Days Past: From hero to villain: the unfortunate metamorphosis of King S. Woolsey
By AL BATES
Originally Published: January 26, 2014 6 a.m.
This article is one of a series on historic events relating to the Arizona Territory's Sesquicentennial and the founding and establishment of Prescott as the Territory's first capital.Western folklore is a curious thing. Some pioneer reputations grow and are amplified to heroic status after death. Other pioneers, if not completely forgotten, often suffer at the hands of writers who repeat - with no attempt at verification - rumor and innuendo that gradually become commonly accepted history. This story tells what happened to the reputation of one such pioneer.One of the most noted of early Arizona settlers was a farmer, mine owner, legislator, road builder, developer and Indian fighter named King S. Woolsey. He first came to widespread attention as the leader in an incident first known as "The Battle of Bloody Tanks," but later became known as "The Pinole Treaty."Woolsey was working a well-established farm on the north side of the Gila River just across from the Stanwix Stage Station (between Gila Bend and Yuma) when in the spring of 1863 he learned of a new gold strike in hostile Indian territory. Swiftly, he followed the Walker Party's footsteps to what is now called the Prescott Basin. Here, he began filing placer and quartz mining claims in the Pioneer and Walker mining districts.In the same way, he claimed a choice but isolated section of land on the banks of the Agua Fria River where he and a partner, John Dickson (sometimes spelled Dixon) of the Walker Party, began farming and ranching - in early Arizona, those terms were interchangeable. They, like other settlers, suffered continuous stock losses to Indian raiders in raids mostly attributed to the Tonto Apaches. On New Year's Day, 1864, Major Edward Willis, commander of newly established Fort Whipple, wrote in an official report of the loss of 40 army mules to Indians in one raid. He added, "The miners have lost about 150 head of animals during the past two weeks, and almost every night some animals are stolen." A few days later, a raiding party removed 32 horses and mules from Abraham Peeples' ranch, which brought matters to a boiling point.The settlers promptly planned a retaliatory expedition and turned to Woolsey for leadership. The expedition was well-documented, but first-hand accounts have been mostly ignored by modern writers.There is no question that Woolsey's 28-man civilian expedition had completely underestimated the task before them. When their supplies ran low after about 10 days, they halted and sent several men to Pima Villages to obtain supplies, and for recruits from the friendly Maricopa tribe. They returned with flour and pinole (a corn-based food mixture used by settlers and Indians alike), plus two white traders from Ammi White's flourmill, and 15 Maricopa warriors. Also with them was one Yavapai, nicknamed Jack, who would serve as their interpreter when they encountered Tonto Apaches on Jan. 24, 1864, near today's Globe. The situation became dire when numerous Tonto Apaches surrounded them and blocked any retreat, then boasted that they had 400 well-armed warriors at hand and were expecting more. Surrender, however, was not an option for the settlers, and survival required extreme measures.Assured they had the upper hand, some 30 Apaches arrogantly came in for a "peace talk" and to receive gifts of tobacco and pinole. They then demanded more of each. Accounts vary, but the "battle" probably began on a signal from Woolsey. In the mêlée that followed, 24 Apaches were gunned down. Only one white settler died. After retrieving the tobacco and pinole, as well as moccasins from the feet of dead Apaches for some poorly shod settlers, Woolsey's group immediately began their retreat while the remaining Apaches re-grouped. Following the expedition's return from the Tonto Apache stronghold, they were hailed as heroes; Woolsey's stand advocating deadly attacks was popular among settlers who had suffered from Apache depredations. It was not until 1878, while Woolsey was involved in a hot political battle, that a reference to poison was raised in print by a political enemy.Now the commonly accepted lore is that Woolsey's party poisoned the Indians during abortive peace talks, with "dozens" of Apaches writhing in agony in their last throes. Yet there are no references in the original accounts regarding poison. Mr. Peeples, in later years, emphatically denied any use of poison, and even its availability.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">www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit articles for Days Past consideration. Please contact SHM at 445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at email@example.com for information.