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Will C. Barnes

Will C. Barnes’ concluding opus “Arizona Place Names” was published in 1935, a few months before his death.

Will Croft Barnes is best remembered for his concluding opus, “Arizona Place Names,” a book published in 1935, preceding his death a few months later.  The book is still in print, which is a testament to its enduring value to both readers and scholars.

The son of a wagon maker, Barnes was born in San Francisco in 1853, and spent his early years following the Nevada silver boom. At age 13, upon his father’s death, he went with his mother to Indianapolis where he took employment as an usher in an opera house and as a salesman in a music store. At 18, he returned to San Francisco and sold sheet music and along the way became an accomplished pianist.

At 21, restless and in search of adventure, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In 1880, the diminutive Barnes — he was only 5’ 4” — found himself at Fort Apache in the Arizona Territory as a private first-class telegrapher. It was his responsibility to monitor and transmit messages from department headquarters and from post to post and to relay weather reports to Washington, D.C., four times daily.

During the summer of 1881, there was considerable unrest among Apaches. In late August at Cibicu Creek, an Apache scout under the command of Col. Eugene A. Carr precipitated a shooting melee in which otherwise non-hostile Apaches returned fire. An officer and several enlisted men were killed or wounded, and a respected medicine man was killed.

Yet another scout rushed to Fort Apache with the erroneous news that Carr’s command had been annihilated.  The news was incorrect, but his assertion that Indians were preparing to attack the fort was correct.  At this critical juncture, telegraph lines were down and in need of repair, and Fort Apache was without means of communication. The small garrison needed reinforcements, but the nearest post, Fort Thomas, was some 90 miles away.

On Sept. 1, a force of some 200 to 300 Apaches attacked the fort. The need for reinforcements became urgent. Barnes argued that the post telegrapher was assigned to transmit messages, and — wires or no wires — it was his responsibility to alert Fort Thomas. He won the argument.

Carrying identical messages, he and a civilian scout named Owens set out on separate routes. Owens was ambushed, killed and mutilated. Barnes was more fortunate. On Black River, he encountered an Apache encampment. The Indians leveled a barrage of bullets at him, but he was able to escape unharmed.

The next day, he happened on troops unaware of the danger but, coincidentally, en route from Fort Thomas to Fort Apache. The commander dispatched a soldier to alert authorities at Fort Thomas, and Barnes accompanied the troopers back to Fort Apache.

For Barnes’ “bravery” and “gallantry in action,” he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award.  He was 23-years-old.

Two years later, in 1883, Barnes left the Army and began purchasing sore-footed Texas cattle from trail herds passing through the territory. He homesteaded a ranch near St. Joseph and by 1892 he owned 7,000 head of cattle. A devastating winter took its toll, and in 1893 he lost 5,000 head.

Barnes served 11 years on the Livestock Sanitary Board and was a member of the Territorial Legislature, where he was instrumental in passing a bill that created Navajo County.

He married Edith Talbot of Phoenix in 1897, and 10 years later he moved to Washington, D.C. as an executive with the Forest Service. Barnes was an expert in range management and retired in 1928 as chief of grazing. During his retirement, he continued working as a secretariat of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, an adjunct to the U.S. Geological Survey.

During his time at the Board of Geographic Names, he worked on “Arizona Place Names.” He conducted a voluminous correspondence with knowledgeable Arizonans, and the information he gathered was written by hand on some 4,500-file cards. In 1930, he moved to Phoenix and four years later he had produced a manuscript suitable for publication.

Barnes was not a one-note samba. He published a plethora of articles, and his autobiography, “Apaches and Longhorns,” remains one of the best books written about later 19th and early 20th century Arizona.

— W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy of the author.

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