William S. Tonkin, miner and rancher

by Mary Kasulaitis

Stories of the old days in Arivaca and Oro Blanco are remembered by the families of the relatively few people who settled in this area in the 1800s. The Tonkin family arrived in new Oro Blanco in about 1880, probably following William’s younger brother, Thomas. William S. Tonkin had been doing some mining in California and had heard about the Oro Blanco area. He was from England, probably from the county of Cornwall, known for its tin mines. His wife Ella was born in Missouri but come to the West Coast with her family, where she met William. When they arrived here in the Oro Blanco area they had a baby, also named William. They settled first in the Warsaw Camp and William did some prospecting. In September of 1881 their second son, Jesse, was born, delivered by Dr. A. H. Noon. They went on to have several more children. They became good friends with the few other families who were living in or near Oro Blanco, joining in community programs and inviting folks over to eat turkey and other homegrown food.

In the late 1880s, homesteads were opened up in the Oro Blanco area. William Tonkin took advantage of the opportunity to get 160 acres of land and filed on land near Alaska Hill. This area is where the Tonkin Well is located and some of us know it as the place where the Cobre Ridge Endurance Horse Race used to be staged, off the road to Arivaca Lake. Adobe ruins of their home still remain there, under Alaska Hill, on Oro Blanco Wash. William filed for a brand and began raising cattle.

Growing up in Oro Blanco, son Jesse collected stories, which in his later years he related to Fred Noon, whose father was about ten years older than Jesse. Some of these were tales of the Apache raids that took place in 1886. Many of us have heard about the murder in Bear Valley at Yank Bartlett’s ranch of Phil Shanahan and his horse, and the daring run of Johnny Bartlett to get help. Less well known is the murder of Jack Smith near the Ruby Mine and also that of Dutch Moore near Arivaca. 1886: Jesse remembered being warned by Dolf Noon that Apaches were raiding: “The folks hustled us kids, Will, me and Ruth out of bed and after dressing took off for town. I had dressed in such a hurry I hadn’t laced my shoes and kept stepping on the laces while on that pitch dark night trip to town. The group consisted of us kids, Mother carrying sister Ruth and father some bedding and clothes and his 45-60 Winchester. We arrived without incident and took up lodging in the Graddicaps Hotel on Main Street (new Oro Blanco)… My father made daily trips to the ranch to water the cattle and feed the horses and look things over. On one of these trips Father noticed a man on horseback traveling along a ridge when suddenly the rider disappeared from view. Father mounted his horse and with his 45-60 carbine took chase. Arriving at the ridge he spied the rider, an Indian, riding like mad and kicking up the dust about a mile away. The Indians didn’t bother a thing during that raid and we always believed it was on account of the following incident: One bitter cold night while we were huddled around the wood range there was a knock at the kitchen door. Father opened the door and admitted a girl about 17 years old. Through her broken English she told us she was Mexican. She was dressed sort of gypsy fashion with long very full skirt. My parents treated her kindly, made her a hot meal and coffee and bedded her down on the kitchen floor. Father had his suspicious that she was Apache. To verify this he rode to the Noon home (about 2 miles south) and asked your Uncle Alonzo to come with him and ascertain if she could speak Spanish. Alonzo wasn’t what you could call a Spanish linguist but said she didn’t speak Spanish as he did. During the morning, while Father was at the Noon home, this girl coaxed me and my brother Will to accompany her to the top of the Alaska Hill. Arriving at the top she pulled from the folds of her dress a white cloth about two feet wide and five feet long and began waving it in an odd manner. She would repeat this every minute or so. Then she did sort of a wig-wag signal, waited a few seconds, then (with) one long sweep she cast the cloth down and returned it to its place of concealment. She left that afternoon, after another meal. She was evidently giving her people the ‘lay off’ signal.” The Tonkin family was never bothered by Apaches after that, except that they did go to stay at the Hotel in Oro Blanco when danger threatened. Ella Searle, in her letters home, remarked that she didn’t like being so cramped up in the hotel room. Over time, the fears lessened until the day that the Apaches were back on the reservation.

The Tonkins proved up on their homestead in 1892 and subsequently sold it to William Marteny. He farmed the area, as it was bottom land, and maintained the well. He sold the homestead to Phil Clarke in 1919 along with several other homesteads that he had acquired. The Tonkins moved to Tucson where William passed away in 1910. Ella moved to California and lived many more years.

References: Letters from Jess Tonkin to Fred C. Noon, Ella Searle letters, U.S. Census records

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