James A. Williams Claiming the Desert

James A. Williams’ new book takes a historical look at the history of Oro Valley.

Want to know what early life in Oro Valley was like? Jim Williams’ new book, “Claiming the Desert: Settlers, Homesteaders, and Ranchers in Oro Valley, Arizona 1865-1965,” paints a detailed picture of the desolate area and the first people who chose to settle down there. 

Forget the movie sets, this is a real look into a true “Wild Wild West” town, and Williams begins with the settlers who built it from scratch. He explains the settlers’ reasons for choosing the Oro Valley area as their home, the challenges they endured on a daily basis and how these early contributions formulated and influenced the modern Oro Valley community. 

The book describes what homesteading was like in the desert, and even includes profiles of some of the most prominent early homesteaders in what Williams calls the “Unforgettable Characters” section. He lays out detailed research into the lives of women and Hispanic settlers, the legality and illegality of the settlers’ claims to the land and the schools and roads they built. 

Interested in the history of the greater Tucson area or Arizona in general? Then there’s a lot to learn in this book. Among many other influences for his research and writing of this book, Williams says it can help people appreciate everything we have today. 

Tucson Local Media sat down with Williams to discuss his book and what inspired him to write it. Claiming the Desert: Settlers, Homesteaders, and Ranchers in Oro Valley, Arizona 1865-1965 can be purchased via Amazon.


What was the most fascinating aspect about Oro Valley that you learned in the process of researching and/or writing this book?

The difficult conditions that early settlers faced were most interesting to me.  Even as late as the 1940s, settlers in Oro Valley had to build their own adobe homes, dig wells by hand and read by kerosene lamps.  The environment was harsh and life was isolated.  Making a living was very challenging.  Before research, I did not realize how hard life was in early Oro Valley.

My book provides a picture of life in the Oro Valley area long before  post-World War II suburbia and the way it is today. It can make us appreciate what we have today. 


What made you want to research, learn and write about Oro Valley? With your background in national history, why choose Oro Valley over any other place in the country?

I moved to Oro Valley 12 years ago from southeastern Pennsylvania.  I had researched and published articles and books on local history in Pennsylvania.  When I retired, I decided to make a hobby of local history in my new area.  I have always been fascinated with previous time periods and determining how people actually lived in those eras.


Was there a specific event or experience in your life that caused you to become fascinated by history? 

I was inspired to study history in college and teach the subject for 35 years by my seventh grade World History teacher, Grace Etters.  She was a dynamic instructor who made the Greeks, Romans and other ancient cultures come alive. I wanted to emulate her teaching style, enthusiasm and knowledge.  


Did you have plans to write this book prior to moving to Oro Valley? 

I had no plans to write this book when I moved to Oro Valley.  My wife and I chose Oro Valley for retirement because of its natural beauty, the climate and the slower pace of life here.  I decided to write this book after six years as a member of the Board of the Oro Valley Historical Society.  I saw the need for a general history of the area prior to Oro Valley’s founding as a municipality (1974).


Did you make any trips to Oro Valley during your career? If so, did those trips have an influence on your fascination with the area?

My wife and I made several trips to Oro Valley prior to moving here. On one trip, we drove from Philadelphia to Yellowstone, then south to the Grand Canyon and Tucson and then through New Mexico and back to the East Coast.  We did this in the summer and felt that the Arizona heat was bearable.  


What other areas in the country or in Arizona are you especially interested in? 

We hike in the National Parks and Monuments in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico and enjoy those areas. I am interested in the lives of homesteaders throughout the Tucson area as a future research topic.


Daniel Young-Miller is a University of Arizona student and Tucson Local Media intern.

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