Native Americans used a network of trails throughout the American Southwest for millennia. In the beginning, they were game trails used by hunter/gatherers who followed migrating animals. When people began farming, became sedentary, and developed distinctive cultures, the old hunting trails were used for trading. Extensive trade routes evolved as Southwestern people traded pottery, basketry, turquoise and other items for exotic goods like parrots and sea shells that came from Mexico and the Pacific Coast.
When the first Europeans explored the northern regions of New Spain in the 1540s, they hired native guides to take them across the vast wilderness of mountain and desert we call Arizona. Their feat would have been impossible without them. The Spanish were seeking gold and silver, slaves to work their mines and souls to convert to Christianity. They found them easily in southern Arizona. In northern Arizona they found hostile natives and few mineral resources. They didn’t stay.
Nearly 300 years after Coronado’s explorations, a few American trappers and traders penetrated northern Arizona. It was Mexican territory inhabited only by native people. In the 1840s, Josiah Gregg and other mountain men crossed Arizona scouting for beaver. They were guided by Pueblo Indians and Comancheros, Mexican slave traders.
When the Mexican War ended in 1848, it became necessary to take an accurate survey of the newly acquired American territory. Both countries appointed a surveying commission to mark out the entire boundary between the United States and Mexico. Working together, the survey parties planned to start in San Diego and survey all the land to the Rio Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande).
The American group consisted of 39 scientists and engineers, 150 soldiers, 11 supply wagons, an ambulance, an artist and a large number of civilian auxiliary workers. The Mexican commission had approximately the same number of participants. Historian Thomas L. Scharf described the commission as a “resourceful group of explorers, cartographers, and promoters of frontier development.”
The expedition was divided into five groups. Among the assistants was 32-year-old Amiel Weeks Whipple, a Massachusetts man who was schooled at Amhurst and graduated fifth in his class from the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point. Whipple was chosen to accompany the group because he had worked on the boundary survey of Canada in the northeastern United States for five years.
The Mexican and American commissions were both late starting from San Diego because of the congestion caused by thousands of gold-seekers flooding into California by land and sea. It was estimated that as many as 10,000 ‘49ers crossed the Colorado River into California from 1849-1850 using the route taken by the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War. The commission encountered wagon after wagon of half-starved emigrants and helped all they could with supplies of food and water.
They also encountered large numbers of Quechan (Yuma) Indians with whom they traded on friendly terms. One of the duties of the commission was to record everything they could learn about native people they encountered along the way. Whipple took pleasure in associating with natives. He described their dress in detail and translated 250 words of the Mojave language into English.
When their camp was visited by a large party of Quechan people on the Colorado River, Whipple attempted to trade with the headman for a pair of pants. He wrote: “I could but applaud the scorn with which he looked upon European dress, and the resolute firmness with which he refused the proffered gift of pants.”
Whipple finished his report on the Boundary Commission in 1853. The same year he was recruited by the War Department to lead an expedition of the Corps of Engineers from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Los Angeles along the 35th parallel to determine if it was favorable for a transcontinental railroad route. At that time, Arizona was part of New Mexico.
The U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was an elite group that never exceeded 36 officers. William Goetzman wrote in Army Exploration in the American West: “No other group of comparable size contributed so much to the exploration and development of the American West.”
The Corps followed the old route of the mountain men through Albuquerque and Zuni across northern Arizona with Joachin Antoine Leroux as their guide. Leroux was a mountain man who had guided the Mormon Battalion on its march across southern Arizona.
With Whipple were astronomers, geologists, naturalists, botanists and an artist. The artist was to depict “Tribes of the 35th Parallel.” The group consisted of 70 men, 240 mules and a wagon train. Like Coronado 300 years earlier, they drove a large flock of sheep for meat.
Whipple’s men traded peacefully with natives they encountered. The Mojave people were especially friendly. When they set up camp, the young men would come over and set up a field on which to play hoop and pole games. They also practiced target shooting, with the Americans using rifles and six-shooters and the Mojave using bows and arrows.
Whipple wrote: “These Indians are probably in as wild a state of nature as any tribe on American territory.” He added dryly: “They have not had sufficient intercourse with any civilized people to acquire a knowledge of their language or their vices.”
For a career army officer in the mid-Nineteenth Century, Whipple’s attitude toward Native Americans was sensitive. He wrote: “They feel the want of comfortable clothing and appreciate some of the advantages of trade. There is no doubt that, before many years pass away, a great change will have taken place in their country. The advancing tide of emigration will sweep over it, and, unless the strong arm of Government protects them, the Mojaves will be driven to the mountains or exterminated.”
Whipple’s expedition was a success. His report stated that the 35th parallel was a feasible route for a transcontinental railroad. The route he laid out later became the route of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, as well as the famous “Route 66.”
Amiel Weeks Whipple was mortally wounded by a Confederate sniper on May 4, 1863. He received last rites on the battlefield and was taken to Washington, D.C. where he was breveted a brigadier general. On May 6 he was named major general of volunteers, and on May 7, a few hours before he died, he was made a major general.
Arizona officially became a United States Territory at Navajo Springs during a blizzard in December 1863. The first state capital was declared to be Fort Whipple, named after Maj. Gen. Amiel Weeks Whipple. The army post was officially established in January 1864 in Chino Valley. In May 1864 it was moved to Granite Creek.
The first governor of Arizona, appointed by President Lincoln, was John A. Gurley who died before taking office. He was replaced by Gov. John Noble Goodwin. Goodwin selected Prescott as the site of both the new state capital and Fort Whipple. The post was closed in 1913. It became a military hospital which it is to this day.
Prescott remained the capital of Arizona until Nov. 1, 1867 when it was moved to Tucson by the 4th Territorial Legislature. It was returned to Prescott in 1877 by the 9th Territorial Legislature. The 15th Territorial Legislature decided the capital’s final move to Phoenix in 1889.
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