to their "legitimate business of getting drunk or doing nothing." They had commandeered the few houses that were habitable, and were "stationed all over the town—at the mescal-shops, the monte-tables, and houses of ill-repute."

The acerbic Browne, also an able illustrator, made a satirical drawing of these federally funded ne'er-do-wells, staggering drunk around Tucson's dirt streets in their rumpled uniforms.

Browne had tagged along from California with Charles Poston, a former Arizona mine manager who was touring the new territory as its new superintendent of Indian affairs. As a writer and an adventurer, Browne had jumped at the chance to join his old friend on his Arizona expedition. The region was still little known to the rest of America, and Browne was eager to chronicle its monumental landscape and colorful Western characters, and turn a serious eye on its mining prospects and the condition of the Indians.

The Poston party of 14, including an escort of six soldiers and two Pimas on their way home from a trip to San Francisco, entered the territory at Yuma. They traveled by horse and wagon (Browne called the vehicle an ambulance) east along the Gila, and south to Tucson.

Their plan was to continue south along the Santa Cruz River past Tubac and into Sonora, circle back north through the Patagonia Mountains, and then head west toward Arivaca and the lands of the Tohono O'odham, then known as the Papago.

In Tucson, the travelers heard the bad news that in December, the Apaches had massacred J.B. Mills, a manager of the mine in Patagonia, and Edwin Stevens, who had been hired to replace Mills. Those deaths colored their whole journey, reminding the party that they were traveling through a region at war. At almost every turn, they feared an Apache assault.

The party spent only two or three days in Tucson—Browne's critics would later say he hardly had time to evaluate the town or meet with its more elevated citizens—and hurried south, with an escort of 30 soldiers from the California Volunteers. Damning their new military companions with faint praise, Browne allowed that they were "good-humored, obliging and sober, and not one of them stole a pig or a chicken the entire trip."

On leaving town, he wrote, "I must be permitted to say the best view of Tucson is the rear view on the road to Fort Yuma."

Forty-three years before Browne skewered Tucson with his sharp Irish wit, he was born some 6,000 miles away, in the hamlet of Beggars Bush, in the parish of Donnybrook, in the county of Dublin. His exact birth date is uncertain, but parish records indicate that he was christened on Jan. 23, 1821, according to his granddaughter-in-law, Lina Fergusson Browne, who researched his life for a book excerpting his journals and letters.

He was the third of seven children of Elana Elizabeth Buck and Thomas Egerton Browne. Despite the rather alarming name of Ross' birthplace, the family was apparently prosperous; his father was a writer.

Beggars Bush today has been swallowed up by Dublin—it's southeast of the lovely city park St. Stephen's Green—but in the 1820s, it was still in the country. Lying on a hill between two major rivers, the Liffey and the Dodder, Beggars Bush offered up a fine view vista of Dublin Bay to the east. Lina Browne imagines her ancestor as a small boy watching the ships coming in and out of the port, heading out across the Irish Sea for parts unknown. In his lifetime, Browne would travel most of the "known world," as one literary critic put it, through Europe, the Middle East, into Africa and China, and all over the United States, particularly the West. But he first tasted wanderlust on the shores of Dublin Bay.

"I sometimes wish I could stay home," he would write later to his wife, Lucy, "but destiny seems to make me a wanderer." He intended "to visit every part of the habitable globe."

If it was his childhood along the Irish Sea that propelled him out into the world, it was certainly in Ireland that Ross Browne learned an early lesson in speaking the truth, when his father was imprisoned for defying the English.

The Brownes were Irish Protestants who counted themselves as liberals. Thomas Browne was a critic of England's iron-fisted rule over Ireland, and he was particularly incensed by a tithing system that required farmers to give a tenth of their incomes to the Protestant Church of Ireland. Most of those working the land were Catholics, impoverished tenant farmers and wretched cottiers who could ill afford to give away any of their pitiful earnings, let alone to a church that oppressed their own.

In a series of scathing articles in the widely circulated The Parson's Horn-book, Thomas Browne satirized the Anglican Church and attacked the clergy for their greed. Inspiring Ross Browne's future drawings, perhaps, illustrator Samuel Lover drew pictures of fat bishops riding in carriages, and the Catholic poor turning over their pittances at the point of bayonets.

Browne and editor John Sheehan were quickly arrested and charged with "seditious libel and inciting to revolt."

Daniel O'Connell himself, the Great Liberator and hero of the fight for Catholic emancipation, defended Browne in court. He argued "with exceptional eloquence" not that his client was innocent, but that the Church was wrong and the tithing system unjust.

Both men were speedily found guilty. Browne was sentenced to 12 months in Dublin's Newgate Prison. Within months, though, his friends raised enough money to have him released on the promise of a self-imposed exile to the United States.

The authorities agreed, and before long, the Brownes and their seven children set sail out of Dublin Bay, bound for America across the Atlantic. Ross was then 12 years old.

Ross Browne never wrote about his father's Irish troubles, and though he later roamed all through Europe, he apparently never returned to Ireland. As a young man of 19, he wrote a letter to the editor of Graham's Magazine in Philadelphia, proposing to write a series of articles on a projected European journey, "wind(ing) up with a general tour through Ireland; not forgetting the Seven Churches, the Giant's Causeway, and the Lake of Killarney."

He got no response, and it was not until two years later that he left the United States, on the whaling ship. In his book, he mentioned the presence of two Irish crewmen on board, but Ross counted himself among the Americans.

The Brownes settled along the Ohio River, another waterway crowded with ships.

"The Ohio was the main route for travel and freight to New Orleans and the Gulf on the one hand, and to St. Louis and the West on the other," Lina Fergusson Browne wrote. "Up and down the river there plied an endless traffic of flatboats, keelboats, barges and steamboats."

First, the Brownes picked a riverside town near Cincinnati, where Thomas tried and failed to earn a living running a sawmill and ferry. Before long, they moved downstream to Louisville, where the Ohio is at its deepest and widest. Husband and wife established a Young Ladies Seminary, and Thomas also returned to his old profession of journalism, writing a bit for the Louisville Journal and the Advertiser.

Ross apparently attended his parents' school for a time, but the lure of the waterway was too great. By 17, he was heading down the river with a friend to New Orleans. They worked as deckhands on a flat-boat, rambling 1,600 miles there and back, Browne later recalled, and tramping around 600 miles on foot, perhaps into Texas. Back in Louisville at 18, he became a police reporter for the Advertiser, and by 20 began publishing short stories in literary magazines.

In 1841, the Brownes moved again, this time to Washington, D.C., where Thomas got a job reporting on Congress for the paper that preceded today's Congressional Record. Ross learned shorthand so he could work as his father's assistant. But he didn't last long recording the dronings of senators and congressmen.

Within a year, he and Henry Wilson, a friend from Kentucky, lit out for the South Seas, bound over as lowly crewmen on the whaling ship the Bruce. The romance of the voyage faded quickly. Within days, he recorded in his journal, he was "dreadfully sick"; the ship's tight quarters were "an abomination," and the officers brutes. Wilson nearly died and had to be put off ship in the Azores. Ross Browne would not escape for 17 months. He managed to flee the Bruce into Zanzibar, but only after he paid a replacement sailor $10 and a sea chest, according to writer Donald M. Powell.

When he was just 25, Browne published Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, to critical and popular success, and helped spur better conditions for seamen. Melville lauded its "faithful picture" of whaling, and many critics are convinced that Browne's book influenced Melville's magisterial 1851 Moby-Dick.

The restless Ross married Lucy Mitchell in 1844, cautioning her in a letter, "I will do anything for you, my own dear wife, but I must have the liberty of choosing my own pursuits."

The couple had a gang of kids—seven according to some sources, and 10 per a note in the Arizona Historical Society; Lucy seems to have accepted that her husband's wanderings were what supported their large family. Browne first came out West in 1849, armed with a government appointment with the U.S. Revenue Service, and fell in love with America's last frontier.

The family eventually settled on a hilltop in Oakland—another home with a harbor view, this time of San Francisco Bay—and it was from here that Browne departed on his journeys, and here that he inevitably returned.

All his professional life, he switched back and forth from travel writing to government service, and later jumped into real estate. Judging by his letters, he seems to have been perpetually short of funds and was always scrambling for the next big thing.

In December 1863, J. Ross Browne was otherwise unengaged.

"I had no more idea on Saturday morning, December 5, 1863, of starting on such an important expedition at 4 p.m. the same day, than I had of going on a prospecting tour through the Mountains of the Moon," he wrote. "... A man's fate ... is written on his skull, and I suppose it was mine to leave that day for Arizona."

Browne happened to run into his old friend and fellow Kentuckian, Charles D. Poston, the "Arizona Pioneer," the very day Poston was departing for a fact-finding mission to the Indian Nations of Arizona. Poston exhorted his buddy to come along. A wagon, horses, cooks, drivers, vaqueros and an escort of soldiers were already lined up in Los Angeles, ready to take the two gentlemen to every corner of the Territory.

"'Poston,' said I, 'consider me a partner. ... Should the Apaches get my scalp, you, my venerable friend, and you alone, are responsible to my family and to mankind.'"

Browne dashed back home to Oakland to tell Lucy he was off once again, threw some gear into a knapsack and by 4 o'clock "stood upon the deck of the good steamer Senator."

The voyage to L.A. was uneventful, "smooth and pleasant—a mere Lake Como trip," and after an overland trek of 12 days through Southern California, the Poston group arrived at Fort Yuma, across the Colorado River from the Promised Land of Arizona. Browne was entranced by the strange new desert he saw unrolling before him to the East.

"Weird and barren as the adjacent country is, it is not destitute of compensating beauties," he wrote. "The banks for the river for many miles below are fringed with groves of mesquit (sic) and cotton-wood. ... An extensive alluvial valley, clothed with willow, cotton-wood, mesquit, and arrow-weed, stretches far off into the foot-hills ... ."

The climate in winter, he added, "is finer than that of Italy," an assertion he would make again and again during his four-month stay. He was astonished by San Xavier, "one of the most beautiful and picturesque edifices of the kind to be found on the North American continent. I was surprised to see such a splendid monument of civilization in the wilds of Arizona."

He marveled at the varied landscape. "As we advanced into the desert, each shifting scene developed its peculiar beauties." Along the Santa Cruz River, "we passed through the richest ranges of pasture and farming land we had yet seen. Abundance of mesquit, cotton-wood, willow and walnut is found in the river-bottoms, and the grass is so luxuriant that in many places it is difficult to travel out of the beaten track."

At Tumacacori, the Irish Kentuckian, accustomed to nature's gorgeous greens, praised the "luxuriant growth of cotton-wood, mesquit, and shrubbery of various kinds." Around Patagonia, "we came to a series of hills covered with a fine growth of oak timber" surrounding "a beautiful little valley."

Browne may have been the first, but he was not the last, to puzzle over the conjunction of physical beauty and wretched despair in Arizona. Tales of fabulous mineral wealth, of silver and gold in the hills, hovered over ghost towns like Gila City, which despairing miners had already abandoned. The Indians weren't telling where the fabled gold was, he wrote:

"Why should we?" said they—and with good reason—"you are already taking our country from us fast enough. ... If we show you where these yellow stones are, you will come there in thousands and drive us away and kill us."

Human conflict was already etched in the landscape. The years of Apache-American warfare had laid waste to Tubac and the farms of the Santa Cruz Valley.

"All around were adobe houses, with the roofs fallen in and the walls crumbling to ruin. Doors and windows were all gone," Browne wrote. Tubac, plundered by the Apaches in 1861, "is now a city of ruins—ruin and desolation wherever the eye rests."

Browne's racial views are the most troubling part of his Arizona book. He could be a sharp-eyed reporter, but he often fell into stereotypes when he was describing minorities. During a loop into Sonora, he raged against any and all Mexicans, whose faults he ascribed to racial mixing.

"Mexican, Indian and American blood concentrated in one individual makes the very finest specimen of a murderer, thief, or gambler ever seen on the face of the earth," he declared. "Nothing in human form so utterly depraved can be found elsewhere."

In an attempt at humor, he embarrassingly lampooned an Irishman he called Paddy, the wagon driver on the second half of the Apache tour. In Browne's reading, Paddy becomes a stage Irishman, naïve and humorous, and endowed with a heavy brogue.

"He was a lively, intelligent man, a clever whip, and an experienced Indian fighter; but, like all Irishmen, his judgment was very precarious," Browne wrote, sidestepping his own heritage.

The child-like Paddy said that the fear-mongering about Apaches was mere "blatherskite," and declared there "wasn't a divil of 'em widin a thousand miles."

Browne's ideas about Indians were more complicated. He had worked as an Indian agent in the West off and on throughout the 1850s, irritating his superiors in Washington with his outspokenness. His views strike a contemporary reader as patronizing and racist—he favored removing Indian children from their parents, and training them as teens for manual and domestic labor, just for instance, and confining tribes to reservations.

But in 1858, he advanced the radical idea that Indians ought to be treated "with common humanity." And when whites horrifically massacred 60 men, women and children at an Indian settlement in Humboldt, Calif., in 1859, Browne wrote eloquently of the horror.

"Sixty bodies lay weltering in their blood—the old and the young, male and female—with every wound gaping a tale of horror to the civilized world. ... Girls and boys lay here and there with their throats cut from ear to ear; men and women, clinging to each other in their terror, were found perforated with bullets or cut to pieces with knives."

In Arizona, he deemed some Indians good and some bad, reserving special praise for the hard-working Papagos and for the friendly Pimas, who helped him numerous times on his long journey. He wrote feelingly of the destitution of the starving Yumas. But with the territory in the grip of bloody conflicts with Apaches, he took the conventional view that the Apaches were murderous devils. Appalled in particular by the recent murders of Stevens and Mills, the Patagonia mining officials, he wrote that the hostility of the Apaches was an obstacle to Arizona prosperity, and "there is no remedy short of extermination."

Still, the reporter in him felt compelled to chronicle white atrocities against the hated Apaches as well. In his book, he recounted a slaughter that took place near Casa Grande shortly after he passed through in January 1864. Provoked by the theft of cattle and mules, a party led by rancher King Woolsey set out in search of Apaches. Browne asserts that the Indians pursued by the posse were innocent of the crime; he himself saw some of the mules later in Tucson.

"The Indians, however, were killed on general principles," he noted dryly.

Woolsey tracked down an Apache band, and invited them into camp on false pretenses. Persuading the Indians that he wanted to talk peace, they dropped their arms. As soon as they did, Woolsey drew his pistol and shot and killed the chief at close range.

"The whole party commenced firing upon the Indians, slaughtering them left and right ... ," Browne wrote. "The fight, if such it could be called, lasted seven or eight minutes."

Twenty-four Apache men lay dead in camp; another half-dozen died as they ran wounded into the hills. Browne noted grimly, "The scene of this massacre has been appropriately named the 'Bloody Tanks.'"

At the end of his Arizona sojourn, Browne despaired of human nature.

"There would never be peace in Arizona or anywhere else until the whole human race was exterminated," he lamented, "and it was questionable if there would be then, for the animals would keep on fighting and killing one another."

In the end, Browne's departure from Arizona was swift. Long-awaited letters arrived from home, reporting that Lucy was ill. Browne begged off the final leg of the trip into northern Arizona, and hitched a ride in the buggy of Tucson pioneer J.B. Allen—better known as Pie Allen—all the way to Yuma. From there, he went with a military detachment to Los Angeles, and by ship to San Francisco and Lucy's arms.

Adventures in the Apache Country came out to acclaim in 1869. It was Browne's last literary success. He had a short, unhappy stint as "minister plenipotentiary" to China in 1868 and 1869, and the faithful Harper brothers, who had published his every written word for the last 20 years, declined his China articles, saying they "reflected too sharply on the (Grant) Administration," he wrote to Lucy from New York in 1871. But they "consoled me with the information that they had offered Bret Harte $7,500 a year to write anything he pleased."

Literary styles were changing. Browne's writing style, part jocular, part stinging, had fallen out of fashion.

Students of 19th century Arizona history still delight in his chronicle—UA history undergrads love his description of Tucson—and literary critics believe his work influenced Mark Twain as well as Herman Melville. But he's little known today.

He lived only six years after the publication of Adventures. On Dec. 7, 1875, almost 12 years to the day that he lit out for the Territory, Lucy picked him up in the carriage in Oakland. He became suddenly, violently ill, and Lucy drove him to the home of a friend nearby.

Early the next morning, felled not by shipwreck nor exposure nor murder, he died in bed at the age of 54, apparently of appendicitis.


Margaret Regan wishes to thank Katherine Reeve, head of libraries and archives at the Arizona Historical Society, and Katherine G. Morrissey, associate professor of history at the University of Arizona, for their help with this project.

Regan consulted the following books for this article, and gratefully acknowledges the work of their authors:

Adventures in the Apache Country: A Tour Through Arizona and Sonora, 1864 by J. Ross Browne. Illustrated by the author. Originally published 1869. Re-edition, with introduction, annotations and index by Donald M. Powell. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974.

J. Ross Browne: His Letters, Journals and Writings. Edited, with an introduction and commentary, by Lina Fergusson Browne. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.

A Western Panorama 1849-1875: The Travels, Writings and Influence of J. Ross Browne by David Michael Goodman. Glendale, Calif.: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1966.

J. Ross Browne by Peter Wild. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Western Writers Series, No. 157, 2003.

More by Margaret Regan

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