The small band picks its way through high grass and thorny catclaw. The youngest of the group is an 11 year old boy, his right shoulder is getting tired so he switches his German made Mauser rifle to his left and shifts his pack; the bandelier of ammunition rattling against his chest. It’s a cool winter morning and the group is both happy and anxious to return home. They’ve labored in the blazing hot cotton fields and citrus orchards of Arizona to buy the rifles and ammunition they are carrying, and they’re glad to be done with the brutally hard work. But they know that in Sonora they will be hunted. As soon as they cross the border they are entering a warzone, and if they are caught they know the consequence. One of the older men adjusts his new sandals. The night before they had cut the skin from a cow to make them. The man put his foot on the cow’s hide and cut the form from the flesh, then made a small slit to string rawhide through for a strap. It was dangerous for them to do this, and any rancher who came across the cow would know exactly what the sandal shapes cut from it meant. But it was better than walking barefoot, and they’d seen no one when they crossed north three months before. The boy cast his gaze back towards Atascosa Peak rising above the valley, and wondered how far they were from Sonora. As his mind drifted, a sharp whisper suddenly went through the group. Somebody spotted soldiers. Had the Mexican army crossed the border to find them? The group quickened its pace, moving off the ridgeline and down into an oak lined draw where they’d be harder to see. The leader of the group told them to abandon their packs and take only the weapons and ammunition.

            They moved as silently as possible, but behind them they could hear the sound of horses whinnying as they approached closer, and then the noise of the soldiers dismounting and advancing towards them. The leader of the group told 20 of the 30 men to take most of the ammunition and head south as fast as possible. 10 stayed behind, including the boy. He hid his small frame behind an oak tree and waited, trying not to exhale too loudly. The crunching of fallen leaves under cavalry boots was getting louder. With a shout the men around him began firing. This was his first fight. He levelled his rifle, almost as tall as him, as blue coated soldiers dove behind boulders and trees, and pulled the trigger. His shot went high and the recoil hurt his shoulder, but he worked the bolt and fired again. The leader of his group was sprinting from a tree to a large rock, when a bullet struck one of the rounds he carried in a belt around his chest. He was temporarily engulfed in a flash of light but held to the granite stone to keep his footing. The men fired and moved, slowing the pursuit of the cavalrymen. It had been long enough for the others to get away, so one man popped up and began waving his hands in surrender. The blue coats cautiously moved in, weapons raised. As they got nearer the boy saw that these were not Mexican soldiers, they were mostly black, with one or two white men who looked like officers. These were U.S. cavalry. The now surrounded Yaquis breathed a collective sigh of relief. At least capture by the Americans meant prison or labor, and not instant death.

            Indigenous use of the Atascosa Highlands is a chain stretching back across centuries. The links are formed by the numerous cultures which have found food and shelter in the rugged hills and verdant valleys of this region. There has been little archeological work conducted on the Highlands compared to nearby areas like the Santa Cruz and San Pedro valleys, but oral histories, mission records, artifactual collections and a few archeological digs offer hazy glimpses into the lives of the people who called these mountains home.

            It is thought that tribes were hunting and gathering in the Atascosas dating back to the archaic period between 8000-1000 BCE, but no firm evidence has been found to support this assertion. The earliest sites uncovered by archeologists seem to date from the so-called, "Colonial" period of the Hohokam people. Hohokam is a derivation of the O'odham word "huhugam" which translates roughly as "those who have gone" or "those who came before''. The term is now used to describe an agricultural people whose influence and territory spread from the Phoenix Basin across southern Arizona to the San Pedro river in the east. The most well known Hohokam sites show evidence of perhaps the greatest farming culture north of Mexico. Miles of canals, rock mulched agave mounds, and extensive fields and terraces can be found, along with distinctive pottery and petroglyph styles. The Hohokam in the Atascosas would have occupied the very margins of their civilization, away from the river settlements which were at the center of Hohokam life. Archaeologists have uncovered a small settlement near Arivaca, occupied sometime around 700 CE, which must have relied on rains, and the cienegas and springs nearby to grow corn and other crops, though much of their diet seems to have consisted of wild foods such as Agave (Agave palmeri), Cholla (Cylindropuntia spinosior), Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) and Mesquite (Prosopis velutina). This site is notable because it contained pottery of a style associated with the Trincheras culture in modern day Sonora. This would indicate a blending and exchange between the people living at Arivaca and their neighbors to the south. Another site is found in the southwest corner of the Atascosa Highlands at a small peak called Cumero Mountain, which bears clear evidence of Hohokam habitation. At the base is a large chunk of granite, half buried in the ground with worn holes that indicate its history as a bedrock mortar. Large, flat stones like this were used to grind Mesquite (Prosopis velutina) pods and other wild foods. But most impressive, is what can be seen at Cumero peak. There, with a clear view of the surrounding valley, including the newly built border wall, is a boulder perched precariously, and covered in petroglyphs. Images of snakes, deer, and human figures form an enigmatic portrait of the beliefs and worldview of those who have gone before.


            Several factors led to the dissolution of the classic Hohokam culture. Drought, floods, and conflict precipitated a gradual decline in population at the major cities and the dispersal of people into smaller townships which mingled with other cultural groups, allowing adaptation to new conditions. This spelled the end of the distinctly Hohokam cultural tradition by about 1450, but left the inhabitants of the region better suited to deal with the new realities they faced. How much this affected the residents of the Atascosas is unknown. What is clear is that by the time the Jesuit mission at Tumacacori was established in 1691 the people who lived in the region were O’odham. People who lived and farmed along the waterways were called Pima (Akimel O’odham-River People) by the Spanish and those further west who split their time between gathering wild foods and farming with the summer rains were called Papago (Tohono O’odham-Desert People). The entrance of the Spanish into the vicinity of the Atascosa Highlands created a ripple effect of changes across the region.

            The Akimel O’odham farmed the Santa Cruz river valley much as the Hohokam had done; they grew corn, beans, squash, cotton, and other plants in the fertile floodplain. The introduction of European crops and livestock, and the labor required by the incoming missionaries began a shift in their traditional lifeways. They now had a winter crop in the form of wheat, and herds of cattle, goats, and sheep which required tending year round. Although the Tohono O’odham to the west had less direct contact with the Spanish, Arivaca was a stopover for travelling missionaries heading further out into what they called Papagueria. The Tohono O’odham would certainly have felt the effects of plants, animals, and diseases brought by these newcomers. It’s worth noting when discussing indigenous groups that the image of large unified tribes is often anachronistic. Though they shared cultural affiliations, these tribes were divided into numerous bands, villages, and family units. This means that the influence of the Spanish padres and soldiers was felt unevenly amongst the O’odham. Within a single village, or family reaction to the Spaniards may have been very different. Individuals also had the agency to decide to what degree they would engage with this new group moving into their homeland. This loose band structure meant that missionizing the population was difficult, but so was organizing combined resistance. This came to the fore in 1751 when an O’odham named Luis Oacpigaigua launched an ambitious plan to expel the Spaniards from O’odham country. Luis was a headman who led indigenous auxiliaries in a campaign against the Seri people in coastal Sonora. The Spanish leader appointed Luis as “Governor-General of the Pimas”, an office which suggested a level of unilateral control that was far from reality. However, upon returning to the mission at Tumacacori he was chastised by the padre who resented secular intrusion on his missionary work, and Luis’s new found air of authority. Relationships between the O’odham and Spanish were always complicated and differed person to person, but a rising tide of anti-Spanish sentiment was growing amongst many of the people who were feeling the direct effects of the mission and presidio system. Luis went to his hometown of Saric where he began planning for a mass uprising. Given the dispersed nature of O’odham villages he was able to coordinate with incredible efficiency. On November 20, 1751 Luis invited 18 Spaniards and Yaquis to shelter at his home under the pretense of an imminent Apache raid. Once inside he posted guards at the door and set the home on fire killing all 18 of those trapped inside. On this same night coordinated revolts took place at missions and villages across O’odham lands. Some O’odham who knew of the plot sided with the padres and attempted to warn others of the threat, or participate in the defense of the missions. Despite this, by the end of the night over 100 Spaniards, Mestizos, and indigenous allies of the Spaniards such as the Yaquis and Opatas, who the O'odham viewed as outsiders, were killed. However, Luis was unable to hold together his alliance and most of the support he had melted away. When the Spaniards responded by sending a military expedition north, Luis met them with his remaining forces on a field near Arivaca, and O'odham war clubs and courage proved unable to best Spanish cavalry with lances and steel blades. After this military defeat many O’odham returned to the missions or drifted back to their homes, unwilling to offer further violent resistance.

            The concentration of O’odham into large villages around the missions, and the appearance of herds of livestock also drew the attention of another indigenous group, the Apache (Ndee). The early history of the Apaches is difficult to piece together, but it appears that they were in the process of expanding west when the Spaniards arrived. The easternmost O’odham, called Sobaipuris by the Spaniards, had been in contact with the Apache and had somewhat cordial trade relations with them. Missionization would have shifted this dynamic, in part because time spent working on mission fields led to a reduction in surplus goods to be traded with their semi-nomadic neighbors. Soon the Apache bands became experts in the lightning raid, and masters of transport by horse. They extracted what had formerly been trade goods by force. Their raids gradually drove the Sobaipuris west into the Santa Cruz valley, leaving no buffer between the missions and the Apaches. O’odham villages and Spanish presidios came under regular attack and the Atascosa Highlands became a throughway Apaches could use on their incursions. After Mexican independence this conflict continued to devolve into a series of raids and counter raids. Tumacacori mission was abandoned in 1848, and that same year the U.S. and Mexico hammered out the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, beginning the boundary surveys which would ultimately bring the Atascosa Highlands and a large swath of Northern Mexico into the United States.

            But political sovereignty over the region did little to diminish conflict with the Apaches who laid claim to the territory. The Apaches quickly learned that they could take advantage of the new border by raiding on one side and selling stolen goods on the other, as well as crossing the border to avoid the militaries of either nation. In April of 1886, a group of Apaches entered the Atascosas, they ransacked the homestead of Arthur Peck, resulting in the deaths of 3 people and the capture of one more before heading south towards Sycamore Canyon where they became embroiled in a gunfight with Hank Hewitt and Yank Bartlett who had a small ranch house near the mouth of the canyon, before heading south across the international boundary. Within months of this fight this Apache group led by legendary war leaders Geronimo and Naiche had surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry, ending the long running tradition of raids through the Atascosa Highlands.

            Just over thirty years after this incident, the Yaquis heading south through Bear Valley were spotted by members of the U.S. 10th cavalry, the famous Buffalo Soldiers. Of the ten Yaquis who surrendered one died of his wounds. The rest travelled with the soldiers to Nogales and then Arivaca before being sent to Tucson to await trial on gun smuggling charges. The 11 year old boy was exempted, but the rest were convicted. The Mexican government petitioned for them to be deported. But in recognition of the circumstances they faced in their homeland the judge sentenced them to thirty days in jail rather than deportation, and after their brief incarceration their trail is lost from the records. Some may have gone back home, or even conducted another firearms run, or perhaps melted into Tucson’s growing Yaqui diaspora. These men were one more link in the long chain of cultures stretching back beyond memory in the Atascosa Highlands.