The report concerning the Palm - Washingtonia filifera - of Moapa - in SIX parts. [plus photos and bibliography]
'Washingtonia filifera - It's history in Nevada revisited'
By: Spencer, W - December - 1995 - ©1995-2011


click here to go back to part ONE

Part 2 - A Closer Examination of The Anecdotal Reports from both sides

As it has been reiterated previously, the currently accepted historical references regarding this plant in the Moapa and Overton Valley are based strictly on anecdotal reports. Conjecture followed as to the origins of the Cooper Palms mostly resulting in the assumption that Cooper's palms came from the Phoenix area and this has been used as 'fact' whenever plant surveys or reports on this Palm have been conducted in the area.

These anecdotal reports will be related again here as they are currently told in order to fully examine the reports from all the appropriate angles. Following, I will show (utilizing the methodology of Carmony, Turner, Lowe and Brown,) firstly; how historical inaccuracies or contradictions in the accepted anecdotes have not been duly accounted for, and secondly; add earlier (but overlooked) and otherwise challenging anecdotes to the record which have up to this time, apparently not been heard or examined. Later we will examine plant communities, climate and photographic and other evidence as well as Moapa Paiute testimony.

The original Cooper anecdote was published in a local history book entitled "One Hundred Years Along The Muddy", (which in turn provides part of the impetus for it's generally being regarded as established fact.) (Editors' note: since this report was first begun, both Chick and his wife Iola who was a direct descendant of Mendis Cooper, have regrettably passed away.) Chick was one who staunchly stood beside the conjecture which followed the Cooper story. He was also a friend of mine for the last 17 years and it would have been difficult for me to publish this material knowing what this tradition meant to him. Chick loved to relate history and could go on for hours in great detail. He prided himself in remembering details others would have long forgotten. His memory was very accurate and everyone shall miss him. )

Since Chick's passing, other Perkins family members have come forward as well as Moapa Paiute elders and eyewitnesses or even actual personal friends of the very earliest settlers who all substantiate that the palms around the area must certainly have predated Mendis Cooper or any other white settler.

It is interesting that after all is brought out into the open that the actual words of Mendis Cooper and what he actually did remains obscure. It would appear that the so called anecdotal information which has been used is largely based on a "loose interpretation and understanding" of what those who followed believed must have transpired based on the very simple statement that "Mendis Cooper was the first man to plant palm trees in the (Overton) valley." With this in mind, this next section deals with the Mendis Cooper story and the circumstances surrounding that story in more detail.

The Full Story Examined

The Mendis story (or anecdote) originally came to us through Lydia Bannister. She was the daughter, (and one of nine children,) of Mendis Diego Cooper and grandmother of Iola Perkins, (the late Chick Perkins's wife.) This is the story which was published in the book: "One Hundred Years Along the Muddy", by Arabell Lee Hefner.

According to Mrs. Bannister, Mr. Cooper came to Overton from Mesa Arizona (Phoenix area) in 1893. Her father was of very modest financial means and he came to Overton because of the mild climate (similar to Phoenix) and the availability of "cheap" land. Once here, he fathered most, (or all), of his nine children and then suddenly died in 1903. (Mendis Cooper was only in the valley for 10 years or less.) Her story goes on to make the simple statement that:

"Mendis Cooper was the first to 'plant' palms."

Beyond this simple statement from Lydia Bannister the idea the palms came as seed from Phoenix seems to be later speculation on the part of descendants, researchers and other residents. The idea that Mendis may have actually "stated" he brought these plants or seeds from Phoenix is never forthcoming. The speculation has been that he obtained seeds in Phoenix merely since that is from whence he arrived. (Once again note that he is not recorded anywhere as having said to anyone that he indeed obtained any seeds in Phoenix.)

The contemporary justification for this presumption appears to be simply that: "since everyone knows that there are palm trees in Phoenix (today), this must be from whence they were obtained." No one has addressed the fact that not only were Desert Fan Palms brought to Phoenix after the early 1900's but after Mendis Cooper had already left the area and even after his death in 1903. Researchers at the University of Arizona Tucson did this footwork for us and declared unanimously that no Desert Fan Palms were present in Phoenix or it's surrounds until well after Mendis had not only left the area, but after he had passed away as well. (More on this later.)

Once again the presumptions inherent in the conjecture which followed the Cooper story which may each be shown to be faulty are several fold and they are:

#1, A presumption that Phoenix had any palms at all and even more importantly, that mature seed bearing Palms were extant there in 1893.

#2, A presumption that No other palms existed in the Overton vicinity up to the time Mendis Cooper arrived in the area..(1)

Let's examine the first point.

If one is to presume that the Palms Mr. Cooper planted in front of his home in Overton were brought from Phoenix, one must also presume that Phoenix and it's surrounds would have to have had plantings of mature seed bearing W. filifera Palm trees.

For this to be true, those hypothetical Phoenix area palms would have had to have been fifteen year old fruit bearing specimens at the time of Cooper's departure in 1893. In other words, Washingtonia filifera would have had to have been extant in the area since before the year 1878 or earlier. (This is because Fifteen years is the minimum general age for a Washingtonia filifera growing under good conditions to mature sufficiently and flower and fruit according to the scientific article cited previously from AZ Academy of Sciences Vol 11 No. 1 Feb 1976). It may actually take much longer than that and in hard, saline or dry soils I have seen Washingtonia filifera palms which are at least twice that age which still bear no fruit or seeds and which are still very(2) Please note that Phoenix itself was only first settled in 1870.(Incidentally bear in mind how small of a town Phoenix and Mesa were in 1893) (3)

According to the research of Brown, Carmony, Lowe and Turner (previously cited)

"Although W. Filifera and other palm species are now ubiquitous large ornamental trees in and about Phoenix Arizona and other communities in the Sonoran Desert, such was evidently not the case prior to 1900...

... A Photograph of a large fan palm, similar to Washingtonia Filifera, was featured in the Arizona Graphic Magazine published in Phoenix in 1899 (Anon.,1899) The caption to the photograph describes the palm as a well known local oddity and landmark. The palm was reportedly planted in 1879 from seed brought to Phoenix from Hawaii, From a review of this and other early photographs of Phoenix, we have found no large palms <genus Washingtonia filifera> appearing (in Phoenix) prior to 1910." (emphasis and italics mine)

Not only does this research establish that only a single fan palm existed in Phoenix in 1899 but also that this single palm was firstly not a Washingtonia filifera and secondly that it was considered a local oddity and even a landmark (6 years after Cooper left Phoenix). Later study revealed that this lone palm in question was most likely a Pritchardia. (A genus of Palm from Hawaii) Although Pritchardia is a relative of Washingtonia, the two are entirely different genera. Furthermore, Washingtonia are not native trees in Hawaii. These palms are so similar in superficial external appearance that it is likely that the lay person would not have been able to distinguish the two genera apart. Therefore the "oddity" label clearly applied to the fact that it was a palm and not to the fact that it was an unusual or rare palm.(4)

This could not have been the tree from which Mendis Cooper collected his seeds, and even had he wished to collect any seeds at all from this tree, the tree would have only been 14 or so years old. This is hardly enough time for a slower maturing Pritchardia to have as yet produced seed.

The existence of any "seed bearing" aged W. Filifera trees in the Phoenix area is not forthcoming until at least Seventeen years after Mendis Cooper arrived in the Overton Area! This precludes any possibility that Mr. Cooper could have collected his seeds from the Phoenix area. This having been shown, this poses another problem for the Cooper 'origins' speculation. If Cooper's palms or palm seeds did not come from the Phoenix area then just where did he find this palm?

Could he have procured palms or seed from somewhere 'en-route' to Overton? I think it is relatively safe to assume that the modest means of Mr. Cooper would have precluded him from coming to Overton via the remote Palm canyons around the Indio California area. This would have constituted several hundreds of difficult and pointless miles out of his way even would have also required an extra crossing of the Colorado river and several fairly difficult and rugged mountain passes. Further corroborating this is that nothing is said to that end in the Mormon diaries and family journals of the Overton area from that time period. Since he could not have collected the seed or palms in Phoenix and he almost certainly did not travel to Overton by way of Palm Springs, there are only a couple of other possible locations which could have provided him with Palm seeds or Palm plants:

-Location # 1. -The Alkali Springs near Castle Creek, AZ. (The subject of the previously cited article where the 'type locality' of Washingtonia filifera was discovered,) or...

-Location # 2. - local stands of extant Palms in the Overton / Moapa area.

At the time of Mr. Cooper's move in 1893, the property at or near Alkali Springs was owned by the J-L Bar ranch.(see previous references) The palms, (which have been positively determined to be native to the area's two or three springs), were actually not located near the farm home or buildings, but up several scattered arroyos not visible from any spot that 'travelers' would be likely to pass through or spend the night. The Castle Hot springs itself was not developed as a resort until 1896, three years after Mendis Cooper would have had any opportunity to pass through. This, of course, is providing that Mr. Cooper passed anywhere near this area in the first place which is pure speculation. It is far more likely he missed Castle Creek area entirely and traveled instead through Wickenburg which was a more common stage and stopping point since this was a settlement and not just a ranch. Even had Cooper traveled through the Castle Creek area and stayed the night:

"Castle Hot Springs Resort itself had no palms visible in any of the photographs taken prior to the construction of the resort ca 1896. The earliest photographs in which palms occur are views of the resort hotel and grounds taken about 1900. These photographs show small fan palms planted around the hotel buildings..."(Mr. Champie further states) that the palms growing at the J-L Bar ranch were planted there in the 1920's." (5)

Once again the dates of the photographs which even show juvenile non-seed bearing palms are all well after Mr. Mendis Cooper was already settled in Overton and busy raising his nine children...and in fact, perhaps even well after Mr. Mendis Cooper's passing in 1903. If no palms were visible from publicly traveled areas near Castle Creek and the J. L. Bar Ranch, there would appear no apparent logical source for Cooper to have obtained seeds or seedlings in Arizona.

Since a likely source for the seeds in Arizona is not forthcoming for Cooper given the year he left and the routes he could have taken to Overton, it appears that Cooper probably could not have collected palms or palm seeds before his arrival in Overton and therefore highly unlikely that Mr. Cooper obtained his "seeds" anywhere at all in Arizona, and yet this is what the speculation regarding his Palm's origins has heretofore always presumed. It is therefore strongly suggested that there must be a different explanation and that another, not yet recognized source, is likely responsible for how and where Mendis Cooper obtained his plants or seeds. The likelihood is now very high that Mr. Cooper collected his Palm seeds locally from groves at the seldom visited Moapa Warm Springs or from one of several obscure small seeps where other palms may indeed have been long present along the south end of the Moapa Mesa. All other testimony of early settlers and Indians confirm this suspicion.

The remaining untold anecdotes once examined, will make this abundantly clear.

end of Part Two.

go to - PART THREE

1. (Note: Many of the people I queried aren't even aware that this is a native southwestern desert plant but rather believe it to be tropical and exotic while some even thought it was from Hawaii and wondered if it bore coconuts. Many are therefore automatically under the presumption that the palm cannot be native.) (back to text)

2. On page 13 of James Cornett's "Desert Palm Oasis" one may see a photograph of a healthy 50 year old palm(minimum assumed age) which is only 5 feet tall and has never reached maturity due to dry conditions. (NOTE: Although Cornett's annotation assumes the stunted growth is from cold it is clearly from lack of water and soil. Palms in St. George Utah experience the same cold as the pictured location and grow to maturity with no problem. On the other hand the picture shows the palm growing out of boulders which are at least 2 to 5 feet in diameter with no evidence of a spring or other water source as would be evidenced by immediate proximity to riparian species. The lack of water and soil is clearly the more likely candidate for why the palm has never reached maturity. This type of stunting can be shown repeatedly in the field.) (back)

3. "Phoenix in 1910 was little more than a one horse town..." -"Hookey Beans and Willows" page 111 by Orville Perkins. (back)

4. On page 11 of the previous reference by Cornett it is clear that even plant dealers placed Washingtonia in the genus Pritchardia. This is how similar the superficial characteristics of the palm are to that genus. Furthermore, the palm itself was not placed in a proper genus until 1879. Clearly in 1879 this palm was just being discovered. (back)

5. "A Second Locality For Native California Fan Palms In Arizona" -Brown, Carmony, Lowe and Turner -Arizona Academy of Science Vol. 11 Number 1, February 1976 (back)

End of Part TWO - click below to continue:

- go to PART THREE -

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