Hardships were part of life for Southern Arizona pioneers in the mid-1800s, but the trials endured by Larcena Pennington Page would have brought the toughest frontiersman to his knees.
Her survival after being kidnapped, stabbed, beaten and left for dead by a band of Apaches was near-miraculous.
Larcena was a young woman with a lot of responsibilities when she arrived in Southern Arizona in 1857. After her mother's death, it was up to Larcena and an older sister to care for their 10 younger siblings as they rode in a wagon train with their father from Texas to California.
However, by the time they reached Fort Buchanan near Sonoita, in what was then Apache country, Larcena was ill with mountain fever and the Penningtons were forced to drop out of the wagon train while she recovered.
The family settled near Sonoita, where it cultivated vegetables and earned money by providing hay to the fort. The Apaches mostly left the family alone except for occasional raids to steal corn from its garden.
A year after arriving, Larcena, a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, good-natured woman, married John Hempstead Page, a lumberman who hauled timber from the Santa Rita Mountains to Tucson. They lived at Canoa Ranch, but John often spent long stretches working at a lumber camp in Madera Canyon.
Larcena, missing her husband during his many absences, eventually persuaded John to take her with him on a trip to the lumber camp. They were accompanied by another frontiersman, and Larcena brought along Mercedes Quiroz, an 11-year-old Mexican girl whom she tutored.
The party of four had no sense of danger when it pitched its tents beside a stream in Madera Canyon the first night. After breakfast the next morning, the men left camp — Page riding ahead to check on the next load of lumber and his partner gone in search of wild game.
Once the men were out of earshot, a band of five Apaches, who had been following the group throughout the previous day, attacked. Larcena grabbed a pistol, but the gun was wrestled away from her. Before marching their captives into the hills, the kidnappers ransacked the campsite.
The hilly trail was difficult, and the temperature was cold. It was March 1860, and snow still lay in large patches on the ground. As the group walked, Larcena tore bits of cloth from her dress and bent twigs in her wake to signal the rescuers she hoped were in pursuit.
"My inability to travel at the speed which they desired was the cause of my receiving the most brutal treatment at their hands," Larcena later said. "They several times pointed a six-shooter at my head, as much as to say that my fate was already decided upon and that I was to be made a victim of savage barbarity."
Near sunset, when Larcena no longer could keep up, her captors forced her to remove her corset, skirt and shoes, leaving her nearly nude. Suddenly one of the Apaches stabbed her in the back with his lance, causing her to tumble down a ravine. The others followed, stabbing her repeatedly — 11 times in all — and pelting her with rocks until she lay motionless in a snowbank.
When Larcena finally regained consciousness, three days had passed. The chilling snow had slowed the bleeding from her wounds. Fearing the Apaches who had kidnapped her were nearby, she did not want to use the same trail they'd traveled. Instead, after slaking her thirst with snow, Larcena used natural landmarks and the position of the sun to get her bearings and set off bushwhacking across the desert.
Barefoot, blistered from the glaring sun on her bare skin and weak from blood loss, "my feet gave out the first day and I was compelled to crawl most of the distance," Larcena said. "Sometimes after crawling up a steep ledge, laboring hard for half a day, I would lose my footing and slide down lower than the place from which I started."
She subsisted on snow and wild grasses. During the frigid nights, she clawed shallow indentations in the hard earth and slept.
All the while, search parties led by her husband and soldiers from the fort were scouring the vast landscape looking for Larcena and Mercedes.
On the 12th day of her ordeal, Larcena reached a high point on a ridge. From the perch, she could see the camp where she'd been abducted and men passing through the site. Tying her petticoat to a stick, she waved her makeshift signal flag and screamed for help, but her shouts went unheard as the party moved on.
It took Larcena another two days to crawl to the camp. She found a log still smoldering in the fire pit and, using water from the nearby stream, she scraped up enough of the flour left scattered on the ground by the Apaches to make a humble meal — she fashioned dough into patties and cooked the flatbread over the fire. After spending the night sleeping next to a warm campfire, Larcena moved on.
It was on the 16th day that she finally found help after stumbling into another campsite along the logging route. Hair clotted with blood, wounds gaping, skin blackened by the sun, emaciated and nearly naked, she shocked the men who saw her approach. One declared her to be an apparition. They could not believe the 23-year-old had survived more than two weeks in the desert and had traveled 15 miles in her condition. The men transported her to Canoa Ranch and sent for her husband and a doctor.
Edward F. Radeleff, an accountant for a Tubac-based mining company, rode with the doctor: "There I saw the poor woman. Lance thrusts in both breasts and in numerous other places, bruised from rocks thrown at her by the Indians, almost everywhere covering her with blood, emaciated beyond description, her hands and knees and legs and arms a mass of raw flesh almost exposing the bones, caused by crawling over the cruel rocks, uphill and downhill."
After two days' rest at the ranch, Larcena returned to Tucson, where she was reunited with Mercedes. The little girl had been recovered as part of a prisoner exchange between the Apaches and the soldiers at Fort Buchanan.
Unfortunately, her 16 days in the desert weren't the last anguish Larcena would suffer. She was pregnant with her first daughter when, a year later, her husband was killed during an Apache ambush. Within the next several years, she lost five more family members. Her father and two brothers were killed by Apaches, one sister died of miliaria and another from pneumonia.
Yet when the rest of her grief-stricken family decided to return to Texas, Larcena stayed behind. She married miller and miner William F. Scott, had two more children and lived out the rest of her 76 years uneventfully in downtown Tucson, near the street — Pennington — that bears her family name.
A different tack
Life Stories usually chronicle the lives of recently deceased Tucsonans. But at this time of year, when the veil between life and death is thin and thoughts are near of loved ones long passed away, Life Stories steps back in time to remember the courageous Larcena Pennington Page. The information was compiled from Arizona Daily Star and Arizona Historical Society archives.