Sedona Westerners in the Red Rock News

January 18, 2013

Westerners Revisit Sedona’s First Family


by Sandy Unger

The life and times of John James Thompson reads like a Hollywood film script! Resourceful Irish lad, destined for "export" since he was not the eldest son, runs away from home as a young teenager. Makes his way to New York; wangles his way onto a ship bound for Texas where he is given shelter by a childless couple. He grows up enough to fight in the Civil War, during which he is wounded, captured, and imprisoned. Subsequently, the war ended, he crosses the border to cowpoke in Mexico; after a few years, he returns back to the American southwest, tries gold prospecting, but ends up running a ferry boat franchise on a tributary of the Colorado River in Nevada. Most importantly, at this juncture, he establishes a friendship with a struggling pioneer settler family: Abraham James, his wife Elizabeth, and their three daughters.

Albert Thompson, in front-center, authored many of the historical vignettes in the book "Those Early Days," published in 1968 by the Sedona Westerners.
Photo courtesy of the Sedona Historical Society.

Moving along, various business ventures later, Thompson finds himself in the Prescott area of the new Arizona Territory. On this particular day, for reasons unknown, he is trailblazing his way into a wild area called only "Upper Oak Creek Canyon." The year is 1876. He is 37 years old. He discovers an abandoned vegetable garden (corn, beans, and squash). “Abandoned” because General Crook’s scouts had recently removed “hostile” Indians. Did Thompson have an epiphany? Perhaps. In any event, finally, it seems, he has "come home." He moves into “Indian Gardens.” He is our first permanent non-Native American settler.

Thompson communicated enthusiastically to Abraham James about the promise of this new land. The James family arrived shortly thereafter; they took squatters rights on a property now known as Copper Cliffs (across from present day Hillside Sedona). Margaret, a daughter, was fourteen years old. She and Thompson married two years later. With Margaret in mind, Thompson began work on the first “Jim Thompson Trail,” staying low along Oak Creek. His early work was destroyed when Oak Creek overflowed. He figures out the route below Steamboat Rock, now a familiar favorite of many Westerner hikers. This union produced nine children, all of whom lived. The last, a son, was born when Margaret was 47. What a gal! Thompson was 72! Not bad either!

Thompson hired an old bear hunter, Wilson, from Arkansas to help him build "Thompson's Ladder", a mule route from Indian Gardens up to the rim, which ultimately turned into another hiking trail familiar to old Westerners. Wilson, tangled fatally one day with a grizzly bear. Wilson Canyon and Wilson Mountain, you might say, bear witness to his tragic end.

It wasn’t until 1889 that the General Land Office dispatched surveyors to locate and map Upper Oak Creek. Until then, the pioneers could only take pre-emption homesteads, or squatters rights. By the turn of the century, about 15 families called the area home. In 1901 that the first homestead in the Sedona area actually issued a patent. It belonged to Frank Owenby. His parcel included the land where Tlaquepaque and Los Abrigados are located today. He promptly sold out to the Schnebly brothers: Dorsey, who had come earlier to teach school, and Theodore (called T.C. or Carl) who soon brought along his wife Sedona, and two children from Missouri. The rest is common knowledge. On June 26, 1902, the U.S. Postmaster General approved the name "Sedona" for the new community which we are so blessed to live in. Albert Thompson, one of the Thompson sons, was a charter member of the Sedona Westerners when the club was formed in 1961. And the Westerners are still going strong today!

The Westerners always welcome new members. If you are interested in joining, visit You also may join at our monthly meetings. The next one is February 14th, 2013 7:00 PM, at the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley, 100 Meadowlark Drive, Sedona.