Herman and Ella Searle

by Newell Searle
edited for the Connection by Mary N. Kasulaitis

Herman and Ella Searle were the kind of pioneers every historian loves. Educated and articulate, they kept diaries and wrote letters. With these in hand, territorial Arizona comes to life.

Herman Searle came to Arizona during the silver boom in the late 1870s. Newspaper stories reported fabulous mines. Everyone expected to get rich, Herman among them. He arrived in the Oro Blanco district in 1878, then bought or filed his first claims in January, 1879. One claim caught his attention. With money from savings and Philadelphia investors, he set up the Arizona Southern Mining and Milling Company in 1881. Herman got $151,000 of capital stock. Wealth and position seemed close at hand.

Herman was born in Cattaragus County, New York, in 1848. Hungry for a grander life, he left his family’s farm in 1866, lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. When he finished soldiering , Herman went to business college in Rochester, New York, found work and married his employer’s eldest daughter, Ella Newell. Thirteen months later they had a son, George Samuel Searle. Four years later, with Ella again pregnant, Herman left his family to buy silver claims in Mexico and Arizona. Ella, George and Herman Jr. did not see Herman for five years.

In the Oro Blanco Mining District, Herman teamed up with Don and Will Picket, Nat Crocomb and Tom Tonkin to develop his silver claim. His mine was in a remote site (in Mexico, actually, but then believed to be Pima County) reached only on horseback and mules. The men lived in a camp, known as Searleton, until the mine was opened, then set up quarters in the tunnel.

Herman met Ella, George and Hermie Searle at the Tucson train station in October, 1881. They had left a comfortable life in New York for an Arizona silver camp. For 10 year-old George, this was a boy’s paradise. Within months, he paired up with Arthur Noon and the two became friends for life. Life in the wild among miners and teamsters left a deep impression on George. When he wrote his memoirs, 40 years later, he recalled events and people with exact details of time and place.

Like all miners, Herman gloried in the potential of his claim. However, crude frontier life might be, it must have felt like the threshold of success. His letters reflected optimism. In newspaper reports, he made buoyant, expansive statements. In December, 1883, miners in the district elected him justice of the peace. He held court in the lean-to room at the back of his adobe house.

But silver prices began to fall in 1884. The pockets of silver near the surface didn’t lead to a mother lode below. There was silver enough to entice investors, but not enough to pay off their loans. The mine was a hole that swallowed Herman’s money, ambition and pride.

Gone. Everything he had worked for. His life’s savings and the money of Philadelphia backers. Herman closed his mine in August, 1885, and took a three week buckboard trip to Cananea, Mexico, to look for work. Down and back, he dodged Apaches that raided in Mexico. He returned, empty-handed. Two weeks later, he and Ella left for Calabasas. They packed their belongings into Herman’s buckboard and a wagon borrowed from Adolphus Noon. He hoped to land a job on the railroad but didn’t. They moved to Nogales in 1887, then to Bisbee a year later where Herman ran the railway express office. Three years later, the Searle family returned to Rochester, New York. All except George, who left in 1895. Arizona mining remained a bitter memory for Herman. He seldom spoke of it. Failure meant shame and both were hard to bear. After his wife died in 1918, he bought a printing company that made money. Herman died in 1928.

Ella Newell was born to a middle class family and grew up in Rochester, New York. Her self-educated, successful father was a man of generous public spirit who made civic betterment his cause–an impulse that Ella inherited. A year after she graduated from Rochester Free Academy, in 1870, she married Herman Searle. For five years, Herman worked hard and built up a picture frame business. Ella kept house, raised their first son, George, and took an active role in the Sunday School movement. She and Herman had reached the threshold of a comfortable, respectable middle-class life. But silver fever hit Herman. He sold out his business, moved her to his parents house and left for Mexico before the birth of his second son. Ella didn’t see her husband for five years.

Reunited with Herman, Ella and her boys reached Oro Blanco by stage coach in October, 1881. They moved into a two-room adobe house with a plank lean-to on the back. A far cry from her father’s house in Rochester, New York! But she had spirit. Before long she and Emma Noon, Genoviva Crocomb, Bee Noon and other women in camp organized a Sunday School for all the children, American and Mexican. Children called her “the boss Jesus lady.” The women of Oro Blanco made the camp a community, a place of such fond memories that children, like George, recalled the tiniest details 40 years later. Working together, the women put on Christmas parties. They put up a community Christmas tree. The women made paper cornucopias for the children and filled them with treats.

Ella took a more realistic view of mines than Herman or the other men. She had her doubts, perhaps. In July, 1883, already three months pregnant, she rode to Herman’s mine. Her only visit. Then, as now, it was a hard, hot ride to the border across low mountains and deep canyons through cactus and ocotillo to the place where Herman and the men worked so hard. For this, the men went to great trouble to entertain her in as much style as they could. Ten days later, Ella boarded a train in Tucson to pay a long visit to family in New York.

Raising children proved difficult. Mining camp temptations lured George outside and away from his mother’s rein. He spent his days among miners and teamsters instead of books. And those wild Noon boys! When Ella bore William in 1884, twelve-year old George ran to Dr. Noon’s ranch to fetch him to deliver the baby. Sadly, Herman Jr. died of typhoid at the age of five. Ella taught school in Oro Blanco in 1884-5 and 1886-87 to support the family when Herman’s mine failed.

Ella and William left Oro Blanco in 1887, following Herman to Bisbee where they all lived in a box car for 10 months until a house could be built. Ella didn’t leave the cramped quarters for seven weeks while she nursed William and then George through scarlet fever.

When the family returned to Rochester in 1894, Ella settled back into Rochester society, re-established old friendships and took an active part in the growing suffrage movement. She lectured women’s groups on frontier life in Arizona, and took a protective interest in the WCTU chapters of Arizona until the end of her life. Ella Searle wrote letters to Emma Noon and other Arizona friends until her death in 1918. In later life, George Searle wrote a memoir of his Oro Blanco experiences. His last letter to Arthur Noon was in 1938, the year before George died. William Searle, born in Oro Blanco in 1884, told the Arizona stories to his sons and grandson. And when they were able, they visited Arizona, and met the descendants of the Noon family. They took a hike over the hills to Searleton and the site of Herman Searle’s mine.


Newell Searle is William Searle’s grandson. Thanks to the Searle family, who wrote memoirs, told stories, and didn’t throw out their old letters, we have a wonderful picture of life in this part of territorial Arizona.

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