RANCHO EL SÓPORI, PART 4

by Mary Kasulaitis

The path of ownership, occupation and development of the Sópori Ranch after the 1860s is not easy to follow, because of the long period of wait for the land grant to be adjudicated. In 1881, the Sópori land claim came before the Surveyor General of Arizona, John Wasson. Testimony in this case provides some little information about the comings and goings of persons in the area. Ferdinand Francis, a teamster, said “[Apache incursions] continued up till about 1877, and that during the years of the rebellion, from 1861 to 1865, they practically held possession of the country and drove out all settlers; and from 1865 up to 1872 there was no safety in living upon a ranch anywhere in that vicinity, so that the country round about the Sópori was practically unoccupied during those years.”

Tucson pioneer William S. Oury figures in the history of Sopori because he apparently had some kind of a land claim on the ranch in the 1860s. He was living in Tucson in 1865, however, so he invited the Pennington family* to live on the ranch as “caretakers.” Widower Elias Pennington and his children (8 girls, 4 boys) had arrived in southern Arizona in 1857 after a hazardous journey from Texas through Apache country on their way west to California. They stopped in Sonoita Valley near Fort Buchanan and stayed. For some years, they attempted to do hauling, farm in various likely places and make money from Army contracts for hay etc. One Pennington house, still standing, is near the Mexican border south of Kino Springs and is obviously built to be a fortress. For some time, they survived Apache attacks designed to steal livestock in the American inhabited areas. In late 1859, third child Larcena Pennington (b. 1837) married another intrepid pioneer, John Page. In March of 1860, Larcena and a little girl, Mercedes Quiroz, had just arrived at a pinery in Madera Canyon where John had been working felling trees and hauling them to building sites. (this is the origin of the vigas in the Smets house on the north side of Main Street in Arivaca). The next day the men went to work, leaving Larcena and Mercedes alone. A band of Tonto Apaches attacked the camp and took them prisoner, making the two walk north. Somewhere near Helvetia, when Larcena could go no further, they lanced her 16 times and left her for dead. She survived, however, and due to her injuries was forced to crawl 16 miles back to the pinery, a journey of two weeks in the snow. When she arrived back she was almost unrecognizable, but due to her indomitable spirit was able to heal (over several months) and lead a long life. Mercedes was rescued. Larcena’s husband John, however, was killed by Apaches in February, 1861 while freighting north of Tucson, leaving her pregnant with a daughter, Mary Ann. She went back to living with her father and siblings in various places. Mary Ann was born at the Mowry mine near Patagonia. In 1865, Elias Pennington moved Larcena and the family to the precarious Sopori ranch, conveniently located on the road from Tubac to Arivaca, which was also used as a trail by Apaches. They lived in a rock and adobe building on a outcrop above the creek, reportedly built around 1800 by a member of the Orosco family, a relation of the Juan Elíases. Elias Pennington fixed up a small building to serve as a schoolhouse, with the older girls teaching the younger children. Frequently the women of the family were left alone but well armed. Apaches stole Josephine’s favorite pony, but otherwise they weren’t attacked. Disease, especially malaria, was another threat: Ann Pennington died there in 1867, the first of the family to succumb to life in Southern Arizona. In 1868, two of the brothers, James and Green, were freighting lumber when they were killed by Apaches near Tucson. Then the family moved back to the Sonoita valley where Camp Crittenden had been erected to replace the abandoned Ft. Buchanan. While attempting to farm, Elias Pennington was attacked and killed by Apaches in 1869. He and James were laid to rest in the Sopori cemetery alongside Ann. The family moved to the relative safety of Tucson. In 1870, Larcena married Fisher Scott, had two children, William and Georgia, and died in 1913 at the age of 76.* The small Sopori Cemetery has markers commemorating the various Pennington family members who had died near there.

In the 1870s, with the lessening of the Apache threat, Sopori Ranch moved back into the hands of the Elíases. William Oury testified in the Land Grant case that Juan Elías, Jr. and Jesús María Elías , the sons of Juan Elías , Sr. were living on the ranch in 1881 along with another brother (Tomás), and that they had been there for perhaps 4 or 5 years. Charles Poston testified that he thought “Juan Elías occupied the old houses at Sópori and has part of the arable land in cultivation and owns quite a stock of cattle there.” Elizabeth Brownell’s “Story of El Sópori” says that Juan and another brother, Tomás Elías , sought confirmation of their claims to El Sópori in 1877, under the Desert Land Act. She said, “They claimed to have been engaged in making ‘favorable improvements’ on the land and to have compiled with the requirements of the law in paying 25 cents per acre for the land claim.” But the land claim was not decided until the mid 1890s.

Jesús María (1829-96) and his brother Juan Elías, Jr. (1838-96) were indeed well known in Southern Arizona. They belonged to the very large and many-branched family of Elías (also Elías Gonzalez), which had been in the Santa Cruz Valley since the 18th century. According to historian James Officer, who documented many of the old Hispanic families in this area, they were the sons of Jesúsa Orozco and Juan Bautista Elías, Sr. (1801-66), who was probably the son of one Cornelio Elías, a member of the Presidio garrison at Tucson. There was also the younger son, Tomás, and a number of other siblings. Juan and Jesús María had been living in Tucson, owning property there, and participating in the political life. Juan was on Tucson’s first City Council in 1864 when William S. Oury was Mayor. Later he was a member of the 6th Legislative Assembly of the Territorial Legislature in 1871 and the 7th in 1873. Jesús María was a member of the First Legislative Assembly in 1864, the Fifth in 1868 and the 8th in 1875. Besides the Sopori Ranch, both owned fields in Tucson immediately adjacent to the Convento site and Juan had land at Punta de Agua, south of the mission along the Santa Cruz River.

Pioneer families, no matter their ethnicity, had lost numerous loved ones to the Apaches in the early European settlement years of Arizona. In the late 60s and early 70s, with the return of the military, there was an attempt to sequester Apaches and other tribes on reservations. “The brutal aspects of Apache warfare,” Officer says, was shocking to newly arrived Anglos, but there were some who felt the Indians had been treated badly. Those with personal experience had no sympathy for the attitude of these newcomers, which included a sympathetic U.S. Army officer. In 1871, a group of Pinal Apaches was being allowed to live in Arivaipa Canyon (not on the reservation) and was being fed by the Army. Meanwhile, raiding was still going on in the Santa Cruz Valley. The Elíases had lost at least three members of their family in the 1850s and 60s. They became part of the home front against the Apaches. In 1863 Jesús María led a large force of Mexicans, Papagos, and Anglos into Arivaipa Canyon (nowhere near Arivaca, if you please) where they attacked the Apache camp. In what came to be called the Camp Grant Massacre, the assault killed more than a hundred Apaches, mostly women and children, since the men were gone at the time. President Grant called it murder, but the local jury exonerated the perpetrators in record time. Juan Elías had no problem getting elected to the Territorial Legislature the next year. When Jesús María Elías passed away, he was noted as being “one of the oldest and noted of Arizona frontiersmen, a daring Indian fighter and government scout. He came from a family of famous fighters.”(Nogales Oasis, 1/18/1896)

More about Sopori next month.

*Theirs is a long story: see With their Own Blood, a Saga of Southwestern Pioneers by Virginia Culin Roberts, Ft. Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1992. (Note: don’t confuse Elias Pennington with Juan, Tomas and Jesus Maria Elías, even if they have the same name.)

See also: Hispanic Arizona: 1536-1856, by James Officer, Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1987; They Lived in Tubac, by Elizabeth Brownell, Los Tucsonenses: the Mexican community in Tucson, 1854-1941 by Thomas E. Sheridan, Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1986.

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