Arizona History: Jack Swilling, The Father of Phoenix

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Jack Swilling

Jack Swilling (born John), was born in Anderson County, South Carolina on April 1, 1830. He had a reputation for kindness and was known to never turn away a hungry stranger from his door. But he had a dark side. Reports said he killed a dozen or more men. He once shot and killed a man in Wickenburg in self-defense, then scalped him. He was addicted to morphine and alcohol.

He arrived in the Salt River Valley in 1867. He was fascinated with the ancient Hohokam ruins and artifacts. Earlier an army lieutenant had reported that the ground was littered with axes, hammers, other implements, and pottery. Swilling was especially interested in the extensive network of canals the ancient Indians had dug to irrigate their fields. He returned to view the canals several times until one day he realized they could be used by farmers. Shortly afterwards, he and several partners began rebuilding the system to bring Salt River water to the valley.

The army at Fort McDowell had irrigated an experimental farm using a reconstructed Hohokam canal a year earlier. Later four officers from the fort staked out a water claim on the Salt River and incorporated a prospective business to reactivate another Hohokam canal structure not far from present day Scottsdale. By January 1, 1868, Swilling’s home area, where up to 50 more pioneer homes had been built by this time, was known as Pumpkinville. It was fitting since pumpkins grew all over. Swilling had planted them along the canals. In March or April, though, Swilling and pioneer Darrell Duppa renamed it Phoenix.

It was a good area for a new town since it was virtually free from attacks by Yavapai and Apache Indians. This was not because of the military at Fort McDowell, but because the area was the territory of the Pimas, a traditional enemy of the Yavapais and Apaches. Their fear of the Pimas was said to be so great that when they planned raids on nearby towns of Prescott and Wickenburg, they would go miles out of their way to avoid the Phoenix area. Troubles eventually arose over water. It started when white settlers homesteaded land along the Gila River east of the Pima reserve and diverted water for their farms. This left the Indians down river with no water. Disputes broke out and eventually the Indians took action: they moved onto and camped on the settlers fields. This didn’t help matters so the Pimas rode their horses through the newly plowed fields. They settlers retaliated by shooting the horses out from under them. Some tried to shoot the Indians too, but fortunately their aim was too bad.

Swilling called the military at the fort and a meeting was arranged at his house between the post commander Captain George B. Sanford, the Indian agent, and several Phoenix residents. Sanford thought the government should handle it. The dispute wore on for ten years. Serious violence was prevented by the Fort and Swilling’s leadership in the community. But as more people came in, Swilling’s influence got smaller. About 1870, settlers agitated for a central town area, and Swilling felt his settlement should be the center of the new town. But because of the numerous Hohokam ruins in his area (now the site of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport), his recommendation was rejected and a new site to the west was selected. Soon the new town was surveyed and named Phoenix, despite the fact Swilling’s settlement had the same name. Within a short time lots were for sale. The second town grew in population and influence and became the county seat in 1871. Swilling had opposed the idea and had even hired people to stuff ballot boxes in favor of Milltown, a small town across from his settlement that had a store, restaurant, bar, post office, and flour mill. Within a few months after the election, Swilling sold his farm and began looking for new irrigating ventures on the upper Gila River and on the Salt River east of Phoenix.

He didn’t come up with any ideas so he moved north to Black Canyon and the Agua Fria River in 1873, where he prospected. In a short time he found gold and silver. A mine named Tip Top was born and a mill was built around which grew the town of Gillette. No sooner had Swilling settled in his new home than he found himself facing a stagecoach robbery charge. This was because of a remark he had made one day in 1878 in a saloon. He had just returned from a trip with a friend and cracked a joke that he would have to rob a stage to get some ready cash. The innocent remark came to the attention of a Wells Fargo detective who was in town who was there to arrest the culprits of a recent Wells Fargo express and U.S. mail robbery. Swilling knew nothing about because it had occured while he was out of town. But he was suspected anyway because he was known to have had little money when he left but had many $20 gold pieces when he came back.

The evidence was circumstantial but he and his friend were charged with robbery and jailed at Prescott in Yavapai County. The judge ruled there was insufficient evidence for a trail and they went free. Then someone noticed the robbery had occurred in Maricopa County not Yavapai, so they were rearrested and taken to the Yuma County jail to await the decision of a grand jury and trial on charges of robbery. Jail officials would not let him have his morphine medication while he was in jail. He wrote a letter in which he declared his innocence and predicted that he would be found dead in his jail cell from his suffering. Sure enough he was found dead in his jail cell on August 12, 1878, dead of natural causes. The men who actually robbed the Wells Fargo stage later confessed and Swilling’s friend was released from prison. Swilling’s friends in Phoenix took up a collection to help his family.