By Allan and Cathie Englekirk

Arizona today, with some of the most beautiful scenery, best weather and greatest variety of things to do, is one of the fastest growing states in America.  However, it wasn’t always so popular.  Only Native American tribes, adventurous mountain men in search of pelts, and perhaps a thousand Mexican citizens lived in present-day Arizona at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848.  These resident Mexican nationals had the option of claiming American citizenship (“by election”) under treaty terms that transferred Arizona (and, later, the Gadsden Purchase) to the United States.  This was not an option for those Mexican citizens who came to Arizona at a later time.

The discovery of gold in the western part of North America convinced large numbers of Mexicans to surge northward as early as the 1840s, and their numbers increased significantly with the beginning of the California Gold Rush in 1849.  The discovery of gold by Paulino Weaver near Ehrenberg, east of the Colorado River, attracted over four hundred Mexican miners to that location.  Many of these same miners drifted eastward to Prescott when the “diggings” along the Colorado were depleted.

The Walker party’s Pioneer Mining District initially would not allow Mexicans to search for gold in the same area they were working.  They resolved that, “No Mexican shall have the right to buy, take up, or preempt a claim on this river for the term of six months.”  They also declared that Mexicans were restricted to working claims in the area only if they were employed by members of their mining party.  Other employers were required to submit the names of Mexicans to the Office of the District Recorder.  In the Weaver District, some 10 miles to the south of the Walker area, district laws required that those who employed Mexicans in that region be “responsible for their good behavior.”  If they failed to do so, they might be demanded to “forfeit” their investment in their claim.

The experience of a young Mexican boy named Bernardo Freyes, while working for a member of the Weaver mining group provides a somewhat more positive image of the treatment of Mexicans by other miners in the mountains south of Prescott in the mid-1860s.  While attempting to find his runaway dog near the top of one of the mountains in the Sierra Prieta Range, Bernardo discovered some rocks where nuggets of gold were lying out in the open.  The boy revealed his finding to his employer, John W. (Jack) Swilling, who accompanied the boy back up the hill.  Bernardo had discovered one of the most lucrative gold finds in the Bradshaw/Sierra Prieta range.  Swilling and five partners wasted no time in staking claims in close vicinity to the original discovery.  Reportedly, Swilling alone extracted $10,000 to $25,000 worth of gold from the immediate area. As for Freyes, he was awarded $3,000 and allowed to return to Sonora for a short time before resuming his duties at the mining location.

The special census of early 1864 for Judicial District Three (the basis for early Yavapai County) reveals much about the presence of residents born in Mexico.  Overall, one-third of the 1000-plus males recorded were born either in Mexico or in territory once part of Mexico, as were three-quarters of the 49 women and girls.  (Of those individuals born in Mexico, nearly 70 percent claimed American citizenship by election.)  Men born in Mexico accounted for nearly 70 per cent of those who gave mining for their occupations and almost 60 per cent of those listed as laborers.  Many of the remainder gave no occupation, but the ones who did covered a range of trades such as blacksmith, shoemaker, butcher, and carpenter.

Some of the occupations given by the males born in Mexico seem to be whimsical or given in jest.  There was one whiskey seller, one sailor and a “whatever.”  There also were eight Mexican merchants, operating from hastily erected stores, happily selling their goods hauled from New Mexico in exchange for flakes and nuggets of gold from miners.  One of those original stores now stands on the grounds of the Sharlot Hall Museum as Fort Misery.

A future Days Past article will feature the contribution of Mexican-American pioneer Manuel Yrisarri, one of early Prescott’s first merchants and property owners.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.