American Newcomers

by Darryl Plummer

On June 20, 1824, James Ohio Pattie, his father Sylvester Pattie, and four others left St. Louis to trade with the Native Americans on the upper Missouri River.  Thirty-eight days into their expedition an official informed the party that they lacked the required permits to trade.  In a snap decision, they decided instead to travel to the Mexican occupied state of New Mexico, which included modern Arizona at that time.  This began Pattie’s four year odyssey through the southwest that would eventually lead him to California.[1]  The group entered Arizona as it was undergoing dynamic changes.  Spanish newcomers had been arriving for centuries since the Spanish conquistador Coronado first stepped into the southwest in 1540.  Even Native Americans like the Navajo and Apache were relative newcomers when compared to the Tohono O’odham.[2]  Although Pattie had no way of knowing at the time, his party was at the tip of a fresh wave of newcomers.

James Pattie, like many later American newcomers, entered Arizona more by coincidence than plan.  He exploited natural resources in the form of beaver pelts and never had the intention settling the area, but rather to make a profit and leave.  This is in contrast to Spanish newcomers over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who came to Christianize natives and establish a Spanish claim to the region.[3]  By the time American trappers like Pattie began their expeditions into the southwest in the 1820s, Mexico had achieved independence from Spain and the northern frontier was not their immediate concern.  The new Mexican government abandoned the Spanish policy of buying off the Apache with food, which resulted in increased Apache raids.[4]  Pattie noticed the effects of this discarded policy as he passed through deserted Mexican ranches and farms, commenting that one area was “one of the loveliest regions for farmers that I have ever seen, though no permanent settlements could be made there, until the murderous Indians, who live in the mountains, should be subdued.”[5]  The unofficial Mexican retreat from the frontier encouraged continued incursions by American and French trappers, further weakening the Mexican claim that was never fully established in the eyes of the United States.  After Mexico transferred the southwest to the United States in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, these trappers served an important role as guides in opening up Arizona to U.S. survey teams, the military, and settlers.[6]

Spanish Mining Methods in Southern Arizona

Spanish Mining Methods in Southern Arizona

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, the primary interest of Americans in Arizona was how to traverse the newly acquired territory as quickly and safely as possible to arrive in California.  Sixty-thousand gold prospectors destined for California crossed Arizona using the Gila River from 1849-1851.[7]  Engineers surveyed the land for the best rail route through Arizona, Texans drove cattle through Arizona to high paying markets in California, and the military built forts like Fort Yuma and Fort Buchanan to ensure the safety of travelers.  However, few people chose to stay in Arizona for any length of time.  By the mid-1850s, prospectors, some drifting back from California, began combing over old Spanish mines and making claims.[8]  The Ajo mine, less than ten miles north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, was first claimed in 1854.[9]  The Army garrisons, prospectors, and mail stations provided demand for timber, labor, and food; the first jolt to the Arizona economy.

Portrait of Samuel P. Heinzelman during the American Civil War

Some of the first transient Americans in Arizona attempted to further develop Arizona’s resources.  The U.S. Army assigned Major Samuel P. Heintzelman to Fort Yuma in 1852, where he became acquainted with the potential mineral wealth of Arizona.[10]  Although Heintzelman saw opportunity, like many prospectors he lacked the capital to personally develop the resources.  In 1856, he formed a partnership with other Arizona newcomers and incorporated the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company in Cincinnati.  The corporation purchased twenty thousand agricultural acres with eighty mines in the Santa Cruz valley area.[11]  Due to the complete lack of government and services, the company mining town controlled many aspects of production and daily life, including small scale food production, justice, and defense against potential Apache raids.  The mines produced some silver, but mostly copper.  The relative price of copper ore to the cost of the one hundred mile trip by mule to Yuma caused serious strain on the company’s resources.  Ultimately, the mining venture failed in 1863 due to the lack of infrastructure in Arizona and poor management.[12]  However, mining ventures like this attracted Texan ranchers who were already familiar with Arizona from their cattle drives to California.  The first ranching operations also took hold in the Santa Cruz Valley and produced cattle primarily for the early miners and the U.S. Army in Arizona.[13]

Report for the Stockholders of the Sonora Mining and Exploration Company, 1857

The first governor of the newly established territory of Arizona, John Goodwin, took charge in 1863.  His goal was the economic development of Arizona.  To this end, he promoted direct military action against hostile Native Americans (primarily the Apache and Navajo) until they could be confined to a reservation.  He also recognized that a railroad through the territory would allow the export of Arizona’s resources, making mining ventures like Heintzelman’s profitable.[14]  After the American Civil War, the U.S. sent additional soldiers Arizona to combat Native American raiding and built new forts.  From 1866-1870, the U.S. Army conducted 137 skirmishes and counted 649 enemy dead.  Eventually, a policy very similar to the Spanish policy toward Apache predominated, in which the U.S. government supplied potentially hostile Natives with food and goods in return for their agreement to live peacefully on a reservation.  Besides opening up large tracts of previously unsafe land for miners, ranchers, and settlers, this policy created lucrative contracts in Arizona to supply both soldiers and Natives on the reservations.[15]  The American population of Arizona quadrupled between 1870-1880 in response to both safer surroundings and new economic opportunities.[16]  After the completion of the South Pacific railroad in 1881, Arizona was able to fully enter the national market and newcomers came more by design rather than coincidence.

The story of American newcomers to Arizona is the story of Arizona’s incorporation into the United States.  Nomadic mountain men like James Ohio Pattie first entered Arizona as part trapper, part adventurer.  After the United States took the territory from Mexico, early trappers served a secondary role as guides to the initial U.S. Government survey teams and military outposts.  The boom in California drew thousands through Arizona and opened up economic opportunities.  Although the early arrivals to Arizona commonly left with little or nothing to show for their labor, they laid the groundwork for future settlers.


[2] Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 56-7, 80, 127.

[3] Edward H. Spicer, Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960 (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1962), 343.

[4] John P. Wilson, Islands in the Desert: A History of the Uplands of Southeastern Arizona (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995),  66-7.

[5] Pattie, Early Western Travels, 160.

[6] Bert M. Fireman, Arizona: Historic Land (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1982), 110.

[7] Odie B.Faulk, Arizona: A Short History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), 76.

[8] Wilson, Islands in the Desert, 75-91, 131.

[9] Eldred D. Wilson, “Early Mining in Arizona,” Kiva 11 (May, 1946): 40-2.

[10] Faulk, A Short History, 79

[11] Sonora Exploring and Mining Co., “Report of the Sonora Exploring and Mining Co., made to The Stockholders,” (Cincinnati: Railroad Record Print, 1857), 3-6.

[12] Diane North, “’A Real Class of People’ in Arizona: A Biographical Analysis of the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company 1856-1863,” Arizona and the West 26 (Autumn, 1984): 269-73.

[13] J. J. Wagoner, “History of the Cattle Industry in Southern Arizona, 1540-1940,” University of Arizona Bulletin (1952): 37-8.

[14] Jay  J. Wagoner, Arizona Territory 1863-1912: A Political History, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970),    34-5.

[15] Wilson, Islands in the Desert, 99-108.

[16] Fireman, Arizona: Historic Land, 127.

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