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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bill Kirkland: An Arizona Pioneer

By Kristy McCaffrey

Bill Kirkland
Born in Virginia, Bill Kirkland came west in 1850 at the age of eighteen to the gold fields of California. After five years of successful prospecting, he decided to visit home via a steamer to Panama, traveling overland then taking another ship to the eastern United States. But when the fare became too high, he decided on a southern route instead through Arizona and New Mexico.

He arrived in Tucson on January 17, 1856, just as the Mexican troops were preparing to depart. The land now belonged to the United States via the Gadsden Purchase. (The Gadsden Purchase was ratified in 1854, but the U.S. flag wasn’t displayed in Tucson until March 10, 1856.)

With little military protection, men began arriving to expand mining operations in the mineral-laden mountains near the Santa Cruz River. The area became lawless, but finally U.S. troops were dispatched. Kirkland decided to remain to provide timber and dry goods to the building boom that was just beginning in Tucson, as well as to the mines around Tubac and to the military.

During the 1850s, Tucson became the center for trade in the southern Arizona Territory. By 1860, there were 650 residents. Tucson sat along the banks of the Santa Cruz and was described as a sleepy, one-story adobe town with narrow, dusty streets. People and animals intermingled freely.

In 1857, Kirkland started a ranch near Tubac. He grew barley for a nearby army post. Three times he purchased cattle in Sonora, only to have them stolen by Apache. On the fourth try, he finally managed to obtain and keep 200 head. His was the first American ranching enterprise in what would one day become Arizona. He lived under the constant threat of an Apache attack. One day, Kirkland met Cochise, who wanted to feed his braves. Kirkland quickly prepared a meal for them, after which they left.

In 1859, Kirkland married Missouri Ann Bacon, whom he met when her family stopped in Tucson on their way to California. The Bacons settled in Tucson by opening a restaurant, and Kirkland frequented it. Pretty girls garnered much interest, since there were so few of them. But Missouri chose Kirkland, a tall man with rugged good looks and a reputation as a fearless frontiersman. When their daughter, Elizabeth, was born, she was the first Anglo-American child born in the Arizona Territory.

Kirkland built the first graded road in the area, which led to his lumber camp in Madera Canyon. He supplied the mines, military, and the village of Tucson until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. At that time, military posts in Arizona Territory were abandoned. The Apache, under the direction of Cochise, saw this as an opportunity to drive the Anglos out. Kirkland served as a captain of volunteers in Tucson, but finally decided to take his family to California until troops returned to Arizona. He had lost much of his ranching and lumber business due to the Apache.

When Kirkland returned to Arizona, he successfully prospected gold north of Wickenburg, near present-day Phoenix. He then moved his family to an area now known as Kirkland Valley. The first year, he raised barley. He also built four arrastras to crush ore and eventually had thirty men working for him. But, again, he was besieged by Apache. They stole his barley at night and rustled his livestock during the day. So, Kirkland packed up and went back to southern Arizona. He established a ranch on Sonoita creek, but Apache swiftly stole a dozen mules and a horse.

Phoenix 1880s
Throughout his life, Kirkland preferred to move elsewhere when Apache problems occurred. In 1871, he moved his family to the Salt River Valley to a small community people were beginning to call Phoenix. A few entrepreneurs had cleaned out old Hohokam canals and were irrigating crops, which they sold to Fort McDowell and the mining camps up north in the Bradshaw Mountains. Missouri Ann was one of the first women to take up residence in Phoenix. Their home was a small adobe house. That year, Kirkland’s third child was born. Ella was the first Anglo child born in Phoenix.

In late 1871, Kirkland moved his family again to nearby Tempe. He was elected a justice of the peace and for the remainder of his life he was known as Judge Kirkland. But Kirkland was restless. He moved his family to Silver City, New Mexico, and then to Texas before returning to Arizona in 1876. He took the job of deputy sheriff in a wild cowtown called Willcox. But the Apache weren’t done with the area. When Geronimo and his band went on the warpath in the 1880s, Kirkland once again moved his family to the new gold mining town of Congress.

Bill Kirkland was one of the first Anglo-Americans to arrive in the Arizona Territory. While he wasn’t a violent man by nature, he nevertheless never backed down when forced to fight. But when he could, he avoided confrontation with the Apache. Oddly enough, the Apache came to respect him.

Bill Kirkland passed away in 1910.

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  1. Amazing that the Apache still gave him a hard time even after he fed them. It must have been hard on his wife and kids with all that moving, but I guess it was better than being killed.
    And he certainly was a persistent soul.
    A very interesting post, Kristy.

  2. I knew a little about him just from general research about the Old West. He was the 'stuff' the west was built upon. Wouldn't Sam Elliott have been great as Kirkland in a movie?

  3. Kristy, this was so interesting. I didn't know of Kirkland--actually I'd heard of him but didn't really know who or what he had done. Again, he sure did move around a LOT--his wife must have had the patience of a saint. But of course he kept all of them safe. He certainly did plenty to grow the west and improve it in several areas. I so enjoyed this step back in time. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Beverly. I agree, it must have been difficult to be married to him lol.

  4. I wonder how many others moved when they were 'outnumbered' by the Indians? Still, it took nerve to keep coming back and keep trying. Fascinating man. I do enjoy information about people like Kirkland. Thank you Kristy. Doris

    1. It's probably a more realistic view of dealing with Indian issues, methinks.

  5. What a strong character! I agree with Sarah--he was definitely tenacious, and his wife must have been tough as nails, too. Great article!

  6. Great post. I was unaware of him, and enjoyed reading this short biography. Thank you for sharing.