The ranching industry began in Southern Arizona in 1697 when Father Kino, a Spanish Jesuit priest, brought cattle into the region to supply food for the missions he established.
Settlement was encouraged but progressed slowly due to Indian attacks. A policy of Indian appeasement in 1785 lessened hostilities and by 1810 ranches dotted the area and thousands of cattle were on the range. The Mexican Revolution left the northern settlers virtually unprotected and raiding Apaches either stole or ran off their stock; the occupants fled or were killed and by 1840 about all that remained were ruins and scattered herds of wild cattle. The area was virtually deserted when immigrants passed through on their way to California during the Gold Rush.
As the population of California increased so did the demand for beef. The price of cattle rose as high as $300 a head and made an attractive market. It became profitable to drive cattle from Texas to California through Arizona even though many cattle were lost to Apaches. Cattle herds passed through the Sulphur Springs Valley where grass was abundant and there were several springs where the cattle could be watered. The mild winters allowed cattle to remain on the range and the abundance of tall lush grass, 12 to 20 inches high, made the valley appealing to cattle raisers but the menace of Apaches kept them from settling.
After the Civil War several Army Posts were established to control the Indian problem and ranches were established in the Santa Cruz and San Pedro Valleys. But the Sulphur Springs Valley remained unsettled; it was the land of the Chiricahua Apache. The Army Posts were a good market for beef. In 1867 Henry Clay Hooker began delivering cattle to the posts; he and his men drove as many as 15,500 head annually into the valley. Hooker recognized the valley’s potential for cattle raising. In 1872 he established Sierra Bonita Ranch in the northern end of the Sulphur Springs Valley becoming its first Anglo-American rancher.
In 1872 the Chiricahua Reservation, encompassing most of what is now Cochise County, was established making most of the Sulphur Springs Valley closed to settlement and not until after 1876 when the Apache were moved to the San Carlos reservation was it reopened. By 1883 white settlers entered the valley in numbers and established ranches. Cattle production in Arizona Territory and the Sulphur Springs Valley reached its peak in 1891 when there were approximately 1.5 million cattle on the open range.
Visit the Willcox Cowbelles ranch history displays at Old Pearce Heritage Days in Pearce, Arizona on November 29 and 30 to learn more about early ranching in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Walk the streets of Old Pearce that were once filled with miners and cowboys, visit the exhibits and shop at the vendor booths while listening to live western music.