Monday, November 19, 2001

Superstition Mountain

November 19, 2001 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Arizona’s Superstition Mountain has long been the source of stories and tales about lost gold. Stories of mystery, greed and sometimes death. The Dutchman’s Lost Mine, the Jesuit Treasure, Peralta Mines, and many other tales continue to attract men and women from far and near to this rugged mountain range east of Apache Junction. But, the real stories are not about gold, but about the people who search for the lost gold.

This giant monolith, Superstition Mountain, rises some 3,000 feet above the surrounding desert floor and dominates the eastern fringe of the Salt River Valley. The mountain is part of the Superstition Wilderness Area which contains some 159,780 acres or 242 sq. miles of the Tonto National Forest.

The region includes a wide range of fauna and flora indigenous to the Sonoran Desert. Fauna range from the giant Saguaro cactus to the stately Ponderosa pine. Mule deer, javelinas, pumas, bobcats, coyotes, a variety of rodents, birds, reptiles and amphibians live in this fragile desert ecosystem. The diversity of living things in this region often astonishes the visitor.

Old timers will tell you everything that survives in this hostile desert either sticks, stings, bites, or eats meat. This is an age-old description of a land where life is totally dependent on the availability of water. Water is more precious than gold when temperatures exceed 119 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months and can drop well below freezing during the winter months. Snow is not uncommon in the high desert mountains during the winter.

This mountain of towering spires and deep canyons was formed by volcanic upheaval some 17-29 million years ago during the Tertiary Period of geologic time. Superstition Mountain formed during a tectonic maelstrom that resulted in a massive caldera almost seven miles in diameter.

After the lava cooled, magma pushed the center of the caldera upward forming a mass of igneous rock. This mass was slowly eroded for millions of years by running water and wind forming the mountain we see today. Superstition Mountain in the past was one thousand feet higher than it is today. Uplift, subsidence, resurgence and erosion have all played a role in shaping this mountain. Yes, Superstition Mountain was born of fire. 

Many times I have been ask[ed] about the origin of the name Superstition Mountain. The best answer centers on the early farmers of the Salt River Valley who grew and cut hay for the U.S. Army at Fort McDowell in the late 1860s. These farmers were constantly hearing stories from the Pimas about how they feared the mountain. The farmers translated the Pima’s fear to mean superstitious, hence the name Superstition Mountain. Superstition Mountain appeared on U.S. War Department maps for the first time in 1870, but was referred to as Sierra Supersticiones on military sketched field maps in the late 1860s.

Some authors and writers would lead you to believe the Spanish named Superstition Mountain. Sim Ely, author of “The Lost Dutchman Mine,” stated in the opening chapter of his classic book the Spanish named Superstition Mountain Sierra de Espuma, meaning the mountain of foam. The origin of this name appears to be a forest service map drawn by L.P. Landon in 1918. Landon named a small butte southwest of Superstition Mountain Monte de Espuma.

It is true that the first European visitors to this area were the Spanish arriving here almost five hundred years ago. Fray Marcos de Niza, in 1959, observed Superstition Mountain from the Gila River, but did not record it in his journal. Superstition Mountain would have no history if it were not for those men and women who came here as adventurers, cattlemen, cowboys, prospectors, and miners.

Some claim Superstition Mountain is Arizona’s second most painted and photographed landmark, second only to the Grand Canyon. Artists from around the world have come to the desert floor beneath Superstition Mountain to paint its spectacular western façade since 1870. The mountain, with all its beauty, history, and mystic[ism], continues to attract adventurers, tourist[s], dreamers and artist[s] into the 21st century. Superstition Mountain is truly a treasure for the community of Apache Junction.

Monday, November 5, 2001

Cattle History of the Superstitions

November 5, 2001 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

Prior to the building of roads for horse drawn carriages, 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 still must travel by foot or on horseback.

In 1939, the Department of Agriculture set aside approximately 124,040 acres of public land within the Tonto National Forest to insure a particular way of life and preserve the natural wonders of the Sonoran Desert. Today a flow of hikers and horseback riders continue to travel these ancient Indian and early cattle trails.

Since the time the first settlers arrived in this region 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 towering ridges of the Superstition Wilderness. A very rugged breed of cowman evolved from this hostile environment.

These cattle drovers first arrived here from New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Texas shortly after the discovery of rich mining properties in the central mountains of the Arizona Territory. Copper and silver were first discovered around Globe just prior to the American Civil War. The first cattle herds arrived around 1870-1871. The small valley flats between the towering ridges and cliffs of the Superstition Wilderness served as grazing range for the cattle brought in by drovers. The discovery of the Silver King Mine in 1875 opened the region to cattle raising because of the tremendous demand for beef on the hoof.

The sharp spines of desert flora, the summer heat, the long droughts, predators and the winter cold were nothing new to these early cowmen. Many of the cattlemen came here to reap the profits associated with providing beef to 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 area. The somewhat mild climate, good grazing and the market convinced many of the cattlemen to stay on permanently, and as the mining industry grew so did the cattle business. The cowboy was soon a common sight in the isolated canyons of the Superstition Mountain region.

Hardships were very common on the 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 enemy of man and beast in those days. Survival was for the strongest because the weak often perished.

The early cowboy’s diet consisted of dried beef, pinto beans, chili and hardtack, and his revolver or rifle was his constant companion. Either weapon was used against his many enemies. Survival could be dependent on a lariat, bandana, hat, slicker, or chaps.

A cowboy’s horse was his main means for working cattle. A solid and sound horse often meant the difference between life and death in the wilds of the Superstition Mountains, and the care of the cowboy’s horses was the most important chore of his daily routine.

Most of these cowboys had a string of eight or ten horses and rotated between them when working cattle. Providing care for these animals required a considerable amount of time and energy. There was always an animal to doctor, shoe, or train. A cowboy’s work was truly from ‘sun till sun and 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 raising. The advent of barbwire changed the early cowboy’s way of life and forever ended the open range.

[Part II – November 12, 2001]

A herd of mother-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 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 market. 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, and throwing it to the ground without the benefit of a corral or catch pen to keep the irate mother cow at bay.

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 vanished. At the peak of the Clemens 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[s] believe that without wildfires the soil becomes infertile.

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, while on the open range, was unequaled by any other job in the country.

Cowboys rode through life uninterrupted by the complexities of life. They didn’t lay awake at night listening to sirens, bells and the noise of traffic. Their nights were filled with silence, occasionally disturbed by the lonesome call of a coyote. The cowboy recognized the value of sitting astride his horse and traveling with the wind in his face.

The colorful and romantic life of the cowboy so often portrayed by western writers was more fantasy than reality. The silver screen heroes of the 1950s portrayed by Hollywood were the cowboys most Americans recognized. They were the so-called ‘images’ of the West. Hollywood has immortalized the free spirit of the American cowboy, therefore helping preserve 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.

The large cattle ranches of the Superstition Wilderness have long since vanished from the Arizona scene, but it wasn’t conservation methods that destroyed 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. 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 and unknown to most. These cattlemen and cowboys are certainly a part of the history of the Superstition Wilderness and our American heritage.