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Coronado Country

June 2024
5min read

Arizona’s spare, seemingly depopulated landscape has in fact been teeming with travelers for four centuries

“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.

But the California gold rush was on, and few people had any intention of stopping off in Tucson as they traveled westward. It was not until the 1880s, when large deposits of silver and copper ore were discovered in the Mule Mountains southeast of Tucson, that the railroads really began to make a significant impact on the area. With its theaters, dance halls, and saloons, Tombstone is the most colorful mining town that the railroads nourished. The former seat of Cochise County and known as “The Town Too Tough to Die,” Tombstone is the site of both Boothill cemetery and the famous gunfight that took place on October 26, 1881, when Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp and “Doc” Holliday shot it out with the band of cowboys at the O.K. Corral.

The city had been founded just four years earlier by the great prospector Ed Schieffelin, who discovered silver in the surrounding hills. For the rest of the century Tombstone continued to thrive until underground flooding closed the mines.

When Tom Hunt and I drove through, we saw only a pale version of what once had clearly been the epitome of a Wild West town. Nowadays Tombstone devotes itself wholly to selling trinkets and assorted Western paraphernalia, but many of the buildings are genuine, and the saloons still operate. Standing outside the offices of the Tombstone Epitaph , the oldest continuously published newspaper in Arizona, Tom, who used to work as a cowboy in these parts back in the 1940s, pointed to a large oak with a sturdy-looking branch that jutted out at a right angle. “See that tree there? That’s where they used to hang people.”

Continuing south along state highway 80, you will come to Bisbee, once known as “The Queen of the Copper Camps.” In 1910 Bisbee boasted a population of around twenty thousand and had more than forty saloons and sporting houses in its notorious tenderloin, Brewery Gulch—"the hottest spot between El Paso and San Francisco.” The boom was short-lived; the fall in copper prices that began just before World War I and continued for decades eventually led to all the mines shutting down. Nevertheless, Bisbee is a charming place to visit, still looking like a prosperous turn-of-the-century city, and signs of its glory days remain in the lovingly preserved brick buildings that attest to its former status as the largest city in Arizona Territory.

One of the most awesome sights in Bisbee, however, is just outside town. The Lavender Pit Mine, nine hundred feet deep, more than a mile long, and covering more than a hundred and fifty acres, was one of the largest open-pit mines in the world before it closed in 1974. It is an amazing thing to see—not because it is beautiful in any way but because it is symbolic of the lengths that the people of this part of the country will go in order to try to preserve their way of life. Tom Hunt even spent three years here in the 1950s working as a diesel mechanic—"I got tired of scratching a poor man’s ass,” he says—and he stands next to me as we look out over the rim of this monstrous hole in the ground.

There was something sad about seeing one of the last of the cowboys and the last of the mines together at the same time and knowing that there won’t be any more where they came from. Tom said nothing; he just spat tobacco juice into the void before we got back into his truck and drove off.

—Charles Dubow

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