Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The House that Jack Built

On the corner of a neatly kept property in Black Canyon City are the ruins of a small stone house. Built by one of Arizona's most intriguing and influential citizens, it is surprisingly intact - that is, if ruins might ever be considered "intact." The walls and doorway remain. It's astonishing, really, when you consider the house was built in the 1870s; that it is on the banks of the Agua Fria, a river given to violent flooding that too often decimates buildings in the community; and that it has withstood generations of treasure hunters and adventurers.

The Swilling House, Black Canyon City
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller

It is the house that Jack built: Jack Swilling, who contributed so much to the settlement and founding of Phoenix. Swilling was a man of stunning contrasts. A kind-hearted and thoroughly courageous man, Swilling was also deeply flawed and tormented most of his life not only by physical pain, but by addiction to the opiates and alcohol that helped him face it. A Confederate officer and a prominent Indian fighter, Jack was known for his generous nature and in addition to his own large brood, even adopted two Apache children. He married at 21, ostensibly much in love with his 16-year-old wife Mary Jane, yet left her and his young daughter behind as he moved west, never to see them again. Unlike many western pioneers, Jack held no apparent bias against Indians or Mexicans: his second wife, Trinidad, was Mexican, and he loved her and their children dearly.

Prone to bloviation, Jack both alienated and inspired affection from his acquaintances in perhaps equal measure. Plagued by ill health and injury, Jack was yet industrious to an extent that nearly defies imagination. By 1874, he had already achieved more adventures and accomplishments than many far more celebrated westerners. It was in this year that he moved to Black Canyon and built the stone house on the river, bringing his wife, Trinidad, to the site the following year.

Black Canyon village, at the time, was but a motley crew of roughly 50 miners who worked claims in the Bradshaw Mountains. Trinidad was the first non-native woman to arrive in the community. They planted crops such as watermelon and pumpkin, Jack began a vineyard, and they ran over a hundred cattle as well as maintaining horses and mules. There, they welcomed their fifth child, a son named Berry, and buried their second-oldest child, a daughter named Matilda. There, they often sheltered the travelers who made their way down what was called "Swilling's Road."

The stone house - not by any means as large as the house Jack had built in Phoenix many years before, when he was postmaster and mayor of the fledgling city - was never a stagecoach stop, although Jack had spoken of such plans for the future. Located where Black Canyon Creek met the Agua Fria, it was ideally situated on the ever-busier route between Prescott (then the territorial capital) and Phoenix.

The Agua Fria
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller
Jack never had the chance to turn the ranch into a stage station. By 1878, Jack had been wrongly accused and arrested for a stagecoach robbery that occurred near Wickenburg. Confined to the county jail in Yuma (not the far more humane Territorial Prison), Jack's already-precarious health deteriorated rapidly. In the heat of summer and locked up in a jail that was even then considered a cruelly primitive facility, Jack died on August 13, 1878.

A Legacy in Ruins
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller

Left destitute and in grief, Jack's wife and children moved away from the stone house on the river. Although Jack's name was later cleared, his legacy had been tarnished irreparably. His Black Canyon house is a poignant reminder of the hardships Jack faced - and obstacles he overcame - in settling this rugged land.

For his work in helping found Phoenix by restoring water to the ancient canals, Jack's papers have been carefully archived and maintained by the Salt River Project and by historical associations and libraries. Jack's small, hand-built stone house, though, remains thanks to the care of private landowners. The lovely naturalized landscaping frames it beautifully.

For further reading, I recommend Albert R. Bates' "Jack Swilling: Arizona's Most Lied About Pioneer" (Wheatmark, 2008) and R. Michael Wilson's "Tragic Jack" The True Story of Arizona Pioneer John William Swilling," (Two-Dot, 2007) as well as the Salt River Project's "Jack of All Trades" exhibit and collection.

For Further Reading: Find "Tragic Jack" available on Amazon here 

Copyright (c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without the permission of the author * Thank you for linking, liking, +1ing, tweeting, emailing or otherwise helping grow my audience * Most of all, thank you for visiting and reading!

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