Standing in the oppressive heat of the desert between Tucson and Phoenix I feel a very long way from the green, rain-soaked valleys of Cornwall. It is a vast and untamed landscape like nothing I have ever experienced before in all my travels, yet thousands of Cornish found themselves drawn here in the 19th century.
Some found their fortunes, others back-breaking hardship and loss, or worse.
“These dry, rocky places are made of drought, created by absence, the sky holding back on purpose . . . Deserts are mummifiers, bone makers.” Craig Childs, Essays from Dry Places, Arizona, 2019
So, how did a Cornishman come to end his days in the deserts of Arizona more than 5000 miles from home? And was his death just a unfortunate tragedy or something far more sinister?
The Bodies of Two Men
On 17th May 1894 a report appeared in the Mesa Free Press, the newspaper for the Maricopa county of Arizona. It read:
The bodies of two men were found a few days ago in the desert near the Congress mine. One of them left a note giving their names as William Rogers and Wm. McDonald.
The bodies had been initially discovered in early May. In the days that followed more information about the circumstances surrounding the deaths and the contents of the note began to emerge.
It was established that one of the men was William Rogers from Cornwall.
William was born in Ashton near Breage in 1869. He came from a long line of miners. His father Francis and both his grandfathers worked underground. His parents, Francis Rogers and Thomasine Kitto, had grown up together in the village and married in 1854. William was the youngest of their five children.
On the 29th July 1889 aged 21 William Rogers boarded the SS Umbria and began the long voyage to the USA. The log records his name, age and occupation – miner. And Rogers was just one of many thousands of men to make that journey.
Cornish in Arizona
The stalling of the Cornish mining industry in the early part of the 19th century had forced Cornish miners to search for work in other areas with mineral production, such as South Africa, Australia and America. It is estimated that more than 500,000 Cornish left their home in the 19th century.
Initially, many settled in Wisconsin and Michigan. Later making their way further west to California, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona. A train ticket that could take you from one side of the country to the other could be purchased in the 1880s for $40.
The Cornish could easily have integrated in to North American society but instead it was reported that others found them ‘clanish’.
They utilized their ethnicity to their advantage, being from Cornwall implied an expertise in mining that would secure the best paid jobs. And the Cornish mine captains took on their fellow countrymen first, often giving them higher rates of pay and special privileges. The Cornish were also said to be constantly looking for employment for friends and relatives. One explanation for their nickname, “Cousin Jack,” suggests that when asked if they knew someone who could do a job in the mine the answer was always, “My Cousin Jack can.”
From Montana to Arizona
Like many before him William Rogers’ adventures began in the north of America. We know that he spent time in Helena, Montana. He then moved to Telluride in Colorado and then around 1894 made his way to Arizona.
The 1890s had seen a severe devaluation of silver and copper in the US. Consequently miners were forced to move to wherever they thought there was work, or the rumour of work.
From 1893 to 1900 many miners from the old silver camps of the West became caught up in the search for gold. Arizona was incredibly rich in the precious mineral.
Numerous new gold deposits were discovered, notably in Congress in the Bradshaw Mountains, the Mammoth, north of Tucson, and the rich Harqua Hala.
Fortunes were being made. Gold fever was rife.
It is thought that William Rogers was on his way to the gold rush in Harqua Hala when he died. But how exactly William and his companion met their ends in the desert is not entirely clear. In fact, it’s even a little ambiguous exactly who died out in the desert sun at all.
The first reports in the newspapers said that the dead men were travelling to Harque Hala from the town Prescott. A distance of over 120 miles, they may have had transport part of the way, horses perhaps, but it appears that they were completing the last stretch of the journey on foot.
“The bodies of two Cornishmen who were on their way from Prescott to Harqua Hala, were found near the sink of Date Creek a few days ago . . . The two men had perished from thirst.” Monhave County Miner, 19th May 1894
Haraquahala like so many of Arizona’s old mining settlements is now a dusty, forgotten ghost town. But it once saw a gold rush of epic proportions. The mine there produced $3,630,000 of gold and nuggets worth upwards of $300 could be found just lying on the desert floor!
By 1888 it had become a sprawling boom town with saloons, boarding houses, a post office and its own newspaper – The Harqua Hala Miner. Rogers was making his way towards this town and, he must have hoped, his fortune.
The bodies of the two men were discovered near a dried up creek just a few miles from Culling’s Well. They were roughly 20 miles north of the Harqua Hala mountains. The well, which should have been their salvation, is now almost completely disappearing back into the desert but movingly it has retained a connection to William Rogers’ death.
Culling’s Well was established in the 1860s by Charles C. Culling. This innovative man had to dig down through 250ft (76m) of dirt before he found water. He then sold this cool, sweet ground water for 25c per animal or 50c a barrel. Culling was described by his contemporaries as “a jovial man, always giving a hearty welcome to travellers”. His was the only stable water source for 100 miles and when he died in 1878 the business was taken over by his widow’s new husband, John Drew. Drew just so happens to be one of the men who discovered the bodies of the Cornish prospectors.
Local legend has it that Drew was so moved by how close the two men were to the well when they died of thirst he decided to act. Sadly deaths like theirs seem to have been pretty common. One newspaper wrote at the time:
“Year by year the addition to the number of deaths on the deserts of the southwest are growing and yet the supervisors of the various counties take no action in the matter of putting up guideboards for the convenience of travellers and in so doing save many men from an awful death.”
Drew however decided to try and ensure no other travellers perished so near to water again.
After the Cornishmen’s deaths a light was suspended on the top of a long pole above Culling’s Well to act as a beacon for lost travellers. The settlement quickly became known as ‘the lighthouse in the desert’.
There is a small graveyard at Culling’s Well, it isn’t confirmed but it’s entirely possible that Rogers and McDonald are buried here.
Rogers’ Last Words
According to the reports the bodies of the two men were found some distance from each other. A journal containing a scribbled note was found on one body. The note read:
“I remain your loving son, William Rogers. Dying for want of water. Do not grieve for me mother, I am dying. Send to Telluride, Colo for my trunk. My partner will go on to Harqua Hala, his name is Bill McDonald. The key to my trunk is in my pocket.”
In the pocket of the other body, assumed to be McDonald, was a letter of credit for £15, 3s issued by Wells Fargo Bank made out to Mrs. Constance Hoskins from William McDonald.
However, doubts over the identity of the bodies would quickly begin to surface.
The Manner of his Death
The circumstances surrounding the deaths of William Rogers and William McDonald had at first seemed straightforward. They apparently died of dehydration when they became lost in the desert near Culling’s Well.
That was the story that had appeared in The Times in London on 16th May 1894.
The article brought dozens of letters to the investigating officer in Arizona, Justice Kincaid, from worried relatives back in England, including one from William King, Rogers’ brother-in-law. That letter was published in The Arizona Republican in August 1894.
King asks if Kincaid can provide more information concerning the circumstances of Rogers’ death. He writes that he has already contracted T J Drew “one of the discoverers of the bodies”, the owner of Culling’s Well, but had no reply.
You see, rumours of foul play had begun circulating in late May, since another letter sent anonymously from a mining town called Harrisburg, Arizona had also been published in the papers.
It claimed that the dead men had originally been part of a party of four who had left Congress Mine together. And that the bodies were William Rogers and a man called Hoskins, not McDonald.
Some twenty miles after setting off the letter said that the four men separated, that Hoskins and Rogers had left the group. The other two, McDonald and an unknown man, went on to Copper Camp, then Culling’s Well, Harqua Hala and finally made their way to Harrisburg. In Harrisburg the writer claims that these men had been heard to say that “their partners were left in the desert to die”.
The letter goes on to assert that:
“Rogers and his partner [Hoskins] went to the Copper Camp and got water and went on. McDonald and his partner went to work at the Harqua Hala mines, never saying anything about their partners . . . If they had made it known men would have gone in every direction until they had been found . . . When they were found the dead men were lying on their backs with their hats over their faces. No man dies in that shape with thirst. Foul play is suspected and the case ought to be investigated. It was done in Maricopa county but the bodies were brought over to Yuma and buried.”
So, how exactly did the men come to meet their ends? Was there some kind of disagreement between the four men, over money perhaps? Were Rogers and Hoskins (if it was Hoskins) just weaker than the other two, unable to take the rigours of the journey and rather than help McDonald (if it was him) and the other man went on without them? Who did the credit note belong to and why was it made out to Mrs Hoskins?
As far as I can establish the deaths were never investigated further.
This anonymous statement printed in The Arizona Republican raises so many important and interesting questions. The most pressing being not just how the men died but who exactly was it that died in the wilderness.
Mrs. Constance Hoskins, the lady of the credit note found on the second body, lived at Churchtown in Breage. Very close to the Rogers family . . . so if it was Rogers and Hoskins who died, did they already know each other? According to the 1891 census her husband William, a blacksmith, is abroad. She is also living with their two year old son and her brother, William Peller, who records his occupation as retired Gold Miner. Another connection to Arizona perhaps?
If the second body wasn’t McDonald but Hoskins then why did Rogers write the wrong name in the note to his mother? Did one Cornishman die in the desert or was it two? Was it ever verified that Rogers’ had actually written the note?
The whole episode leaves me with so many unanswered questions. Perhaps something more will come to light in the future, in which case I will certainly let you all know! Until then this sad tale will remain something of a mystery.
See below for another post about the Cornish in Arizona . . .
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