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The Oasis at a Cultural Crossroads

A sketch of the life around the “oasis” known as the Pima villages in 1846.

A sketch of the life around the “oasis” known as the Pima villages in 1846.

For almost two centuries, Spanish missionaries, mountain men, ’49ers, Civil War soldiers and American settlers benefitted from — and often depended on — the plentiful crops and hospitality of the Pima and Maricopa people.

The tribes’ villages, on the banks of the Gila River near present-day Phoenix, formed an oasis between Tucson and the Yuma Crossing. Weary travelers marveled at the luxuriant fields of wheat, melons and corn.

To their astonishment, the natives welcomed these travelers cheerfully. When Kit Carson, a famous frontiersman, asked how much their wheat cost, the Pimas replied, “Bread is to eat, not to sell; take what you want.”

The Gileños (people of the Gila River) preferred farming to fighting, but their abilities to defend themselves from Apaches guaranteed travelers a safe haven anywhere within a two-day ride of their villages.

For the first 170 years, only a handful of Europeans reached the villages. However, on Nov. 11, 1846, Gen. Stephen Kearny’s 120-man “Army of the West” approached the Pima village en route to California during the Mexican-American War. Hearing that Kearny wanted to trade for provisions, the Pimas walked briskly nine miles to meet the troops.

A month later, Col. Philip St. George Cooke’s 340-man Mormon battalion, which was blazing the first wagon trail through Arizona, marched with very little rest over the grueling 90-mile stretch of desert between Tucson and the villages, travelling at night to avoid the worst heat.

Sgt. Henry Bigler reported empty canteens and weather as hot as the summer, with soldiers dropping by the wayside to look for water. Miles before the bedraggled soldiers reached the villages, Pima and Maricopa women and children came out to meet them. One soldier wrote in his diary, “These Indians appear glad to see us, many of them running and taking us by the hand.” It must have seemed like a mirage to a weary soldier.

In the summer of 1849, the Pimas were hit with an even greater wave of immigrants — fortune hunters headed for the California gold rush. More than 9,000 thirsty ’49ers stumbled into the Pima and Maricopa villages during the next few years. Most of the ’49ers were ill-prepared for the long, hazardous trip, and hundreds of them faced starvation by the time they arrived at the villages. Again, the Native Americans supplied what they could, often without compensation.

By the late 1850s, California’s population had grown, and there were stagecoach lines and Civil War troops to supply. A blacksmith shop and flourmill were built near the villages, and the Gileños quickly learned the value of currency and enjoyed a decade of prosperity.

In 1866, they donned Army uniforms and, as the First Arizona Volunteers, served as scouts and warriors to help pacify the Apaches and settle them on reservations.

The Gileños’ era of prosperity was soon to end.

By the 1870s, settlers were flooding into Arizona, competing with the Pimas for land and water and even diverting the Gila upstream from the villages. The Pimas no longer could sustain their crops. Newspapers and military reports noted cases of trespassing, water-rights problems and even murders.

Because of their location and natural resources, the villages were a traveler’s haven for almost two centuries. In that small window of time, several cultures lived together and met each other’s needs. All too soon, immigrant traffic jammed the crossroads and dried up the oasis.

— Jim Turner. Photo courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society.

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