Updated April 18, 2015
The San Carlos Apache Reservation once attracted ranchers from all over the Southwest to buy cattle. When it came to cattle grazing, the land in San Carlos was considered the best of the best.
The story of how this came to be dates back to the 1800s.
A family with the last name of Stevens established two of the earliest cattle ranches on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. They were considered pioneers in developing the Apache cattle industry.
Now that his father and grandfather are gone, Bob Stevens — former wildland firefighter, a well-known San Carlos hunting, fishing and hiking guide, and recently elected vice president of the Slaughter Mountain Livestock Association — is trying to not only keep his family’s ranch alive, but also the stories that came with it.
“There is some knowledge I wish my dad would’ve left me,” Bob says. “He left me with so much, he couldn’t leave me with all of it, I guess.”
Ranching was not an inherent practice for Apaches. As Bob explains, it was more or less brought about by the people who oversaw the tribe back in those days.
This is explained further by anthropologist Harry T. Getty, who researched ranching in San Carlos extensively, and later published a series of papers called “The San Carlos Indian Cattle Industry” in 1963.
Getty explains that, prior to reservation life, Western Apaches primarily hunted, gathered food from plants, farmed, and, during the Spanish period, raided.
After 1886, with the capture and imprisonment of Geronimo, the cattle-raising business exploded throughout the Southwest. Meanwhile, it was reported that the San Carlos Reservation was not large enough to sustain its residents through hunting and gathering, but that the reservation was good for grazing.
According to one report cited by Getty,
“It was better than good, it was the best.”
“The Whites soon discovered this,” the report said, and it wasn’t long before they began using reservation land to graze their cattle.
At the same time, the government had already taken on the role of providing weekly rations to the people of San Carlos, including heads of cattle for beef.
People on the reservation were so anxious to obtain stock-cattle that they were saving up their weekly rations. According to a report in 1878, one individual had accumulated 43 heads of cattle, and the tribe had obtained 521 stock-cattle and 760 sheep total.
In short, the Apaches, realizing that ranching was a revenue-generating practice, would eventually adopt the industry, Bob says.
The Stevens were some of the first to do so, he adds. This is in part thanks to one of the Stevens’ distant relatives, an Irishman and rancher from Boston, who married a White Mountain Apache. The couple had their children in Boston, but those children later came to San Carlos and passed along their knowledge of ranching, Bob says.
Getty tells a similar story:
“George H. Stevens, Commissary Sergeant in the United States Army, while on duty in the Forts, married an Apache girl. They settled on what is now the Double Circle ranch headquarters about the year 1878. They ran cattle and sheep on what is now the entire east half of the reservation.”
Bob’s father, uncles, grandfather and great grandfather would use the knowledge passed along to them to start up the R-100 Ranch, otherwise known as the Arsenic Ranch, sometime in the 1920s. According to Bob, it is the oldest ranch on the reservation.
In 1938, the Stevens turned R-100 over to the tribe for the tribe’s benefit, Bob says, and moved down the road about 10 miles, where they established the Slaughter Mountain Ranch that same year for their family.
The Slaughter Mountain Ranch covers roughly 90,000 acres. It is where Bob spent much of his childhood and would eventually work his first paid job.
One afternoon, Bob drives me out to the R-100 and Slaughter Mountain ranches, a 50-mile drive from downtown San Carlos.
After following a long, winding road, we arrive at a prairie flanked by hills to either side in the distance. There are no cars and no buildings in sight, just hills and an endless expanse of grass. He stops the truck.
“This is where a lot of ranching history began,” he says.
He points toward the hills. Halfway up to the ridges, pipe was laid to feed to water tanks below.
In the old days, he says, cowboys would round up cattle from R-100, Slaughter Mountain, Ash Creek, and the Point of Pines ranches, and bring them down to the prairie. They would then catch the Yellow Jacket Trail to the Gila River, heading for Calva, which is further south on the San Carlos Reservation. There, they would sell their cattle at a big sale.
It was a 50-mile journey that lasted a good week. Bob’s father was part of that journey — he used to sit in a wagon with the cook.
“As far back as I can remember, I used to come up here with my dad,” Bob says as we continue the drive. “Some of my earliest memories are up here. I remember them like they just happened yesterday.”
It’s not long before we arrive at the R-100 Ranch, where Bob’s father grew up. He estimates that it covers roughly 50 to 60,000 acres. To this day, the tribe still manages cattle at the ranch, although numbers have decreased due to the drought.
We get out of the truck. Out in front of us, Bob points toward old watering troughs. There used to be a huge barn there. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were live auctions here, he says. It was a week-long sale attracting ranchers from neighboring towns and states.
“Semis used to line this road,” he says. “At that time, San Carlos was known for having some of the best cattle in the Southwest. It was all free-range… The cattle run here pretty hearty for being free-roaming.”
A short drive down the road, and we arrive at Slaughter Mountain Ranch. With the exception of a few birds and a breeze creeping through the trees, it is silent. The buildings are rustic and showing age — after all, the ranch has been there 78 years, and many of the structures, like the stockman’s house, were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But Bob can remember some of the ranch’s best years, when seven to 10 semis would come to the ranch to haul cattle.
Otherwise, not much has changed here, he adds. Life on a ranch is often a quiet, somewhat solitary existence.
As he shows me around, Bob begins recalling old memories.
By age 13, Bob was working his first paid job at Slaughter Mountain, helping the stockman, who acted as the ranch’s caretaker. There is always something to do on a ranch, whether it is fixing fences, branding and rounding up cattle, checking windmills and wells, fixing holding pins, fixing vehicles, or “cutting cattle” — separating the old and sick cattle from the young male steers.
That was back in the summer of ’77. He made $200. He continued to work at the ranch on and off until he was about 17.
He points out different spots, bringing each one back to life, like the bunking area where all the cowboys used to stay, or the windmill, where cowboys would sometimes set up camp. He points out the tree that he used to skin deer beneath, and the trees that the cowboys pitched tents under.
We step a few paces away to the cook’s shack.
“This shack has been here longer than I’ve been alive,” he says. “As a boy, I slept under here.”
He shows me the old fire pit, once used to warm the dutch oven. When the cowboys came home at night, the cook would have food prepared over the fire.
Bob’s favorite memory as a boy is of his father waking him up long before sunrise and giving him a slingshot and a flashlight, and instructing him to catch quail in the trees. The cook would already be awake preparing a meal for the cowboys. Stevens would walk down to the wash, wake up the quail with a beam of light, and then kill it with a slingshot. About 30 minutes later, he would come back with the dead quail and give it to the cook. Then his father would send him back to bed. By the time Bob woke up, his dad would be gone with the cowboys for the morning round-up, and the cook would have the quail cooked for Bob’s breakfast.
Our last stop is the old barn. There are branding irons scattered just outside the saddle room. There used to be at least 20, Bob says.
“I used to talk with my dad here and wait for the cowboys to come home,” he remembers.
Outside the barn are the cattle stalls. There used to be hundreds of cattle in them, Bob remembers. Nowadays, a few guys from the association might come round up some cattle and take them to a sale.
In the old days, cowboys used to round up cattle once in the spring and once in the fall, Bob says. They would set up a tent camp, and they would spend at least a month separating cattle to brand, and then transported them to holding pins.
There are present challenges in the ranching industry, Bob says, but nonetheless, things at Slaughterhouse Ranch are looking up.
“Our ranch is doing a lot better,” he says. “We have better ideas and more volunteering of equipment, machinery and time.”
“Dad always told us not to let the ranch fall into other people’s hands too much,” he adds. “He told us to always have a say in the decision-making end of it.”
Following his father’s footsteps, Bob is heeding his father’s advice to help ensure that the ranch lives on.
Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.