Prescott, Arizona: The Jewel of the Southwest

The Birdcage Theatre, Tombstone, circa 1937. Courtesy Library of Congress.

I am blessed to reside in Prescott, Arizona, twice the capital of Arizona in territorial days. Founded in 1864, the town of Prescott quickly became a popular destination for many and remains so today.

When people think of the old west, Tombstone, Arizona, usually is the first to come to mind. Founded by a mining prospector who discovered silver in 1877, it quickly turned into a raucous, rough-and-tumble sort of place. 

It was one of the last boom towns on the Western Frontier. The legend of the Earp brothers certainly made it the historical landmark it is today.

Sadly, there isn’t much left of Tombstone today—save the tourist traps, and they are even far from what they used to be decades ago in the 1960s and 1970s. 

I visited there about ten years ago, only to be disappointed and disheartened at how much it had changed, not for the better. Shops had closed, many were up for sale, and the Bird Cage Theatre, now a museum, no longer had the shows (featuring shootouts and costumed dance hall girls) I fondly remember. 

Contrast Tombstone with the vibrant, bustling, small town of Prescott, and you’ll find a city that is every bit as historically rich as Tombstone, Earp brothers, and all.

So, if you love history (and even if you don’t), a mild climate, and turquoise blue skies, there is no better place to live or retire.

Prescott’s Famous Personalities

Boasting the World’s Oldest Rodeo and home to the famous lawman Virgil Earp, Prescott’s history is chock-full of true and exciting stories. 

Tales of famous gunslingers, gamblers, outlaws, dusty saloons, gunfights, stage robberies, massacres, cowboys, Indians, and pretty much anything the imagination can conjure that is the wild west. It all happened right here in Prescott, Arizona.

The Who’s Who of the 1936 Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo. ©2023PrescottVoice

Indelible personalities like Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers were once patrons of The Palace Saloon. Doc Holliday’s paramour and alleged prostitute and dance hall girl, Big Nose Kate, is buried in the Pioneer’s Home Cemetery in Prescott.

Virgil Earp first arrived in Prescott in 1877. He was accompanied by Doc Holliday and his brothers, Wyatt and Morgan.  After his days in Tombstone, Virgil returned to Prescott. 

Performer 1936 Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo. ©2023PrescottVoice

Virgil Earp’s Homestead Proof—Testimony of Claimant document is fascinating. On January 1, 1898, at age 55, Virgil established a homestead on 160 acres in Kirkland, Arizona, near Prescott, where he was engaged in the cattle business. Note the modest size of his adobe home, where he lived with his third wife, Alvira “Allie” Earp.

Virgil also worked a mining claim in the Hassayampa District, where in 1896, he was seriously injured in a tunnel collapse. He sustained severe injuries. He suffered a dislocated right hip, a severe cut to his head, both feet and ankles badly crushed, and overall, a badly bruised body. 

1934 Grand Entry Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo. ©2023PrescottVoice

After serving three years in the Civil War (Co. C. 83rd Ill Inf.) and being nearly murdered in Tombstone and recovering from those injuries, it’s hard to imagine how Virgil survived the mining accident to go on to actively engage in everyday life. 

Yet, he continued to take on business concerns and even ran for office on the Republican ticket as Sheriff of Kirkland, Arizona. 

Virgil Earp was one tough son of a gun.

Sadly, on October 19, 1905, a brief eight years after Virgil Earp established his homestead in Prescott, he died of pneumonia. An article on November 1, 1905, in the Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner, reported his death and early days in Prescott. Following is an excerpt:

“In company with his two brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, along with friend Doc Holliday, Virgil came to Prescott in 1877. Shortly after his arrival here, and while Ed Bowers was sheriff of Yavapai county, the town was visited by two cowboys from the Bradshaw basin section, who enlivened matters by shooting up saloons and other resorts, finally riding out of the place, shooting right and left as they went in the direction of the Brooks ranch, just outside of the city limits.

Arriving at the Brooks ranch, the cowboys sent word to the officers that they were camped there and that if any of the officers wanted them to come out and get them. These men were considered bad ones and were known to both as dead shots. 

Sheriff Bowers organized a posse of citizens, of which Virgil Earp happened to be one, and the posse started for the Brooks ranch on horseback preceded by Deputy United States Marshal Stanford and another deputy in a hack. The party in the hack passed the bad men unmolested, but the cowboys opened fire on the sheriff’s posse, which was on horseback. 

Sheriff Bowers’ horse was shot in several places, but he returned the fire and did not get hit.

Photo of Wyatt Earp at 19 years old. Courtesy Ancestry.com

On arriving at the scene, Virgil Earp, armed with a Henry rifle, proceeded up the creek in the direction of the shooting and noticed one of the cowboys crouching behind an oak tree reloading his gun, shot and killed him instantly. The first shot hit him in the heart, and the second shot struck about two inches from the first. The other cowboy was shot with a charge of buckshot and lived for two days, finally dying in the hospital.

Photo of Virgil Earp.

A peculiar feature connected with the shooting was that the man struck by the shot fired by Virgil Earp was found lying against the tree with a cigarette in his mouth, which was held there until after the body was removed to town. After this incident, Virgil Earp came into prominence as a determined man and a good shot.

Image of Virgil Earp’s 1900 Prescott Homestead Document. ©2023PrescottVoice

Image of Virgil Earp’s 1900 Prescott Homestead Document.

In 1879 Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday left Prescott for Tombstone, which was the scene of the greatest mining excitement of the time. On arriving at Tombstone, Virgil Earp, his two brothers, and Doc. Holliday were appointed Deputy United States Marshalls and rendered very effective service against the rustlers and border ruffians that infested that section, cooperating for a time with the city and county peace officers.

About ten years ago, Virgil Earp returned to this county [Prescott, Yavapai County] and engaged in mining in the Hassayampa District, subsequently moving to Kirkland Valley District. In 1900, he was nominated for Sheriff by the Republican Party but shortly afterward withdrew from the race.”

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Image of Virgil Earp’s Testimony of Homestead Claimant. ©2023PrescottVoice

A great many harsh things have been said and written about the ‘Earp Gang,’ but nevertheless, it is a fact that a more charitable man never lived, than Virgil Earp, especially when he had the means to render assistance.”

Prescott Saloons

One of my favorite places to hang out is Prescott’s courthouse plaza or the square as some refer to it. The plaza is where this bustling town’s action takes place and has since the city’s founding.

The infamous Whiskey Row, just across from the square, draws thousands yearly and is especially raucous during Prescott’s Frontier Days Rodeo and New Year’s.

Photo from original negative showing Prescott saloons after the 1900 fire. ©2023PrescottVoice

What must it have been like back in the day when gunslingers and gamblers walked the dusty streets? 

At one time, there were over 40 saloons that accommodated all manner of clientele. Three fires (in 1877, 1883, and 1900) destroyed the saloons, but the devastating fires didn’t dampen the spirit of the businessmen that forged Prescott. 

Temporary structures that served as saloons were erected while saloon owners went about the task of rebuilding.

In the foreground of the photograph above, you can see where Belcher & Smith erected a temporary saloon using tents on the courthouse plaza until they could rebuild. 

If you look closely, the tent signage in the photograph’s foreground reads Belcher & Smith. Ben M. Belcher and Barney Smith were partners in the Cabinet Saloon, also destroyed in the 1900 fire.

The Palace Saloon, or what was left of it, can be seen in the background. It was rebuilt on the same site and is located there today. 

The Weekly Arizona Journal-Miner newspaper announced the Inauguration Celebration of Prescott on July 6, 1864. Oh, how I wish I could have been there! 

The celebration opened with a prayer by the Rev. H. W. Read (the first clergyman to arrive in Prescott) and the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. The end of the article reads:

“Throughout the day, the Juniper House [the very first hotel and restaurant in Prescott], the ‘Pod,’ Roundtree’s, and Dickson’s saloons were crowded with customers, and we will not say how much whiskey was disposed of. Nobody was hurt, but the boys waxed very merry, and some of them very tipsy, and there was no little promiscuous firing of revolvers.”

Thomas Edwin Farish authored “Early Settlers in Prescott History” in 1915. He wrote that John Rountree and Dr. J. T. Alsap opened the first saloon in Prescott under some large pine trees that grew on the lower end of Goose Flat. It was built of cloth and timber. The bar fixtures consisted of one ten-gallon keg of whiskey, a half-dozen tin cups, and a canteen of water. 

John Rountree, a lawyer, owned the Prescott Hotel, the oldest hotel in Prescott. 

And the first regulated saloon was opened by Tom Hodges on Cortez Street, who sold drinks and cigars and took ‘Burros’ in payment. 

A notice published on October 26, 1864, in the Arizona Miner indicates that John Dickson and Thomas Hodges were partners in The Pine Grove Saloon.

Prescott’s Courthouse Plaza

Prescott’s courthouse plaza (also called the courthouse square) is a remarkable and nostalgic public space that is a joy and wonder for all who visit there. 

In the spring and summer months, you might find me sitting on a bench under the cool canopy of the giant trees that have witnessed untold events of long ago. 

Prescott Frontier Days Parade, corner of Gurley & Montezuma Streets. Prescott Courthouse Plaza. ©2023PrescottVoice 

 

Sometimes, as I sit quietly, eyes closed, I can almost hear the echoes of the past—the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, the creaking of the horse-drawn wagons, the tinkling of men’s spurs, and the whoops and hollers of gamblers and miners in the local saloons.

Yes, Prescott is truly a delightful place. Sure, things have changed. But to me, the town of Prescott is still very much the same as it was in its early days. Its ghostly past is a constant and welcome visitor here.

About the author

Hi, I'm Teri Franks, the voice behind Prescott Voice. I've spent years immersing myself in all that Prescott has to offer, and I love sharing the unique stories and experiences I've discovered. When I'm not writing, you'll find me exploring Prescott's trails or tasting our local cuisine. I believe that the vibrant lifestyle here in Prescott inspires us to live a healthier, happier life. Come join me on this exciting journey as we explore Prescott together.

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