The Story of Charles Poston: The “Father of Arizona”

Excerpt from Arizoniana by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.

On the morning of March 10, 1856, Capt. Hilarion Garcia and his company of soldiers stood at attention while the tri­colors of the Mexican Republic were lowered for the last time over the tiny presidio at Tucson. It had been two years since the United States had purchased the land from Mexico, but Mexican troops continued to man the small garrison. A small contingent of Americans living in the adobe community on the banks of the Santa Cruz River cheered heartily as the stars and stripes were raised. After the ceremonies, Garcia, along with his cavalry troops and their families in the wagons behind, rode south along the dusty road leading to Mexico.

Tucson, which had a population of some 1,000 during times of peace with the Apaches, had dwindled to about 350 residents due to the resumption of raiding and plundering. Early American explorers reported seeing decaying ruins of once-prosperous ranches and mines.

The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly at times; and in spite of these Apache depredations, Tucson was without military protection from Garcia’s departure in March until Major Enoch Steen and his First U.S. Dragoons arrived eight months later.

During the time between the departure of Mexican sol­diers from Tucson and the arrival of the dragoons, a sizable party of American miners arrived under the leadership of an adventuresome young man named Charles Debrille Poston. They were headed for the mineral-rich Santa Rita and Cerro Colorado Mountains, south and west of the Old Pueblo. During the next few years, they would mine a fortune in silver.

Then, at last, the world heard of the bleak, isolated region people were beginning to call Arizona. Because of this new­ found wealth, the United States would, in 1863, create the territory of Arizona. Charles Poston, who played a key role in opening one of the first Arizona mining operations, would also be a leading figure in the political struggle for territorial status, something that would earn for him the title, Father of Arizona. To understand fully, it is necessary to go back a few years to 1848.

When the war with Mexico ended, the United States became landlord of a vast area about which they knew very little. A primary goal in that war was to acquire California and a suitable route for a wagon road and railroad to the Pacific Ocean. The discovery of gold that same year gave added incentive.

Unfortunately, Nicolas Trist, the U.S. negotiator during the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, failed to gain a suitable right-of-way to build this all-important road to the Golden State. So in 1853, James Gadsden was sent to Mexico to purchase more land. The result was an additional 29,640 square miles. The area included all of today’s Arizona south of the Gila to the international boundary. The only non-Indian communities were the small Mexican garrisons at Tucson and Tubac. The latter was practically abandoned due to Apache raidings.

The ink on the Gadsden Treaty wasn’t dry when Ameri­cans began making their forays into the new acquisition. The lure of gold and silver drew would-be millionaires to the area like the mythical sirens beguiled Jason and his band of Argonauts.

It wasn’t silver that first brought Poston to Arizona. Two years before the mining adventure, he had entered the new Gadsden Purchase with grand illusions of locating a railroad terminus on the Arizona “seacoast.”

During the opening of new lands in the Oklahoma Territory in the early 1900s, those who entered legally— starting at the sound of the land agent’s gunshot—were called Boomers. However, there were those who sneaked in early and staked out claims. These were called Sooners. Arizona, too, had a few Sooners. One of these was Poston. Poston was an enigma. He’s been called everything from a grandiose schemer to the Prince of Pioneers. He was certainly one of Arizona’s most colorful promoters.

He was an eloquent storyteller with a fertile mind; an enthusiastic visionary who was often impractical. He was also extravagant, controversial and ambitious.

He was an adventurer, explorer, author, news correspon­dent, miner, government official and even a poet. His check­ered career ranged from plodding through the trackless wastes of the Sonora Desert on a mule to the highest inner circles of Washington politics.

He was the “Man for all Seasons” to the poor Mexican families who were in his employ at Tubac; he was also a self-indulgent, arrogant Indian agent, the first of many who would exploit the natives under his charge.

He was involved with the opening of the first American mines in Arizona and might have been a wealthy mining magnate, yet he died in poverty in Phoenix around the turn of the century.

Charles Poston
Charles D. Poston, Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona Territory (1864-1865). National Archives and Records Administration.

His most notable achievement was playing a key role in the creation of the Arizona Territory in 1863. He embellished that role to a high degree in later years, falling victim to that syndrome of the “self-styled old timer.” He outlived most of his contemporaries, becoming the consummate storyteller around the lobby of the old Adams Hotel.

Perhaps that is the tragedy of Charles Poston’s life. Had he died bravely in battle with the Apaches—and his bravery on the Arizona frontier during those turbulent times was never questioned—he might be better-remembered. Instead, his last years were spent as a pitiful old storyteller, spinning yarns for anybody who cared to listen.

He was born on April 20, 1825, on a farm near Elizabethtown, Kentucky. When he was seven, his father, Temple Poston, moved the family to town and established a small newspaper. Young Charles spent his early years as a news carrier and printer’s devil, learning something about writing along the way. When he was 12 years old, his mother passed away. His father, unable to care for the boy, apprenticed him to a wealthy Kentuckian named Samuel Haycroft; and in 1848, he married Haycroft’s daughter, Margaret. But Charles Poston was restless and ambitious. He decided to seek his fortune in the Far West; and through the influence of his father-in-law, he secured a job in the customs house in San Francisco.

Poston’s boss in the customs house was Thomas Butler King, who was also vice-president of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. It was this association that eventually brought Poston to Arizona. After the elections in 1853, both men lost their jobs. At the same time, rumors of a southern railroad across the lands recently acquired from Mexico spurred King to send Poston to the area to locate a possible right-of-way.

Acting as agent for what he called “the syndicate,” Poston recruited a band of adventurers. No one knew just where the new boundaries of the Gadsden Purchase would run when the group set sail for Mexico in February 1854.

Poston was certain a seaport would be included in the Purchase and that the port would be somewhere along the Sea of Cortez coastline of northern Sonora. He also knew that a man foresighted enough to acquire land for a railroad terminus at the port would be wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.

Poston believed, wrongly, that the Gadsden Purchase would include all of Sonora. According to his calculations, the ideal site for a seaport was Guaymas.

Poston’s voyage by sea was highlighted by a shipwreck off the coast of Mexico several hundred miles south of Guaymas. Poston and his band reached shore and were immediately taken into custody as filibusteros (land pirates). The only thing that saved the Americans from being tossed into jail by the suspicious authorities was Poston’s superb gift of gab.

Mexico at that time was besieged by bands of rogues from their northern neighbor who were bent on “liberating” large areas of land in order to establish private republics. Stern-faced officials did not look kindly upon any American, legal or otherwise. After some delay, the group was released and began an adventure-filled trip overland through Sinaloa and Sonora.

Poston checked out every sizable port city along the coast and found none suitable for handling large ships. His dreams and schemes suffered another setback upon reaching Guaymas, which he described as “a miserable Mexican seaport town of about 3,500 inhabitants such as they are,” not to mention the harbor which was too shallow and too small.

At the Bay of San Juan Bautista, near Hermosillo, Poston believed he had finally struck pay-dirt. The harbor was the best in the Sea of Cortez. He made an ambitious deal with five local landowners, including the governor of Sonora, where he was given power-of-attorney to deal with the railroad when it arrived. It was to be a 50-50 split of profits between Poston’s “syndicate” and the Mexicans.

One can easily understand Poston’s disappointment when he learned a few weeks later that the Gadsden Pur­chase failed to include a seaport. Undaunted, Poston, and those of his men who hadn’t deserted by this time, headed for the Gadsden Purchase, this time with visions of reaping a fortune in the mineral-laden mountains. The party, which now numbered only seven, went north to the small Mexican rancheria at Sonoita, along today’s international border.

At Sonoita, they encountered some Mexican miners who showed them some rich ore that assayed out to be more than 50 percent pure copper. The ore came from an outcropping several miles north at a place the Mexicans called Ajo.

After an examination of the area around Ajo, the Ameri­cans headed north across the desert towards the great bend in the Gila River. The party then followed the Gila down­stream to its Junction with the Colorado River.

After crossing the river, Poston met with Major Sam Heintzelman, commander at Fort Yuma. It was a significant meeting for both. Poston showed the major some of his rich ore specimens, and the two became fast friends. One of the few amenities for an officer stationed in the Southwest was the opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge of prospective mining bonanzas. Leaving Fort Yuma, Poston traveled to San Francisco where he showed his ore specimens to some local businessmen. The result was the incorporating of Arizona’s first copper mining company, the Arizona Mining and Trad­ing Company, on March 17, 1855.

Then Poston went to Washington to raise more capital for the venture. Finding Eastern capitalists dubious, he began looking for other sources of income. By a quirk of fate, he ran into his friend Major Heintzelman who had been transferred to a military post near Cincinnati. Heintzelman introduced Poston to several eager Ohio investors, among them William and Thomas Wrightson. The result was the founding of the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company.

Heintzelman was named president; Poston, comman­dant and managing agent. A German mining engineer, Herman Ehrenberg, who had been one of Poston’s original group of adventurers, was appointed topographical engineer and surveyor. The latter two would be headquartered at Tubac.

Poston was given $100,000 cash to fund his expedition. He also bestowed upon himself the title, Colonel, and headed for San Antonio, Texas, to enlist another armed band of adventurers. At New Braunfels, a German community near San Antonio, he recruited a number of what he termed “educated German miners.” The rest of the brigade consisted of what he colorfully described as “frontiersmen (buckskin boys), who were not afraid of the devil… armed with Sharps rifles, Colt revolvers and the recklessness of youth.”

Their journey took them through some 750 miles of country between San Antonio and El Paso occupied by the fierce Comanches. West of El Paso, they crossed into the always-dangerous Apacheria. A council was held near Santa Rita del Cobre at which Poston was able to convince the Apaches he was “a mighty big man.” The Apaches agreed not to raid the Americans if the latter would not interfere with the traditional Apache forays against the Mexicans.

Poston had a large number of tin-types made of himself while in New York. He grandly presented these to the Apaches. Many years later, an old Apache woman told him that on several occasions her people had an opportunity to ambush the Colonel: but, remembering the pictures and the treaty, they let him pass unmolested.

The party traveled overland across Texas and New Mexico, arriving at Tucson in August, 1856. Among Tucson’s citizens were some 30 Americans. Commenting on their moral charac­ter, Poston dryly noted, “they were not Methodist preachers.”

Poston’s company rested in Tucson for a couple of weeks. It was fiesta time, and the men were allowed to “attend the fiesta, confess their sins, and get acquainted with the Mexi­can senoritas, who flocked there in great numbers from the adjoining state of Sonora.” A few weeks later, Poston estab­lished the company headquarters at the abandoned Spanish presidio at Tubac, some 45 miles south of Tucson.

The old fortress was still in pretty good shape. Most of the adobe buildings were still intact, but the doors and windows had been hauled away. Work crews were sent into the pine-studded Santa Rita Mountains to cut lumber. Corrals were rebuilt, and soon the historic old presidio was habitable once more.

A short distance to the east flowed the cool waters of the Santa Cruz River, and nearby fields provided abundant grass. As soon as word reached Sonora, large numbers of Mexicans arrived seeking employment in the reopened mines. Next, Poston purchased the 20,000-acre Arivaca Ranch on the west side of the Cerro Colorado Mountains. Old mines were reopened, and soon Tubac was a bustling little commu­nity.

Tubac, with its low-lined adobe dwellings and dusty streets, quickly took on the atmosphere of a pristine Utopia. Far from cumbersome bureaucracy, cluttered cities and the influence of the Catholic church, Poston would later write:

We had no law but love and no occupation but labor. No government, no taxes, no public debt, no politics. It was a community in a perfect state of nature.

The young entrepreneur had a paternalistic fondness for the Mexicans, especially the women. “Sonora has always been famous for the beauty and gracefulness of its senori­tas,” he-wrote admiringly. The gold rush had created a mass exodus of young men to California, leaving the ratio of women to men as high as 12 to one in some Sonora towns. Many of these unattached ladies headed north to the new American mining camp at Tubac. According to Poston:

When they could get transportation in wagons haul­ing provisions they came in state, others came on the hurricane deck of burros, and many came on foot. All were provided for.

The Mexican senoritas really had a refining influence on the frontier population. Many of them had been educated at convents, and all of them were good Catholics.

Poston seems to have missed little in his observations.

They are exceedingly dainty in their underclothing, wear the finest linen they can afford, and spend half their lives over the washing machine.

The ladies of Sonora made a rich contribution to life in the community, not only providing companionship for the lonely miners but also assuming other responsibilities as well. Poston noted:

The Mexican women were not by any means useless appendages in camp… they could keep house, cook some dainty dishes, wash clothes, sew, dance, and sing.

They could give a good account of themselves in men’s games also.

. . . they were expert at cards and divested many a miner of his week’s wages over a game of Monte.

Poston was, in effect, the mayor of Tubac. Accordingly, under Mexican custom, he was in charge of all criminal and civil affairs of the community.

I was legally authorized to celebrate the rites of matrimony, baptize children, grant divorces, execute crimi­nals, declare war, and perform all the functions of the ancient El Cadi (mayor)…

Young couples who couldn’t afford the $25 marriage fee charged by the priests in Sonora came to Tubac where Poston not only married them for free but gave them jobs. In gratitude, many Carlotta’s and Carlos’ were named in honor of the generous patron.

Life in Tubac went on its merry, uncomplicated way until Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, of Santa Fe, sent Father Joseph Machebeuf to check out the spiritual condition of Tubac. The priest was aghast upon learning the marriages hadn’t been blessed by a priest. He quickly ruled all mar­riages null and void. The priest told Poston:

My young friend, I appreciate all you have done for these people, but these marriages you have celebrated are not good in the eyes of God.

Poston defended his actions, claiming that he hadn’t charged the couples any money and had even given them an official-looking marriage certificate. The couples were then given a ceremonious salute called “firing off the anvil”—a homemade tribute made by detonating a charge of blasting powder held in check by a huge anvil so as not to cause any damages. Father Machebeuf must have felt persuaded by the persuasive Poston because he agreed to do some horse-trading.

The marriages would be blessed on the condition that Poston would refrain from activity customarily performed by the Church. A gala celebration was held, and the couples were reunited in marriage. Guests included all the little Carlotta’s and Carlos’. According to Poston:

. . . it cost the company about $700 to rectify the matrimonial situation.

Poston enjoyed those halcyon days at Tubac. On Sunday mornings, he relaxed in one of the natural pools of the Santa Cruz River, smoking good cigars and reading six-month-old newspapers. Tubac had little government, few laws and no taxes. Employees were paid in company script called boletas. Since none of the Mexicans could read English, each boleta had a picture of a particular animal, and each animal represented a specific amount. A calf represented 25 cents, a rooster was 50 cents, and a horse was worth a dollar. Food for the hungry miners was hauled in from Sonora.

Fresh fruit came from the orchards of the nearby mission at Tumacacori. Manufactured goods were hauled from St. Louis over the old Santa Fe Trail.

One of the people hauling trade goods in from Santa Fe was Charles Trumbull Hayden, father of the late Senator Carl Hayden.

In 1857, the Heintzelman mine in the Cerro Colorado Mountains hit a rich vein that yielded $7,000 to the ton. The ore was hauled by wagon to Guaymas, then by ship to San Francisco at a hefty 50 percent profit. In the fall of that year, Poston sent a wagon train loaded with rawhide bags full of ore, a ton to the wagon, over the Santa Fe Trail to Kansas City. The ore was widely distributed, giving the Eastern United States its first look at the mineral potential of Arizona.

But the good times couldn’t last forever. An expedition attempted to take Sonora in 1857. The group was cornered at Caborca and killed, but the furor over the affair caused Mexico to place an embargo on commerce. For awhile, Americans crossing into Mexico did so at great risk.

About the time tempers cooled, the Apaches went on the warpath. Up to this time, they had pretty much left the Americans alone, preferring to raid their traditional foes, the Mexicans.

However, when a group of American newcomers who were not associated with Poston’s mines joined a party of Mexicans and ambushed a band of Apaches, war was de­clared on all Americans in the area. Then, in 1861, Cochise and his Chiricahua Apaches went on the warpath. Bands of marauding Apaches raided throughout the Santa Cruz Val­ley. That same year, the Civil War broke out, and the U.S. government focused its attention on more pressing matters.

Federal troops were removed from the area and Forts Buchanan and Breckinridge were abandoned. The civilian population, both Mexican and Anglo, were left to fend for themselves against hostile Apaches, Sonoran bandits and Anglo border ruffians.

Poston, complaining bitterly, later recalled:

The smoke of burning wheat fields could be seen up and down the Santa Cruz Valley, where the troops were in retreat destroying everything before and behind them. The Government of the United States abandoned the first settlers of Arizona to the merciless Apaches. Also, armed Mexicans in considerable numbers crossed the boundary line, declaring that the American government was broken up and they had come to take their country back again.

“Even the Americans, the few Americans left in the country, were not at peace among themselves. The chances were, if you met on the road, it was to draw arms and declare whether you were for the North or the South

“The Mexicans at the mines assassinated all the white men there when they were asleep, looted the place, and fled across the boundary line to Mexico.

The Apaches laid siege to Tubac and reduced it to rubble. There was nothing left for Poston to do but grab a few personal belongings and get out.

Poston left Arizona in 1862, barely escaping with his life. He headed for Washington to promote separate territorial status for the Gadsden Purchase, now being called Arizona. There, he met President Lincoln. The two met on some common ground as their fathers had been acquainted back in Kentucky.

After some political haggling and horse-trading, Arizona became a separate territory in 1863.

Once again, recognition for Poston’s services proved elusive. Most of the officers appointed to the new territory were lame duck politicians—men who had not been reelected in their home states. “Well, gentlemen,” he asked the politicians indignantly, “what is to become of me?” Almost as an afterthought, Poston was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and he returned to Arizona briefly in 1864 in that capacity.

At that time, the only reservation in the territory was located at the Pima-Maricopa villages. Poston wasted no time becoming controversial. He was accused of creating confu­sion and hard feelings with the military by making unreason­able demands, such as demanding a large military escort for self-serving expeditions around the territory. He angered his Pima charges by failing to deliver promised goods and paying below-market prices for their grain.

By this time, the Pima people had been dealing with the whites along the Gila Trail for several years and had a thorough understanding of commerce. They accused him of selling goods to whites that were earmarked for the Pima reservation. The Army brought charges and Pima Chief Antonio Azul accused him of “cursing Indians and treating them badly.”

The whole matter was dropped a few months later when Poston was named Territorial Delegate to Washington, an office he held only briefly before being replaced.

During the next few years, Poston held many low-level government jobs. He traveled a great deal but returned to Arizona often. In 1894, he wrote Building a State in Apache Land in which he gave his version of Arizona’s frontier history.

In 1899, the territorial legislature, recognizing him as the Father of Arizona, awarded Poston the small amount of $25 a month. It was later increased to $35.

Charles Poston died on June 24, 1902, and was buried in Phoenix. Before his death, Poston had requested he be buried on Poston’s Butte north of Florence on a site where he had planned to erect a temple to the sun. In 1925, a group of concerned citizens granted this request.

Society often waits until death to memorialize a person’s notable achievements. Poston lies almost forgotten atop a bleak, wind-swept butte. Even in death, recognition has been elusive for the Father of Arizona.

Excerpt from Arizoniana by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.

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