Sedona Lit is a series by Dr. Elizabeth Oakes, an award winning poet and former Shakespeare professor. A Sedonian of three years, she will highlight the literature, written or performed, of Sedona, past and present.
By Elizabeth Oakes
(October 10, 2016)
My last column was on General George Crook’s autobiography, a tale of battles and hardships. In that army was a soldier named Lt. Jack Summerhayes, who brought his young wife, Martha, to Arizona in 1874. Men and women often have widely varying experiences, especially so in those days when the lines of gender were rigidly drawn. In her memoir, Vanished Arizona, she tells her story, which augments Crook’s story – thus, history and herstory.
Summerhayes chronicles the difficult travel, the heat, the poor food, and the dangers, but she also suggests more social interaction with the Apaches than I gathered from General Crook’s battles and surrenders.
The most dramatic of these was a baby shower with the wives of the Apache chiefs. When Summerhayes had her son, she relates, “a delegation came to pay me a formal visit. They brought me some finely woven baskets, and a beautiful pappoose-basket. This was made of the lightest wood, and covered with the finest skin of fawn, tanned with birch bark by their own hands, and embroidered in blue beads; it was their best work. I admired it, and tried to express to them my thanks.”
The women “took my baby then. Cooing and chuckling, they looked about the room, until they found a small pillow, which they laid into the cradle, then put my baby in, drew the flaps together, and laced him into it; then stood it up, and laid it down, and laughed again in their gentle manner, and finally soothed him to sleep.”
“I was quite touched by the friendliness of it all,” Summerhayes says, and one can imagine her, sitting, writing her book more than thirty years after the event, becoming wistful for, indeed, that vanished Arizona. Also, I doubt her son, to whom her book is dedicated, ever tired of telling this story!
Not all were as open as she to strange encounters, however. When she and her husband left Fort Apache for Camp Verde, an officer’s wife there exclaimed about the cradle: “Gracious Goodness! What is this? Surely it cannot be your baby! You haven’t turned entirely Indian, have you, amongst those wild Apaches?” Camp Verde was, shall we say, more snooty than Fort Apache, because “here,” she describes, “were lace-curtained windows, well-dressed women, smart uniforms, and, in fact, civilization, compared with what we had left.”
It was easy to like Summerhayes, for she found herself more and more drawn to the ways of the west. At first, she called Arizona “that dreaded and unknown land.” Having been brought up in New England in a well-off home (their apartment at Fort Apache was the size of one of its many rooms), she, in her words, “wondered if I had made a dreadful mistake in marrying into the army, or at least following my husband to Arizona.”
Before long, however, she chafed under the dictum of wearing her long sleeved, high-necked white dresses in the heat and wished to dress like the Mexicans, although she “yielded to the prejudices” of her conservative husband. She learned how to make tortillas. Disgusted by the water, which she describes as looking like “melted chocolate,” she went, “like Pharoah’s daughter of old, and bathed in the river” with some of the Mexican women. They “joined hands and ventured like children and played like children in these red waters and after all, it was much nicer than a tub of muddy water indoors.”
She was never the same. Returning to San Francisco for a time, she was scolded by her New England aunt for her lack of adherence to society’s rules for ladies. She scandalized her and others, she almost brags, because she “smoked cigarettes, and slept all the afternoons. I was in bondage of tropical customs, and I had lapsed back into a state of what my aunt called semi-barbarism.” Although she enjoyed the amenities and the cultural life, she was dismayed by the “tired faces of the women.” and vowed “not to be caught by the whirlpool of advanced civilization again.”
Her adventures and her resulting changed perspectives can’t be contained in one column. Here’s just a taste of more! She, for instance, always sat with the driver on a stage, as she liked to gain their perspective. She also, and this was a bit surprising, given the times, twice praised the looks of a handsome Apache chief named Diablo!
She remembered her time in Arizona as the best time of her life. Near her death, she reminisces, “Sometimes I hear the still voices of the desert: they seem to be calling me through the echoes of the Past.”
Note: William Ahrendt’s painting is in the Tupac Presidio State Historic Park and Museum. Summerhayes’ portrait is in the collection of the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson.