- Accidental Anthropologists:Thomas Childs Jr. and His Daughter Fillman Childs Bell
Ajo, Arizona, lies in the Hia-Ced O'odham survival territory. Their main village in Dome was called Hilo. Also, a range of mountains called Hilo divided the Mohave Indians from the Hia-Ced O'odham. … It was in this village that my mother Martha Childs was born. My father and mother called me Hilo, thread, and his name was Muta, woodpecker's nest inside of a saguaro.—Fillman Childs Bell
North American Indians once known as the Sand Papago lived in the vast and difficult desert of southwestern Arizona and northwestern Sonora. Numbering a few hundred, they ranged across an extremely unpopulated and ungenerous portion of the Sonoran Desert that few other humans wanted until the twentieth century. With an economy based on subsistence and barter, they grew crops and harvested wild plants, hunted a wide range of animals from caterpillars to bighorn sheep, made most of their own clothing, and constructed their homes from native materials at hand. They owned little more than what they could pack up and carry, mostly on foot or occasionally horseback. Few of them owned livestock, and then only after 1900. Using pottery and woven baskets, they could store foodstuffs and water for many days. They sometimes worked for other tribes to help harvest crops, and were given a share of the bounty; sometimes they were paid in currency for laboring at a mine or construction project. They bartered a variety of natural and made goods—hides, useful plants, colorful minerals, sea salt and seashells, baskets and basket-making materials—with other tribes or local retailers for goods or services. Sometimes they traded dances or songs for goods. Being highly mobile, they traveled great distances on foot, but they had favorite villages and camps throughout the region. Their knowledge of waters was legendary and made them indispensable guides.
Although their homeland extended more than 100 miles west and [End Page 617] southwest of the main Tohono O'odham territory that is now a reservation, they were largely unseen and unappreciated by historical travelers or citizens of settled communities. They drifted into the historical record from fleeting encounters with Spanish padres like Eusebio Kino in the 1690s, surveyor Andrew Gray in 1854, ethnologist Carl Lumholtz in 1910, and a few others lucky enough to meet these phantom-like relatives of the well-known Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago). Some mid-twentieth-century scholars thought that they had died off or intermarried with outsiders, making their band extinct—a lost tribe. But we now know better. They were not lost. They live, and they still call themselves People from the Sands: Hia-Ced O'odham.
Two advocates who refused to let the experts and agencies forget the tribe were Thomas Childs Jr. and his daughter Fillman Childs Bell. But who were they?
My search for Tom Childs Jr. and Fillman Bell first led me to Oscar Bell, Fillman's husband and a son-in-law to Tom. Oscar relied on memory, not notes, but he carried the family banner high and willingly shared its history. His father was Charles Bell, a close friend of Tom Childs Jr., and nephew of John Cameron, another boyhood friend of the Childs family. Oscar plied me with photos and stories beginning with Tom's father.
Thomas Childs Sr. had been born in northeastern Mississippi and brought west to Lytle Creek, California, by a Mormon family after he was orphaned or abandoned. His early history is blurred—even his birthdate and birthplace are unclear, though somewhere along the Tombigbee River and about 1832 seem plausible.1 He worked various jobs: laborer and carpenter on a coastal freighter hauling tallow and hides; drover pushing livestock from California to Mexico; prospector for silver, gold, and copper; opportunist gathering stray cattle near Yuma and starting a small ranch; soldier in the Civil War; farmer and stage station manager along the Gila River between Gila Bend and Yuma; deputy sheriff in Phoenix, and wagon freighter hauling goods from Phoenix to Yuma and Prescott, Arizona, for Charlie Hayden in Phoenix...