Another view of Eva Wilbur Cruce

by Mary Kasulaitis

Many of you have read Eva Wilbur Cruce’s memoir, A Beautiful, Cruel Country, in which she tells of her childhood on a ranch three miles west of Arivaca. If you were living in Arivaca in the 30s and 40s, you would have heard about Eva Wilbur Cruce in a less flattering way: she was accused of stealing cattle and finally went to jail for killing a horse, not her own, and branding its colt.

Eva Wilbur was born February 22, 1904, to Agustin and Ramona Vilducea Wilbur. Agustin’s father, Dr. Reuben Wilbur, had come to Arizona sometime in the 1860s and practiced medicine in Tucson, also taking the post of Indian Agent and physician at San Xavier. He married Rafaela Salazar in 1873 in Tucson. They had three children, Agustin, Charles and Mary. In 1877 Dr. Wilbur made a land claim on the western edge of what was then the Arivaca Land Grant, choosing a site downstream from town, near a mill site owned by promoter John McCafferty.* Wilbur purchased horses and cattle and began ranching. Tragically, Dr. Wilbur died of pneumonia in 1882 at his family home in Massachusetts, leaving his wife and children in Arizona. They lived in Tucson and left the ranch to the care of neighbors Bob Paul and the Luisa Figueroa family. The latter took care of the livestock, branding the horses and cattle and keeping a count of numbers, until the time when Agustin was old enough to take over. Agustin’s brother Charles and sister Mary were also involved with the ranch.

In the early days there was open range: cattle and horses ran wild. Great roundups were held with all ranchers participating, separating the cows by brand and then branding their calves. Ranchers would own a small piece of their own land, either by homestead or County land claim with a water source and then let their cattle run on unclaimed public domain land. Beginning about 1906, the Forest Service determined what would be National Forest and began to issue permits for grazing use. Ranchers who had been grazing their cattle on this land had first choice, however, Agustin did not get a Forest grazing permit. Reportedly, he may have had one and lost it, or he may never have had one. He had a place called the Cochi ranch, because of the pigs he raised, near the border several miles to the south of his house. This land ended up in the Jarillas Ranch’s allotment. However, he could still run cattle on this land until it was all fenced off, probably about 1920. When Arizona became a state, much of the federal public domain land became state land. Ranchers, including the Wilburs, obtained grazing leases on this state land. With the regulation of government land and fencing, there was no more open range. Small ranches that did not have Forest allotments or State Land in conjunction with their private land could not survive as ranches, since they could no longer feed many cattle. The larger ranches frequently bought them out and sometimes they were forced out. This was a time of change.

During the 1920s the Arivaca Ranch and the Jarillas Ranch consolidated, but they had financial troubles and the ranch was mortgaged. There was a bad drought in 1920. Then the depression hit. In 1931, the Arivaca Ranch was bought out by the Chiricahua Cattle Company, owned by the Boice family. The youngest brother, Charlie Boice, was put in charge of the Arivaca Ranch.

Charlie Boice arrived in Arivaca during this time of change and he himself brought about many of the changes, particularly the redirecting of Arivaca Creek. He bought some of those small ranches. I have been told that some of the small ranchers felt they were forced out, but if it hadn’t been by Charlie, it would have been by someone else, such as the Pima County Assessor. They either had enough land for a ranch or they didn’t.

Central to this story is the claim that Eva Wilbur Cruce made regarding the “land baron” she referred to in a 1995 Arizona Highways article. She claimed he wanted her ranch and tried to force her out. Allegedly, this person was Charlie Boice. But the Wilbur Ranch conflicts had not started with Charlie Boice and the Chiricahua Cattle Company. Under different ownership, the Arivaca Ranch and the Jarillas Ranch had been buying up small ranches and homesteads for years, including those in the vicinity of Wilburs such as the Morenos and Earles. In 1895, Eva’s grandmother, Rafaela Wilbur, sold 320 acres of the Wilbur ranch, a substantial amount, which eventually became part of the Jarillas Cattle Company.

Eva Wilbur was raised on the family ranch. She did not attend school in Arivaca, but when she was a teenager she was sent to convent school in California. That is where she was living in 1933 when her father was killed after being thrown from a horse. Her mother had already passed away in 1932. Eva returned to Arivaca to take care of the ranch and married Marshall Cruce in Tucson later that same year.

The 30s were very different times from when Eva was growing up. When Agustin died, the Wilbur ranch apparently had some 700 head of horses and 250 cows. That was far too many livestock for the amount and quality of land they had, so allegedly, they were still acting as if there was open range. Reportedly, her horses and cattle were running on other people’s land. Because of this, someone shot a large number of them and left them in piles all over the range, not on her land. Eva attributed this event to Charlie Boice, but she never filed a formal complaint. However, the fact is, she had not confined her animals: they were on other people’s land and there were a lot of them. Even in 1941, when the Gills bought the Figueroa place, her cattle were on their range. The surrounding ranches had to fence her animals out, rather than the other way around.

Although Eva claimed a wealthy cattle baron wanted her land and was trying to drive her off, others said if she was referring to Charlie, he didn’t need her land, he had plenty already. Besides, her land wasn’t the best. Charlie already had several good perennial water sources just to the east and upstream of her land, so he didn’t need it for water, either, although she claimed he did. For whatever reason, Eva believed that he was out to get her because she was a woman and apparently she set out to get even.

In July 1936, Chiricahua Cattle Company cattle were said to have strayed onto her property. Believing that she had stolen them, Charlie Boice requested that the cattle inspector, Ed Echols, investigate. With a search warrant, Echols and some CCC cowboys seized eleven motherless, newly branded calves. Eva protested. It went to court, mainly to decide if the seizure was valid. The Tucson Citizen said there was “a fiery battle in justice court.” Eva won the first round. She was able to convince the jury that the calves’ mothers were on the premises and/or that she had a bill of sale for two of them. An appeal was filed and again Eva won. The cattle were returned to her. In October, 1936, Boice filed a complaint that another calf was stolen from him and concealed on the Wilbur Ranch. This too was returned. Eva and her husband, Marshall, filed a complaint alleging damages to the sum of $10,000 against Charlie. The wheels of justice moved more slowly this time and the case of Cruce v. Boice was not dismissed until January 1939, but Eva did not win that case. Things were not over yet. The major case in which she was convicted and sent to jail did not include Charlie Boice as either defendant or plaintiff.

In 1942 Eva was charged with killing a horse that didn’t belong to her and branding its colt. This mare belonged to Carlos Ibarra, a former resident of Arivaca. Eva and her cowboy had been seen with it. Cattle inspector Richard Merchant was called in. Apparently he went with trepidation, given Eva’s reputation. He found the remains of Ibarra’s mare, and a colt, newly branded with Eva’s brand. In the trial, Eva said it was hers and that they had roped the mare, which tried to get away and hurt itself. They shot it to put it out of its misery. There was some question as to who had shot it. Mr. Cruce said he did. The brand had been cut out. Eva said she had preserved the piece of hide with the brand on it to prove whose animal it was, however, Mr. Cruce’s coon hounds must have eaten the piece of hide because it was gone. Eva said she had to cut the brand out of any animal that died and tack it up on the fence so that everyone would know whose animal it was that died. This, after all the court cases with the CCC, was to prove she hadn’t stolen it. The jury did not believe this story and found Eva and her cowboy guilty of taking and killing the horse of another person and branding a horse belonging to another person. Because her cowboy had done what he did on her orders, he received a lighter sentence. Besides, he said Eva told him what to say. Eva was convicted on several counts. She appealed it to the Arizona Supreme Court, which denied her appeal. Eva spent around a year in jail, and afterwards she must have continued to seek revenge. In the Arizona Daily Star article accompanying her obituary, Eva is quoted as saying that no one knows what she did to get even with Charlie Boice after she got out of jail. Apparently she did something. In Eva’s attempt to get even with Charlie, her revenge touched everyone in the valley.

Eva claimed to be just a poor innocent woman, taken advantage of by the evil cattle baron, and forced to defend herself. However, Eva was not a lone woman; she was married to Marshall Cruce and had brothers and sisters and an uncle and aunt. She was not without support, unless they couldn’t or wouldn’t provide it. In addition, her father’s reputation had preceded her: allegedly, even before Eva took over, people would customarily go to look for missing animals at the Wilbur place, although as far as I know, Agustin was not charged with any crimes. When Eva took over the ranch, her father had just died, the result of an accident involving a horse. Apparently he had been thrown off and landed on a stick, and was perhaps dragged. The cowboys said, “the horses finally got even.” In her own words Eva described her father’s abusive ways, towards herself and animals as well. Which abuse she perpetuated upon her own horses, despite her claims to the contrary and her latter-day protests of love for them. Upon seeing the title of Eva’s book, my father said, “This country here is the best cattle country in the world. It’s beautiful country. It’s not cruel. It was the Wilburs who were cruel.”

Perhaps Eva thought everyone was her enemy. She developed a reputation of someone who might shoot first and ask questions afterwards. When she came to the Gills to claim her strayed cattle in 1941, she got out of the car with a gun in her hand. Others reported that they only saw her at a distance, riding with a pistol on her hip. Eva became known as “La Pistolera.” Large “no trespassing” signs went up on her property. “Don’t go near her place,” my father warned. “She’ll shoot you.”

When I was growing up in the mid 50s, my friends and I would occasionally ride by Eva’s place, despite the parental admonitions, where I saw her horses being starved. She did not have enough land for all the horses she had re-accumulated by then, because she apparently let them breed at will. Nature is brutal in those conditions. I remember seeing her starving horses, with nothing to eat and the bark stripped off trees as high up as they could reach. We children wanted to cut the fence, to let them get out, but of course, we did not. A cowboy told me he saw one of her stallions actually break the fence down so the mares could get out and get something to eat. This was not an isolated event, because she apparently did not limit the number of horses she kept, and the herd was confined in a relatively small area. When the U.S.F.W.S. bought her place it was terribly overgrazed. When she died in 1998, coincidentally, a front-page article entitled, “Animal cruelty trial opens over horse’s death,” sat alongside her obituary in the Star. At first, I thought the two articles were related.

One of the issues I want to address in this article is whether or not Eva’s horses were what she claimed. Were they or were they not “Spanish Barbs.” In the early days, most all horses had Mexican ancestry. Horses with similar ancestry could probably be found near Magdalena, Sonora to this day. After her grandfather bought them in the late 1870s, he also purchased a thoroughbred stallion. After Dr. Wilbur died, the horses were on open range for at least 30 but possibly 50 years, with opportunity to interbreed with other horses, most of which had a similar ancestry. Supposedly, there were about 700 horses when Eva took over the ranch in 1933 . In 1943 perhaps 70 remained, although she had paid taxes on only ten. From the 1940s until the early 1990s when the Refuge bought the property, the horses were confined and lived on what they could find to eat on her small property. With the limited diet, they became stunted. Natural selection took over. The horses she sold in the early 90s were the result of starvation, isolation, and forced inbreeding. If they were interesting looking, it is for reasons that no responsible horse breeder would have chosen. I often think that the ones who survived were descendants of those who survived the shooting back in the 1930s. In other words, the smarter, quicker ones.

Another issue I want to address is Eva’s credibility as a resource for Arivaca history. Eva’s book is a memoir, and memories can be faulty. There are many factual errors. For example, she says Charles Poston officiated at the marriage of her parents, when he was actually living in poverty in Phoenix. Phoebe Bogan was not married to John, but to his brother, A.E. Bogan. In the corrido story, Eva claims to be five years old when she saw Nonie Bernard and his wife Mary. She must been older than that, because in 1909 they weren’t married yet. Eva made the claim that Ignacio Pesqueira, Governor of Sonora, stayed at her grandfather’s house when he removed himself from Sonora in 1865. There is no evidence that her grandfather even lived in Arivaca at that date, since he made his first land claim in 1877. Local stories say that Pesqueira’s men stayed in the Guijas valley, in a place appropriately named Pesqueira Canyon. I question most the chapter on the Indian exodus. This appears in no one else’s stories or documents, and in fact my grandfather, Arthur Noon, had said he remembered very few Papagos (O’Odham) in the Arivaca area when he homesteaded there in 1910. Besides, the O’Odham were not forced onto the Reservation, but received it as a guaranteed tribal ownership of their homeland, protected from incursions by outsiders. Reportedly, Eva spent little or no time in Arivaca itself, so she cannot be relied on for anything other than her immediate environs at the ranch.

In the testimony Eva gave in 1943 at her trial for horse killing, you see a very different woman from the one in the book: one who visits her ranch perhaps once a month, who does not know how many horses she has, who thinks her grandfather came in 1868 but isn’t sure. A woman who, on the witness stand of a trial in which he is not implicated, accuses Charlie Boice of killing her horses, but who had not filed a complaint against him even though, she said, the sheriff asked her if she wanted to. Although Charlie was not involved in the 1943 case, Eva continually brought up the previous legal actions. But Eva didn’t even know when Charlie Boice came to Arivaca. She couldn’t remember what happened ten years before when she was administrator of her father’s will. Significantly, there is no mention of a mortgage on the Wilbur ranch being held by Charlie Boice, as she later claimed in the Arizona Highways article. In short, she was someone who was apparently not a responsible caretaker of her own land or her own animals, who didn’t handle her business dealings properly, and who was a convicted felon, all the while blaming someone else for her troubles.

What Eva has in A Beautiful, Cruel Country is not reliable Arivaca history, but a memoir. It was an opportunity to reinvent her life on the ranch to gain the respect she didn’t have in Arivaca. And it was another opportunity to get even.

See “A Fenian in the Desert: Captain John McCafferty and the 1870s Arivaca Mining Boom” by Mary N. Kasulaitis, in The Journal of Arizona History, Spring 2006.

References: A Beautiful, Cruel Country by Eva Wilbur Cruce; Charles D. Poston, Sunland Seer by A.W. Gressinger; Pima County Superior Court records; Arizona Supreme Court records; Arizona Daily Star, Tucson Citizen articles; Reuben Wilbur file at Special Collections, University of Arizona Library; Arizona Historical Society Library clipbook and Wilbur files.

Also see “La Pistolera” by Leo Banks in the Tucson Weekly, August 1 and 8, 2002.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: