BRIEF ACCOUNT OF ALEXANDER WILKINS
Published in The National Herald, October 31 - November 6, 2015 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
TNH Staff Writer
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CHICAGO - Most of what we know about the life of Alexander Wilkins is an uneven mix of family recollections and scattered documents. Yet these memories and documents are the very touchstones of family kinship for numerous individuals who over several generations trace their common ancestry back to the person now referred to among them as, "Alex the Greek." Valuable as public documents on the life and experiences of Alexander Wilkins may be these paper pages simply cannot offer the same sense of this man as do the stories his descendants tell each other, and share with others, to this very day.
Beyond the bounds of family tales, Alexander Wilkins is of special interest to Greek American Studies since he was a veteran of the American Civil War. This generation of Greek-American war veterans have been for all intents and purposes completely absent from the pages of Greek-American history.
Yet, it is an undeniable fundamental of Greek-American history that Greek veterans of the American Civil War, confederates as well as those who fought with union forces, were later leading figures in the establishment of Eastern Orthodox churches in New Orleans and Chicago. Just as George Dilboy (1896-1918), Greek immigrant and recipient of the Medal of Honor, was used by later Greek immigrants to argue for a position of exceptionalism from the social constraints imposed upon them by the Anglo establishment so too did the earlier generation of the Greek veterans of America's Civil War come forward to publicly argue on behalf of their religion.
As family recollections have it Wilkins was born in 1827 on the Greek island of Tinos. All other information on his family and early life are, for the moment, unknown. Documents report that Wilkins listed himself as a "seaman." Family memory has it Wilkins jumped ship (perhaps around 17 years of age) and came to live in Massachusetts long before the onset of the American Civil War. Given that Wilkins did not enter the country legally, no documentation of the kind one would expect to find exists. As family memory has it Wilkins was forced to change his name from (perhaps) Alexander Alexandropoulos to Alexander Wilkins. Of all the mysteries surrounding Wilkins' life descendants would one day hope that this man's real last name will become known.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Wilkins volunteered and served in the Union force's Company B of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. The Artillery was originally organized as the 14th Mass. Infantry on July 5, 1861, and was redesignated as a heavy artillery until on Jan 1, 1862. The unit performed garrison duty in the Washington D.C. area and saw action at the Battles of Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Appomattox Court House. It was mustered out of service on August 25, 1865 at Gallop's Island in Boston Harbor. Outside of these bare facts we know nothing of Wilkins service record, other than he was court marshaled.
As one of Wilkin's descendants related this episode in Wilkins life: "Our records indicate that he served well, until (some) three weeks before the Civil War ended, when he was court marshaled and sentenced to three months hard labor for, essentially, sassing a superior officer .... After Wilkins was court marshaled; his sentence was commuted entirely, due to bis previous good character." Wilkins' quick temperament, in one form or another, saw expression over the course of the rest of his life.
No documents or family recollections report on how, when and why Alexander Wilkins settled in Tucson. All we do know is that by at least 1869, Alexander Wilkins moved to Tucson, then little more than a wild and wooly frontier town. Dating Wilkins' arrival is important since Tucson and all of what is now Arizona were originally part of New Mexico Territory until 1863, when they became the new Arizona Territory. From 1867 to 1877, Tucson was the capital of the Arizona Territory. Southern Arizona was legally bought from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase on June 8, 1854. Tucson was incorporated in 1877, making it the oldest incorporated city in Arizona. Noting these dates is not some abstract exercise, since Wilkins died before 1912, when Arizona became a state.
Wilkins became a barber who frequently advertised in Tucson's newspapers. We can chart Wilkins barbershop's movement and something of his services by these advertisements. In the July 3, 1869 edition of the Weekly Arizonian, Wilkins' advertisement places his barbershop in Hodges Street. Shaving, hair cutting and shampooing all for 25 cents apiece are offered with a monthly rate of $3 for all three services. Fourteen years later in the April 28, 1883 edition of the Arizona Weekly Citizen, Wilkins' advertisement places his shop at 216 McCormick Street. At this time Wilkins has expanded his services to include medicated baths which his advertisement offers is "the cure of rheumatism or bad colds." Far from mere details these advertisements report upon the circumstances of life on the frontier where water and so so bathing were simply not possible in every home or hotel. Yet even before this last advertisement in the August 26, 1876 edition of the Citizen on page one Wilkins claims (and no one challenges his claim) that the "Wilkins Barber Saloon" is "the only Complete and Oldest Establishment in the City."
Family tales convey that during these years Wilkins also owned the Union Restaurant, which was managed by his wife, Francisca, and three of their daughters. At some point family memories contend that Wilkins also owned (and/or had a share(s) in) local silver mines.
Fortunately for local Tusconans, as well as students of history, George O. Hand (1830-1887) settled in their midst. "In 1874, George Hand, opened a saloon at the corner of Meyer Avenue and Mesilla Street. This saloon remained in operation for a number of years, during which Hand kept a diary recounting the diurnal life of frontier Tucson. Hand's diary provides a rare and truthful glimpse -- unfetter by legend and myth -- into the soul of a western town." Hand's diary entries for the years 1875 to 1878 were eventually edited and published under the title: Whisky Six-guns & Red-light Ladies. Five fragments on Alex Wilkins are found in this volume. Like lightening in the night sky these glimmers into Wilkins; life offer us added insight into his daily activities and nature.
In Hand's diary we find that on May 3, 1875, "There was a housewarming at Greek Alex's this evening. [Alexander Wilkins, "Greek Alex," had opened a new barbershop.]" Next on September 10, 1875, "Alex Wilkins, the barber, shot at John Wood. Wood knocked him down, took the pistol from him, and kicked him very bad. The marshal took the barber home. Alex told Dr. Handy he would kill Wood on sight." Then this curious entry on February 28, 1876 (which I take to be the fight in the barber shop) where Hand reports, "I went to court, Case of the Territory vs. Alex Wilkins. 30 jurors were excused -- lacked 4 for a jury. Court was adjourned while the sheriff found more jurors. He found 7, but only 3 were accepted. Finally he found another one and the case went on. All the jurors were excused until 10 am tomorrow. The case went to the jury after dark. They soon settled it by bringing a verdict of guilty of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to do bodily harm." Then, on March 7th we read: "Judge French gave the following sentences this morning -- Alex Wilkins, $500 fine." Whatever else might have been occurring in Wilkins' life by May 27, 1878, Hand notes, "there was a dance this evening at Alex Wilkins' house."
At some point Wilkins married a Yaqui Native American named Francisca Sinoqua. The couple was reported to have had 11 children but only 4 survived to adulthood. Such was life on the frontier. In the August 14, 1875 edition of the Arizona Citizen newspaper we find this curt announcement, "Died. In Tucson at 1 o'clock a.m. August 9, 1875, Thos. Wilkins aged 11 months and 22 days, infant son of Mr. & Mrs. Alexander Wilkins." Wilkins and family resided on Alley Street in Tucson across from the railroad tracks near the city cemetery.
Wilkens lived in interesting times. He walked the streets of Tucson as a long-time resident when Wyatt Earp (1848-1929) first came to town. Wilkins was undoubtedly working in his shop in later October 1881. This was the time of "The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral ... a 30-second gunfight between outlaw cowboys and lawmen that is generally regarded as the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West. The gunfight took place at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. It was the result of a long-simmering feud between cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and opposing lawmen: town Marshal Virgil Earp, Assistant Town Marshal Morgan Ear, and temporary deputy marshals Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday." You see Wyatt Earp trailed Frank Stilwell and Ike Clanton to Tucson later that same year in response to Morgan Earp's killing and Virgil Earp being maimed by the cowboys. On March 20, 1882, Wyatt Earp shot and killed Stilwell in Tucson. Undoubtedly these events must have been the topic of innumerable conversations in Wilkins' barbershop for quite a time.
Alexander Wilkins died in his home on February 27, 1905 of what public records simply call "old age." Wilkins' tombstone is in Tucson's Hope Cemetery in Pima County. Today his descendants recall, celebrate and seek to learn more about his life via email@example.com.
Wilkins helped to build and settle the American West. Clearly, this man deserves more attention in the annals of Greek-American Studies.