illustration of cattle dotting the landscape illustration of cattle dotting the landscape

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An artist's rendering of cattle dotting the landscape.

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Modern ranching in the Santa Cruz Valley.


How It Was

The tradition of cattle ranching on the Spanish Colonial frontier has its roots in Castille, Spain. During the Reconquista, as the Spanish pushed the Moors southward, cattle roamed loose on the plains of Andalusia, requiring roundups. Mestas, associations of cattlemen, regulated round-ups, settled disputes, and controlled rustling.

The shipping of cattle to the new world was a short experience. Once herds began to grow on their own in New Spain, few if any were needed for import. In 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition with 150 cattle through Arizona, but no permanent herds started. New Mexico imported the first cattle for raising in 1598.

By 1600, after the arrivals of Columbus and Coronado, criollo cattle in the New World numbered in the hundreds of thousands. By Kino’s arrival, ranching was well-established in Sonora with perhaps 100,000 head of stock ranging at Terrenate south of the Huachuca Mountains, at Batepito on the Rio de Bavispe, at San Bernardino south of the Perilla Mountains, and at Janos. Part of his missionary work included herding cattle from his stock ranch at Dolores to the newly established mission villages. He taught his converts to care for their herds so they would expand and provide a permanent source of livelihood.

Ranching had become a permanent fixture in the Santa Cruz Valley. The Anza exploratory expedition of 1774 and the colonizing expedition drove cattle cross country to California. While the 65 cattle driven with the first expedition provided food for the travelers, the second expedition included 355 cattle which would help establish the large Hispanic California ranches.

Following the massive campaigns against the Apaches from 1783 to 1792 the number of settlers in the Santa Cruz Valley grew, as did the number of farms, mines, ranches, and cattle. The commander of the Tucson presidio, Captain José de Zúñiga, reported that there were 4,000 cattle in the Tucson area. Tubac grazed 1,000 head. Some 5,600 head of cattle were said to be around Tucson by 1819 and in 1821, the Tumacácori Mission boasted 5,500 free ranging cattle. The large Franciscan church was mostly finished by December 1822, thanks to the immense herd. 4,000 head had been sold in September of 1821. After much difficulty collecting the debt, the church quickly took shape.


How It Is Now

The cattle herd remained near 1,000 after 1821 but by the time the mission was abandoned in 1848 the fields at Tumacácori were said to be “bare of cattle.”

Only a few Spanish breeds made it to Americas, the most common being the Andalusian or Criollo or common cow. They are generally tan with short, fine hair and carry long, upturned horns. Most are solid colored though some black and white are found.


Ranching in the American Southwest

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    Last updated: May 29, 2020

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