Note: This story is from my book Highway History And Back Road Mystery II.
Arizona’s frontier history is populated with some of the best known names from the Old West. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, Curly Bill Brocius, the Clanton gang, Johnny Ringo, Cochise, and Geronimo all wrote their stories with lead and blood on the desert landscape.
One lesser-known figure from that violent time is a pioneer woman whose life story reads like the most lurid dime novel from those days long past.
Larcena Pennington Page was born in Nashville, Tennessee on January 10, 1837. Larcena’s mother died when she was a child, and her grieving father, Elias Pennington, moved his brood of twelve children to Texas soon after.
In 1857, Elias moved the family again, bound for California. They made it to the wild frontier that would become southern Arizona, where they had to pause while Larcena recovered from mountain fever, a form of malaria. At that time the territory was part of New Mexico. The Penningtons were the first white family to move to Arizona.
Elias and his sons found work supplying hay to the Army at Fort Buchanan, near present-day Sonoita, Arizona. Life was hard on the frontier, and several of Larcena’s siblings died during their first years in Arizona.
On December 12, 1859, Larcena married John Hempstead Page. They were the first American citizens to be married in Arizona. John Page managed a lumber mill in Madera Canyon, and the young couple moved to a camp about two miles from the mill soon after their wedding.
For most of her adult life, Larcena was plagued with recurrences of the fever that had halted her family’s trip to California. Soon after moving to the camp, she was again hit with chills and fever. On March 16, 1860, John Page and his partner, William Randall, left the camp to cut lumber.
The men were no sooner out of sight when a band of Apache warriors stormed the camp. Larcena had been tutoring an eleven year old Mexican girl named Mercedes Sais Quiroz in English, and when Mercedes spotted the Indians, she screamed. Larcena grabbed a revolver and ran out of her tent, only to be overpowered by the Apaches.
After looting the camp and destroying everything they could not carry, the Indians set off deep into the mountains with their terrified captives, beating and pushing them when they faltered. When the young women paused to catch their breaths, they were jabbed with spears. Mercedes overheard the Apaches boasting in Spanish of killing John Page and William Randall.
Hoping to leave a trail for a rescue posse, Larcena began tearing off strips of her dress and dropping them along their route, breaking small branches, and scuffing her feet whenever her captors weren’t looking. The Apaches caught her in the act and beat her, and then separated into two groups, one taking Larcena and the other Mercedes.
By the end of the day they had covered close to fifteen miles, and her illness, the beatings she had received at the hands of the Indians, and the rigors of the forced overland march became too much for Larcena to endure, and she collapsed. The Apaches stripped off her clothes, beat her again, then stabbed her repeatedly with their lances, as many as fifteen times. They then heaved her body off a cliff and threw large rocks at her as she lay unconscious on the steep mountainside. One of the warriors put on Larcena’s shoes and the war party moved on.
Larcena should have been dead but somehow she survived her abuse and drifted in and out of consciousness for three days, scooping up handfuls of snow to quench her thirst, then passing out again when the agony of her wounds overcame her.
The Apaches had lied about killing John Page and William Randall, and when they returned to the camp at the end of the day and discovered the women missing, they quickly formed a posse and began pursuing the Apaches. But the Indians eluded them and disappeared into the rugged mountains. Larcena heard the rescue party pass by overhead as she lay on the mountainside, but was too weak to call out.
Larcena finally managed to gather enough strength to begin crawling off the mountain and back to civilization. For the next eleven days she survived by eating snow and grass. Unable to walk in her weakened condition, she crawled on her hands and knees, slithering along on her belly when her bloodied fingers could no longer clutch rocks and branches for purchase. At times she would spend hours crawling up a steep hillside, only to lose her grip and slide down even further than where she began. Several days into her ordeal, she managed to kill a rabbit with a rock and ate it raw. She would later recall that it was the best meal she had ever eaten.
Finally, two weeks after her capture, Larcena crawled into an abandoned woodcutter’s camp and found the campfire still smoldering. The laborers who had been in the camp were disappearing from sight as she approached and could not hear her weak cries for help. She managed to rekindle the fire, then found a handful of flour the camp’s occupants had left behind. Mixing it with melted snow, she made a pasty dough and ate it. The meager meal did wonders for her weakened, starving body and she managed to push on.
The next day Larcena, filthy, severely sunburned, blistered, and covered with filth and blood, came across a lone Mexican woodcutter. At first the frightened man thought he was seeing a witch and he almost shot the apparition before him before Larcena managed to call out.
She was taken to Tucson, where she was reunited with her husband and spent a lengthy recovery period. Larcena’s story of courage and survival was publicized in newspapers across the country, and the young woman was celebrated far and wide for her undaunted spirit. During her recuperation, she learned that Mercedes was also alive. The Indians had traded her at Fort Buchanan for the release of several Indians held prisoner there.
But this was still the unforgiving frontier and Larcena’s ordeal was but one struggle to survive that would face her. While the Apaches had lied about killing John Page when they captured Larcena, he was ambushed and murdered in 1861 by a war party while delivering a load of lumber to Camp Grant. Page was buried where he fell. At the time, Larcena was pregnant with their first child. She never got to see her husband’s lonely gravesite.
When the Civil War began, Army troops in Arizona were transferred east to help in the conflict, leaving the settlers at the mercy of the Apaches. Larcena moved with her father to Patagonia, where she gave birth to her daughter in the midst of a smallpox epidemic.
The Penningtons moved soon afterward to Tubac and by April of 1864, they were the only residents left in the small settlement. The rest had either been murdered by the Apaches or fled to the safety of Tucson. The Apache attacked several times, trying to drive the stubborn settlers away, and on more than one occasion Larcena helped defend the homestead.
The end of the Civil War did not mean an end to the Pennington family’s misfortunes. In 1867, Larcena’s sister died of malaria. A year later her brother was killed while part of a posse chasing an Apache war party. In June of 1869, her father and another brother were both murdered by Apaches while working at a farm.
With only a brother and sister surviving from her large family, Larcena and her child left Tucson with them, bound for California. They were only 20 miles from Tucson when Larcena’s sister Ellen came down with pneumonia. They returned to Tucson, where Ellen soon died. Her brother Jack moved to Texas soon afterward, begging Larcena to come with him. But she refused, vowing to remain in Tucson no matter what other tragedies befell her.
In August, 1870, Larcena married William Fisher Scott, a Tucson attorney. The couple would have two children, and Larcena would survive a bout with smallpox. She became a founding member of the Congregational Church in Tucson and served as president of the Arizona Historical Society. She lived a quiet life, passing away on March 31, 1913 at age 76. Tucson’s Pennington Street was named in honor of the valiant pioneer woman.
Larcena Pennington Page is buried in Tucson’s Evergreen Cemetery. GPS coordinates at her grave are N 32o 15.849, W 110o 58.746. The cemetery is the final resting place of several other Old West notables, including Thomas Jeffords, the Indian agent who became a blood brother to Apache war chief Cochise; Tombstone deputy Billy Breckenridge; and lawman Charles Shibell. The brave woman who defied frontier hardships, illness, and renegade Indians is finally at rest.
Be sure to enter our latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an RV camping journal donated by Barbara House. Barbara makes several variations of these, and they all have pages where you can list the date, weather, where you traveled to and from that day, beginning and ending mileage, campground information including amenities at RV sites, a place for campground reviews, room to record activities, people met along the way, reminders of places to see and things to do the next time you’re in the area, and a page for notes for each day.
To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening. Note: Due to the high shipping cost of printed books and Amazon restrictions on e-books to foreign countries, only entries with US addresses and e-mail addresses are allowed. After 90 days, unclaimed prizes revert back to the drawing pool for a future contest.
And finally, here’s a chuckle to start your day from the collection of funny signs we see in our travels and that our readers share with us.
Thought For The Day – Hearses don’t have luggage racks.