Background: Presidio New & Old
Editor’s Note. If you have an interest in Tucson’s early history, Hector Soza’s story is a special chapter about our early Presidio Period, a unique time and place in America’s legendary past. However, to appreciate this story’s full richness, it will help to have some background and context.
Today, we enjoy El Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón as a museum where reenactors recreate life on the Far Northern Frontier of New Spain. In the Spanish era, Tucson was remote. Today, you could be standing in the middle of Death Valley, CA and be closer to “civilization” than the soldiers garrisoned at the Tucson Presidio.
The original Presidio walls were re-discovered by archeologists in the 1950’s. Tucson was originally a tiny Hispanic village. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 and Tucson, having not moved an inch, became located in Sonora, Mexico. Following the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, Tucson became a small Hispanic village in New Mexico Territory, USA. During the American Civil War, Congress and President Lincoln designated the western half of New Mexico Territory as the new Territory of Arizona. The last of the original Tucson Presidio walls was torn down in 1918.
What’s In A Name?
In the 1880’s, the Soza name was changed from Sosa to Soza by a government clerk when the family acquired ranch property at Cascabel north of Benson. “Cascabel” is Spanish for “rattlesnake”. A visit to Cascabel is sufficient explanation. Enjoy the Cascabel Festival the first weekend of every December.
Watch Our Original Presidio Videos
The reader can also view two original Southern Arizona Guide videos about the Presidio as it was in the late 1700’s. In one, a Spanish soldado (soldier) tells us about life at the Presidio in 1776. In the other, the wife of a Presidio soldado tells us about the terrifying Apache attack on the fort on May 1, 1782.
Meeting Hector’s Grandpa
I first met Hector Soza at a big birthday bash. Tucson celebrates its birthday every August 20th, the official date of the founding of El Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón by Col. Hugo O’conor and Father Francisco Garcés in 1775.
It was 2017 and Hector was a mere 88 years of age. That year, Tucson was 242 years old. Despite the age difference, there is a direct line connecting the two. Hector’s great-great-great grandfather was a soldado (soldier) at the original Tucson Presidio who rose to the rank of alferez (2nd lieutenant or ensign) in the Army of Nueva España.
Col. Oconor, a red-headed Irishman in the service of the Spanish Crown, thought that Tóixon (yes, that is how he spelled it), 18 leagues north of the Tubac Presidio, would be a better location for a fort from which to protect those traveling from Sonora to California against enemy Apaches. (A “league” was about 3 miles.)
The order that established the fort at what is now Tucson was read and signed at Mission San Xavier del Bac, August 20, 1775
"I, Hugo Oconor, knight of the order of Calatrava, colonel of infantry in His Majesty's armies and commandant inspector of the frontier posts of New Spain
Certify that having conducted the exploration prescribed in Article three of the New Royal Regulation of Presidios issued by His Majesty on the tenth of September 1772 for the moving of the company of San Ignacio de Tubac in the Province of Sonora, I selected and marked out in the presence of Father Francisco Garces and Lieutenant Juan de Carmona a place known as San Agustín del Tóixon as the new site of the Presidio. It is situated at a distance of eighteen leagues from Tubac, fulfills the requirements of water, pasture, and wood and effectively closes the Apache frontier. The designation of the New Presidio becomes official with the signatures of myself, Father Francisco Garces, and Lieutenant Juan de Carmona, at this mission of San Xavier del Bac, on this twentieth day of August of the year 1775."
Fray Francisco Garces
Juan Fernandez Carmona
Moving From Túbac To Tucsón
Hector’s ancestor, Alferez José María Sosa, was transferred to Tucsón in 1776 from El Presidio de San Ignacio del Túbac along with all the other Tubac soldiers. With no soldiers to protect their village, Tubac residents quickly abandoned the area and its fort fell into ruin. Eventually, the ruins of the Tubac Presidio became the first Arizona State Park.
In its earliest years, the Tucson presidio was a small, poorly constructed military compound surrounded by earthen berms and palisades (thick upright mesquite logs). The far more robust tall adobe walls were completed in November 1783 as a result of the terror inflicted by the concentrated May 1, 1782 Apache attack. These new walls eventually enclosed about 11 acres of what is now Downtown Tucson.
At this 242nd celebration, Hector was dressed as the soldier his ancestor once was. Hector’s wife, Mickie, also dressed in authentic period costume and played the role of José María’s wife, Doña Rita Espinosa de Sosa.
A few weeks after Tucson's 242nd birthday party, I sat down with Hector and Mickie. I asked them to tell me about the life of Hector’s ancestors, José María and family, who lived at Tucson in the last half of the 18th century.
My great-great-great grandfather, José María Sosa, was born in Sonora Nueva España in 1743 and was baptized at Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1754. He enlisted in the King’s army in 1770 at the age of 27.
His enlistment records tell us José María was 5 feet 4.5 inches tall, black hair, brown eyes, a swarthy complexion with black beard, black eyebrows, and a sharp nose. We know his religion was Apostolic Roman Catholic. And we know that when he enlisted he could not write because he made the sign of the cross for his signature. Like most of his military peers, he was accepted into the Presidio garrison because he was a “man of high caliber”, reared on the frontier, and was an excellent horseman.
He lived to be 56 years old. On April 2, 1800, he died as he had lived, still a soldier in the army protecting the Far Northern Frontier of New Spain. He had been wounded in the leg.
I don’t know if he was killed in battle, died of wounds, or natural causes. He had been in military service for just under 30 years. Back then, 56 would have been considered old age.
Human Remains Discovered In Downtown Tucson
We think he was buried in the cemetery next to the Presidio chapel. Interestingly, in 1955, human remains were discovered during the excavation for the Transamerica Building downtown (177 N. Church Avenue). Perhaps his skeleton was one that the archeologists found there.
By law, experts from Arizona State Museum were called in to identify their ethnicity. Some remains were dispersed to the Tohono O’odham Nation for burial according to their customs.
Remains of those of Hispanic descent went to Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucson for re-internment in the Garden of Pioneer Heritage at Holy Hope Cemetery on Oracle Road just north of Fort Lowell Road. The remains are of different individuals believed to have been living here between 1776 and the mid-1800s. Some are intact skeletons, mainly Hispanic children.
We have a copy of José María Sosa’s Death Certificate. It shows he was assigned to the “Campania de Cavalleria at the Presidio San Agustín de Tucsón” and, by 1798, he had fought in 20 campaigns and many skirmishes against enemy Apaches.
On May 1, 1782, hundreds of Apaches, perhaps as many as 600, came within inches of wiping out Tucson. Commandante Captain Pedro de Allande had only 18 soldiers and 2 citizens available to defend the little settlement at that moment. The only thing that saved the fort and the Tohono O’odham village across the river was the firing of the cannon.
At the time of the attack, José María and perhaps 20 other soldados were some miles away guarding the Presidio’s horse herd. When the soldiers heard the cannon fire, they immediately raced to the fort. But the Apaches had already scattered back to the mountains having been frightened by the thunderous roar that they had never heard before.
(Today, the Presidio cannon is fired on ceremonial occasions and during “Living History Days”. Immediately before firing, people within the Presidio walls are advised to cover their ears. Although the demonstration firing uses only one-third the amount of gunpowder that would have been used in defense of the fort, the report is extremely loud.)
Life At The Presidio And Nearby
His officers thought José María was an excellent fighter. No doubt he killed many Apaches. He gained the rank of second corporal in 1779. Six months after the Apache attack, José María was promoted to sergeant. In 1794, he was promoted to alférez (second lieutenant or ensign).
His “Campania Volante” (Flying Company) included “Lanceros” (lancers) whose primary duties included guarding the herds and hunting down hostiles who were forever trying to steal the Presidio’s horses and cattle. Sometimes his company would be responsible for escorting supply wagons to and from Tucson.
Adding to his value to the army of Nueva España, while a soldier he learned to read and write. Literacy was rare on the frontier. But being literate may have contributed to his being able to establish a personal estate, which few ordinary soldados could accumulate.
When stationed at Tucson, José María, his wife Rita, and their four children lived in assigned quarters inside of the Presidio walls. Their little farm was just beyond the protection of the walls.
However in 1795, José María’s farmland was given to Manso (peaceful) Apaches in exchange for land these Apaches held farther south between the Presidio and Mission San Xavier. Near Mission San Xavier, they also grew crops and raised livestock.
While life in the Tucson basin was hard and dangerous, for the time and place the Sosas did well for themselves. In time they could afford three man-servants and a maid.
El Presidio Grows More Prosperous
By 1784, the Presidio garrison had grown to 65 soldados and 5 officers. By 1796, the Royal Presidio San Agustín de Tucsón was somewhat more prosperous than it had been over the previous two decades. The garrison was increased from 73 soldados and officers to about 100 fighting men. And the men were getting paid more regularly.
A Soldier's Pay
A captain now earned 3,000 pesos monthly. A lieutenant 700 pesos. An alferez 500 pesos. The post chaplain was paid 480. For the enlisted men: a sergeant’s pay was 324 pesos monthly. A corporal earned 276. A private made 240 pesos and a drummer 144 per month.
Not that the peso could buy much on the frontier. It’s not like they had a neighborhood Wal-Mart. If the soldiers wanted to eat, they quickly became farmers and herders. Much of their desert agricultural knowledge came from the O’odham Indians whose ancestors had farmed in this area along Rio Santa Cruz for 4,000 years.
By now, the Presidio cattle herd was so large it required 24 soldiers to guard it from Apache raids.
The Census of 1797
Father Pedro Arriquibar conducted a census of the Presidio in January 1797. It reveals what must have been a bustling Hispanic village attached to the Presidio for protection. Soldiers were listed by rank. Civilian male heads of household were identified as “citizens”. Including their families, Tucson totaled 391 individuals.
The Sosa Generations
His son did not follow in his father’s footsteps. Rather than enlist in the army, José María Sosa II became the Administrator of mission lands at San José de Tumacácori. After his father died, his mother, Doña Rita, moved in with her son at Tumacácori where she spent the rest of her life. She passed away in 1820, a year before Mexico gained independence from Spain. Acknowledging her status as an educated woman of property, she was buried under the Baptismal Font inside the original St. Ann’s Church at Tubac.
In 1869, Tucson and all of Southern Arizona, was still a very dangerous place. In that year my grandfather, Antonio Campa Sosa, had a farm near San Xavier. His first wife, Doña Francisca Sosa and three children, were killed by Apaches.
The House That Sosa Built
In 1858, José María Sosa III built the landmark adobe home we know today as Sosa-Carrillo-Frémont House. It is located next to Tucson Music Hall and immediately west of Leo Rich Theater. The Arizona Historical Society maintains a small museum inside, and shares some space with Borderlands Theater.
This historic home is on both our guided and self-guided Tucson History Walking Tours.
Murder At Soza Ranch
In 1911, after my family acquired more than 480 acres at Cascabel, my uncle, Manuel Moreno Soza, was murdered by a thief or thieves who took his money. He was buried where vaqueros discovered the body a month later. That little area on a hill about a mile from the ranch house became our family cemetery. As of 2017, there are 12 graves here, including our son, Robert Michael Soza.
Hector & Mickie Soza wrote an unpublished manuscript with a detailed bibliography and many photographs entitled Dón José María Sosa: Through The Generations
At the end is Mickie Soza’s poem dedicated to Hector’s great-great-great grandfather.
|José María Sosa
a man we never knew
forged a life in history
on which our family grew.
|Not even he could realize
the difference he would make
of all the lives that he would touch
because of his name sake.
|He fought and prayed as we all do
and helped to build a future new
of those who lived their lives alone
in hovels made of mud and stone.
|Were all his thoughts and plans in view?
The dreams he had … did they come true?
As the seed of love he began to sow …
Perhaps they did … we’ll never know.
|The life he led was based on care,
his legacy is one we share,
of courage … bravery … even fear
to shield that which we hold dear.
|His name lives on forever;
this man we never knew
who forged a life in history
on which our family grew.
|By Mickie Soza|