Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery Research Project



4th Annual Arizona Historical Convention

March 15-16, 1963


John William (Jack) Swilling




By Mark Shields


Transcribed by: Neal Du Shane 07/20/06


When Deputy U. S. Marshal George M. Frazer of Mesilla took the census of Dona Ana County New Mexico, in the spring of 1860, he came across John William (Jack) Swilling at Piños Altos, a gold mining camp 10 miles north­east of present day Silver City. Swilling gave his age as 33, his occupa­tion as a miner, and said he was born in Georgia.


Four years later when the special census of 1864 was taken after the creation of .Arizona Territory, Deputy Marshal Gilbert W. Hopkins came onto Swilling and Charles Trumbull Hayden at the old Grant flour mill in Tucson. Swilling and Hayden were two of the four owners of the mill. Swilling re­ported he was born in South Carolina, gave his occupation as a miner, and said he was born in 1831, which would still make him 33 years old.


For the census of 1870, when Swilling was living in the Salt River Valley, he gave his age as 40, his occupation as a farmer, and indicated again that he was born in South Carolina. An entry in the family Bible bears out this statement. He was born in South Carolina in 1830.


Jack may have had a "purpose" in giving conflicting information to the census enumerators. He seemed bent on leaving a cold trail which no one has been able to travel in detail to this day. He drank heavily and talked too much when doing serious drinking, a habit that would lead to his arrest for a stage robbery which he never committed and, indirectly, to his death in the Yuma County jail when 48 years old.


Swilling probably received more space from newspaper editors of his time than any other pioneer in Arizona Territory, and much has been written about him since his death, but he still remains an enigma. For five years prior to his appearance in Arizona nothing factual is known of him. Despite his warm friendship with newspaper men, he told them almost nothing of his past.


It was common gossip in the Salt River Valley that he had killed a dozen men or more. Neri Osborn, who knew Swilling well, said that he recalled only two men whom Jack had killed. One of these was in Piños Altos. The other was a native of Chile, who made the mistake of sending Jack word in Wicken­burg that he proposed to kill him on sight. Jack sighted the Chilean first, gunned him down and took his scalp.


A relative of Jack's has said that he had been in trouble in Georgia. If he did, his trouble has not been turned up in court records examined in many Georgia counties.


Farish tells us in his Arizona History that Swilling married in Missouri and afterwards went to Texas. This information came from an obituary pub­lished in "The Miner" at Prescott. We know that Jack was in Texas, but a search of Missouri marriage licenses, county by county, fails to reveal proof of a marriage there. Neither the Missouri Historical Society at Jefferson City, nor the Kansas Historical Society at Topeka ever heard of him.


In the census of 1864 Swilling reported he had lived in Arizona seven years, indicating arrival in 1857. If true, it was probably in December, when the San Antonio & San Diego Stage Line began operating.


Swilling outlived his time. In promoting settlement of the Salt River Valley he built a Frankenstein that destroyed him. He peopled the Valley with men and women from old settled communities in the Middle West and South who were farmers and not frontiersmen. They did not understand him; many were afraid of him.


Prior to his arrival in Arizona, Swilling was injured seriously. He suffered a fractured skull which left a piece of bone pressing on his brain. With modern brain surgery he would have found relief, but there were no brain surgeons on the frontier.


"In 1854 I was struck on the head with a heavy revolver and my skull broken, and was also shot in the left side, and to the present carry the bullet in my body", said Swilling in a statement written a few days before his death and given to James Reilly, editor of the Territorial Expositor at Yuma. "No one knows what I have suffered from these wounds. At times they render me almost crazy. Doctors prescribed, years ago, morphine which seemed to give relief, but the use of which. together with strong drink, has at times - as I have been informed by my noble wife and good friends - made me mad, and during these spells I have been cruel to her; at all other times I have been a kind husband. During these periods of debauch, caused by the mixture of morphine and liquor, I have insulted my best friends, but never when I was Jack Swilling, free from these poisonous influences. I have tried hard to cure myself of the growing appetite for morphine, but the craving of it was greater than my will could resist."


Mrs. Janette Barnum, sister of Neri Osborn, knew Swilling quite well. In 1934 she told a newspaper reporter of a conversation she had with him sixty years earlier. Friends had accused him of possessing a villainous dis­position.


"I'm not mean really," he told her. "It's just drink. Ever since that time in El Paso, when a heavy beam fell on me, striking the back of my head, I go almost crazy when I get to drinking. It never used to bother me, but since that time, I can’t remember what I'm doing when I get to drinking. "


Many settlers who homesteaded in the Salt River Valley were Confederate veterans from the Deep South. It was common knowledge among them that Jack Swilling had deserted the Confederate Army. Those veterans could ignore Jack's hard drinking and his use of narcotics, but they could not forget his deserter's role in the war. Today there is no street, no park, no highway bearing Swilling’s name in Arizona; only a peak in the Grand Canyon.


Swilling’s nose for gold was proverbial. He filled his poke time and again only to have the dust run through his fingers.


The first gold strike in Arizona was made at the Gila River, above Yuma, where Henry Burch, an alleged murderer, and Colonel Jacob Snively, the great adventurer, discovered rich placers in September, 1858. Jack joined the rush and did well enough until a flash flood ruined the placers and swept away a baking can full of gold dust which be kept beneath his cot.


Burch and Snively sought riches elsewhere. So, too, did Swilling who led an expedition of prospectors calling themselves the Gila Rangers from Maricopa Wells up the Hassayampa River in January, 1860. The company was accompanied by an auxiliary farce of Maricopa warriors, who turned back at about the lower box canyons above present day Wickenburg. The Americans turned back before reaching the head of the Hassayampa.


Among the Rangers were miners who had worked for years in California. They thought the region explored had the finest indication of gold of any they had ever seen. Three years later Swilling would guide the Walker party up the same river in the Bradshaw Mountains and open a rich empire to white settlement and thus speed organization of a territorial government.


Burch and Snively turned east, leading a group of prospectors through the White Mountains. On Bear Creek, in New Mexico a branch of the Gila, they found gold in abundance. The camp that sprang up became known as Burchville - a name that within a few months was changed to Piños Altos, which means "Tall Pines". Swilling soon appeared in Piños Altos and staked out a claim on the placers. As the placers faded, Jack staked out lode claims which he lost during the Civil War when he rode away from Piños Altos to fight for the Confederacy.


As first lieutenant in a military company raised in Piños Altos, Jack is credited with leadership of a detachment of Captain Sherod Hunter's company in the skirmish at Picacho Peak, frequently said to be the western­most fight of the Civil War. That persists as a nice credit line, although Swilling did not participate in that skirmish, nor was he even in Arizona when it was fought April 15, 1862.


Swilling never served in Arizona or New Mexico under the command of Captain Sherod Hunter, who led 75 men into Tucson February 28, 1862. General Henry H. Sibley had sent Hunter to watch for and report progress of the California Column, which was advancing eastward from California.


Swilling rode into Tucson at the head of a platoon from his own military company. The Arizona Guards, from Piños Altos, was one of a half dozen companies raised in New Mexico for Confederate service under command of Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor, of the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles. Swilling and Hunter were in Tucson at the same time, but on two separate missions. Each had his own command. While they cooperated, there would have been no reason for Jack to command a detachment from Hunter's company at Picacho. Hunter had three lieutenants in his own company, at least two of whom were then posted for duty.


General Sibley had sent Colonel James Reily, of the 4th Texas Mounted Volunteers into Sonora to work out a deal with the governor which might be of advantage to the Confederate government and to Sibley and his ragged, sick, hungry army. Baylor ordered Lieutenant Swilling to take 20 men to escort Colonel Reily through the Apache country to Tucson.


Colonel Reily and the escort reached Tucson March 1, the day following Hunter's arrival. Lieutenant James H. Tevis of Hunter's outfit then escorted Colonel Reily south to Hermosillo. Swilling and his men prowled westward on the California road while Colonel Reily was on his Sonora mission. Hunter also scouted the California road capturing Ami White, the trader and miller at Casa Blanca, and a week later taking Captain William McCleave of the Cali­fornia Column. On April 2, 1862, 13 days before the skirmish at Picacho, Confederates attacked a Federal outpost at Grinnell's Ranch, west of Gila Bend. In an affidavit made at Las Cruces in 1864, Captain McCleave said that Swilling captured five Federal soldiers near Maricopa Wells even earlier than that.


Enroute to and from Hermosillo, Lieutenant Tevis sold Colonel Reily a mine at Piños Altos, the property of John W. Holt and adjoining a mine owned by Swilling. The sale was consummated in Tucson, where the bill of sale was signed April 4, witnessed by Swilling and four other men.


The following day, on April 5, Swilling gave Captain Hunter a receipt for Captain McCleave's gun and saddle and then left Tucson with his platoon, Colonel Reily, and two important prisoners - Captain McCleave and Ami White. The party rode to Piños Altos, where Holt also signed a bill of sale April 13, witnessed by Swilling and three other men. This was two days before and 200 miles from Picacho Peak. From Piños Altos the party pushed on to Mesilla, where the documents were filed for record at the Dona Ana county court house on April 18th. That day Swilling delivered Captain McCleave and Ami White to Colonel Baylor. In the affidavit made by Captain McCleave in 1864, he said Swilling treated him kindly on the journey, offered to lend him money, and escorted him to Mesilla.


With documentary evidence available that Jack Swilling did not partici­pate in the skirmish at Picacho, who did command the Confederate detail when Captain Hunter's men ambushed the onrushing Federals?


Writing to Colonel Baylor, Hunter reported theBatt1e had sent a detail under command of a sergeant to observe the advance of the Californians. He did not name the sergeant, but it was undoubtedly Henry Holmes, who was captured during the fight. Holmes had been a miner in Piños Altos and was a corporal in Swilling’s company before transferring to Hunter's company, where he was promoted to sergeant. His glory was short lived, for not only was he taken prisoner by the Federals but he never received due credit for directing the Picacho fight.


Two months after the Confederates retreated from New Mexico, Jack Swilling became an express rider for the Union Army. Of this, General James H. Carleton wrote:


"Your arrangement about sending Swilling as an expressman is a good one, and I have given Colonel Steen a memorandum of it, and will endeavor to have the time so fixed for other expressmen that there will be no delay in the transmittal of letters up and down the river."  ­


Approving of Swilling by General Carleton was a natural thing. Both had fought in the battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War. Carleton wrote a book on the battle which indicated he had a warm spot in his heart for his former comrades in arms. Swilling served in a Georgia regiment, probably as a bugler.


Later in 1862, General Carleton launched a war of extermination against the Gila Apaches, whose home lay south and west of Piños Altos. He was es­pecially anxious to get his hands on Mangus Colorado, Chief of the Gilas. In December, 1862, General West wrote Captain Sharland at Fort McLane that Jack Swilling would be in the neighborhood of that military post and avail­able for help in making a prisoner of the old chief.


Swilling had mined in Piños Altos before joining the Confederate Army. He must have known Mangus Colorado. In October 1861, Cochise and Mangus Colorado had attacked Piños Altos with 300 warriors. Thomas J. Mastin, the twenty-three year old captain of the Piños Altos military company, left Lieutenant Swilling with, a platoon at the Overland Stage crossing on the Mimbres River while he held off the Apaches at the town. Captain Mastin, who had been postmaster at Gila City in 1860, died of a wound suffered in the fight, but he whipped the Indians before he succumbed.


Refugees from Piños Altos fled toward the Mimbres River. The Apaches were in hot pursuit when Lieutenant Swilling and his platoon swung into action, drove off the pursuers, rescued a freight train belonging to Charles Trumbull Hayden, and conducted the fleeing miners and their wives and chil­dren to safety.


So Mangus Colorado had plenty of reason to recognize Swilling, who hailed him in early January, 1863, and told him that he was wanted for a talk at Fort McLane. Captain Sharland's soldiers seized the chief and made him a prisoner. That night Mangus Colorado was killed. Enemies of General Carleton in New Mexico charged the chief of the Gilas was killed in cold blood; and the army said he was killed while attempting to escape. General Carleton officially reported:


" . . . .Mangus Colorado doubtless the worst Indian within our boundaries, and one who has been the cause of more murders and of more torturing and of burning at the stake in this country than all others together, has been killed."


In January, following the capture and death of Mangus, Swilling left the Mimbres River with the Walker Party, which he guided to the headwaters of the Hassayampa River, where gold was discovered in April of 1863.


Swilling and several other prospectors hit a jackpot on Rich Hill. They dug gold from the soil and rocks with their hunting, knives. Swilling picked up $13,000 in gold, sending a couple of nuggets to General Carleton at Santa Fe, New Mexico, who forwarded them to Washington with a letter to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury. He wrote:


"I send you herewith a specimen of copper from near Fort West on the Gila, and two specimens of pure gold from the top of Antelope Mountain, spoken of by General Clark. These specimens were sent to me by Mr. Swilling, the discoverer of the new gold fields near the San Francisco Mountains. If it not be improper, please give the largest piece of the gold to Mr. Lincoln. It well gratify him to know that Providence is blessing our country, even though it chasteneth."


Early in 1864, King Woolsey sent Swilling to Tucson to obtain flour for his second expedition against the Apaches. No flour was obtainable there, so Jack was forced to wait until a supply was brought from Sonora. In Tucson he met and eloped with seventeen-year-old Trinidad Escalante, to her mother's distress. Trinidad lived with him fourteen years, bore him seven children; and forty years after his death remembered him as a kind and loving husband.


An Arizona novelist has painted Swilling as a second Casanova. Nowhere is there documentary evidence to support such a picture. On the contrary, Swilling was too much of an alcoholic to be very much interested in women. In 1860, Swilling was living in Piños Altos with a twenty-year-old Mexican girl whom he had purchased from the Gila Apache, but that hardly made him a libertine. Many miners bought Mexican girls from Indians who stole them, in Chihuahua and Sonora along with horses and cattle. The Apache carried on a trade in girls with bordello owners in Santa Fe. Girls disposed of in that market had little hope of ever seeing their homes again, while the girls sold on the Piños Altos market were more fortunate, becoming wives of lonely miners.


In the twenty years that Swilling spent in Arizona, he put in three quarters of the time seeking gold. He was not a farmer and only promoted development of the Salt River Valley in 1867 because the placers were ex­hausted and there was not enough capital in the territory to purchase the necessary machinery for quartz mines.


Swilling probably saw the Salt River Valley for the first time when he accompanied King Woolsey and a large company of miners from Prescott on a great hunt for Tonto Apaches in 1864. That was when Woolsey sent Swilling to Tucson to buy flour. The detachment came out of the mountains near the mouth of the Verde River and traveled dawn the valley until they reached the Gila River. Travelers, Army men, and prospectors were familiar with the ancient canal system, but no one did anything about reclaiming the valley until Swilling and a flock of hungry miners at Wickenburg in 1867 agreed that farming probably would beat starving.


Swilling built a large home for that period on his farm, which extended south from the Tempe Road, or Van Buren Street, to Harrison Street, and east a half-mile from 32nd Street. The home stood on the ground now occupied by a dog racetrack and was built on a prehistoric ruin. It was 59 x 80 feet and required 90,000 adobes. Of Spanish, or Southwestern style, the home was one-story in -height and was divided by a "dog run", or breezeway, so common to the frontier.


Prior to the creation of Maricopa County in February 1871, there was no actual town in the valley. There was a store, a restaurant, bar and post office at Phoenix Settlement or Milltown, where the Helling brothers had a flour mill a cross the road from the Swilling farm. With the creation of the new county there was a scramble for the seat of government. The Helling’s and Swilling wanted to locate the county seat at Milltown, but the farmers living further down the valley laid out a new town of Phoenix.


Phoenix, Milltown and Mowry's Ranch, near 16th Street and Van Buren, named for George Mowry, a pioneer sheriff and postmaster, were candidates for county seat in the special election held May 7, 1871. In the November election of 1870, the original Phoenix precinct had cast 166 votes. Swilling controlled and voted the Mexicans in the spring election, getting 150 votes for Milltown. The Phoenix crowd ran a bunch of Maricopa Indians and obtained 212 votes; while Mowry’s Ranch got only 64. Together, proponents of the dif­ferent locations polled three and a half times as many legitimate votes as there were in the valley. Both sides cried foul, but the vote stood. Three months after the election, Swilling advertised his farm for sale.


He deeded his 160 acres to W. B. Helling & Co. in 1873 for '$3,000 and moved up to a spot just below the junction of the Agua Fria and Black Canyon, where he squatted on a ranch and prospected for gold.


Ten miles west of the Agua Fria, Swilling and several miners whom he led on a prospecting trip found gold and silver. When the news got out, there was a rush of gold seekers. Some did well, but others did not. Those who failed called the district Humbug - a name that stuck. The Tip Top Mine, a rich silver property, was discovered at this time and a mill was built on the Agua Fria. The town of Gillett grew up around the mill, down the river be­low Swilling’s home.


"Jack Swilling, to whom Arizona owes a great deal for his zeal and per­severance in opening up rural districts, has moved from his ranch to the new town of Gillett, where he is very busy selling property and is said to be making money", said the Prescott Miner in February, 1878. "He deserves all the good luck imaginable for his big heart, indomitable energy and go-ahead­-activeness."


Town life didn’t agree with Jack. Gillett had saloons and be couldn't keep out of them. In the spring of 1878 he made an earnest effort to drink the bars dry. Mrs. Swilling hoped to sober him up by suggesting that he go over toward Wickenburg and bring back the remains of Colonel Jacob Snively, who had been killed in 1871 by Chief Big Rump and a gang of Apaches.


The very thought of the old Colonel lying alone on the desert must have sobered Swilling, for he took two friends, George Munroe and Andrew Kirby, and set off for the White Picacho, a landmark off the California Highway, where Snively lost his life.


While Jack and his two friends were away from Gillett, the California stage was robbed a few miles west of Wickenburg by three men. The stage carried United States mail and Wells Fargo Express. J.W. Evans a Wells Fargo detective and deputy Marshal, began an investigation. The express company posted a reward.


Back in Gillett, after bringing in Colonel Snively's remains, Swilling, Munroe and Kirby fell under suspicion. Several strangers who had drifted into town were eager to collect the reward for arrest and conviction of the robbers.


“When these men left Gillett it was known that they were broke," said. Evans, in discussing the case years later, "and Swilling who talked a great deal when he was drinking, said they were going to hold up a stage. He de­scribed the ease and absence of risk with which money could be made that way.”


"When they returned to Gillett they all had money, $20 gold pieces. There seemed no doubt of their guilt and they were arrested and taken to Prescott. They had a great many friends through whose assistance they were released from jail five times. In order to secure them with the assistance of Frank Murphy I arrested them between two days, and accompanied by Mr. Murphy, took them to Yuma."


Even then Detective Evans was looking for another trio, three men named Roudepouch, Mullen and Rhodes, who were known stage robbers. They had left Gillett four days before the robbery.


After holding up the stage they met Swilling, Munroe and Kirby and made easy decoys of them by giving them $600 in $20 gold pieces. It was this money they were spending in the saloons when jailed.


Rhodes, one of the three robbers, confessed and was sent to prison for ten years. Mullen was never caught. Roudepouch was arrested twice – once in Topeka, Kansas, and again in Olympia, Washington, but broke jail both times.


Swilling did not live to learn that he had been exonerated of the crime, but his companions went free.


"Jack Swilling, accused of stage robbery, died in the Yuma County jail about 6:30 P.M., August 12," said the Yuma Sentinel.


“Jack Swilling died in jail on the morning of the 13th inst.", reported the Territorial Expositor. "He was in ill health when brought to this place and the confinement and heat added to his general prostration so that medical skill could not save him."


Official records fixing the date of Swilling's death have not been found, but it is quite probable that he died in the early morning of August 13th.


The August weather was moist and sultry. Swilling's body was buried in the Pueblo Cemetery on ground now occupied by the Southern Pacific Railroad yards. Decomposition had already set in. It was impossible to hold the body until his widow could arrange for a decent funeral.


As Yuma friends buried Swilling, a locomotive on the Southern Pacific which had bridged the Colorado River sounded a deep, long whistle. It was the requiem of a man who had come to the Apache infested Frontier with the first stage coaches and was leaving with the coming of the railroad. It closed an era.


In 1903, Yuma County abandoned the old Pueblo Cemetery beyond the Catholic Church in favor of a new cemetery to the east, well out in the country. Many of the headboards and markers on the graves in the old ceme­tery had rotted away, blown away, or been carried away by souvenir hunters. Swilling’s headboard was missing. No plat of the graves could be found. Bodies in unmarked graves were buried in unmarked graves in the new cemetery. The body of Jack Swilling rests in one of these unknown graves on a high mesa where the wind blows free.


WebMaster: Neal Du Shane