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History of Rawhide

History has never recorded a social phenomenon quite like the mass migration that filled the American West with cities, towns and hamlets. And the excitement of that dramatic time in history continues to live on right here in Rawhide. In our town, the west is still wild.

The western frontier town of Rawhide is situated in the Gila River Indian Community. The history of this vast, majestic area of the Sonoran Desert and its people dates back to ancient times when the Huhukam civilization was thriving here along side the Gila River.

Later, descendants of the Huhukam, the Pimas as they were called by the Spanish Explorers, designed an elaborate agricultural system throughout their many villages by diverting the waters of the Gila into canals that extended for miles into fields of crops. In their own language they were the Akimel O’othom, or River People. The O’othom were a peaceful group and eventually welcomed the Pee Posh, also known as the Maricopa, as they arrived to the valley seeking refuge from internal warfare. The Pee Posh migrated to the west end of the Gila River after agreeing to three items. One, they would fight the same wars with the Pimas against the Apaches, two, they would follow the leadership of the Pima Chiefs and three, they would agree to live in peace; the two have coexisted in this area ever since.

Pioneers and settlers soon came west; many of which passed through the Gila River Valley on their way to California, and found the native Pima and Maricopa people to be friendly as well as generous with food, water and traditional medicines. One man in particular, Charles Rawley, a tradesman and merchant from Savannah Georgia, arrived to this area just as his wagon had collapsed into pieces from a long, treacherous journey. He had no family and was traveling alone in hopes of opening his own business once he had found a town to his liking. Unable to repair his battered prairie schooner and out of water, he soon fell victim to the harsh elements of the desert. Rawley was near death when discovered by the River People. They carried him and led his four prize mules, Jerry, Debbie, Faye and Betty to their village where days later he awoke to those who had nursed him back to health. This event began a lasting relationship between Rawley and the Pima and Maricopa people and they gradually learned to communicate and teach each other their customs. Rawley had always been a bit of a loner, but was so enamored with the culture he was now experiencing that he decided to postpone his travels until absolutely necessary. Rawley’s trade background was that of a leatherworker which earned him the nickname, Rawhide Rawley among his new found friends. As time went on, and more and more settlers were coming to the area, Rawley proposed building a town to provide goods, services and work for the growing population. With that, a town was born and given the name, Rawhide.

Beginning as little more than a tent city, folks from all walks of life congregated to the site, all with the same common goal, to achieve urban greatness. Together, the tradesmen embarked on laying out the broad main street and construction soon began. One by one, the proud false-fronted structures of the town began to rise from the desert floor and achieve their own identities; some built with adobe bricks, made from mud and straw, while other more grandiose structures were erected of sawn lumber brought down from the White Mountain’s Mogollon Rim using large teams of mules. Pound for pound, these were the hardest working and smartest animals to be used on the western frontier.

The first building raised against the infinite desert skyline was the General Store. Owned and operated by Rawley, the store would eventually have available anything needed or craved by a frontier family, from sugar and salt to molasses and meat; even gunpowder and ammunition could be purchased there. During construction of the General Store, another building was taking shape across the street as John Slade, a newcomer to the area was busy putting up the first saloon in town appropriately named, The Number 1.

Slade was a mysterious type whom nobody really understood or knew much about other than the fact that he was very serious when it came to business. Some speculated that he had ties to the cattle business, while others had notions that he may have rode with the Confederacy and came west after the war possessing missing Confederate payroll. Slade’s story was never revealed but the bottom line was that he had money… and plenty of it. This fact became more and more apparent as The Number 1 was completed and quickly became a popular shimmering centerpiece of Rawhide with its numerous extravagant fixtures, solid wood, mirror-back bar and gaming tables brought in all the way from France.

Gradually, Rawhide began to attract a diverse array of skills and talents that ultimately developed the town. Irvin Mace, a potato farmer and blacksmith out of Idaho arrived and was immediately inundated with business building hardware, as well as keeping local working livestock properly trimmed and fitted with shoes. Mace had brought much of his shop with him and re-built it nearly overnight in order to begin accommodating orders. Another welcome newcomer was Doctor Benjamin Jenkins. Arriving with his wife Sally, Doc Jenkins was revered much like a hero, simply because of the area’s scarcity of qualified doctors. Folks were mighty thankful that he chose to come to Rawhide to set up his practice. Upon completion of his office, Jenkins instantly began construction on a second building; this one however was for Sally. For years Sally had dreamt of operating her very own bakery and she would finally have the chance.

Rawhide was now in the midst of an ambitious beginning. The population was growing; men wielded saws, hammers, picks and shovels at a frenetic pace and wheel barrows rumbled in every direction. At the far-east end of town, a one room schoolhouse was built; a substantial restaurant was added on to the saloon and numerous storefronts lined both sides of Main Street. A jail was also constructed with rock brought in from the bed of the Gila River and a Sheriff was soon elected, Sheriff Thomas Buchannan.

Homesteaders continued to pour into the area, as did many professional gamblers and entertainers looking to turn a profit. For as hard as life was on the frontier, Saturday nights were the high point of the week with live entertainment, endless gossip, social dancing and of course gambling. The billiard hall and saloon would be packed with patrons wagering on games of snooker, pinochle, poker, faro and keno. Inevitably, Rawhide would also see its share of desperados, shysters and scalawags; staying just long enough to cause uneasiness among the reputable population, get run out of town or wind up in jail. On the other hand some well-known names have also made appearances here such as Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Billy the “Kid” and Annie Oakley.

A favored performer of early Rawhide’s townsmen was Ms. Belle Garrettson, a song and dance entertainer who had brought her talents west all the way from Chicago, where she had served an apprenticeship at a “hurdy gurdy” house. It was said that her performance on stage along with her beauty was so hypnotizing, that men would literally fall out of their seats. Ms. Belle was so loved not only for her stage talents, but also her willingness to dance with everyman in the house in between performances. This was especially appreciated, since in those days the population of the area consisted of 1 woman to every 20 men. Later, Ms. Belle’s celebrity status increased ten fold, when witnessed by hundreds she won a colossal wager during a poker game against John Slade and was legally awarded The Number 1 Saloon and adjacent restaurant. This incident would drive Slade into an uncontrollable fury resulting in a gunfight between Slade himself and Sheriff Buchannan. Both men were injured in the skirmish and Slade was shipped off to Yuma Prison the next day. Slade never returned to Rawhide and his whereabouts following his release some years later remains unknown. That same week, The Number 1 took on a brand new identity; it would become The Golden Belle.

Over the years, our town has seen immeasurable changes and many a Rawhidian have come and gone. On the other hand, our history has spanned generations that are still here even today. In fact, if you stop by the Blacksmith Shop you will meet Devin Mace, the great grandson of Irvin Mace. Across the street, Sally Ellsworth, the great granddaughter of the Jenkins’ operates her candy shop, Sweet Sally’s Confections, within the walls of the original bakery. The proprietress at the Golden Belle Steakhouse and Saloon is none other than Ms. Belle Latish, direct descendant of Belle Garrettson.

Other town notables with historic ties here include Marshall Hannibal, Judge Mental and the Magirk family; all of whom would love nothing more than to bend your ear for hours spinning stories of our town’s colorful past. So, should you happen to run into any of these intriguing individuals while visiting, you’d better be prepared to follow the one and only rule we have here at Rawhide; and that rule is, if someone walks up to you and says howdy, you are then required by LAW to put a great big smile on your face and shout howdy right back at them just as loud as you can… though he’s long passed on, it would make Rawley proud.*

 

*This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

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