Rancho El Sópori, Part 3

by Mary Kasulaitis

Captain Juan de Anza, and his father before him, ran cattle on the Sópori and although he didn’t live there, he maintained a mayordomo and vaqueros there. Perhaps he was issued a government land grant, which has not remained. When he died in 1788, the ranch purportedly went to his two nieces, Ana and Rosa. Shortly after 1800, they reportedly sold it to Ramona de Vildosola. According to Elizabeth Brownell’s research, Ramona gave it to her cousin Benancio Tato in 1819. In 1810, however, a document certifies ownership of the Sópori ranch by Don Antonio Narbona, Commandante of the Tucson Presidio, because the ranch had been abandoned. Abandonment due to the Apache threat runs throughout the history of the Sópori during the 19th century because it was not close enough to either Tucson or the Tubac presidios for safety. Nevertheless, due to its lush pastures and springs, with mineralized hills nearby, someone was always trying to claim it, sell it, buy it or just squat on it. There are three different land grant periods: Spanish, Mexican and American. For example, the Canoa and Arivaca land grants went through all three, but it isn’t certain there was a Sopori land grant in the Spanish period, at least not one for which valid documentation remained in 1880. After 1821, when Mexico was created, a kind of land rush by wealthy Mexicans took place in Southern Arizona because Apaches had been relatively pacified during the previous two decades.

One of those was the Elias family: it has figured prominently in the history of Sópori. An extensive and political family, its members have spread all over Sonora and Arizona. Several held officer positions in the presidios. Lt. Simon Elías Gonzalez had became commandant of the Tubac company in 1807 and held that position for a brief period. Tubac Commander Ignacio Elias Gonzalez surveyed the Canoa grant in 1821 by for his inlaws the Ortiz brothers and the Sonoita grant for Leon Herreras. Just when the Elias’ first became associated with the Sopori ranch is in question; family members claim they had some possession as early as 1816 or 1820, despite the fact that others had made their own claims. The family claims that a house of stone was built there in 1801 by one Orozco, who was possibly from Juan Elias’ mother’s family. area. Members of the Elias family went on to live at or near the Sopori in later years and some filed on a grant in the Nogales area.

After 1833, the Apache threat increased once again as the Mexican government could not continue to feed and supply them near the Tucson presidio as it had been doing. In 1843, Apaches raided a sizeable Mexican establishment of mining and ranching at El Sópori. Who these Mexicans were is not recorded.

The Mexican war and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase in 1854 brought entrepreneurial Americans into the act. Mining was the attraction. Col. James W. Douglass, William Rhodes and C.C. Dodson settled on the Sópori and started working the Sopori silver mine in 1855. Rhodes (or Rood) figures in a remarkable story in which he was wounded and then trapped by Apaches in a thicket of trees somewhere north of the Sópori on the Santa Cruz River. As they tried to reach him, he picked them off one by one with shots from his revolver. After six shots were fired, the Apaches rushed him, thinking he was out of bullets, but he had coolly reloaded after each shot, and brought down a few more. Admiring his courage, they shouted for him to come out and join them. “Oh you devils, you! I know what you’ll do with me if you get me!” he called back. After this he heard them shout: “Sópori! Sópori! And they galloped away. He gave them a few minutes and then came out of hiding and proceeded on to the Reventon, another ranch in the vicinity. Raphael Pumpelly, who recounts this story firsthand, goes on to describe what happened to Richmond Jones, superintendent of the ranch and mining company. The Apaches had kept on to the Sópori and found him unprotected. He died, pierced by lances and a pitchfork. They had then driven off the horses and cattle on the ranch. Col. Douglass had stocked the ranch with cattle from California. J. Ross Browne described it: “ at the time Col. James W. Douglass lived here the Sopori was one of the most flourishing ranches in the country. He had herds of fat cattle ranging over the pastures; fields of grain and vegetables in the rich bottom lands… and domestic animals and fowls of various kinds.” (Douglass passed away in 1859.)

Others had also settled in the mid 1850s on the Sópori. They include Frederick Ronstadt, who had acquired some papers to the Sópori in 1854. His claim included the spring and bottomlands. Charles Poston, who was part owner of the Arivaca Land Grant, claimed to have received these papers from Ronstadt in 1858. This leads up to a discussion of a complicated series of dealings by Lt. Sylvester Mowry to obtain the Sópori from whoever claimed to own it. A claim to the Sópori had been made at …some point by the family of Joaquin Astiazarán, a prominent wealthy Sonoran. Reportedly, he had made an 1838 petition to pre-empt the ranch. However, since the documents included in his claim for the El Sópori land grant were subsequently found to be forgeries, one cannot assume that there ever really was an 1838 document. In the mid-1850s, Sylvester Mowry was negotiating with the Astiazarán heirs on behalf of the Sópori Land and Mining Company, a Rhode Island Company which he had developed with the sponsorship of some Eastern investors. They had also established the Arizona Land and Mining Company. In the dealings, Mowry kept some of the land for himself. In 1858, he purchased part of the Mexican claims in the name of the company. The company also bought out Douglass and the other American “owners.” The mining company took control of the ranch, but as we have seen, fell victim to Apache depredations and after the raid that took Richmond Jones’ life, sold out to the Arizona Company. A few years later, in 1866, the Sópori Land and Mining Company, probably under new ownership, repurchased the interests and began to try to gain the title as part of the Mexican land grant settlements that were being investigated by the U.S. government.

The Sópori Land Grant as claimed by Joaquin Astiazarán’s heirs asserted ownership of land all the way from San Xavier to the Tumacacoris and from the Santa Ritas to the Sierritas, an area of 140,000 acres or 32 leagues. Valid land grants such as La Canoa were included within its boundaries, complicating the proceedings being heard by Arizona Surveyor General John Wasson in 1880-81 when he was attempting to validate all the Mexican land grant claims in Arizona. Certain criteria such as accurate boundaries and original documentation had to be provided by the claimants to be able to reclaim their grants under U.S. law. Wasson found that it was not a valid land grant. The next step was the Court of Private Land Claims where it was rejected in 1895 on the grounds that the documents were forged or antedated. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Thus from the mid-1850s to 1895, some forty years, no one was really able to validly own the land. That does not mean no one was living there but Sópori in the 1860s remained a difficult place to live because of the Apaches.

More about Sópori next time.

References: unpublished history of El Sópori by Elizabeth Brownell; Pumpelly’s Arizona by Raphael Pumpelly; Samuel Peter Heintzelman and the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company by Diane M.T. North; Early Arizona by Jay J. Wagoner; A Tour through Arizona in 1864 by J. Ross Browne; “Tubac through four centuries,” by Henry F. Dobyns, online exhibit at the University of Arizona Library website. “The case of Sylvester Mowry: the Mowry mine,” by Constance Wynn Altschuler, Arizona and the West, Summer, 1973. Senate documents pertaining to the Sópori land grant: Senate Ex. Doc, No 93. 48th Congress, 1st Session.

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