Coronado Country

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“All this land used to be grass that came up as high as a horse’s belly,” Tom Hunt, a friend who is serving as my guide, tells me as we drive through Arizona’s Sonora Desert, “but now it’s all mesquite.” I look around at the desert dense with the wiry shrublike trees. Hunt, a tall, lean cowboy and ranch manager who was born and raised here in southeastern Arizona, goes on to say that when his father moved from Oklahoma at the turn of the century, one cow could be fed on a quarter-acre of land. “Now they need forty acres.” The reason is overgrazing. This was once some of the best cattle country in the United States, but working ranches in these parts have been declining for years, and with them the way of life of the Arizona cowboy. “There ain’t no future in ranching any more,” says Hunt.

Today the area south of Tucson is rapidly becoming a favorite retirement spot because of its warm weather, natural beauty, and low land prices. The retirees and the people who work in the service-related industries that support them are only the latest in a long line of peoples and cultures that have settled in the Sonora Desert. Before them came the cowboys, the miners, the soldiers, the Spanish, and the native inhabitants of the region, the Pima and Apache Indian tribes.

Yet with its craggy brown hills rising at sharp angles out of the desert floor, the country seems as though it has barely been touched since the Ice Age. It is difficult to believe that the area around Tucson is among the oldest continuously occupied centers of European civilization in the United States. As Dr. Steve Harvath, the division director at the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson, said, “The incredible history of this region stretches back before the time of Plymouth Rock. The Spanish had already been here for eighty years by the time the Pilgrims landed.”

Although Francisco Vásquez de Coronado is often considered the first European to undertake a serious expedition to what the Spaniards referred to as the Pimería Alta, the first non-Indian to reach what would one day become Arizona was a North African whom the Spaniards called Estevanico (Little Stephen) when he was traveling with the Cabeza de Vaca expedition in 1536. Several years later Estevanico accompanied the Jesuit missionary Fray Marcos de Niza. Within a year Fray Marcos returned to Mexico City with tales of cities of gold.

His accounts inspired the Mexican viceroy to appoint his friend Coronado to lead an expedition that would attempt to find the fabled “Seven Cities of Cibola” with the aim of adding further riches to the treasuries of Spain—and, no doubt, of filling their own pockets as well. Fray Marcos’s stories turned out to be wildly exaggerated, and Coronado’s party was consigned to wandering around the Sonora Desert for three years before finally returning in disgrace. Along the way, however, they became the first Europeans to discover the Grand Canyon, and the Jesuits who followed Coronado remained to convert the Indians and opened up the country for other missionaries to return and attempt to bring the region under the rule of Spain and the Catholic Church. Today, a two-hour drive from Tucson, the U.S. National Park Service’s Coronado National Memorial in the southeast corner of the state not only houses an informative visitors’ center but also contains trails that cover much of the same route taken by Coronado and his men.

If you drive due south from Tucson, you will arrive in the small town of Tubac, originally a Pima Indian village, where in 1751 a Pima chief named Luis Oacpicagigua led a revolt against the Spaniards and drove them out of the territory. A military detachment was sent to the area and put down the revolt, and to prevent further outbreaks the Presidio (fort) de San Ignacio de Tubac was founded in 1752, the farthest garrison along the frontier between the Spanish colonies in Mexico and the no man’s land of the Pimería Alta. It was from here in 1776 that the commander of the presidio, Juan Bautista de Anza, organized two western overland expeditions that resulted in the founding of San Francisco.

That same year the government moved the presidio from Tubac to Tucson, and the unprotected settlers, fearing Apache attacks, left their land. The importance of Tubac, and the neighboring village of Tumacacori to the south, declined, and the towns and missions fell on hard times.

Today Tubac has been restored and is now a community of shops and restaurants specializing in the region’s arts and crafts. Farther down the road in Tumacacori are the remains of the mission that once dominated the town. Although many of its outer buildings have vanished, the mission church has remained relatively intact. Vandals have long since desecrated the church and stolen everything worth stealing, but it is still an impressive place, its fine European lines anomalous amid its primitive surroundings, evoking even after centuries the missionaries’ faith in their civilization and in their God.

The Gadsden Purchase in 1853, when Mexico sold to the United States the 45,535 square miles that now form the southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico, once again transformed the nature of the region. Now for the first time Anglos—in the form of prospectors, trappers, and soldiers—began to settle around Tucson. The land, bought primarily to convenience the railroads, opened the country up and ensured the use of the Mesilla Valley, the most practicable route for a southern railroad to the Pacific.