I want to share with you a fantastic tale, a story of the way in which privilege and wealth is subject to the cruel whims of fate, a Cinderella adventure of royalty in disguise . Our story begins in 1742 when 32 year old Don Miguel Nemecio Silva de Peralta de la Corboda set foot in the city of Guadalajara, New Spain. He was on a secret mission, and carried papers identifying him as the “vistador del rey”, a visitor from the King, marking him as a wealthy and accomplished man, with powerful friends. He wore the gold collar of a Knight of the Golden Fleece, a title which placed him above the law, as he could only be arrested on a warrant signed by six other Knights, and there were only fifty of those in all of Spain. He was also a member of the order of Montesa, warrior Knights who served under Cistercian beneficence. Eventually he would become the “Baron of the Dry Area”, in Spanish the “arida zona,” but that would carry only those privileges he could make of them.
Two years later, pleased with Don Miguel's performance of his mission, Philip V of Spain promoted him and gave him an enormous grant of about 1,328,000 acres of land, leaving it up to Augustin de Ahumada, the Viceroy of New Spain, to pick the exact spot. It took Don Miguel ten years of searching for the best location. Finally on January 3, 1758, the Viceroy designated the grant as lying north of the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, on the Santa Cruz River, eastward from the confluence of the Salt and Gila Rivers. In May of that year Don Miguel, accompanied by a priest and two military officers traveled to the desert site and consecrated the grant on a barren hill he named the “Inicial”, or first, monument. Here Miguel scratched his mark upon a large rock, and laid claim to his new world empire.
Don Miguel immediately took physical possession of his land, establishing a base camp around the Pueblo ruins of Casa Grande. But the local Apache Indians did not recognize the claims of a far off Spanish monarch to their homeland, and their constant raiding forced Don Miguel to return south of the Gila River, in the Mexican state of Sonora. Here he bought land and settled. And his retreat was not without its benefits. In 1770 he married the lovely Sofia Ave Maria Sanchez Bonilla de Amaya y Garcia de Orosco. He settled her in Guadalajara. In 1776 Charles III reaffirmed Don Miguel's grant to the north, even though he still dare not take physical possession of it. And in 1781 Don Miguel and Sofia had a son, Jesus Miguel Silva de Peralta.
The boy took little interest in his arid inheritance, and built his life in and around Guadalajara. As is common with the children of wealth, he lived up the style to which he had been born. He did not settle down until he he was forty, marrying a local girl, Dona Juana Laura Ibarra, in 1822. In February of 1824 his father, Don Miguel, died at the fantastic age of 114 years. He left his son property in and around the city of Guadalajara, as well as an estate and ranch in Sonora. There was also, the still unoccupied desert grant to the north. Don Jesus Miguel quickly spent most of his inheritance and like his father had to retreat to the frontier outpost of Sonora. There Jesus and Dona de Peralta produced their only child in their ten years of marriage, a girl named Sophia.
The girl was pretty, but the eligible bachelors were few and far between in the district. And the bride's family was not the best, even in the social world of the empty desert south of the Gila River. Dona Sophia did not find a husband until she was 28. And only after the vows were exchanged did it became apparent the union was a gamble by everyone concerned. Don Jesus had thought he had matched his daughter to a wealthy man. But the new husband, Jose Ramon Carmen Maso, was actually a professional gambler, and periodically down on his luck. Only after the wedding in 1860, did he discovered his wife's huge family estate was heavily mortgaged. This was why, in 1862, Jose Ramon was forced to return to Spain in hopes of collecting some old gambling debts. And his entire clan was forced to travel with him - his mother and in-laws and his wife Dona Sophia, even though she was pregnant.
Their timing was very bad .The Great Flood of 1862, which began in December of '61, would devastate the western coast of North America from Oregon to Mexico. Directly on the family's path, the Gila River flooded. The mining town of Gila City was swept away, and hundreds of humans and tens of thousands of cattle were drowned. The mountain road into San Diego was washed away in dozens of places, and the little town of Aqua Mansa, at the headwaters of the San Gabriel River, was destroyed. Only the alarm raised by the bell at the Mission of San Salvador de Jurupa prevented the loss of life there. And it was that February, amidst the devastation, in the mission itself, that the family was forced to pause when Dona Sophia went into premature labor. She gave birth to twins, a boy and girl. The newborns were weak, as was Dona Sophia, so while the women stayed on, Jose Ramon and Don Miguel continued over the mountains to San Diego, where they caught ship, first for San Francisco, and then for Spain.
The newborn boy died, followed by his mother. Both grandmothers then abandoned the infant girl and returned to Sonora. There was some justification for this, as there was little food in the region and the
child was not expected to live. But she did live, cared for by a wet nurse hired by John A. Treadway, who was a friend of Jose Ramon. But Treadway died shortly thereafter on a business trip, and both Jose Ramon and Don Miguel died while in Spain. The abandoned child was raised by locals out of loyality to Mr. Treadway, but everything about her family was forgotten, except her first name. When she was eight Sophia was handed over to John Snowball, who employed her as servant and a cook in his roadhouse along the road and later rail line between San Diego and Arizona..
Then, in 1877 a chance encounter on a train changed the orphan's girl's hard life. A well dressed gentleman with large whiskered sideburns approached the 17 year old and inquired about her background. The girl nervously admitted she was an abandoned orphan, and did not know her family name or history. The stranger suggested she might be the missing daughter of a wealthy family. She had never heard the name he suggested before: Peralta. The girl was uncertain whether to believe his story or not, but she wanted to believe it was possible.
But it was not. The entire story I have just shared with you, save for the storm of 1862, from the streets of Guadalajara, to the battered remains of a mission in the California desert, every word and document it was based upon was the invention of the fevered imagination of one of the most determined and resourceful con men in American history. His name was James Addison Reavis. And at one time he came very close to owning most of the state of Arizona.
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