“If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”
― Edward Abbey,
Elisha Marcus Reavis, 1827-1896. “Hermit of the Superstitions” to Anglos, “White Devil” to the Apaches. Bordering on mythical, this mountain-man is the definition of western grit. No “claimed” relation to James Addison Reavis.
The first Anglo-American to settle in what is now known as the Superstition Mountains, Reavis planted himself a garden in what is still known today as Reavis Ranch. Reavis’s mountain abode sits smack dab in the middle of the Superstition Mountain Wilderness. The spring, located in this high mountain valley is the only reliable perennial water source in the entire mountain range. Here Reavis planted himself a garden and lived for years supplying area miners and the townsfolk of Florence, Mesa, and Phoenix with fresh vegetables. It is said that in the twenty years he farmed this little slice of heaven he sold over $30,000 worth of produce. The two decades Reavis spent living alone in the Supes made him a legend in his own time.
Like all frontiersmen, Reavis’s life was rugged and full of struggle. Born in Beardstown, Illinois, he traveled to California circa 1850, married, and worked a placer claim along the banks of the San Gabriel. Leaving his wife (as she could not travel due to a serious heart condition) and child in CA he left for the Arizona Territory in 1869 and acquired a position transporting supplies for the U.S. Army over military trails. Soon thereafter his wife died, and being heartbroken he holed himself up in his mountain abode.
Choosing to make your home in the Arizona wilderness in the mid-1800’s was no small decision and those who did often found themselves the fatal victims of Apache raiding parties. This being the reality at the time Reavis took the opportunity early on to buffer himself from his warfaring neighbors.
It was just after dark and three Apache lay dead having fallen to his .38-40 Winchester. Reavis was holed up in his adobe home firing through the slit in his door which he had cut just for this purpose. Perhaps he thought he wasn’t going to make it out alive, or maybe he just didn’t want to kill any more Apaches; he stripped off all his clothes, and with a butcher knife in each hand charged the Apache camp yelling and screaming like a lunatic all the while. The Apaches took to the hills and never again bothered him. Reavis knew that Apaches had a taboo against killing or molesting in any manner the mentally insane. This tactic proved quite effective as they never again bothered him.
Even in the mid-1800’s Reavis was quite the sight. With long, unkempt and unwashed matted hair and beard Reavis was the proverbial mountain-man poster child. Beaming small, piercing eyes he maintained a savage and even feral appearance for even the old west. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reavis was quite educated and kept a personal library at his ranch as he was an avid reader. There is even an 1850 census report that proclaims him in the occupation of a medical student. One can imagine that for a man having lived alone for as long as he did; he had quite a lot of time to ponder the deeper trenches of ideas, and philosophy, and literature.
When it came to manners, here too Reavis was quite the paradox. He was known to be courteous to all he met and especially respectful towards women. On top of everything else, he was never known to turn a stranger from his doorstep, instead always offering up his last bit of food for anyone traveling through. Quite the dichotomy for a man who so valued his solitude.
Reavis died April 1896 in the mountains which he loved so much. His body was found decapitated, and half eaten by his dogs in a tributary of Rogers Canyon. Due to the state of the body, it was decided to bury him where he was found. For those of you who willing to do a bit of research and make the trek down Rogers Canyon there, you will find a pile of rocks and a marker bearing his name. There is some speculation as to how he died, but it is commonly agreed upon that he more than likely succumbed to heart failure. His mules were found still tied to a tree, and the camp and produce wagon seemed undisturbed. Still, Others proclaim that the Apaches had a change of heart and killed him for violating the abode of their “Thunder God.” Having left the mules and valuables as a clear sign that this was not robbery, but instead an overt warning to not trespass into the Superstitions.