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Historic Trails of Arizona - Gila Route

Independence Rock“Independence Rock” photo by Dennis J. Wells

The southern overland route to California and the Pacific Ocean through present-day Arizona has been in use for centuries — first by Native Americans then by Europeans throughout the 16th to the 19th centuries. In late 1877, the Southern Pacific Railroad followed some of this corridor as it connected California, across Arizona, to the rest of the United States. Travelers on modern Interstates 8, 10, and 19 see, generally, the same terrain. This was not a single road, but a complex of transportation corridors that entered the state from east and south, traveled through passes, and along west- and north-flowing streams. The trails converged at the Pima Villages on the Gila River, then traversed the flood plain of the Gila River in a westerly direction to its confluence with the Colorado River at Yuma Crossing. This braided trail complex became nationally important in mid-19th century when the Mexican War and subsequent gold discoveries in California set off unprecedented westward migration. Thousands made their way over the various routes of the Southern Trail Complex.

Kearny’s Route & Cooke and Mormon Battalion Route

Several of these historic routes across southern Arizona are associated with the Mexican War of 1846-48. General Stephen Watts Kearny, Commander of the U. S. Army of the West, was concerned with getting to California by the most direct route. In 1846, he and 100 soldiers, guided by Kit Carson, followed the Gila River across the state, utilizing a trail well-known to earlier trappers and traders, but one that was completely unsuited for wheeled vehicles. There were several nearly impassable canyons along the course of the river. Kearny put the army’s supply wagons under the command of Lieut. Colonel Philip St. George Cooke and his “Mormon Battalion,” a large number of volunteers hired by the U.S. government to augment the Army of the West. Following six weeks behind Kearny’s unit, late in the year, Cooke and his men entered Arizona through Guadalupe Pass in the extreme southwest corner of New Mexico, then worked down the San Pedro River and to the small Mexican presidio of Tucson. From there, the road followed the Santa Cruz River to the Pima Villages on the Gila, then down the Gila flood plain to Yuma Crossing. The Mormon Battalion and Kearny’s Army of the West were by far the largest groups to cross Arizona at that time. Kearny’s Gila River Trail upstream from the Pima Villages was never heavily used, and then only by pack trains.

Graham’s Santa Cruz Route

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War in early 1848, a battalion of Second Dragoons under the command of Major Lawrence P. Graham marched from Chihuahua to Fronteras, Sonora, south of the present U. S.  Mexican border, went north along the Santa Cruz River to Tucson (today’s Interstate 19) and the Pima Villages, then followed Kearny and Cooke’s route along the Gila. This Santa Cruz River route and Cooke’s wagon road became the two major passages through Arizona as Forty-Niners streamed west to strike it rich in the gold fields of California.

Apache Pass & Butterfield Mail Route

In 1849, gold seekers first began to use a quicker route through Apache Pass, a trail that went from Soldier’s Farewell Hill in western New Mexico to Tucson, snaking through a narrow defile between Dos Cabezas and the Chiricahua mountains. Starting in mid-1857, this corridor was kept open by the couriers and mail coaches of the San Antonio & San Diego Mail Line, nicknamed “The Jackass Mail,” an enterprise described as “running from nowhere, through nothing, to no place.” John Butterfield won the coveted mail contract in 1858, and his Overland Mail continued using the shorter route through Apache Pass until 1861 and the advent of the Civil War. Today, Interstate 10 enters Arizona in this vicinity.

Suggested further reading on historic trails in Arizona

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