Rancho El Sópori, Part 1

by Mary Kasulaitis

Down on the Sópori. Four words that somehow convey the size and expectations one have regarding what is today one of the largest and arguably the oldest cattle ranch in the Santa Cruz Valley. It begins in the west, along the reaches of Sópori Wash. As the Sópori widens out into a valley, east of the confluence with Batamote Wash, agriculture can be practiced. A natural spring, known in Spanish as an Ojo del Agua, feeds the fields. Upstream, large washes like the Papalote and the Moyza carry water from the western slopes of the Tumacacori Mountains. As Sópori Creek flows into the Santa Cruz River at Amado the creek with the mellifluous name disappears, but not before it has witnessed history. As with any natural source of water in the Southwest, there was settlement, first by Native Americans and later by Europeans.
The name Sópori comes from an O’Odham (Pima) word, probably something that sounds like “Sóporic,” with a Spanish pronunciation, accenting the first “o.” Spanish speakers softened the hard endings of words by adding an “a” or an “o”. Eventually the “c” was dropped and Sópori remained. Traditionally a group of Pimas known as “Sobaipuri” lived in the Santa Cruz and San Pedro valleys, and possibly the name is related.

In 1691 Father Eusebio Francisco Kino established a mission at Guevavi, several miles south of Sopori, on the Santa Cruz River near present day Nogales. Missionaries found it a difficult place to live, so there were few. Some natives had been Christianized, so we see that Sópori is first mentioned in church records. Father Agustín de Campos came north from his headquarters at San Ignacio to baptize and marry natives in the rancherias along the Santa Cruz and its tributaries. On March 10, 1722, he baptized three in Sóporica: Agustin, Marcos and Maria Rosa. Visits by missionaries escorted by soldiers, revealed the possibilities of farming and cattle ranching along the upper Santa Cruz River and its tributaries.

The first rancher at Sópori was Don Juan Bautista de Anza (1693-1740), who had come from his Basque homeland in Spain to the New World. At the age of 28, he joined the cavalry as an alferez and was assigned to the presidio at Janos in Chihuahua where he met his wife, Maria Rosa Bezerra Nieto, the daughter of the commander. He brought to the marriage two daughters, whose mother may have died. He and Doña Maria Rosa had several children: Francisco Antonio (b 1725), Margarita (b 1727), Josefa Gregoria (b 1732) and Juan Bautista (b 1736) and perhaps others. Doña Maria Rosa became a skilled curandera and over the years many sick priests and others were sent to her for treatment. Don Juan’s military training at Janos was to make him an exceptional Apache fighter, but as Janos is in farming country, he was able to acquire agricultural knowledge that he would need later. In a previous home, he also had some mines for which he operated supply stores. Back in Spain, his parents owned a pharmacy and he was trained by his father in law and business. Don Juan was ready for all he might need to do in life.

Anza was raised to the rank of Captain and assigned as commander of the presidio at Fronteras, Sonora, in 1726, with the removal of the previous commander. He took on a vast area from there to the Gila River and from there to the Gulf of Mexico. It was to his benefit that this area had excellent ranch country close to the Guevavi mission. Ranches were being located in the San Luis valley in Sonora, near what is now the US Mexico border. As he explored his assigned area further, he came north into the Santa Cruz valley and set up a ranch near the Guevavi mission. Manuel Jose de Sosa was appointed as foreman at Guevavi ranch, and was to accompany Anza whenever he needed a scribe. Moving north, he founded the San Mateo ranch at the confluence of the Sonoita creek and another one called Sicurisuta in the Pajarito mountains west of there.

Further north, he arrived at the northern end of the Tumacacori mountains where the valley of the Sopori wash spreads out and a native village was already in place. Realizing its value for both ranching and potential farming, he established the Sópori Ranch sometime in the late 1720s, assigning Juan Manuel Bais as foreman. Anza did not live there himself. It is likely that they raised both sheep and cattle. Besides meat, sheep provided wool for blankets and serapes, while cattle provided meat and leather for buckets and other useful items. Anza established a ranch manager and workers at each of his ranches, providing houses, outbuildings and corrals for them. Some of those people lived on the Anza ranches for decades and have descendants still living in Southern Arizona today, including the Sosas, Figueroas, Grijalvas, Salazars, Nuñez, and Romeros, among others. Juan Manuel’s wife, Josefa de Luque, survived two husbands and probably lived at the Sopori her entire life (Garate, p 125). Many of the employees were Opata, Pima, Yaqui or mestizo. As needed, vaqueros might travel from one ranch to another for seasonal work.

In 1732, second group of Jesuits were assigned to the missions at Suamca, Guevavi and San Xavier del Bac, escorted to their posts by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza the elder and his troops. The troops were necessary for protection against Apaches who had been raiding all the other native tribes and soon found the Spanish settlers even more lucrative. Anza had made a preliminary trip to build a house for the priest at Guevavi, Father Juan Bautista Grazhoffer. Upon their arrival, Anza organized a pageant to celebrate the entry of Father Grazhoffer and introduce him to the natives living in villages in the area. Anza and his family were very devoted to the priests of the Jesuit order, possibly because the founder, Ignatius of Loyola, was also a Basque from northern Spain.

In 1736, the discovery of an amazing silver strike called the Planchas de Plata was made southwest of Guevavi. Anza was then the Justicia Mayor of Sonora, so it was his job to decide whether it was a treasure or an ore body that could be mined. For a base of operations, he stayed with fellow Basque and deputy justicia, Bernardo de Urrea, at his La Arizona ranch, just south of the silver strike, while Anza attempted to make a determination of origin. The miners wanted it to be considered mineable ore, for which they would be taxed one fifth of the value, but if it was a treasure, the Crown could claim half plus the tax. Anza wanted to do what was right, but by the time it was all over, months later, the miners had moved on and the silver mass was gone, either to prospectors or to Mexico City. Some of the miners then came north up the canyons towards Arivaca and the Oro Blanco mountains. During this time, the name Arizona became relatively famous due to its appearance on many Spanish documents, and ultimately the name of a U.S. state.

Sadly, Juan Bautista de Anza the elder was killed by Apaches on May 9, 1740 near Suamca. His wife did not remarry. She likely took on the responsibilities of their properties, including the Sópori Ranch. She moved away from Fronteras to live elsewhere, and eventually came to the Santa Cruz Valley. She was living at Tubac when she passed away in 1760 and was buried at the mission at Guevavi.
Anza’s son, Juan Bautista de Anza the younger, four years old at the time of his father’s death, went on to be an illustrious figure in Southern Arizona and Sonora history, more well known than his pioneering father.
Reference: Garate, Donald T. Juan Bautista de Anza: Basque Explorer in the New World, 1693-1740, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003.

Garate, Donald T. “Arizonac: a twentieth century myth”
The Journal of Arizona History. Vol. 46, No. 2 (summer 2005), pp. 161-184
Sópori ranch story continued next month.

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