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About George Hand

Music featured in George Hand diary segments: “Westwood” by Hey Bucko!

George Hand was born in 1830 to a respectable family in Oneida County, New York.Though comfortable and relatively well educated, he was nonetheless restless and at the age of 18, he went west with the news of the discovery of gold in California to join thousands of other argonauts. However, he did not find his fortune, and only made a meager living in the gold fields.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, California sided, somewhat tenuously, with the Union. Perhaps needing steady work, Hand signed on with a recruiter at the mining camp of Nevada City in August, enlisting with the 1st California Infantry. Hand’s Union sentiments seem to have largely been a product of his Yankee roots and a patriotic streak rather than any particular feelings on the issue of slavery, as he seemed largely indifferent in that regard. Because he was older than the other recruits and was quite literate, Hand entered the service as a sergeant. It was with his mustering-in, Hand began the diary that he would continue on and off for the next quarter century and which would become his legacy.

Hand’s regiment would become part of the California Column, an ad-hoc brigade which included cavalry, infantry and artillery which ultimately numbered some 2300 men. They marched east to the Río Grande with a mission to drive out the Confederate forces and occupy the southwestern territories for the Union. However, the rebel army had already collapsed and fled for Texas with news of the Californian’s arrival, and Hand would see no fighting.

Hand’s three-year enlistment ended in 1864, and he was discharged at Fort Craig, New Mexico. For the next few years, Hand worked various civilian jobs at Fort Bowie and Tucson, until 1869, when he became a partner in a saloon with fellow veteran George Foster. In addition to helping run the saloon, Hand was active in civic affairs as a member of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Society of Arizona Pioneers. Like many men on the frontier, he indulged in more than his share of vices, something he was quite candid about in his diary, but he also maintained subscriptions to a number of newspapers and magazines. His affection for dogs was noteworthy and he was occasionally called upon for his services as an amateur veterinarian.

The saloon partnership ended in 1881, and Hand briefly relocated to Contention City, a stage station on the Río San Pedro that served the road to the boom town of Tombstone. Hand soon returned to Tucson, by which time he was well into his fifties and quite dissipated. While not entirely destitute, he was quite dependent on the generosity of friends. In 1882, the Pima County Board of Supervisors gave him a position as night watchman of the newly constructed courthouse for a salary of $100 a month. He held this job until early 1887, when he fell ill. He died at the home of his old partner George Foster in May.

Hand’s papers, including his diaries, were donated to the Society of Arizona Pioneers (precursor to the Arizona Historical Society) shortly after his death. The diaries became known to generations of Tucsonans because excerpts, sometimes heavily edited, appeared in the Arizona Daily Star from 1927 to 1972. In the 1990s, historian Neil Carmony, a Tucson native who grew up reading the excerpts in the Star, went back to the original documents to compile and annotate three volumes of Hand’s diaries: Whiskey, Six-Guns and Red-Light Ladies: George Hand’s Saloon Diary, Tucson, 1875-1878 (High Lonesome Books, 1994), Next Stop: Tombstone; George Hand’s Contention City Diary, 1882 (Trail to Yesterday Books, 1995) and Civil War in Apacheland: Sergeant George Hand’s Diary, 1861-1864 (High Lonesome Books, 1996). More recently, another local historian, Paul Lawton, completed the series with Gavels and Guns: George Hands Diary 1882 to 1887-The Court House Years (BookBaby, 2016).

Written by Tom Prezelski.