This is the story of the founding of the Historic Empire Ranch by historian Alison Bunting.
The Empire Ranch, established in 1876, is located on Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (LCNCA), north of present-day Sonoita. In its 144-year history, it became one of the largest cattle ranches in southeastern Arizona and continues as a working cattle ranch today. The Empire Ranch Foundation is fortunate to have letters written by the founding partners, Walter L. Vail and Herbert R. Hislop, that provide firsthand accounts of its establishment.
Walter Vail left his family home in Plainfield, New Jersey in mid-1875 to make his fortune in the American West. His first stop was Virginia City, Nevada where he worked as a timekeeper for a mine, but he wanted to become a rancher. Herbert Hislop hailed from England. He had met Walter’s uncle, Nathan Vail, in London and Nathan persuaded him to partner with Walter in a ranching venture in Arizona. Herbert arrived in New York on May 23, 1876 and journeyed by train to San Francisco. On June 23, 1876, the men met in San Francisco, and the partnership was formed. “Hislop seems like a very pleasant fellow, he is decidedly English… it won’t take long to naturalize him I think.” “I met Walter Vail my partner who is a very nice fellow and seems to be very sharp and quick, knowing what he is about…”
Vail and Hislop took a steamboat from San Francisco to Los Angeles. They departed Los Angeles for Tucson on July 5th on the Southern Pacific railroad. “We arrived at the end of the railroad [Indio, California].” The next leg of the journey continued via stagecoach. They crossed the Colorado River near Blythe, CA, and arrived in Tucson on July 13, 1876. Hislop wrote about the journey in a diary-style letter to his grandmother; his letters are published in An Englishman’s Arizona. The Ranching Letters of Herbert R. Hislop, 1876-1878, Tucson: The Overland Press, 1965.
The partners spent the rest of July visiting three area ranches and in August completed the purchase of a 160-acre homestead from Edward Nye Fish and Simon Silverberg. Included in the $2,000 purchase price was a four-room adobe house. Hislop wrote: “The ranch we own is the one I have called Fishes ranch. Now we are at work to make it fit to live in.” Vail wrote: “I expect we will be kept pretty busy for some time as we have to fix up the house which has never been finished on the inside since it was built.”
This original four-room structure still stands, along with rooms added between 1878 and 1886 as ranching operations grew. The Empire Ranch House is open to the public 365 days a year. Interpretive signs in each room describe the history and use of the room. For directions and additional information go to: www.empireranchfoundation.org
Our thanks to Alison Bunting and the Empire Ranch Foundation for this article.