Sharlot Hall: The Voice of the West

Written by on March 14, 2017 in Southwest Characters - Comments Off on Sharlot Hall: The Voice of the West

Sharlot Hall Museum
Not all the characters who were important in shaping the West were men. In one rare instance, a lady of great charm and distinction gave the spirit of the West a voice. Sharlot Hall was a poet, historian and journalist, who rose from humble beginnings, and was the first woman to hold a post in the Arizona Territorial Government.

Born in Kansas in 1870 on a small farm, Sharlot’s only companions during her formative years were the buffalo calves her father captured on a hunting trip. Her mother, a former school teacher, did not neglect Sharlot’s education, sharing with her the only two books the family owned. But her love of reading was a mystery to the pioneers in the area, who felt reading was unnecessary for a ranch girl and that she was putting on airs with her high-faluting ways. Only one man by the name of Cushion understood the girl. He, too, was thought odd by his neighbors for owning so many books. One day, Sharlot got up the courage to introduce herself to Cushion, who invited her back to his cabin so she could show him how well she could read. In a sense, this kindly gentleman became her first mentor, lending her book after book and nurturing her mind and opening her eyes to broader horizons.

In 1882, the Hall family decided to move to Arizona — James Hall, her father, felt Kansas was becoming too settled. With Daniel DeFoe’s The History of the Devil in her pocket, a final gift from Cushion, Sharlot felt the move to Arizona was a great adventure. One day, as her mind wandered, Sharlot’s horse spooked and threw her. Fearing reprisal from her father, Sharlot concealed her injury, and was plagued with back problems for the rest of her life. Eventually, the Hall family arrived in Prescott, Arizona. Sharlot was awed by the size of the town, and thrilled by the drama of the miners, cowboys, railroaders and Wild West lifestyle. The family settled down to raise cattle on a ranch in Lonesome Valley some 15 miles from town.

Though isolated, Sharlot was finally able to attend school for the first time. She was 12 years old. Her eager mind absorbed everything and she loved school, deciding that some day she wanted to be a poet. Her teacher even suggested she attend the larger school in Prescott because she had run out of things to teach the girl. Indeed, Sharlot attended classes there for eight months (the happiest time of her life) before her mother fell ill and Sharlot returned to the ranch to nurse her. Around that time, a drought struck the area, causing the creek to dry up, the grasses to wither and the cattle to suffer and die. Each day, Sharlot learned to do hard things to keep her family from starving. And then the rains came, flooding the ranch for months. Years later, Hall would write a poem that captured those difficult days.

Excerpt from Smell of Rain, Poems of a Ranch Woman, 1953

Smell of drought on every side;
Every whirlwind flings aside
Acrid, evil-smelling dust
Like some burning mold or musk.
Wind across the garden brings
Scent of blistered, dying things.
Deep corral dust trampled fine
Stings the lips like bitter wine.
Warping boards ooze drops of pitch
Scented with a memory rich
Of cook forests far away.
In the sunbaked fields the hay
Yields a piteous, panting breath
As it slowly burns to death.
Roses in the ranch-house yard
Turn to mummies dry and hard.
Out of dusk and out of dawn
Every fragrance is withdrawn.
Hot, hot winds, and clear, hot sky
Burn the throat and sear the eye.
Then, at last, a cool dawn wind
Pitying and deeply kind,
Brings a far-off scent of rain.
Ah, the sick earth lives again!

After the flood, Sharlot’s father decided to give up ranching cattle and tried his hand at gold mining, then finally settling down to plant the ranch with apple trees — to the laughter of the rough and tumble cowboys of the area. The trees remained small and stunted but they did bear sweet fruit eventually.

All these experiences and more led Hall to write, both to alleviate her loneliness, and also to capture the spirit of the West. She was very surprised to find that people would actually pay her to write when she published her first article in a children’s magazine. From then on, Hall captured the taste, smell, feel and energy of the West for readers all over the United States. She wrote passionately to stop the Hamilton Bill from coming to pass (a bill that would join Arizona and New Mexico into one before petitioning for statehood). Her interest in politics eventually led her to taking a post as a clerk with the Arizona Territorial Government.

In 1907, Sharlot saw a need to save Arizona’s history and began to develop a museum. She collected Native American and pioneer material, restored the first Territorial Governor’s residence and moved the collection into it in 1928. Today, it is called the Sharlot Hall Museum, located in Prescott, Arizona, and has seven historical buildings. The museum holds vast archives of rare books, original documents, historical photographs, maps and oral history of the West, as well as fine example of Western tools, household items and more. It’s a wonderful place to visit to learn more about the Old West and particularly about Arizona.

Sharlot Hall Museum
415 W. Gurley St., Prescott AZ 86301
Phone: 928-445-3122

Museum Hours
October-April: Monday-Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm; Sunday, Noon to 4 pm
May-September: Monday-Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday, Noon to 5 pm

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