Arizona Men: A Promise Kept
Updated: Apr 20
In the early days of our land, Arizona was a harsh and brutal yet beautiful wilderness - luring men on with the promise of rich, sunny, grass-lined valleys, untamed wild rivers and jagged mountains laced with veins of gold, silver and copper - all free for the taking.
One man who answered this call in the fall of 1879 was Joel Willard - his health ruined and tired of the long cold Nevada winters in the foothills of the Sierra. He gathered the family cattle and horses with sons; Ninian, Charles, Dolph, Mac, Jim and Alex. Joel then kissed his wife Mary and daughters Francis and Mabel goodbye with the promise that they would meet again once the men established themselves in the warm and sunny south. He left sons Mac and Jim behind to help their mother and departed in a wagon following the cattle driven by the other boys headed on to make their mark in a new wild and untamed country.
Joel Willard and sons made their tortuous way to Arizona across the deserts of southern Nevada into Utah and they then followed the Virgin River down to the swollen muddy waters of the Colorado River. Their wagon was barged across the raging torrent on a rude ferry but the cattle and herders had to swim. The winter weather was cold and many cattle drowned in the crossing. Unfortunately while Joel had made it to Arizona, he died of pneumonia on January 27th, 1879. The boys buried him near Dolan Springs north of Kingman. Charles, Dolph, and Alex forged on into the wilderness without their father but were soon met by Ninian, who had scouted the way on south and knew the way.
They reached the Verde with their cattle in the early spring of 1879 and found tall grass, free land and warmth - but the hardships that had dogged them were far from over. The small but growing community in the Upper Verde was working on a dam that would divert water from the river to irrigate fields for the common benefit of all. On June 18th, 1879, Ninian, 23, and his brother Alex, 10, were working in a small boat hauling rocks and brush to fill in the dam. As they neared the middle preparing to drop large rocks overboard, the boat flipped and both boys were swept up against the dam by the current and both drowned.
This incident left Charles, 21 and Dolph, 19 to carry on alone in a wild unknown land which while full of promise only seemed to hold death and despair. The two boys, though lonesome for family and grieving their losses were determined to make a go of it in the lush untamed valley. Fortunately for them, they soon struck up a friendship with pioneer cattleman, William Munds.
Munds and his family had come into the Valley three years earlier and fortunately took the Willard boys under his wing. He partnered with the two young men in the cattle business and helped them move their cattle to the Mogollon highlands in the spring and summer and back to the valley in the fall. As Munds Park was already taken by Munds and his children, the Willard boys established a headquarters just north of Munds Park which came to be known as Willard Springs.
The Willard men prospered through hard work and determination and in 1886 sent for their mother and the rest of the family. Mary built a very large brick home on the north end of Main Street in Cottonwood. Charles Willard married Ettie Scott whose family was from Jerome but ranched northeast of Munds Park. Charles served as the Upper Verde Justice of the Peace in Cottonwood where the couple also operated a dairy and owned much of downtown Cottonwood. Dolph Willard married Ella Prime, whose parents ranched near Prime Lake northeast of Munds Park. They had a ranch on lower Oak Creek where they raised fruit and almonds. They were said to own one of the first phonographs in the vicinity and provided bass for an early stocking of Lake Mary. George MacDonald Willard, known as Mac, married Bea Scott, Ettie’s Sister. Mac established the first post office in Cottonwood. When he retired from the post office, he was appointed to head the Arizona Game and Fish commission by then Governor George W. P. Hunt.
The true flowering of the relationship between the Munds and Willard families though came when Francis Willard, known as Fannie, met and fell in love with John Munds. Following their marriage, John was elected sheriff of Yavapai County and Fannie became Arizona’s first woman state senator and only the second woman to be elected to a state senate office in the United States.
In 1915, the Willard brothers returned to the grave of their father Joel. They exhumed his body and reburied the remains near the graves of his two sons who had drowned in that early tragedy. Times may have been rough, but the promise was ultimately kept, as the families including their dead reunited and prospered here in Arizona.
If you get out into our back country, drive carefully, tread lightly, and please leave our homeland better for your presence!
Enjoy Northern Arizona!
Bill Cowan'sbook on the Verde Valley History is available at Candy’s Creekside Cottage in McGuireville, Arizona and from Amazon, eBay, and various other retailers, including the Verde Canyon Railroad.