Anglo-American Trails through Southeast Arizona

Title page, Notes of a Military Reconnoissance, 1848Though a smattering of mountain men and trappers had ventured into what is now southeast Arizona early in the nineteenth century, the Gila River pretty much marked the southern boundary of the fur trade. The Mexican government did not welcome foreign traders and the Apache Indians were a further deterrent to visitors. The first significant American exploration of the region that later became southeast Arizona was a result of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), which added Texas and California to the United States.

During the Mexican-American War troops and supplies needed to be sent to California from Fort Leavenworth via New Mexico and Arizona. Lieutenant Colonel William Emory accompanied these forces and led a topographical unit which charted and explored the territory from Fort Leavenworth to California. This expedition produced the first reliable map of the Gila River Trail. After the war Emory's findings were presented to Congress as Notes of a military reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California, including Part of the Arkansas, del Norte and Gila Rivers.*

Meanwhile, General Stephen Kearny ordered Captain Philip St. George Cooke, (pictured left) to supervise the safe passage of heavy wagons full of supplies and military materiel along the mule trail. When Cooke and his battalion came to the Burro Mountains, they found that the going on the Gila trail became too rough to be practical for wagons. So Cooke veered south and entered present-day Arizona through the Guadalupe Pass. He then went west until he reached the San Pedro River.

Cooke's men were the five-hundred-man battalion of Mormon volunteers, making their way westward from Nauvoo, Illinois, to their eventual settlement in Utah. This battalion forged a wagon trail along the San Pedro until about the site of Benson and then struck westward for Tucson and thence on to the Gila River and the Maricopa villages where they rejoined the Emory route. All these troops were headed for California. None of them remained in Arizona.

When the war ended in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo recognized the annexation of Texas by the U.S. and ceded a large tract of land including the present states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. In return the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million and assumed $3 million of claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico. A U.S. / Mexican Boundary Commission was established under John Russell Bartlett on the American side and General Pedro Garcia Conde on the Mexican. The results of their work were disputed because of a flaw in the Disturnell map of 1847 which showed El Paso some 42 miles north of its actual location. Bartlett recorded his work with the Boundary Commission in his 2-volume publication, Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua 1850-1853. W. H. Emory, who disagreed with Bartlett's results, went over the same ground again shortlyward, but his definitive work was done later, after the signing of the Gadsden Purchase made another survey necessary.

In 1849, when gold was found in California, good transportation from the east to the west coast became imperative. There was a rush to develop both wagon routes and railroads, but according to the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Gila River was southern boundary of the U.S. territory in present day Arizona. At this point the rivalry between the North and the South, which would eventually lead to civil war, was already playing a major role in legislative decisions. Southerners were strongly lobbying for the transcontinental railroad route to pass through the South.

Congress called for a survey of the possible routes for a transcontinental railroad in 1853. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, later president of the Confederate States of America, was then Secretary of War. He dispatched four teams of explorers to survey routes in the north at the 49th parallel, near the Canadian border; in the south at the 32nd parallel, near the Mexican border; and two routes in between. (They did not explore the 42nd parallel where the first transcontinental railroad was eventually built.) As a Southerner, Davis favored the 32nd parallel route, from New Orleans through southern Texas, across the southern parts of the New Mexico Territory and on to San Diego. This route would cross the fewest mountains and encounter the least snow. It would also traverse some of the most inhospitable desert on the continent, but of course they didn't know that in Washington.

The surveyors of the Gila Trail felt that the valley of the Gila River would be impassable by a railroad and that tracks would have to be laid even further south. Thoughts then turned to the wagon trail blazed by Cooke and the Mormon Battalion. That route, fifty to a hundred miles south of the Gila River, presented fewer obstacles to a railroad, but the territory was still in Mexican hands.

The Gadsden Purchase
President Franklin Pierce surmised correctly that General Santa Anna, once again president of Mexico, would be interested in raising some money for his country's depleted treasury. So Pierce sent James Gadsden to Mexico City with a shopping list of proposals for buying from Mexico some land to the south of the recent treaty boundaries. Each package presented a different piece of land at a different price tag. The bid on the largest parcel, which would have included all of Baja California, was $50 million for 120,000 square miles.

The plan eventually settled on was much more modest, since Mexico wanted to retain Baja as well as a land bridge between it and Mexico proper. After much bargaining a boundary was settled which added 27,305 square miles to Arizona and 2335 square miles to New Mexico and established the southwestern boundary of Arizona at Yuma, where it remains today. The price paid was $10 million. The Senate ratified the treaty on June 24, 1854.

Map showing Gadsden Purchase area, LOC map collection

This treaty brought United States control to an area which included what was to become Cochise County, although at this point it was still part of the large area known as the New Mexico Territory. The map above shows the Gadsden Purchase area. **See note at the bottom of this page on how to find this map and others on the Library of Congress American Memory web site.

Soon after the Gadsden Purchase the territorial legislature had begun petitioning the U.S. Congress to divide the huge expanse along an east-west line. The Congress in Washington, deeply involved in the sectional controversies that preceded the Civil War, refused to do this. Insofar as people in the territory were concerned about the Civil War, sympathies in the southern part of the territory tended to favor the Confederate rather than the Union cause. In fact, Arizonans had their own "secession" movement going before the guns even fired at Fort Sumter. Settlers in the territory felt betrayed by the government in Washington which ignored their pleas for more protection from the Indians, surveys to ensure title to the newly settled lands, and effective law enforcement.

Trails through southeastern Arizona
Soon after the signing of the Gadsden Purchase, the federal government sent out Lieutenant John G. Parke to survey the lands east of Tucson and south of the Gila River. Parke's first route led him through Apache Pass in the Chiricahua Mountains. A year later Parke traveled the route again, but used a pass between Mount Graham and the Chiricahua mountains.

The U.S./Mexican border, however, remained the subject of dispute until the same Emory who had surveyed the Gila Trail in 1846 was called on to help settle the issue. Over a period of years, Emory and his team not only surveyed the boundary but collected a wealth of geological, zoological and botanical information, in the great tradition of Lewis and Clark. Between 1856 and 1859 this information was published as the three-volume Report of the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, finalizing the last unresolved bounday of the United States.

The Butterfield Overland Stage route

Though it was a short-lived venture, the first non-military attempt to establish regular east-west communications in the Territory took the form of the Butterfield Overland Mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. This company initially maintained a southern route which skirted the Rocky Mountains and avoided the heavy mountain snows in winter. Coaches traveled through Texas, southern New Mexico Territory and southern California. This route was always plagued by scarcity of watering places and hostile Indians.

Traveling through New Mexico Territory from 1858 to 1861, the route crossed into what is now Arizona from Mesilla, New Mexico at Stein's Pass, then headed west/southwest to San Simon, through Apache Pass, Ewell Springs, and Dragoon Springs (about twenty miles north of Tombstone). It crossed the San Pedro River just north of the present Benson and then veered slightly north to pass Cienega and head up to Tucson and on to San Francisco via Yuma and Los Angeles.

The Butterfield Stage terminated operations along the southern route at the outbreak of the Civil War. When Texas seceded from the Union early in 1861, the Overland Mail abandoned the Southwest. Officials in Washington rewrote the mail contract so that stages would travel through Nebraska and Utah. This was a devastating blow to the settlers in the New Mexico Territory, which included all of present-day Arizona. The change was immediately obvious to the Apaches who must have watched from the mountains as the wagons, horses and mules were gathered up in an ever-growing caravan heading for California. The ominous parade included more than 200 horses, wagons, supplies, and twenty-one stagecoaches, empty except for the driver. The Overland Mail was moving out "lock, stock, and barrel."

Some months before reporter Thompson Turner predicted that the removal of the Overland route would be a "death blow to Arizona."

The prospect of a withdrawal of the Overland Mail from this route has caused a complete stagnation in business and enterprise. "What will we do? Where shall we go?" is in every man's mouth. ... Private letters from Washington state that it is even in contemplation by the new Administration to withdraw the troops from this country. If this should be done, we are ruined and Arizona will lapse into nothingness.**

And, indeed, it was not long before Union soldiers evacuated the territory as well, burning what they could not carry away. It is not surprising that these desperate frontier residents allied their cause with the new Confederacy. The federal government in Washington had done little to deserve their loyalty; they repeatedly sent delegates to Congress to plead their cause, but they were not even given a polite hearing.

L. Boyd Finch has written a definitive book about the Civil War in the Southwest from the Confederate point of view: Confederate Pathway to the Pacific: Major Sherod Hunter and Arizona Territory, C.S.A. In it he documents the history of the "provisional" territorial government formed in April 1860 by frustrated citizens who wanted to withdraw from the New Mexico Territory and the short period when Rebel forces held Tucson and seemed to pose a serious threat to General Carleton's force coming east from California.* In 1863 a bill was finally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln dividing the New Mexico Territory along a north-south line and creating the Arizona Territory.

During the Civil War the Arizona Territory was virtually cut off from adequate communication with the outside world. The first public mail to reach Tucson after the Butterfield shut-down came from California on horseback September 1, 1865. Once the war was over a renewed interest in ranching and mining brought newcomers into the fledgling territory both from the east and from California. In the early 1880s the Southern Pacific Railroad completed the work the mountain men, Mormon volunteers, and army surveyors had begun.

For more about the Civil War in Arizona go here.

*L. Boyd Finch, Confederate Pathway to the Pacific: Major Sherod Hunter and Arizona Territory, C.S.A., p. xiii

**Constance Altschuler, Latest from Arizona!, pp. 192-3

Recommended reading:

Altshuler, Constance Wynn. Chains of Command, Arizona and the Army, 1856-1875. Tucson, The Arizona Historical Society, 1981.

_________. Latest from Arizona! The Hesperian Letters, 1859-1861. Tucson: Arizona Pioneers' Historical Society, 1969

Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Bufkin, Don and Henry P. Walker. Historical Atlas of Arizona. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

Cleland, Robert Glass. This Reckless Breed of Men: The Trappers and Fur Traders of the Southwest. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Editors of Time-Life Books. The Old West: The Trailblazers. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1973.

Emory, W. H. Notes of a military reconnaissance, from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California, including of Part the Arkansas, del Norte and Gila Rivers. Download the free Notes of a military reconnaissance e-book now. If you do not have the Microsoft e-book reader, you may download it free on the Microsoft website.

Finch, L. Boyd Confederate Pathway to the Pacific: Major Sherod Hunter and Arizona Territory, C.S.A. Tucson: The Arizona Historical Society,1996.

Harris, Benjamin Butler, The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.

Norris, L. David, James C. Milligan and Odie B. Faulk. William H. Emory: Soldier-Scientist. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.

Twain, Mark Roughing It. (Many editions available.) Though Twain's stagecoach ride was from Missouri to Nevada along the northern route, his first-hand description of a long stagecoach journey atop the mail sacks should not be missed.

Utley, Robert M. A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997.

**To find maps in the Library of Congress collection it is necessary to navigate to the map collection from the home page and fill in a search word. (Arizona and New Mexico both work.) Then select a map from the list generated by your query.