October 25, 2021

Manifest Destiny and a Thief’s Remorse!


This contribution to the Valley’s premiere news and literary journal will take us to the deepest of the Baja for a dark and sordid tale of power, obsolescence and man’s deepest yearning for an effortless life and frozen tropical drinks. It is a tale of manifest destiny and a thief’s remorse. It is also the story of a small creek, a big dream and the realization that nothing is forever. The time is the turn of the century (the one before this last one – Y1.9K). And the situation is one that is as tenuous as it remains today.

As the story goes, a Yavapai County cattleman by the name of Lew Turner lost some of his stock in the rough country down hill the from Payson and didn’t know where to find them. Deciding not to stop in at the Strawberry Lodge and experience some of their horrendous service, yet marvelous Bloody Marys, old Lew plugged on down the hill towards the Verde River.

What he found was a spring where most of the water collected in the hills and valleys of northern Arizona leaked out onto the surface and formed a creek of unusual characteristics. To Old Lew it appeared the entire creek bed was slowly fossilizing each and every stick, leaf and bug that fell into its waters. With all of the originality and wit of a Yavapai County cattleman, he dubbed the place Fossil Creek.

Whether he ever found his beeves was never recorded, but the apocrypha of the creek says he “discovered it” (not the calf, the creek). How Lew reacted to his discovery (“Eureka, I have found it,” or perhaps, “Wow, check it out!”) was also never left for posterity to savor.

What is recorded, however, is his deed and title to the creek, the springs, the water within and any other economic benefit he was capable of leaching out of it. The simple fact that Old Lew had been recorded as the discoverer and that his name was recorded as the “rightful owner” of the creek is living proof that the winners write the stories.

The losers in this instance were the western Apache, not to be confused to the eastern Apache best known for their keen fashion sense and undying worship of all things French. This humble band of indigenous hunter-picker uppers had been living along the creek for some time–long enough that by any standard of Arizona statute regarding surface water rights, they were clearly “first in time, first in right.”

However, the turn of the last century (the one before this last one) was a time of swaggering white men with brass balls, unmitigated gall, and the prevailing legal opinion that an aboriginal did not have the right to so much as remain silent, which they did in abundance.

Unlike the Sinagua before them, who found it difficult to distinguish the local landfill from their own front yard, or the whites that followed them, who still find it difficult to walk through a city park without leaving enough artifacts to fill the Smithsonian, the Apache live lightly on the land. Their legends say they even took their fire with them. One can only imagine the logistical difficulties associated with such a tradition, at least prior to the introduction of Ohio Blue Tips and the Zippo.

In the end, their adherence to the “ignorance is bliss model” of international affairs, and their “leave only footprints, take only Polaroids” system of land claims cost them their riparian paradise. Within 10 years of Lew’s “discovery” and subsequent claim of possession, Fossil Creek was teaming with hordes of Mexicans laborers, Apaches laborers and swaggering white men with brass balls, damming and diverting the creek down a steel and concrete flume to power a hydroelectric plant that could service all of the gold, silver and copper mines that other brass balled white guys had built on other tracts of Indian land.

Their efforts bore fruit. In the blink of an eye, these brass-balled tycoons (the ones at the creek, not the ones at the mines) had discovered they could gain power by selling it. In fact, it was not very long until the brass balls had even sold the idea that what they were doing was a public service. Thus they became Arizona Public Service.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the next turn of the century (the last one, not the one before). The guys with the brass balls became gelatinous (their balls, at least), their gall had been mitigated and the Indians had long forgotten how to remain silent (perhaps no one has told them they had the right). On June 18th, 2005, the flaccid successors of Old Lew surrendered their deed and title to the creek, the springs, the water and any future economic benefit they could leach out. With the blessing of the Apaches and the collective orgasm of a thousand trust babies, the gates of the dam were opened and Fossil Creek went back home.

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