A Greek priest in Arizona in the 17th century (??)

While looking for something else, I happened upon an incredible anecdote in a book called Arizona: A State Guide, by Thomas J. Tormey (Hastings House, 1940). From page 389:

TACNA, 79.6 m. (340 alt., 7 pop.), began as a stage station called Antelope Hill. In the seventeenth century, a Greek priest named Tachnapolis came to this region from California and spent his last days with the Indians, who called him Tacna, the name later given to the station.

Think about that — the 17th century! That’s a century before the Russians discovered Alaska, and two centuries before Lewis and Clark made their trek to the Pacific Ocean. It is literally inconceivable that a Greek priest could have been in California in the 17th century. Or the 18th, for that matter. The first Greek priest in America, as far as I am aware, was Fr. Stephen Andreades in New Orleans in about 1867. The first Greek priest in California was probably Fr. Kallinikos Kanellas in the early 1890s. And the first Orthodox priest of any kind to visit Arizona seems to have been Fr. Sebastian Dabovich, also in the 1890s.

Obviously, this called for an investigation. An Internet search immediately turned up a more recent book, American Trails Revisited: Following in the Footsteps of the Western Pioneers by Lyn Wilkerson (2003). This publication simply repeats the above reference verbatim. Even more recently, the 2010 book Desert Duty: On the Line with the U.S. Border Patrol mentions Tacna as the former site of a Border Patrol station:

At times the Border Patrol station has been located in the small farming town of Tacna. The owner of a roadside gas station and soda stand on the highway from Yuma to Phoenix or Tucson contrived to call it Tachnopolis, after an imaginary Greek priest, but the actual town never was very big and the signpost has moved several times.

Obviously, the authors of Desert Duty didn’t buy into the Greek priest story, and neither do I. The website triptrivia.com seems to settle the matter:

Tacna started off as Antelope Hill, a stage station. With the coming of the railroad, and a post office, the name Tacna was given to it, but it did not last. In the early 1920s Max B. Noah had arrived from Texas and set up business under a tree, with a barrel of gasoline and a hand pump.

Noah was noted for his tall stories, and it was apparently he who started a story about the Greek priest named Tachnapolis who had come from California to Arizona in the seventeenth century, and spent his last days with the Indians, who shortened his name to Tachna, or Tacna. H had picked up the name from the old railroad siding, and used the name when he applied for the post office. When Noah’s little community began to fade, the Tacna post office was moved four miles further east and given the name Ralph’s Mill-Tacna, the Ralph being for Joe Ralph, who ran a small cafe for travelers. The origin of the name Tacna remains a mystery.

Triptrivia.com doesn’t give any clue as to where they got their information, but the Yuma Sun (3/3/2007) confirms the role of Noah in naming Tacna: “There are differing stories about the origin of the name Tacna, but it likely was adopted from an old railroad siding sign by Max B. Noah, who arrived in the early 1920s and set up business under a tree with a barrel of gasoline and a hand pump. Where the railroad came up with the name is unclear.” According to the Sun, the railroad had succeeded the above-mentioned Antelope Peak Stage Station on the Butterfield Overland Trail. All of which date to no earlier than the 1850s.

It all certainly sounds pretty straightforward. The railroad adopted some long-forgotten name, “Tacna,” which perhaps came from a local tribal language (although Fr. Oliver Herbel humorously notes that “tacna” is a reasonable transliteration of the Serbian word for “saucer” — that is, a dish for a teacup). Decades later, along came Max Noah, a big-talking Texan, who used the old railroad’s sign and fabricated an outlandish story about a Greek priest. Noah was pretty well-traveled — he’s described as a Texan, but he was born in Colorado and was living in Virginia in the 1920 Census — and it’s likely that he ran into some Greeks in the course of his travels. The whole story, then, appears to be a clever hoax, born of the creative mind of Max B. Noah.

[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]