The Fickle Gila River

Mormon Battalion

It’s common knowledge in the Great Southwest that creeks usually have more water than rivers. The conduct of Arizona’s rivers is as wayward as that of her politicians. In 1885, the citizens of Florence petitioned the territorial legislature for a bridge across the Gila River so they could get to the Salt River Valley when the river was up. They got their appropriation and the bridge was built and dedicated. One morning the citizens looked out to see the fickle river had changed its course, bypassing the bridge; leaving it standing alone in the desert.

In January 1847, as the Mormon Battalion was crossing Arizona while building a wagon road to California during the Mexican War, Lieutenant George Stoneman decided to test the navigability of the Gila. His men built a raft and loaded it with supplies and the young lieutenant cast off into the Gila, floated a short distance and the naval craft sank. Like any good skipper, Stoneman went down with his ship……..then walked ashore.

Two years later the Howard family was floating down the Gila when Mrs. Howard, who was expecting, decided the time had come. They pulled ashore; she gave birth to a baby boy and promptly named him Gila. Gila Howard became the first American baby born in what would become Arizona.


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Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to or Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327.