Even historians agree that history is skewed. The most famous battles are often those with the best eyewitness accounts. The most famous heroes tend to be those with the best biographers. It is possible for those who live on the fringes to quickly disappear into obscurity. Such an instance is the amazing, heroic, and tragic life of John D. Walker.
Walker was half Native American, the blood of the Wyandotte flowing in his veins. Walker was born in 1840 in Nauvoo, Illinois, the city founded in 1838 by the Mormons until they were forcibly expelled. The richest accounts of Walker’s life can be found in the history of Arizona written by Farish in 1916. Farish’s main source is Major Doran who served as administrator of Walker’s estate after Walker was judged insane in his later years.
In early manhood, Walker enlisted in the 5th Regiment California Infantry and was appointed a wagon master. At this period of time, the Pima villages, in southern Arizona, had surpluses of wheat and corn. The government was the main customer of these agricultural products. Captain Walker was responsible for conveying the produce by wagon to the different military outposts, some as far away as the Rio Grande.
After being discharged from the service Walker settled down among the Pima at the village of Sacaton. Being half Native American and an honorable man he quickly found acceptance in the tribe. Walker was a natural linguist and had soon mastered the Pima tongue. He was the first to reduce the Pima language to a dictionary. According to Farish, “Having studied medicine in his early life he became the big medicine man of the tribe. He was a good physician and a man of extraordinary intelligence, somewhat of a scientist. He was a reticent man, never talking much, but had a wonderful fund of information on almost every subject, and he was very precise. He was not a graduate of any college, but was a great reader and a self educated man; a thoughtful man, somewhat of a philosopher.”
Walker lived at Sacaton for many years and sat in on all big meetings, leading many councils. In 1864, Walker reenlisted and raised two companies of Arizona Volunteers to fight in the Apache wars. These companies were composed of Pima and Maricopa warriors. The great Pima chief Antonio Azul served as first lieutenant. Walker was infamous for leading his native soldiers into battle wearing only a breech clout, war paint, and wielding a war club.
Walker adhered to the war traditions of the Pima. His long hair was tied up in a bun. His face was painted black with ash. Pima warrior leaders eschewed rifles or bows, charging into battle with a wild war whoop and an ironwood club. Pima war leaders were expected to set an example, leading the attack and inspiring their followers with their bravery. By all accounts, Captain Walker was quite inspiring, swinging his war club ferociously.
John D. Walker and his companies of Pima soldiers were very successful. Their most impressive and bloody victory took place at Picacho Peak. Picacho is a steep vertical volcanic butte, the perpendicular cliffs laced with fissures and crevices. Walker and his company of Pima warriors surprised a group of Apaches atop the peak and slaughtered a camp of seventy five. Those victims who were not shot leapt from the steep precipices to escape the withering assault. Major Doran reported in his interview with Farish, “Even now (approximately sixty years later) you still see on this battlefield, the skeletons of the Apaches in the crevices.”
After leaving the army for the second time, Walker was elected surveyor of Pinal County. Then he served as Probate Judge for several terms. As Probate Judge he resided in the county seat at Florence Arizona. As a political figure and public office holder, Walker earned a reputation as a forthright, honest man.
A local Pima knew of a secret place hidden in one of the world’s driest deserts – a forbidding landscape of black volcanic rock covered with teddy bear cholla cactus. The anonymous Native American led Walker and a man named Peter R. Brady to the site of what was about to become The Vekol Mine. The mine yielded roughly two million dollars in ore before it began to bottom out. Major Doran claimed that most of this money remained among the Pima.
Walker turned his still brilliant mind to scientific curiosities. When the Smithsonian Institute claimed that the gila monster was not poisonous, Walker was inspired to write a dissertation upon the subject and sent a specimen of the venomous lizard back East for inspection. The Smithsonian admitted their mistake.
Several years before his death John D. Walker was ruled insane and placed in an asylum. Major Doran was made administrator of the estate. Major Doran sold Walker’s share of what was left of the mine for $112,000 dollars – $105,000 of which was still in the bank when he died. This accumulation of capital made Captain Walker a target. A woman from Illinois who became his nurse married him. Farish and Doran were apparently skeptical of this “ceremony with an itinerant Greek minister.”
After Walker’s death, the legal heirs consisted of three brothers and four sisters all living outside Arizona and they asked Major Doran to continue as administrator of the estate. The alleged wife sued and claimed that she had the right to the entire estate. Major Doran fought in court for five years, until the case was decided in his favor.
Next a Pima girl named Juana stepped forward and claimed to be Walker’s daughter. Captain Walker had lived with her family for many years and been married to her mother under Pima law. This legal battle was also pursued all the way to the Supreme Court where it was ruled that a White Man could not legally marry an Indian under the laws of the Territory. Walker’s stepdaughter was denied.
After all the lawsuits were disposed of, the estate was divided among the heirs; a share was given to Juana but was gobbled up by her lawyers before she ever saw a penny. This was the tragic ending to the amazing life of John D. Walker.