The miracle of Silas St. John and Arizona’s wild west

The Butterfield Stagecoach station at Dragoon Springs today. (Photo by: Jordan Treece/ Arizona Sonora News)On the morning of Sept. 12, 1858, Silas St. John lay waiting to die.

He baked in the early morning sun in the Dragoon Springs area of southeast Arizona, tending his wounds from four nights earlier.

A deep slice in one of his palms. A large gash cut in his thigh to the bone. And worst of all, a flap of skin was all that held his left arm onto his body.

He was dying of thirst. He could hear wild animals circling and see the maggots chewing on his wounds. St. John knew that it was only a matter of time.

What he did not know at this moment in his life was that Arizona state history was unfolding in the middle of nowhere. Then, by what seemed like a miracle, help appeared and, according to various historical documents, Silas St. John became the stuff of legends.

A  reporter for the Memphis Avalanche, traveling from Tucson to the Rio Grande, came upon a mail station. It flew no flag, and what appeared to be no people. Alarmed, he rode off on his horse, trying to find the nearby springs in search of any human life. A wagon party arrived at the same time. There they found St. John.

Over the period of a week, a surgeon was able to make his way down from nearby Fort Buchanan and miraculously save St. John. What exactly happened to Silas St. John? How did he survive? An even better question is why, after 150 years, is this forgotten tale relevant to southern Arizona and it’s history? 

In the late 1850s, law and order in Arizona was practically nonexistent. Survival of the fittest was the rule of the land.

“What happened really shows how lawless and wild this country was back then,” said Bob Nilson, historian and curator at the Benson Visitor Center. “The events that occurred at Dragoon Springs happened 30 years before Benson was even here.”

At the time, one of the largest mail services in the area, blazing trails along the southwest corridor, was the Butterfield Overland Mail service. Revolutionary for its time, Butterfield Overland developed a trail from San Francisco thru California and the Southwest, all the way to St. Louis, Missouri.

The Southwestern quadrant of the trail was fairly new territory to America, joining the nation as a result of the Gadsen Purchase. This area was known for its roughness. The climate, hostile Indians and Mexican bandits were daily hazards.

“Most of us people today would not be able to survive out here,” said Nilson “Not only did they have Indians, the Apache, they also had bad men that would attack ranches and steal and kill. You had to be a tough person to live in this area and these are the people that made America what it is.”

Mail stations were built along the Butterfield trail. Here, couriers swapped mules and captured a bit of sleep. One was needed between Tucson and Franklin, Texas (now El Paso). A team worked to build one  at Dragoon Springs, on the edge of the Dragoon Mountains. Enter Silas St. John.

A sign in the Coronado National Forest Reserve, pointing the direction to the mail station. (Photo by: Jordan Treece/ Arizona Sonora News)

Silas St. John, a New York native, was 23 when he headed west.  In San Diego, he found work with the Butterfield Overland mail service. He was assigned to help build the Dragoon Springs station.

After most of the station was complete, a majority of the workers left for Tucson, leaving St. John and six other men to finish upt.

The men were Americans James Hughes, James Laing, and William Cunningham along with Mexican laborers Guadalupe Ramirez, Pablo Ramirez and Bonifacio Mirando.

At around 1 a.m. on Wednesday Sept. 8, St. John was awakened by the stirrings of animals. He then heard a low whistle, immediately followed by the sounds of large blows and accompanying screams. As St. John jumped to his feet, he was confronted by none other than the three Mexican laborers, brandishing bloodied axes and a sledge. In the fight that commenced, St. John was able to parry many of the blows that were directed on him. This was due to his fast hands and his rifle, which he used as a blunt instrument.

The three Mexicans ran outside the station, in a dazed attempt to regain their composure. During the brief time they were outside, St. John realized the extent of his injuries which caused him to drop his rifle. The sound of his long gun hitting the floor alerted the Mexicans, who again rushed inside to finish off what they had started. As they came forward, St. John pulled his six-gun out of the holster on his saddle, which was being using as a pillow, and fired off a single shot. This prompted the three Mexicans to run off into the dark. St. John wrapped his wounds as best he could, climbed upon a pallet of barley sacks with his revolver and waited for daylight.

At first light, St. John stumbled outside to check on his three companions. Hughes had died instantly in the attacks, his head crushed by a stone sledge. Laing and Cunningham were less fortunate than Hughes, both receiving brutal axe wounds to the head, leaving them immobilized and to die slowly.

Over the next four days, St. John struggled to survive as his world became terrifying. He was first plagued by buzzards, which mutilated the faces of his dead companions. Other beasts, such as coyotes and wolves, arrived. Though St. John was able to keep the beasts from entering the station and attacking him, he couldn’t keep them from eating the bodies of his friends.

When help did arrive, the party also discovered that Laing was alive. Unfortunately, he was too severely injured and died the following day. The other surprising discovery the party made was the body of Bonifacio Mirando. St. John had actually made his mark with the shot. Mirando’s body was left to the elements. The rest of the slain were buried on site, where they remain to this day.

The graves of those who died at Dragoon Springs. Two of the graves are that of Confederate soldiers who died their in 1862.
Photo by: Jordan Treece/ Arizona Sonora News

Despite this amazing feat of human tenacity and will, the story of the Massacre at Dragoon Spring largely goes unnoticed by the general public.

“A lot of people have never heard of the massacre,” said Nilson “They (residents of Southern Arizona) should know that the people that preceded us here were some of the toughest people probably in the world!”

Gerald Ahnert, a writer and historian who is considered the foremost expert on the Butterfield Overland Mail service, was far more blunt towards the importance of the mail station.

“What happened at the station makes OK Corral look like a ‘kids in the garden’ dust up!” said Ahnert

Ahnert was also keen on informing on the importance of the history that the Dragoon Springs station was a part of.

“What John Butterfield did was a monumental feat,” said Ahnert “People said it couldn’t be done, yet he did. There is so much he did that we know of, but there still is so much that is not known about it all.”

The community of Dragoon now sits dormant. The small, unincorporated town is merely a name, briefly seen on an exit sign as people commute down I-10.

“This area used to be all about the mines,” said Daniel Tapia, a Dragoon resident who has lived in the area for most of his life. “But ever since copper went down, the area has had nothing really going on.”

“There’s nothing really here,” said Tapia “We have a post office and the What-Not Shoppe and that’s about it.”

Tapia said that, around once a month, he is stopped by tourists looking for directions to the site.

Another Dragoon resident, James Schmidt, whose property borders the reserve the site is located, also encounters curious history enthusiasts looking for the site.

“A lot of folks with wrong directions come up my drive way looking for it and I have to set them the right direction.” Said Schmidt

“Around here is really interesting country,” Schmidt added, “ It makes us really pay attention to the area. We wish others would as well…”

The event that unfolded at Dragoon Springs is a story of true grit. A perfect example of what was the Wild West. What sounds like a work of Hollywood fiction actually happened. Yet, mainstream society remains none the wiser as to what occurred. They don’t know, that out in rural Arizona, sits a place that will take visitors back 150 years in time. Back to a time that signifies the forging of the United States. Until Dragoon Springs gets its recognition, it will stay where it is, being slowly destroyed by the elements until all that remains are pages in a history book.

Jordan Treece is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at jordantreece@email.arizona.edu

Click here for high-resolution photos and a Word-version of the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.