Tom Childs, Miner
The article below first appeared in the December 12, 1945, issue of the Ajo Copper News. Present day readers are reminded it was written in the style and in the social conscience prevalent in the 1940s. Tom Childs is regarded by local historians as the first of the men credited with founding what is now Ajo.
Tom Childs of Ten-Mile Wash
By Richard Van Valkenburgh
Down in the southwestern corner of Arizona in the wild and wickedly beautiful land of the Sand Papago a husky young American and an old Indian paused to look across the international boundary line toward the thumb-like peaks that rose above the dull black malpais of the Pinacate desert.
"Si, Señor Tomas," murmured Caravajles. "Those peaks mark the ancient land of my people, the Hi'a Tak O'otam, or Sand People. To us they are sacred shuktowak, the Black Peaks. For in the great lava flow that licks down into the sands of the south lies the cave of I'toi, the greatest of the gods, Elder Brother!"
Tom Childs, whom the Papago knew as Muta, Wood Pecker's Nest Inside of a Saguaro, followed Caravajles into the Pinacate. They passed over the trails never before trod by white men - dim shadows in the sand and volcanic ash. When they climbed to the saddle between the knobby blacks peaks, below them shimmered the great Llanas arenosas, the fantastic sand-bound desolation that sweeps west to the waters of the Gulf of California.
That first trek of Tom Childs and his fellow guide Caravajles, was nearly a half century ago.
Recently when I visited Tom at his rambling ranch house in the mesquite thickets of Ten-Mile wash near Ajo, Arizona, I was in for a surprise. It did not take long to understand that this kindly old man with the wise gray eyes, has explored more virgin desert than any white man I have ever interviewed.
Tom Child's story starts a long way from Arizona.
"My father was born in 1832 down on the Tom Bigbee river in Mississippi," he said. "When he was a small boy he came west with a Mormon family. They finally settled on Lytle creek near present San Bernardino, California. When he was 18 years old he joined a party heading for Sonora.
"After following the Camino del Diablo to Sonoyta on the Mexican boarder the party went on to the Cubabi mines where they split up. In the years that followed, Father did everything from running a sawmill in Santa Rita mountains south of Tucson to digging for silver at the famous Planchas de Plata below Nogales.
"I was born at Arizona City, now called Yuma, June 10, 1870. My first memory is of the old Gila Bend stage station. It's site was five miles north of present Gila Bend, Arizona. Years ago the great floods that sweep the Great Bend of Gila washed the old 'dobe buildings away."
Mention of a fine painting of the old station which I had seen hanging in A.H. Stout's hotel in Gila Bend brought further reminiscence from Tom.
"The station was built like a fort. There was a wide double door in the center. This opened into a big adobe corral in the back. A traveler's stock would be taken inside. The Apaches were bad at that time. Nothing was left outside without guards.
"The station was between the main trails traveled by the Apache when on their raids southward into the Papago and Mexican country. I well remember the moonlight night when they wiped out Salles Purusa's outfit. They killed his herders and ran off his stock. Then I remember the time when we killed an Apache. Father stuck his head on a pole warning to the others."
"In 1875 Mother thought it was about time for us children to start school. So we moved to Phoenix. At that time there were 500 people. Half were Mexicans. There was a courthouse, jail, schoolhouse, restaurant, several general stores, and of course, lots of saloons."
"With that small population you should remember Jack Swilling?", I probed.
"Sure I remember Jack," answered Tom. "Just before his death in 1878 he worked with my father as a law officer. Father always said, 'Jack was not a bad fellow. He drank too much. Then he bragged about a robbery up near Wickenburg which he did not commit. He was too good a man to let die in Yuma Prison...'
"This same Jack Swilling started Phoenix in about 1868. At first they called it Swillings. Then the settlers got to arguing about a new name for the town site. So they called in Darryl Dupa, who suggested, 'Let's call it Phoenix after the Egyptian bird that rose form the ashes of the dead. For are we not building a new civilization on the ashes of the old Indian ruins that line our canal banks ---?'"
Tom and I walked out to go into the twilight. The last crimson of sunset was trickling through the gaps in the purple peaks of Crater Ridge to the northwest. To the west there was the green border of Ten-Mile Wash and the shadowy gray of the desert as it swept up to fade in the indigo ridges of Childs' mountain. Turning to Tom I said, "Now I know why you chose this place for a home."
"Yes," he answered slowly, "I feel it --- The ever-changing color of this mountain I know so well. Under its shadows, I've had my good and bad. For this has been my home for 61 years.
"It was after Mother died that Father and I moved down here. He had wandered by here in 1850 while looking for the copper deposits that Mexicans in Sonora had told him about. We came down here to get a start in the cattle business. But neither of us ever got far away from mining. We were always looking for a good prospect."
Knowing little of the early history of the Ajo country, I asked, "I guess every part of Arizona has a lost mine --- some tradition handed down by the old Indians and Mexicans. I've heard a lot of legends about these Ajo mines. How much is actually the truth?"
"Yes, that was one of these stories that brought my father up here in 1850. Down in Sonora, he heard the Mexicans telling about bolos de cobre which had been taken from three little peaks to the northward of a place called Ajo, or wild garlic. He further learned that from the earliest Spanish days the ore had been mined by the Fathers of the San Marcelo de Sonoyta Mission. You can still see the remains of the Padre's old arrastra and smelter at the Alamo in the Ajo mountains.
"Father did not find any 'balls of pure copper.' But he did find the three cerritos. They were rich. Peter Brady who died in Tucson in 1902 came to Ajo soon after Father. Those three cerritos are gone now --- for they stood right over the place where Phelps Dodge now have their great open pit mine."
History tells us that Peter Brady located the copper at the time he was surveying a route between Indianola, Texas and San Diego, California, for the Parallel Railroad Company. With Major R.A. Allen, he organized the Ajo Mining Company in 1853. When they returned to start work on the mines the Gadsden Treaty had not been ratified. Mexican soldiers tried to drive the Americans away. But the Americans held on to their property.
"Tom went on, 'Brady's outfit didn't do very well, and they finally quit. During the war between the states, Frank Clymer worked the mines. He shipped his ore across the desert to the Colorado River. From their boats carried it to Swansea, England. But the mines were hard to operate. Distance from civilization was great and the Apaches were always rampaging, burning up things and killing people.
"We located our first mines at Ajo in 1887. At first we were in partnership with the Shotwell-Calado Company, but their money soon gave out. After another try with the St. Louis Copper Company we decided to handle it ourselves. We made some money that way. In 1912, we sold out our holdings to the Calumet and Arizona Company. Later this firm became a part of the Phelps Dodge Corporation, the present operators of the mines.
"It was about this time that I began to take an interest in our Papago neighbors. Then I married one of their girls. Not counting the adopted children, I now have 13 living children and 35 grandchildren. While at times I lived at Quitovaquita and Bates Well down near the border, I have always called this place on Ten-Mile Wash, home."
Sensing that Tom was agreeable to talking further about his personal life I asked, "Tom, I know something of Navajo --- even speak a little of their language. But tell me something of these Papago with whom you have lived and known for all these years?"
There was a hint of a smile in his eyes as he answered. "Now I may be hard-headed. But my life with the Papago taught me many things that I have never seen in a book. And I have read a lot. Furthermore, I speak their language. I stand on the fact --- no man can get anywhere as to what they're thinking unless he speaks their language.
"Now take for instance this simple thing. Most book writers interpret the word Papago as Bean Eating Indians. There were no such Papago. Among themselves each regional group had their own name. There were the Huhula, the Dirty Talkers from around Gila Bend, the Kikuima from Poso Redondo, etc.
"They say that Papago is from pawi (tepery bean), O'otam (people). That is not right. The term they are talking about is pa'pat (bad or ugly), O'otam (people). This must be a name that the Pima gave them. The Papago would not call themselves bad or ugly people."
Tom may be right. The present common usage may be the result of an early Spanish mispronunciation. It may be, as Tom suggest, the Pima name for their western neighbors. Few Indian tribes today are known by the names they call themselves. Father Pfefferkorn states in 1774 that the Pima regarded the Papago as "being of mean origin."
"For over 50 years I tracked the desert with only the Sand Papago as my compañeros," Tom continued. "My best friend was old Caravajles, the hermit of Tinajas de Los Papago on the Sonora side. It was from him that I learned of the few watering places in this uninhabited land of which the white man know so little.
"Caravjles first guided me through the Pinacate. This is the immense malpais punctured by craters that lies in a 40-mile belt between Sonoyta and Punta Peñasco on the Gulf of California. In our ascent of the mountains we passed over trails never before trod by white men.
"Our horses struggled through the powdery volcanic ash and the obsidian crackled-like shattered glass beneath their hoofs. Deep in the monstrous lava flow on the south side of this terra incognita we came to the cave of I'toi. But what we found in the sacred cave of the Papago, I cannot tell.
"Westward we went over the Salt Trail towards the salt beds at Salina Grande on the Gulf. In this barren wilderness of sand, we came upon the deserted jackals of the Sand Papago. And nearby, were the mass cemeteries of these Areneno of which Caravajles said, 'Huhuku O'otam, All Gone People.'
Beside the trail lay great dumps of broken sea shell. Caravajles told me that they were the workshops of the ancient people. That their shell ornaments were carried as far North as the land of the Navajo. I know this is true for I have seen specimens of this shell from the Gulf all over the Southwest.
While Tom was rummaging for samples of the fine obsidian from the Pinacate I took the opportunity to ask, "I imagine that the Papago have changed a lot since you first met them?"
"Yes, they have!" Tom was quick to answer. "I dug their first real well at Covered Wells in 1886. Then I saw how they buried their dead up in the rocks. So I made their first coffin at Quitovaquita in 1904. But they didn't get the idea. Sometime after the first customer used the box another Indian died. They just dumped out the bones and put in the new corpse."
"You ask me regarding the disposition of the Papago. Well, they don't care much about the white men. They don't really want to be bothered with them. The old timers had a motto, 'Get along with the melicans, but don't tell them anything.' In the early days they had a pretty tough time with some of the early prospectors and hard characters who traveled through their country.
"There is another thing to remember. You got to do business their way. Never question a Papago twice, he'll sulk. And never give him anything expecting white man's value in return. If you buy anything from him, pay him, and promptly! He's been hooked too many times by promises."
So here is Tom Childs' sage advice on dealing with the Papago. His interpretations must not be construed as harsh. He is a realist who recognizes that the Indians' mental gears mesh differently than those of white men. It is natural that deep down in their hearts many feel as did Old Jose of San Xavier when he told me, "Some of these snoopy melicans smother me!"
On the other hand true men of the desert like Tom Childs treat their own race with the same dispassionate evaluation. "Lopez the bandit, was a dirty killer and deserved to die of thirst in the sand west of San Luis; Charles T. Hayden, the father of Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona, for whom my father was once wagon master, was a good and honest man..."
What other men think of Tom Childs, he could not tell himself. When I stopped at Gila Bend to inquire as to the location of his ranch, I met A.H. Stout, the local hotel owner. Mr. Stout, a pioneer whose father was once a partner of Tom's father, in the conversation said, "Tom Childs is a man of no habits!"
In pioneer-Arizona talk this means that one may have drunk or gambled (which Tom did not) but was a man of his word. It is testimony from Tom's own kind of people that after three score years of fellowship Tom Childs of Ten-Mile Wash is a respected member of that select fraternity that has no cash initiation fee --- the Men of the Desert.Ajo Copper News, December 12, 1945