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San Bernardino Ranch

Douglas, Arizona

The historic San Bernardino Ranch complex

The historic San Bernardino Ranch complex
Photo courtesy of the Johnson Historical
Museum of the Southwest

The San Bernardino Ranch is the site of two historic cattle ranches in southern Arizona’s San Bernardino Valley, a region that did not see permanent European settlement until the late 19th century. Apache Indian raids throughout the region prevented the Spanish from building a garrison there in the 1770s and forced a Mexican rancher to abandon his land in the 1830s, but in the 1880s, an American rancher and “wild west” sheriff – John H. Slaughter – settled San Bernardino with his family and founded a successful cattle ranch. At their borderlands ranch, the prominent Slaughter family experienced the end of the Apache era, New Mexico statehood in 1912, and the tumultuous Mexican Revolution. The San Bernardino Ranch today is a National Historic Landmark district located about 15 miles east of Douglas, Arizona, near the U.S.-Mexican border.

Mexico secularized the Spanish colonial mission districts after it won its independence from Spain in 1821 and granted large tracts of land to men loyal to the new Republic. In the San Bernardino Valley of southern Arizona, the Mexican government sold Lieutenant Ignacio Pérez over 73,000 acres that included valuable, water-rich lands in present-day Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. The son of a prominent Sonora mine owner, Pérez was a soldier and a veteran of the Mexican War for Independence. He started at the San Bernardino Ranch with 4,000 head of cattle, purchased from Mission San José de Tumacácori. Though it was never completed, Pérez’s payment for the cattle was crucial in funding construction of the San José mission church. Pérez raised cattle at San Bernardino for over a decade, until Apache raids on his ranch forced him to abandon the operation in the mid-1830s.

Sheriff John “Texas John” Slaughter operated the San Bernardino Ranch for 38 years; General Pancho Villa resupplied his troops at San Bernardino Ranch during the Mexican Revolution

Left Image: Sheriff John “Texas John” Slaughter operated the San Bernardino Ranch for 38 years
Public Domain

Right Image: General Pancho Villa resupplied his troops at San Bernardino Ranch during the Mexican Revolution
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The land was unoccupied for about 50 years, with the ranch land split between the United States and Mexico according to the terms of the treaties that followed the Mexican-American War. A Texan native and Cochise County, Arizona sheriff, John Slaughter purchased a 99-year lease on 65,000 acres of Pérez’s original grant in 1884. Six years later, a U.S. claims court ruled that only 2,300 acres north of the Arizona-Mexico border belonged to Slaughter, but he eventually controlled nearly 100,000 acres of American and Mexican land around his ranch by leasing public land and purchasing private homesteads. In addition to raising, buying, and selling cattle, Slaughter oversaw the cultivation of over 500 acres with fruits and vegetables. The ranch workers included Hispano, Mexican, Indian, and Chinese American tenants and laborers. During its peak years, about 150 people lived and worked at the San Bernardino Ranch.

The Mexican Revolution upset the peace at San Bernardino Ranch in the 1910s and ‘20s, and General Pancho Villa, one of the revolutionary leaders, led raids on American and Mexican settlements near the border between 1915 and 1916. During those years, Villa’s northern army entered the San Bernardino Valley and took supplies from the Slaughter ranch on its Mexican side. The American side of the ranch never came under attack; the U.S. cavalry kept a garrison at Douglas, Arizona, and held a small outpost at the San Bernardino Ranch to defend American lands. Abandoned in 1933, the cavalry camp was located on a hilltop across from the House Pond. Though the ranch survived the threat, the revolution nearly reached it when the opposing Mexican sides met in 1915 at the battle of Agua Prieta, Sonora, right across the border from Douglas.

The Ranch House is now a museum, curated to look like it did during the Slaughter era

The Ranch House is now a museum,
curated to look like it did during the Slaughter era
Photo courtesy of the Johnson Historical Museum of the Southwest

The historic Slaughter ranch compound today is composed of late 19th century buildings, built after the 1887 Sonora Earthquake destroyed earlier infrastructure. Historic buildings at the compound include the family ranch house, ice house, wash house, kitchen, water tank, car shed, corrals, and granary. The ranch house is of adobe, a Spanish-Mexican technique that uses mud brick and plaster, and has wooden floors, stone fireplaces, and stone buttress. Other buildings are of stone. Formed by natural springs dammed by Slaughter for irrigation, the large House Pond creates a green oasis for the ranch house compound in an otherwise arid environment. The site of the ruins of the failed 18th century Spanish garrison is unknown, but Ignacio Pérez likely built his ranch hacienda on the garrison. In the 1820s, the Pérez ranch headquarters took up two acres that included an hacienda with a courtyard and adobe wall. South of the border, the Pérez hacienda today appears as adobe mounds beneath desert sand and brush.

Cattle ranching continued for nearly 60 years at San Bernardino after the Slaughters left the property in 1922. After a succession of owners, the ranch house compound became a museum in 1982 when the Johnson Historical Museum of the Southwest purchased the property. The ranch museum, also called the Slaughter Ranch Museum, keeps the adobe ranch house decorated and furnished as it could have been during the Slaughter era. The museum provides visitors with a chance to learn about American ranch life in the southwest inside the ranch house as well as with an outdoor recreational area by the pond, where there are trees for shade, picnic tables, and charcoal grills. Near the historic Slaughter ranch district, over 2,300 acres of the original Mexican land grant are now part of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, a unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that offers seasonal hunting, hiking, and bird-watching.

Plan your visit

San Bernardino Ranch, a National Historic Landmark, and Johnson Historical Museum of the Southwest are located at 6153 Geronimo Trail in Douglas, AZ. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The San Bernardino Ranch is open Wednesday-Sunday from 10:00am to 3:00pm, except Christmas and New Year’s Day. Adult entrance fee to the museum is $8 and children under 14 are free. For more information visit the Slaughter Ranch Museum website or call 520-558-2474.

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