Celebrate McDowell’s birth in October

Celebrate McDowell’s birth in October

Story and photos by Joan Fudala

The name “McDowell” is used as much as, or even more than, the name “Scott” in and around Scottsdale. Scott, of course, refers to the city’s 1888-founder/homesteader Winfield Scott and his wife Helen. But who was “McDowell,” and why is that name commemorated as a mountain range, preserve, golf course, resort, major Valley/Scottsdale road, Indian Community, casino and so much more?

He was Major General Irvin McDowell, and this month we honor the 200th anniversary of his birth on October 15, 1818.

Civic War buffs often consider McDowell the Union Army commander who lost the Battle of Bull Run; however, his lifetime of service and contributions to the peaceful settlement of Central Arizona, and ultimately Scottsdale, more than exonerate him.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, young Irvin studied in France during his high school years. His father Abram was a civic leader in Columbus, where a street is named in the family’s honor. McDowell entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at age 16. He graduated in 1838, receiving his commission as a Second Lieutenant along with classmate and future battlefield adversary P.G.T. Beauregard.

McDowell served in a number of junior Army officer positions on the various frontiers of the U.S. He was appointed aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. Wool during the War with Mexico in 1845 and was promoted to captain based on “gallantry and good conduct” during the Battle of Buena Vista, Mexico.

Nearly a century before there was a Pentagon, McDowell was assigned to U.S. Army Headquarters in Washington, D.C. in the late 1840s. He served on the staff of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott (nicknamed “Fuss and Feathers,” this was not the Winfield Scott of whom Scottsdale is named) during the 1850s. When the southern states seceded from the Union in 1861, McDowell was a major on the 75-year-old General Scott’s staff. Through the intervention, or sponsorship, of fellow Ohioan and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, McDowell was appointed a Brigadier General.

After he assumed command of the Army of the Potomac in 1862, politicians rushed General McDowell into battle, leading an army of inexperienced and untrained Union troops. He faced his West Point classmate, P.G.T. Beauregard, now a Confederate Army general, at the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia, and lost. He participated in several other battles, including the second Battle of Bull Run, which the Union Army also lost. Although not passing blame onto any of his subordinates, General McDowell requested an official U.S. Army Court of Inquiry regarding his actions and leadership; he was exonerated. His days of combat command, however, were over. He spent the rest of the Civil War in senior administrative positions, including Commanding General of the Department of the Pacific, based in San Francisco.

McDowell, who had married Helen Burden of New York City in 1849, was a cultured and convivial host, and became a popular government and civic figure in the Bay area. When the Civil War ended in 1865, there was great interest among veterans and others to move West, particularly to the Arizona Territory. McDowell ensured that Army posts were established to protect new settlements from warring Apaches. One new post, situated at the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers in a remote area of the Central Arizona Territory, was named Camp McDowell for its commanding general.

Major General McDowell conducted an inspection tour of Army posts in the Arizona Territory in February 1866. He was dismayed to find that troops at Camp McDowell were spending as much time growing crops to feed themselves and their horses as they were on regular soldier duties. He encouraged some enterprising Civil War veterans in the area to start a hay camp that could supply the Army post with necessary rations. That “hay camp” became the settlement of Phoenix. One can imagine the route between the hay camp and Camp McDowell took the troops and the suppliers over or around the McDowell Mountains (yes, named for the camp/fort, and thus the general) through what is now Scottsdale.

During his visit to the Arizona Territory, General McDowell befriended the Chief of the Maricopas, Juan Chivaria. He appointed the chief a captain in the U.S. Army and hosted him in San Francisco.

During his last few years as Commander of the Military Division of the Pacific, he and Helen lived at The Presidio. McDowell, who was fond of gardening and landscape architecture, ensured the grounds of The Presidio were beautified, taking advantage of the sweeping view of the Golden Gate (long before the bridge was built, of course). After he retired from the U.S. Army in 1882, he was appointed a Parks Commissioner for the City of San Francisco, and he and Helen continued to be popular on the social scene (and he was known as a teetotaler, but gourmet eater). Irvin McDowell died at age 66 in San Francisco, and is buried in the San Francisco Cemetery at The Presidio.

  • Although his headstone is quite modest for a military and civic leader of his stature, his legacy lives on in major ways, both here in Scottsdale and metro Phoenix as well as in San Francisco:
  • Camp McDowell (enlarged and renamed Fort McDowell) ceased operations as a U.S. Army post in 1890, when peaceful relations with the warring Apaches were maintained. The former post was designated the Fort McDowell Indian Community, which is a great neighbor to Scottsdale today. Fort McDowell has a resort, casino and golf course that are popular with residents and tourists alike.
  • The McDowell Mountains, Scottsdale’s signature natural landmark, reflect the general’s name, along with McDowell Mountain Regional Park, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, just to name a few namesakes… and Scottsdale Marriott at McDowell Mountain, McDowell Mountain Ranch and McDowell Mountain Golf Club.
  • McDowell Road, which takes drivers from east of Scottsdale all the way to the far west Valley
  • There’s also the McDowell Mountain Music Festival, McDowell Village and Mount McDowell (usually referred to as Red Mountain).
  • In San Francisco, there’s also a McDowell Road, which leads between the Ghiradelli Square area to Fort Mason; there was a Fort McDowell that served as an Army post during World War II, and a McDowell Hall at Fort Mason.
  • General and Mrs. McDowell were such close friends of U.S. President James Garfield that the Garfields named a son Irvin McDowell Garfield.
  • Coincidentally, there were many similarities between Irvin McDowell and Scottsdale founder Winfield Scott, although “our” Scott was 20 years younger. They both served in combat in the Civil War. They were both married to Helens. They were both non-drinkers. They were both assigned to Angel Island in the San Francisco area; however, history has not recorded whether they ever met. Most importantly, they both seemed to love the Arizona Territory and made lasting contributions to its future development.

Happy 200th Birthday, General McDowell!