John Bartlett, Founder of “new” Oro Blanco

by Mary N. Kasulaitis

John “Yank” Bartlett was the one person responsible for the initial development of the town of new Oro Blanco and the mining district of the same name. (He probably got the name from old Oro Blanco, several miles south, which had been mined and named by Mexicans long before) His  name comes up again and again from the time he arrived in 1873 until his death more than 30 years later.

John Bartlett was born in New Hampshire in 1827 and was a freighter by trade.  He came to Arizona with the Army under General George Crook in 1871 and stayed.  He and his friend Henry “Hank” Hewitt were well known as Indian fighters and scouts as well as proficient packers.  In the early 1870s, the Apaches were subdued, so he and Hank went looking for a ranch. Allegedly it was Pete Kitchen who suggested Bear Valley. This is the valley on the west side of the Atascosas that feeds into Sycamore Canyon, west of Nogales.  There is a spring and good grass for cattle. It also has a trail from Mexico, used in old times by the Yaqui.

Just over Mule Ridge to the west of their homestead was a rugged mineralized area of canyons and gulches which had been mined during Spanish and Mexican times. Now called California Gulch.  Yank Bartlett and some Tucsonans began prospecting in the old abandoned locations.  Large oak trees had grown in the cuts where previous work had been done, leading the prospectors to think that it must have been many years ago, perhaps as far back as the Spanish period.  Called “Oro Blanco,” this gold mine was about three miles from the border. At the time no one was very sure exactly where the border was, since at this rugged location it had never been officially marked, and both Americans and Mexicans were somewhat excited over the prospects. Bartlett and some others did a survey and determined that the mine was on this side of the line. In April of 1873 they filed a location notice on the Oro Blanco mine and set up some arrastras.* As time went on, the partners disappeared, but John Bartlett held on to his Oro Blanco white gold. He also located, with other partners, the “Old Mine” which was a few miles west of the Oro Blanco.

In 1873 Bartlett married a widow, Gertrudes Marques Ward, who had two children, and they had seventeen more children, raising 10 to adulthood. The eldest, John Giles “Johnny” Bartlett, became famous in his own right. But that is another story. 

In 1875, Yank decided to get involved with the Ostrich mill operation, which they located on a flat mesa, with arroyos on each side, several miles north of the Oro Blanco mine.  This mill was affiliated with the Ostrich Mine, which was about three miles west in the hills of Cobre Ridge. According to the Tucson Citizen newspaper:  “The gold ore brought in from there was so rich that it excited people to go out of town who have not done so for years.” The Ostrich mill, owned by Bartlett, Hewitt, Dr. Handy and Robert Leatherwood of Tucson, was centrally located to the mining districts, so that ore could be brought there and processed, then transported to Tucson or El Paso. And of course, Bartlett was doing the freighting. As one newspaper said about Yank, “Doing his regular amount of work daily—48 hours out of the twenty-four without turning a hair.” Next on the list was the Yellow Jacket Mine, near the Ostrich lode.  The Yellow Jacket became one of the more successful mines in the district.

At the site of the Ostrich Mill, “new” Oro Blanco grew up.  Bartlett built an adobe house for his family, an office for his freighting business with Hewitt and a stable and other such buildings as might be necessary to a town.  A store went in, later a hotel, Chinese laundry, butcher shop,  and other buildings. Dr Noon had his office nearby. Bartlett and Hewett were still raising cattle over in Bear Valley, but when homesteading was allowed in the 1880s, Bartlett filed on a homestead at the New Oro Blanco location. New Oro Blanco became a hub for the area, and many mining men brought their families to live in the more accessible town, which was already well populated with the Bartlett family. This included the A.H. Noon family, the Searles, the Tonkins, the Encinas’, Rodriguez’ and the Orozcos, among others. For all the children, a school was constructed in 1882. After a time, more mills were constructed at the Warsaw and Arivaca, and the Ostrich mill went out of business.

It was in 1886 that an Apache band left the reservation and began raiding again in Southern Arizona.  They attacked Bartlett’s ranch in Bear Valley, while Bartlett and Johnny were there. A visiting neighbor, Phil Shanahan, was killed, along with his horse.  But that is another story.

Yank Bartlett was nothing if not a hard worker.  He was still working hard at the time of his death at the age of 70 in 1905, having outlived his partner Hank Hewitt by 15 years. The story merited the front page, column one, of the May 20 issue of the Nogales paper. With his son George, Yank was hauling a load to Oro Blanco, going down a steep grade near the Tres Amigos mine. (It was to have been the last load.) The brakes gave way and Yank was thrown under the wagon and crushed. At his funeral he was eulogized as being “one of the old timers who had earned with their rifles the right to live in Arizona, in the days when that was vigorously contested by the various tribes of Indians.  In those days Mr. Bartlett was known as a man of mettle.  Since the Indians gave up the struggle, John Bartlett has been one of the peaceful, highly respected citizens of the territory who numbered his friends by the hundreds.” And his children and their descendants as well.

After 1893 and the devaluation of silver, many mines closed and new Oro Blanco began to lose population, with the Bartlett’s and other nearby homesteads being purchased by A.H. Noon, who never lost hope. He turned it into his ranch headquarters. Since is still owned by the Noon family, it has never been a ghost town. Old Oro Blanco is another story, with mining operations having been worked over the years since that time by various companies up to almost the present day. No buildings are left, however.

*Arrastras are primitive ore mills, powered by donkeys or horses, which were commonly used in this country when a more sophisticated ore crusher was unavailable.

References:  Nogales and Tucson newspapers, “Arizona Days and Ways” article by Roscoe Willson in the Arizona Republic newspaper.

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