The Palmer Papers
Observations on the Verde frontier, 1865-1866
CAMP VERDE - Edward Palmer's introduction to the Verde Valley was about what he had expected.
Since arriving at Fort Whipple a month earlier he had been regaled daily by stories of Indian attacks on soldiers and civilians alike. He knew the 50-mile trip from Prescott would be dangerous, and he knew his destination would be worse.
On the trip, with 18 New Mexico volunteers sent to establish a military encampment at the mouth of the Clear Fork of the Verde River, he was witness to numerous reminders of the ongoing clash between Americans and Native Americans.
Along the way, he later wrote, "graves & memorable spots, made famous by attacks upon travelers by Indians, lay upon either side of us.
"We passed through piles of rocks in many places marking the last resting place of the unfortunate dead, as their humble headboards stated, at the hands of the Apache."
The landscape, he noted, was "composed of rocks and bushes so blended together, so variable in size & so diversified over the country, that you could not see your enemy until death told his near proximity. No foe certainly could have a more favorable section to operate in than this one."
By the time the company of soldiers and their lone wagon began their descent into the Verde, by way of the appropriately named Grief Hill, darkness was closing.
The trail down, described by Palmer as "not only new but steep, and very crooked and very rough," was deemed impossible for the heavily laden wagon. The contents were loaded onto the soldiers' backs and the heaviest stuff was let down on ropes.
When Palmer and the soldiers returned the next morning to retrieve the wagon and a desk stuffed with military papers, they found instead a pile of ashes.
"The Apaches had watched our movements unobserved and at night the smoke [was] not seen below. This first call from the Apaches created quite a commotion among us," he noted.
First hand account
The story of Palmer's expedition in August 1865 is just one of many subjects he wrote about following the year he spent in the Verde Valley, first at a place known simply as the Camp on Clear Fork and later at a desolate post near the confluence of the Verde River and Beaver Creek, known as Camp Lincoln.
For the most part, his accounts of life on the Verde during the first 12 months of American occupation are contained in an 88 page unpublished manuscript, the original of which is archived in the University of Arizona's Special Collections.
It is the only document other than James Swetnam's account, which has been published in at least two Arizona history books, which gives us an eye witness account of life in and around the Verde's first settlement.
Recently, the Camp Verde Historical Society acquired a complete copy of Palmer's manuscript from UofA. It covers a wide spectrum of subjects, from the valley's geology, meteorology and botany, to the minutia of everyday life and the sufferings of Indians and whites alike.
There are descriptions of improvised footwear, the contents of the pack he carried on seven scouts into the countryside, a fair share of complaints about military life and the account of a most unique wedding.
A scientist at heart
An Englishman by birth, Edward Palmer was a contract physician with the Army when he came west in summer 1865. Although tending to the welfare of the men was his primary responsibility, he had volunteered for the job so he could continue his primary avocation, collecting plant and animal specimens.
A frail and often sickly man, Palmer had collected and documented bits and pieces of the natural world on previous trips to California, Colorado and Paraguay.
By the time he died in 1911, Palmer had collected over 100,000 plant specimens, discovered 1,162 new plant species in the American Southwest and had over 200 named for him, bearing the Latin version of his name, palmeri.
A naturalist by training but a broad-minded scientist at heart, he also collected an unaccounted number of animal specimens and prehistoric artifacts.
His single-minded pursuit of science is exemplified by a couple short sentences in the same account he wrote about his arrival on the Verde.
Worried he would loose his valuable stash of specimen-preserving alcohol to his thirsty mates, Palmer did something his fellow soldiers must have thought was crazy.
After packing his belongings down Grief Hill he went back and stashed his five-gallon keg of whiskey, to which he had added another two quarts of alcohol.
"The next morning I found it, & on moving it to camp, took 2 pounds of arsenic and, taking position so that all could see me, put it in the keg of whiskey.
"One anxious voice called out, 'Doctor what's that you put in?' 'Arsenic,' I replied. 'Then,' said he, 'my free drinks are ended; I had 3 yesterday."
Palmer's manuscript, most of which is in someone else's handwriting, is the work of a keen observer with an eye for life's subtleties.
On the subject of grapes he writes that he had discovered some grape vines growing on Clear Creek that appeared to have been cultivated by the Indians.
Near a cave dwelling he found, "many vines, with large roots, the tops having been repeatedly burnt off. The distribution of the plants would indicate cultivation; there seemed to be several varieties, so distributed, that only one or two plants of the same kind grew near together.
"No other spot could the cultivated kinds found on Clear Creek be discovered. The fruit was superior in flavor to the common wild grape and much larger."
On frontier footwear he wrote, "Each one had to provide himself a pair of shoes for the occasion called by the Mexicans, "teguas," made of untamed hide, tops laced after the government infantry shoes; soles turned up at the sides...and turned up at the toes. A hole is made in the toe to let out gravel and sand."
Of trying to find a decent smoke, he wrote, "There is a scarcity of tobacco at camp for smoking; hence willow bark, old chews, tea leaves, coffee grounds, freshly ground coffee, which had a strong narcotic effect, when smoked."
And on the soldiers' women he noted, "They were a mixed race of Spanish and Indians, that the Catholic Church has made into a peculiar kind of Christian. They were prostitutes living promiscuously among the soldiers."
Leaving empty handed
For all time spent collecting on the Verde, which Palmer spells "Virde," he left with nothing to show. His account tells of his repeated attempts to get the soldiers at Camp Lincoln to forward his collection of artifacts and specimens, after he left the valley prostrated from malaria in fall 1866.
"On going to Camp Lincoln, which is situated in an interesting locality, I made every effort to collect in all branches of natural history. I made examinations among numerous ruins by, & from which many articles were discovered which had belonged to the former inhabitants.
"The new commanding officer told me...he would send them on the first opportunity. Hundreds of opportunities offered themselves, for many an empty wagon went to Fort Whipple, but the boxes never were sent
"On my visit to Arizona in 1869, I visited Camp Lincoln and to my sorrow found that no effort had been made to forward the collection. I was told things had been thrown away or taken by the soldiers and the only thing that was recovered was a scrapbook. Those who promised to forward them were gone..."