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Lady of the Red Rose Bush

A descendent of Margaret (Maggie) Griffiths Hunt McCormick’s original rose bush sits near the main entrance to Old Main on Northern Arizona University’s north campus, next to Daughters of the American Revolution’s historic George Washington Elm tree.

A descendent of Margaret (Maggie) Griffiths Hunt McCormick’s original rose bush sits near the main entrance to Old Main on Northern Arizona University’s north campus, next to Daughters of the American Revolution’s historic George Washington Elm tree.

In 1865, Margaret (Maggie) Griffiths Hunt McCormick, the lovely young bride of then-Territorial Secretary of State Richard C. McCormick, traveled with her groom to their new home in Prescott. To remind her of her childhood days, she planted a rose bush from New Jersey next to her Arizona home, which was the Governor’s Mansion, as Richard was named the second territorial governor in 1866. The mansion, actually a log cabin, is now part of the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott. Maggie may have brought the rose with her or a friend from home sent the bush after the couple arrived in Prescott. It is considered the first cultivated rose in Arizona.

Maggie was the initial first lady to actually live in Arizona and enjoyed horseback riding, gardening, and visiting Arizona sites along with her husband as part of his duties. She always had her pistol, a gift from her father, with her. The pistol is now at the Sharlot Hall Museum.

On April 30, 1867, Maggie and her newborn baby died during childbirth.

She and the baby were buried near the cabin, according to Arizona territorial historian Sharlot Hall, who first heard the story 20 years later, in 1886. (The remains were returned to New Jersey in 1869 and reburied under a substantial headstone identifying her as the governor’s wife.) Hall learned this story from the resident of the Governor’s Mansion, Henry W. Fleury, who had served as private secretary to Arizona’s first territorial governor, John N. Goodwin, and had arrived in Prescott in 1864. He had first-hand knowledge of Maggie and her flourishing rose bush and as Hall left and passed by the rose, she took a few leaves and pressed them into a book. Hall later wrote that when she was in the mansion that the house seemed full of Maggie’s spirit and every time she passed the structure, she’d see the attractive young face behind the window in the room where Maggie died.

Many years later in 1929, Hall acquired the mansion, and the rose bush and other plants brought to Arizona by early settlers were nurtured and well-cared for. One rumor is that a former owner of the mansion, prior to Hall’s acquisition, wanted to tear out the historic rose bush, but was stopped just in time. As the decades passed, a rose garden took shape at the Sharlot Hall Museum and now contains more than 260 roses planted in honor of Arizona’s pioneer women.

In 1934, the Coconino Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) presented a cutting from the rose to Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff during a campus beautification project.

The rose was planted near the main entrance to Old Main on north campus and close to the DAR’s historic George Washington Elm tree. In the 1990s, during renovations to Old Main, the NAU greenhouse staff took clippings from the rose in case the original was harmed. Interest in the clippings evolved into a fundraising project for the Coconino Chapter DAR to support preservation of the rose and elm. Since then, hundreds of cuttings have been planted across the state.

The plant is thought be of the Boursault rose family and is a hardy shrub/bush that can grow to a huge size in a sunny location. The pink/ red flowers are not as showy as many other roses, but its ability to thrive in a harsh climate is testimony to the early Arizona settlers.

— S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of the author.

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