I’ve just finished reading a book by my friend, author-historical researcher Jack Wilson of Las Cruces about some interesting footnotes in Arizona history. It’s entitled Arizona Across 400 Years, Stories from a Colorful Past.
Last year Wilson released a book about some previously unknown or little reported incidents in New Mexico history in a book entitled New Mexico Episodes, Stories from a Colorful Past. Well written and laced with a sense of humor, the book’s topics included a great short summary of the Lincoln County War, a tale about a faithful dog and the robbery of a stagecoach headed to Silver City in which a bottle of whisky became a key negotiating point.
Wilson’s newest book includes an update on attempts to pinpoint the exact route of early Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in his foray into Arizona in the 16th century. He concludes that after 480 years, there is still much uncertainty about the exact path of exploration, but that details are still slowly “coming to light.”
If you’ve ever been in Yuma in the summer, you know how hot it can get. Early settlers in the western Arizona outpost had to have a bit of a sense of humor to deal with the oppressive heat and Wilson discovered a tale that confirms that attitude. It seems that two soldiers went to Hell after dying in Yuma and shortly afterwards delivered a message to the living that they needed blankets to keep warm down below in their new confines.
A story I found particularly fascinating was the exploration for oil in southeastern Arizona in the early 20th century. I had never known about any such activity in the Grand Canyon state, so it was a enlightening to read all the details Wilson uncovered in his research. Although tiny traces of oil were found, there were many unsuccessful wells drilled near Bowie in southeastern Arizona. If you’ve ever driven from Las Cruces to Tucson, you’ve blown right by it just after crossing the New Mexico-Arizona state line. Most of the wells drilled were dry holes or struck water.
Early wildcatters who were trying to raise funds for their ill-fated operations often stretched the truth, claiming their exploration equipment was high tech and not like the “doodlebug contraptions” that other explorers were using to find oil in the region.
Wilson, in perhaps his best line in the book, notes that “unwarranted optimism flowed more freely than oil…” in the hunt for petroleum in the Bowie area.
The 107 page paperback released last month by Sunstone Press of Santa Fe contains 14 short chapters focusing on separate historical events in Arizona — many not previously reported. The book includes many historical photos, maps, diagrams and prolific references which help the reader better understand the material. Wilson also includes a list of suggested readings for those wanting more details about the subjects in the book.
Wilson is a Harvard graduate and a retired archaeologist and historical researcher, who began his career with the Museum of New Mexico. After 10 years with that agency and two years spent excavating a War of 1812 period British fort for Parks Canada, he began a 28-year career as a contract archaeologist and historical researcher for utilities, mining and engineering companies, government agencies and Native American tribes or communities, in both Arizona and New Mexico. He has written several previous books: Merchants, Guns & Money: The Story of Lincoln County and its Wars; Islands in the Desert, A History of the Uplands of Southeastern Arizona; When the Texans Came: Missing Records from the Civil War in the Southwest 1861-1862; Peoples of the Middle Gila, A Documentary History of the Pimas and Maricopas, 1500-1945; and New Mexico Episodes, Stories from a Colorful Past. In addition, he has authored articles in several professional journals. He and his wife Cheryl live, with their pampered cat Seth, in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The book is available online through Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com., Ebay.com., Thriftbooks and other online booksellers. Local booksellers may stock it as well.
It’s a fun and enlightening read. I strongly recommend it, particularly if you have friends in Arizona so you can show them up with historical tidbits about their state they didn’t know about.