By Michael Wurtz
(Editor's note: This article was published in advance of April Fool's Day in 2001. It should not be taken seriously at all.)
The year 1866 was a particularly wet one in the Arizona Territory. The miners and territorial officials who called the “Wilderness Capital” home quickly learned that El Niño (unnamed at the time) could punctuate and create the unexpected in our otherwise dry climate.
In that same year, seafarers from around the world took advantage of the territory’s swollen rivers and sailed inland for the first time. As with any large influx of people these “men of the sea” had their share of “no-goods” and swashbucklers.
The pirates, as skilled as they were, quickly sailed further upstream than any other ships. They reached the Verde Valley in October 1866. Soldiers garrisoned at Fort Verde were rightly surprised and, not wanting any trouble, told the pirates that a treasure chest of booty could be found upstream.
The Fort Verde Post Returns showed this encounter and the reason for setting the boatmen farther.”
“Col. Roberts took a page from the one of the oldest tricks in the book. He figured they woud (sic) not stay long if they knew the bounty in Prescott was not worth the trip.” So, they sailed up the Verde until they took a left turn at Granite Creek. They continued until they ran aground, from what archaeologists’ best guess is, about 100 feet short of the bridge to the football field at Mile High Middle School.
These strangers from the sea immediately got down to business and built a dockyard in the area where Goodwin Street crosses Granite Creek today. Like most pirates of the time, they sacked and pillaged our little town, but there were exceptions to this behavior. Some of them decided right then and there to retire and enjoy the waning years of their lives in our mild climate and good health care system. Others saw an opportunity in the growth. Some sailors dismantled their ships and began to develop the downtown area. The unfortunate consequences of that was a town built from dried ship wood. Frequent fires ran unhindered throughout town until the big fire of 1900.
After the pirates had gone, the townspeople finally started to use bricks and other fire-resistant material. (One downtown architect saluted the pirates with gargoyles of their likenesses around the top floor of one of Prescott’s most famous hotels.)
The Arizona Territorial Legislature was still meeting in Prescott when the pirates first arrived. Although many pirates did some fine deeds for Prescott, many could not shake their old ways. Some joined the Legislature almost immediately and began enacting laws to build large salt water reservoirs to be stocked with ocean fish and include plenty of space for turning around large schooners. In one of the greatest single acts of “mutiny,” the Legislature voted to move the capital to Tucson. The Pirates never forgave the governing officials for making Prescott “walk the plank” that moved the seat of territorial government to the most arid region of the land, thus ensuring that no pirate would ever want to serve in our governmental system, again.
Much of the essence of our Western culture in Prescott can also be attributed to the pirates, according to pirate descendant, Mona McCroskey. The holds of the pirate ships were crammed with seasick, but wily, cattle and swine. The animals escaped to the nearby mountains. The cattle flourished in the wild, by the swine were nearly eradicated by the manufacture of piggin’ strings. However, it should be noted that they have recently enjoyed a dramatic comeback, emerging from the chaparrals in great numbers to consume their weight daily in birdseed, old potatoes, and tulip bulbs.
Some pirates gladly became landlubbers. The hearty renegade swashbucklers amused themselves by chasing and capturing wild and wayward cattle. Knot tying skills learned at sea were useful in building loops, tying cattle to trees, and yoking them together. Descendants of these piratical entrepreneurs relate how, for diversion, these “cowboys” ad they came to be called, walked the planks of Whiskey Row to revel in the bars and brothels, a throwback to their wild seafaring ways. One of the most useful refrains after a night out drinking was eventually adopted by the famous lawmen that passed through Prescott in the late 1870s on their way to the history books at the OK Corral in Tombstone. Even today, the name “Earp” inspires both history and gastronomical problems.
The lifestyle of these landlocked sea-robbers contributed to t he development of sports in the Prescott area. The new diversions included wild-cow milking and other competitions that would give the men a chance to show off their new-found skills. Contestants in these sports began to gather for an annual competition, which gained renown as the World’s Oldest Rodeo.
The pirate legacy hangs on in Prescott and Arizona today. Archeological digs throughout Arizona have turned up peg legs, parrot skeletons, and hooks. If you ever get to East Golf Links Road in Tucson you will see the best preserved, yet hopelessly stuck, ship from the famous battle that resulted in the territorial government returning to Prescott in 1877.
Other signs of the legacy include and influence on Southwestern art, which can be seen each year in town when artists invade the courthouse plaza to sell their wares. You will notice that there is always at least one painting, napkin holder, car keys hood, or sweatshirt that has the famous coyote with a bandana gracing his neck silk-screened across it. Early pirates used the bandana for more practical reasons around their heads, but the connection is indisputable.
As mentioned earlier, the pirates had all but completely gone before the 1900 fire. There seems to be no reason for their rapid departure. There are reasons to believe that they may have started that conflagration that almost destroyed the spirit of Prescott; however, local accounts from the papers indicate that many of the pirates who were still in town lost their ships that same night.
(Michael Wurtz also does legitimate history at the Sharlot Hall Museum’s Archives)