A’AGA: Something to be told

By Billy Allen


Traveling on the freeway and crossing the Gila, it seems that our river bed is filling up with sand and silt, just like a lot of historical canals on our land did back in the late 1800s.   It’s a blessing to see water under the bridge, but sad to see the actual river’s trail eroding.  


1886 was a crucial year for our akimel. Eight miles upstream from Florence canal construction began to deliver water to Pinal County area farms. Indian Agent Roswell Wheeler complained to Washington that the canal would “greatly damage or destroy the Pimas’ farms, and render the Indians helpless and destitute.”


The Florence Canal did deliver some water, but silt clogged sections of the canal and other high costs caused the project to go bankrupt in 1893. A hydrographic engineer of the day said, “…the simple diversion of water from the Gila River and its tributaries is impossible.” No one wanted to hear that, everyone wanted more water, so studies were made to come up with options.


One proposal called for a 200 foot high water storage dam to be built on the Gila. As early as 1899, it was referred to as the San Carlos Dam. Walter Graves, working for Interior Secretary, had a plan for “buried and open-channel seepage ditches” to deliver water downriver.


Water would be allowed to seep into the riverbed and emerge downstream. A third plan which was done, drilled five wells to irrigate the farms at the Pima Boarding School. By 1904, the wells were considered a success, but Antonio Azul and followers felt pumped water would ruin the land.


In 1904, Superintendent of Irrigation, J. R. Meskimons, drew up plans to “allow half of the Indians dependent upon the Gila River to become self-supporting again…” He produced a map showing land that had been abandoned 15 to 20 years earlier.


He identified old Gila Crossing area canals named after village leaders: Oscar Walker, John Thomas, and Joseph Head, John Hoover, and Simon Webb canals. Without water from the akimel, many of these canals quickly filled with sand, so food crops withered. Our future looked dim. In the fall of 1904, the Board of Indian Commissioners came to the reservation for a “fact-finding” trip. They learned the last viable crop was in 1898. Many livestock owners had their herds depleted. Villagers could name individuals who passed from starvation.  


But our great grandfathers and mothers didn’t just accept that “helpless and destitute” predicament of the 20th century cash economy.   They went to work chopping mesquite and selling firewood. They began hauling wood to neighboring towns and trading posts to make a living.


Half a cord could be sold in Tempe or Florence for 75¢ up to $1.25. (A cord of wood is 8 feet long by 4 feet high and 4 feet wide. Currently, a Tucson firewood supplier charges $349 for a cord!)


Robert Hack Enberg of the Bureau of Ethnic Research wrote, “In 1895, 462 cords of mesquite wood were cut and sold for firewood by Indians whose crops had failed. By 1905, nearly 12,000 cords a year were being cut and sold in Phoenix.” During World War I, a wagonload of wood was $6.00.


When Chandler began to grow and needed fence posts, individuals at Snaketown grew rich by selling mesquite fence posts for 25¢. Some O’otham women sold baskets for two to three dollars.


   Because of the hard work of O’odham and Piipaash who came before us, we exist.


We were their future – we continued in their busy hands – while they were chopping wood, making baskets --turning to the desert land when the river was taken. When you travel on the freeway and see all those mesquite stumps, you are seeing our history.


Information was taken from Peoples of the Middle Gila by John P. Wilson and Alicia: The History of a Piman Homestead by Glen E.Rice, Steadman Upham, and Linda Nicholas (Editors).