The Wild West In The Rim Country

Chapter 21: Death on Deer Creek


The time was December 1925 and Jesse Chilson at the Bar-T-Bar Ranch on Deer Creek was wondering why the old prospector had not made his usual trip to the ranch for mail. David Gowan had spent the last few years at his crude cabin up stream from the Bar-T-Bar. When he sold the Gowan Mine over near the East Verde for $10,000, he invested the money in another mine called the Black Hawk. He spent his days mining high above his cabin in the Mazatzal Mountains at the headwaters of Deer Creek. Then each week he would come down to the ranch to get his mail and enjoy a hot meal. However, this time it had been several weeks since Gowan had shown up. Chilson was anxious about the old man, and set out that cold, winter day along the trail to find him.

David Douglas Gowan was born in Scotland in 1843 and was raised by his fisherman family to be a man of the sea. He was not a tall man, but agile, muscular and in excellent physical condition. His long, wavy, reddish-brown hair hung to his shoulders and his prominent cheekbones were evident above the ample mustache. Adding to this imposing stature was a heavy Scots brogue that helped him win his way.

When of age, he enlisted in the British Navy, but the confinement of that life was more than he bargained for. While put in at an African port, he jumped ship and eventually found his way to America. The Civil War was under way at the time and Gowan joined the U. S. Navy. When his time of service ended, he found himself on the west coast. He invested his savings in a fishing vessel named the Dreadnought and returned to his familiar trade. He and a small crew were caught in a storm somewhere between San Francisco and Seattle and the boat was destroyed. Gowan was the only survivor.

After the wreck, Gowan retreated to southern California and there he befriended Jim Samuels. His new friend had heard about a luxuriant land, excellent for cattle ranching. This news came from soldiers who had fought Apaches in the Rim Country and it was enough to entice the two men to come to the Tonto Basin. They purchased a herd of sheep in California and headed east across the desert by way of Needles. Those days, in the 1870s, the Apache and Yavapai Indians had been all but defeated and placed on reservations. However small bands of renegades remained at large, hiding out in the trackless forests and canyons, eager to raid the livestock of any invading settler.

Jim and David set up camp along Tonto Creek at a place called Gisela. They built a rock house that could not be burned, from which they could fend off raiding natives. As they dug an irrigation ditch, they took turns guarding against attack while the other worked on the ditch. However, their sheep business began to disintegrate because the local grass was not suitable and the flock became decimated by coyotes, wolves, and Indians. The two restless pioneers decided prospecting for gold was a better idea than sheep ranching, and Jim Samuels staked a claim for land in the vicinity of today’s Doll Baby Ranch, west of Payson on the East Verde River.[1] Gowan continued to camp on Tonto Creek, but while prospecting up Pine Creek he discovered a fantastic travertine arch that formed a natural bridge over the creek. Military records show that a detachment of Company E, Arizona Volunteers, had first discovered this site in 1866. However, throughout the years, Gowan claimed he was the first White man to discover the Natural Bridge. Frequently pursued by Indians while out prospecting, one time Gowan spent three days in a cave high up under the arch, avoiding his pursuers.

In 1879 Gowan sold his claim on Tonto Creek to the Sanders families, Mormon settlers who proceeded to establish the village of Gisela. The prospector then set up camp at the Natural Bridge and filed for squatter’s rights. The exchange with the Mormons had netted him mules, tack, a wagon, a horse, fruit trees and berry bushes, which he planted at the Natural Bridge.[2]

In the mid-1890s, a British visitor to Arizona wrote an article about this Natural Bridge and its interesting occupant. The piece was published in England, and a Scottish tailor, reading the account, took a special interest. David Gowan Goodfellow was reading about his uncle. The tailor sent a letter to Gowan, and though addressed only to Flagstaff, Arizona Territory, it found its way to him. Davy Gowan answered immediately, offering Goodfellow ownership of the site if he would come and claim it. So David and Lillias Goodfellow came with their family to be settlers. During the years that followed, they developed the Tonto Natural Bridge as a destination for visitors.

After the turn of the century, the prospector, now approaching 60, was feeling the aches and pains of arthritis. His reddish-brown hair had turned white and receded, his teeth were all gone, and he had begun to develop palsy. In spite of the ailments, he opened a mine along the East Verde River, which became one of the better paying mines in the Payson District. It was registered as the Gowan Mine.

Meanwhile, another nephew of Gowan’s had jumped ship from the British Navy on the East Coast and had come with a friend to the Rim Country to look up his cousin David Goodfellow. He was Andrew Ogilvie, and after the reunion he worked in the mines at Jerome and drove the mail stage between Payson and Globe. In 1897, Ogilvie bought a homestead in the center of Starr Valley from Louis Barnini and in 1908 he married Agnes Lazear. To this family were born three children, among them Payson’s long standing “weather lady,” the late Anna Mae Deming.

David Gowan often retreated to the Ogilvie ranch to clean up, renew his supplies, and break the monotony of his isolated life. At one point, his pipe somehow started a fire in the cabin Ogilvie had built for himself on the ranch. The cabin was saved, but Ogilvie’s storage shed with their supply of meat and vegetables burned to the ground.

After making one last mine claim in the Mazatzal Mountains along Deer Creek, Gowan continued his life of isolation as a prospector and camped on the mountain until 1925.

When Gowan did not show up at the Bar-T-Bar for his mail, Jesse Chilson went up the creek to look for him. He found the old man’s frozen body along the trail, on a little bench of land by Deer Creek. He had taken off his shoe, as if his feet were bothering him, and simply laid back and died. Chilson went back and gathered a posse, including deputy sheriff Jim Cline and Andrew Ogilvie. As a winter storm was blowing snow, they prepared a coffin from old boards, and cut into the frozen ground where Gowan lay. They buried him there in his beloved wilderness on New Year’s Day 1926. Andrew Ogilvie bought the headstone for his uncle, but since they did not exactly know the date of death, the stone simply read, “David D. Gowan, 1843-1926.”

Later, rumors floated about to the effect that Gowan had been murdered for his gold claim. There was never any evidence to substantiate that.[3]

NEXT: Unidentified Skeletons

[1] In 1877, the party of Mormon settlers arrived on the scene and bought Samuel’s claim for $75, calling the place Mazatzal City. Samuels went to the Salt River Valley and claimed 160 acres where today’s Scottsdale City Hall stands. He later sold that and moved to Hemit, Calif.

[2] One of his apricot trees would, years later, become celebrated as Arizona’s largest, bearing 100 bushels of fruit.

[3] The grave can be reached beginning at the Deer Creek Trailhead off of Highway 87. Continue to the right as other trails branch off. Beginning with Trail 46, continue on Trail 45 (the Deer Creek Trail) until you see the grave on your left. The hike will take about 1-1/2 hours.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.