Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
American Latino Heritage
Sierra Bonita Ranch
After the tumultuous middle decades of the 19th century when the United States fought the Mexican-American and Civil wars, Americans found new challenges and sought new opportunities in the western territories. New England native Colonel Henry Clay Hooker founded the first permanent cattle ranch in the Arizona territory in 1872 on the ruins of an earlier Spanish colonial estate. Hooker’s historic Sierra Bonita Ranch is located in spring-fed Sulphur Valley between the Galiuro and Pinaleño Mountains, which are part of the Coronado National Forest. A National Historic Landmark, the Sierra Bonita Ranch continues to support cattle ranching, and Hooker’s descendants still occupy their ancestor’s adobe house.
Arizona became a U.S. possession after the Mexican-American War in 1848, but civilian American immigration to the new territory was slow at first. During the Spanish Colonial and Mexican Republic eras, Arizona’s Spanish and Mexican settlers were unable to suppress the region’s powerful American Indian nations. After the Civil War, the United States ordered soldiers to occupy Arizona and New Mexico in order to colonize the Southwest, where they fought a series of American-Indian Wars that lasted into the 20th century. The military presence in the western territories provided American ranchers and mine prospectors security to settle the region. The American soldiers also created a demand for resources. In the late 19th century, cattle rancher Henry Hooker (1828-1907) capitalized on these violent conflicts and the growing Arizona economy by founding Sierra Bonita Ranch, the first American cattle ranch in Arizona.
Colonel Hooker, a descendent of Rev. Thomas Hooker who founded the Connecticut colony, moved west as a young man in the 1840s. After working for the Indian Department in Kansas and at a mine in California, Hooker began trading livestock when he herded 500 turkeys between California and Nevada. In 1867, he received a contract with the United States government that made him the leading beef supplier to the American troops and government administrators in the Arizona territory. As he drove his cattle through the Sulphur Valley that year, the rich land so impressed him that he decided to settle there, and he founded the Sierra Bonita Ranch in 1872. During Hooker’s reign, the Sierra Bonita Ranch peaked at 250,000 acres and held up to 30,000 head of cattle. The ranch became famous for Hooker’s hospitality and his organized ranching techniques. Unlike other ranchers who let their herds run free with little oversight, Hooker fenced-off ranges to control breeding, kept a separate herd of milk cows, and provided medical care for sick or injured cattle. He carefully managed his herds to maximize profit and quality.
The historic Sierra Bonita Ranch headquarters is located at the site of an 18th century Spanish estate that Apache Indians destroyed in the early 1800s. Not much is known about this early settlement and it had been long-abandoned when Hooker arrived in Sulphur Valley. The ranch is at an elevation of 4,000 feet and the weather is relatively mild, compared to the extremes in the nearby mountains and the low valleys. Hooker named his ranch “Sierra Bonita” after the beautiful wildflowers that cover the Pinaleño Mountains northeast of the ranch. In the 19th century, Apache Indians used a trail that cut through the valley near the ranch compound to travel between the United States and Mexico, but Hooker worked with the Apache to ensure they rarely troubled his ranch. He designed and built his main ranch house to be a residence for his family as well as a fortress to protect the Hookers and the ranch laborers from local gangs.
The National Historic Landmark is 320 acres at Sierra Bonita Ranch that contain the historic ranch buildings, which are the main house, bunkhouse, adobe corrals, and barns. The main house is in the Spanish Colonial style. Made of adobe (straw and clay) bricks, the house is a three-sided U-shaped building that wraps around a central patio enclosed by a wall. A well and root cellar that was in the patio area was later filled and the patio planted with grass. The exterior walls are made of two rows of adobe bricks, 16 feet high and 20 inches thick. Initially, the house had no doors or windows on its exterior walls with access only from the patio, but the Hooker family added exterior openings after the threat of marauders and the Apache subsided. On the opposite side of the patio wall is a courtyard surrounded by a stable, storerooms, and workroom.
Other historic buildings beyond the main house include the original barn, built mostly of wood, decorated with the words “Sierra Bonita Ranch 1872,” which the family added in 1972 in honor of the ranch’s centennial. North of the main house is an adobe bunkhouse with a tin roof and a large adobe corral for storing hay. Other historic corrals at the ranch are made of adobe and wooden planks.
Sierra Bonita Ranch was the first permanent American cattle ranch in Arizona and, still operational, is one of the oldest ranches in the United States. Descendents of the Hooker family reside in the historic adobe house, the site of an 18th century Spanish colonial settlement, and operate a 39,000-acre ranch at Bonita for grazing cattle and growing alfalfa. In popular culture, Hooker is perhaps best known for his role in the Wyatt Earp saga. In March 1882, Hooker allowed Wyatt Earp and his posse to rest at the Sierra Bonita ranch house during their escape from the Arizona authorities, and even agreed to speak to the governor on their behalf. Cochise County sheriff Johnny Behan stopped at the ranch during his hunt for Earp, but Hooker refused to help him. Notably, Academy Award-winning actor Charlton Heston played the character of Hooker in the movie Tombstone.