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Western Women: Petra Stevens' idyllic life was rocked by an inexplicable act of violence
Western Women

Western Women: Petra Stevens' idyllic life was rocked by an inexplicable act of violence

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On June 21, 1844, Maria Petra Alcantar Santa Cruz was born to Juan and Manuela Santa Cruz just outside the presidio walls that surrounded the village of Tucson, one of the first families to settle beyond the protective garrison. By her early teens, she was an orphan living with her aunt Guadalupe and younger sister Atanacia.

Guadalupe took in laundry and cleaned houses to support her two young charges. One of the men she worked for was Hiram Stevens, a young soldier who had just mustered out of the Army. Hiram had a knack for business and was making good money supplying merchandise to Arizona military posts.

Almost as soon as he saw Petra, Hiram knew he wanted her as his wife. However, when he asked Guadalupe for permission to marry, the child’s aunt refused the proposal. Petra was only 13 years old and Hiram was not of her faith. It took Hiram three years and a conversion to Catholicism before Guadalupe blessed the marriage.

The couple wed in 1859 and Hiram took his bride back to his home in Weston, Vermont. For three years, Petra endured the cold and snow, and since she spoke no English, she missed her family and friends in Tucson. She finally convinced Hiram to return to the Old Pueblo.

Hiram thrived in Tucson. He was a post trader, owned a general store and had ranching interests near Sentinel Peak. When the territorial capital was moved from Prescott to Tucson in 1867, Hiram rented out one of the structures he owned on Ochoa Street to serve as the capitol building.

In 1868, Hiram was elected a member of the lower house of the 5th Arizona Territorial Legislature. He was elected to the upper house in 1869. Two years later, he became Tucson’s first treasurer. He was one of the richest men in Tucson.

Hiram built a magnificent home on what is now Main Street in downtown Tucson (originally called Calle del Correo). The thick adobe walls and high ceilings made it one of the most handsome buildings of the time. In 1874, he purchased the adjoining house that had once been owned by Arizona’s first U.S. Marshal Milton Duffield, constructing a connecting passageway between the two homes. He and Petra added fruit trees and a grape arbor. Petra had an aviary on the back porch where she kept a bevy of birdcages. She lived a luxurious lifestyle far beyond her modest beginnings.

After Hiram won a congressional seat as a territorial delegate in 1875, the couple headed for Washington, D.C.

Petra loved the nation’s capital. She relished the social life, the numerous parties and the camaraderie of the other women she met, some of whom spoke Spanish.

Hiram was re-elected to Congress but in 1878. He lost his third bid. He and Petra returned to Tucson.

The couple entertained lavishly, with Petra a most charming hostess. She wore the finest clothing and was said to appreciate expensive jewelry. Aunt Guadalupe lived with them, as did Petra’s younger sister Atanacia until her marriage to another up-and-coming Tucson businessman, Sam Hughes.

Petra and Hiram had no children but reared 2 youngsters: Thomas was considered an adopted son and went by the last name of Stevens, although no record exists of the adoption; and Eliza, whose mother died in childbirth and was legally adopted by Petra and Hiram.

To all outward appearances, the family was content and flourishing until March 21, 1893, when 61-year-old Hiram came home complaining of a headache. Petra sent him to bed while she lay down in another room as she also was not feeling well.

Suddenly she realized Hiram was standing over her with one hand on her forehead and a revolver in his other hand. Hiram raised the gun and fired, the bullet grazing Petra’s head. She struggled to grab the gun, but Hiram fired again, hitting Petra’s hand. He then picked up another gun and shot himself in the head. He died two hours later. Petra survived as the bullet that grazed her head was reported to have been miraculously deflected by a heavy Spanish comb in her hair.

Tucson was stunned. Why would an apparently affluent man with lasting ties to the territory try to kill his wife and take his own life? Speculation ran rampant through town.

Business difficulties were cited as the cause of Hiram’s fall, as well as health issues. Hiram had rewritten his will just three months before his death, leaving everything to Petra.

One newspaper commentary suggested that during his time in Washington, Hiram had an affair that continued after he returned to Tucson. Around 1880, the article intimated that his mistress gave birth to a daughter that Hiram supported the rest of his life.

If Petra knew of Hiram’s indiscretion, it certainly must have put a strain on the marriage.

Petra recovered from her injuries and continued to live in the Main Street home. She moved into smaller quarters of the house and rented out the rest of the rooms to boarders.

Daughter Eliza, after a bitter divorce, returned with her four young children to live with Petra, who doted on her grandchildren.

In the summer of 1916, Petra moved to Los Angeles to live with Atanacia and Sam Hughes’ daughter, Elizabeth. She died there on July 29 at the age of 72. She was brought back to Tucson and is buried in Holy Hope Cemetery. Her one wish was that she not be buried next to her husband. Hiram Stevens is buried at Evergreen Cemetery.

The Stevens house passed through several hands until 1968, when the old building was acquired by the city of Tucson. In 1975, several buildings on the block, including the Stevens house, were leased to the Tucson Museum of Art and are now part of sprawling galleries that feature original and traveling exhibitions. The buildings, which are in the oldest historic area of Tucson, maintain their original grandeur.

Jan Cleere is the author of several historical nonfiction books about the early people of the Southwest. Email her at Jan@JanCleere.com.

Website: www.JanCleere.com.

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