In the mid-1820s, an enthusiastic young Kentuckian by the name of James O. Pattie traveled into the Arizona wilderness.
The remote region was still part of Mexico, and Pattie headed into its unknown byways with his father and some other men to trap beaver. They hoped to make a fortune selling the fur to entrepreneurs back East.
At first, the trappers tried their luck along the Gila River—Pattie spelled it "Helay"—but they soon discovered that this land was not nearly as untouched as they had supposed.
"Our stay on this stream was short," Pattie later wrote, "for it had been trapped so often that there were few beaver remaining."
So the men pressed north, toward the Mogollon Rim, and "on the 15th reached Beaver river. There we found them (beaver) in considerable numbers."
Pattie reported this happy ending in an account he published a few years later, in 1833. The young Kentuckian's book—opened to the page about the beavers' no-show on the Gila—is on display at the UA Library's Special Collections, along with a host of other narratives penned by the adventurers who roamed Arizona in its early days.
The volumes are part of Becoming Arizona: The Valentine State, an eclectic centennial exhibition that displays everything from early maps, newspapers and settlers' letters to Wyatt Earp's wedding ring and a beaded bag that belonged to Geronimo. Instead of chronicling the first century of statehood, the show concentrates on Arizona's history before it became the 48th state. (Many of the items are hard to see in their glass cases; visitors might want to bring along opera glasses.)
Pattie's story in particular should give pause to modern-day Arizonans, who will celebrate the state's 100th birthday next week, on Valentine's Day. Who can imagine a Gila River with flowing water, for one thing, let alone picture it as a rushing stream with beavers cavorting in its rapids? For another, who can doubt that the Patties' M.O. set a pattern for the subsequent development of Arizona?
The trappers plotted to get rich by using and depleting the land—or water—of its resources. If somebody else had already trapped out the Gila River, no matter. Pattie and company could just move on to the next stream and wipe out the beaver population there. That sequence—of extract, use up and destroy—has continued ever since.
Pattie's narrative embodies other themes that would recur in Arizona history.
"James Pattie was the first Anglo to describe Arizona, and the first of many to describe the ferocity of its human and animal inhabitants," UA professor Thomas E. Sheridan writes in the revised edition of his massive Arizona: A History, which will be published by the University of Arizona Press on Valentine's Day. "The myth of the savage land springs to life in his pages."
Pattie himself was caught up in an early skirmish of Arizona's savage wars with Native Americans. On a subsequent trip, Pattie and some new companions were set upon by Indians on the Salt River. Only Pattie and a few others escaped death, but the survivors soon enlisted yet more trappers to wreak revenge. In the ensuing slaughter, Pattie boasted, some 110 Native Americans were killed.
Mining engineer Raphael Pumpelly, traveling in the late 1850s and early 1860s, reported on the "lawlessness of Arizona society" and the "Apache terror." Writing in 1869, in his book Adventures in the Apache Country, Irishman J. Ross Browne described the disorder in 1860s Tucson (a "city of mud boxes") and killings on both sides of the Anglo-Apache divide.
The notorious Camp Grant Massacre of 1871 is chillingly invoked in the exhibition in a handwritten speech by William Oury, an organizer of a vigilante raid that resulted in the deaths of 100 Aravaipa and Pinal Apaches. Most of the victims were women and children, and they were murdered in their beds at dawn.
Fourteen years later, the unrepentant Oury called the dead "blood-thirsty savages" and said he believed the "so-called Camp Grant massacre ... to have been one of the events most important in its results to the peace and progress of our Apache-cursed land."
The Indian wars ended only in 1886 with the surrender of Geronimo, memorialized here in photographic "cabinet cards" by Tombstone photographer C.S. Fly.
The murderous tug of war over the contested land is a major theme of the exhibition. The show begins with a Spanish-language version of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the 1848 document that ended the bloody Mexican War and gave Americans a vast new territory of 525,000 square miles.
What's now Southern Arizona wasn't part of the deal. A few years later, the U.S. bought up the land south of the Gila River—our own Baja Arizona—in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853-1854. An early map traces the outlines of the purchase, which included a slice of southwestern New Mexico.
One thing the territory did not get was a seaport, and early writers all complained of the difficulties of travel. Supplies and passengers alike were hauled overland. Engineer Pumpelly, heading to Arizona's silver mines, described one arduous 16-day journey he took from Missouri to Tucson. The wagon had room for only "10 of the 12 legs" belonging to the six passengers, forcing two passengers at all times to dangle one leg over the side. And the backless benches "rendered(ed) rest at all times out of the question."
There was only one solution for this sea-less land: a railroad. As early as 1858, engineer Thomas Jefferson Cram was advocating for tracks to be laid, but trains didn't arrive in the territory until 1880.
Edward D. Tuttle, a veteran of the Apache campaigns, had homesteaded near Safford in 1874. In an 1880 letter to his sister Kate, on view in the show, he predicted the changes the trains would bring, both good and bad.
"Prices will tumble," he wrote, "which is something we all will relish." But he worried that the cheap goods that would flood Arizona would push down his own earnings. He had a "few good hogs," but he doubted "if there is any way to profit from them, as we can buy bacon for 12 1/2 cents in Tucson since the advent of the railroad."
Still, he exulted in the brave new world that the railroad would usher in. He correctly foresaw that Arizona's isolation was over, and the modern age was about to begin.
"The first train arrived on Saturday last—the Chinamen are at work all along its route this side of Tucson. By July, they expect to reach the Rio Grande. ... So we will have connection with all the balance of creation."
Two more centennial shows are opening at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library downtown on Saturday. Etherton Gallery is staging Wish You Were Here: Historic Tucson Postcard Prints, an exhibition of vintage postcards from the 1930s to the 1950s, printed on canvas. Nuestro Barrio, a companion show of photographs from the Arizona Historical Society, depicts the Tucson neighborhoods that were bulldozed for urban renewal in the late 1960s. The people who used to live in these vanished places—or their descendants—selected the 18 images, which will remain on display permanently in the library.