Tumacacori National Historic Park on the Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail

Arizona’s Hispanic Pioneers

By: Susan Hazen-Hammond

Print This Page

It began with a Yaqui Indian or the mulatto servant of a Spanish settler exploring a hillside in arroyo beds stumbling across balls, bars, and chunks of nearly pure silver.

About the author

Susan Hazen-Hammond

One September day in 1736, a prospector described variously as a Yaqui Indian or the mulatto servant of a Spanish settler was exploring near the mining district of Arizonac, just south of the present-day Arizona-Sonora border. Suddenly he stopped in astonishment. On hillsides and in arroyo beds all around him lay balls, bars, and chunks of nearly pure silver. Excitedly he loaded as much as he could onto his mule and hurried away to spread the good news.

The boom that followed faded fast. But it left a lingering question which helped change Arizona history. What similar, still undiscovered windfalls existed farther north? wondered miners, merchants, officials, ranchers, and other Sonoran gente de razón, as they called themselves. In Sonora this term, which translates literally as "people of reason," typically referred to people whose ancestry was Spanish, mixed Spanish and Indian, or mixed Spanish and African.

Soon after the discovery at Arizonac, a few hearty Sonorans began drifting northward. Failing to encounter overnight wealth, they looked around at the cactus-dotted hills and cottonwood-lined valleys, ancestral home of the Pima Indians, and decided to stay. The era of Hispanic pioneers in Arizona was under way. Back then, of course, no boundary of any sort separated Sonora from Arizona. For almost three centuries -- from the 1530s until the 1820s -- both belonged officially to Spain. The closest international boundaries lay hundreds of leagues to the north and the east, or as one 18th-century historian put it, "a great way toward the North Pole.” 

Together southern Arizona and northern Sonora constituted a 50,000-square-mile region called the Pimería Alta. Spanish colonial officials kept superb records, but many documents related to Arizona's part of the Pimería Alta have been lost or destroyed. We don't even know for certain whether other Spanish settlers already lived in what is now southern Arizona before the silver discovery at Arizonac -- which, incidentally, gave Arizona its name. But we do know they have lived in Arizona ever since. 

By 1740, enough gente de razón -- sometimes also called vecinos (neighbors) -- lived near Tubac, for instance, for the mission priest at Guevavi to perform a double wedding service for four Tubac vecinos. In a ceremony scheduled romantically for St. Valentine's day, Gertrudis Barba married Francisco de Ortega, and Luis Villela took Rosallia Durán as his bride. In nearby Arivaca in the 1740s, don Antonio de Rivera operated a prosperous estancia, "a large stock ranch," complete with servants, vaqueros and a ranch foreman. Another prominent frontiersman, Captain don Bernardo de Urrea, developed a large ranch at Sópori. Although they lived thinly scattered over a wide area, these early pioneers gathered often to celebrate weddings, baptisms, and religious holidays.

On September 29, 1751, for instance, gente de razón, for many leagues around traveled to Guevavi to celebrate the feast of San Miguel. The Romeros, one of the most prominent local families, came, led by patriarch don Nicolás Romero, whose inability to read or write -- common on the frontier -- did not interfere with his social standing. Other local residents, including José de Nava, Manuel Bustamante, and Juan de Figueroa probably joined the festivities, too. At a typical gathering, women wore their finest attire: pleated gowns, silk jackets, embroidered blouses, and elegant rebozos “long, fringed shawl-liked scarves.” The most costly rebozos were made of silk, colorfully embroidered with flowers, and adorned with gold and silver ornaments. The men looked natty, too, dressed in red scarlet coats decorated with copper or silver buttons. Some wore blue pants, others red -- trimmed, for wealthier wearers, at least -- with silver.

Together that September day in 1751 the vecinos danced, sang, ate, shot off firecrackers, and applauded the bullfights. Although we cannot say for sure, they may have talked happily about the coming months and the festivities they were planning for Christmas. But on the night of November 20, 1751 the Pima Indians rebelled against these intruders into their ancestral lands. At Tubac, a badly beaten Juan de Figueroa barely escaped. At Arivaca, Juan Maria Romero, José de Nava, Manuel Bustamante, and eight other vecinos died. By chance, Arivaca’ s leading citizen, don Antonio de Rivera, avoided their fate: He was away on business, checking into a Guevavi-area gold mine. All together, more than 100 ranchers, miners, and vaqueros died.

Following standard policy of the Spanish government, regional officials led by Governor don Diego Ortiz Parrilla sought to negotiate with, rather than kill, the insurrectionists. Soon a fragile peace returned. But the revolt brought another change to the area that is now Arizona: the establishment of a frontier military post, the presidio of Tubac. In 1760 one of the century’s most illustrious Hispanic frontiersmen, don Juan Bautista de Anza, then just 24, took over command at Tubac. 

Before going on to greater fame as an explorer, politician, and peacemaker in California and New Mexico, Anza, like other vecinos, lent his laughter, passion, and tears to the small settlement at Tubac. Soon after his appointment, Anza’s mother, doña Maria Rosa Bezerra Nieto de Anza, died in Anza’s Tubac home. Reflecting her high social status, she was buried close to the altar in the Guevavi church. Ignaz Pfefferkorn, a German-born Jesuit priest who served at Guevavi between 1761 and 1763, wrote a vivid account of the Spanish settlers of the Pimerla Alta in Anza's day. Their favorite occupation was "the raising of livestock," he reported. "In that work they are really indefatigable. It seems not to tire them to ride around through woods and hills the entire day rounding up the animals. This wearisome work they continue untiringly for days at a time, even if they must endure many hardships on their excursions."

Although the wealthy occupied comfortable homes equipped with what Pfefferkorn described as "respectable utensils," most settlers lived in two-room adobe huts. "Even such a small amount of space is more than is necessary to accommodate their furnishings," he observed. "They seldom have more than a chest for their clothes, a bench or a couple of lowly logs for seats." At night, they brushed the bits of wheat bread or tortillas, the dollops of chili sauce, and the stray watermelon seeds off their rawhide dining table. And presto: It became the family bed. Another German-speaking Jesuit, Jakob Sedelmayr, reported that one of the biggest frustrations for the Hispanic ranchers and miners of the Pimería Alta was the lack of supplies. "Today they have no lead, tomorrow no mercury, another day they have no steel and iron. Then they may need a house or they have no clothes to cover the nakedness of their peons. Then they need a blacksmith. Sometimes they lack everything, sometimes only a few things. There is always something wanting because of the high prices and the general deficiency of needful articles.”

Such shortages resulted from transportation problems and the great distance from Mexico City, more than 1,500 miles away. Supplies destined for the miners in Arivaca, the soldiers in Tubac, and the ranchers scattered here and there traveled slowly northward on the backs of mules. In June 1774, Franciscan friar Antonio Ramos penned a short but telling testimony to the physical poverty that some of Arizona’s gent de razón faced. Elsewhere in Sonora, even a very poor settler would own 50 head of cattle and 50 horses. But for the five Spanish families -- 19 people who lived at Tumacacori -- Ramos noted poignantly, "Their wealth consists of one horse." Although their ancestors came from all parts of Spain, most of Arizona’s early vecinos had been born and raised in Sonora. But the Spanish frontier, like the Anglo-American frontier, sometimes offered a haven to drifters who wanted to escape their past. One pioneer missionary reported that a bell caster he hired had fled north to the Pimería Alta "because of a past deed of murder." Rather than censuring the murderer, the padre observed simply, "The bells had a pleasing and beautiful tone.” 

Even though Spanish policies toward Indians remained more conciliatory than on the Anglo-American frontier, conflicts between gente de razón and Indians erupted repeatedly. The settlers’ fiercest opponents were the Apaches. After the Tubac presidio moved to Tucson in 1776, the vecinos who remained behind complained bitterly of their vulnerability. On November 24, 1777, three Tubac vecinos -- Manuel Barragán, Francisco Castro, and Antonio Romero -- described the dangers Tubac residents faced to Capt. Pedro de Allande y Saavedra, the commander of the Tucson garrison. 

"During this last month, the Apaches stole all of our horses and cattle. With unprecedented boldness, they have destroyed even our fields, carrying off what corn they could," the settlers protested. "Apaches are openly grazing their stolen horses in our valley and daily attack our corn fields, taking captive anyone who might be working in them."

Although Spanish-colonial law forbade settlers to desert their lands without permission, the petitioners threatened to sell their belongings and abandon their homes, "for the sake of our very lives." Farther west, the Yuma Indians attacked Yuma-area settlers on July 17, 1781, killing noted Franciscan friar Francisco Garcés and more than 100 other gente de razón. Doña María Ana Montielo de Islas, an eyewitness, wrote an account of the uprising. While Father Garcés was saying the day’s second Mass, the Indians attacked without warning, she reported. Then, when settlers sought sanctuary in the church, the rebels destroyed the vecinos, homes and belongings. Señora de Islas recalled, "That was the night my heart was broken, when my beloved husband was clubbed to death before my very eyes." In spite of all the hardships, the gente de razón persevered. 

In 1804 Capt. José de Zúñiga, an explorer and the commander of the Tucson presidio, wrote a report about Tucson for King Carlos IV. At that time, 1,015 soldiers, settlers and Indians lived on the four square miles that made up Tucson. Most vecinos were farmers and ranchers, Zúñiga noted, and the principal crop was wheat -- 2,800 bushels annually, with an additional 600 bushels of corn and 300 bushels of beans and other vegetables. Surprisingly, from today’s perspective, it cost two to four times as much for a bushel of wheat (2 pesos) as it did for an entire sheep (half a peso for a live sheep or one peso slaughtered and dressed).

But not everyone farmed, soldiered, or ranched. Four Tucson vecinos operated a freight service, using pack animals rather than wagons. Twenty settlers worked at "ordinary industrial trades,” including the production of soap, which accounted for 1,000 pesos in sales a year. Already Tucson had attracted one enterprising merchant, whom Zúñiga did not name. "Tucson desperately needs a leather tanner and dresser, a tailor, and a shoemaker, " Zúñiga observed. He also wrote wistfully of the need for a saddlemaker, a weaver, and a hatmaker. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the Pimería Alta passed to Mexican rule. Like any new country starting from scratch, Mexico had its share of problems, including cash shortages, corruption, and contradictory policies and laws. Not surprisingly, these problems affected Hispanic settlers in southern Arizona, who in the early 1800s probably numbered fewer than 1,500 people.

When the United States acquired the land which now encompasses Arizona from Mexico in the late 1840s and mid-1850s, many vecinos initially welcomed the change. But the American newcomers brought different values, another religion, a new political system, a different language, and other world views. Worst of all, from a Hispanic perspective, these Johnny-Come-Latelies brought their prejudices with them. For many Hispanic miners, ranchers, merchants and farmers, the following decades proved difficult, as they faced one of the most challenging obstacles they had encountered so far: overcoming the newcomers widespread discrimination against them. As University of Arizona scholar Thomas Sheridan has noted bluntly, "To the Anglo capitalists turning their attention to Arizona, the Mexicans were either a work force to be exploited or an impediment to be removed."

But these courageous Hispanic families refused to give up. Not only did they survive, many of them thrived. Don Sabino Otero, for instance, who was born in Tubac in 1846, parlayed a modest land grant awarded to his great-grandfather in 1789 into one of Arizona’s largest ranching operations. Moreover, in spite of the political and social upheavals taking place in Arizona after 1854, thousands of new Hispanic pioneers arrived, too. Many of them flourished. 

The Aguirre family from Chihuahua, who settled in New Mexico in the 1850s and later moved into Arizona, made their fortune as freighters in Arizona and along the Santa Fe Trail. Then, after the advent of the railroad ruined the wagon freighting trade, they went on to become equally prosperous and prominent Arizona ranchers, running more than 10,000 cattle a year on ranges north and south of Tucson. Carlos Jácome, who was born in Sonora in 1870 and moved to Arizona as a child, became one of Tucson's leading merchants; by the 1930s his department store, Jácome’s, counted among the city's finest. Perhaps most impressive of all, Raul Castro, born in Cananea, Sonora, in 1916 to a miner father and a midwife mother, went on to become governor of Arizona in 1974. 

Today, besides those numerous Hispanic families who can trace their residence in Arizona back for decades or generations, Spanish-speaking settlers continue to arrive from farther south. Many, of course, enter Arizona illegally now. Poverty, hunger or the chaos of civil war drives many of these new pioneers here. Others yearn for what Americans sometimes take for granted: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Similar Articles

  • Revisit Sedona's Historical Roots Today

    by Roger Naylor

  • American Indian Shopping Hubs

    by Carina Dominguez

  • Sedona's Agricultural Past and Present Adventures

    by Roger Naylor

  • Find and Dine on Arizona's Heritage Foods

    by Bryn Bailer

  • 5 AZ Female Chefs to Watch

    by Nora Burba Trulsson

  • Arizona's World of Miniatures

    by Roger Naylor

  • Old-Time Fun in Arizona

    by Roger Naylor

  • Grab the Reins in Cochise County

    by Arizona Office of Tourism

  • Rodeos Reimagined

    by Elena Acoba

  • Walls That Talk

    by Nora Burba Trulsson

Our website uses cookies and similar technology to provide a more personalized experience for you. By continuing to use our site, you consent to their use. For more information, please see our updated privacy policy.