The Death of a Fort


The description above of the enfeebled state of military preparedness at the Mexican fort at Tubac, with an actual strength of about thirty men out of an authorized complement of one hundred, with half to two-thirds of the actual strength on detached duty in the interior of the state of Sonora, leaving less than half a dozen men in the post fit for general duty, makes it very clear that the Tubac post was ripe for military destruction. The population of citizens at Tubac did not exceed 400 at this time (Velasco 1850:113). The description of high child mortality at Tubac above has indicated one source of "hidden" psychological stress under which the people of Tubac labored.

The Apaches who had gone back to raiding for a living had learned a great deal about Mexican strategy, tactics, weapons and military habits during their long years of peaceful residence under the supervision of the frontier garrisons. They were more efficient fighters against Mexicans at the end of their period of pacification than they had been at its beginning. Moreover, they were keen observers and must have been well aware of the pitiful weakness of the Tubac garrison after the departure of the Cucurpe-Rayón contingent in August of 1842. The only surprising thing is that the Apaches did not overwhelm Tubac sooner.

It was true that the Apaches had never managed to take a Spanish or Mexican fort. They had tried very hard to take610Tucson in 1782 and been repulsed by a handful of brave men led by the commanding officer (Franco 1782) who kept them from gaining the gate of the stockade. Tubac was to be the Apache's big success on the northwestern frontier.

Stimulated by the war between the United States and Mexico, the Apaches stepped up their attacks on the Sonoran frontier posts in 1846, 1847 and 1848 (Bancroft 1884:II:670). On May 9, 1847, these Indians achieved a major success in their long war with the Mexicans when they killed fifteen soldiers and citizens from the Tucson fort at a watering place some distance off (Libro de Entierros del Precidio de Tubac, f. suelto).

It fell the lot of the commander of the Tubac company, Saturnino Limón, to recover the bodies with a force of his troopers and citizens from Tubac. This he did nearly two months after the massacre, burying them on July 7th (ibid.).

The Apaches evidently marked the courageous Tubac commander and his outpost for special attention after their recovery of the remains of the Tucson unfortunates. On August 1 the sergeant of the Tubac company, Gaspar Espinosa, was killed in action by the Apaches, leaving another widow at the fort. In September the Pinaleño Apaches were attacking Tubac while negotiating for peace at Tucson (Bancroft 1889:475 from El Sonorense Oct. 8, 1847). A retaliatory expedition of seventy-seven soldiers and one hundred thirty-three citizens, Piman-speaking Indians and friendly Apaches managed to kill 611seventeen Apaches and capture fourteen others with a loss of only two men. This punitive expedition apparently merely whetted the Apache appetite for revenge, however, and the following year saw the full fury of the nearby Apache bands unleashed against the weakest link in the chain of frontier posts, Tubac.

The population of Tubac continued to decline so by September of 1848 there were less than the 249 persons reported there earlier in the year (Bancroft 1889:475 & Gándara Sept. 27, 1848:2). In December the Apaches mounted a full-scale assault which killed nine people at Tubac (Bancroft 1889:475 & El Sonorense Feb. 21, 1849:3:1), and more at Tumacácori. Both settlements were then abandoned (ibid., and ibid., 1:2). The mission Indians fled to Bac, thus strengthening that settlement at a crucial time, and some of the citizens from Tubac joined that mixed-Indian-mestizo community (Anonymous Sept. 6, 1908:7 & Mattison 1946:284). The rest of the Tubac populace moved to Tucson (El Sonorense Feb. 21, 1849:2:2).

It has generally been assumed that this Apache raid in December of 1848 was the cause of the abandonment of Tubac and Tumacácori-and there can be no doubt that it was the final blow which placed the people living there under too much stress to endure so that they fled. At the same time, there are two very important factors which have heretofore been somewhat underestimated in assessing the reason for the 612abandonment of Tubac. Some of the emigrants themselves attributed the abandonment to withdrawal of the pitiable handful of troops still there (Anonymous Sept. 6, 1908:7). The other factor was the knowledge of the discovery of gold in California which reached Sonora in the fall of 1848.

The gold craze which swept the eastern United States when news of this gold strike spread is well known to North Americans. Not so well known is the fact that Mexicans and Sonorans in particular, participated in the Gold Rush in very large numbers, and with the advantage of an earlier start from a closer starting point. The great western historian H. H. Bancroft (1884:II:670-671) emphasized the part played by the gold fever in leaving Sonora prostrate before Apache attacks, but failed to correlate this general condition with the specific abandonment of Tubac. R. H. Mattison (1946:288289) did recognize that emigration to California did play some part in the abandonment of southern Arizona.

In 1848 there were no international boundaries barring Mexicans from joining the rush for the California gold fields.  The treaty ending hostilities had not been signed until February 2 of that year (Bancroft 1885:V:540). There had not been time yet for the United States to establish customs barriers and passport regulations around California which was not yet a state. To the Sonorans, California was still a neighbor and somewhat familiar territory as well as a peaceful land unplagued by hostile Apaches. So thousands of people 613hurried to partake of the rich bonanza. Helpless to stop their emigration, Sonoran officials at the time recognized that the attraction of California lay as much in its security as in its gold (El Sonorense Feb. 21, 1849:2:2). Later the flood of United States emigrants greatly outnumbered the Sonorans, and the ethnocentric socio-political dominance of the North Americans pushed them away from the richer diggings, but for a few months the Sonorans had the edge on the bumptious Yankees. When the first party of North Americans to reach California via the southern route in 1849 reached the great bend of the Gila River in January it encountered a "large party" of Sonorans headed for California. The Mexicans urged the North Americans to travel with them because of their great fear of Apaches (Nevins 1939:370). This Sonoran emigrant caravan may have numbered 1,200 persons (McKelvey 1944:1045).

The significance of this migration from Sonora for Tubac lay in its timing and psychological impact. The Sonoran gold rush began in October of 1848 at the capital city of Hermosillo (Velasco 1850:289) and may have started somewhat earlier in the frontier towns such as Tubac where the startling news arrived sooner. This meant that there was ample time between the electoral report of 249 population sometime before September to have been outmoded by a plummeting total to a point where the few stay-at-homes could not realistically hope to defend themselves against a determined Apache attack. 614Whether the exodus to the gold fields from Tubac was large or not, certainly some Tubac residents departed for California before the December raid occurred. For the psychological impact of the news of the gold discovery must have been very great on the beleaguered Tubac populace. Before that news they had had no very attractive alternative to staying at Tubac. They might move to Tucson or Santa Cruz, but life there would be much the same as in Tubac. Greater numbers might insure greater long-range safety, but as long as men had to cultivate their fields or herd their cattle to support their families, they had to expose themselves to Apache surprise attacks and it did not matter particularly whether they died at Tubac or Tucson. The untold riches of virgin gold awaiting the industrious emigrant in California drastically altered this situation. After this news spread there was a realistic alternative to dying in Tubac-one might go to California and make a fortune in a few weeks running less risk than staying at home! With this alternative in peoples' minds, the psychological stress of waiting fearfully in Tubac for the next Apache raid must have increased manyfold, so that individuals who had successfully withstood the strain before no longer could.

One Tubac resident is definitely known to have joined the Gold Rush. This was Ignacio Ortíz, half-owner of the rich silver ores on the Aribaca ranch, half owner of abandoned La Canoa, and a leading citizen of Tubac (Poston Apr. 22, 1880:4).615With such an example to follow, surely many other Tubac citizens packed up and left for the California gold fields. Later Ortíz returned to his wife's home town of Tubutama rather than to Tubac, and such was a general pattern.

John E. Durivage, who passed through Tumacácori and Tubac on May 27, 1849, thought both were former ranches and wrote that the owners of both had gone with all their people to California seeking gold (Bieber 1937:209). His reasoning evidently exaggerated the fact, but must have been based on tales he heard at either Santa Cruz or Tucson of a number of Tubac and Tumacácori Mexicans joining the exodus for the Pacific Coast.

Whatever the effect of the California gold discovery news was on Tubac prior to the Apache attack in December of 1848, it surely had a very strong part in deciding the survivors upon abandonment.

The total emigration of Sonorans to California after the departure of the first caravan from Hermosillo in October of 1848 to March of 1849 was estimated at the time as 5,000 to 6,000 persons (Velasco 1850:289). That was probably an under-estimate, particularly for frontier settlements less amenable to checking by state authorities, especially in view of Fremont's encounter with a single party numbering over 1,000 on the Gila River (McKelvey 1955:1045). Tubac certainly contributed to that emigration and its loss of population combined with continued Apache pressure decided a pitiful remnant to 616seek refuge at Tucson and Bac in December of 1848. Some of the Tubac refugees very likely moved on from those refuge settlements to participate in later phases of the Gold Rush like many additional thousands of Sonoran residents. In the spring of 1850 North Americans in central California were rather disturbed by the size of Mexican emigration to former Mexican territory. A U. S. citizen arriving from Sonora reported passing "many thousands" of Mexicans on the road with mule trains aggregating fully 10,000 animals (Alta California May 14, 1850).

J. Abandonment

When the people of Tubac and Tumacácori abandoned their homes in December of 1848 or soon thereafter, they departed on the eve of the passage of thousands of North Americans through the Santa Cruz River Valley en route from eastern states to the goldfields of newly acquired California. They missed a chance to capitalize on the needs of these emigrants. To these travelers, Tubac was just additional evidence of Apache depredations and Mexican fighting inefficiency. Its peach orchards furnished them welcome fresh fruit in season.  Otherwise it was merely another abandoned village along the route to California.

First of the Forty-niner parties to pass Tubac was the remnant of John Charles Fremont's expedition which had nearly617perished in the snows of the southern Rockies the preceding fall (Fremont 1887:map). Finally condescending to listen to better advice than his own egotism, Fremont had been persuaded to take the Gila River route to California and descended the Río Grande until he could cut across to Santa Cruz and follow the Santa Cruz River downstream through Tubac (ibid., & Dellenbaugh 1914:408) to the Gila River. To Fremont Tubac evidently appeared to be another "ruined mission" (McKelvey 1955:1045), and he was one of those impressed by the peach orchard there (Nevins 1939:370).

On May 27 a party of southern emigrants reached the abandoned buildings at Tumacácori and Tubac (misrecorded as "La Vaca"), and a New Orleans journalist with the group thought them ranches and dated their abandonment in the previous February as a result of a raid by fifty Apaches (Bieber 1937:209). Another party which traveled from Janos to Tucson in midsummer found only deserted villages between (Wood 1955:11-12). Another emigrant train which entered Tubac on August 17 also interpreted it as an hacienda (Dumke 1945:149). A caravan from Little Rock which passed through this area in August or September noted deserted towns, ranches and smelting works all along the banks of the Santa Cruz River (Foreman 1939:282). The peaches at Tumacácori Mission were ripe by September 10 1849, supplying passing emigrants with delicious fruit (Martin 1925:143). The apples, pears, quinces and pomegranates were not yet ripe at that date.

618To some North American emigrants Tubac provided souvenirs-without doubt the very first tourist souvenirs acquired by U. S. citizens passing through southern Arizona headed somewhere else (not counting previous military expeditions as tourists).  H. M. T. Powell visited the former military post on October 6, 1849, and found "some old military papers" in a house.  Two or three of these he took for souvenirs (Watson 1931:142). The walls of the abandoned church and houses also provided convenient areas for passing North Americans to scribble their date of passage and names with charcoal (Graham 1853:41) in a foretaste of the paint-marred roadside rocks and advertising signs of the automobile tourist age.

A New York company passed through on October 13, noting only passing the deserted villages of Tumacácori and Tubac with some fine peach trees and melon vines (Aldrich 1950:51) which suggests that the Pápagos still continued to plant squash and melons along the river banks unless these plants had really escaped from cultivation and propagated themselves as Lt. Couts suggested.

The deserted walled village at Tubac did perform at least one helpful function for Forty-niners. Occasional parties halted within its protection to recruit for a few days.  Some of the remnants of the nearly disastrous Parker H. French train halted there on October 19th to rest for a few days before plunging west into the Papaguería (Cardinell 1922:60 & Miles 1851:22), missing the proper trail along the river. 619By December 12 the fruit emigrants had not picked from the fifty peach trees in the fenced orchard at Tubac had fallen to the ground (Hayes 1849).

Tubac remained abandoned for some time. When the Sonoran state legislature authorized the governor to commission irregular forces to fight the Apaches on February 7. 1850, that executive defined the frontier for purposes of regulating guerrilla activity. In describing the frontier line (Aguilar Feb. 7, 1850, he referred to Tubac as an "extinguished fort". Later in the same legislative session in a law altering the administration of taxes, Tubac was made subject to administration by an official whose office was established at Altar, removing Tubac and most of the other northwestern settlements from the jurisdiction of Ures (Aguilar July 3, 1850, Art. 4). This may have been legislative foresight looking toward re-establishment of the abandoned post rather than oversight.

Tubac remained abandoned until after early September in 1851. On September 17th of that year a scouting party of U. S. citizens with the United States Boundary Commission returned to camp near the San Pedro River after a trip to the Santa Cruz River at Tubac. The peach orchard continued to produce fruit ripe at that late date. The North Americans were looking for Santa Cruz because their provisions were running dangerously low. When the scouting party found Tubac "Here their suffering from hunger was somewhat alleviated by 620an abundance of fine ripe peaches which they found growing here" (Graham 1853:41). Some of these peaches were carried back to superior officers at the base camp where they provided a delicious treat (ibid., p. 42).

The Mexican Boundary Commission composed of officers and men from the centre of the country instead of frontier forces had also run out of provisions and wandered eight days with supplies for only two before finally reaching Imuris after striking the emigrant road somewhere on the Santa Cruz River near Tubac (ibid., p. 43 & Bartlett 1854:I:395). Thus Tubac served as a landmark to guide military surveyors through the border country, and even furnished them with very welcome fresh fruit even though no one lived there (Mowry 1864:187).

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