Engraving of White’s Mill, 1864. (Public domain)
Originally published Sunday, October 8, 2017 at 06:03a.m.
The Pima Villages were an oasis for southern Arizona in the 1850s. Thanks to irrigation developed over 1,200 years, they had water and ample crops, and the Akimel O’odham — formerly called Pima — had a reputation for being reliable and peaceful.
That peacefulness, though, required being treated with respect.
In the 1850s, the Piipaash — formerly called Maricopa — moved near the Akimel O’odham in order to get protection from traditional enemies. Three hundred Yuma warriors and allies attacked a Piipaash village and set it on fire. A distress signal to the Akimel O’odham brought several warriors. On Pima Butte on June 1, 1857, the Akimel O’odham and Piipaash warriors defeated the Yuma, killing 150.
This was the last major battle between Indian tribes in the United States, but it demonstrated the Akimel O’odham’s fighting capability when necessary.
In 1859, the federal government created a reservation for the Akimel O’odham and Piipaash, protecting the land they had under cultivation when the Territory was created. A station of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company had been set up at Casa Blanca in the Pima Villages, and the station master, Silas St. John, was appointed Indian Agent. He was asked to distribute farm implements to replace the hand-made ones the Akimel O’odham traditionally used. Within a year, St. John resigned.
In 1860, Ammi Mitchell White, 43, established a trading post at Casa Blanca. White had grown up in Maine and had worked as a miner near Bath until he was in his 30s. In 1852, he went to San Francisco as a merchant. That experience made him inclined to try running a trading post, and he talked his step-brother, Cyrus Lennan, 31, and a friend, Eben Noyes, 28, into joining him. Lennan was named postmaster.
White focused on selling the grains and cotton the Akimel O’odham produced. The cotton was selectively developed to emphasize strength and fineness, characteristics still recognized today for “Pima Cotton.” White increased the value of the wheat by milling it into flour. The canals in the village allowed building a water-powered mill. Recognizing that a Civil War was coming, they stockpiled 1,500 sacks of grain for the Union Army.
In 1861, Col. John Robert Baylor laid claim to southern Arizona as a territory of the Confederacy, and 120 Confederate cavalrymen were sent to Tucson to stop Apache attacks and arrest Union sympathizers. A detachment was sent to Casa Blanca. They arrested White, destroyed the mill, and gave the grain back to the Akimel O’odham.
A unit of Union troops known as the California Column, led by Col. (later Brigadier General) James Carleton, had also heard about White and his support for the federal government. A detachment of nine Union scouts under Capt. William McCleave went to Casa Blanca to meet White. They arrived shortly after the Confederate soldiers. The rebels pretended to be White and his staff and tricked McCleave into letting his guard down. The rebels captured McCleave and his company, and White and McCleave were shipped as prisoners of war to Mesilla on the Rio Grande.
Eventually, the California Column worked its way across Arizona and, via prisoner exchange, freed White and McCleave. White returned to Casa Blanca and with Noyes and Lennan rebuilt the mill. They provided flour and grains for the Army and, two years later, converted the mill to steam.
The war did not return to their area, but there were conflicts with the Apache.
In 1864, King Woolsey from Agua Fria had gathered a posse to attack Apache raiding parties. With about 30 men, he came to Casa Blanca and convinced 14 Akimel O’odham and Piipaash warriors and Cyrus Lennan to join him. At least 17 Apache were killed while Woolsey pretended to negotiate.
Lennan, though, was shot by a wounded Apache and became the only member of Woolsey’s party to die. Woolsey received a commendation for his deception, but that was not much satisfaction for White, who had to arrange to ship his step-brother’s body to Maine for burial.
Two years later, White decided to sell the mill and, with Noyes, moved back to San Francisco. The canals in Casa Blanca were known for their controlled water flow, but a year later a flood surprised everyone and destroyed the mill. An interesting side note in Arizona’s history was brought to a conclusion.
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