Posted on February 13, 2015

By Fred Veil

The events which led to the creation, settlement and development of the Arizona Territory were strongly influenced by the policies and executive actions of our nation’s 16th president––Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.

Lincoln, of course, presided over the horrific Civil War that tore our nation asunder and consumed his and the nation’s attention for over four years.  He also was the driving force behind the executive and legislative actions that resulted in the abolishment of slavery; i.e., the Emancipation Proclamation and the adoption of the 13th amendment to the Constitution.  For these actions––as commander in chief and as the conscience of the nation––Lincoln is well known.

It is also well known––at least to students of Arizona history––that in the midst of the War, Lincoln, on February 24, 1863, signed the legislation that created the Arizona Territory. Undoubtedly, the Congress that enacted the legislation and the president that signed it were influenced by the prospect of mineral wealth in the area that ultimately comprised the territory.  The War was costly to the federal government and the promise of large deposits of gold and silver was a strong argument in favor of territorial status.

Lesser known is the important role Lincoln played in the westward expansion of the nation. In 1861, when Lincoln took office, the trans-Mississippi west was comprised largely of territories––only California, Texas, Kansas, Oregon and Minnesota had achieved statehood.  Within two years, he had signed into law the Homestead Act, the Railroad Act and the College Land Grant Act.  These bills, especially the Homestead Act, opened the door to the settlement of the west, including Arizona, its development, and ultimately statehood.

Clearly, Lincoln’s policies and actions were important to the creation, settlement and development of the Arizona Territory.  He was also connected to Arizona in other ways––by a silver inkwell and a gold nugget.

Charles Debrille Poston came to Arizona in 1854 and in partnership with Major Samuel P. Heintzelman formed the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company to exploit the mineral riches, primarily silver, in the area that had recently been acquired by the United States from Mexico through the Gadsden Purchase.  When the Civil War broke out in 1861, and the army moved its Arizona-based troops east, leaving Arizona settlers to fend for themselves against the marauding Apaches, Poston shut down his mines and relocated to Washington DC, where he lobbied for the establishment of Arizona as a territory separate from New Mexico.  When Arizona was granted separate territorial status Poston commemorated the event by commissioning a solid silver inkwell as a gift to the president.  The inkwell, fashioned in the form of the Capitol dome surmounted by the Statue of Freedom, and with figures of a frontiersman and an Indian woman, was made by the Tiffany Company out of pure Arizona silver.  It was presented to Lincoln several weeks before his assassination on April 14, 1865.  The inkwell now resides at the Library of Congress.

The story of the gold nugget is equally interesting.  In 1863, some months after Lincoln had signed the legislation granting Arizona territorial status, Jack Swilling, a former Confederate officer who is best known for his later role in the construction of the irrigation canals that opened the Salt River Valley to agricultural production, and ultimately to the founding of Phoenix, was a member of a party that made a rich gold discovery on the top of Antelope Mountain in west-central Arizona.  In August of that year, Swilling gave New Mexico Surveyor General John Clark two nuggets that he had pried from the ground with a butcher knife, to convey to Lincoln, to demonstrate the mineral wealth of the nation’s newest territory.  Clark turned the specimens over to General James Carleton, the military commander of the New Mexico and Arizona territories, who in turn forwarded them to Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, with the suggestion that “the largest piece of gold [be given] to Mr. Lincoln.”

The Sharlot Hall Museum will present “Lincoln and the Presidency,” an exhibit that will open to the public on February 13 and continue through President’s Day (February 16).  The exhibit will feature artifacts from the Museum that have not been exhibited for fifty years, and others from a private collection.  For additional details call 445-3122, or go to www.sharlot.org.

“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.