A fractured skull and a bullet lodged in the side would be enough to take down most men, but Jack Swilling wasn’t like most men. One of Arizona’s most colorful characters, Jack had a disposition that varied based upon who you talked to and the amount of opiate-laced painkiller he drank. Family members considered him a loving father, friends thought of him as a generous man and others felt he was a drunken desperado up to no good. At times, history would show he was all three. Yet, in spite of his tumultuous circumstances, Jack fostered a vision to bring water to the Salt River Valley of Arizona and helped put Phoenix on the map.
Jack was born in South Carolina on April 1st, 1830, the eighth of ten children, but he was no fool. Historians would refer to him as a “Jack of all Trades” because of his diverse professions. At one point or another, he was a civil war veteran (for both sides) farmer, scout, teamster, postal express rider, mill manager and owner, justice-of-the-peace, post-master, businessman, politician, contractor, and miner. He had all the characteristics of a 19th century Renaissance man.
He excelled at finding gold and had a reputation of being one of the best placer miners of his time. His acquaintance with Colonel Jacob Snively, who discovered gold along the Gila River, would be one of the paradoxical events that led to both his wealth and ultimately his death.
Jack met Snively at the Gila City gold camp, east of Yuma, and would step-up to lead a 215 man expedition against the Yavapai Indians who were raiding the encampment. The Yavapai lived in uncharted territory north of Gila City. The expeditions led him as far north as modern-day Prescott.
Becoming familiar with the northern territory, Jack would become a guide for several miners and ultimately help discover some of the most famous mining districts in Arizona history. His mining partners would include Pauline Weaver (Rich Hill), Joseph Walker (Lynx Creek) and Henry Wickenburg (Vulture Mine).step-up to lead a 215 man expedition against the Yavapai Indians who were raiding the encampment. The Yavapai lived in uncharted territory north of Gila City. The expeditions led him as far north as modern-day Prescott.
Arguably his biggest discovery would not be gold but water. During the early to mid-1800s, Arizona primarily relied on river water for its needs. The problem was either too little or too much. Sudden summer storms could cause rivers to swell and result in devastating floods. Arizonans longed for a consistent and reliable source of water.
Jack’s travels as an express rider and scout often took him through the Salt River valley. During these trips, he noticed linear mounds of dirt leading from the Salt River to the valley floor. He somehow figured out these mounds were part of an extensive irrigation canal system previously used by ancient native peoples, now known as the Hohokam.
Jack and some business associates put a claim on Salt River water and began to excavate the canals with the intention of using them for irrigation purposes. He founded the Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company in November of 1867 with seven other business partners.
His company would become incredibly successful irrigating crops of barley and wheat and selling them to the miners in Wickenburg. Others saw the success of “Swilling’s Ditch” and decided to settle in the area. This settlement would ultimately be named Phoenix after the mythical bird that rises from the ashes.
Irrigation canal in the Salt River Valley circa 1900s. Photo courtesy of SRP.
There is some historical controversy over whether or not Jack came up with the name for Phoenix or whether his business partner, Darrel (Lord) Duppa coined it. Regardless, this new settlement would come to be associated with Swilling’s Ditch and Jack would become the most memorable founding father of Phoenix.
In the latter part of his life, his addictions to opiates and alcohol were getting the best of him. His wife, Trinidad, decided to do an intervention which she hoped would sober him up. She convinced Jack to retrieve his friend Colonel Snively’s bones from where they lay near White Picacho and bring them home for a proper Christian burial. Snively had been killed by Indians several years earlier in March 1871. Jack complied with his wife’s request and together with Andrew Kirby and George Monroe, went off to perform this noble deed for their former friend.
Upon their return, the threesome was accused of robbing a Wells Fargo stagecoach outside of Wickenburg. There wasn’t much tangible evidence but Jack, in self-professed “crazy drunken talk”, basically admitted to the charge. All three were rounded up and sent to prison in Yuma. Jack would die in prison on August 18, 1878, before bail was met. Andrew and George were released shortly after his death when the US Marshall who brought them in recanted his allegations. Jack would be posthumously exonerated of this crime.
In the end, Jack made a hasty departure from the physical world. Yet, in spite of the horrible pain, hangovers and an incessant hunger for opium, he managed to accomplish feats few other men could imagine. A visionary, Jack ushered in an era of reliable and consistent water that stimulated the explosive growth of Phoenix – now the sixth largest city in the United States. Anyone who has ever lived in this area should acknowledge this man’s success and be grateful for his foresight and incredible fortitude.
If you’re interested in more history about the Salt River Valley, check out these blogs:
Water – Use It Wisely is proud to feature guest bloggers who write about topics related to water and water conservation. The author of this blog post, Sandra Hurlbut, is a self-described “water nerd” and the Education Coordinator for the Aqua STEM program with Arizona Project WET, whose mission is to promote responsible water stewardship through excellent and effective water education.
This blog originally appeared on May 24, 2017, and is being reprinted with permission.
Bates, Al. “Jack Swilling and the Walker Exploratory Party” – adapted from Bate’s published book “Jack Swilling, Arizona’s Most Lied About Pioneer.” Website. Accessed May 23rd, 2017.
Farish, Thomas Edwin. “History of Arizona – Volume II”. Chapter XII. Early Pioneers And Settlers, pp. 251-257. The Filmer Brothers Electrotype Company Typographers and Stereotypers, San Francisco. Phoenix, Arizona, 1915. Website. Accessed May 17th, 2017.
“Jack of All Trades: J. W. Swilling in the Arizona Territory”, River of Time Museum, Fountain Hills, AZ. Website. Accessed May 17th, 2017.
Thompson, Clay. “Jack Swilling, the father of Phoenix”, Arizona Republic, May 12th, 2011. Website article. Accessed May 17, 2017.
Zarbin, Earl. “The Swilling Legacy”, Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery Research Project (APCRP). Website. Accessed May 17, 2017.
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