By Kristy McCaffrey
Martha “Mattie” Summerhayes is best known for her memoir, Vanished Arizona, which recounts her life as an army wife in the 1870’s. Today, it’s considered a literary masterpiece and one of the finest accounts of 19th century Arizona.
Born Martha Dunham in 1846 in Nantucket, she was raised by a prosperous New England family. She lived in Germany for two years as a young woman, studying the language and living with the family of a high ranking German officer. She mixed socially with many Prussian officers, gaining a romantic view of military life. Not long after, she returned to the United States and fell in love and married John “Jack” Summerhayes, an officer in the U.S. Army.
In August 1874, Mattie traveled with the 8th Infantry Regiment to Arizona. Since the railroad hadn’t yet arrived, they journeyed to San Francisco and boarded a steamship for a 13-day voyage around Baja California to Port Isabel at the mouth of the Colorado River. They then embarked on a flat-bottomed paddle-wheeler upriver to Fort Yuma. By the time they reached the fort, three men had died from the heat. Mattie was five months pregnant.
|Fort Apache, 1877.|
Eighteen days later, they arrived at Fort Mohave, then traveled north to Fort Whipple, near Prescott. When they finally arrived at their destination—Fort Apache—Mattie was seven months pregnant. Over time, she developed a deep respect for the young men in the military. “I was getting to learn,” she wrote, “about the indomitable pluck of our soldiers. They did not seem to be afraid of anything. At Camp Apache my opinion of the American soldier was formed and it has never changed.”
Mattie and Jack spent the next several months living in a primitive log cabin at Fort Apache. In January, she gave birth to the first white child born at the fort, a son named Harry. The blue-eyed, blond-haired baby drew ranchers, settlers, and even friendly Apache to pay their respects. By April, Jack was assigned to Fort McDowell, in the desert foothills north of the Salt River Valley (near present-day Phoenix), but at the last minute the orders were changed to Ehrenberg, an uninspired settlement along the Colorado River. Mattie wasn’t happy.
She spent one year in Ehrenberg, but returned to New England with the baby to avoid a second summer in the blistering heat. She returned to the Arizona Territory in December 1876. Jack was now stationed at Fort McDowell. She brought many furnishings along to make her life more comfortable, but unfortunately the steamer caught fire and all her goods were lost. Thanks to charitable women at Yuma, her wardrobe was stocked with ill-fitting dresses.
|Fort McDowell, 1870's.|
Mattie was one of five women at Fort McDowell. She set up housekeeping in a flat-roofed adobe house on officers’ row. Soldiers built her a couch and covered it with cotton cloth purchased at the trading post. During the long summers, everyone slept outdoors. To deter the ants, empty tomato cans filled with water were placed under the legs of each cot.
After two years at Fort McDowell, Jack’s regiment was transferred out of Arizona. In 1886, during the last days of the Geronimo campaign, Mattie returned with Jack to Fort Lowell, near Tucson. This time, just eight years later, Mattie was able to make the journey via a Pullman since the railroad had arrived.
Mattie’s ambivalence toward Arizona is apparent in her writing, and yet, she admired and longed for it years later. She writes, “...I did not see much to admire in the desolate wastelands through which we were traveling. I did not dream of the power of the desert, nor that I should ever long to see it again. But as I write, the longing possesses me, and the pictures then indelibly printed upon my mind, long forgotten, amidst the scenes and events of half a lifetime, unfold themselves like a panorama before my vision and call me to come back, to look upon them once more.”
After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Jack retired and he and Mattie returned to Nantucket. At the urging of family and friends, Mattie wrote Vanished Arizona, which was published in 1908. She wrote it primarily for her children, believing there would be little public interest. But she was wrong. The book was popular among women and, most especially, ex-soldiers. The first edition sold out within a year, so a second was released in 1911.
A few weeks after the release of the second edition, Jack and Mattie died within two months of each other. Both were buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. “I had cast my lot with a soldier,” she wrote, “and where he was, was home to me.”
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