Sunday, February 24, 2013


About halfway between Phoenix and Tucson is a small state park encompassing several high basaltic ridges ending in a precipitous peak.  The ridges came from old volcanic lava flows that were more resistant to erosion than the surrounding rock.  But the fame of this location is not in its geology, but in its history.  First it was a landmark for the Indian tribes of the Southwest.  Later, Picacho Peak  was a geographic signpost for the Spanish explorers and settlers who came north in 1776 from deep in Mexico and then turned west near this prominence to journey to the San Francisco Bay area.  In the 1840’s, it was a watering place for the Americans who crossed the desert as they traveled from New Mexico to California.

Old Saguaro Cactus

The Peak

Least known, and least remembered, and of possibly greatest significance is that Picacho Peak in Arizona was the site of the westernmost battle of the Civil War.  In this obscure episode, a dozen Union soldiers defeated eighteen Confederate cavalrymen. Realizing that their advance into Arizona was no longer tenable, the larger body of Confederate soldiers, stationed in Tucson, retreated across the desert to Texas leaving the Union in firm control of the Southwest. Every spring, a reenactment of this battle takes place in the shadow of Picacho Peak.     


At the Heard Museum, a powerful exhibit details the infamous Indian Boarding School movement that began in the 1870’s. Young Indian children were wrested from their families and sent to far away boarding schools in order to bring them into the dominant, American culture . No longer able to live a traditional life based on migration across broad expanses of land, how were the youth to adapt to their new circumstances? At the boarding schools, old patterns were broken – hair was cut short, school uniforms replaced colorful Indian garb – English literacy and vocational training were designed to prepare youth for a new life  -- all “to solve” the Indian problem. To leaders of the late 19th century, this seemed reasonable. Now this underlying philosophy is rejected and boarding schools are things of the past except for a few elite facilities where Indian students choose to go. 

(See link above for photos and more detail.)


Like so many museums across our nation, the Heard Museum was founded by a rich 19th century family that gave its collection of art and artifacts to form the core of a new museum’s holdings.  The Heard family, heirs to the True Value Hardware Company of Chicago, had moved to Phoenix in the late 1800’s for health reasons.  They fell in love with the Southwest and were particularly taken with the Indian culture of the region – featured in this museum.
Down the hall, an exhibit honored the Code Talkers, valorous Indian men who first served in WW I and then more fully in WW II -- in both the South Pacific and European theatres.  Only in 1968 were these men given permission to talk of their wartime assignments and even still later in 2001 given full public recognition by our government—something they so richly deserved. These were brave men, who served in the front lines identifying enemy positions and calling in artillery, using a coded form of their native languages. The enemy was never able to decipher their messages which were critically important to the American war effort.

A large number of native Americans come to see their past portrayed at the Heard and no doubt leave with enhanced pride.

Code Book

Code Talker Radio Equipment

Navajo Code Talker Reunion