Neil Erickson

Black and white standing portrait of young man in military uniform holding a sword.
Neil joined the US Army in 1881 and served during the Apache Wars.


Early Life

Nels Erickson (later Neil) was from a Swedish farming family, and when he was twelve, his father, who had moved to the United States for work, was killed while working on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Nels was the oldest of many children, so he felt responsible to provide for his family. In 1879 he stowed away on a ship that sailed to the United States and first worked with his uncle, who was an earlier immigrant, before working at a sugar factory in Massachusetts. By 1881 Nels was ready for a career change and enlisted in the US Army. His first post was at Camp Ojo Caliente in New Mexico Territory, where the Army was fighting the Apache. He later was stationed at Fort Craig, New Mexico Territory where he met his future wife, Emma Peterson.

Life with Emma

After Neil and Emma married, they moved to their cabin in Bonita Canyon in 1888, with their five month old daughter, Lillian. Neil had a difficult time finding regular work in the surrounding communities, so he moved to Bisbee, Arizona where he built houses and later worked at the Queen Mine in the smelter. Neil primarily lived in Bisbee, and even built Emma a house there. She visited a few times, but always got sick, so she took that as a sign she should live in Bonita Canyon. Neil visited his family as often as he could, and in 1891 he and Emma had a son, Lewis Benton Erickson (Ben) and in 1895, they had their youngest daughter, Helen Hildegard. Both Ben and Hildegard were born in the log cabin. In 1893, Neil became a United States citizen.

By 1899 Neil and Emma had saved enough money to make improvements to the little cabin. Neil still could not enjoy his home, since he had to live and work in Bisbee. That situation finally changed when President Theodore Roosevelt established the Chiricahua Forest Reserve (the precursor to the US Forest Service) and Neil became one of the first forest rangers for the new reserve. Neil worked for the USFS for 24 years, until he retired.
Black and white photo of a man with a mustache and hat standing by a sign about Walnut Canyon.
Neil revisited Walnut Canyon National Monument, after he and Emma spent years working there.


Caring for the Land

As the main Chiricahua Forest Ranger, Neil worked on building trails, weekend cabins, repairing fences and corrals, as well as issuing logging and grazing permits to his neighbors and fellow ranchers. Neil was also finally able to live at home, although his job sometimes required him to be away for weeks at a time, on patrol. His favorite patrol horse was named Old Tom. According to his daughter Hildegard, when Old Tom had to be put down, Neil couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger and had one of his neighbors do it for him.

While Neil’s original homestead was 160 acres, he was able to expand his land through the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 and acquire 240 more acres for grazing cattle, and planted crops on eight acres of his original homestead. Despite not always being at the family ranch, Neil still found time to enlarge the ranch house and add a few outbuildings.

Neil’s long career with the Forest Service was not always smooth, and some people complained about his personality and “fault-finding,” although almost no one criticized his work. In 1917, probably due to some reorganization in the USFS, Neil was moved to Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, across Sulphur Springs Valley. He was a forest ranger there for seven years. As a skilled carpenter, Neil built houses and lookout towers for the Forest Service. At the end of his career, Neil and Emma moved to to Walnut Canyon, near Flagstaff, which was originally managed by the USFS before becoming a National Park Service site.
Family portrait of seated man and woman, and a woman, man, and another woman standing behind them.
The Ericksons always felt connected to their land in Bonita Canyon. Seated: Emma and Neil. Standing, left to right: Lillian, Ben, and Hildegard.


Retired Life

In December 1927, Neil retired from the Forest Service, as Assistant Forest Ranger of Coconino National Forest. In 1932, the National Board on Geographic Names agreed to name a peak the Chiricahua Mountains for Neil (Erickson Peak). After Neil retired, he and Emma moved to California, but Neil’s asmtha grew worse. For a short time, they moved back to Arizona, and then returned to California (near where Hildegard and her family lived), until they returned again to Faraway Ranch in 1934.

Neil built a “den” with an attached garage where he could have some alone time, or time with other men, and he would occasionally have an alcoholic drink, which neither Emma nor Lillian condoned. While enjoying retirement at Faraway Ranch, Neil still participated in daily life. A guest wrote to him, “with raising and lowering the flag each day at sunrise and sundown … fitting doors, going after chickens and wood, riding horses, and a dozen and one other things I am sure you have no use for Indian clubs [club-shaped implements used in gymnastic exercise].”

Ten months after celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary with Emma, Neil passed away in a hospital in Lordsburg, New Mexico on October 18, 1937. Neil was 78. He is buried in the family cemetery at the mouth of Bonita Canyon.
Black and white photo of man on horse in front of rock pinnacles.
Neil often patrolled and explored the Chiricahua Mountains by horseback.



From Emma: “All who knew Neil Erickson knew that he was one of the most honorable, upright and honest men, and always did help those who were in need.”

From Charles McGlone (1907): “I have naught to say against Ranger Erickson’s work. I regard him as a good efficient officer in many lines of duty."

From Lillian: “There are two things that I wish to be remembered and emphasized … about my father, Neil Erickson. He loved his adopted Country and served Her well, five years with the US Cavalry, twenty-five years with the US Forest Service. He came to Arizona as a young man to fight Indians to avenge the death of his father who years before had been killed by Indians. At the end of his Army Service no one was a greater friend to the Indians than my father. He said: ‘The Indians were only fighting for their country and that if anyone ever tries to take it away from me now, I will fight for it, too.’”

Last updated: February 7, 2019

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