A dramatic discovery.
A mysterious death.
An endangered history.
The neglected, overgrown grave of David Gowan in a tangled thicket along Deer Creek has it all.
And now it also has a would-be protector: Bill Gibson and whatever volunteers he can enlist in an effort to save a precious bit of Rim Country history — by restoring the grave of one of the region’s most remarkable pioneers.
Gibson plans a March 10 project with as many volunteers as he can muster, after having labored for eight months to win permission from the U.S. Forest Service to restore the abandoned gravesite.
The volunteers will haul fencing and tools to cut away the encroaching brush and put a respectful fence around the grave of the man credited with discovering Tonto Natural Bridge, surviving numerous Indian attacks and starting one of the richest mines in Rim Country — before dying alone on the spot he’s buried under mysterious circumstances. Anyone who wants to help can call Gibson at 978-4945.
“I’m into history and that kind of stuff,” said Gibson, who once owned a Jeep tour company.
He came across Gowan’s vivid life story in researching mine sites he could visit. Among other things, Gowan had a productive gold and silver mine along the Verde River about two miles west of the Payson Airport. Gowan built the mine buildings with two-foot-thick walls of stacked rocks — so the Indians couldn’t burn him out.
“I came to find out his grave is along Deer Creek, like three miles from my house. So I go down there regularly.”
The neglected condition of the grave of such a crucial Rim Country pioneer gnawed at him — so he decided to take action.
Already, the Payson Packers hiking club has agree to help out. Gibson hopes he’ll wind up with enough volunteers on March 10 to carry the fencing roughly two miles to the gravesite. He hopes that someone will donate the materials.
“We need anyone who participates to sign a Forest Service volunteer form,” said Gibson.
The expedition will honor one of the first homesteaders in Rim Country, a fierce Scottish immigrant who’d already had a dramatic and arduous life before he arrived in Rim Country, according to an account compiled by Stan Brown and published in the Roundup in 2008.
Born in 1843, Gowan started out as a fisherman before enlisting in the British Navy. Chaffing at the regulations, he jumped ship in Africa and somehow made his way to the United States. There, he joined the Union Navy during the Civil War.
After he mustered out, he made his way to California where he invested his life’s savings in a fishing boat named the Dreadnought. Alas, a storm sank the Dreadnought leaving the durable Scottsman the lone survivor.
Next he teamed up with Jim Samuels after talking to soldiers fresh from the Tonto Basin War between General George Crook and the Tonto and Yavapai Apache.
Their description of rich ranch land convinced the pair of pioneers to buy a herd of sheep and head for the Tonto Basin.
They set up camp in what would become Gisela, but the coyotes, wolves, Indians and poor forage whittled away their herd. So they took up prospecting near the current Doll Baby Ranch. Mormon settlers bought out their claim in 1877. Samuels then homesteaded 160 acres near what would become the Scottsdale City Hall and Gowan prospected up the East Verde River and Pine Creek.
He later got credit as the first white man to discover the soaring travertine arch of Tonto Natural Bridge, although reportedly settler I.M. House also claimed to have discovered the arch and showed it to Gowan. The Scottish immigrant did set up a homestead near the bridge — and reportedly hid from Indians in a cave near the arch for three days at one point.
In 1879, Gowan turned the Natural Bridge homestead over to his long-lost English nephew David Goodfellow and returned to the hard life of prospecting.
He continued to wander the badlands, developing claims, selling them and continuing the free and
restless life. Still wandering as an old man with no teeth, the first signs of palsy and failing health, he sold the Gowan mine for $10,000 and promptly invested the proceeds in another mine before settling alone on Deer Creek.
The county sheriff tried his best to keep track of him, but became alarmed when he dropped out of sight during the harsh winter of 1925. Jesse Chilson, who ran the nearby Bar-T-Bar Ranch, set off to check on his reclusive neighbor. He eventually found Gowan’s frozen, shoeless body alongside Deer Creek. No one knows why the old man settled down in the chill of December without his shoes, resting his back against a friendly tree.
His friends converged, built a makeshift coffin and hacked out a hole in the frozen ground to lay the dogged pioneer to rest on New Year’s Day 1926.
Now, nearly a century later another friend that Gowan didn’t know he had wants to pay his respects to a gravesite the world has forgotten.