Jul 15, 2014
With the infamous “Cow Appreciation Day” on July 15th, the diverse history of cattle ranching in the state of Arizona is notable. Arizona’s first permanent ranch, Sierra Bonita Ranch, was founded in 1872 by Henry C. Hooker. Soon after the founding of Sierra Bonita Ranch, other cattlemen took up residence throughout the state and began profitable ranches. The Hilton Ranch operated in the early 1900s and included over 12,000 acres of land. However, Arizona’s cattle industry owes much of its success to Walter L. Vail and Empire Ranch. Located in Las Cienegas, Empire Ranch traversed over 180 miles during its most profitable point. Vail and his partners were able to remain in operation through disputes with local Apaches, the Arizona silver rush, and personal differences of opinion. Founded in 1871 with approximately 600 head of cattle, Vail and his partners soon owned almost forty thousand head of Herefords by 1898. The ranch was listed as a National Historical Landmark in 1976. Empire Ranch continued to thrive throughout ownership changes and in the 1980s underwent large restorations. Currently, the Empire Ranch still exists as publically owned land after being combined with surrounding ranches by Congress in 2000 to form the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. Undoubtedly, without the success of Empire Ranch the face of Arizona cattle ranching would look much different today.
Special Collections houses several pertinent Arizona cattle ranching collections. Information on the Hilton Ranch can be found within the archives (AZ 564). The above photograph comes from the Harry Heffner Empire Ranch Photograph Collection (MS 506). The collection has both an online exhibit and a digital collection in addition to the physical materials housed within Special Collections.