On-Going Story Series

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Written by Adjunct Curator of History, Dr. Eduardo Pagan

John (Jack) Swilling

“When A Knife and A Shotgun Ruled in Wickenburg”

John William “Jack” Swilling was a man you did not want to cross.

He could be awfully mean when drunk, which was often. And when he wasn’t drunk, he was on morphine. Sometimes he was on both. He fit right in with many of the rough characters who first came to the territory in the early days.

But since Swilling had studied law in Texas, Wickenburg miners thought that he was the best man to become the first Justice of the Peace in Wickenburg. They elected him to the post in 1866, replacing the unofficial camp judge who had presided over disagreements. Swilling’s term of office would always be remembered for his aggressive prosecution of anyone who disturbed the peace.

Jack Swilling came back to the Hassayampa River after the Civil War. He was a native of Georgia who had served in the Arizona Territory on both sides of the conflict. Once, while out scouting as a Gila Ranger, he saw what looked like gold in the Hassayampa, so after the war, he returned to take a closer look.

Henry Wickenburg was developing the Vulture strike when Swilling rode up, and the two started a partnership. Swilling built the first stamp mill in the territory for Henry, using the power of the river. Replacing the original arrastra, the new mill sped the process of refining ore and increased the mine’s capacity.

Wickenburg was still a raw camptown, little more than a collection of ramadas and tarps stretched between trees. The town jail was an open-air calaboose, consisting of a leg iron stapled to a 500-pound cottonwood stump that had been dug up and hauled to the middle of the encampment.

During Swilling’s tenure, several Latin American miners collectively known as “Chilenos” loved to gather at the Hassayampa Saloon. As alcohol began to loosen them up, they raised their voices in the songs from their home countries, and they could be heard throughout the camp. Swilling, in an irascible mood, ordered a stop to the singing.

 José Gonzalez, one of the miners, boasted that he would kill Swilling if he tried to arrest him for singing. Swilling was not one to back down from such a challenge.

Well-motivated by alcohol and morphine, Swilling loaded his shotgun and headed to the saloon, where he found Gonzalez. Everyone around him fled the establishment as soon as they saw Swilling stride in. Gonzalez raised his hands, but then managed to throw a knife at Swilling. He missed, and Swilling unloaded both barrels into Gonzalez. Then he pulled the dead man’s head by his hair and scalped him.

Swilling carried that scalp on display through the dusty streets of Wickenburg as a warning to anyone else inclined to challenge him.

Even an inveterate scallywag can do something good.

When Swilling’s term ended in 1867, he proposed a scheme to Henry Wickenburg to solve the food needs of the miners. The hills beyond the Hassayampa riverbed were difficult to farm, and Jack convinced Henry to underwrite a project to hire teams of men to clear out the ancient Hohokam canals in the Salt River Valley, some 50 miles to the south. The canals had been overgrown with desert brush for centuries.

The clearing of the ancient canals paved the way for the agricultural communities of Phoenix, Glendale, and Peoria, which then produced the food needed at the Vulture Mine. State Route 60—Grand Avenue—became the corridor where the wealth from the mines flowed down to Phoenix, and the goods and products of the Salt River Valley flowed up to Wickenburg. Swilling’s ditch company became the forerunner to the Salt River Project.

Jack Swilling’s rifle can be seen on display in the Desert Caballeros Western Museum. The complete story can be found at westernmusuem.org under the education tab.

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