A Book Review
I found this historically important book accidentally at an I-10 truck stop near Vail. You know, the place where you get the huge breakfasts. Vanished Arizona is the autobiographical account of Martha (Mattie) Durham Summerhayes, who was born to a prosperous New England family in a spacious, comfortable home on Nantucket Island in 1846. She was well-educated and, as a young single woman, spent two years in Germany where she lived with the family of a Prussian general and became enamored with the structure, pomp and glitter of military life and fascinated by German literature and music.
When she returned to Nantucket, she soon married handsome John (Jack) Summerhayes, a Civil War veteran and a lieutenant in the United States Army Infantry. In 1874, Jack’s 8th Infantry regiment was transferred to Arizona, a U.S. Territory with a non-Indian population of about 20,000. Mattie went with him. She would live to regret it, yet …
As she explained 30 years later, “I had cast my lot with a soldier and where he was, was home to me.” However the hardships she had to endure in 1870’s Arizona Territory are nearly unimaginable today.
Mattie’s first experience in this unknown land was arriving at Fort Yuma by steamer from San Francisco … in AUGUST. The daytime temperature soured above 120 degrees in the shade. But there was hardly any shade within 200 miles. Any one of us who have been to Yuma in the summer knows, the instant we get out of our air conditioned automobile, what it feels like to enter a blast furnace.
She found nothing that resembled the civilization she had left behind in New England. No cool breezes. No housing other than adobe hovels. No ice. No fresh foods. No grocery stores. No retail stores whatsoever. No doctor. No dentist. Precious little drinkable water. And no possibility of relief.
In addition to insufferable heat, what she had were plenty of snakes, scorpions, ants, and other vermin that made human life a constant misery. And to make matters far worse, most Apaches had not yet been subdued.
This was at the height of the Apache Wars and the era of greatest deprivations, on both side.
Nearly a year later, her husband’s regiment was transferring from Camp Apache (later Fort Apache) in the White Mountains to Ehrenburg along the mighty, and as yet untamed, Colorado River. By now, Mattie had an infant boy to care for and protect.
To get to their destination, they had to enter a narrow canyon. They suspected Apaches might be lying in ambush.
“To say that we feared an ambush would not perhaps convey a very clear idea of how I felt on entering the Pass.
There was not a word spoken. I obeyed orders, and lay down in the bottom of the ambulance; I took my derringer out of the holster and cocked it. I looked at my little boy lying helpless there beside me, and at his delicate temples, lined with thin blue veins, and wondered if I could follow the instructions I had received: for Jack had said, after the decision was made, to go through the Pass;
“Now Mattie, I don’t think for a minute that there are any Injuns in that Pass, and you must not be afraid.
We have got to go through it any way; but,” he hesitated, … “we may be mistaken; there may be a few of them, and they’ll have a mighty good chance to get in a shot or two.
And now listen; if I’m hit, you’ll know what to do. You have your derringer; and when you see that there is no help for it, if they get away with the whole outfit, why, there’s only one thing to be done. Don’t let them get the baby, for they will carry you off and … well, you know the squaws are much more cruel than the bucks. Don’t let them get either of you alive. “Now” … to the driver … “go on.”
In 1870’s Arizona, the Apache situation was so bad that General of the Army, William Tecumseh Sherman remarked, “We had one war with Mexico to take Arizona, and we should have another to make her take it back.”
This is a vividly personal account of love and devotion, and true grit …unbounded determination and courage. A settler or miner’s wife living on the Arizona frontier in the 1870’s had it tough. Army wives had it worse.
This was a hard book to put down. If you want to understand Arizona history as it was lived, read Vanished Arizona. It should be required reading for every Arizona student … and their parental units. If for no other reason, to appreciate what we Arizonans have to be grateful for today. Vanished Arizona will give the term “hellish” a whole new perspective.
Vanished Arizona: Recollections of the Army Life of a New England Woman, Second Edition (Bison Classic)