One of the more enigmatic characters in The Yellow Painted Man is James Addison Reavis or, as he is more commonly remembered by history, The Baron of Arizona. The architect of one of the most audacious cons ever conceived, Reavis very nearly succeeded in stealing about 20,000 square miles of the Arizona Territory, an area twice the size of Massachusetts. His claim encompassed most of the Salt River Valley and included water rights for the Gila and Salt Rivers, as well as mineral rights. The cities of Phoenix, Globe, Florence, and Tempe, among others, fell within his claim, as well as notable properties such as the Silver King Mine and a section of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Born near Clinton, Missouri, on May 10, 1844, Reavis came from humble beginnings. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted with the Confederacy. It was there he learned that he had a remarkable talent for forging his commanding officer’s signature and developed a cottage industry falsifying passes for his fellow soldiers. When he tired of serving in the Army of Northern Virginia, he simply wrote himself a pass under the pretense of getting married and surrendered to the Union, where he then served as an artilleryman.
After the war, he traveled south, spending some time in Brazil where he learned Portuguese. Eventually, he returned to Missouri and took up a host of odd jobs before settling on a somewhat successful career as a real estate agent. Reavis found his skills in forgery particularly valuable in his new position, gaining a reputation for finding “lost” deeds and documents. It was in this capacity that he became acquainted with Dr. George Willing, a snake oil salesman turned prospector. Willing was in possession of an old land grant and needed assistance in proving its validity.
A brief diversion here would be prudent in understanding the basis for this land claim. Following the Mexican-American War, per agreements reached in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase, the United States pledged to honor Spanish and Mexican land claims in the recently acquired territory. This policy is key in understanding how such an audacious claim got any traction to start with.
Willing claimed that he had acquired the deed from a man named Miguel Peralta in 1864 for the sum of twenty thousand dollars in gold dust and mining supplies. Having no suitable writing utensils, the transaction was recorded in pencil on a greasy piece of camp paper and witnessed by several other prospectors. It wasn’t until 1867, in the town of Prescott, Arizona, that Willing officially documented the transaction. Being short on cash, he offered to sell half his claim to a shop owner, suggesting they could make a fortune selling the claims back to their owners. As one might imagine, this did not go over well in the mining community and Willing was forced to flee town the next day.
In 1871, Willing was introduced to Reavis and, together with William Gitt, a “specialist” in Spanish land grants, they begin to conspire. The original grant appears to have been a legitimate claim, though not a very strong one. Known as a “floater,” the claim did not specify exact boundaries. Such claims were easily refuted, thus they would need to find additional documentation to strengthen the claim. This was apparently accomplished by Gitt who managed to “recover” a letter dated 1853 and signed by Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
For the next three years, the project continued in this way, with Reavis picking up the tricks of the trade from Gitt and gathering further “evidence.” Eventually, a partnership was established between Willing and Reavis and, in 1874, they set out separately for the Arizona Territory to establish the claim.
Upon arrival in Prescott in March of 1874, Reavis received two letters. The first was from Willing, informing him that he had filed their claim. The second was a letter informing him of his partners death. Willing had been in town for little more than a day. Long enough to file his documentation with the court before dying of “strange and unwitnessed circumstances.”