Hispanic Culture

Since the land that makes up Cochise County was claimed, first by the Spanish empire and then by newly independent Mexico, until the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, it is not surprising to find traces of these early claimants. Indeed the first European expedition to enter the American Southwest was led by the Spaniard Francisco Vazquez de Coronado in 1540 and probably passed right through the San Pedro valley. Coronado did not find the fabled riches that he hoped for and returned to Mexico City more or less in disgrace.

For a long time after that, little effort was made to penetrate the unprofitable northern borderlands, but by the early 1700s Jesuit missionaries had entered northern Sonora with the hope of converting the Pima and Sobaipuri tribes to Christianity. Soldiers and settlers followed the missionaries into the area, leaving behind such traces as the Presidio de Santa Cruz de Terrenate and, later, herds of wild cattle and crumbling adobe haciendas on briefly tenured land grant properties.

Early Spanish ExplorationSpanish conquistador

The first Europeans to set foot in the American Southwest arrived in present-day Arizona via Mexico less than fifty years after Columbus discovered the New World--many years prior to the settlement of New England by the Pilgrims.

In 1520 Hernando Cortes, with an army of about five hundred men, had conquered the rich and beautiful Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, for Spain. In the years that followed, adventurers from New Spain fanned out in all directions in search of gold and glory. Francisco Vazquez de Coronado led the expedition of 1540 which traveled up the San Pedro river valley and continued as far as present day Kansas. Another group of Coronado's men went northwest and discovered the Grand Canyon. This adventure is commemorated at the Coronado National Memorial south of Sierra Vista.

Introduction of the horse

Horses were unknown to the inhabitants of the Americas until the coming of the Spanish, and cavalry played a key role in Cortes' conquest of Mexico. At some of the early battles, the Indians, never having seen horses before, believed that horse and rider were one creature. Again and again Bernal Diaz, an infantry soldier himself, describes how a battle might have been lost had it not been for the twenty or so horses which the Spanish brought with them. Arguably the most significant contribution of the Spanish to the New World was the arrival of the European horse.

The Spanish bring cattle and horses to New Mexico

The Spanish bring cattle and horses to New Mexico

Spanish Colonial Period

From 1550-1820 the Spanish crown laid claim to an enormous portion of North America, although most of it remained unexplored. Whatever illusions the king might entertain, military advisors repeatedly warned that Spain was unable to control the regions which lay beyond what she could effectively occupy. Lands controlled by hostile tribes were, they pointed out, only the "imaginary dominions" of the king. According to actual observations, the true royal dominions, with the exception of parts of New Mexico and Texas, lay to the south of the thirtieth parallel* (south of the present U.S. / Mexico border except for southern Texas).


Northern Sonora, called Pimeria Alta by Father Kino, was largely unknown territory until that energetic missionary arrived about 1690, a hundred and fifty years after Coronado's journey. In the Santa Cruz and San Pedro valleys, Kino found Pima and Sobaipuri Indians growing beans, melons, and squash.

The Missionary, detail from The Missionary and the Medicine Man by Frederic Remington

The Missionary (detail from The Missionary and the Medicine Man) by Frederic Remington

These missionaries and later settlers brought horses, cattle and new agricultural crops to the frontier. As the area developed, it became attractive to a growing number of raiders. The most aggressive of these were the Apache Indians who had by then spread southwest across Nuevo Mexico and into present-day Arizona. Unlike the sedentary, semi-agricultural Pimas, these tribes were primarily raiders and hunters, and they wanted horses and mules. Ranches and military posts proved to be tempting targets, especially since stolen horses, mules and cattle provide their own transportation. Soon horse/mule meat and beef became dietary staples, and the Apache population grew far beyond what had previously been supported naturally by the sparse desert environment. Entering Sonora in the 1750s, the Apaches quickly established themselves as a major threat to the frontier, a role they would maintain for more than a century. Thus began the hotly contested struggle for the northern borderlands frontier of Sonora and Chihuahua.

Presidios and Land Grants

Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate

In 1776 it was decided to nudge the line of frontier presidios further north in an attempt to expand Spanish control. Three presidios were edged northward into areas which are now on the southern edge of the state of Arizona. The Tubac garrison was established in Tucson; the Fronteras force was moved north to San Bernardino (near present-day Douglas) and the Terrenate presidio was moved about fifty miles north to a site along the San Pedro river, (then confusingly called the Santa Cruz river). The San Bernardino force was hustled back to Fronteras in Mexico after only three years. The disheartened troops at Terrenate held out for about a year longer, but they too soon gave up and moved back south of the present international border to Las Nutrias.

Monk and Spanish soldier

After the presidios at San Bernardino and on the San Pedro river were abandoned, there was little attempt to expand beyond the Santa Cruz valley settlements, which consisted of Tubac, Tucson and Tumacacori. From time to time, as circumstances allowed, the settlers of Tucson eked out their food supply by farming the lands along the San Pedro at Tres Alamos, near the present-day town of Benson, but the workers were always vulnerable to attacks and had to be escorted to and from the fields by soldiers.

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, hopeful ranchers obtained land grants along the San Pedro river and the Babocomari creek. Ambitious projects were begun only to be abandoned in the 1830s and 1840s when Apache raiding reached a fever pitch in those areas.Vaqueros

San Bernardino Land Grant

In May, 1822 Lieutenant Ignacio Perez purchased the land grant of San Bernardino. The 73,000-acre ranch covered the what is now the southeast corner of modern Arizona and extended far down into Sonora. From Father Estelric of the Tumacacori mission, Perez purchased 4,000 cattle to stock his ranch.

Even during these relatively peaceful and prosperous times, life along the borderlands did not appeal to the so-called better classes of Spanish society. Apart from top government officials most of the settlers were poor men of mixed blood and Christianized Indians, but probably a more important factor is pointed out by John Francis Bannon in his book on the borderlands: the fact that, in strong contrast to the Anglo-Americans, the settlers in the Spanish borderlands had little personal freedom.

From first to last he was a subject of a strong and for long absolute monarch, rather than a citizen of a republic, as was the Anglo-American. The fact had great influence on his life and his achievements. The frontiersman in the Spanish Borderlands was never his own boss, the master of his own fate. He went to the frontier with permission, sometimes was even sent there, even though he was a civilian. The Borderlander went by royal order, or was recruited by royal officials or by an individual who had been given permission to open a new area. Once on the frontier, he had neither the freedom to go where he would nor the option to withdraw if things did not measure up to his dreams. He was part of a royal plan and almost every aspect of his life on the frontier was governed thereby. Self-determination was not part of his small list of rights--small, at least by Anglo-American standards.**

During the final years of Spanish rule, the Apache situation had been more or less under control. The Spanish imperial government had bought peace by distributing food and gifts to the Indians and encouraging them to live near the presidios where the soldiers could keep an eye on them. The newly independent Mexican government had neither the resources to continue the largesse nor the soldiers to deal with the Indians who were annoyed by its termination. Raiding resumed.

In this climate the large remote ranching settlements simply could not survive. Between 1830 and 1850 southern Arizona actually lost population, and at the end of that period most of the Mexicans in the area--about 1,000 in number--were centralized in the old pueblo of Tucson, struggling to survive. As a result the outlying areas were deserted, and many cattle simply ran wild as their owners were unable to continue to occupy their properties or perform essential ranch chores such as gelding the male calves. This resulted in a high proportion of intact bulls in the herds, which soon became quite lively.

Mexican War

The war with Mexico (1846-48) that brought the New Mexico Territory under the rule of the United States was essentially about Texas and secondarily about California, however, the colonization of Texas by Anglo-Americans was not an attack on a populous, developed, and organized country, but rather a foray into what was then a deserted wasteland. Historian Bernard DeVoto gives the following assessment:

Few Mexicans lived there in '46, practically none when the colony was made. The occupation of Texas neither usurped a community, a culture or an economy. Instead it created all three.

Moreover, it is a fundamental mistake to think of Mexico, in this period, or for many years before, as a republic, or even as a government. It must be understood as a late stage in the breakdown of the Spanish Empire. Throughout that time it was never able to establish a stability, whether social or political. Abortive, discordant movements of revolution or counter-revolution followed one another in a meaningless succession, and each one ran down in chaos from which no governing class ever arose, or even a political party, but only some gangs. Sometimes the gangs were captained by intelligent and capable men, sometimes for a while they stood for the merchants, the clergy, the landowners, or various programs of reform, but they all came in the end to simple plunder. Furthermore, the portions of Mexico with which we are concerned, Texas, New Mexico and California, were precisely the portions where Spain's imperial energy had faltered and run down. To this frontier Great Spain had come and here it could go no farther, here it began to ebb back. ... Stephen W. Kearny and Alexander Doniphan brought more safety, stability, and hope to the New Mexicans in two months than Spain had found for them in two centuries, or Mexico after Spain. The annexation of Texas was a tragedy to some Mexicans but it was not a tragedy for Mexico. It was the last episode in the erosion of an empire.***

There had been brief attempts by Spain and Mexico to encourage settlers to occupy these lands, but they always ended in their being abandoned because of lack of government support. Relics of the cattle ranches turned up as wild herds. On their march west at the time of the Mexican war, the Mormon Battalion passed through the deserted San Bernardino land grant where large herds of wild cattle roamed the area and could be hunted like buffalo. The Mormons found the fresh meat "very sweet" in comparison with US Army rations. The bulls had their revenge a few days later when the marchers reached the San Pedro river, site of the former ranches on the land grants of San Rafael del Valle and San Juan de las Boquillas. There the Mormons encountered some formidable antagonists in their "Battle of the Bulls." The column was vigorously attacked by a number of wild bulls, who wounded several men and disembowelled four of their mules. A plaque at the Charleston crossing of the San Pedro commemorates this stirring event.

Mexican steer, drawing by Frederic Remington

A Mexican Steer, drawing by Frederic Remington
from "A Rodeo at Los Ojos"

Anglo-American Period

Still later, Anglo-Americans on their way to California at the time of the Gold Rush were often able to dine on beef that was descended from the herds established by the early grantees.

After many of the land grants became part of United States territory, the federal government was faced with the task of sorting out the rightful ownership of these lands. The legal cases went on and on. Final decisions on some claims did not come until 1904. In one case, the Supreme Court rendered a final decision in 1914.

One major benefit of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the Mexicans south of the border was Article XI in which the U.S. shouldered full responsibility for governing the Indian tribes that had kept villagers in Sonora and Chihuahua under a reign of terror for countless years.

Article XI, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Feb. 2, 1848

Considering that a great part of the territories which, by the present treaty, are to be comprehended for the future within the limits of the United States, is now occupied by savage tribes, who will hereafter be under the exclusive control of the government of the United States, and whose incursions within the territory of Mexico would be prejudicial in the extreme, it is solemnly agreed that all such incursions shall be forcibly restrained by the government of the United States whensoever this may be necessary; and that when they cannot be prevented, they shall be punished by the said government, and satisfaction for the same shall be exacted--all in the same way, and with equal diligence and energy, as if the same incursions were meditated or committed within its own territory, against its own citizens.

It shall not be lawful, under any pretext whatever, for any inhabitant of the United States to purchase or acquire any Mexican, or any foreigner residing in Mexico, who may have been captured by Indians inhabiting the territory of either of the two republics, nor to purchase or acquire horses, mules, cattle, or property of any kind, stolen within Mexican territory by such Indians.

And in the event of any person or persons, captured by Indians, being carried into the territory of the United States, the government of the latter engages and binds itself, in the most solemn manner, so soon as it shall know of such captives being within its territory, and shall be able so to do, through the faithful exercise of its influence and power, to rescue them and return them to their country, or deliver them to the agent or representative of the Mexican government. The Mexican authorities will, as far as practicable, give to the government of the United States notice of such captures; and its agent shall pay the expenses incurred in the maintenance and transmission of the rescued captives; who, in the mean time, shall be treated with the utmost hospitality by the American authorities at the place where they may be. But if the government of the United States, before receiving such notice from Mexico, should obtain intelligence, through any other channel, of the existence of Mexican captives within its territory, it will proceed forthwith to effect their release and delivery to the Mexican agent, as above stipulated.

For the purpose of giving to these stipulations the fullest possible efficacy, thereby affording the security and redress demanded by their true spirit and intent, the government of the United States will now and hereafter pass, without unnecessary delay, and always vigilantly enforce, such laws as the nature of the subject may require. And finally, the sacredness of this obligation shall never be lost sight of by the said government when providing for the removal of the Indians from any portions of the said territories, or for its being settled by citizens of the United States; but on the contrary, special care shall then be taken not to place its Indian occupants under the necessity of seeking new homes, by committing those invasions which the United States have solemnly obliged themselves to restrain.

Nothing could speak more eloquently of the fear and dread in which the Mexicans held the Apaches than the primitive villages south of the border.Towns were generally walled. Ranches were fortified or abandoned. Nearly every family had lost some relative or friend through the Apaches. The Indians always made their escape from the United States troops by rushing across the border.

It was not until 1882 that the United States Army received permission from the Mexican government for American troops to cross the border and pursue the offenders into Mexican territory. Even after this treaty was in place, American soldiers frequently met opposition from unfriendly locals who had no idea what arrangements their own government had made. The Campaign of Captain Crawford into the Sierra Madre gives an example of how difficult it was for U.S. troops to capture Apaches south of the border. Even when local officials were cooperative pursuit was difficult because the region was entirely unknown to the soldiers and almost impassable. See Lawton's Campaign against the Apaches.

*Moorhead, Max, The Presidio: Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands, p. 58.

**Bannon, John Francis, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier: 1513-1821, p. 237.

*** DeVoto, Bernard, The Year of Decision, 1846, pp.12-13.

Read about life at a Mexican hacienda and ranch in the 1880s:
An Outpost of Civilization by Frederic Remington
A Rodeo at Los Ojos by Frederic Remington

Recommended reading:

Bannon, John Francis. The Spanish Borderlands Frontier: 1513-1821. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

DeVoto, Bernard. The Year of Decision:1846. Leyden, Mass.: Aeonian Press, 1976.

______________ The Course of Empire. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Diaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. London: Penguin Books, 1963. Translated by J.M. Cohen. (Other translations and editions are available. This is the fascinating personal narrative of an ordinary soldier in the army of Cortes.)

Hayes, Alden. A Portal to Paradise. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999.

Moorhead, Max. The Presidio: Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975.

_____________. The Apache Frontier: Jacobo Ugarte and Spanish-Indian Relations in Northern New Spain, 1769-1791. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Officer, James E. Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987.

Rickman, David. Cowboys of the Old West. New York: Dover Publications Pictorial Archive Series, 1985.

Secoy, Frank Raymond. Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. (First published 1953.)

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848, marked the end of the Mexican War.

Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. (A great book!)