By the time you read this, I hope to have been part of the preservation of a piece of Arizona history. As I write, I’m filled with pride, because whenever you get involved with history, you hope that someday, people yet unborn can learn from it.
The big signs on local freeways still remind us of last year’s centennial of statehood, which came after 49 years as the Arizona Territory, a long time for people to wait. For several more years before that Arizona was part of the New Mexico Territory, so Arizonans endured a long and tough trek to win their star on the American flag, as one famous Arizonan of the period put it.
“Who would not die for a new star on the flag?” asked Capt. William “Buckey” O’Neill, frontier sheriff, mayor of Prescott and editor of such newspapers as the Phoenix Herald and the Arizona Miner, according to an account of his life written by the Arlington National Cemetery.
O’Neill was in Cuba fighting with a unit of Arizonans who joined Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War in an effort to show their worthiness for statehood. O’Neill was killed and hailed here as a hero. A larger-than-life statue of him sitting on a horse stands in front of the Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott.
O’Neill was one of several colorful territorial editors who came to Arizona seeking fame and fortune. The exploits of another are one of the subjects of my historical activities this weekend.
On Saturday the national Society of Professional Journalists, of which I am a member, was to have dedicated a permanent plaque honoring the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park and its still-operating 154-year-old Washington Hand Press as the birthplace of Arizona’s first newspaper.
The Weekly Arizonian was first published in March 1859 on that press, brought over land and sea to Tubac from Cincinnati, Ohio, by William Wrightson, who hired Edward Cross as editor.
Cross edited only 20 editions of the Arizonian before it moved to Tucson, but not before Cross’ writings insulted a local politician named Sylvester Mowry, who challenged Cross to a pistol duel.
According to Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble, the whole town turned out to watch neither man’s bullet strike the other, and, a new barrel of whiskey having just arrived in town, the good folks of Tubac imbibed drinks paid for by the two combatants. Trimble wrote that Cross and Mowry became friends with the former endorsing the latter for higher office before Cross lost his life in the Civil War.
The journalists’ society chooses one place in the country each year as a National Historic Site in Journalism, and ceremonies Saturday will so honor Tubac, its state park and the Arizonian. Fellow society members and I joined park workers and volunteers in putting on the celebration of the Arizonian’s role in establishing Arizona as an attractive place to start a new life. So many of us have done the same since Cross’ words first came off that press, still making copies of that first edition for visitors.
Four years after those first editions, President Abraham Lincoln approved cleaving the New Mexico Territory in two, officially creating a separate place called Arizona for the first time.
Lincoln’s act took place in 1863, which means that this weekend we were also to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Arizona Territory.
Frontier editors, not to mention entrepreneurs, speculators, miners, farmers and merchants, forged with sweat and courage their dreams of starting anew. Because of distance, it was unlikely they would ever see their relatives and friends in the East again. The equivalent today would be moving to Mars.
But off to faraway territory they went, so strong was the lure of a better life. The unofficial mayor of Tubac in the 1850s, Charles Debrille Poston, wrote in his autobiography of an idyllic existence: “We had no law but love and no occupation but labor. No government, no taxes, no public debt, no politics. It was a community in a perfect state of nature.”
Poston was known for an over-the-top attitude as Arizona’s most famous early promoter. Because he insisted with not very much foundation that his singular efforts persuaded Lincoln, he became known as the “Father of Arizona,” a title he gave himself.
Ultimately life in Arizona did involve more law than just love, and plenty of government, taxes, public debt — and definitely, politics. But one look to the horizon and there is still an unmatched state of nature, one that still beckons people to pull up stakes and find their own idyllic spot.
Strolling the banks of the Santa Cruz River that Poston called the perfect spot, I hope to better understand what motivated him, Edward Cross, Sylvester Mowry, William Wrightson and a few million others since to take the chance to earn a new star on the flag.
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.