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Peoples of the Upper Gila

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Earliest Settlements

The original people of the Upper Gila Valley, known today as the Mogollon (mö-go-yon) are believed to have arisen from the earlier Cochise culture. They practiced horticulture and led settled lives in the fertile plains fed year-round by mountain streams. Their relics date from about 300 BC to 1100 AD. Anthropologists believe that sometime between 900 and 1100 AD the Mogollon were absorbed into Anasazi culture, which carried forward some of the Mogollon traits. Most experts now believe that this merged culture flowed in turn into the Hopi, Zuni and Acoma.

A notable accidental discovery of an ancient Mogollon village happened in the 1920s in what is now Virden, New Mexico, just over the border from Duncan in the Gila River’s lush agricultural plain. The village site, a collection of ruined stone buildings, appeared to have been abandoned suddenly many years before. In one of the structures, two inquisitive farmers found the mummy of a warrior seated on the floor against the wall with knees raised. Laid out straight, the mummy’s discoverers claimed, the man would have stood nearly seven feet tall.

The Apache

Apache Indian History on Access Genealogy’s Indian Tribal Records, drawn from historic texts (by white authors)
http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/apache/apachehist.htm

And for a more contemporary treatment of Apache history and culture, see http://impurplehawk.com/apache.html

Apache History [and more!] Along the Geronimo Trail National Scenic Byway (PDF)

The Apache are believed to have migrated from what is now northwestern Canada in the 9th century, settling in the desert regions of the present-day southwestern US and Northwestern Mexico. They share Athabascan language group roots with the Navajo, and have three distinct dialect groups of their own. Of these, the Western Apache or Coyotero settled throughout what is now eastern Arizona. The name “Apache” was bestowed on them by the Pueblo Indians—it was the Pueblo word for “enemy.”

In peaceful times, the Apache lived in extended families bound by matrilineal ties. Always outstanding hunters, they also practiced agriculture and the women became masters of basket-weaving. When, in the 17th and 18th centuries, incursions by the Spanish weighed heavily on tribes to the east and west of them, the Western Apache remained comparatively protected by the rugged topography of their tribal lands. But in the mid-1850’s, gold miners and other explorers and settlers invaded the Coyotero clan’s ranges, supported by the U.S. Army. Some 40 years of unremitting, harsh warfare ensued, in which time the Apache honed their legendary status as warriors but ultimately went down to defeat and were consigned to reservations, the greater part of their lands taken from them forever.

Duncan figured significantly in the tragic and bloody end of the Apache’s reign over the Southwest’s lower plains and mountains. A great deal of this history was painstakingly preserved by Jennie Parks Ringgold, daughter of pioneers from Texas who helped settle the Duncan Valley in the late 19th century. Her memoirs, collected under the title “Frontier Days in the Southwest,” have recently been reprinted by her descendents. The book is sold at the Duncan Library and is worth every penny of its $15 price (the profits support the library). See the History page of this website for more.


The small highways of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico are marked by stone pillars bearing the tales of the last stands of the Apache against an enemy they would never defeat. One of the greatest of those warriors, the legendary Geronimo, is said to have been born somewhere along the Upper Gila River.

Mexican Heritage

Mama's Santos: An Arizona Life, by Carmen Duarte, is a touching, detailed chronicle of a family from northern Mexico who settled in the Duncan area early in the 20th century. Ms. Duarte is a staff writer at the Tucson-based Arizona Star, which published this story of her family as a multi-part series.

There has been considerable attention paid in recent years to the roles of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the great copper mines of Greenlee County. “Los Mineros,” a documentary film produced in 1991 by Hector Galán and aired on PBS’s The American Experience, probes the struggle of Mexicans laboring in the copper mines of Morenci in the early 20th century to end a discriminatory dual pay system. Read the Los Angeles Times' admiring review of the film.

Also set in Morenci and neighboring Clifton, the “great orphan abduction” of 1904 still rank as one of the most notorious chapters in Arizona’s history. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and fastened the attention of a disapproving nation on the anti-Mexican mob rule of white residents of the segregated mining community. The Simpson Hotel itself features in the ongoing legacy of this disturbing tale. Ask us about it when you visit.

The orphans’ story has captivated many writers over the last century, most recently the historian Karen Wells, whose scholarly book, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, was published in 2004 by Harvard University Press. Borrow our hotel library copy while you stay with us.

Mormons and Arkansans, Italians and Romanians

The lure of the world’s greatest copper mines drew workers and families from lands much further away than the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of Northern Mexico. For the last century, the Upper Gila has been a magnet to people of Mediterranean and Southern European descent. And like much of the Southwest, a slow but steady trickle of Arkansans and Oklahomans in particular has flavored the region’s cultural mix.

If you look along the treeline on the north bank of the Gila River in Duncan, you’ll see the distinctive slim spire of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) house of worship. LDS culture has long been an anchor of the town’s prosperity and stability. How some of the area’s first Latter Day Saints came, by way of Mexico where they had fled to practice their religion and family life undisturbed by authorities, was a direct result of the Mexican revolution. One of those stories is told in Carmen Duarte’s Mama's Santos: An Arizona Life.