Historian pieces history together

Copied from Valle Redondo Days '92
by Mike Grace (Special to the Independent)
Friday, September 4, 1992 --Valle Redondo Section -- Page 5D

SPRINGERVILLE-- Separating fact from fiction is a historian's greatest challenge.

     Tales of the old west, outlaws, gunslingers and reckless gamblers become taller through generations of storytelling.

     Simple deeds grow into acts of sweeping heroism. Hardship and disaster is retold as triumph and adventure.

      In the case of the history of the Round Valley area, no one has done more to unravel the mysteries and separate truth from fiction than life-long resident and historical researcher Jack Becker.

     A descendant of Gustav Becker, one of Round Valley's pioneer settlers, Jack has devoted many years to researching the background that forms the early history of the settlement of the area from 1869 to 1887.   Becker was born into the history of Round Valley due to his own family roots, which date back to the 1870s.

     Becker who works for the Apache County Adult Probation Department as coordinator of community services. He devotes virtually all his free time to searching archives, court records and old news clippings to garner threads of information regarding the lives of key figures in Round Valley history.

     "People were always asking me about the history of the area, and there really just wasn't much in the way of real historical work done, " he said. "A majority of 'local' histories have largely represented hand-me-down grandmother type retelling of non-researched stories, some of which were recounted totally incorrectly."

     Becker, who is totally self-taught in research techniques, used official records and newspapers of the period to locate and substantiate information. "Court records or official documents, of course, are the most dependable," he said, pointing out that it is "factual stuff."

     Newspaper writing from that period was biased and opinionated he said. You wouldn't believe how outlandish some of the editors and writers were in those days," he said. "A modern newspaper could never get away with that kind of writing, even on an editorial page."

     However prejudiced or not, Becker still gleans important information from such accounts, especially if there is more than one. Names, dates, and circumstances shine through even the most bigoted of writing.

     "What you look for is an official document collaterally supported by newspaper accounts," Becker said. "When you find both, that's virtually a lock-on."

     He said he personally does not engage in interviewing at all because of the time frame.  One of the problems in the Round Valley area is that our first permanent local newspaper, the St. Johns Herald, did not begin publishing until 1885.

     The Pioneer was established in 1882 by C. A. Franklin at St. Johns but didn't last long and no copies are known to exist.   The Apache Chief in 1884 was published for nine months during that year and was a highly anti-Mormon journal. It also did not survive.

     "This is a real problem because our history here actually begins around 1870, so we are looking at about a 15-year gap of historical events with no 'local' paper reporting on them." Becker said.

     To further complicate matters, this area was part of Yavapai County until February of 1879 with its seat in Prescott, 250 miles away. "Even after Apache County was created, the Legislature didn't get around to creating a judicial district until two years later," he said.

     For all intents and purposes, "historical" records here in the Round Valley don't begin until 1882.  "By 1885 our court records are fairly complete here. A lot of records from Prescott are missing in the interim period, so I count heavily on secondary research ---through newspapers," Becker said.

     "The great writers and historians of the period who wrote about all these sheriffs and personalities did not have access to what we do because there was no microfilm library. They didn't know what was going on in Prescott, Santa Fe, and other places critical to the developments here in Round Valley," he said.

     In the 1960s the government and historical societies, through grants, began microfilming records.

     "Let me tell you how happy I was when I first found out about the project years ago," Becker said.  "It's a lot easier to scan microfilm than to actually dig through the real thing."

     "What I say about historical writing is that if it isn't substantiated by a creditable source, don't even bother writing about it," Becker said.  And he should know.  His extensive research work and investigation has attracted the interest of the Arizona Historical Society, which is encouraging him to collaborate on a venture to publish much of his work.

     His research clearly shows the great majority of the original settlers came here from New Mexico or had resided there prior to entering this area and most were Hispanic, he said.  So for a lot of his research Becker goes back to New Mexico and legal documents and newspaper articles there.  I have to go back to the 1860s there in order to trace developments which led to Western movement here."

     New Mexico was fairly well established and Becker estimates that it had something like eight times the population of Arizona Territory in those days.     

     "The Round Valley area was Apache land and there weren't any settlers around prior to 1870.  Despite some tree-ring dating work done by a few researchers, the facts are that only transient movement occurred in Round Valley before 1870.  "When some of the first dendrochronology (tree ring dating) work came out, there was a lot of excitement because the results showed wood in structures around here that was a lot older than that particular time frame," he said.

     "There's no question but that the dating of the construction material is correct," Becker said. "However, if you check the records over in New Mexico, you can find that the individual concerned who owned the structure was still over in Santa Fe or Albuquerque or wherever."

     "The truth is that these people when they moved this way from New Mexico dismantled a lot of their structures and brought the wood here to reuse," he said.

     Until Fort Apache was established, this was heavy Indian country.  There is a very complete history of Fort Apache through Army records which are still completely intact. It was first known as Camp Ord, then Camp Mogollon, Camp Thomas, and finally, Camp Apache before becoming Fort Apache in 1879.

      "Fort Apache is what propelled everything in this area.  It was the economic basis and driving factor." Becker said.   "Sure this was a beautiful valley, but nobody could settle here on account of the insecurity of the Apache wars."

     The first settler consisted of the families of W.R. Milligan, O.W. McCoullough and Anthony Long. Contrary to many misplaced rumors, the area was not settled by sheep men.

     The fort was the driving force of economic reality that created the influx of settlers to this area."

     "With a large force of men here in the area, you had protection and also certain needs which acted as a magnet to attract people," he said.

     The presence of an Army post meant huge grain contracts, the need for beef, charcoal, wood and all sorts of materials.

     "The idea that this area was founded by outlaws is ridiculous. Who and what were they going to rob?" Becker said.  "We ended up with a lot of them, but they aren't what built this place."    

     "The Round Valley is a really rich multi-cultural mosaic of many elements, each of which has played a very important role in bringing us where we are today," said the historian. 

     Becker feels the most fascinating aspect of the "manifest destiny" era in the colonization of the Round Valley and Little Colorado area was the extreme cultural diversity in the various ethnic groups and how they adapted to one another.  "You had New Mexican sheep men, Anglo Texan cattlemen, Civil War veterans from both sides, friendly White Mountain Apaches, men on the run, farmers, prospectors, European immigrants and finally the Mormon colonists who came to stay," he said.

     These various groups vied for political power and economic dominance in local and county affairs, coming to a head during most of the 1880s with a minimum amount of violence and no range wars. "They simply learned to live with each other," Becker said.   He feels very strongly that what we do today becomes history tomorrow.  What makes it "exciting" history to some is its remoteness from us.

     "Today everything is documented and recorded in computer banks," he said. "What I search for is the thread that binds us to the past, when records weren't so complete and life was very different."