Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Counter-Mapping Quitobaquito

This past Saturday the Hia C’ed O’odham organized a protest against the building of the wall on their sacred land at Quitobaquito. They called on all O’odham and their allies “to rally alongside the people of the Jewed, in defense of the land, water and liberation.” 

I was unable to attend the protest because I am in Detroit. The maps below are my poor attempt to stand in solidarity with the Hia C’ed O’odham.  

In 1890 Quitobaquito was an oasis in the Sonoran Desert. The pond was fed by 10 springs of fresh, natural water. It was home to the Sonoran Desert pupfish, the desert tortoise and numerous other species of birds and animals. Nearby, Burro Spring, Williams Spring and Cipriano Well also provided water for humans and animals traveling through the desert. The Hia C’ed O’odham community at the Springs cultivated orchards of melons, pomegranates and figs and ranched a herd of cattle between Quitobaquito and Pozo Nuevo Well. Both orchards and ranch straddled the US/Mexico border which was marked by a series of boundary stones.

Colonialism had impacted the community as early as 1541 when Conquistador Melchior Diaz rode the trail to Quechan lands at present day Yuma. It had become more entrenched in the late 1600s and early 1700s with the arrival of another Conquistador, Fray Eusebio Kino. In 1890, three US Americans lived at Quitobaquito, Tom Childs Jr., Reuben Daniels and John Merrill, they ranched cattle, prospected for gold, silver and copper, and Childs and Daniels married into Quitobaquito families. In addition, Mexican haciendo, Cipriano Ortega, had built a corral, well and butchers shop a few miles north of the Springs; the first US Border Patrol agent, Jeff Milton, had established a customs house nearby; and Manuel Levy had opened a store, expanding his retail empire which stretched from Sonoyta to Ajo. 

By the 2000s, Quitobaquito had changed dramatically. Due to the heavy water use by expanding cities such as Tucson and Phoenix, reducing the Sonoran Desert water table, all but one of the springs had dried up, as did Burro Spring, Williams Spring and Cipriano Well. Today the only evidence of Williams Spring is slightly marshy ground during a wet winter or a summer monsoon.

The Hia C’ed O’odham community had been forcibly evicted between 1936 and 1957 to make way for the new Organ Pipe National Monument. After removing the community, the National Park Service (NPS) bulldozed the homes and other buildings at the Springs. The orchards were destroyed, and cattle ranching prohibited. They covered the graves in the cemetery with iron gratings to “preserve” them. The only grave to escape grating was that of the lone white man buried at the Springs, Louis Sestier. Sestier was a store clerk at Levy’s store and had been buried by Levy himself on a southeast facing slope under a rectangular headstone topped with a cross.

The border fence and road on Organ Pipe
National Monument in summer 2018
The NPS expanded the pond and built a cement channel for the one remaining spring. They built a new road leading to the spring from Highway 85 just north of Lukeville, cleared and flattened a parking lot, and installed a walking trail around the pond.

In 2006, President G.W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, authorizing the building of 700 miles of new barriers along the US/Mexico border. At Quitobaquito the result of the Act was a post and rail fence and two lane dirt road that was only open to Border Patrol and NPS Law Enforcement traffic. 

In fall 2019 construction began on Trump’s border wall in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Contractors Kaewit and Fisher Industries, (if you have an investment portfolio please take a minute to make sure it does not include these stocks), began building a 30 foot high steel wall from Lukeville east towards the Tohono O’odham Reservation, and west towards Quitobaquito. To hold the steel wall in place Kiewit and Fisher Industries pump approximately 710,000 gallons of ground water per mile of wall, further reducing the water level at Quitobaquito. To facilitate construction, thousands of saguaros, palo verde, ocotillo and other desert plants have been uprooted and crushed to widen the road running along the border so that it can accommodate the hundreds of trucks and heavy construction equipment that drive to the wall daily.  

The border wall and road on the same stretch of
Organ Pipe National Monument in spring 2020

In early 2020 construction was also started west of the Springs on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife refuge. The wall advanced towards the Springs from both sides and has now reached this sacred site for the Hia C’ed O’odham. 

To support the Hia C'ed O'odham and Tohono O'odham land defenders and their allies please CLICK HERE or send a donation to @ / DefendOodhamJewed on Cashapp or Paypal, donations will go directly to support land defenders. 






Thursday, July 2, 2020

Counter-Mapping the Spanish Conquista

“More lands have been lost to native people through mapping than through physical conflict.” Jim Enote, Director, A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center

I am supposed to be writing a book about the People of the Sonoran Desert based on the people who the mountains are named for in Organ Pipe National Monument. Of the major mountains in the monument, six are named for US-Americans (Gadsden, Pinkley, Tillotson, Levy, Bates, Growler), one for a Spanish Military Conquistador (Diaz), one for an Italian Missionary Conquistador (Kino), one for a Mexican (Ortega) and one, Montezuma’s Head, is a Spanish misnaming of the O’odham Elder Brother I’itoi. The real name for this mountain is I’itoi Mo’o and Oks Daha.

In doing research for the book one of the things that I have thought about a lot is: how do you decolonialize the narrative of a bunch of colonizers? Its not enough to just keep saying, “stolen land.” The words become empty, almost as empty as the pioneer narrative of “terra nullius.” How to bring that land to life? To show that we are not talking about a patch of dirt being stolen. We are talking about the theft of people, culture, history, language, stories, livelihoods, and the place names that connect these to their land. The obvious starting point seems to be the map.

I started looking back through articles and books on the Conquistadors, Melchior Diaz and Fray Eusebio Kino, to see how the maps of their respective Conquistas, drawn by themselves and their respective historians, promoted or opposed colonialism. I found that on almost every map drawn by historians depicting the travels of Diaz and Kino through the Sonoran Desert there, looming large, right in the middle of the map was the US/Mexico border.

To the best of my knowledge neither the US, nor Mexico existed when Kino traveled through the Sonoran Desert in 1701, much less when Diaz made the journey in 1540, so what was the US/Mexico border doing on maps of their expeditions? I believe it is supporting the colonial narrative by explicitly or implicitly suggesting that it had a right to be there, that it had always been there. It was orienting us to the history of the Sonoran Desert through a colonial lens, as though that is the only way we can and should orient ourselves to and understand the landscape.

How can historians do better? We can start by using “counter-mapping” in depicting the journeys of the Conquistadors, both military and missionary. The term “counter-mapping” was coined by Nancy Peluso to describe the creation of maps "against dominant power structures." I decided to see what would happen when I tried very basic counter-mapping on one of the maps of Melchior Diaz’ journey drawn by Ronald Ives in 1936.

Ronald Ives - The Diaz Expedition of 1540

Melchior Diaz -  The Forgotten Explorer by Ronald L. Ives
The Hispanic American Historical Review, Feb. 1936
Ives’ map of Diaz’ 1540 journey is thoroughly colonial. It situates Diaz in traveling through a US-American and Mexican world, not the world of the O'odham, Quechan and Eudeve. It not only includes the US/Mexico border, created in 1854, it also includes numerous other place names that simply did not exist in the 1500s. For example, Tucson, founded in 1775; Bahia Adair, named around 1825; Yuma, which was formed in 1873, from a variety of smaller riverside crossing points; and the Colorado River, called Xakxwet in the Piipaash language or Aha Kwahwat by the ‘Aka Makhav. Diaz called the river, Rio del Tizon and Kino named it Rio Grande del Norte. Exactly when the name Colorado stuck to the river is unclear, but it definitely was not in 1540. 

All of this matters because, by framing Diaz' journey through a US-American and Mexican map, Ives supports the narrative that Diaz has a right to be there, that this is his land, with place names in his language. We know that this is not true, yet subtly we are pulled in to reinforcing it.  Historians have argued for years about whether Diaz crossed the “Colorado” river, thus being the first white man to set foot in California. I have said it many times, "Diaz crossed the Colorado at Yuma," No, he didn't. Diaz did not cross the Colorado at all, he may have crossed the is a small but important distinction.

Counter-Mapping The Diaz Conquista of 1540

To place Diaz in his rightful place as an invader in a land that he had no right to be in, that was not his and whose place names were in indigenous languages, I have tried to counter-map the Diaz Conquista. I removed the US/Mexico border and all the Spanish and US-American place names. I replaced them with indigenous place names where I knew them or could find them on the internet. The result, such as it is, is a map that probably more accurately reflects the land as Diaz saw it…but not as it was. This map illustrates with incredible clarity the power of maps as weapons of colonialism and the truth of Jim Enote’s words. Mexican government policies of assimilation, US government policies of forced removal from the land, enclosed reservations and obliteration of indigenous languages, and the consistent stamping of Spanish and US-American names on the landscape have buried the indigenous names and their meanings beneath layers and layers of desert sand. The map is such an effective weapon of colonialism in the Sonoran Desert, that my, admittedly simple, attempt to counter-map has bought me full circle. The map remains colonial by invoking the idea of “terra nullius.” 

As I keep working on the book, I hope to be able to keep filling out the counter-map of the Sonoran Desert and to draw a map that truly decolonializes the history of this stolen land.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Tall Tale or True Story: O’Neill Hills and O’Neill’s Grave

Dave O’Neill and Dan Drift knew each other from before, long before, they dug a pass through the Eastern foothills of the Cabeza Prieta Mountains.

Dave O’Neill’s grandfather was the not entirely recognized as legitimate son of Don Arturo O’Neill de Tyrone. Born in Dublin in 1736, Don Arturo had left home to join the Spanish colonial army in 1752. He was appointed Governor of the Yucatan in 1792 and there in 1794, plain old Arturo O’Neill was born on the Governor’s hacienda. In 1803, Don Arturo returned to Spain, soon after little Arturo and his mother turned their steps northwards looking for work, food and shelter. Mother and son arrived at Bahia de Galveston, still at that time under the control of the Spanish colonial regime, sometime in the early 1810s.

Young Arturo joined Luis Michel Aury’s effort to provide support for the Mexican revolutionaries in 1816, married and, in 1819, he had a son, Luis O’Neill. When Luis was 3 years old, he became a Mexican citizen, following the success of the revolution in 1821. Luis had a taste for independence. He joined the Texas army fighting for independence from Mexico in 1836, and he was not exactly thrilled when, after all that effort to be free from the King of Spain and President Santa Ana, less than 10 years later Texas annexed itself to the United States as the 28th State of the Union in 1845. Two years after the annexation, Luis’ son David O’Neill was born.

Moriston Family crest
Dan Drift also came from Irish beginnings. His grandfather, born in 1797, in County Armagh was from a minor branch of the Moriston clan. On arriving at Bahia de Galveston in 1816, Rory Moriston also joined with Aury. In his feelings about the royalist connotations of his last name, Rory changed it to Drift, a play on his own drifting across the Atlantic and the driftwood tree that adorned the Moriston family crest. Rory’s first son, Daniel Drift, was born a Spanish subject in 1820, became a Mexican citizen and the tender age of 1. By 16, Daniel was a Texan and he celebrated his 25th birthday as a US-American. Two years later, the first natural born US-citizen in the Drift family, Daniel Drift Jr. arrived in the world on May 10, 1847.

All of that was just a really complex way of explaining how two little boys came to be friends playing on the sandbars of Galveston Island. In the interests of time, we will gloss over their youthful adventures, their service together in the Mexican army fighting French ambitions of empire in 1866, and their various travels and travails that bought them together to the Sonoran Desert.

Dave O’Neill and Dan Drift arrived in the Sonoran Desert in 1888. The desert was awash with prospectors, ranchers and land-grabbers of all sorts. Our good friend, notorious Mexican outlaw, turned Caudillo of Santo Domingo, Cipriano Ortega was rumored to have mined close to $80,000 worth of silver and gold from his La Americana Mine and there were many green-eyed souls who hoped to replicate that feat. Dan and Dave paid them little mind, they briefly rested their horses in Ajo, and struck South for Sonoyta down the old Ajo to Sonoyta highway. They crossed the border/not border, remember at this time the boundary survey commission had only recently completed their work placing markers along the new line established by the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, and almost no one knew or cared where that new line really was. From Sonoyta they set out on the Camino del Diablo, stopping at Santo Domingo for mining supplies. A few miles further west they crossed the line back into the US at Quitobaquito Springs, where they stocked up on food and water, generously supplied, as it had been to travelers for centuries by the Hia C’ed O’odham community at the Springs.
The two friends wandered westwards, past Agua Dulce, across the miniature desert with its proliferation of hedgehog cactus, over the Pinacate lava flows, and into the Tule Mountains. Sometimes they rode in companionable silence, sometimes they “remembered when,” sharing stories whose minute details and madcap moments were a source of entertainment only to them.

Drift Hills, named for Dan Drift, Senita Tank
and Christmas Pass
Turning their horses north through the mountains they stopped at Senita Tank. Here was a good spot to prospect. In addition to the natural water source at the tank, the rock of the surrounding hills looked promising. Dan and Dave set up camp.

They were not wrong about the prospecting. Together they dug more than 20 mine shafts and they ground, washed and panned a good amount of copper, silver and gold. Dave would ride back along the Camino to Santo Domingo or Sonoyta to sell the ore and bring back supplies. Dan, more wary of other people and struggling with the trauma of his war time experiences in Mexico, preferred to stay in the desert. Dave was a lousy cook, but Dan could make magic with tepary beans, tortillas and cholla fruit. Dave was always full of crazy ideas for new places to prospect, Dan was the one who could actually figure out how to get to them. Together they had, what my mother contends, are the ingredients for a successful relationship, shared values and complimentary skills. Through all the seasons of life in the desert, Dave and Dan remained the firmest and bestest of friends.

Dan and Dave had one major problem, the same problem that beset Peter Brady in his mining ventures, and that problem was transporting their ore. The route from their Senita Tank home to Sonoyta was long, dry and perilous. It would be better to go north towards Wellton, where the Southern Pacific Railroad offered easy access to the bustling towns of Yuma and Gila Bend. The trail into the Tank from the South was good, but it stopped abruptly just to the North, the way barred by a rocky outcrop and a deep, cliff sided wash.

What to do? Dig through, of course. For weeks, months, almost a year the two friends worked on their road through the rock. Every evening after the days mining was over, dinner eaten, and dishes cleaned out with sand, Dan and Dave worked side by side chipping away at the rocky outcrop. It was not a fun activity. For a long time there was no sign that they were even making any progress. “Can you see any difference on my side?” One would ask the other. “Maybe a little.” The other would answer, not wanting to be discouraging. But eventually there was a difference on both sides, a clear difference, indicated by the fact that they had to bend over, making their backs ache, to remove the rubble.

Finally, on Christmas Day 1910 the digging was done. “its not a very flat road or a very wide road,” observed Dan. Dave looked at him out of the sides of his eyes. “Can we get the wagon through?” he asked. “Yes.” “Well then it’s a road.” Showing an enormous lack of imagination, Dan and Dave named their road “Christmas Pass.” Because they “finished” it on Christmas Day.

Life went on. Happy, friendly, unbothered life for another five years.

Then in 1915, Dave had gone to Sonoyta, maybe for better Mexican tortillas, maybe for better, and cheaper, mezcal. As he often did on the way home, he picked up a little work guiding would be prospectors along the Camino del Diablo. He left Sonoyta with two men. Somewhere just past Agua Dulce the men set on Dave, they beat him to death, stole his belongings and his horse and buried him in a shallow grave in what are known today as the O’Neill Hills.

Back at Christmas Pass, Dan waited, growing progressively more anxious with each passing day, but Dave never appeared. Not for a moment did it cross Dan’s mind that Dave had left him. They had been friends for more than 50 years! A week went by and Dan determined to get his act together and go looking for Dave. Dan left Christmas Pass for the first time since 1888, winding his way slowly East on the Camino, checking under palo verde trees and in washes for signs of familiar boot prints, tobacco or Dave’s favorite Mexican paletas.

Dave O'Neill's Grave in the O'Neill Hills on the Camino del Diablo
Nearing Agua Dulce, on the North side of the Camino, Dan noticed an unnatural looking pile of rocks. He went over, moved a few and quickly uncovered Dave’s remains. Holding himself together he reached into Dave’s pocket and found the coyote skin tobacco pouch he had made for his friend. He put the pouch in his pocket, dug a proper grave and marked the spot with a proper cross. Dan did such a good job that he cross marking O'Neill's Grave remains at the spot to this day.

Dan returned to Sentia Tank. He made the fire and sat smoking Dave’s tobacco and talking to the coyote skin pouch. ”Remember when you sat on that cholla bud?” “Remember when we climbed that ridge and you almost fell through that hole in the rock?” “Remember when you forgot that shade in the evening means sun in the morning?’ “Remember when you thought it was a good idea to climb Arch Canyon?” “Remember when….so many small memories that make up a friendship…

Is this a TALL TALE or a TRUE STORY? You decide in the comments below......

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Tall Tale or True Story: John the Baptist

You may think you know the story of John the Baptist from another book, possibly from Oscar Wilde’s Salome, possibly from somewhere else. You would be wrong. This is the story of the for real, for real, for real, bona fide, John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was born in Minnesota on April 4, 1880. At the age of 18, with the onset of the Spanish-American War, he was organized and mustered into service as a Private in Company A, 15th Regiment of the Minnesota Infantry. Along with 1,280 of his fellow Minnesotans, on July 9, 1898 he was sent to Camp Meade in Pennsylvania and then to Augusta, Georgia. Nine months later, he was mustered out of service without ever participating in any fighting.  

The Baptist was reorganized and re-mustered when the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Speculation abounds about what happened to him during the Great War. Was he gassed? Was he shell-shocked? Did he meet Lt. Col. John C.  Greenway? Did Greenway recruit the Baptist to come to Ajo and work for his New Cornelia Mining Company?

Topo map of John the Baptist Mountains
Whatever happened on the battlefields of Europe, in 1919, the Baptist, now discharged from the army with a pension, arrived in Ajo. He set up a "mechanic’s shop" also known as a junkyard in Ajo and made his new home about 10 miles south of the townsite on a desert trail near Bandeja Well and Cameron Tank. This was John Cameron land.

John Cameron was one of the largest ranchers in the Ajo area. His dominions covered most of what is now Bureau of Land Management land south of Ajo and parts of the current Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. In lieu of rent, the Baptist fixed well pumps and did other odd mechanical jobs for the ranch.

In his new desert home, John the Baptist was free to do as he pleased. He let his hair grow out, he went without a shirt, his wardrobe consisted of a brassiere, a gunnysack loincloth and a pair of sneakers and he sported a full beard, complete with mustache. Wait, a brassiere!? Why was John the Baptist wearing a bra? Well, he told people it was in place of a brace that he had to wear due to a gunshot wound he received in the chest during the Spanish-American war. We know that the Baptist’s Company never left Georgia, so this seems like a tall tale. Maybe he just liked it. Although having worn brassieres in Ajo’s 100 plus degree heat this seems like an equally unlikely explanation. Maybe, like many of us, he found it a convenient place to keep things like money, scraps of note paper, or even small nuts and bolts since his gunnysack loincloth probably did not have pockets? Yes, that must be it, let’s go with that.

To while away the time, the Baptist kept himself busy with some interesting pursuits…

He talked to the animals, the quail, the jackrabbits, the regular rabbits and even the rattlesnakes. Ajo historian, Charles J. Gaetjens, tells the story of a visit, an announced visit, lest we forget that unannounced visits were met with a shotgun shell, to John the Baptist’s home. Gaetjens was looking for ideas to construct a large rainwater tank for desert animals in Ten Mile Wash just east of Ajo. While he and the Baptist were talking, a giant rattlesnake slithered across Gaetjens foot and coiled up next to the Baptist. The Baptist smiled and said, “Relax, he won’t hurt you unless I tell him to.”

He was a huge fan of Joe Louis. A Louis fight was the only thing that could draw him out of his refuge and into the big, wide world. He could not go to all the Louis fights on a government pension, but he could drive to Phoenix and cach a flight to the prize fights. On June 22, 1937, the Baptist was in Chicago to see Louis become World Heavyweight Champion with an 8th round KO of James J. Braddock. His next trip to see Louis, to New York City on September 27, 1950, saw him return to Ajo a dejected and disappointed fan when Louis lost his title to Ezzard Charles in a 15 round decision.

The Baptist's plan for Aviola
He built a racing car. It had a Buick body on an old chassis and wheels. The car was named Aviola, possibly after Gaius Calpurnius Aviola. Aviola was one of the Roman consuls in AD24, during the time of another story about John the Baptist. The Baptist claimed that Aviola, the car not the consul, covered the dirt road from Tucson to Ajo at 75 mph. Ultimately his plan was to take Aviola to the Indianapolis Speedway and beat the speed record set by Barney Oldfield. This plan never actually materialized, but Aviola did allow the Baptist to make the 10-mile trip into Ajo and get his mail in approximately 8 mins, which is significantly faster than walking.

Bras, cars and rattlesnakes kept the Baptist’s mind active and made for great stories, but man cannot live on entertaining stories alone. Food, apparently, was a matter of indifference to John the Baptist. Who of us has not gotten so engrossed in building a car or talking to a snake that we have missed lunch and are about to miss dinner if we do not stop and pay attention to it right now? Who has not scarfed down a cookie or a bit of bread and cheese and called it good so they can go back to tinkering with an engine or petting a jackrabbit? John the Baptist suffered from these very human struggles. So much so that on July 1, 1861 he died of malnutrition weighing just 75lbs.

“When you gotta eat, eat, don’t talk…or tinker…or write…or…”

John the Baptist's grave at the Ajo Cemetery

Is this a TALL TALE or a TRUE STORY? You decide in the comments below......

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Tall Tale or True Story: How the Bryan Mountains got their name.

Kirk Bryan was born in 1847, in Swansea, Wales. Small Kirk grew up in the shadow of Swansea’s giant smelter. He ran the cobbled streets with the other small boys pinching potatoes, leeks and apples from the market stalls and grubbing for flakes of copper in the slag from the smelter. Sometimes he went down to the wharves to filch fish, marvel at the ships and dream of the places they might take him.

Like many of his compatriots, at the tender age of 8, small Kirk was sent to work at the smelter. His tasks consisted of fetching and carrying coal, sweeping coal dust and scrubbing things that had been blackened by coal. Unlike most of his compatriots, small Kirk paid attention, not to the working of the smelter but to the stories of the men who brought the ore in to be smelted. One day, Kirk heard a story that sounded almost too fantastical to be true. The story went something like this…

A former soldier turned miner named Peter R. Brady had sent a shipment of ore all the way from Ajo, Arizona in the United States of America. Brady had hauled his ore from his Ajo mine by wagon to Gila Bend, then floated it down the Gila River to Yuma. From here the ore had boarded a ship down the Gulf of California, and finally been carried all the way around Cape Horn and across the Atlantic Ocean to Wales and the Swansea smelter. This one shipment of ore netted Brady the kingly sum of $5,000.

Five thousand dollars seemed like a fortune to a boy who was used to stealing leeks, and indeed, in 1856, it was. Small Kirk had to get to Ajo. It took a little while to find a ship in need of a cabin boy, but in 1860, not quite so small, 13 year-old Kirk got himself a place on a privateer bound for the Caribbean.

For 3 years Kirk plied the waters of the Caribbean with the crew of the privateer. Now he was grown, and he had a little money in his pocket. He said goodbye to the privateering life and put ashore permanently at Vera Cruz, Mexico. Now he could read a map and orient himself with the sun, the moon and the stars. He headed north and west towards the Sonoran Desert and Ajo.

Kirk Bryan crossed the US/Mexico border in the spring of 1865, he had just turned 18 years old.

The border Bryan crossed bore no resemblance to the border today. There was no “port of entry,” no checkpoints, no Border Patrol and, certainly, no wall. Aside from the boundary stones put out by the Boundary Survey Commission 10 years earlier, following the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, the border was just an imaginary line in the Sonoran sand.

The Ajo that Bryan rode into that spring also bore no resemblance to the Ajo of today. For a start, it was not even in the same location. In 1865, the Ajo townsite, and to call it a townsite is being generous, was located where the open pit mine is today, on three little hills. The “townsite” consisted of a few tent shacks thrown up next to their attendant small mining claims.

Two men sat in the shade of their tent shack sharing a bottle of nondescript spirits, they beckoned Bryan over. These two drinking buddies were John Growler and Frederick Wall. Wall and Growler had started and abandoned hundreds of prospects across what is now known as the Growler Mining District, so far they had failed to strike it rich. 

For the next 5 years, Bryan dug, blasted, shoveled, sorted, dragged, loaded and transported ore for Wall and Growler. The work was hot, hard, repetitive, long, exhausting and only occasionally paid. Bryan learned how to tell a good prospect from a bad one, how to identify different metals in the rock, how to follow a seam of gold, silver or copper, and how to speak Spanish. He was ready to strike out on his own, but not so fast….where to strike?

Many small claims in Ajo were being consolidated by the larger speculators There was no room for a lone operator there. Bryan knew the Growler District too well, aside from the proliferation of claims, he knew that the prospects had very low yields. Bryan determined to explore the desert to the West of the Growler along the Camino del Diablo.

Kirk Bryan's map of the Ajo area and Camino del Diablo
In 1870, the Camino del Diablo was the domain of notorious Mexican outlaw, Cipriano Ortega. Ortega and his posse rode the trail robbing and sometimes murdering unwary travelers. Bryan was not looking to get robbed or murdered, so the decided to join Ortega’s posse. He had, after all, some experience in Ortega’s line of work from his time as a privateer. Bryan said goodbye to Ajo and to Growler and Wall, pretty much in the same state he had found them, sitting in the shade drinking. He headed South to Ortega’s hacienda at Santo Domingo.

Ortega was always looking for recruits, with his fluent Spanish, high seas experience, knowledge of the desert, and youthful enthusiasm (Bryan was still only 23) he was a perfect candidate. 

Riding with Ortega was not like it appears in Spaghetti Western movies. For starters there were no saloons, brothels, or gambling houses on the Camino. There was little water and where there was water, in natural tinajas, it was covered in a green scum and made terrible coffee. After long hot days, the nights were cold and the ground was covered in cholla buds, cats claw thorns and those painful little burs and pokies from the dried desert grasses and flowers, that pricked through bedrolls, pants and even boots. Still as the only trail from Sonora to California the pickings on the Camino were good. Bryan meticulously stitched his share into the lining of his saddle bags. Equally meticulously, he mapped the mountains and noted potential prospects.

Born in 1832, by 1873, Ortega was not a young man. Now his Santo Domingo hacienda and his mining interests were making money and demanding more of his time and attention. Ortega disbanded his posse and settled down to rule his empire from Santo Domingo. Bryan was fine with this arrangement. He had what he wanted, enough money to buy mining tools and an idea of where to stake his claims.

Leaving Ortega , Bryan headed northwest. He stopped at Dunbar’s store to purchase mining tools and at Quitobaquito Springs for water and food. Here he met Lupe Orozco. From the Springs he traveled on the, now familiar, Camino to Agua Dulce before turning North towards his destination, a small strip of mountains separated from a larger range called the Mohawks. On this small range he staked his first claim by securing a stick with a pile of rocks so it stood up out of the ground and placing an empty tin can over the top of the stick.

Kirk Bryan settled into the mountains that today bear his name. He dug a well. He built a two-room adobe house and a small corral for his horse. His prospects yielded, if not a fortune, enough to live on. He married Lupe Orozco . He traveled into Santo Domingo or Ajo for food and other supplies. Often, he stopped for a night or two of drinking and reminiscing with Growler and Wall. Sometimes he even went North to Gila Bend or West to Yuma for some special need or if he had a particularly good load of ore.

In 12 years, Lupe and Kirk had nine children. Their names have been lost to history. Two died in infancy, another one in childhood and six survived. They went along well enough until the summer of 1885. On August 19, 1885, Lupe died. Not wanting to stay in the desert without her, Kirk took the children to live with their relatives at Quitobaquito and went back to the wandering ways of his early years.

The Civil War was over. The Southern Pacific Railroad had been built. Kirk Bryan took the railroad to Texas and from there to the bustling city of St. Louis, Missouri.

St. Louis, in 1887, had its fair share of saloons and, perhaps more than, its fair share of speculators. One of these speculators was a man named AJ Shotwell. Shotwell was a gambler and a con-man and he had a mark, John Boddie. One evening, over a glass of whiskey, Kirk Bryan met AJ Shotwell. As they got drunker, they got more voluble and together they hatched a plan.

The plan was this…Bryan would talk up Ajo mining to the mark, John Boddie. Shotwell would gather a group of investors to launch a copper mining company in Ajo. Boddie would be the biggest investor. Bryan and Shotwell would go to Ajo to “supervise mining operations.” They would mine just enough ore to keep Boddie’s money flowing into the venture and then, once they had accumulated a large enough amount, they would split it and split.

Bryan was known in Ajo, although he had not been seen there for a couple of years, his name and face might be recognized. He needed a new identity, so Professor Fred L. McGahn was born. 

Boddie took the bait. Armed with Boddie’s initial $15,000 investment Shotwell and Bryan/McGahn set up the St. Louis Copper Company and set off back to Ajo. The Ajo that Bryan/McGahn and AJ Shotwell rode into in 1890, was now a bustling little town. In addition to the miners, ranchers and vaqueros, Manuel Levy had opened a store in the townsite, Dona Liberata Rodriguez brought wagon loads of goods to sell from Mexico and Jeff Milton had set up a customs station. One thing had not changed, Growler and Wall, a little older, a little more sunburnt and a lot more paunchy were still sitting in their usual spot with their usual bottle.

Needless to say, the St. Louis Copper Company was a failure, it was supposed to be a failure. The prospects tapped out almost as soon as they were dug and the ore veins they found proved to be of very low quality. Shotwell wired back to Boddie in St. Louis, they needed more money. Boddie was obliging, another $15,000 was forthcoming. Shotwell organized the Rescue Copper Company, to save the St. Louis Copper Company. The Rescue Copper Company fared no better than its predecessor.

Now Shotwell and Bryan/McGahn were getting greedy. They decided to take one big gamble to try and double their money before they quit. It had to be good.

Bryan thought back to his days at the smelter in Swansea. There was still no smelter in Ajo, ore was now traveling by rail instead of wagon and to other parts of the US rather than to Wales, but it was still a long, expensive and dangerous journey. What if they built a smelter in Ajo?

The McGahn Vacuum Smelter
In 1900, Professor Fred L. McGahn unveiled his blueprint for the McGahn Vacuum Smelter. It is worth remembering here that small Kirk Bryan spent all his time at the Swansea smelter dreaming of far-away lands, not learning how the smelter worked. McGahn’s idea was so simple it would have been beautiful if it had had any chance at all of ever working. Theoretically, the ore would be melted in a giant vat with spigots at different levels that would draw off the pure gold, silver and copper. The smelter would also be self-fueling, using gases that escaped from the ore to fire the furnace that melted the ore.

Shotwell wired Boddie again. Boddie sent $34,000 for the smelter project.

The “smelter” was built under conditions of the greatest secrecy. The project had excited the curiosity of miners from all around Ajo, Shotwell and Bryan/McGahn did not want too much curiosity.

They also needed to cover the cost of building the smelter, preferably without taping into their $34,000. They invited the local miners to stake small claims in the smelter in return for an early place in line to have their ore smelted on opening day.


April 1, 1901 dawned warm and sunny. Miners from Ajo, Sonoyta, Gunsight, Quijotoa and as far away as Bisbee, in fact every mining district except Growler, lined up ready for the great moment of the launch of the smelter. The clock ticked to 8 o’clock. There was no sign of Shotwell or Bryan/McGahn. Everyone waited a bit. Time moved on. The day started to heat up. People started shifting on their feet. Someone decided to go to the Rescue Copper Company tent and look for the two men, maybe something had happened to them. A trio of miners headed for the tent calling out “Mr. Shotwell!” “Professor!” There was no answer. Finally, one of the men pulled back the flap of the tent. It was empty.

Shotwell and Bryan had vanished into the desert, with all the money. Only two men had seen them go. Growler and Wall had recognized Professor McGahn as Kirk Bryan. That is why there was no Growler ore in the line for the launch of the vacuum smelter. Grizzled and grey, Growler and Wall watched through bleary eyes as Shotwell and Bryan slipped out of Ajo by moonlight.


Is this a TALL TALE or a TRUE STORY? You decide in the comments below......

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Day 7: Sunday, April 19, 2020

Back in the day when I had an income, I used to play Texas Hold ‘Em, not particularly well, but I was an almost decent recreational player. Aside from the obvious benefit of occasionally winning money, I learned a lot from the game which I have applied to my life as a humanitarian aid worker.

Texas Hold ‘Em is, according to Annie Duke, and I concur, a game of “decision making under conditions of incomplete information.” What counts is the quality of the decision regardless of its outcome. It also requires you to take the long view, to accept that the universe owes you nothing, just because you have patiently folded bad starting cards for hours does not mean that you now deserve to get dealt pocket Aces. Poker teaches you to maintain a zen state of detachment, to hold the outcome you are looking for lightly and accept that it may or may not come.

All of these lessons apply to doing humanitarian aid work in the Ajo corridor. Not that people’s lives in the desert are a “game” in the frivolous sense of the word. Clearly there is nothing frivolous in the disappearance of thousands of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters as a result of Prevention through Deterrence. It is a “game” in the sense that to recover the disappeared and deliver supplies to help people keep themselves alive requires strategy, adapting to change and trying to think as both your allies and your opponents might think, to aid the former and outsmart the later.

Our SAR this past weekend required using all of my poker skills.

We began the search with a waypoint. That may seem like a lot of information on which to base a decision. But in the context of the desert it is really very little. With no corroboratory information, such as the starting location of the group, their destination, how long they had been walking before they left the man behind, which mountains they had passed or were headed towards, a waypoint is almost no information at all. In this situation of incomplete information, the first decision is, “do we go out and look for this person at all?”

In this case the answer to that question was “yes.” It was “yes” for some practical reasons. First, we had the capacity in terms of people ready, willing and able to mount a search. We also had a bigger picture motive of exploring an area, the Bryan Mountains, that none of us had ever been to before. It was also “yes” for existential reasons, even if we did not find him, the very fact of looking demonstrated that this man was a person worth looking for. That seven people hiked 22 miles to look for him, hopefully went out into the universe and even though we do not know his name or his family, he and they got a moment of a sense that some people cared.

As we got closer to the waypoint the sense of expectation grew. It is human nature to get excited when you feel you are close to achieving your goal, especially one that has required the exertion of a great deal of physical and mental effort. Here is where poker comes in again. The fact of expending the effort does not equate to deserving the expected outcome. The person we were looking for was not at the waypoint. That does not invalidate the decision to come and look for him. It does not invalidate the effort expended. It is simply the unexpected result of a good decision.

We continued our search in a grid, now a zen poker mindset is most needed and hardest to maintain. You have been sitting at the table for hours, you have been getting Q3 off suit for hours, you want something to happen, you envision Aces or Kings coming your way as the cards are dealt and you peek at the corner of the cards...Q3 again. This happens to me a lot on searches, I have been walking for hours, looking under trees for hours and I want to find the person. I start to imagine finding them under the next tree, in the next wash, over the next saddle. And I look, and there is still just the desert. I tell myself to let go, to hold the thought of the person lightly, to think about something else. Sometimes that works after a fashion. Sometimes I become so focused on trying to hold the person lightly that I end up clinging to them tighter than ever.

At night, looking at the stars, I remember that this is a “long game.” I believe that the universe knows we looked for this man, and I believe that one day, if we all hold him lightly and constantly enough, he will be found.

Now, say his name aloud: “Desconocido.” “Presente!”

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Day 6: Saturday, April 18, 2020

This morning we woke up to a beautiful desert sunrise, but there was little time to enjoy it, we had a long hike and the heat of the day was coming. We loaded our packs, wolfed down some breakfast and set off across the San Cristobal valley towards the Bryan Mountains.

Normally on a Search and Recovery (SAR) we would walk in a line, each person spaced 50 feet apart. We would have a left and right line anchor on either end and a line manager in the middle making sure that we are all walking at the same pace and that everyone is accounted for when we go through washes or thick desert brush. Today, because we have such a great distance to travel just to get to the search area we used a restricted administrative road as the fastest way to travel across the valley so we would have time to do a proper search once we got to the Bryans.

And we walked, and walked and it got hotter and hotter, and we walked some more. And we stopped chatting and kept walking. After about 5 hours of walking we hunted for lunchtime shade and ate and then started walking again. Finally, at about 2pm (after 7 hours of walking) we arrived at the waypoint we had been given where the man we were looking for had been left behind. And there was nothing but desert. We did not find any sign of the man, or any sign of his group.

Like the desert itself, information for SAR can be an illusion, time, space and distance look different from different places. A slight rise in the terrain or a wash with tall trees can make a mountain look closer or a valley look narrower than it really is. Also with SAR, one piece of information, such as a waypoint, can seem larger and more important than it is. Another piece of information that might seem small and insignificant can lead the search team to the correct place.

Just because we found nothing at the waypoint we were not going to decide that there was no-one or nothing to be found.

Carrying a lot of weight in the hottest part of the day after an 11 mile hike is not the way to do an effective search. We rested, unpacked our packs and set up camp. Then, somewhat refreshed, we set up with only essential items, water, a little food, GPS, marking tape and walkie talkies, for a line search of the area North of the waypoint. We spread out with the West line anchor on the lowest slopes of the Bryans and the East line anchor (me) on the fringe of the San Cristobal valley.

We walked slowly, checking under palo verde and mesquite trees, looking in washes and stopping to investigate items left behind in the desert. Our line moved deliberately and thoroughly North for just over an hour. Then we stopped, the sun was starting to set, and the Bryans threw a big shadow over the valley. It was time to turn back to reach our camp before it got dark. We bumped the line out to the East to continue our search as we went Southward. I moved about a quarter mile out towards the center of the valley and Lia, from the West anchor, moved to about the line that I had taken coming North. We returned in the same methodical way that we had come.

We did not find the person.

Back at our camp, we lit the campfires, cooked our dinners and had a little bit of a birthday celebration. Then I set up my blankets, rolled up in my sleeping bag and starred at the stars.

Days like these in the desert bring up so many questions. There are obvious logistical questions like: Was the waypoint wrong? Did we look in the correct directions? Where should we look tomorrow? How much is it OK to use this opportunity for general exploration to gain information that might be helpful for future SARs? There are also emotional questions: Is it OK if we do not find the person? Is it OK if we laugh, tell stories, celebrate a birthday and generally enjoy each other’s company while we are on a SAR? Is it allowable to love and appreciate the beauty of the desert while looking for someone who has died in it?

These are questions for tomorrow….