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The discovery of gold near Sutter’s Mill, California, in 1848, spawned a torrent of migration across northern Sonora, Mexico (modern southern Arizona), with 40,000 emigrants traveling over one of the four southern trails that converged at the Pima and Maricopa villages. Some 8,000 mostly Mexican emigrants journeyed across the Sonora Desert between April 1848 and January 1849, with 20,000 emigrants taking one of the Southern routes in 1849. All of these travelers were aware the Pima villages were respites where stock could be recruited, rest assured, food and forage obtained and protection from marauding tribes secured. Emigrant Robert Green spoke for many when he wrote, “we are all talking strongly of being compelled to eat mule beef on the road as we wont be able to get any provision until we get among the Peima Indians.” Louisiana Strentzel, one of the few women on the trail, credited the Pima with the success of her party. “Had it not been for this water, the muskite [mesquite] beans, and the corn at the Pimose village, not one wagon could have come through.”83 Personal recollections of the 49ers visiting the Pima villages reveal much more than accounts of half-starved, thirst-craved emigrants in need of food, water and 83 Patricia A. Etter, To California on the Southern Route 1849: A History and Annotated Bibliography (Spokane Washington: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1998), pp.
Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. “A Letter from California, 1849,” in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890 (Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1983), p. 259 (hereafter Letter from California).
62 hospitality. While the journals describe the villages as the last opportunities emigrants had to purchase fresh food and find good forage for their animals before arriving at Warner’s Ranch some 300 miles to the west in California, they also provide a window into the extraordinary economic output of the Pima. While the emigrants contemplated their visit to the villages, the Pima—with little foreknowledge of the torrent of emigrants heading their way—supplied the requisite food for the travelers, a testimony to their agricultural ability. Having “enjoyed complete autonomy” throughout the century and a half of Spanish and Mexican administration, the Pima were a people “to be wooed, rather than coerced.” Their villages on the far northern frontera of New Spain and, later, Mexico gave them a “freedom of choice and action” in their intercourse with the Americans that they used to their own benefit.84 Using as guidebooks the journals of topographical engineer Lieutenant William Emory and Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, tens of thousands of emigrants anticipated their visit to the Pima villages. Here they could acquire food and receive a friendly reception, something they would not have enjoyed since leaving Mexican towns and villages along the Rio Grande and in the upper Santa Cruz River Valley. For these travelers, the Pima villages represented an oasis where weary souls could be restored.85 84 Ezell with Fontana, “Plants without Water: The Pima-Maricopa Experience,” p. 320. Ezell adds that along with economic expansion and increased raiding, changes in Pima political leadership occurred. While no central authority existed, “a hereditary line of paramount chiefs emerged” and “supra-village councils” established. The torrent of emigrants so alarmed Mexican officials that they hastily assembled a plan for colonizing Mexico’s northern frontier in an effort to retain control of its least settled and weakest state.
Patricia R. Herring, “A Plan for the Colonization of Sonora’s Northern Frontier: The Parades Proyectos of 1850,” Journal of Arizona History (10:2, Spring 1969), pp. 103-114. Parades especially feared “the land opposite the Gila (north bank under US control) will be inhabited; while years and years will pass before ours will be populated.” See also Odie B. Faulk, “Projected Mexican Colonies in the Borderlands, 1852,” Journal of Arizona History (10:2, Spring 1969), pp. 115-128.
85 Portions of Emory and Cooke’s journals were published as guides to California. One of the more famous guides was Robert Creuzbaur’s Guide to California and the Pacific Ocean illustrated by a General Map and Sectional Maps with Directions to Travelers compiled by the Best Authorities (H. Long and Brother, New York, 1849). It noted daily camps sites used by both Kearny and Cooke and included seven detailed maps.
63 Two main southern trails converged at the Pima villages. The more difficult was the Gila Trail, which entered from the east above the villages. The more frequently traveled route was the Southern Trail, which left El Camino Real near Doña Ana, New Mexico, and followed a southwesterly direction to the Santa Cruz River Valley whence it turned north into Tucson and then northwest to the Pima villages (see map 4). East of the villages, the Southern Trail converged with the Gila Trail and continued down the Gila River to the confluence with the Colorado River near Yuma Crossing. 86 Map 4: Southern Gold Trails through the Pima Villages: 1849-1852
86 Grant Foreman, Marcy and the Gold Seekers: The Journal of Captain R. B. Marcy, with an Account of the Gold Rush over the Southern Route (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), p. 298 (hereafter Journal of Captain Marcy). Etter, To California on the Southern Trail, p. 35, estimates fewer than 500 emigrants took the Gila Trail to the Pima villages in 1849. George Walcott Ames, Jr., “A Doctor Comes to California: The Diary of John S. Griffin, Assistant Surgeon with Kearny’s Dragoons, 1846-47,” California Historical Society Quarterly (21:3, September 1942), p. 209 (hereafter Diary of John Griffin). The trail was on the Mexican side of the river, although emigrants crossed to the north (American) bank for what little forage might be found.
64 The most grueling part of the journey for emigrants on the Southern Trail was the jornada between Tucson and the Pima villages. It was regarding this portion of the trail that a group of Missouri emigrants “heard awful tales of the route ahead of us, dead animals strewing the road, wagons forsaken, human skeletons, who had famished for want of water.” Understanding these difficulties places into perspective the feelings of exhilaration and relief travelers’ experienced upon reaching the Pima villages. The ninety miles of dry, barren desert represented one of the most challenging tests emigrants experienced en route to California.87 An ambitious emigrant party traveling under ideal circumstances could complete the trip from Tucson to the Pima villages in thirty-six hours, although most took between two and six days. While scores of travelers suffered terribly from thirst and dust, there was reason for optimism if emigrants could get within fifty miles of the Pima villages. As the
desert south and east of their villages began searching for travelers in distress. Seizing an opportunity to improve their economy by providing water to thirsty travelers earned the Pima the reputation “Good Samaritans of the desert.” Carrying “gourds of water, roasted
pumpkins, and green corn,” Pima men and women encouraged emigrants and advertised their products to travelers in distress.88 Whether escorted by the Pima or arriving on their own, many a tongue-swollen man and beast sensed the cool, crisp waters of the Gila several miles distant and found the resolve to persevere. “After a wearisome ride,” an emigrant wrote in June 1849, “I saw the wagons and the tall cottonwoods of the Gila, and when within a half a mile of it, my tired mule smelt the running water. She pricked up her ears, gave one long bray, and struck a bee line for the Gila directly through the thick chaparral.” Some scenes were more humorous. “There was no checking their [mules] impetuosity,” Durivage added.
“[S]ome of their riders were left hanging in the branches of the trees, some were thrown and some were pitched headlong into the water.”89 The Gila River represented more than just water for parched and famished emigrants. The Pima welcomed the travelers to their riverine villages, “shaking hands as old friends when meeting [as if] being separated for years.” The agrarian villages also meant food and forage could be acquired and, in that sense, symbolized a sustaining force for man and beast. Plenty of good tasting water was available and could be packed for the journey across the “Forty-Mile Desert,” as the cutoff between the Pima villages and the Gila bend was referred.90 88 My sense from reading the emigrant journals is that if a traveler were in the vicinity of Picacho Peak he might be found by the Pima “Good Samaritans.” Picacho Peak is about 45 miles south of Casa Blanca (Vah ki), the main Pima village in 1849. Benjamin Butler Harris, The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush Richard H. Dillon, ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960), pp. 80-81 (hereafter Journal of Benjamin Harris). Henry F. Dobyns, in The Pima-Maricopa (Baltimore: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989), pp. 13-14, refers to the Pima as “mercy riders” and as being on “mercy patrols.” 89 Journal of John Durivage, p. 217. Anna M. Perry, ed. Travels in Mexico and California Comprising a Journal of a Tour from Brazos Santiago, Through Central Mexico, by Way of Monterey, Chihuahua the Country of the Apaches, and the River Gila, to the Mining Districts of California (College Station, Texas: Texas A & M Press, 1988), p. 70 (hereafter Journal of Asa Clarke). Journal of Captain Marcy, p. 300.
90 William Miles, Journal of the Sufferings and Hardships of Capt. Parker H. French’s Overland Expedition to California in 1850 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1970) p. 23 (hereafter Journal of William Miles). Journal of John Durivage, p. 216.
66 The Gila—and the Pima villages twelve miles downstream from where the main emigrant road obliquely struck the river—was easily identified from a distance due to the gallery of cottonwood, willow and mesquite that graced its path through the desert. It was “really a beautiful stream, flowing clear & rapidly,” Green wrote, allowing us to “quench our rageing thirst.” Robert Eccleston, traveling to the villages via Tucson, observed, “It was not long before the road came close to the long-looked-for Gila. I rode in to see it, as the cottonwood, willow, &., obstruct[ed] the view, and found a swift stream about 40 ft.
wide, not as clear as I expected to see it, but perhaps this may have been caused by the late rain.” One emigrant noted his party paid a Pima guide $10 “to conduct us to the river Gila.”91
91 Journal of Robert Green, pp. 56, 66-67. George P. Hammond and Edward D. Howes, eds. Overland to California on the Southwestern Trail 1849: The Diary of Robert Eccleston (Berkley: University of California Press, 1950), p. 204 (hereafter Diary of Robert Eccleston), p. 207. George B. Evans, Mexican Gold Trail: The Journal of a Forty-Niner, Glen Dumke, ed. (San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1945), p. 152 (hereafter Journal of a Forty-Niner), p. 153. See also Mabelle Eppard Martin, ed.
“From Texas to California in 1850: Diary of C.C. Cox,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly (29:1, July 1925), p. 143 (hereafter Diary of C. C. Cox). Journal of William Miles, p. 24.
67 water and trees along the river and in cienegas encouraged colonies of birds, ducks, geese, swans, cranes and “hundreds of the plumed partridge [quail].” Some cienegas and lagoons were fed by springs and were used by the Pima and their Maricopa neighbors to irrigate farmland. At least three natural springs, including Blackwater slough east of the villages, were fed by underground water sources. Springs near Maricopa Wells supplied water for Maricopa crops in addition to providing wildlife habitat. 92 Cave Couts, traversing through the villages with Major Lawrence P. Graham in November 1848, described the bottomlands along the river as “far surpass[ing] anything we have ever witnessed for fertility” and representing “a series of the finest fields” he had ever seen. Emigrant Asa Clarke estimated fields extending along the river for at least five miles, being “laid out in little squares, with sluices in between, to admit the water.” One emigrant described “nearly a thousand separate enclosures” or fields divided by fences and irrigated.93 Free to adopt those forms of American technology they believed would enhance their economy, the Pima accepted select exotic ideas and tools that correlated with their existing agricultural values. Economic ventures such as mineral exploitation and sheep raising were rejected. Increased agricultural output fostered a Pima strategy of military preparedness, which enabled them to increase their productivity and position themselves as market players on the Gila and Southern trails. It also fueled a consolidation of military authority in the hands of a single leader.