The goldfields were calling – go west young fella, and Godspeed. And so men boarded ships or loaded horses and mules and followed various routes to get to California. One route followed the Gila River through jagged peaks and deep canyons, over hellfire desert with plants like razor wire, the horses spent, days hot, nights cold, Apaches in the hills, wondering what madness drove these fools. When the Gila emptied into the Colorado at Yuma these travelers would cross, then set out across the California dunes. Yuma was an experiment in laissez faire capitalism, or maybe anarchy, or human behavior, and it didn’t go well.
An American named Abel Lincoln, of Illinois – no relation to Abraham Lincoln – ferried travelers across the river. Business was booming – Lincoln charged a $1 a head, $2 for horses or mules. In three months, he wrote in a letter to his parents, he took in more than $60,000.
It’s not clear exactly when John Glanton and his men had arrived. Maybe a short time later, or maybe they were already there when Lincoln wrote the letter and were watching him collect his fees. They did the math and decided that’s where the real money was. The Glanton gang had ridden through Apache country in search of scalps, which they sold to the Mexican government before they wore out their welcome and headed west. Accounts vary on what happened next. One says that Glanton and his men elbowed their way into Lincoln’s ferry business. Another says they bought their way in, but in either case, they charged exorbitant rates and possibly robbed a few travelers.
One traveler was so put off by the price that he built his own boat to cross, which he turned over to the Quechan, also known as the Yuma, who got into the ferry business. Here too, accounts vary on the exact sequence of events but the upshot is that Glanton flew into a rage, murdered Quechan men and possibly a white man who ran this new enterprise, or some other enterprise. They destroyed boats, bound several native lasses and took them away. They established an outpost they called Fort Defiance and carried on. One night, a band of Quechan warriors stormed the fort and slaughtered Glanton and most of his men. The remaining few headed for San Diego, and when word reached California of the chaos at Yuma, the government sent troops.
Yuma eventually became a supply depot that supplied Southwestern troops and was the site of the Arizona territory’s first prison. Frontier jails were rickety and porous, best suited for drunks and petty thieves. So the state scraped together enough money to build one in Yuma with inmate labor. The first convicts built the prison out of rock they quarried out of a hill overlooking the Colorado River.
Today the prison is a state park. Records from the prison have survived and offer a snapshot of some of Arizona’s more colorful men and women. There’s stagecoach robber Pearl Hart, gunslinger Buckskin Frank Leslie, Mormon polygamist William Jordan Flake. Arizona wanted to lock up criminals, not warehouse them in perpetuity. The state frequently paroled or pardoned prisoners, and never once executed a Yuma Prison inmate.