Maricopa Wells, 150 years later

Arizona has very little respect for its history! So much of the Old West is gone forever. I look around today and I see almost nothing of the Phoenix of my childhood. The changes have made the cities of the Valley of the Sun almost unrecognizible - the mountains are pretty much the same but everything else is different.

click for full image An image of the Valley of the Sun. The fact is that in all the communities around Phoenix, there are maybe 100 or so houses and buildings left that were built before 1900, and you can count on your fingers of one hand the number of those from before 1880 still standing The 1870s Duppa House The Montgomery homestead The Jones house. So what does this have to do with Maricopa Wells? Well, I was looking at the satellite image on the left (warning: it is BIG!) and it struck me that the only thing actually visible from way back when is the Wells. Yes, from space, 100 miles up in the blue Arizona sky, the only thing left of the Old Maricopa and Phoenix from the days of the pioneers is Maricopa Wells. Yep, it is rather strange, but the oldest thing is the only object that can be seen from space 150 plus years later - and nobody knows it.

Maricopa Wells. I wrote a page about Maricopa Wells several years ago (available by clicking on the icon on the right). Let me just say that before there was Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, Glendale or Mesa, the only non-Indian establishment in all the Valley of the Sun was Maricopa Wells. For over two decades, the Wells was the place to go for goods, a haircut, to shoe your horses, to get a good meal or to send a telegram. It was Arizona's first mini-mall, kind of. It could have been what Phoenix is today, or Phoenix could been Maricopa Wells - but that's a long story. The end came to Maricopa Wells for two reasons: the establishment of the Gila Indian Reservation; and the construction of the railroad route that passed about 3-4 miles to the south. This is when the the Town of Maricopa was established (well, kind of... Its a long story but I won't go into it here)and all people and goods would disembark in the 'new' Maricopa and then take a wagons or stage ride to the Town of Phoenix, bypassing the Wells. Our Arizona roots go back to this small patch of ground Arizona The town of Maricopa, wide spot in the road Maricopa in 1910. That was the end of historic Maricopa Wells. By the 1880s it was deserted, never again to be occupied.

The fact is that Maricopa Wells is gone! It's nothing today - zero, nada, niente, zilch!. Nobody remembers it. Even so the ghosts of Maricopa Wells live on and the site can be easily seen - if one knows where to look and is familiar with the stories left my tens of thousands of pioneers that stopped, camped and rested at the Wells before starting the dreaded Jornada de las Estrellas across the barren Forty Mile desert to Gila Bend, on the way to the promised land called California (that was before the astronomical land prices, the smog, the crowded freeways and the pandering politicians).

The Gila Trail and the Butterfield Stagecoach Station

click for photo Another large image. Here is another and better view of the Valley from space. Can you see the Wells? It is very actually very obvious!. As the 1849 Gold Rush began, tens of thousands of people began the long march West. In 1850, I believe, the records at the ferry in Yuma show that over 40,000 people crossed the Colorado River at that point. All of these would have to have come through the Maricopa area, on what is usually called the Gila Trail, or the Butterfield Stage Route. The Gila trail is, to a certain extent, an abstract. There was no one single origin point as there was no one certain terminal location. However, at least in its central Arizona portion, the so-called Gila trail is very well defined, coming up from Tucson past Pichacho Peak, touching either Casa Blanca, Sacaton or the Casa Grande ruins, and then converging on Waricopa Wells. This is where a very serious decision had to be made: to either take the long, easy route north along the river (This is the famous 'great bend' of the Gila River) or take the short but hard trip across the dessert from the Wells to the station of Gila Bend (the famous 40 mile Jornada de las Estrellas).

Maricopa Wells, click for full image A picture of Maricopa Wells in its glory days. At 'The Wells' people would stop, check their gear, trade with the Pimas, and make important decisions. It was here, in the dozens of campfires burning in the evening as the sun set behind the Estrella Mountains, that all the Montezuma legends in Arizona were born. Thus we have in the Sierra Estrellas so many names related to the Aztec king. Probably the most famous tells of Montezuma Sleeping (or sometimes being held in chains) waiting for the day he will awake (or escape) and re-establish his Empire. Hence the landmark "Montezuma Sleeping" seen on old maps of the Estrellas. There is even a more obscure legend that involves Montezuma's mom, sometimes referenced in Feminist literature - but I will spare you the details.

click for photo The Old Maricopa region. It was common for travellers to keep a dairy of the trip West. So we have hundreds of accounts about people stopping at the Wells, all very similar. Often there would be up to 20 different groups camped on the grassloands along the Santa Cruz River, each party with 10, 20 or 30 wagons, each wagon with 2 or 4 oxen, plus extra 'spare' animals, and horses, and even goats. Adults and older children would usually walk along side the wagons. Multiply the forty thousand people above, times the number of possible wagons and animals, and you see that we have a well-worn trail. The image on the left focuses on a small portion of the two larger areas seen above. This is the Old Maricopa region. At the very top is Firebird racetrack and lake. The line going down to the right is I-10. The airfield at the top right near the lake is an ex-CIA base (so they say! Complete with black planes and "Go away or else" signs). The smaller line descending to the left is Maricopa Road, leading to the town of Maricopa, just out of sight along the railroad on the bottom of the image. The green areas are planted fields, and the wavy green patch that cuts horizontally accross the picture is the bed of the Gila River. Just over halfway down Maricopa Road, just past the Gila, is Pima Butte (it also has a few more names). This small mountain of rock is the site of the bloodiest battle in Arizona History (another long story!). Immediately to the left of Pima Butte (that is, west) for a distance of almost two miles, one can see the the clear imprint of the Gila trail, the half-moon shape of the area around the old station, and the huge camping area (about 2/3 of a mile wide) below the trail along the bank of the Santa Cruz River.

Pictures of Maricopa Wells

click for map click for map click for map click for map More pictures of the Maricopa Wells site. Here are four more small images of the trail route and Wells. It is incredible that it looks just like it was described in the narratives in the old pioneer journals. They often mention the many - even dozens - of wagon groups camped in the area. I had no idea that it was so big!. The reason that the trail and Maricopa Wells site is still visible after almost 150 years (and for the most part only this small portion can be seen) can be explained by several factors: 1. It is Indian Community land and it has not been developed, or even used for 150 years, 2. The area is basically grasslands and short shrubs, 3. The underground water from the Gila and Santa Cruz have an effect on the vegetation, giving the area a higher moisture content, making it more sensitive to physical changes. 4. The changes that occurred were the impact of hundreds of thousands of hooves and tens of thousands of iron wheels which compressed the soil, giving it a different quality from earth or dirt nearby, off the trail. The fact is that soil that has been heavily walked on or driven over for a long time reacts differently to moisture and planting. The trail also shows up differently on different photos, depending upon the time of year, vegetation and light. This is why Roman roads and camps are still visible all over the ancient world, 2000 years after the Roman Legions are gone. Oh yes, the dark area in the last image (on the right) is a sand and gravel extraction company. I guess it had water in the pit when the photo was taken.

click for photo Diagram of the Wells This is a close-up picture of the area, with my interpretation of the signs and markings in the frame below it. The dark area in the middle right is Pima Butte. The trail crosses directly above the Butte and heads west to the Wells . The half-moon shape, I believe, is where the adobe buildings of the Maricopa Wells complex once stood. According to records, the Wells was a fairly large complex of buildings in a 'U' shape with a closed curral in the center. There was the general Store, the blacksmith, the food area, the post office and later the telegraph office, a barber shop and so on. The wagons would approach and circle around it from either side. There was a smaller trail from the Wells that went north to Komate and Gila Crosssing (about a mile away), and from there along what is now 51st Avenue between the Estrellas and the South Mountains where it forked - either heading west past Coldwater (now Avondale) to the mines at Wickenburg, or east to the little farming town of Pumpkinville (or Phoenix, Arizona as it is known by some).

In an attempt to follow up on the satellite images above, I turned to the Microsoft Terraserver photographic imaging page for close-up aerial pictures taken by the United State Geological Survey (USGS).

click for map click for map click for map The most detailed image, click for picture Here we have a progressive series of four USGS aerial photos, each in greater detail. The problem is that some things, such as Maricopa Wells, are best seen from a distance. It is easier to see from 100 miles up than just one mile in the air. The last image on the right is the most detailed (map9101n.jpg). The half moon is at the very bottom right cormer of the picture. Somewhere in the last picture, I believe, are the remains of historic Maricopa Wells. Maybe yes and maybe no. The fact is that the Wells is almost gone. An adobe building, left exposed and uncared for, will desintegrate rapidly. Maybe it is the irregular figure in the upper left corner of the photo with what looks like a depression or hole in the middle. My Dad told me that in the 1930s the walls were still waist high. In the 60s and 70s I have found accounts saying that many walls had been knocked over and others were, at most, knee high. There are also stories of "treasure hunters" digging holes around and futher damaging the walls. I once looked for the old buildings but didn't find them. It is a big plain and the ground is uneven, with low rolling hills covered with brush and small clumps of trees. I could have been within a hundred feet of it and not seen it.

click for map Last and least, here is the overlay map from the same area that appears on the Terraserver site. Notice the curral on one side. When I walked the area many years ago I didn't even find any remains of the buildings and adobe walls, nor did I see the curral. All I saw were the Wild Horses of the Gila River. They were fabulous, running among the Mesquite and giant saguaros in the morning mist, and just that made my day. Here is a link to the page showing the wild horses: . There is also a very good picture of Montezuma's Head on that page.

In 2006

click for photo click for photo New pictures of the old stagecoach site

Here are some pictures from Google Earth, from the Digital Globe company. I would really like for someone to show mwe the exact spot where the building complex was on this picture. It has to be near the 'half-crescent'