According to a recent genetic study, cattle were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East about 10,500 years ago. Christopher Columbus brought the first cattle to the New World in 1493, and other Spanish explorers brought cattle to Mexico about the time Cortez captured Mexico City in 1521.
Over the years, Mexican cattle spread northward with the Spanish missions; the missionaries encouraged indigenous people to raise domestic animals.
Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Kino drove in the first cattle in Arizona from Sonora in 1691, starting 20 years of mission development in the Santa Cruz Valley. Cattle became “the mainstays of the mission economies and a major attraction for Native American converts.”
At about the same time, Spanish ranchers started small cattle ranches in the San Rafael Valley, at the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River.
In 1736, a nearby silver discovery triggered a temporary mining boom in Southern Arizona, creating an expanded market for beef. Because of its consistently mild climate and rolling grasslands, the Santa Cruz Valley attracted many ranchers, establishing Hispanic families permanently in the area.
To further encourage settlement, the Spanish offered land grants. The Canoa Ranch, south of Tucson, and the Arivaca Ranch, southwest of Tucson, had their starts from these grants.
After Mexican independence in 1821, to attract additional settlers, the Mexican government continued the Spanish practice and awarded 10 private land grants in Southern Arizona — five along the Santa Cruz River or its tributaries, four in the San Pedro River watershed, and one, with its northern tip just jutting into Arizona, east of Douglas.
It was from these land grants that Southern Arizona’s most important cattle ranches would later emerge.
According to Thomas Sheridan in his history of Arizona, Mexican period mixed-breed longhorn cattle numbers probably never exceeded 30,000 animals. Droughts and Apache raids took a heavy toll, and by the 1840s, most of the Mexican ranches were abandoned and cattle herds ran wild. Thereafter, the continuous slaughter of wild cattle by Apaches, American soldiers, civilians and gold seekers crossing Arizona in the late 1840s and early 1850s exterminated the wild cattle in Southern Arizona.
Following the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, American cattlemen tried to “make a go of it” in Arizona. But continued Apache depredations and the outbreak of the Civil War severely limited these efforts.
The cattle boom in Southern Arizona started after the Civil War ended, when large numbers of Texas longhorns from overgrazed pastures were driven to the attractive, empty grasslands here.
The federal government was the stimulus for a growing cattle industry, buying large amounts of beef for U.S. Army posts and Native American reservations.
A few large ranches and several small ranches were founded in this period. New England native Col. Henry Hooker established the Sierra Bonita Ranch (north of Willcox), Englishman Walter Vail bought and expanded the Empire Ranch (south of Vail), and the Cienega Ranch was developed along Cienega Creek, southeast of Tucson.
The Sierra Bonita ranch, the first permanent American cattle ranch in Arizona, continues as a working cattle ranch today. In 1964, it was declared a National Historic Landmark.
The completion of the Southern Pacific transcontinental railroad in 1881 enabled the Southern Arizona cattle industry to expand rapidly. Wealthy investors came to Arizona from various locations around the country, particularly Texas, where cattlemen were looking to escape mandatory grazing fees on state lands.
Also, windmill technology improved to allow pumping of groundwater into ponds, freeing cattle to graze over extended distances from natural sources of water. And Hereford cattle were introduced into Arizona to improve the herd.
During this period, Pennsylvania-bred Colin Cameron bought the San Rafael Ranch and Texas native and Cochise County Sheriff John Slaughter purchased the San Bernardino Ranch east of Douglas. Both grew into major Arizona cattle operations.
The San Rafael survives today as the San Rafael State Natural Area (not currently open to the public). The San Bernardino Ranch became a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
With the decline of warfare against the Apache, previously established Hispanic families returned to ranching in Southern Arizona. Also, newcomers from Mexico arrived.
The number of cattle in Arizona grew exponentially. By the 1890s, there were about 1.5 million cattle in the state.
Meanwhile, another transcontinental railroad, this one across Northern Arizona, was completed in 1883. The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, linking Holbrook, Flagstaff and Kingman, provided access to the unexploited, lush grasslands of the Little Colorado River Basin in East Central Arizona.
The Aztec Land and Cattle Co., a consortium of Eastern businessmen and Texas ranching interests, purchased more than a million acres along the railroad route, and from 1884 to 1887 shipped tens of thousands of cattle from overgrazed Texas ranges to Arizona, quickly builing a herd of 60,000 animals. For a while, the Aztec Ranch was the third largest cattle ranch in North America.
Throughout the 1890s, however, successive droughts and range deterioration from overgrazing by too many animals caused heavy losses of cattle from starvation. In 1900, after only 16 years of operation, the Aztec Land and Cattle Co. declared bankruptcy, ending the speculative cattle ranching era in the region.
It had an extremely negative effect on the peoples and communities that depended on the ranges, and reduced future range productivity drastically.
A more successful cattle operation in Northern Arizona was started in 1886 by Cincinnati businessmen and brothers David and William Babbitt in mountainous pastures around Flagstaff. Their CO Bar Ranch grew steadily through acquisition of other ranches, and became one of the Southwest’s most successful cattle ranches. It still operates today.
Modern cattle industry
The severe droughts in the 1890s and overgrazing affected all Arizona cattle operations. To survive, cattlemen had to adopt a different approach — the open range gave way to stock raising as a modern business enterprise. From growing the largest herds possible, Arizona ranchers increasingly specialized in breeding superior beef animals, then shipping them to other states for fattening.
Herds peaked at 1.75 million head in 1918, fell to 750,000 by 1930, rebounded to 1.4 million in 1974, then gradually decreased to about 900,000 at the beginning of 2013. Perhaps surprisingly, Arizona only ranks 32nd in the U.S. for number of cattle.
Cattle ranching in Arizona today is about half of what it was during its peak, but remains a large source of revenue. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cattle ranching’s total value to the Arizona economy in 2012 was $1.02 billion.
Some of the ranches found in Arizona today are guest ranches where cattle are grazed and where modern cowboys demonstrate cowherding skills. Rodeos, county fairs and the Arizona National Livestock Show, the largest of its kind in the Southwest and held annually in Phoenix, are other ways for us to remember our cattle-ranching roots.