July 20, 2009 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.
Prior to roads and the horse drawn carriage the only means of travel between Superstition Mountain and the surrounding towns was by horseback or afoot. Since those long forgotten days little has changed within the boundaries of the Superstition Wilderness Area. Today one must still travel by foot or on horseback. The Department of Agriculture set aside approximately 124,040 acres of land within the Tonto National Forest in 1939 to insure the preservation of natural wonders in the Sonoran Desert. This wilderness was increased in size in 1984 to 159,780 acres. Today a continuous flow of hikers and horseback riders travel these ancient Indian and early cattle trails to experience the isolation and tranquility of the Superstition Wilderness.
The cowboy was a significant part of this geographical region between 1870 and 1990. Only in the last decade or so were cattle permits removed from the Superstition Wilderness Area. Since the first settlers arrived in this area it has been known as the most hostile and rugged cattle range in the American Southwest. The first cattlemen fought Indians, drought, heat, famine, disease, and winter storms to graze their cattle in the deep canyons and on the towering ridges of the Superstition Wilderness. A very rugged breed of cowman evolved while taming this hostile environment.
These cattle drovers first arrived here from New Mexico and Texas shortly after the discovery of rich mining properties in the central mountains of Arizona Territory. Copper and silver were first discovered around Globe just after the American Civil War. The first cattle herds arrived around 1870-1871. The small valley flats between the towering ridges and cliffs served as grazing range. The discovery of the Silver King Mine in 1875 opened the region to cattle ranching because of the tremendous demand for beef on the hoof. This was the era before refrigeration. Robert A. Irion brought a herd into the Superstition mountain area from Montana in 1878. He eventually developed the Pinal Ranch (Craig Ranch) at Sutton’s Summit on U.S. Highway 60. Sutton’s Summit is known to some people these days as “The Top of the World.” Actually “The Top of the World” was located down the road toward Miami about six more miles.
The sharp spines of desert flora, the summer heat, the long droughts and the cold winters were nothing new for these early cowbboys. Many of the cattlemen came to reap the profits associated with providing beef for the early mining camps that dotted the landscape of central Arizona. The miners purchased tons of beef, making cattle raising a very lucrative industry in the Superstition Mountain area. The somewhat mild climate, good grazing and the nearby market convinced many of the cattlemen to stay on permanently. As the mining industry grew so did the cattle business. The cowboy was soon a common figure in the isolated canyons of the Superstition Mountain region.
Hardships were very common on these early cattle spreads. There were no permanent shelters or medical facilities. If a cowboy broke an arm or leg his only doctor was his partner or himself. If he picked up a stray bullet he prayed that he could make it back to headquarters before infection set in. Infection was the greatest killer of man and beast in those days. Survival was for the strongest because the weak often perished.
The early cowboy’s diet consisted of jerked beef, pinto beans, chili and hardtack. His revolver or rifle was his constant companion. Either weapon was used against his many enemies. These enemies could include an occasional Apache, cattle rustler, rattlesnake, lion or bear.
A cowboy’s horse was his most important means of survival. A solid and sound horse meant the difference between life and death in the wilds of the Superstition Mountains. The care of his horse was the most important chore of the cowboy’s daily routine. Most of these cowboys had a string of five to seven horses and rotated between them when working cattle. Providing care for these animals required a considerable amount of time. There was always an animal to doctor, shod, or train. A cowboy’s work day was from sun till sun and his work was never done. There were always fences to mend, water holes to repair, windmills to work on, stock to check, tact to care for and every other job associated with cattle ranching.
The advent of barbed wire changed the early cowboy’s way of life in the rugged Superstition Mountain region. Barbed wire forever ended an open and free range. The entire range was eventually divided off into grazing allotments. Names like Reavis, Mill Site, Tortilla, First Water, and JF are just a few of these old allotments. When Taylor Grazing was finally establishment the option of open range was gone forever. The colorful and romantic life of the cowboy so often portrayed by western writers was more fantasy than reality.
Dane Coolidge probably portrayed the American cowboy better than any other writer of his time. Russell, Leigh and Remington also portrayed the cowboy on their canvases with extreme accuracy.
A herd, including cows, calves and a couple of bulls would be cared for by one cowboy. Most of these herds numbered between a hundred and three hundred head. Each spring and fall a rodeo (roundup) was conducted to gather the cattle from the open range. The purpose of the roundup was to brand, castrate and doctor calves. Yearling steers were generally separated from the herd and driven to the nearest point of need. A typical roundup area consisted of temporary catch-pens, but most often it was open ground-work without the benefit of a corral. Open ground-work consisted of roping a wild range calf, taking it away from its wild mother.
Then you threw the calf to the ground without the benefit of a corral or catch pen while keeping the irate cow at bay, you then branded, castrated, dehorned and completed other necessary chores. The cattle drovers and cattle barons of the Superstition Mountain area have long since disappeared. The great herds that once grazed the region under the brand of the Clemens Cattle Company and others have also since vanished. At the peak of the Clemans operation more than 12,000 head of cattle grazed the eastern fringe of the wilderness. These huge herds overgrazed and destroyed much of the range. Through the use of careful range management techniques much of the old range is returning to its original state. There are many controversies associated with grazing and non-grazing within the wilderness. Some range managers believe grazing helps to reduce wildfires while other believed, without wildfires the soil becomes infertile. This controversy continues among range managers today.
What distinguished a cowboy from other working men during this period? Cowboys generally dressed a bit different then other workers because they worked outdoors most of the time. Large brimmed hats were common. Levi trousers, and heavy denim or cotton shirts, and of course pointed toed high top boots with extended heels were popular with cowboys. Cowboys often carried a rope, folding knife, bandana, chaps, and sometimes a Winchester rifle or Colt revolver.
Life was not easy on the open range, but it did have its rewards. Those old range riders may not have frequented churches very often, but they were close to their God and the work of his mighty hand. A cowboy’s sense of freedom and free spirit was unequaled anywhere else in the country. Cowboys rode through life uninterrupted by the complexities of urban society. They generally didn’t lay awake at night listening to sirens, bells and the noise of modern traffic. Their nights were filled with silence occasionally interrupted by the lonesome call of a coyote or other sounds of night.
The cowboy recognized the value of sitting astride his horse and traveling with the wind in his face. Hollywood has immortalized the free spirit of the American cowboy, therefore helping preserve some of the ideals of our freedom. These old time cowboys and their horses were true icons of freedom and they definitely have a place in the history of the Superstition Wilderness Area and Americana. Hollywood certainly captured the persona of the American cowboy and his spirit and spread it across America.
The large cattle ranches of the Superstition Wilderness have long since vanished from the Arizona scene. Conservation methods did not destroy them. The high cost of operation, limited grazing and strict controls on public grazing lands have reduced the productivity of these once large cattle empires to almost nothing. Feeder pens are slowly replacing the range beef of the past. Today only a few isolated ranches survive, symbolic of a time forgotten by many.
Today men like Billy Martin Jr., George Martin, Frank Herron and Chuck Backus try to hang on to the tradition of cattle ranching in the Superstition Mountain region. These cattlemen and cowboys are certainly a part of the history of the Superstition Wilderness and our American heritage.