By Al Bates

History is not just about dates or events, it is the story of people and how they affected events and how events affected them.  This, then, is an attempt to tell of Fort Whipple's colorful past by combining dates and events with stories of people who passed through its gates.  This is a salute to the people of Fort Whipple.  Some of them left their names as city streets or county roads, or creeks or other landmarks.  Some of them are still quite famous and others are almost entirely forgotten.  Some of them spent years at Whipple and others were just passing through. 

First Image: Second Image: Third Image: Some of the people of Fort Whipple are remembered among early Prescott street names: Carleton, Willis, Walker, McCormick and Goodwin.  Others who left their names behind as local landmarks include: Weaver, Groom, Glassford, and Benson.  There are names in the Fort Whipple story that are, or were, instantly recognizable; and there's a whiskey-soaked rascal called Sugar Foot Jack who rests somewhere in unmourned oblivion.

Because of the importance of the Fort to Prescott's economic and social life there was scarcely an early resident of Prescott whose life was not affected in some way.  So the story of Fort Whipple is not just of the military men and their dependents; it also includes many of Prescott's pioneers in a variety of ways. 

The first name in our story is that of Whipple itself.  Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple came to southern Arizona in 1849, to help survey the new border between the United States and Mexico.  He returned in 1853, as the leader of an 8-month topographical reconnaissance to determine the suitability of a 35th parallel transcontinental train route--roughly the route of today's Interstate 40.  Whipple crossed upper Chino Valley and named it "Valle de China" because of its rich grama grass, known to Mexicans as "de China."  He also named Sitgreaves Peak and Mt. Kendrick. Whipple had a hand in starting the search for gold in this area; his report mentioned a legendary 16th century Spanish gold mine that modern prospectors still seek.  Brigadier General Whipple died from wounds suffered at the Civil War's Second Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. 

The year 1863, was an important one in the history of central Arizona, too.  First, President Lincoln signed the Organic Act that separated Arizona Territory from New Mexico Territory.  Then the first wave of gold seekers from California arrived in the form of the Walker and Weaver parties.  The circuitous route of the Walker party raised the suspicions of General James H. Carleton, commander of Union forces in the southwest.  They had first gone across northern Arizona to Colorado.  Then they went through New Mexico and the Chiricahua Apache strongholds to Tucson, a known hotbed of Confederate sympathizers.  Finally they traveled up the Hassayampa River and discovered gold near today's Prescott. 

Carleton ordered an exploratory party to investigate.  Robert Groom helped to guide the Army party from New Mexico to Central Arizona via the Whipple route rather than the longer route through Tucson.  (Groom had been in custody as a suspected Confederate sympathizer after he appeared in New Mexico looking to join up with the Walker party.)  In 1864, he laid out the original Prescott town site and later the Wickenburg town site.  When the first Army party arrived in the area, they encountered among others Pauline Weaver, Joseph R. Walker, Abraham Peeples and Henry Wickenburg. 

After the exploratory party reported back, General Carleton decided to establish a permanent military outpost in Chino Valley to keep an eye on the miners.  This would cover his army's rear and, even more importantly, keep any gold from Confederate hands . It also would provide protection for Governor Goodwin and the other Territorial officials who were on their way from the East.  General Carleton named the new outpost in honor of the recently deceased Whipple. 

The Military party numbered about 180 officers and men, with transport consisting of pack mules and ox-drawn wagons tended by civilian teamsters and drovers.  They were joined by a number of merchants with goods to sell at the new diggings.  The goods included 500 head of beef and 1500 head of sheep, many of them destined to be "appropriated" by the resident Native Americans.  Major Edward B. Willis led the expedition and became the first Fort Whipple post commander.  Captain Henry M. Benson, for whom the town of Benson, Arizona, is named, commanded one of the two companies of the 1st California Volunteer Infantry that were part of this first group. 

And that brings us to the rascal called Sugar-Foot Jack, one of the civilian teamsters for the Fort Whipple founding party.  During the trip, Jack is said to have learned that there was whiskey in one of the wagons, so he led other teamsters in a search for barrels they could drain.  They bored holes in the bottom of the loaded wagons but never hit a single whiskey barrel.  They did however tap into several sauerkraut barrels, getting faces full of brine and spoiling the kraut.  Jack went on to become a particularly merciless Indian fighter who was loathed by his contemporaries for his cruelties.  He is believed to have died in a border-town knife fight. 

The first Fort Whipple was established near Del Rio Springs, some 20 miles north of Prescott, on December 23, 1863.  It was too far from the gold panning operations on Lynx Creek and too far from timber for construction.  Its days were numbered as the government planned to move southward to a spot near a butte on Granite Creek. 

Al Bates, an Independent Researcher and is a past Sheriff of the Prescott Corral of Westerners, will follow up occasionally with more history of Fort Whipple.

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (po1929pb). Reuse only by permission.
Fort Whipple's namesake, Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, crossed Northern Arizona in 1853-4 to determine the suitability of a railroad route.  This section of map which shows Black Mountain (Granite Mountain) was drawn from his expedition.


© 2017 Sharlot Hall Museum - Library & Archives. All Rights Reserved.