History of ranching in Arizona

Arizona may not be the cattle-raising capital of the country, but cattle are one of the five Cs that make up Arizona’s agricultural economy. When I really started to dig into the history of the state’s beef industry, I realized it was as rich and established as any of our neighbors to the west or north. Most people don’t realize that the history of cattle ranching in Arizona spans over 300 years and has had periods of immense ups and even downs, but one thing remains the same, the Cattle ranching in Arizona is just as important today as it was. in the past, if not even more important.

Credit to Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, History and Archives Division.

The Spanish Era of Cattle Ranching in Arizona and Mexico: 1500s-mid-1800s

What’s interesting about the early days of cattle ranching in Arizona is that it didn’t really start in Arizona. It’s actually Mexico that deserves credit for reviving our state’s beef economy. Now the dates are getting a bit fuzzy depending on which publication you’re reading, but it was around 1540 that would-be conqueror Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition of around 300 Spaniards, 1,000 Indian allies, 1,500 horses and mules, 5,000 sheep, and 150 cattle west to the “New World” then known to conquer the Seven Cities of Cíbola. The seven cities of Cíbola would be located on the border of Mexico and Arizona. The story goes that Coronado intended to use all of his cattle to feed his troops, but he was forced to abandon some of them in a particularly difficult area of ​​Sinaloa. We can only predict that members of that original herd have wandered off, starting feral cattle herds across the southwest and into the Rio Grande Valley.

Credit to Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, History and Archives Division.

The next major piece of the Arizona Cattle Ranching puzzle features a missionary by the name of Francisco Eusebio Kino. Father Kino immigrated to Mexico in 1681 and began creating a chain of successful missions across the Sonoran Desert in 1687. A major draw to his missions was the cattle he brought with him. He often gave cattle to Indian tribes in the area, including the present-day Tohono O’odham tribe. These cattle were largely left to their own devices, feeding in the open fields, and they soon began to breed in large numbers. The herds that Kino started grew successfully into the 19th century. Kino’s importance in Arizona history is well known, but his prominent role in the settlement of cattle in Arizona during the Spanish era is so significant that it deserves special mention here.

Fast forward about a hundred years, the 1790s through the early 1800s were considered a golden age for Spanish settlers in Arizona. It was during this time that Arizona saw the number of settlers increase, as did the number of farms, mines, ranches, and cattle. It was also around this time that breeders began to want to expand their herds; however, with the expansion of the cattle herds came the need to expand the land. Land expansion came in the form of land grants that helped establish permanent locations for ranching families in Arizona.

Credit to Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, History and Archives Division.

Unfortunately, due to increased hostilities in the 1840s, the cattle ranching industry took a hit as most of the Mexican ranches in Arizona were abandoned and the few remaining settlers were moved to Tucson. The animals were left to fend for themselves and over the next 15 years their population was nearly wiped out as the Apache tribes nearly extinguished them and put a strain on the herds’ reproduction.

The American Era of Cattle Ranching in Arizona: Mid-1800s to 1900s

In the mid-1800s, the original Mexican land grants were reassessed when the United States was victorious in the Mexican–American War. This led to the 1848 acquisition of what is now Texas, New Mexico, most of Arizona, and California. It was then that Arizona entered what is called the “pioneer period”. This was when the government really pushed for land privatization and in 1862 the Homestead Act was passed, promising 160 acres of free land to anyone who would settle and work it. It was a game changer for the beef industry.

Credit to Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, History and Archives Division.

Also during this period, northern Arizona began to gain ground after the Civil War as Texas Cattlemen changed their routes, using Beale’s new wagon track construction and railroad surveys transcontinental. It was then that we began to see the foundation of today’s ranches being built in cities such as Flagstaff, Ashfork, Prescott and Dewey. Then, in 1882, the region’s second transcontinental railroad line opened and completely changed the dynamics of northern Arizona’s cattle ranches. In 1883, Territorial Governor FA He claimed that the Arizona Territory had 34 million acres of grassland, which he believed could support over 7 million cattle. When in reality the state courses couldn’t support that number. When the number of cattle rose well over one million, not counting other grazing animals, the conditions for rangeland disaster were at hand. Until then, Arizona’s beef industry was booming statewide. That was until the number of cattle began to exceed the amount the range could support.

Credit to Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, History and Archives Division.

Although there were many relatively dry years from the 1860s through the 1880s, the Great Drought of the 1890s was particularly tragic and had a significant effect on the landscape and the cattle industry. Over the next twenty years, cattle ranchers will see a continued decline in the quality of the rangelands they inhabit.

“During the Depression of the 1890s, the assessed value of livestock fell nearly in half, from $12,769,572 in 1893 to $6,591,343 in 1900.” – NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES

In the early 1900s, cattle herders and the cattle themselves went through some changes as they both had to adapt to a new landscape after the great drought. When World War I broke out, ranchers were promised that the agricultural industry would skyrocket as demand grew, but that was far from true. In fact, even after the end of the war, the prices of livestock and agricultural products began to fall. In 1921, this sector of the economy was practically in depression.

Credit to Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, History and Archives Division.

In the ten years before World War II, we saw further government intervention regarding rangelands and pastoralists’ rights, so that pastoralists adapted as needed to steadily expand their businesses. Ranchers didn’t know it at the time, but they were heading for a cattle boom at the end of World War II. Just to give you an idea of ​​the industry numbers at the time, the price of cattle went from $23,010,195 in 1940 to $75,145,243 in 1950, which is an increase of almost 200% in a decade.

What the Arizona Beef Industry Looks Like Today

The beef industry is just as important to Arizona today as it was then. Fortunately, we have several wonderful organizations such as the Arizona Cattle Growers Association to help keep some of that history and legacy alive. Learn some of the facts about Arizona’s current beef industry.

  • There are 19,000 farms and ranches (source)
  • Of these, there are 7,075 farms and ranches with cattle (source)
  • The total number of cattle and calves as of January 1, 2021 was 980,000 head (ranked 31st in the country) (source)
  • Beef cows having calved on January 1, 2021: 196,000 head (source)
  • Dairy cows having calved on January 1, 2021: 194,000 head (source)
  • Fattening cattle as of January 1, 2021: 265,000 head (source)
  • 2020 calf harvest: 305,000 (source)
  • Cattle are raised in all Arizona counties: Apache, Cochise, Coconino, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Maricopa, Mohave, Navajo, Pima, Pinal, Santa Cruz, Yavapai, and Yuma
  • In 2020, cattle and calf sales exceeded $673,000,000 (source)
Credit to Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, History and Archives Division.

Source of the article

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Hi everyone! My name is Krysta Paffrath, proud to be from Arizona and passionate about all things business and rodeo. I’m beyond thrilled to be the editor of Cowboy Lifestyle Network. With my experience in digital marketing and rodeo, it was only natural for me to join the team. My adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit has guided me to work in many places like the WYO Quarter Horse Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyoming, a working cattle ranch in Seligman, Arizona, and many places in between. I’m passionate about preserving the western way of life and I work with different brands and rodeos to make that happen. If you are looking for an article, email me at krysta@clngo.com. Learn more about me at krystapaffrath.com. Looking forward to hearing from you!


Edward K. Thompson