by Jay Cravath
An ancient set of Native American paths and the natural flow of the Gila River created a major artery through pioneer Arizona. Born from the rain and snow of the Gila wilderness, this waterway carved a channel through New Mexico and along the southern edges of our state. Its route became known as the California Trail - the southernmost version to hold that moniker.
Petroglyphs of Kokopelli suggest stories of a deformed flute player originating deep in Mexico and wandering along this path. Archaeology of the area suggests significant trading: macaw feathers, turquoise, seashells, corn - items that became adornment and tools of native Arizonans. The Hohokam, meaning "those who have gone" in O'odham (formerly known as Pima), built vast canals to direct water from the river for irrigation. Using simple sticks and baskets, they extended some of these canals up to 26 miles, 14 feet wide and 6 feet deep.
In the 17th century, Father Eusebio Kino traveled widely through the region proselytizing, but also sharing his gifts of agriculture and animal husbandry, and in 1691 he visited the O'odham at their request. He and his fellow brother of the cloth, Frey Marcus De Niza, pressed forth on the Gila and trails webbing from it, spreading the gospel with their faith as shields.
The famous story of Olive Oatman's captivity begins along the Gila. Her parents belonged to a Mormon sect who saw California as the "intended gathering place" rather than Salt Lake City. Tired of waiting for their traveling companions at Maricopa Wells, the Oatmans continued alone. On their fourth day on the trail to Yuma, a group of Indians stopped them to ask for tobacco. Then without warning, they attacked, killing all except Olive and her sister Mary Ann, and leaving their brother Lorenzo for dead.
The girls were taken to an area around Prescott and treated essentially as slaves. After a year, a Mohave tribe heard of the girls and bartered for their trade. Olive, 15 at the time, and Mary Ann, 8, became the adopted daughters of the chief Espanesay and his wife Aespaneo. They were facially tattooed in the tradition of the tribe and taught the traditional roles of Mohave women. Mary Ann succumbed to starvation during a drought year, but Olive would later be taken back to Fort Yuma and, after her story became a best-selling book, toured the United States telling her remarkable tale.
When John Butterfield established a stage route from St. Louis to San Francisco in 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail wound through 2800 miles of western territory, hugging the banks of the Gila from New Mexico to Yuma. A correspondent with the New York Herald who took the entire trip - and sent dispatches along the way - remarked that, "Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like. I've just had 24 days of it."