I suppose the luckiest moment in the history of Phoenix, Arizona came when the first settlers decided to reject the suggestion of its founder Jack Swilling that they should name the new town “Stonewall”, after the Confederate General. Instead they listened to the more educated voice of Swilling's friend, Phillip Darrell Duppa, an Englishman who had been versed in the classics. He liked to call himself “Lord Duppa”, delivered with a self depreciating grin, and he had the romantic idea that the ugly little adobe town founded between the White Tank Mountains and the Salt River was a place of rebirth, a spot where new life could rise from the ashes of the old, like the Phoenix Bird. And that appealed to the survivors of the Civil War, from both sides. On the other hand it was bad luck in May of 1880 that James Reavis stepped off the stagecoach from California in Phoenix, to raise his claim of the Peralta Land Grant from its ashes.
It wasn't legally a town yet when Reavis arrived . That would happen in February of the next year. But already the town had almost 2,500 citizens, a couple of churches, a school on Center Street, 16 saloons, four dance halls, a bank and a telegraph connection to the outside world. And Huntington's railroad was already reaching out from San Diego. But James Reavis showed no interest in any of that. He told people he was a subscription agent for the San Francisco Examiner, but he he sold very few subscriptions. He read the local paper, he listened when people talked , and he gauged the spirit of the place. He even traveled the 15 miles out to where the seasonal Salt River and the perennial Gila Rivers met, and stumbled about the hills for an hour or so. On his return to town, he boarded the stagecoach for the terrible one hundred mile journey north, into the mountains, to the territorial capital of Prescott.
Repeated conflagrations had forced the mining town of less than 2,000 to begin building in brick, including a new court house (above). It was in that building in May of 1880 that James Reavis located George Willing's “original” scrap of paper purporting to be the bill of sale for the Peralta Land Grant. He presented a letter from George’s widow, granting him authority to act in her name. And once he had this scrap paper bill of sale in his hand, James caught the next coach for back to San Francisco.
Reavis had stumbled over a serious problem in Black Canyon, 50 miles north of Phoenix, His stage must have stopped there overnight on his journey to Prescott, and he found the ground crowded with people who still remembered how a man named King “Sam” Woolsey had lead 93 vigilantes into Black Canyon, chasing Apaches in 1864, just a few months before George Willing claimed he had bought the grant from Miguel Peralta, while both were working claims there. Sam Woolsey had established a ranch nearby, and had died in Phoenix just two years before Reavis' visit, and locals could question the presence of either Willing or Peralta in that area in 1864. James had been wise enough not to ask any questions about the place, because, whatever the answers might be, they would just draw attention to himself, and he was not ready for that just yet. It was something he would have to eventually fix.
But he now he also had a printed English translation of the grant, the Royal Credula - “The King's Debt”. After discussions with Huntington and Crocker, James decided to expand the size of the grant, placing its very center at the confluence of the Salt and Gila.which he had visited on his day trip. Contained within the grant now were the towns of Phoenix, Tempe and Casa Granda. Fifty miles east, and still covered by the grant, was the richest claim in the territory, the Silver King Mine, producing $10,000 out of every ton of ore pried from its tunnels. Reavis added a helpful note from the powerful Inquisition of New Spain, dated 1757, assuring the Viceroy there was no impediment to the grant, and a statement from the lucky recipient, Don Miguel de Peralta, himself, dated 1758, which defined the western boundary so as to reach all the way to Silver City, New Mexico territory, and the silver deposits under Chloride Flats north of there. Preparing this paperwork took the entire winter of 1880-81.
In July of 1881 Reavis finally made it to Sacramento, to repay Florin Massaol and get his hands on the mineral rights George Willing had pawned back in 1874. In the end, however, Massaol was so impressed by the people backing Reavis, the forger got what he wanted for only the cost of a railroad ticket. All he had to do was sign yet another promissory note, agreeing to pay Massol $3,000 if and when the Peralta grant was confirmed by an American court. In exchange Massaol signed over power of attorney on the mineral rights to Reavis That's all Reavis wanted, anyway. It as not as if he had any intention of ever digging for himself.
Immediately, Reavis boarded a train for Washington, D.C., seeking the record book of the Mission San Xavier del Bac, located just south of Phoenix, Arizona, and a benchmark used for the grant. The book had been the territories' contribution to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. After the Exhibition had closed, the book along with other exhibits, had been moved to Washington. It was still there, and Reavis was permitted access to the book because of his contacts with wealthy Californians. Had the book still been in Arizona such “friends” might have been a source of suspicion, but in far off Washington the other rule about museum curators came into play - they never miss an opportunity to impress a potential wealthy patron. Reavis was allowed to spend several days in private, going over the book. In September he continued his odyssey in Mexico City, and then on to Guadalajara..
In both cities James Reavis bonded with the archivists, the librarians and probate clerks in charge of the documents and records he needed, and probably paid them for small “favors” he received. He did not bribe them. Even an offer of a bribe could have destroyed his plan. But payments for meals, running errands, even advice, would have subtly shaded their attitude toward and perception of him. He told them he was a correspondent for San Francisco newspapers, looking for stories about the roots of California families. And when he left Mexico in late November of 1881, he had photographs of the documents, as well as typed translations and certified copies, all paid for by his wealthy investors. Six months later he was in Lexington, Kentucky, agreeing to pay George Willings widow, May Ann, $30,000 over time for the free and clear ownership of the Peralta grant – 50% more than George had paid for it in 1863 – a transaction which, in reality, had probably never taken place.
This proves again the central rule of capitalism, which is that everything has a value, defined as what people are willing to pay for what they want. And in most capitalist endeavors, the first step is to create the want. And that is what James Reavis was about to begin doing.
- 30 -