Monday, January 16, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D.

A touch of class, a hint of civilization, a love story, and a tragedy, these are the themes entwined in the tale of the McCormick Rose, a cutting of which graces the bottom of the steps into Old Main at the North Campus of NAU. The first McCormick Rose was brought as a cutting by Margaret Hunt McCormick, the bride of Richard McCormick, Arizona’s Second Territorial Governor, to Prescott in November 1865. A French Boursaid (rosa gallica), an ancient French hybrid, this pink rose was the first cultivated rose in Arizona.

The McCormick Rose at Old Main is the granddaughter of the grande dame original McCormick Rose. It was a cutting of the McCormick Rose at the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott which was in turn a cutting from the original rose planted by Margaret McCormick by front door of the Governor’s Mansion in Prescott. The Class of 1934 planted the third generation cutting at Old Main. As one of the three campus roses of the Alumni Rose Collection, it is also a part of the Arboretum at NAU, which will be offering rooted great granddaughter cuttings or fourth generation McCormick Roses for sale through its gift shop in the Autumn of 2005.

The McCormick Rose began its journey in Margaret McCormick’s trousseau luggage as she and Richard made their way to Arizona. First, the cutting accompanied them by steamship from New York to Jamaica and thence to Aspinwall at the Isthmus of Panama. Next, the cutting went with them overland on muleback to the Pacific Coast where they and the cutting again boarded a steamship for Acapulco. Richard and Margaret spent a couple of days touring the deserted city (the French Army had chased the Mexicans out of their city). Finally, the cutting went with them to Los Angeles.

After a few days rest in Los Angeles, they and the cutting took a stagecoach to Yuma where they boarded a steamer for a trip up the Colorado River to Ehrenburg. Then as Margaret described the last leg of the journey, it was "two ambulances, six government wagons, and two private baggage wagons" crossing the Mohave Desert to Prescott. Needless to say, the McCormick Rose has demonstrated itself a hearty cultivar and flourishes today after years of benign neglect in Prescott, at Old Main, and at Cline Library.

Prescott had barely become Prescott at the time. Before that it was a single hastily built, ramshackle log cabin on the banks of Granite Creek, called Fort Misery by John Goodwin, the First Territorial Governor. The Governor’s Mansion to which Richard McCormick brought his well-bred, well-educated, New Jersey bride was a long cabin with dirt floors and windows without glass. Happily, Margaret was the first First Lady and was given carte blanche on improvements, furnishings, and decorations. She had furniture made from pine logs.

The McCormick Rose was but a symbol of the civilization and class Margaret brought to Prescott. She transformed the rude log cabin into a frontier mansion where she made a home for Richard and herself, an office for him, and accommodations for guests. She threw levees, entertained quests, bade visitors and strangers welcome. Margaret wrote of her "own dear home" to her friend Emma in New Jersey, "We danced in the house" and "served cold roast beef & veal, pies & cakes in variety, almonds, raisins, jellies, coffee, lemonade, & wine."

A considerable horsewoman, Margaret accompanied Richard on many of his trips throughout the Territory, becoming acquainted with many of the pioneers, impressing them with her grace. Well-loved, she touched the frontier settlement with her charm.

Prescott at the time was a jumping off place for what Richard McCormick called a "terra incognita", an unknown and unmapped land, a land fit for only "daring trappers and adventuresome gold seekers." The log cabin Governor’s Mansion was a mansion only in comparison to the tents, shacks, lean-tos, and wagons making up the rest of the settlement.

In another letter to her friend Emma, she wrote that she "was never so happy in her life," and that Richard "acts much more the ‘lover’ now, than he did before we were married."

On her return from a trip with Richard to San Francisco, she gave birth to a stillborn child. Thought to have been recovering well, she suddenly lapsed into a violent sickness and died one day short of her 24th birthday. She was buried with her stillborn child in her arms in the forest near the mansion. Her grave was strewn with wildflowers.

The Prescott Arizona Miner in May 3, 1867 wrote that Margaret was "a greatly loved woman," whose death had "cast gloom over the community," adding that "no woman in the Territory was more happy."

So when is a rose a rose? When it has a story to tell.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2005

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