Arizona's 18th Century Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate

A Fort in the Wilderness

Approximately 95 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona, on high bluff overlooking the San Pedro River in a remote area of Cochise County are the remains of an eighteenth Spanish Fort - Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate.

Presidio is the Spanish word for fort or fortress. The name Santa Cruz de Terrenate itself literally translates to Holy Cross of Land the Color of Masa (with Masa being a Spanish word for maize or corn). The name Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) is frequently used in place names in Southern Arizona including the Santa Cruz River located some miles to the west and on whose banks is located the city of Tucson.

Trail to Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate

Trail to Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate winds  through the high desert sea of chaparral
Trail to Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate winds through the high desert sea of chaparral | Source

Unlike some other historic eighteenth century North American colonial forts, such as Fort Niagara in Western New York or the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Brenton Island in the Canadian Province of Nova Scotia, which have been preserved or reconstructed, Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate is an abandoned ruin.

Located on land now owned and managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, the Presidio sits alone and abandoned much as it has been since the Spanish garrison gave up and left it in 1780 following unrelenting attacks by Apache tribes who had been attacking it regularly since construction began in 1776.

Model of Santa Cruz Terrenate

Model depicting Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate as it appeared in 1780
Model depicting Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate as it appeared in 1780 | Source

Human Action Rather than Nature Probably Responsible for Physical Destruction of the Presidio

Actually, while alone and abandoned in a remote area is an accurate description of the Presidio’s location, it is not in the same condition as it was when the Spanish left it. With the Spanish gone the Apache’s simply ignored it, leaving it as an uninhabited ghost fort in the wilderness.

In 1878, while continuing to try and defend the southern Arizona frontier against attacks by Apaches as the Mexican and Spanish armies had done before them, the U.S. Army decided to occupy Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate for a few months. This was the first time since the Spanish abandoned the presidio that a military force occupied it.

At the time of the U.S. Army occupation of the presidio, it was probably still intact being much like the Spanish forces had left it. While the forces of nature have played some role in the destruction of the presidio over the years, I suspect that the majority of the damage to the presidio was the result of the recycling of it by residents of the late 19th century mining boom in the area.

Beetle Standing on its Head Along the Trail

Beetle Standing on its Head Along the Trail
Beetle Standing on its Head Along the Trail | Source

The mining boom in the area in the last two decades of the the 19th century resulted in the construction of stagecoach and railroad lines through the area as well as new towns springing up almost overnight. A huge building boom ensued as cities such as Fairbank, Charleston, Millville, Tombstone and others appeared and grew rapidly within months.

With building materials being in high demand I wouldn’t be surprised if much of Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate was dismantled with the bricks and other materials beingbused in the building of these and other towns in the area. Unfortunately the boom was short lived and within a few years all of these new towns, except Tombstone (which shrank considerably in terms of size, population and economic vitality) were abandoned, like the Presidio, and became ghost towns slowly decaying in the desert.

Military Rationale for Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate & 18 Other Forts

Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate was a part of a chain of 19 forts designed to defend the northern border of Spain’s North American colony of Nueva España (New Spain) against both the perceived threat of advances south by Russia and Great Britain from their colonies in California and Western Canada as well as against attacks by hostile Indian tribes along this northern border.

In the case of Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate its main purpose was the immediate and ongoing need to defend against increasing attacks by Apache tribes against both Pima and other indian settlements and new settlers moving in from Mexico both of which were residents of the colony.

Ruins of Commandant's Quarters

Ruins of Commandant's Quarters in Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate
Ruins of Commandant's Quarters in Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate | Source

Both Spanish Conquistadores & Apache Warriors Were Newcomers to Area

The common view of early American history is one of conflict between European newcomers and the Native American tribes already living on the land the Europeans were moving into.

However, just as Europe was not occupied by peoples coexisting peacefully, each in their own countries, the New World was also not a static environment peopled by tribes each residing autonomously in their own areas. In addition to trade and other social intercourse between various tribes there was also war and conquest.

Just as Europe had endured attacks and conquests down through the centuries by other peoples from Asian lands to the East, the native peoples of the Southwest found themselves attacked and often displaced by tribes moving in from other parts of the North American continent.

Ironically both the nomadic Apache tribes and the Spanish were newcomers to the area who had came from distant places and began arriving in what is now the American Southwest and Mexico (which was then the Spanish New World province of New Spain) at about the same time. While the Spanish had originally come from Europe to Mexico and then pushed northward to Arizona, linguistic and genetic research has shown that the Apaches had migrated over the previous five centuries from Northwestern Canada and Eastern Alaska to Arizona and northern Mexico.

Sign Showing Layout of Commandant's Quarters

Sign Showing Layout of Commandant's Quarters in Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate
Sign Showing Layout of Commandant's Quarters in Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate | Source

Apache Raiding Parties Were Attacking Pima Indian Villages at the Time the Spanish Arrived in the Area

The primary native tribe, the O'odham or Pimas as the Spanish referred to them as, had inhabited the area for centuries found the arriving Spanish to be allies who helped defend them against the Apache who had been moving into the area and attacking them.

Unlike the Apaches who were nomadic and survived by hunting and raiding, the O'odham were an agricultural society living in villages. By the middle of the eighteenth century Spanish and O'odham settlements in Arizona were coming under increasing attack by Apache tribes.

Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate a Part of Northern Defense of Colony of New Spain

The Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate was one of a string of 19 presidios stretching from Los Adaes in present day western Louisiana to Alta in California that were built between 1771 and 1777 by the Commandant Inspector General of the Interior Provinces of Nueva España (New Spain) Lieutenant Colonel Hugo O’Conor. .

Hugo O’Conor, an Irish emigre who spent his entire adult life as a soldier in the service of the King of Spain, was appointed to the newly created position of Commandant Inspector General of the Interior Provinces of Nueva España in August 1771 and charged with implementing the military and administrative reforms needed to strengthen the defense of the northern area of the Province of Nueva España as called for by the Marqués de Rubí in his 1767 report to King Charles III of Spain on the defense of the northern frontier of the colony.

Ruins of Chapel in Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate

Ruins of Chapel in Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate
Ruins of Chapel in Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate | Source

De Rubi’s Expedition and Final Report

De Rubí had set out on his tour of the northern frontier of Spain’s New World territories on March 12, 1766 starting from a coastal town on the Gulf of California in the northern part present day Mexico. His tour took him to all the presidios and other areas in northern Mexico and southwestern United States. After traveling some 7,600 miles crisscrossing the area for almost two years he arrived in present day Laredo, Texas in November 1767.

In his report, de Rubí called for both administrative reforms (among them the curtailing of corruption), and strengthening the defenses of the northern frontier region. The strengthening of defenses included both building additional presidios as well as moving garrisons from other presidios to new and more strategically placed ones. He also called for both more military manpower in the region as well and new and better equipment for troops in the area.

Improved defenses were needed to defend against both the possible extension of British and Russian territories in North America south toward the Spanish territories well as against ongoing attacks by Apache and other hostile tribes such as the Comanche indians in Texas.

Presidio Ruins with Mountains in the Distance

Ruins of Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate
Ruins of Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate | Source

Russian and British Threat

Russian fur trappers and traders had crossed the Bering Strait with trapping expeditions and were advancing down the west coast of North America toward Spanish controlled California.

The British were beginning to explore the west coast of North America as well. Also, following the end of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in American History) in 1763, Britain gained control of Canada and the eastern half of what is now the United States. Expansion by the British from Hudson Bay south or Russians south from Alaska posed a potential threat to Spain’s control of what is now Mexico and the American southwest.

Apache Threat

As mentioned above, attacks by Apaches were and ongoing threat. In their migration south from Canada the Apaches had settled in the Great Plains of the what is now the United States. Moving further south they encountered the Comanches and in their increasing conflicts with the Comanche were pushed west to what is now Arizona.

Sizing up the military situation with the Apaches in Arizona, Hugo O’Conor chose the bluff overlooking the San Pedro River as the site for the presidio.

After choosing the location and overseeing the start of the construction of the Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrnate in 1776, O’Conor moved seventy some miles southwest to the Presidio at the settlement of Tubac where he proceeded to move the garrison stationed there north to the site of present day Tucson, Arizona. On the banks of the Santa Cruz River in the center of what is now downtown Tucson, O’Conor began the construction of another fort, the Presidio San Agustin de Tucson.

Unlike Presidio San Agustin de Tucson which was located just north of the mission settlement of San Xavier del Bac, Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate was located in a stragic, but remote, area that was home to many Apache raiding parties. The original plans called for both a fort and a settlement surrounding it. O’Conor’s plan was to was to create a sizable Spanish presence in the middle of what was then Apache territory thereby forcing the Apaches out and further away from Spanish and O'odham villages to the south and west.

Sign Describing a Jacal Structure

Jacal Structures were temporary quarters in the fort for craftsmen and others working inside the Presidio
Jacal Structures were temporary quarters in the fort for craftsmen and others working inside the Presidio | Source

However, from the start, the project found itself under almost constant attack by Apaches which resulted in the fort never being fully completed and the proposed settlement never being able to take root. The fort was finally abandoned in 1780.

A Bureau of Land Management sign at the parking lot at the trailhead includes the following quote from the report to the king by the last commander of the fort - this gives a clear picture of the reasons for the short life of Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrante:

“The terror instilled in the troops and settlers of the presidio of Santa Cruz that had seen two captains and more than eighty men perish at the hands of the enemies in the open rolling ground at a short distance from the post, and the incessant attacks which they suffered from the numerous bands of Apache, who do not permit cultivation of the crops, who surprise the mule trains carrying effects and supplies, who rob the horse herds and put the troops in the situation of not being able to attend their own defense, making them useless for the defense of the province.”

In the end, the Apaches won and this fort and settlement was left standing empty in the desert.

Rocks Outlining Where a Jacal Structure Once Stood

Rocks outlining the base of a Jacal Structure (temporary dwelling for workers at the Presidio)
Rocks outlining the base of a Jacal Structure (temporary dwelling for workers at the Presidio) | Source

Apache Wars Continued for Next 100 Years

Conflicts between the Apaches on the the northern frontier of New Spain continued for Spain until Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. At that point the problem of defending its northern frontier against the Apaches became Mexico’s problem. Following the end of the Mexican War with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 United States acquired much of the area in question and U.S. troops took over the fight against the Apaches in the newly acquired southwestern territories.

For the most part the Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrnate continued to sit abandoned and alone in the area while fighting between Apaches and the changing national armies continued around the area. In 1878 during one of its campaigns against the Apache U.S. troops occupied and used the presidio for a few months.

The fact that the U.S. Army occupied the presidio in 1878 indicates that at least part of its structures were still standing at that point. However, as the Apache threat began to decline in that area and the with discovery of rich deposits of silver and other minerals nearby people began to flood into the region and towns began appearing and growing rapidly literally overnight.

With thousands of people suddenly flooding into what was essentially a wilderness area the demand for building materials was high while the local supply was practically nonexistent. I suspect that this resulted in much of the presidio being stripped of anything usable, including the adobe bricks that formed the walls of its buildings, and carted away to the new towns that were springing up in the area. With the exception of Tombstone, many of these towns are now abandoned ghost towns slowly decaying in the desert like Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrnate.

In 1886, after nearly two centuries of fighting and holding out against Spanish, Mexican and finally, American troops, the Apaches in what is now Southern Arizona gave up and surrendered to American forces who forced the remaining Apaches to leave Southern Arizona.

San Pedro River Flowing Below Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate

San Pedro River as it Flows  Below Bluff upon which Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate sits
San Pedro River as it Flows Below Bluff upon which Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate sits | Source

Ruins of Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate Now Sit in Peaceful Isolation Overlooking the San Pedro River

Today the land occupied by the presidio is now owned by the Federal Government and managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management which is charged with protecting the site from further human removal of artifacts or pieces of the presidio.

There has been some archaeological excavations in decades past but no ongoing archaeological projects in recent years. Today the Presidio sits in peaceful isolation on its bluff overlooking the San Pedro River as it meanders oblivious to the ancient ruins of the bluff above.

Marker Commemorating The Officers & Soldiers Who Died Defending the Presidio

Marker erected by Warrant Officers of Fort Huachuca Remembering the Officers and Soldiers who died Defending the Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate (see text below)
Marker erected by Warrant Officers of Fort Huachuca Remembering the Officers and Soldiers who died Defending the Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate (see text below) | Source

Text on Marker Honoring the Officers & Soldiers Who Died Defending the Presidio

Real Presidio de Santa Cruz de Terrenate

1776-1780

Muerto en Batalla (Killed in Action) 7 July 1776

Capt. Francisco Tovar

29 Soldados

24 Sept. 1778

Capt. Francisco Trespalacios

27 Soldados

Nov 1778 - Feb 1779

39 Soldados

May 1779

Capt. Luis del Castillo

Placed by Warrant Officers of Fort Huachuca

© 2016 Chuck Nugent

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