Ranching in Southern Arizona to 1937

by Darryl Plummer

At first glance, livestock-raising in the vicinity of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument does not seem out of the ordinary. The Spaniards first came with livestock, Americans came later with more livestock, and ranching was eventually banned after the creation of the national monument in 1937.  However, the development of ranching had profound effects on the people who carried it out and is linked to a variety of local and national factors.  To understand the progression of ranching in the area that became Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, it is necessary to look beyond the modern borders of the monument and in more detail at the Spanish entrance into the southwest, Native Americans, American settlers, and specifically the Gray family, who were the most influential American ranchers within the Monument.

Drawing of Father Kino by Francis O’Brian, 1962

The practice of ranching in southern Arizona began with the Jesuit missionary Father Kino, who was active in northern Sonora and southern Arizona in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  Father Kino, like many Spaniards, believed that convincing natives to settle around mission sites was key to converting and “civilizing” them.[1]  To entice natives to these settlements and away from semi-nomadic lifestyles, Father Kino brought new seeds, farming techniques, and most importantly, thousands of livestock.  He used his sizable herd as a type of mobile capital to form the nucleus of future mission sites by sending thousands of animals north into Arizona to provide food for growing missions.[2]  With few exceptions, natives welcomed both livestock and Kino’s instruction on ranching.[3]  Although Kino established the majority of his missions outside modern Arizona, he did establish the missions at Sonoyta, directly south of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, and Tumacacori in the Santa Cruz River Valley on the eastern border of the modern Tohono O’odham Nation.[4]  These missions, in addition to Kino’s frequent travels through southern Arizona, diffused the culture of ranching throughout the north Sonoran Desert.[5]

The presence of cattle in southern Arizona had far reaching effects for natives.  Shortly after Father Kino’s death in 1711, good pasture drew Spanish ranchers north and they began repealing regulations on the use of native lands and labor.  After Mexico gained independence in 1821, the process accelerated.  The Hia Ced O’dham, who occupied the harshest regions of the Sonoran Desert, unsuitable even for ranching, began to acquire livestock and assimilated into other nearby tribes.[6]  The Tohono O’odham used livestock too, although probably not as Father Kino intended; rather than settling in towns, they merged livestock into current patterns of habitation and practiced something that might be called “subsistence ranching.”  During wet summer months, the Tohono set up villages in the valleys to use the rainfall for farming and pasture their livestock.  During the drier winter months, they moved into the highlands and used the livestock to supplement more meager winter food supplies.[7]  Perhaps the most negative consequence of livestock was their attractiveness to Apache raiders.  The Apache, who had given up their old way of life in the sixteenth century to pursue a nomadic, horse centered raiding culture, had plagued Spanish and Indian ranchers alike on the Spanish frontier.[8]  Raids were an issue even in Father Kino’s time and continued to stifle large-scale livestock operations into the American period, with raids recorded every year of the 1850s and 1860s.[9]

The American period began with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, which transferred what is now Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to the American side of the border.  Even prior to this event, Texan ranchers had been driving cattle through southern Arizona to supply the California Gold Rush of 1849 and they put forth the first land claims as early as 1854 in the Santa Cruz River Valley, on the eastern border of the modern Tohono O’odham Nation.  American encroachment on native lands now replaced Mexican encroachment, which continued until the Tohono O’odham negotiated their reservation in 1916.[10]  The elimination of Apache raiding in the 1870s by the U.S. Army and the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad through Tucson in 1881, for the first time made southern Arizona an attractive location for large-scale commercial ranching and linked it to the national economy.[11]  Some Tohono O’odham were quick to participate in the new ranching industry on their own lands.[12]  When Carl Lumholtz, a Norwegian ethnologist, visited the Tohono O’odham in the early twentieth century, he noted dramatic changes that had occurred in the last twenty years; the “ancient atmosphere” of the people was quickly giving way to modern commercialism.[13]  Assisting the commercialization of ranching was the unwritten law that he who controlled the water for a piece of terrain controlled the land.  This allowed larger land holdings, contrary to federal land laws, which resulted in fierce, sometimes violent, competition over water resources in the semi-arid environment.[14]

Dos Lomitas Ranch from NPS

Robert Louis Gray, a veteran cowboy of Texas ranches, first moved his family to Arizona by wagon in 1912.  By 1919, he bought three hundred cattle and the Rattlesnake Ranch from Lonald Blankenship, renaming it Dos Lomitas.  Although there were other small-scale ranching operations as early as 1912 in what is now Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Bob Gray began to ranch here on a larger scale.[15]  He bought nearby wells and consolidated his holdings.  Many of the wells that Gray bought were originally used for mining, not ranching.  This is in large part due to the marginal ranching land this area offered.  The fact that Bob Gray came here, on the western edge of the modern Tohono O’odham Nation, where the land begins its transition into the bleakest parts of the Sonoran Desert, is probably due to his relatively late arrival in Southern Arizona.  People on both sides of the border regarded Bob Gray as a hardworking, honest, and reputable member of the community, but his ambition dramatically changed the land.[16]  The southern Arizona practice of grazing more cattle than the land could support in good years in order to ride out the bad years was having noticeable effects on vegetation cover and erosion as early as the 1880s in more traditional ranching areas.  Nonetheless, Bob Gray continued the practice of overgrazing, creating future friction between conservationists and the monument administration.[17]

The end result of nearly two hundred fifty years of ranching in southern Arizona, in what would become Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, was the Gray family ranch.  The factors that shaped the land culturally and environmentally prior to the Gray family’s arrival influenced Robert Gray’s decision to ranch where he did, shaped the challenges he faced, and the manner in which he interacted with the land and people.  Had Father Kino not introduced livestock to the natives or had California not experienced a gold rush, ranching on this strip of land likely would not have occurred as steadily or with the same consequences.  Although the Gray family eventually ceased grazing on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, ranching continues to be a significant part of the economy for southern Arizona and the Tohono O’odham Nation.


[1] Herbert E. Bolton, “The Mission as a Frontier Institution in the Spanish-American Colonies,” The American Historical Review (October, 1917): 43-45.

[2] 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), 126.

[3] Herbert Eugene Bolton, The Padre on Horseback, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1963), 64-67; cycles of conquest 130-31

[4] Spicer, Cycles of Conquest, 122.

[5] Ibid., 130-31.

[6] Ibid., 128-34.

[7] Carl Lumholtz, New Trails In Mexico: An Account of One Year’s Exploration in North-Western Sonora, Mexico, and South Western Arizona 1909-1910 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 25.

[8] Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 159-60.

[9] Spicer, Cycles of Conquest, 134.

[10] J. J. Wagoner, “History of the Cattle Industry in Southern Arizona, 1540-1940,” University of Arizona Bulletin (1952): 112; Spicer, Cycles of Conquest, 134-40.

[11] Wagoner, “History of Cattle,” 44-51.

[12] Spicer, Cycles of Conquest, 138; Lumholtz, New Trails, 33-40.

[13] Lumholtoz, New Trails, 29 and 363-5.

[14] Wagoner, “History of Cattle,” 64-67.

[15] National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Dos Lomitas, Lawrence F. Van Horn, Denver, March 17, 1994: 4-14.

[16] National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Bates Well, Lawrence F. Van Horn, Denver, March 30, 1994: 19-20.

[17] NPS, Bates Well, 20; Wagoner, “History of Cattle,” 39.

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