No survey of the Upper Gila Valley’s history would be complete without reference to the adventures of gold-obsessed Spaniards searching for the City of Cíbola. In 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his party made their historic trek through what is now Southeastern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico. The “Coronado Trail” highway from the San Francisco River into the White Mountains is the monument to that history most often sought out by tourists to the region. Clifton and Morenci, Duncan’s closest neighboring towns, are on the official Coronado Trail.
But have historians missed something? Read on.
The following passage is extracted from an essay by New Mexico State Engineer Buck Wells, who has been studying the old Indian trails of New Mexico and Arizona for many years. Long fascinated as well by the Coronado expedition, Buck, in collaboration with other historians and history buffs, has constructed a well-reasoned argument that the Spanish explorer might have passed through what is now Duncan.
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (c. 1510-September 23, 1554) was a Spanish Conquistador who, between 1540 and 1542, visited New Mexico and other parts of what is now the Southwestern United States. Born in Salamanca, Spain, he was governor of Nuevo Galicia, a province of New Spain comprising the contemporary Mexican states of Jalisco, Sinaloa and Nayarit. In 1539, he dispatched Friar Marcos de Niza and a survivor of the Narváez expedition, named Estevanico, on an expedition north toward New Mexico. When Marcos de Niza returned, he told about a golden city called Cíbola, where Estevanico had been killed by its Zuni citizens. Though he did not claim to have entered the city of Cíbola, Marcos reported that it stood on a high hill, that it was made of gold, and that he could see the Pacific Ocean off to the west.
Based on this report, an expedition funded by both Coronado and his good friend Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza was mounted. Setting out in 1540 with 335 Spaniards, about 1300 natives, four Franciscan monks and several slaves, both native and African, Coronado followed the Sonoran coast, keeping the Sea of Cortez to his left. He rested his party at the northernmost Spanish settlement on that route, San Miguel de Culiacán, before commencing the long trek inland. Scouts were sent out ahead to see if the land along the route would be able to support a large body of soldiers and animals. They returned to say that it would not, so Coronado divided his expedition into small groups and staggered their departures so that grazing lands and water holes along the trail would recover. He established camps and garrisoned soldiers to keep the supply route open. When the scouting and planning were done, Coronado led the first group of soldiers up the trail—horsemen and foot soldiers who could travel quickly. The rest of the expedition set out at intervals behind them.
After leaving the last Spanish settlement, they traveled northward through Sonora and crossed the Gila River, the Mogollon Rim and the Little Colorado River, then following the Zuni River drainage into Cíbola, in the western part of present-day New Mexico. There they met a crushing disappointment. Cíbola was nothing like the great golden city that Marcos had described. Instead it was a complex of simple pueblos constructed by the Zuni Indians. The soldiers considered killing Marcos for his mendacious imagination, but Coronado intervened and sent him back to Mexico in disgrace.
After a four-day crossing of despoblado or uninhabited area, Coronado entered what is now the United States in Southern Arizona. Most scholars believe that he entered along the San Pedro River. Recent research suggests that he turned south of Benson and proceeded through the Sulphur Spring Valley toward Safford.
Along the San Pedro, lined with thorny trees much as it is today, Coronado and his party encountered poor Indians who presented them with wild plant foods, as was the local custom. Seymour (2008) has suggested that these natives were probably the resident migrant groups later referred to as the Jano and Jocome, who subsisted on wild plants and animals. It seems that Coronado did not encounter the Sobaipuri as Bolton and many historians have assumed, because he turned before reaching their southernmost settlement. Marcos de Niza, who had traveled that way 11 months earlier, likely did encounter the Sobaipuri.
So which way did Coronado travel north onto the Mogollon Rim? Could the old Indian trails leading up Apache Creek and over the escarpment to Mule Creek be it? Or is a grassy plateau overlooking Duncan, where schoolboys in the 1950s found a Spanish helmet and a sabre, from which it is an easy climb to that same escarpment, also a possibility?
Buck Wells is sorting the new evidence into the old and new theories of the party’s route. See his website.
In later years, the Gila River itself was the boundary between Mexico and the United States, until the Gadsden Purchase of 1854-56 established a border southwards to make way for a southern east-west rail. The U.S. purchased those 40 thousand square miles for $10 million and James Gadsden, our nation’s “minister” to Mexico, was widely ridiculed for negotiating such an exorbitant sum. Mexican historians, conversely, regard the purchase as a steal by the northern neighbor.
After the treaty was ratified, the new US territory was initially called Pimeria, in honor of the Pima Indian tribe, but was soon renamed “Arizona”. Scholars have never agreed on the etymology of the name. State Historian, Marshall Trimble, has cast his lot with those who cite the O'odham phrase alĭ ṣonak, meaning “small spring.”
No one knows for certain where the Apache originated, and some historians believe that they were driven out of Northern Mexico by Spanish settlers. Thus they had made the region that is now Arizona and New Mexico their home not long before that too was taken from them. On May 17, 1885, a group of Apache Indians fled the San Carolos Reservation, hoping to regain the unrestricted life they had led before being confined by the U.S. government to reservations. Led by the shaman-warrior Geronimo and other fierce and courageous men, the group consisted of 35 men, eight boys, and 101 women and children. As noted by historian James Hurst in his online essay “Geronimo's surrender — Skeleton Canyon, 1886” (see link below), this group “…would occupy the attention of five thousand troops, five hundred Indian auxiliaries, and an unknown number of civilians. In an area roughly the size of Illinois and comprising some of the roughest desert and mountain terrain in North America, they maintained themselves for sixteen months. In that time they killed seventy-five citizens of the United States, twelve White Mountain Apaches, two commissioned officers and eight soldiers of the regular Army, and an unknown number of Mexicans. The Apaches lost six men, two boys, two women and one child.”
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 (the profits support the library).
From Jennie Parks Ringgold’s “Frontier Days in the Southwest”:
As early as 1871, the Arizona legislature had memorialized Congress for protection, suggesting that the industrious race of prehistoric people had probably departed from the Gila Valley because of the Apaches, that the white settlers would undoubtedly meet a similar fate if they were not better protected, and that the Indians were not yet thoroughly subjugated by military power.
The older members of our family recall instances when the soldiers were hot on the trail of the Apaches, but would have to stop and await orders, thus giving the Indians a chance to escape. Consequently the Indians considered themselves masters of all the vast area of Arizona and New Mexico. In the early part of April, 1885, the citizens of Duncan decided to form a volunteer organization for the protection of the people in the little towns of their section of Arizona. As Father had been a great admirer of the Texas Rangers before he came to the southwestern frontier, he wanted a similar organization. He was familiar with the regulations governing such a company and knew what it could do. But at that time militia companies were being organized in different regions in Arizona, and the majority of the settlers wanted the Duncan group to be a militia company.
On March 8, 1881, Governor Trittle succeeded Governor Fremont. A militia company was organized in Duncan and was taken in as a unit of the First Regiment of the territorial militia. It was mustered into service late in May by Lieutenant-Colonel M.J. Egan, commanding officer of both the Duncan and the Clifton companies.
When the Duncan Militia Company was on the field, as it was on many occasions, the men could be depended upon to continue pursuit of the Indians every time the enemy came into that section of the country. But the wives of the militiamen spent miserable and agonizing days and nights while their men-folk were out on the trail. Alone with their small children, the women were fearful always that their family might be massacred, or that their husbands would not return.
Many nights these women slept in Father’s adobe corral with their children. This high-walled corral was built to serve as a fort, with portholes on all sides to shoot from. A few men were always assigned to guard duty there when the militia was called away. But the corral was 50 yards from the house, and in case of a surprise attack the mothers feared that they could never get all the children safely across that strip of ground between house and corral. So they were willing to put up with all kinds of discomfort to sleep in safety.
About the time the militia was mustered in, but before the commissions were signed, the greatest Indian outbreak occurred. On May 17, 1885, several hundred Apaches left the San Carlos reservation and went on the warpath. Though the militia was still a volunteer organization, orders came from the headquarters of the territorial militia in Prescott for the Clifton and Duncan companies to engage in active service in the protection of the citizens of Graham County [Greenlee County had not yet split off from Graham] from the hostile Indians. Colonel Egan was to direct the movements of the two companies, taking his orders from General George Crook.
At that time the Indians were becoming very bold. One night a band of the hostiles passing through the country went into the field surrounding the home of Henry Collins, who owned a small farm at the edge of Duncan, and killed his work team by cutting the animals’ throats. The Indians then stole a span of little mules belonging to Nels Mattison, a Dane whose farm joined Mr. Collins’ field.
Sometime after midnight, a Duncan resident left the saloon and started home. He caught sight of a man on a side street and called out: “You’re out late tonight.” Receiving no reply, he decided that the man did not want to be recognized. But the next morning, when moccasin tracks were found in that side street and in other sections of the town, he knew that he had seen one of the Indians that had lurked about town in the night. Outside the window of the room where three of my brothers, Jim, Will and Olin, were sleeping, at least one Indian had stood and peered inside.
A number of horses were stolen from the settlers that night, and next morning the militia started in pursuit, crowding the hostiles so hard that they abandoned some of the horses along the trail, among them Mattison’s span of mules. But the Indians managed to evade the militia and escaped into the mountains.
After the Duncan Militia Company was organized, it was almost constantly in the field trying to track down the savages who had killed settlers or stolen their stock. For a year and a half following the Apache outbreak on May 17, 1885, the Indians did not return to the reservation. Until Geronimo surrendered, they were constantly on the warpath, murdering settlers, both whites and Mexicans, in southwestern New Mexico, southern Arizona and northern Mexico. When pursued, they would take refuge in their strongholds in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico, where they spent much of their time between raids. During that year and a half, over fifty white and Mexican people around Duncan, Clifton and Carlisle, and on the Blue and Gila Rivers, were killed by the Indians. The savages never fought in the open and would not engage in battle unless the odds were greatly in their favor. They would fight from ambush or from rocky peaks and canyons, always an unseen foe. A number of times, the Duncan company was so close on their trail that they hostiles would scatter, eluding the company. Then they would proceed separately to some designated place. They were excellent walkers, capable of covering long distances at a time.
Ringgold’s story goes on to tell of a battle from which her father returned with an Indian baby boy still in his papoose carrier, his parents having been killed in the fight. The baby was adopted by a family called Adams that raised him as their own, first in Duncan and then in Solomonville.
Later that year, several murders of settlers by Apaches near Duncan brought General George Crook to focus on the roles of trails and hide-outs in the Upper Gila. He wrote at the time, “The country is so indescribably rough that any pursuit is almost a farce.”
But heightened tensions drove an increasingly successful campaign against the enemy, and by 1886 the Indian Wars were ended. For an excellent account of the final phases of the conflict, see historian James Hurst’s online essay “Geronimo's surrender — Skeleton Canyon, 1886."
The ruins of the mine at Carlisle, in the Steeple Rock District of Grant County, New Mexico, are just a few miles northeast of Duncan on a well-maintained dirt road. Local historian Richard Billingsley created this merged image with an old photo of the town and a shot of the landscape as it looks today (we added the photo of young Herbert Hoover with other engineers and the caption). None of the buildings still stand, but the foundations and a tremendous amount of scrap are still there to pick through. What appears to be a jail cell, a cave carved out of a mountain, the opening secured with iron bars, is said to be just that.
Starting in 1893, the gold, silver and copper being pulled from the Carlisle mine attracted thousands of workers and put in place all the businesses needed to sustain a lively mining town. In 1898, a young Herbert Hoover, three years out of Stanford, arrived at Carlisle as assistant superintendent of the Steeple Rock District Mines. He was put up in the home of Superintendent P.H. McDermott, who was also the hard-drinking little settlement’s deputy sheriff. Local legend has it that Hoover himself spent a night in that cave jail for drunken and disorderly conduct. He is said to have protested, “The Mexicans and Indians made me do it.”
At the time Hoover arrived, the mine was already in decline and a few years later it shut down until 1932, when new mining and milling techniques allowed for another 15 years of productivity. But since then Carlisle has declined from ghost town to ruin. It is a popular spot for rock-hounders today.
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.
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.
Because it cannot be proven to be the birthplace of Geronimo, Duncan is left with one illustrious native. Although she was born in El Paso, Justice O'Connor spent much of her childhood near Duncan on the Day family’s Lazy B Ranch, which straddles the Arizona-New Mexico border. Her book Lazy B: Growing Up On a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest is in our hotel library. The Duncan Pride Society has raised grant funds to create the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Walk along a section of Highway 70 at the west end of town. Ground will be broken on that project in mid-2009. The Round Mountain Rock-hounding Area south of Duncan, a favorite of rock fans, is accessed through the Lazy B Ranch across the border in New Mexico.