“We all got holes to fill
And them holes is all that’s real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own”
—Townes Van Zandt
Introducing my absolute all-time favorite Arizona legend. A bipolar, drug addicted, alcoholic, gun-toting, frontiersman. Explosive and tortured, a cunning opportunist, visionary, and the founding father of Phoenix, AZ, my personal hero John William “Jack” Swilling.
By today’s standards, Jack would have been considered unstable at the very least and more than likely shunned due to his unpredictable and often volatile nature. In my (not so medical) opinion Jack was more than likely bi-polar and perhaps psychopathic. But the old west was a wilderness and more often than not the wilderness is where men like Jack thrived.
I’ll give you a heads up, this isn’t a romantic old west tale where the hero rides victoriously into the sunset, but rather one of constant setback, hardship, and eventually tragedy. Looking back on Jack’s life the impression I’m left with is one of a long miserable grind. A life filled with conflict, personal demons, violence, and pain at regular intervals. In spite of all of this Jack was an incredibly productive individual, more so than most men who never encounter such odds, and it is this tenacity and indomitable spirit that causes me to look up to this man.
Born April 1, 1830 – August 12, 1878, John William “Jack” Swilling has also come to be known as Jack of all trades, Tragic Jack, and the Father of Phoenix. Whatever one chooses to call Mr. Swilling, one thing is a fact, Jack left his mark on history and to call him a remarkable man would be an understatement, for throughout his life he kept many roles; among them, and often concurrently-
- Soldier in the Georgia Volunteers, (fighting in seven battles during the American Mexican war.)
- Confederate Soldier
- Teamster on an Arkansas wagon train
- Mine and Mill Owner
- Saloon Owner
- Indian fighter
- Politician and Public Servant
- Canal Builder
- Drug addict
- Prisoner (Again)
But where to begin? Although much has been written about Jack Swilling, mystery and intrigue still surround much of his life. Accused of killing more men then one can count on two hands, Jack eventually died in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
Jack first took another man’s life at the age of seventeen and it was this singular event which laid the path Jack would find himself traveling for the rest of his life. The incident occurred in Jack’s hometown village. As the story goes, Jack was attacked by a vicious dog as he was walking down the street. The dog’s owner, in a drunken fit, spurred on the attack and made no attempt to control the animal. It was then Jack drew his knife and killed the animal in self-defense. The owner who had just been laughing and cheering on the attack became furious and came at jack with a length of wood. Although warned by Jack to stop, the man continued his attack and Jack was forced to kill him as well.
Due to the inevitability of retribution from the man’s kin, Jack was forced to leave his hometown. He enlisted in the Georgia Volunteers where he fought in seven campaigns during the Mexican American War. This time spent fighting hardened Jack and he became known as a good soldier. He came home to Georgia but tempers were still hot concerning the man he had killed so he signed on with a mule train and found himself in Missouri. He wasn’t long in Missouri when he became involved in a bar fight resulting in injuries of which the consequences would define the rest of his life, eventually leading to his imprisonment and death.
It was there in Missouri Jack was struck in the head with the butt of a pistol which wound up with a fractured skull. He was also shot during this encounter, but it was the skull fracture which almost killed him. The bullet having never being removed, lodged near his spine and caused him severe back pain and spasms for the rest of his life.
Jack was prescribed morphine for the pain which he began taking regularly. The doctor’s orders were to “diluted with whiskey and take as needed” and you can imagine the results. It was at point Jack became an opium addict, and later chloral and laudanum, and it was this addiction which caused the wild mood swings and violent outbursts which later paved the way for his demise.
His first wife died after they had a daughter, and leaving her daughter with the family he made his way west as a teamster. Once in Arizona, he tried his hand at prospecting in Gila City, however, having minimal success decided to join up with the Gila Rangers, a group of men intent on tracking down, and eliminating the hostile Indians in the area, primarily the Yavapai.
In early 1863 Jack was instrumental is the capture of Mangus Colorados, the still formidable seventy-five-year-old seven foot Apache chief. Mangus Colorados would soon die a dishonorable death at the hands of two cowardly guards who both shot him after poking and burning him with their red-hot bayonets which they had heated up in the campfire. Jack was soon thereafter party to Peeples expedition which located gold at Rich Hill in the rugged mountains between Prescott and Wickenburg.
Apparently quite the progressive for his time, Jack next married one Trinidad Majia Escalante, a seventeen-year-old girl of Mexican descent. Trinidad bore him seven children, (five girls and two boys) and they adopted two Apache orphans, a boy, and a girl.
Among Mr. Swilling’s less than honorable acts out west include cow-hiding a man nearly to death for slandering a lady; cutting the ears off a man he’d just shot down off a horse and killed outside the Peeples Saloon in Wickenburg and shooting a man in the stomach with a shotgun after the man made it known to Jack that he voted opposite of Jack in an election. Jack was obviously unstable, but to be completely fair about it, some of the men Jack killed probably needed killing anyway.
On the other side of the coin some of his more civic deeds include; Postmaster of Phoenix, Election inspector, helping to build the road between Black Canyon City and Camp Verde, which later became known as Swilling’s Road; helping to name the town on Phoenix, AZ; discovering and digging out portions of the ancient Hohokam canal system and creating the Swilling Ditch Company, Pueblo Viejo Ditch Company, and the Phoenix Ditch Company. Jack also started some of the first farms and ranching in the Phoenix and Black Canyon area and is credited with being the first white man to discover and scout out the Hassayampa River. Quite the dossier to be sure.
Jack rode with heavyweights such as George Monroe, Pauline Weaver, Colonel Snively, A. H. Peeples, and King Woolsey, all fierce and capable men in their own right. These are the men who opened up the Arizona territory and paved the way for future generations of Americans. Jack was quite fond of and beholden to Colonel Snively who had taken Jack under his wing when he first came out west. However, his friends were not able to help him when disaster struck.
Jack was living in Gillette (now a ghost town outside of Black Canyon City) when it was decided that Jack, Andrew Kirby, and George Monroe were to embark on an expedition to retrieve the body of Colonel Snively, who had been killed by Apaches years before. They were also intent on doing some prospecting in the Bradshaw mountains along the way. Truthfully told the expedition was requested on behalf of his wife, as Jack had been on a bender and was becoming quite weak, and abusive. The idea was to sober him up and renew him once again. This wouldn’t be the first time Jack’s friends and family had performed an intervention on Jack’s behalf, but it would be the last.
The expedition took them west along the southern edge of the Bradshaw Mountains, circling to Snively’s Holes, north to Castle Hot Springs, then back East again to Gillette. All went as planned. Prospects were located and Colonel Snively’s body was recovered and brought back. However upon returning it was discovered that a robbery had taken place just outside of Wickenburg and the bandits had followed the same route as the Swilling party. Jack and his friends were accused of this deed and Swilling found himself in the Yuma prison sharing a cell with an oriental who had chopped off the head of another with a mattock. Jack died shortly thereafter at around 105 pounds, a ghost of a man who had been six feet tall and solid muscle.
Jack had gone peacefully to the Yuma Territory jail to stand in front of the judge and defend himself for he believed he had nothing to fear because he had committed no crime. What Jack didn’t know was that political forces were at work behind the scene. It was no secret that Jack Swilling was a half-mad, but what Jack didn’t exactly realize was how tired of him some of the more prominent business and town leaders had become. You see jack was of the old guard, one of the first of the pioneers in the Phoenix area. He was hard, crass, and unrefined. Phoenix was growing, civilized families were moving in and many folks weren’t willing to put up with Jack’s “frontier behavior.”
In any case, jack ended up spending 6 months in that Yuma prison and it was during the heat of summer in the sweltering lower Colorado river basin with the humidity of the monsoon rains that Jack found himself at the end of his rope. Jack knew that he was sick and he knew he was dying. Previous attempts to get released had failed as his political enemies were manipulating the legal system and had paid a man to bare false witness against Jack. The man was paid to say that he had heard Jack bragging about committing the robbery and it seemed even his attorney couldn’t help him. It was in a final, last-ditch effort that Jack wrote the following open letter to the people of Arizona in a plea for help.
To the public:
Jack Swilling, whose doors have always been open to the poor alike with those of wealth and plenty, looks forth from the prison cell to the blue heavens where reigns the Supreme Being who will judge of my innocent of the crime which has been brought against me by adventurers and unprincipled reward hunters. I have no remorse of conscience for anything I have ever done while in my sane mind. In 1854 I was struck on the head with a heavy revolver and my skull broken, and was also shot in the left side, and to the present time carry the bullet in my body. No one knows what I have suffered from those wounds. At times they render me almost crazy. Doctors prescribed, years ago, morphine, which seemed to give relief, but the use of which, together with strong drink has at times- as I have been informed by my nobble wife and good friends- made me mad, and during these spells I have been cruel to her; at all other times I have been a kind husband. During these periods of debauch, caused by the mixture of morphine and liquor, I have insulted my best friends, but never when I was Jack Swilling free from these poisonous influences. I have tried hard to cure myself of the growing appetite for the morphine, but the craving for it was greater than my will could resist. I have gone to the rescue of my fellow men when they were surrounded by Indians-I have given to those who needed- I have furnished shelter to the sick. From the governors down to the lowest Mexican in the land have I extended my hospitality, and oh, my God, how am I paid for it all? Thrown into prison accused of a crime that I would rather suffer crucifixion than commit. Taken from my wife and little children who are left out in this cold, cold world all alone. It this my reward for the kindness I have done to my fellow man and the pay I must receive for having done a Christian act with Monroe and Kirby, that of going after the bones of my poor old friend Snively and taking them to Gillett and burying them by the side of my dear little child? George Monroe, Andy Kirby and myself are as innocent of the charge brought against us of robbing the stage as an infant babe. We went out to a Christian act- oh God! Is it possible that poor old Jack Swilling should be accused of such a crime? But the trouble has been brought on by crazy drunken talk. I am willing to give up life to save Monroe and Kirby, as God knows, they are innocent. Oh, think of my poor babies and you would know that I would not leave them for millions of money. I am persecuted and prosecuted until I cannot bear it longer. Look at me and look at them. This cruel charge has brought me, for the first time in my life, under a jailer’s key. Poor L. G. Taylor, whom I liked and tried to help, has been one of those who have wrought my ruin, and for what I cannot conceive unless it was the reward money or to rob my family out of the old ranch. The reason I write this is because I may be found dead any morning in my cell. I may drop off the same as poor Tom McWilliams did at Fort Goodwin. My persecutors will remember me. And may God help my poor family through this cold world, is my prayer.
John W Swilling
A few days after penning this letter, John William Swilling was found dead in a Yuma prison cell. Infinitely more tragic, only three weeks after the death of Jack Swilling the guilty party of that stagecoach robbery was captured. Furthermore, it was discovered and came to the general knowledge that those responsible for the arrest and prosecution of Jack S. did so and manipulated the legal system for financial gain, however, seeming to add to the tragedy, they were never investigated or prosecuted. Jack’s family and kids faded off into obscurity, and the west rolled on.
This is the true story of Jack Swilling, aka Tragic Jack, founder, and father of Phoenix, Arizona. Was Mr. Jack Swilling all bad? No…. Was he all good? Most certainly not….. Perhaps he was a man perfect for his time. Maybe it was a miracle he lived as long as he did. I’m not sure. But history is what it is and Jack Swilling most certainly left his mark. He is buried in an unmarked grave at the Yuma Prison and efforts are being made to at least mark and honor it. If one wishes to glimpse a little shred of Swilling history they can visit Maricopa Manor in central Phoenix. This sprawling house was the original Swilling ranch and now functions as a bed and breakfast. It has undergone 6 renovations but the history is still there.
For a detailed account of the life of Jack Swilling, I highly recommend “Tragic Jack” The True Story of Arizona Pioneer John William Swilling. Written by R. Michael Wilson.
“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds;
our planet is the mental institution of the universe.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe