This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

The oldest pioneer cemetery in Phoenix, Arizona


The oldest pioneer cemetery in Phoenix, Arizona doesn't have an historical marker. There are no historic buildings next it, no groups who dress up and reenact "life back in the day". Even the headstones, like the one at the top of this post, are modern. It's no bigger than a tennis court and millions of cars go by all of the time.

To find this cemetery, you have to find the original Phoenix Settlement, also called, among other names, Mill City, Swilling's Mill, and Pumpkinville. It began in 1868 by a group of men led by Jack Swilling, who had gotten the idea of digging canals to grow crops in the desert. They got this idea, by the way, by seeing the remnants of gigantic canals that had been long abandoned. They had seen the canals built by the Hohokam people. If you want to see where it all started, begin at Pueblo Grande and then go downstream along the historic canal.

48th Street and Van Buren may seem like a strange place for the first cemetery in Phoenix to be, but that's where this cemetery was, and is. And the people who lived nearby, in the Phoenix Settlement, had very little. The only building materials that they had were mud and whatever stray pieces of wood they could find. Their buildings were made of adobe.

If you can strip away, in your imagination, all of the buildings and roads just north of where Sky Harbor Airport is today, you would be standing in a huge empty valley that sloped slightly to the west. The pioneer canals ran parallel to the Hohokam canals and started at about the same place, where The Park of the Four Waters is today. To the east the land sloped up gently and then became what we call The Papago Mountains today.

It's hard to imagine today, but when people died, it was important to get them away from the living, buried safely away from predators, and high enough on a hill so that the body wouldn't float away during a rain storm. There was no wood for markers, certainly no way to make a modern headstone. And besides, there was no reason to advertise what you had buried. Life was hard, and it could end suddenly. Today this cemetery is called "The Crosscut" because of the canal that was built next to it in 1888. But when it began it was probably just called the cemetery. Not a place for markers or ritual, a place to say goodbye and say a prayer.