Characters of the Borderlands

By Ken Shroyer

The history of the Sonoran borderlands is rich in culture. It is a very unforgiving land, not easily made for habitation. The following stories cover a few men that had, or continue to have, a deep impact on the area. They left their mark on the borderlands and helped shape it towards the future.

One of the more colorful characters that had a direct impact on the early borderlands was Cipriano Ortega. Ortega, in his early years, had a reputation as an outlaw, bandit and murderer, preying on unsuspecting travelers in the northern Sonoran area. In time, Ortega put his outlaw ways behind him and settled in the Sonoita-Santo Domingo vicinity.[1] He became a man of some influence, known as the local benevolent dictator with a large family and rich hacienda at Santo Domingo, a Mexican village located on the Sonoita River just a short distance from the border.  While he had gained a reputation as a wise and fair administrator, he still could be ruthless when pursuing an interest. One account states that some Papagos fled the country under threat of harm by Ortega after they refused to divulge to him the location of a particularly rich silver deposit supposedly located in the Quitobaquito Springs area.[2]

While Ortega had generated other business interests, he accumulated the majority of his wealth through mining ventures on either side of the border. The greatest producer for Ortega would be the “La Americana” mine (later to be known as the Victoria Mine). Before he sold the mine in 1899, an estimated 80,000 and 120,000 dollars of gold and silver had been extracted out of the La Americana mine.[3] Ortega’s ability to secure mining claims on American soil through his connections to American partners reveals international cooperative relationships present at the borderlands. In particular, Ortega’s story is unique and significant in the history of the La Americana Mine/Victoria Mine as a border mine that maintained connections to both the United States and Mexico.[4]

Another gentleman that had an impact on the borderlands area was Jose Juan (James) Orosco. Orosco was never rich or particularly famous. But his story shows a way of life that slowly faded with the creation of Organ Pipe National Monument and the increased pressure on the border. Juan Orosco was born around 1890 in the Quitobaquito Springs area. The Orosco family, of the Sand Papago tribe, had called Quitobaquito Springs home longer than any white settler or Indian family.[5] With the exception of a brief period in 1907, when all residents temporarily left the area, Juan spent his entire life at Quitobaquito Springs. He followed in his father’s footsteps, farming approximately 5 to 6 acres and raising cattle. The acreage used for farming crossed over the border into Mexico, and utilized dam and irrigating ditches that had been created in the 1860s.[6] Juan always maintained that he hadn’t made changes to the dam or irrigation ditches, but merely using them as they had been designed so many years before. His crops included corn, figs, melons, and pomegranates. The one improvement that Juan made was in construction of a large “Molino”, or grinding mill, to make meal from his corn.[7]

With the creation of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 1937, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier requested to the National Park service that Orosco be allowed to stay on his fifteen-acre tract and to continue to graze 100 head of cattle in the area. Orosco was given permission to stay and granted a grazing permit, and lived out his remaining years at Quitobaquito Springs. Juan Orosco passed away in April, 1946 and was buried in the small Papago cemetery located north of the Quitobaquito pond. His son Jim inherited the farm and eventually sold it to the National Park Service in 1957. Perhaps not understanding the full historic value of the Orsoco ranch and despite protests from scholars and history enthusiasts, Superintendent Monte Fitch ordered all structures on the ranch razed. In addition, he deepened the pond and upgraded the dike.[8] One of the few areas spared would be the little cemetery where Juan and his family are buried. In retrospect, it may seem like Juan Orsoco did not have much of an impact on the borderlands area, he was after all a simple Sand Papago farmer and rancher. But his story is a reminder of days gone by when the border was more of a grey area than an actual line.

One of the more colorful of characters that had a direct impact on the borderlands for over four decades (1890s -1940) was Manual G. Levy. Also known as Mikul or M.G. Levy, he was born in Roma, Texas, August 31, 1859. Of Jewish and Spanish descent, he was the illegitimate son of a young, wandering merchant who was brought up by his single mother along the border.[9] While not a part of the boy’s upbringing, Levy’s father sent him to Heidelberg University to study mining. Upon his return to the United States, Levy began a series of retail shops that catered to miners, ranchers and homesteaders, all the while speculating in the area mines. In 1899, he purchased the La Americana mine from Cipriano Ortega and renamed it the Victoria Mine in honor of Victoria Leon, the wife of his friend and store clerk José “Jusi” Leon. In 1912, Levy incorporated his various businesses into the Levy, Mining, Mercantile & Contracting Company in an effort to push his mining operations. Unfortunately for Levy, he never achieved the success that Ortega had with the Victoria Mine. His initial intent was to further drop the main shaft to a depth of 500 feet, but he hit ground water at 312 feet. [10]  While several attempts would be made with various investors, they had no luck with attempting to mine under the water table. Levy never lost hope of the mine being profitable. Until his death in 1941, he remained convinced that the best ore lay below the water and he just needed the right investors to make it pay.

The next saga could be considered a story on current events rather than history, for this gentleman is still in the process of making his mark on the borderlands. Mike Wilson’s story is different than the others, for his tale is not about trying to accumulate wealth or even scratching out a living. His is a tale of doing what he knows in his heart is right, even when those around him may disagree with his actions. Mike is a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe, whose reservation is the only Indian reservation in Arizona that borders Mexico.[11] A retired military veteran, he studied at seminary to become a Presbyterian minister, but returned to the reservation to become a lay minister in Sells, the Tohono O’odham’s capital city.[12] In 2001, he noticed an article in the Arizona Daily Star concerning the mounting migrant deaths in the Sonoran desert area, and in particular the tribal lands.  He was horrified to see the disproportionate number of deaths just east of the city of Sells. To him, it seemed that nobody was doing anything to solve the problem. On that day he said to himself “Okay, a pastor should be doing something.”[13]  A humane organization, Humane Borders, petitioned the 12 districts within the reservation for permission to set up water stations. Their requests were all turned down because the districts felt that setting up aid like that would increase the migrant travel through their lands. Mike contacted Humane Borders and told them, “You guys can’t go on tribal lands, but I can.”[14] He worked out a deal with Humane Borders where they provided water tanks and he delivered them onto tribal lands and keeps them filled. Even with vandalism and the occasional complete removal of the tanks that he has set out, he continues to push and provide water to those in need. From his perspective, “No one deserves to die in the desert for lack of a cup of water.”

The stories of these men are just a few of many that could be told of those that have made their homes along the Sonoran borderlands. They have made an impact on the borderlands, much like the borderlands have made an impact on them.


[1] U. S. Department of the Interior, Historic Resource Study, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona. By Jerome A. Greene. National Park Service, Denver, Co. September, 1977. Page 26.

[2] Ibid.

[3] National Park Service.Cultural Landscape Survey 2010: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. http://www.cefns.nau.edu/Orgs/CPCESU/current/documents/ASU-45FinalReport.pdf  (accessed April 15, 2012) page 36.

[4] Ibid.

[5] U. S. Department of the Interior, Historic Resource Study, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona. By Jerome A. Greene. National Park Service, Denver, Co. September, 1977. Page 81.

[6] Ibid. Page 82.

[7] Ibid. Page 82.

[8]   U. S. Department of the Interior, Historic Resource Study, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona. By Jerome A. Greene. National Park Service, Denver, Co. September, 1977. Page 70.

[9]   National Park Service.Cultural Landscape Survey 2010: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. http://www.cefns.nau.edu/Orgs/CPCESU/current/documents/ASU-45FinalReport.pdf   (accessed April 15, 2012) Page 38.

[10]  National Park Service.Cultural Landscape Survey 2010: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. http://www.cefns.nau.edu/Orgs/CPCESU/current/documents/ASU-45FinalReport.pdf  (accessed April 15, 2012) Page 44.

[11] Margaret Regan.”The Death of Josseline.”Beacan Press, Boston.2010. Page 130.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Margaret Regan.”The Death of Josseline.”Beacan Press, Boston.2010. Page 134.

[14] Ibid. Page 136.

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