The PastFinders: Saving the History of the McDowells

When we preserve a mountain range, we preserve so much more than the mountains themselves.

We preserve the landscape for the outdoor enjoyment of hikers, cyclists, equestrians and other seekers of the Sonoran experience. For those less inclined to travel the desert, we preserve the viewscape – the montane panorama which defines Scottsdale. Also preserved are the biotic communities for those who enjoy desert flora, fauna and learning more about them. The geological features, while seemingly durable through the ages, retain their integrity, unspoiled by human development.

Also preserved are the little things: artifacts humans have left behind over the centuries. These cultural remnants tantalize our imaginations and pique our curiosity: broken pieces of ancient pottery strewn across the ground, mine tailings in the Gateway area, abandoned structures at Brown’s Ranch, bedrock mortars at Cathedral Rock. Who left them? When? Why?

As the preservation of the McDowells proceeded, it became obvious that the citizens of Scottsdale and the preservationists of the Conservancy were developing not just a preserve, but a laboratory for urban/exurban ecological research. The Parsons McDowell Sonoran Field Institute seized upon this reality and has developed an extensive program of research, analysis and public education in partnership with state and local agencies as well as educational institutions.

Less obvious was the realization that the preservation initiative also protected the cultural evidence deposited throughout the range. For a few Stewards who are students of history and related humanities, this cultural preservation provided an opportunity.

Who Are the PastFinders?

Stewards initiated the PastFinder program in June 2010. Its mission:

“To work with our partner, the City of Scottsdale, to generate enthusiasm for the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and the Conservancy by informing the general public about the history and activities of the people who have been associated with the preserve from ancient to present times.”

The PastFinders collect, preserve, interpret and disseminate historical information about the McDowells.

PastFinder participation, from the program’s inception, was intended to be inclusive: open to all Stewards and the public.  Anyone with an interest in history and a desire to acquire and share historical information with others is invited to join the PastFinders.

The program began with monthly speakers addressing subjects related to local and Arizona history. As the speakers’ program gained a following, the venue was moved from the Conservancy office to various local libraries, eventually settling as an ongoing presence at the Mustang Library.

Concomitant with the expansion of the speaker series, PastFinder Stewards began researching topics of individual interest. They began the first comprehensive study of mining in the McDowell Mountains, eventually developing a monograph and presentation on the subject. PastFinder Stewards also developed monographs and presentations regarding Archaic and Hohokam cultures, ranching, the local military presence and the history of various women who lived in or near the McDowells. Much of this research material is now incorporated in the four-part Human McDowells video presentation available for Steward education and as part of several themed hikes offered to the public.

The Importance of Partnerships & Outreach

As the program expanded, it began to form partnerships. PastFinder Stewards have been invited to present at the Arizona Historical Society, the Joint Arizona New Mexico Historical Conference, the Scottsdale Historical Society, McDowell Mountain Regional Park, the Civil War Roundtable, Daughters of the American Revolution functions and various official City of Scottsdale events. PastFinders have served on the Scottsdale Historic Preservation Commission, the Scottsdale Preserve Commission and the Board of Directors of the Arizona Historical Society, a state agency.

These partnerships have resulted in joint events celebrating local history. In 2009, PastFinders helped mark the birthday of General Irvin Mc Dowell, the namesake of the mountains, at the Scottsdale mayor’s breakfast. The event was popular enough to be repeated the following year. The 140th anniversary of the Stoneman Military Road, which ran through the Preserve, was celebrated in 2010 with a public hike along traces of the road in McDowell Mountain Regional Park, which included Scottsdale’s mayor and the District 8 state legislative representative. The Arizona Republic and other local media covered the event.

In 2015, in partnership with the Parsons Field Institute, Logan Simpson Design (an archeological services firm),  representatives of the Arizona Geological Survey and the City of Scottsdale, the PastFinders performed an aerial mapping (balloon) and field survey of the structures at the Brown’s Ranch homestead. The resulting report was presented to the city’s preserve staff and is available to the Arizona archaeological community for reference.

In 2018, the PastFinders organized an event in partnership with the City of Scottsdale and the Commemorative Airforce to memorialize the 75thanniversary of a WW2 training accident over the Lost Dog area that resulted in the loss of two lives: a British cadet and American instructor. The event included a WW2 training aircraft flyover.

Each of these events placed the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy in the public eye as an essential aspect of our community identity.

How Are We Preparing the Future for the Past?

History provides us with lessons and explanations, but it must be collected, preserved, interpreted and disseminated. Here’s what PastFinders are doing today:

  • Collection: PastFinders continue to perform research on a variety of subjects, ranging from the history of Brown’s Ranch to the relationship between the Hohokam presence in the McDowells and nearby major prehistoric riverine settlements.
  • Preservation: In partnership with the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), eight PastFinder stewards have been trained and certified as State Historic Site Stewards. These Stewards are partnering with SHPO and the city’s preserve staff to identify and monitor sensitive cultural sites within the Preserve. The work will consist of periodic hikes to locations to photograph and document the status of various historic and prehistoric cultural sites.
  • Interpretation: PastFinder Stewards have contributed information used in interpretive signage at several trailheads. They are currently developing a proposal for an interpretive trail at the site of the Brown’s Ranch homestead and corrals.
  • Dissemination: PastFinders continue to staff an archaeology booth at various educational events, such as the Expedition Days. They continue to develop presentations and themed hikes. They also support the Conservancy’s educational videos by providing content and, on occasion, video commentary. And despite the pandemic, the speakers’ program has continued via Zoom.

How Can I Help?

You don’t have to be a historian to be a PastFinder. All you need is an interest in history and an enthusiastic desire to help preserve and share it with others. Here are some areas where we welcome additional help:

  • State Site Stewards: If you like to photograph and document historic sites and possess the integrity not to disturb cultural artifacts, consider becoming a State Site Steward. The state training is straightforward and you will learn much about the archaeology of Arizona and the McDowells.
  • Expedition Days: If you like children and enjoy digging in the dirt for potsherds, this is the gig for you. The PastFinder booth teaches youngsters about archaeology and offers them the opportunity to dig for artifacts in sand-filled tubs. For Expedition Days and other public events, we welcome those with a knack for dealing with future archaeologists.
  • Hikes: Do you like to hike and share historical information with others? Our experienced Stewards will provide the education, storyboards and field training to prepare you to assist with and eventually lead themed historical hikes. Want to develop a themed hike of your own? We can help you do that, too.
  • Research: We conduct everything from field studies and photo interpretation to online research and interviews. If you enjoy these activities, you’ll be right at home as a PastFinder.

Learn more about our Stewardship opportunities.