Our school district, Phoenix Elementary # 1, was founded in 1871. It is the oldest free public school district in Arizona. A tremendous amount of history and advancement has been packed into these short years. From a valley with no livable permanent buildings—no dependable water or food supply, no stores, churches, homes, or schools—not to mention air conditioning—we have come a long way, thanks to men like John Smith and John Alsap, women like Adeline Gray and Nellie Shaver; and, if you have been part of Phoenix Elementary District # 1 for any length of time, Thanks to you as well.
1000 years before President Abraham Lincoln created the Arizona Territory in 1863; there was a thriving civilization here in the Salt River Valley. By 1300 A.D. the Hohokam had created the largest canal system in prehistoric North America, with 850 miles of canals providing irrigation to over 100,000 acres of cropland. The system provided food for an estimated 80,000 people with the highest population density in the ancient Southwest. But at the end of the American Civil War, when drovers came through on the way to Fort McDowell and settlers came here looking for better lives, there was no one living or even camping here. There were no roads or even trails in use through the Valley. The canals the Hohokam had built to support their farms had filled up with dirt. There were many ruins of homes and of towns such as Pueblo Grande–but the people had all been gone for more than 400 years.
The first settler to come into this empty Valley in historic times was looking for ways to feed the men building the new Fort McDowell and their livestock. He was named John Smith—just John Smith—one of the most common and least trusted names on the American frontier. John Smith was a great example of what it took to settle Phoenix and build our school system—and of what it still takes to keep it going.
Like many of us in this room and in the community we serve, John Smith’s assets consisted only of himself and the good will of his friends, neighbors and associates – he literally had no valuable background or possessions. His life history shows that he quickly learned that his success was dependent on the success of others—as every teacher knows that we are only as successful as our students. Like us, John Smith was determined to succeed. And he did succeed – by helping build Phoenix. He was born in 1831 near Buffalo, New York. Orphaned at the age of 10, he went to work as a cabin boy on a riverboat and worked on the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers for three years before going to work on a farm in Illinois, then became a railroad surveyor. During the Gold Rush, he joined a group of cowboys driving 500 head of cattle to California (a trip which took them 6 months). He was now 22. In California, Smith worked as a miner and prospector before leaving for the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in British Columbia in 1858. He returned to California the next year. At the beginning of the American Civil War, Smith enlisted as a private in Company H of the 4th California Infantry. His unit was initially stationed at Fort Yuma. Smith advanced through the ranks during his time in the military, achieving the rank of first lieutenant.
Following his discharge in 1865. John Smith negotiated a contract to supply hay to the new Fort McDowell. It was while visiting Smith’s hay camp that Confederate veteran John W. Swilling was able to see the Hohokam canals which had been masked by the tall grass. He formed an irrigation company, clearing and using the old canal system.
The first ditch cleared by what was the become the Salt River Project was nicknamed “Swilling’s Ditch” It came out of the Salt River about 38th St. and now runs in a pipe along the south side of Capitol School, through Woodland Park to irrigate Arizona’s Capitol grounds.
Phoenix was named for the mythical Phoenix bird said to die on a funeral pyre every 1000 years and to be born again from its own ashes. The settlement of Phoenix began but the first women, Adeline Gray and Mary Green, a former slave, didn’t arrive until 1868.
Back to John Smith. He built the first road in the current round of settlement, McDowell Rd., to take hay and later vegetables, meat, flour and other supplies to the fort. He built the first house in what was later to become Phoenix. He invested in and operated a succession of mines and businesses. Despite not having had the opportunity for formal education, he just kept getting better. In 1868 he was elected to the Territorial Legislature, where he led the unsuccessful first attempt to create Maricopa County out of Yavapai. Before and after the 10th Territorial Legislature passed a bill granting him the initials Y.T. (for Yours Truly, because he was too remarkable to be plain John Smith) he served in many other public positions, including two terms as Territorial Treasurer and two more in the Arizona Legislature, where he became Speaker of the House. During the latter term he was influential in the enterprise of moving the capital from Prescott to Phoenix. John Y.T. Smith helped pay for Phoenix Elementary School District’s first school and schoolhouse. And he had another very direct link to our public schools, as will soon become apparent.
Alsap was born in Kentucky in 1830. Again like many in this room, he was an overachiever with a sense of responsibility. The son of a Methodist minister, he graduated from the New York College of Medicine with degrees in law and medicine. He was practicing medicine in California (and prospecting on the side) at the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1863, Alsap began prospecting near Prescott in the area which would soon become Arizona Territory, and in1864 served as a military surgeon until he was appointed Arizona’s first Territorial Treasurer. He then served two terms in the territorial Legislature. In 1869, he joined his brother-in-law, W. L. Osborn, and began farming in the Salt River valley. There he helped found the Phoenix Ditch Company for the purpose of building irrigation canals in the valley. In 1870 Alsap was elected one of three commissioners for the Salt River Valley Association, which oversaw creation of the town of Phoenix.
Judge Alsap practiced law until his death at age 56, by which time he had also:
When Arizona’s 6th Territorial Legislative session, Governor A.P.K. Safford’s first, convened on January 11, 1871, in the then capitol of Tucson, Safford considered the need for free public schools to be one of the most important problems in the territory. He thought that, with almost two thousand children between the ages of six and twenty-one, the fact that there was not even one public school in the territory was “mortifying and humiliating”. He made it very plain that the legislature should adopt “a system of free schools for the whole people, and that, as soon as it was got in operation it should by law-compel the attendance of every child of sound mind and proper age.” Safford also told the legislators that “…the object most desirable to attain is the adoption of a school system which would provide free public schools, so that the poor and rich alike can share equal benefits.”
Estevan Ochoa, a respected Mexican territorial legislator and retail merchant from the Tucson community, was asked by Governor Safford to introduce the education bill, lending his prestige to the measure and perhaps shaming the Anglo members of the Legislature into voting for it. But, Safford reported, the bill received only half-hearted support. On February 12, 1871, the territorial legislature created Maricopa County, the fifth county in the Arizona Territory, by dividing Yavapai County. The legislators understood that this gave Governor Safford the opportunity to appoint John T Alsap, one of the education bill’s strongest supporters, as Maricopa County’s Probate Judge. Alsap had already served two terms as Arizona’s Territorial Treasurer and in his second legislative term was representing Yavapai County as President of the 9 member Council (Senate). His prestige may have carried the day.
“Finally, on the last day of the session (February 14, 1871) they passed the bill, after striking out nearly all the revenue which had been provided,” Governor Safford reported. “The measure was the best that could be secured and had to be accepted as it was.”
The Probate Judges of Arizona’s five (5) counties were now their School Superintendents, receiving no additional salary, but $100 per year for expenses. The Arizona Territorial Legislature had authorized a public school system, but they had not made it easy to create. The first challenge for Phoenix was to find a place to hold classes. There being only one “permanent” adobe building in town (Hancock’s Store, a general store opened in July 1871, by William Smith. The adobe structure was built on the northwest corner of First and Washington streets), it was decided to use the court room, “good and substantial seats and tables were made for the scholars”, a teacher was hired, “and on November 27, 1871 the first school in Maricopa County was commenced. John T. Alsap, Sup of Public Schools, Maricopa County”, reported the opening to Governor A.P.K. Safford, saying also, “(I)… will probably have a supply of Books before a great while.” There were 103 children aged 6 to 21 in Maricopa County at the 1871 school census.
After a rapid succession of four untrained male teachers, who really wanted to do something else as soon as possible, Phoenix Elementary hired its ”first really capable teacher” for its first (just being completed) school house.
Ellen Elizabeth “Nellie” Shaver Smith was born in Ontario, Canada in 1853, She came to Arizona in 1873. She married John Y. T. Smith two years later (he was 46, she 22). Of course, that meant she could no longer be employed as a teacher, but she is widely credited with beginning the tradition of excellence we all expect from ourselves.