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Gila County Pioneer - David D. Gowan

David Douglas “Davey” Gowan was one of the first white men in the Rim Country. He was a great-uncle to Anna Mae Ogilvie Deming, of Payson, and he is credited with discovering the Tonto Natural Bridge, which is now an Arizona State Park. He was also the first white man to consider settlement in Gisela, Arizona.

Gowan was born in Kincardineshire, Scotland, in 1843, and he took to the seas at an early age. He sailed out of Scotland’s Bervie Harbor for London, but the on the waterfront of the Thames River he became intrigued with tales of exotic ports of call of the British Navy and signed on as a seaman aboard an English man-of-war. After a while, Gowan became bored with the British Navy and jumped ship at a port in West Africa. Knowing the penalty for desertion, he signed on with the first outbound ship. This happened be a stench-ridden slave ship on its way to America with its unfortunate human cargo. Upon arrival, Gowen again jumped ship and began his life in America.

Soon the Civil War broke out and David Douglas Gowan enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war, he returned to being a merchant mariner and signed on for a voyage around Cape Horn to California. Upon arrival, he again left the ship and employed himself up and down the California coast. In time he owned his own boat, the Dread-Naught, and returned to fishing, the profession of his fathers back in Scotland. It all ended quickly when his boat capsized in a Pacific storm and he barely escaped with his life.

After the loss of his ship, he decided to give up the sea and head for the mountains. The adventuresome Gowan made his first trip to Arizona in 1874 at age 31. He arrived in what would become Gisela, Arizona that same year. He took an immediate liking to the Tonto Basin country, especially the rich mineral deposits.

(Gowan may have met David Harer who, in 1872, came from California to Arizona in search of a place to raise pigs. Harer lived alone in the Greenback Valley for awhile; his wife and children were living there by 1874. Harer, also, was of Scotch-Irish ancestry.)

Realizing he would need help, Gowan returned to California and found a partner, Jim Samuels, who came to the Tonto Basin with him. They drove a band of sheep and some horses into Gisela– not an easy task as they were constantly harassed by the Indians. (This is in sharp contrast to Harer, who lived in peace with the Apaches.) According to old-timers Gowan’s sheep carried the first alfilaria (filaree) into Arizona in their wool.

By 1876, Gowan and Samuels were living on Gowan’s claim along Tonto Creek at the present site of Gisela. Gowan later told Riley Neal, a Gisela rancher, that in the Gisela valley, in 1876, “Wild Rye grew as high as a horse’s belly and beaver dams were thicker than ticks on a dog’s back.” Gowan and Samuels took advantage of these beaver-built log dams from which to start an irrigation ditch.

Apaches who lived in the area didn’t take kindly to their new neighbors. The men were run away from their place several times, but always returned. Once the Indians stole the tools that Gowan and Samuels were using to dig the ditch, but after a little luck and quite a battle the men were able to recover them.

In 1876, the men constructed a house out of river rock – something the Indians couldn’t burn – located on what is now the Barkley Ranch, and they planted a garden using seeds they had bought from California.

Prospecting was important to these men, as they had come here to strike it rich, but one of them had to stay at the house at all times to protect their belongings from the Apaches.

Besides the constant threat of Indians, the sheep the men had brought with them from California began dying off from eating a coarse grass that grew in Gisela at the time.

Discouraged, Gowan and Samuels began looking at other places to live. They traveled up Wild Rye Creek, prospecting as they went along. Jim Samuels made a claim at the confluence of Pine Creek and the East Verde River, a place that would later be called Mazatzal City. He found out that this was a special place to the Apaches and they tried to run him out.

Gowan explored up Pine Creek. While prospecting, he found Apaches camped under a large, natural arch or bridge. What he had found was the world's largest natural travertine bridge with five acres of fertile soil on its top. The bridge was 183 feet above the canyon floor, and the tunnel underneath was 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. It was a sight to behold. Although Apaches were living near the bridge when Davey Gowan discovered it, he was given the credit.

Since there was constant conflict between Gowan and Samuels and the Apaches, the two Anglo men went back to the lower elevation of Gisela for the winter months. In the late fall of 1877, an exploration party of Mormons from St. George, Utah arrived. After hearing of Gowan and Samuels problems with the Apaches, the Mormons told them they had often dealt with Indians and did not consider them a problem. They liked the fertile soil and climate in the Tonto Basin and a deal was made for both men’s claims.

In 1877, Mormon settlers Revilo (Vi) Fuller, Wyllys (Wid) Fuller, Woodward Freeman, Thomas Clark, John Willis, and Alfred Randall paid Jim Samuels seventy-five dollars for his claim on the East Verde River and divided it equally among the six of them. They returned to Utah to report on their findings. Soon they moved their families to this place which they called Mazatzal City because it sat at the foot of the Mazatzal Mountains. The nearby creek was named Mazatzal City Creek, then shortened to just City Creek. The Apaches gave these settlers so many problems, they finally moved to Pine.

The records show that in 1879, Gowan sold his claim in Gisela to John Sanders, Jr. and Moses Martin Sanders, Mormon settlers from St. George, Utah. The Sanders family gave Gowan a span of mules, a harness and wagon, and a buckskin horse in trade. Gowan apparently traded these to Revolo (Vi) Fuller of Pine because Fuller later sold these mules for five hundred dollars in gold.

The Sanders family also gave Gowan the fruit trees, blackberry bushes, and grapevines that he planted at the Natural Bridge. One of the original apricot trees, planted at the Bridge in 1879 by Gowan, is still listed in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for most fruit harvested in one year – 100 bushels in 1931.

“Uncle Davey Gowan was an explorer and a prospector, so he didn’t want to live at the bridge permanently, but he didn’t want to give it up completely,” explained his great-niece Anna Mae Deming. “So he wrote to his nephew, David Gowan Goodfellow who lived in Scotland and told him of the beauty and potential of the natural bridge he had found.”

In 1893, sixteen years after Davey had discovered the bridge, Goodfellow, his wife Lillias, and their three children, David Jr., age 6, Harry, age 4, and Lillias, age 2, arrived there to make it their home. They came by ship to New York and then by train to Flagstaff. Gowan met them at the depot with a wagon, and six days later had them at the site of their new home.

Little by little, they developed the site. They hauled in lumber on pack mules and built a house. Six years were spent in building a road with picks and shovels. Later they began to add tourist cabins. Gowan visited his family at the “bridge,” but he loved to prospect, so spent most of his time in the Mazatzal wilderness.

The Goodfellows began the construction of a four-story lodge with wide porches and a big dining room. They dug out a swimming pool with "four horses and a Fresno."

Gowan lived in Arizona 49 years before his death in late December of 1925. He died while walking out of the Mazatzal Mountains from his cabin and mine. His body was found at the mouth of Deer Creek Canyon by Jesse Chilson on January 1, 1926, and he was buried at the site of his death. He lived 83 years.

The Goodfellow family went on to complete their uncle's dream. The lodge was completed the following year, and the resort began to operate in earnest. Many people have enjoyed the beauty of the Natural Bridge over the years.

Loved this story told by late great Town of Payson historian, Jinx Pyle? See more by visiting

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