Robert Groom and Arizona’s last duel

by Richard Gorby

Most people in the Prescott area, although familiar with Groom Creek and even Groom City, know nothing about Robert Groom-but most of them are thankful for something he gave them one hundred and twenty-five years ago-downtown Prescott.

Early in 1863 the Arizona Territory was established by President Lincoln. By March of 1864 the territorial officers he appointed, led by Governor John Goodwin, arrived in the new Territory and had picked the site for the capital, near the new military fort (Fort Whipple which is now the site of the VA hospital) just built to protect the many new mining camps.

Chosen to lay out the town was Robert Groom, the only available surveyor. He was apparently given carte blanche in planning "his town," possibly because he had been over-ruled in his choice of location. Groom wanted the capital built at the beautiful Point of Rocks in Granite Dells.

Working at a table in a log cabin later known as "Old Fort Misery," now at Sharlot Hall Museum, he designed his town. And, using an old fashioned spy-glass and a tripod he built himself, he designed it beautifully, the way he thought a town should be. His streets were eighty feet wide, wider than most in the country. Most towns then and even later thought streets wide enough for two buggies to cross were sufficient. Downtown Flagstaff, built twenty years later, is an example of narrow roads.

And his central Plaza! More than twice the size of most town squares in the country, the Plaza was beautiful. The trees surrounding it were cut down almost immediately to make room for the sale of lots for future business buildings, but the Plaza was left (for a while) covered with stately pines and junipers.

Robert Groom was in the southwest before the territorial officers were, looking for good mining prospects in California, where he was reasonably successful and extremely popular. Unusual among miners, he held a law degree from Kentucky and was made a member of the council of the first and second California legislatures.

Robert Groom was born in Kentucky and considered himself a good southerner. He was in California when the Civil War broke out and immediately raised a company of fellow southern frontiersmen, 300 by some accounts, and headed east to join the Confederacy.

It was a long trip from Sacramento to their planned destination in Texas, and what with skirmishes with Indians and growing disenchantment with the whole idea, not many were left to be captured by Federal troops under General Carlton in New Mexico. Groom, as leader of the expedition, was held in a Santa Fe jail, wearing ball and chain, expecting to remain until the end of the war.

Fortunately for Groom, after almost a year a drunk was jailed with him, to be kept for a week or two, and the two became close friends. When his friend was released, he carried with him a letter from Groom to U.S. Senator McDonald, a friend of Groom’s, who later arranged for his release.

Groom prospected for a time around Santa Fe until hearing that his former jailer, General Carlton, was sending an expedition into central Arizona, where the Walker party and others were mining around present day Prescott. Groom offered his services. As happened often with Groom, he and the man who had him jailed became friends, and Groom was hired as a guide to the soldiers, who found Walker in the Lynx Creek area.

Governor John Goodwin heard that Groom was a surveyor and sent for him to lay out the new Territorial Capital.

Everything written about Groom mentions how everyone seemed to like him. He never married-his constant moving from one mining area to another would have made it difficult-but he apparently never had an enemy.

Groom’s being chosen by Governor Goodwin is puzzling. A Republican, as was all of his staff, and extremely anti-confederate, Goodwin refused to choose Tucson as the Territorial Capital-the obvious choice as the largest and almost only town in the new Territory-because of its Confederate leanings. It seems almost impossible to believe that he wasn’t aware that Groom was not only a Democrat but a convicted Confederate.

The answer would seem to be Goodwin’s awareness of Groom’s skill as a surveyor, and their rapidly developing friendship.

Groom spent many years in and around Prescott, still trying to make his fortune on his many mining claims. A lover of whiskey, good or bad, he spent many happy hours in Montezuma Street saloons, at one time almost adopting a Mexican baby girl, losing her in a game of Chance.

There is only one reported instance when Groom, always affable, was involved in a dispute-this with some young army officers in a commissary. They argued, and Groom was challenged to a duel. He accepted, and it was agreed that he would select the site and the weapons. He chose a secluded but beautiful spot between Kirkland and Walnut Grove.

When they arrived, the officers dressed in their fine uniforms and Groom carrying two long-handled boat paddles, he showed them the spot where duel would take place-on either side of a long-dead, horribly smelling bull, lying with all four feet up and in an advanced state of decomposition. Groom proposed that the winner of the duel would be the man who could shovel the most guts out of the dead cow. The stench was overwhelming and all agreed that the duel should be called off and they left immediately, to go back to Prescott for a drink.

Judge John Hawkins, in recounting this said: "It is stated that ever afterwards there never was known to have been another duel fought in the Territory of Arizona. This method of his settlement of his own controversy ever afterward saved the lives of a good many young men. Whenever the subject of dueling was discussed, the mode and manner by which Mr. Groom caused it to be settled was told and it caused a good laugh and brought on another drink and everyone would be friends again."

Groom died in Wickenburg in 1899, at the age of 75, still in possession of mining claims estimated at $25,000. The little town of Oakdale on Groom Creek, about seven miles south of Prescott, had its name changed to Groom City.

(Richard Gorby is a volunteer at the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives and Library)

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(po1834p). Reuse only by permission.

Robert Groom is primarily known for surveying the city of Prescott in 1864. However, he could be responsible for ending duels in Arizona.

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