|This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (June 2011)|
Jack Swilling in his only known photograph, date unknown.
|Born||April 1, 1830
Anderson, South Carolina
|Died||August 12, 1878 (aged 48)
|Allegiance||Confederate States of America|
|Service/branch||Confederate States Army|
|Years of service||1861-1862|
John W. "Jack" Swilling (April 1, 1830 – August 12, 1878) founded the city of Phoenix, Arizona, in 1867. Other pioneers and travelers had seen and commented on the ancient Hohokam canals in that area, but it was J. W. Swilling who organized 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 grown into a major metropolitan area.
Swilling earlier had an important role in the opening to settlement of the previously unexplored central Arizona highlands in the vicinity of modern-day Prescott, Arizona. 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.
Jack Swilling 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. Swilling was also a Confederate States Army minuteman and a civilian aid to the United States Army during the American Civil War. All of this was accomplished while he suffered from periods of excruciating pain resulting from major injuries he suffered in 1854. He took morphine to assuage the pain, which led to dependency problems for the rest of his life.
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. Farrar's parents did not approve of the marriage, so 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–American War. After the war, 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. Swilling wrote that in 1854 he suffered serious injuries—a broken skull and a bullet lodged in his back—in unstated 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 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 a year later at Mesilla, in Traditional Arizona which was then part of New Mexico Territory.
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. Following are some highlights:
After his arrival in Arizona, Swilling moved to 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 where he also worked for the Butterfield Overland Mail Company.
Apache Wars and the American Civil War
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 Gila 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: the existence of the Hassayampa River and traces of mineral riches, including gold, in an area that looked well suited for ranching and farming. However the area was too remote and dangerous for settlers at that time.
Soon afterwards, the Gila City gold deposits ran out and Swilling followed his good friend Colonel 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 at the beginning of the Civil War, the men of Pinos Altos formed a militia company they named the Arizona Guards for defense against Apache attack. By then Confederate Arizona had been established which included all of New Mexico Territory south of the 34th parallel. Swilling was elected second in command of the company, or First Lieutenant, and retained that rank when the Arizona Guards were absorbed into the Confederate Army. Swilling likely fought at the Battle of Pinos Altos, a Confederate victory and a battle which killed his commander; Captain Thomas J. Mastin.
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 Guards that reinforced the militia garrison of Tucson in 1862. Swilling is believed to have commanded a party of rebels who burned Stanwix Station and skirmished with the Union army. He was involved in the noted incident at Ammi M. White’s flour mill at the Pima Villages when Union Captain James McCleave was captured.
Following the Capture of Tucson, Swilling's company retreatred and he 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 later as a scout in an anti-Apache campaign. He was involved in the campaign to take Mesilla which ended with a Union takeover of Confederate Arizona's capital. Near the end of that employment, he encountered the Joseph R. Walker exploratory party near Pinos Altos when Swilling led the capture of the famous Apache chief Mangas Coloradas.
Further Prospecting and Marriage
Swilling's war ended there and he convinced Joseph 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 gold samples 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 T. 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 married a young Mexican woman of Spanish heritage named Trinidad Mejia Escalante. They were married on April 11, 1864, at Tucson’s San Agustin Cathedral when Trinidad was about seventeen. Over the next fourteen years they had seven biological 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 what became Van Buren Street between 32nd and 36th Streets for his own farm. He built a nine-room, 4,700-square-foot (440 m2) home there, which became known as Swilling's Castle. 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 T. Hayden, the founder of Tempe, Arizona 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 (5 km) to the west of his holdings, he lost interest and moved his growing family back to central Arizona. There he mined, farmed and ranched in and around the area of Black Canyon City until he became a suspect in a stagecoach robbery near Wickenburg.
By the spring of 1878, he and his family were living in the small mining community of Gillette, 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, Colonel 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. 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.
Swilling was buried in a Yuma cemetery 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 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.” 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.
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.
References and further reading
- Albert R. Bates, Jack Swilling: Arizona’s Most Lied About Pioneer, Wheatmark Publishing Co., Tucson, AZ, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58736-965-0
- Jack Swilling Exhibit, 1992 with historic documents and photos, at Salt River Project
- Swilling's cabin in Black Canyon City