- Reconnaissance in Sonora: Charles D. Poston’s 1854 Exploration of Mexico and the Gadsden Purchase by C. Gilbert Storms
On an arid butte overlooking the community of Florence, Arizona, a tall stone pyramid marks the final resting place of Charles Debrille Poston, the “Father of Arizona.” Born in Kentucky in 1825, Poston was orphaned at the age of twelve, but managed to study law and was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-two. Leaving his paralyzed wife and their children behind to be cared for by relatives, Poston, like so many other American adventurers of the time, struck out for the California gold fields only to end up as a clerk in San Francisco. While in California, he came under the employment of the family of Augustin de Iturbide (probably the dead emperor’s son, Salvador) to explore its large grant in Sonora. Poston and his “boardinghouse colleagues were thoroughly absorbed in the legends of Sonoran wealth and the opportunity for riches that the Iturbide Grant represented” (32).
Before the 1853 Gadsden Purchase had made a large chunk of southern [End Page 101] Arizona part of the United States, Poston, along with Herman Ehrenberg, located Spanish mine workings near Ajo and other mines in the Santa Cruz Valley. Arriving at Fort Yuma, Poston convinced its commander, Maj. Samuel Peter Heintzelman, of the wealth to be had in silver, and the two men were largely responsible for the creation of the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company, setting up headquarters at Tubac in 1854. At one time the Heintzelman Mine at Cerro Gordo west of Tubac was said to have employed as many as one thousand Mexican miners and excavated an estimated $3,000 worth of silver a day. Poston was said to have known every foot of the country and to have spoken Spanish like a native. Tensions with the Apaches erupted just as the military was abandoning Fort Buchanan in 1861, and the mine was abandoned. Poston left after his brother, John, was killed by Mexican outlaws.
Largely due to his political connections in the East, Heintzelman was probably more responsible for the creation of Arizona Territory than was Poston. But Poston deserves a great deal of credit. Abraham Lincoln even named him the first Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the territory, and later he was elected as Arizona’s first delegate to congress. In 1868, Poston was appointed a special envoy to study agriculture and irrigation techniques in Asia. In India, he became enamored with Zoroastrianism, the ancient faith of Persia. He stayed abroad, practicing law in England, and did not return to Arizona until 1877, when he became head of the U.S. land office in Florence. For a time, he also served a consular agent at El Paso, Texas. As he grew older, Poston became increasingly eccentric and so poor that in 1899 the Arizona Legislature proclaimed him the “father of Arizona,” thanked him for giving the territory its name, and gave him a $25 monthly pension. Poston died in poverty in Phoenix on June 24, 1902, and narrowly escaped being buried in a potter’s field. In April 1929 his remains were taken to the summit of Poston Butte, overlooking the town of Florence, where he had once hoped to build a Temple to the Sun.
In eleven nicely crafted and informative, insightful, and persuasive chapters, along with a short postscript, appendix, and a transcription of Poston’s thirty-one page “1854 Reconnaissance in Sonora,” C. Gilbert Storms provides the reader with a richly detailed and fascinating story of the life and career of one of Arizona’s most significant figures. Storms’ historical sleuthing is impressive and his thought-provoking account of Poston and his adventures in the desert Southwest is a delight. The author is superb in sifting through Poston’s writings to determine what is accurate and what the frontiersman exaggerated or misconstrued during the latter part of his life. Bluntly put, Reconnaissance in Sonora is...