By Al Bates

A chance encounter at a Fourth of July outing in 1869 led to the adoption of an orphan Indian child and, many years later, to one of Territorial Arizona’s most bitter estate settlements.  Feelings were so intense that at one point a rifle was fired into a room occupied by a woman and her two young children.

It began at a Point of Rocks picnic northeast of Prescott when Judge and Mrs. Hezekiah Brooks and others greeted a troop of Fort Whipple Cavalry returning from a raid on a small Indian band.  Ed Peck, the troop’s civilian guide, carried with him a small bundle that proved to be an orphaned Indian girl two years of age or less.  Mrs. Brooks, who was childless, asked Peck to give her the child.  Two days later Peck delivered her to Mr. and Mrs. Brooks who named her Bessie and committed to raise her as their own daughter.

As related earlier, Bessie’s adoptive parents were well known and highly respected in Prescott.  Hezekiah Brooks was active in local politics and Mary Catherine Brooks was noted for her charitable works.

Bessie was raised as a normal young lady of the Victorian era, attending school and church in Prescott.  A Prescott newspaper described the adult Bessie thus: “[A] native daughter of Arizona who was brought up in the household of Judge Hezekiah Brooks and is highly spoken of by all who have met her.”

In 1891 Bessie lost half of her adoptive parents when Mrs. Brooks died suddenly of pneumonia.  More misfortune arrived a few months later when the Brooks’ brand new home with all its new furnishings burned to the ground.

Bessie next came to the attention of the local press in 1897 when she was engaged to marry James Edgar.  Legality of the marriage was questioned because of miscegenation laws then in effect, but Judge Brooks quickly laid that issue to rest.  The local newspaper reported it this way: “At the time of her marriage to Mr. Edgar . . . there was an Arizona Statute prohibiting an Indian and a White person marrying.  When it seemed that the marriage would be thus averted, Mr. Brooks apparently made affidavit that the bride-to-be, Bessie Brooks, was his legally adopted daughter, and therefore, by adoption, a white girl.”

In early 1907 Judge Brooks left Prescott for Cleveland, Ohio, where he hoped for medical treatment during a visit with relatives in that area.  He died there May 30, 1907.  Within two weeks Bessie learned to her dismay that one of her father’s nephews intended to claim the Judge’s estate for himself and other blood relatives.

A shocked Bessie, who had every reason to expect to be the Judge’s heir, protested and, on advice of a lawyer, moved with her family into her father’s home. There was a dispute over possession of the house, and a shot was fired into a room occupied by Bessie and her two children.  A man named Otis was arrested but charges were not pressed.

Bessie’s appeal for a share of the Brooks estate was denied on the grounds that Judge Brooks had died without will or testament and that there was no record of a legal adoption of Bessie.  What happened to her in later years is mostly unknown, but in the end she was living on the Colorado River Indian Reservation and died at the Colorado River Hospital on October 16, 1945.  The immediate cause of her death was listed as heart disease.

The Brooks’ commitment to Bessie’s adoption was clear, so why was there no record? To begin with, Arizona Territory did not have a statute for adoption until well after Bessie came to live with them.  It seems that there is no record of Bessie’s adoption because her adoptive parents believed that such an “after the fact” action was not necessary.  Something harder to explain is Judge Brooks’ failure to leave a will.  Of all people, he should have been aware of the problems he was leaving behind.

In any event, a story that began with a tragic loss that was softened by the best of charitable intentions and years of loving care ended with an unnecessarily sour encounter with the Territorial legal system.

Here’s a tip of the editor’s green eyeshade thanking Murray Smolens for uncovering the details of Bessie’s final days.

“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.