Voices From Tucson History: 1716 to 1874
Throughout the recorded history of Tucson, people who lived here, and others who were just traveling through, occasionally recorded their impressions. These hardy pioneers left us with a way to peak into our past though a tiny knothole in time.
Many of their comments reveal the attitudes and prejudices they brought with them to the Old Pueblo. Perhaps from their chronicles we can attain a deeper sense of what living here was really like before the railroad (1880), automobile (1903), and air conditioning (1930's).
In 1716, Fr. Luis Velarde described the native inhabitants living along the perennially flowing Santa Cruz River. He referred to them as the Papago, Spanish for “Bean People” or “Bean Eaters”. (The Papago have since officially changed their name to Tohono O’odham, meaning Desert People.) “[They were] of good height and well featured. [They] “lived in harmony together” and were “valiant and daring”. We can reasonably presume that the descriptions "valiant and daring" relate to the Papagos many battles to drive off raiding Apaches. The Papagos were not pushovers. Sometimes they gave the raiders a good thrashing.
Fr. Velarde then went on to write, with some disgust, that the Papago practiced plural marriage and easy divorce.
He referred to their religious ceremonies as “magic”. The Papago had their myths about a great flood and a savior, he wrote, but: “It is a long history full of a thousand stupidities…”
He also complained about their occasional ritual drunkenness, but admitted it lasted “only for two or three days” when the cactus fruit ripened.
His final contemptuous comment was that the Papago were “dull”.
It may help us to better understand the Spanish attitude toward our Papagos, Pimas (now Akimel O'otham or River People), Yaquis, and others when we understand that the Spanish intent was to convert, civilize, and then exploit them. Should the Spanish be unable to accomplish this transformation of the Indians, as was the case of the Yaquis, their alternative strategy was usually to try to exterminate them. No doubt it helped ease their conscience, such as it was, by rationalizing that the Indians were physically strong, but superstitious, dimwitted, and thus inferior.
Not surprisingly, the Papago did not take kindly to Spanish attitudes of innate superiority, and utter disrespect for their Native American customs and religion. In 1757, a German Jesuit named Father Gottfried Bernhardt Middendorff served the Church in an Indian settlement a few miles north of San Xavier del Bac near Tucson. His service here lasted only four months.
“I was fond of my catechumans and they reciprocated my affection with gifts of birds’ eggs and wild fruit. But our mutual contentment did not last long because in the following May (1757) we were attacked in the night by about five hundred savage heathens and had to withdraw as best we could. I with my soldiers and various families fled to Mission San Xavier del Bac were we arrived at daybreak.”
Not all of the Catholic missionaries looked down on the Natives. We get a vivid description from Father Pedro Font of one priest who actually liked the Indians. It was written in the late 1760’s.
“Father Garces is so well suited to get along with the Indians and among them that he appears to be but an Indian himself. Like the Indians, he is impassive in everything. He sits with them in the circle, or at night around the fire, with his legs crossed. There he will sit musing two or three hours or more, oblivious to all else, talking with much serenity and deliberation. And though the foods of the Indians are as nasty and dirty as those outlandish people themselves, the father eats them with great gusto, and says they are good for the stomach and delicious. In short, God has created him, as I see it, solely for the purpose of seeking out these unhappy, ignorant, and rustic people.” (Note: good Father Garces was killed in 1781 in an Indian uprising at Yuma Crossing.)
Despite almost constant war with the Apaches, by 1777, Tucson was a growing settlement of 77 persons of European descent on the far northwest frontier of New Spain. By 1804, that population had multiplied to 300. By 1819, Tucson had a population of 500 … counting only Spaniards, of course.
However, a 1804 report by Tucson Presidio Commandant Zuniga stated that, counting everyone, Spaniards, Indians, and mestizos (those of mixed Spanish and American Indian ancestry of which there were many), Tucson’s population was 1,015.
For decades, the Apaches did their best, not merely to make sure that this would be as big as Tucson would ever get, but to actually drive all foreigners from the land they claimed for themselves. They almost succeeded.
In 1873, former governor Safford and merchant pioneer Sam Hughes interviewed long-time Tucson resident Mariana Diaz for the Arizona Citizen. At the time, Señora Diaz was over 100 years old. According to the article, “She referred to the pleasant times they used to have, when their wants were few and easily supplied, and told how they danced and played and enjoyed themselves.”
In the article, she mentions that crime was almost unknown, but mescal was plentiful. “But it was only on rare occasion that they drank to excess, and then they acted to each other like brothers.”
According to Señora Diaz, if it had not been for the Apaches, “they would not have known what trouble was.” She said that her husband and many relatives had died as a result of Indian attacks. (Arizona Citizen: June 21, 1873)
By 1843, the presidios at Tubac and Tucson were in deplorable condition. The Tucson convento, a large fortified mission structure on the west bank of the Santa Cruz near present-day Mercado San Agustín at the corner of Congress St. and Avenida del Convento, was abandoned. The orchards and fields were hardly tended any more. Why? In addition to almost continuous pressure from Apaches, European diseases had decimated the local native population. Mestizo was the only growing demographic. The communities of San Xavier and Tucson were barely surviving.
"Approached from ... the southwest, like Santa Fe, Tucson is not seen until very close by. Of course, its adobe homes are the same in appearance but inferior [to Santa Fe] ... It is a more populous village than I supposed, counting about five hundred."
From Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke's journal, kept during the march of the Mormon Battalion 1846-47.
A Time of Change
Life in Tucson began to change in 1848. Gold had been discovered in California that year, and over the next two years, tens of thousands of Anglo-America ‘49’ers made their way west through this little Mexican town. Some recorded their impressions.
John Durivage was a reporter with the New Orleans Daily Picayunne when he first saw Tucson in 1849. He wrote that he was surprised by the “solemn grandeur” of the church at Bac. He also commented on the “bright and intelligent Indians” and the “rich and fertile land” along the Santa Cruz. But, Tucson was “a miserable place garrisoned by about one hundred men.” Perhaps we “modern” Tucsonans can best empathize with his assessment of the weather. He said it was HOT! So hot, he wrote, that the pores “are now reopened and perspiration flows at the slightest exertion.”
Durivage also commented that many Mexican women and Indians came to their camp “all eager to traffic and anxious to buy needles and thread.” He described the local settled Apaches as “cowardly and imbecile” … “a degraded and miserable set” … “[exhibiting] that particularly squalid and filthy appearance usual when the wild man leaves his native hills, casts off his old habits and pursuits, and hovers around the haunts of civilization.”
We can reasonably imagine that, had Durivage come across the Apaches led by Cochise and later Geronimo living free in the wilds of the Chiricahua Mountains, he might have employed a somewhat different set of adjectives.
"Tucson ... a miserable old place garrisoned by about 100 men [Mexican soldiers & officers at the Presidio. With their families plus service personnel such as blacksmith, the Presidio walls enclosing about 11 acres usually protected about 250 people.]
John E. Durivage, 1849.
In 1852, John Bartlett arrived in Tucson. He was the American commissioner who, in 1849 along with his Mexican counterpart, had been charged with establishing the new official border between the two countries following the end of the Mexican War.
Upon his arrival, he sketched a picture of Tucson from Sentinel Peak (A Mountain). He noted that the town’s population could not be more than 300 souls. He blamed the lack of population on the Apaches. Bartlett quickly became aware of what every resident knew and feared. Tucson was surrounded by a hostile desert controlled by raiding Apaches.
The Apaches, he wrote, had forced the region’s ranchers and farmers to abandon their crops and herds and move to either Tucson or Tubac for protection. If this dusty little Mexican town was to survive, something had to be done.
However, given his description of Tucson, we can wonder if he thought the effort to solve the Apache problem would be worthwhile.
“The houses of Tucson are all adobe, and the majority are in a state of ruin. No attention seems to be given to repair; but as soon as a dwelling become uninhabitable, it is deserted, the miserable tenants creeping into some other hovel where they may eke out their existence.”
With the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, the United States purchased, for $10 million, about 30,000 square miles that is now Southern New Mexico and Southern Arizona from the Rio Grande to the California border.
It would be two years, 1856, before a contingent of U.S. forces could take control of Tucson. As per agreement, about two dozen Mexican soldiers stayed on to protect the town until an orderly transfer of power could be arranged.
An article in the San Francisco Weekly Chronicle dated November 14, 1856 mentioned that the last departing 26 Mexican soldiers of the Presidio had ...
“persuaded some of the native families to accompany them [south of the new International Border] to avoid the brutal treatment and other numerous evils … inflicted on the Spanish race whenever the former [American Anglos] has the upper hand.”
However, many years later in an interview with the Arizona Historical Society, longtime Tucson resident, Carmen Lucero, recalled:
“I have often heard my mother say that the coming of the Americans was a Godsend to Tucson, for the Indians had killed off many of the Mexicans and the poor were being ground down by the rich. The day the [U.S.] troops took possession, there was lots of excitement. They raised the [American] flag on the [Presidio] wall and the people welcomed them with a fiesta and they were all on good terms. We felt alive after the Americans took possession and times were more profitable.”
"There were no hotels [in 1857], but the "Tucson Bed" was famous all through the Southwest. The traveler made his bed by lying on his stomach and covering that with his back." From "Pioneer Days in Arizona" by Tucson pioneer Frank C. Lockwood.
Tucson by 1858 was beginning to see Americans elected to public office, although out of a population of about 200, there were only a dozen or so American Anglos. It was the Americans who began building roads sufficient for stagecoaches and wagon trains. Tucson was becoming a transportation hub on the route from San Antonio to San Diego. Times were definitely changing.
Phocion Way from Ohio was an employee of the Santa Rita Mining Company. In June, 1858, he arrived in Tucson via the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line. Because passengers and mail had to travel by muleback between Yuma and San Diego, this short-lived enterprise was more generally known as the Jackass Mail. Way quickly pronounced Tucson a “miserable place”. Of course, those of us living in Tucson today would probably use the same description if we had to travel by mule in June, our hottest, driest month. Perhaps more so if we had to endure summers without air conditioning.
He wrote that he found the few Americans here “pleasant and entertaining”. But that was about the only good thing he had to say about the place.
“There is a small creek [that] runs through town. The water is alkaline and warm. The hogs wallow in the creek, the Mexicans water their asses and cattle and wash themselves and their clothes and drink water out of the same creek. The Americans have dug a well and procure tolerably good water … which they use.”
There is no tavern or other accommodation here for travelers, and I was obliged to roll myself in my blanket and sleep either in the street or in the corral, as the station house has no windows or floor and was too close and warm. The corral is where they keep their horses and mules, but I slept very comfortably as the ground was made soft by manure. I would rather have slept in the street as a great many natives do, but it is hardly safe for a stranger. Someone might suppose that he had money about his person and quietly stick a knife into him, and no one would be the wiser – there is no law here, or if there is, it is not enforced. Might makes right.”
He wrote about two Anglos, a man named Batch who was shot to death by a man named Fryer.
[The killer] is running at large and no particular notice is taken of it. I guess King Alcohol was at the bottom of the trouble.”
The Native Women of Tucson
Mr. Way also found the local women of interest.
“Among the native women here I believe that chastity is a virtue unknown. Some of the young girls are pretty. They are remarkable for the ease and grace of their movements and their brilliant black eyes. Some of them are very bold. They have a great fancy for Americans and a greaser stands no chance with a white man. They are generally tenderhearted and humane and in sickness are noted for being good and faithful nurses.
Nearly every man in our mail party seems to have a lover here, and when the mail arrives they are always at the station to welcome them. One of our party named Beardsley seems to be a great favorite of the senoritas, and has a fine looking black-eyed girl for his special favorite. He is laying on the ground within six feet of me at this moment fast asleep, while she is sitting by his side keeping the flies from disturbing him.”
At the time J. Ross Brown wrote this, he was a famous newspaperman and author passing through Tucson. In his column, Adventures In Apache Country, published in 1868, he wrote :
"... a city of mud boxes, dingy, and dilapidated, cracked and baked into composite dust and filth; littered about with broken corrals, sheds, bake ovens, carcasses of dead animals and broken pottery, barren of verdure, parched, naked and grimly desolate in the glare of the southern sun."
Four years earlier after his first tour of the Territory, Mr. Ross had written A Tour Through Arizona with these comments about Tucson.
"[Tucson in 1864] was a place of resort for traders, speculators, gamblers, horse-thieves, murderers, and vagrant politicians. Men who were no longer permitted to live in California found the climate of Tucson congenial to their health. If the world were searched over, I suppose there could not be found so degraded a set of villains as then formed the principal society of Tucson. Every man went armed to the teeth, and street fights and bloody affrays were of daily occurrence. It was literally a paradise of devils."
"In the graveyard at Tucson [in 1860] there were 47 graves of white men, and of that number only two had died natural deaths, all the rest having been murdered in broils and barroom quarrels." From a 19th century report by John C. Cremony, Boston newspaperman and interpreter for the Barrett Boundry Commission. Note: the "graveyard" mentioned here had to be Tucson National Cemetery [aka Government Cemetery] located at present-day Toole and Stone Avenue Downtown Tucson.
"Tucson ... has been a town of some importance for about a century ... seven-eighths of the population are Mexican, and the Spanish language is more spoken than English."
From "The Territory of Arizona - A Brief History and Summary", prepared by authorization of the Territorial Legislature and published in 1874.
Primary Source: Tucson: The Life and Times of an American City
; by C. L. Sonnichsen. University of Oklahoma Press; 1982, 1987. (This is an extensively annotated history, very well-written, with many historical illustrations.)
If you would like to learn more about Tucson's History first hand, join us on a Downtown History and Libation Tour.