As I’m car pooling kids home from school, my son proudly tells the story of his great- great-great-grandfather, Thomas Gardner.
Born in 1820, Gardner is reputed to have been southern Arizona’s first American settler.
He is said to have traveled from New York City to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, pushing a wheelbarrow.
“Is that true?” my son’s friends ask me suspiciously.
“That’s what I’ve been told,” I respond. “He was also enemies with the Apache Chief Cochise, shot through the lung by him, but lived another adventure-filled 45 years.
“When he died, a monument was erected to his memory and a canyon is named after him.”
I hear a chorus of “Oh wow” from the back seat.
After prospecting in the San Francisco area, Gardner sailed from California to Guaymas, Mexico.
Traveling north, he settled in southern Arizona in 1859 and lived here until his death in 1906 at age 86.
Old Tom was an imposing character. An article in the Philadelphia Times in 1888 described him at 68 as “a tall heavily built man, with long iron-gray hair and grizzled beard. His whole appearance betokens a robust constitution, and people in the mountains say that, nonwithstanding (sic) his age, in a rough and tumble fight, he can whip any man for miles around.”
He was a pioneer, miner, trader, farmer, rancher, sawmill operator and deputy sheriff.
He first settled near Patagonia, a place of incessant raids by Apaches because of the mines and their importance for the territory.
People would flee to his ranch for protection. His children would recount memories of raids, men shooting out of peepholes while their mother made bullets and they cried in fear.
Although an enemy of the Apaches, he welcomed friendly Indians onto his land to hunt and fulfill traditions.
He also championed the rights of peaceable Mexicans in the area, calling for their safety and protection.
He made his disrespect for the nation of Mexico known but asked for a little charity to be extended to its “great mass of people degraded, hopeless, and wretched.”
Acknowledging bad guys on both sides of the border, he hoped the good citizens from each would unite and root out the bad for the security of all.
In 1878, he moved his family from the Santa Ritas to Tucson – living in the area that now is downtown – so his children could be schooled.
Old Tom was well known for horse racing and, according to George Hand’s Saloon Diary, was a frequent customer of Foster and Hand’s Saloon.
Today, it is curious to have streets and neighborhoods named after people I know nothing about but who were good friends of my great-great-grandfather.
I often imagine what it must have been like to live in Tucson back then.
After I drop off the other kids, my son asks, “What would Thomas Gardner think of Tucson now?” Good question.
He risked a lot to settle here and pave the way for others. He lost much and never sought or gained fame or riches.
He did not try to collect money from the government for his losses, as some of his friends did. And it has been said he lost the most.
I cannot know what he would think, but I hope he would think it was worth it.
Elizabeth “Bjay” Woolley, a Tucson native whose family has been in southern Arizona for generations, is a mother, freelance Web designer and editor of an online magazine for moms with diabetes. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org