Monday, July 27, 2015

Vanished Arizona – the trip

In his foreword to Martha Summerhayes’s Vanished Arizona, Dan L. Trapp, well-known expert on things Apache, had this to say about the book.

Vanished Arizona has won a secure place among the essential primary records of the frontier-military West, a status it is unlikely to lose.”

With this in mind, I hope to take our Western Fictioneers on a trip into and around Arizona, as seem through the eyes of an officer’s wife.

Returning from a sojourn in Germany, Martha tells us how it all got started. “As the vessel had been about given up for lost, her arrival was somewhat of an agreeable surprise to all our friends, and to none more so that my old friend Jack, a second lieutenant of the United States army, who seemed so glad to have me back in America, that I concluded the only thing to do was join the army myself.

Fort Russel 1925
“A quiet wedding in the country soon followed my decision, and we set out early in April of the year 1874 to join his regiment, which was stationed at Fort Russell, Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory.”

At Fort Russell, Martha’s first experience in an army post, she learned of the pecking order among officers.

“Fort Russell was a large post, and the garrison consisted of many companies of cavalry and infantry. It was all new and strange to me.

“Soon after luncheon, Jack said to Major Wilhelm, ‘Well, now, I must go and look for quarters: what’s the prospect?’

“’You will have to turn someone out,’ said the Major, as they left the house together.

“About an hour afterwards they returned, and Jack said, ‘Well, I have turned out Lynch; but,’ he added, ‘as his wife and child are away, I do not believe he’ll care very much.’”

Martha Summerhayes
Martha expressed her sympathies, saying she didn’t really want to turn people out of their quarters, and the major told her how things were.

“The Major and his wife smiled, and the former remarked, ‘You must not have too much sympathy: it’s the custom of the service—it’s always done—by virtue of rank. They’ll hate you for doing it, but if you don’t do it they’ll not respect you. After you’ve been turned out once yourself, you will not mind turning others out.’”

Martha also got an introduction to army use of alcohol. “The Major insisted upon making me acquainted with the ‘real old-fashioned army toddy’ several times a day—a new beverage for me, brought up in a blue-ribbon community, where wine-bibbing and whiskey drinking were rated as belonging to only the lowest classes. . . . Is it to be wondered at that I and Adams (the enlisted man assigned to the officer) prepared the most atrocious meals that ever a new husband had to eat?”

Talking about setting up house, Martha said, “We were obliged to be very economical, as Jack was a second lieutenant, the pay was small and a little in arrears, after the wedding trip and the long journey out.”

And, talking of her housekeeping skills, “Of course, like all New England girls of that period, I knew how to make quince jelly and floating islands, but of the actual, practical side of cooking, and the management of a range, I knew nothing.”

Then Jack and Mattie, as Martha Summerhayes was called, were assigned to a post in Arizona. The trip to their new assignment is worth taking a look at, I think. Said Martha: “For it must be remembered that in 1874 there were no railroads in Arizona, and all troops which were sent to that distant territory either marched overland through New Mexico, or were transported by steamer from San Francisco down the coast, and up the Gulf of California to Fort Yuma, from which point they marched up the valley of the Gila to the southern posts, or continued up the Colorado River by steamer, to other points of disembarkation, whence they marched to the posts in the interior, or the northern part of the territory.”

Martha and Jack sailed from San Francisco on the steamship “Newbern” under command of Captain Metzger. Six companies crowded the old ship, under command of a Lieutenant Colonel named Wilkins.

At Cabo San Lucas, where the boat took on cattle (to eat, it seems), Martha had this to say: “It was now the middle of August and the weather had become insufferably hot, but we were out of the long swell of the Pacific Ocean; we had rounded Cape St. Lucas, and were steaming up the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), towards the mouth of the Great Colorado, whose red and turbulent waters empty themselves into this gulf, at its head.

The Gila
After 13 days at sea, the steamship anchored a mile off Port Isabel, where passengers were transferred to flat-bottomed river boats if they were officers and barges towed by the river boats if they were enlisted men. August is hurricane season, and the winds in the Gulf of California were stiff, and the steamship had to lay off Port Isabel for three days until the winds died down a bit. Martha writes: “This was excessively disagreeable. The wind was like a breath from a furnace; it seemed as though the days would never end, and the wind would never stop blowing. Jack’s official diary says: One soldier died today.

Finally, on the fourth day, the wind abated, and the transfer was begun. We boarded the river steamboat Cocopah, towing a barge loaded with soldiers, and steamed away for the slue (a deep area in the river). I must say that we welcomed the change with delight. Towards the end of the afternoon, the Cocopah put her nose to shore and tied up.

“The soldiers went into camp on shore. The heat down in that low, flat place was intense. Another man died that night.

“Jack’s diary records: ‘Aug. 23rd. Heat awful. Pringle died today.’ He was the third soldier to succumb.

“Jack said, ‘You mustn’t cry, Mattie; it’s a soldier’s life, and when a man enlists, he must take his chances.’”

Martha saw the army wives transferring to the boat for the return trip to San Francisco. She remarked: “The women’s clothes looked ridiculously old-fashioned, and I wondered if I should look that way when my time came to leave Arizona.”

Summerhayes's book
Riverboat steamers often had it tough. Martha explained: “We spent seven days in and out of that slue. Finally, on August the 26th, the wind subsided and we started up river. . . . At the end of two more days the river had begun to narrow, and we arrived at Fort Yuma, which was at that time the post best known to, and most talked about by army officers of any in Arizona. No one except old campaigners knew much about any other post in the territory.”

They got a bit of reprise at Fort Yuma. “It fell to our lot to go to breakfast with Major and Mrs. Wells, and Miss Wilkins. . . . I can never forget the taste of the oatmeal with fresh milk, the eggs and butter, and delicious tomatoes, which were served us in his latticed dining room. . . . After twenty-three days of heat and glare, and scorching winds, and stale food, Fort Yuma and Mr. Haskell’s dining-room seemed like Paradise.”

They proceeded on up the Colorado on the steamboat Gila. She observed, “There was no ice, and consequently no fresh produce. A Chinaman served as steward and cook, and at the ringing of a bell we all went into a small saloon back of the pilothouse, where the meals were served. . . . the awful heat destroyed both our good looks and our tempers.”

She goes on about the meager fare, and then says: “Chinamen, as we all know, can make pies under conditions that would stagger most chefs.”

Unlike the clear water in the Colorado River today, when Martha Summerhayes made her trip, the sandbars along the way moved and grew and disappeared regularly. She wrote: “On one occasion, I said, ‘Oh! Captain, do you think we shall get off this bar today?’ ‘Well, you can’t tell,” he said with a twinkle in his eye; ‘one trip, I lay fifty-two days on a bar,’ and then after a short pause, ‘but that don’t happen very often; we sometimes lay a week, though: there is no telling; the bars change all the time.’”

Martha also tells us about Indian maidens. “Sometimes the low trees and brushwood on the banks parted, and a young squaw would peer out at us. . . . They wore very short skirts made of stripped bark, and as they held back the branches of the low willows, and looked at us with curiosity, they made pictures so pretty that I have never forgotten them.”

Scene from Fort Mojave
When the captain said they would soon reach Ehrenberg, Martha was excited because she thought a city was just around the bend. Imagine her disappointment. She wrote, “I did not go ashore. Of all the dreary, miserable-looking settlements that one could possibly imagine, that was the worst. An unfriendly, dirty, and Heaven-forsaken place, inhabited by a poor class of Mexicans and half-breeds. . . . We left Ehrenberg with no regrets, and pushed on up river.” She also said the scenery was grand, but who could enjoy scenery in temperatures ranging from 107 to 122 in the shade.

Martha and Jack and their companies disembarked at Fort Mojave. When next we meet, we’ll read how Martha Summerhayes saw Arizona while crossing the Mojave Desert.

The Snake Den is set in Yuma Prison ca. 1882
when 14-year-old Shawn Brodie was
sentenced to 3 years for something
he didn't do.


  1. Yep. And nothing has changed in all this time.

    (Actually I love Arizona, have land there to keep me connected with the west while living in the east.)

  2. Fascinating, Charlie. How fortunate we are to be able to travel across the land in air-conditioned cars. It was 107 degrees when we crossed the Mojave Desert last year.

  3. Great hearing from you. I just traversed your beautiful home state a couple of weeks ago. Good for the soul.

  4. I remember reading this a few years ago on Project Gutenberg and thinking that Martha was rather a shocking woman for the 1870's. For starters, she smoked, a habit she picked up in Arizona.

    1. Apparently she started drinking daily after her husband's first posting at Fort Russell.

    2. That might explain some of the more uninhibited passages in her book. I imagine they delighted her grandchildren.