February 3, 2019

1867: Squatters Try to Purloin the Plaza

In 1867, the only permanent structure on Prescott's Plaza was a flagpole. But one morning in March, people arriving downtown came across an infuriating sight. "We are sorry to announce the arrival of the notorious and vagabond called ‘squatter’ in our devoted town,” the paper reported. A small party of men, “mostly strangers” to the area, “deliberately located or 'jumped' our town plaza, and are now proceeding to take and fence it.” 

When one is in mining country, being called a “jumper” is one of the most derisive comments that could be leveled in public discourse.

The consternation was palpable. “To say that the movement of taking possession of the ground set apart for a public…plaza, surrounded by several hundred lots which were sold for 10 to 20 times the amount realized for joining or outside lots,” the paper asserted, “is a fraud and imposition upon a large number of our best citizens.”

These citizens met that night to form a plan to terminate the squatters’ plans. “The meeting was properly organized, and the matter fully discussed. The meeting quietly adjourned after signing the following mild and modest notice:

"We the undersigned, request that the parties who have jumped the public plaza in the town of Prescott, desist from further operations,” it read. It was signed by 82 prominent businessmen and property owners including George Coulter, Robert Meacham, RW Groom, L Bashford, and WM Hardy.

"We have no acquaintance with the party thus trespassing upon public opinion and private rights, with one exception, and that individual (a Mr. Bowers) has been but a few months in the territory,” the paper revealed. “He has a good reputation as an engineer and millwright, and has been regarded as a very valuable man among us. We regret the step he has taken, and heartily believe he will (desist) in the course he has began. In fact, knowing the gentlemen as we do, we think he is—joking."

True story of how the Apache tribe massed to attack Prescott in 1864 and what stopped them.

However, the jumpers were quite serious and fenced-off the ground. “We will once again proffer a word of advice to the jumpers,” the paper warned. “Take your post and rails to some other locality, where, if you desire to cultivate ground you can get a legitimate title to it for a mere trifle--not one quarter the cost of litigation which is sure to follow your recent operation."

It took until October 26th for the case to be brought to court and as outrageous as the squatters’ plan was, it still had a reasonable legal argument. The rub was that the act of Congress used to incorporate Prescott was not followed to the letter. “The only irregularity about the proceedings,” the paper explained, “was that the commissioners (who incorporated Prescott) were selected by the citizens instead of being appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, as provided in the Act.” Purchasers of the newly created lots “thought (it) better to take the hazard of a slight irregularity, which could be subsequently cured by the recognition of the Secretary,” instead of waiting and missing-out on obtaining the best lots. Unfortunately, although the Secretary had told Govs. Goodwin and McCormick that he would recognize Prescott’s townsite commissioners, he neglected to formally do so.

Still, the jury, made up of locals, predictably determined that this formality would be fulfilled soon and ruled in favor of the town.

By the end of November, the chapter was closed. “The Plaza is now naked, without fence or other improvement upon it, save and except the flagstaff,” the paper reported. A judge, acting as a private citizen, “bought the rails and lumber belonging to (one of the squatters) and had them hauled away.”

“We think our citizens will not be put to further trouble in this matter,” the paper determined. “Our citizens should club together and fence it in right away and next spring, trees should be planted in it.”

Indeed, in order to protect the Plaza for the public, both of these suggestions were ultimately adopted.

The commission that incorporated Prescott acted in May of 1864. Recently the question has been raised as to what the exact date was. Surprisingly, this has been difficult to determine, as primary documents that might be expected to did not record the exact date. However, the fact that Prescott’s incorporation was not formally recognized by the government as late as October, 1867, interjects a whole new wrinkle into this debate.

Prescott is widely known as Arizona's First Territorial Capital. Here are some other "firsts" surrounding Prescott and Yavapai County history.

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