1906: The Journey Begins
Intro: Last Sunday, I introduced my grandfather, William F. Gillett, (1892-1972). To say the least, he was an interesting man: a real-life cowboy in the wild, wild west; a card shark who couldn’t stomach losing; a businessman and entrepreneur; a schoolteacher in a reformatory; a prince and a pauper; an elected Arizona legislator; a successful land speculator; a writer and poet; and certainly, a raconteur.
Amazingly, he never completed fifth grade.
Houses Granddad built in Phoenix have been designated with brass plaques as “historically significant’ by the US Dept. of Interior. His law books from the 1930’s are a treasure of mine. Granddad was a real cowboy, not the idealized John Wayne version in movies. He broke horses – and bones breaking them.
Today, Part Two of a four part series – Granddad’s true story of his journey herding horses across the Colorado River and through the killing fields of the Mojave Desert. He almost died … but lived to write about this adventure.
Part 2 … Our family raised horses in Arizona, and they roamed free, ranging all the way up the Verde River and Beaver Creek. But for the most part, the horses stayed together near Oak Creek, best known as Red Rock Country.
1906 was the year of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. It also proved to be a watershed year for my family. My father sold an interest he had in a mining venture and made enough money from the sale to move our family to California, for a nicer climate. Father took my oldest and youngest sisters with him to scout out a location.
A few months later, father wrote that he had bought a ranch in Northern California, about 15 miles from Oroville near the beautiful Feather River.
My father laid out the logistics of our move. Mother and my three remaining sisters would take the train from Prescott all the way north to our new home. My brother Ola and I were told to gather what horses we could find and to herd them overland to Northern California, 1,000 miles away.
At the time, I was 13 years old.
My father was a “hell, fire and damnation” preacher who published several books – I never questioned the task he had given me. It was my job to do as I was told. My family was depending on me.
The journey ahead would be hard to imagine today. These days, travelers take for granted modern conveniences such as a connected Interstate highway system. Back then, the roads were mostly dirt. As often as not, you couldn’t tell where one ended and another one began.
Imaging traveling without any road signs to guide you, and no bridges to speak of – when we came to a river we would have to cross it with the horses.
No matter where a traveler goes today he can expect to see lots of motels and restaurants. Up to this point in my life I had never even seen an automobile – not one. Without modern day conveniences, our success would depend greatly upon the kindness of strangers along the way.
Prior to leaving, my brother and I worked hard to break some of the wild horses and get them used to a halter for the long trip north. We had the wildest bunch of horses you could imagine.
The most gentle horse was singled out for me to ride, as I was so young. But even with that gentle horse, it took two cowboys, each one holding an ear, to slow it down enough for me to jump on and get astraddle.
My horse was afraid of me – but not nearly as much as I was of him.
Yet I knew my father was depending on me and my brother to bring the herd north. I couldn’t forget the words he told me a year ago when I survived a torrential downpour to save a team of horses – “I knew you would make it. You’re a man now.”
We had a job to do, and we set out to do it. We left Camp Verde for Prescott in March, 1906.
The Brand Inspector at Camp Verde and some other cowboys gathered to start us off on the long journey. After the kinks had been taken from the backs of our mounts, they opened the corral gate and hollered, “So long, boys!”
We herded the horses toward Prescott, 40 miles away – I do believe that first 10 miles was the fastest I had ever made that trip. After we traveled another 25 miles to the next stop, we corralled the horses for the night without feed.
By the end of the next day, we got to Prescott to say goodbye to our mother and three sisters, who would be taking the train to Northern California. The following morning we started off … for the great unknown.
Father said we could do it. Little did he know what hardships awaited his two young sons. Without water in the Mojave Desert, we almost died. The horses too were near death.
Edited by R. Michael Owens. Next week: Crossing the swollen Colorado River, and a dog named Dick.