PIMA — The dates for Pima’s annual Heritage Days are April 22 and 23, with the theme being “Honoring Pima’s Founders.”
Were it not for William Teeples looking for a new home to bring his families to, Pima may not have been “founded.” He was in a party of six men who had come to this area in early 1879 from Cooley’s Ranch in northern Arizona. Teeples was impressed with that part of the country and felt it was the right place. But he was alone in his favorable report. Shortly after their return, Hyrum Weech and Henry Dall arrived in their camp. They, too, were looking for a new home to bring their families from Utah and settle.
Teeples agreed to act as a guide for another trip into the Gila Valley. John W. Tanner, Ben Price and Hyrum Weech accompanied him. After looking the Valley over on both sides of the river, they decided on the south side for the settlement between two washes, Cottonwood on the west and Ash Creek on the east. They found a good Samaritan in a Mr. Markham, who gave them the loan of a harness and wagon; and by using a pocket compass, they laid out claims to 16 quarter sections of land. Cutting logs, they made a square on each corner. When they returned the wagon and harness, they discovered Mr. Markham would accept no pay. He gave them his best wishes for a safe and speedy return to their families. Along with Markham, Mr. Snider, Mr. Powers and Mr. Humphrey all had farms on the north side of the river.
Upon their return to northern Arizona, Teeples and his companions went to Snowflake to report their explorations to President Jesse N. Smith, the presiding authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for eastern Arizona. He organized them into a branch of the church, with Joseph Knight Rogers as president, William R. Teeples as first counselor, Henry Dall as second counselor and Hyrum Weech as clerk. He also gave them special instructions regarding both spiritual and secular conduct for their new homeland: “. . . to comply strictly with the law in their claims, to be honest in their dealing with the outside brethren and, if the outsiders started an enterprise which was for the public good, let them see that they could depend on the Saints to help it along . . . “
All were from Utah and looking for a new home for various reasons. Some were unhappy with the cold winters, others because of water conditions, and still others had settled in Arizona on land they had been assured was open to settlement, only to find that after building homes and improving the land, they were on a portion of the Apache Indian Reservation and would have to leave.
The original 28 consisted of Teeples, his two wives, Harriet and Caroline, and nine children; Rogers, his wife, Josephine, and three children; William Thompson, his wife and one child; Earl Haws, his wife and two children; Dall and Weech, married, but whose families were still in Utah; and John and Thomas Sessions, two unmarried men.
On April 8, 1879, after traveling 15 days over one of the worst roads in Arizona, this group of 28 arrived at their preselected site and found things as they had left them, calling their new home Smithville after President Jesse N. Smith. The following day, they all met to give thanks for their safe arrival and to ask Heavenly Father to bless and direct their efforts to build homes, make canals and redeem the land. The townsite was then surveyed with large blocks and wide streets, with each block divided into four equally sized lots. Each lot was numbered and the numbers placed into a hat and drawn by the head of each family. Lot No. 63 was set aside for the town square. The LDS Church now occupies Lots No. 53 and No. 54.
After the drawing, families each went to their own lots to clean them up and move their wagons onto them and start their homes. These early homes were canvas tents or canvas shelters, or brush bowers over their wagons. Cooking was done outside or under a brush shelter. Soon, houses were under construction, using the materials most readily available: cottonwood logs from the river, brush and dirt for roofs. A public corral was built, where the cows were kept at night. They were herded out in the open in the daytime. All helped in clearing away the grass, weeds and low brush, thus getting rid of any snakes and bugs and making it a safe place for a camp.
Their immediate concern was for food. They rented a parcel of land north of the townsite toward the river from a Mrs. Patterson, and there they planted their crops. The irrigation canal used to water the plot came from the river, about where the bridge is today. The river water proved to be unhealthy for humans, so all pitched in and dug a well. This “town well” was located in the center of the street in front of J.K. Rogers’ home. Presently, this would be on Center Street in front of the Andres Baca home and across from the Pima Motel. They made “lizards” to haul water to the various camps. These were made of a forked tree limb with a stake at the back to keep the barrels from falling over. The trails that were cleared to and from the well were called “lizard trails.” To commence farming, a canal to carry water into the townsite was a necessity. Rogers and Teeples purchased a site on the river from William Gillespie, where they had located a good place to take out a ditch. To rid themselves of the task of having to carry water from the town well, each settler commenced digging his own well. This not only made it more convenient for domestic use, but also for the trees, vines and shrubs they had brought with them from their former homes.
As soon as the basic needs of food and shelter were taken care of, they directed their efforts toward building a log cabin to worship in and also to be used as a school. This was done in between planting and caring for crops and building their own homes. It was completed before many homes were. The structure was 16 feet by 20 feet, made of cottonwood logs, and is believed to be the first house of worship in the Gila Valley. A small stage — or rostrum — was in the west end of the building, a huge fireplace in the east end. Three small windows supplied the light and were covered with stained panes — made of weather-stained factory cloth. The benches were made of flattened cottonwood logs with peg legs and no backs. When school was in session, students held slates on their laps for desks. The floor was made of tamped oil and therefore showed little or no dust.
When residents applied to the Postal Department, their request was refused as it was deemed there were already too many Smithvilles in the United States. A check of the territorial map found this new community to be located in Pima County and that there was no town of that name; hence postal authorities gave it the name of Pima.
Smithville (Pima) was the mother town of the Mormon settlements in the Upper Gila and became the reception center for the Mormon influx that followed. Before the establishment of any adjacent community, the population had grown from those original 28 to 148 in 36 families, with a store and a post office. Those hearty pioneers were no strangers to hardship, for most, as children, had made the long journey from Nauvoo, Ill.; St. Louis; and other points of departure into the Salt Lake Valley. Now, they had found a new valley, and they knew they would have to fight the elements, the Indians, endure privation and sometimes hunger; but they had faith that they would and could tame this land and be grateful they had chosen to settle this Gila Valley.
Subsequent articles will deal with some of these founders. The Eastern Arizona Museum, in Pima, has been closed for a few weeks for Cory Hawkins to repair and refurbish the 1882 hardwood floor in Cluff Hall. It is worth a visit just to see the outcome. Museum hours are Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.