The O X Ranch Witness to History

The O X Ranch Witness to History

The O X Ranch – Witness to History

For over 150 years the O X Ranch has indeed been a witness to history. Since the 1860’s, the O X ranch has not only provided a livelihood for farmers, ranchers, and Native Americans, but has also been the site of some significant events in the history of Yavapai County. These include an Indian massacre, a train wreck, the founding of a gold mine, a visit by a U S president, shootings, and a murder. There are historical references to the O X brand as early as 1883.

The O X Ranch lies west of highway 89 and the town of Congress and extends to the top of the WeaverMountains. The area was originally comprised of numerous homesteads, but by 2008 had grown to approximately 65,000 acres. It is primarily ArizonaStateTrustLand with a number of private parcels scattered throughout. The terrain is rolling and rocky with high desert vegetation, and elevations from 3000 - 6000 feet. Located on the edge of the Sonoran and MohaveDeserts, the plants include both saguaro cactus and joshua trees, plus over 300 other plant species. Locals enjoy seeing two huge painted rocks that have been maintained for years – one a green frog adjacent to highway 89, and another painted with a skull over 80 years ago off county road # 62.

The headquarters has a large spring and lies at the convergence of three perennial streams, appropriated by the homesteaders in the 1860’s and 1870’s. These sources of water contributed to the area’s use by Native Americans, as evidenced by a number of petroglyphs on the cliffs, and the large number of Indian pots and arrowheads found by earlier residents. This area was called DateCreekValley, with fields leveled for irrigated crops.

History records a number of events that occurred at the O X. One former owner died in a horse accident. Another was arrested during prohibition when authorities became suspicious as smoke was seen wafting from the chimney of his house on a hot summer day. They found a still in his basement. There was the murder of a cattle rustler in the early 1900’s, and in the 1990’s the death of a man who had lived off the land for several years killing and eating cattle and wildlife. Two owners went to prison, several went bankrupt, and the Valley National Bank, as the result of a foreclosure, owned the ranch for a period during the 1980’s.

Looking back, the location of the ranch was very important during the 1860’s as prospectors came into Arizona looking for gold. Water was key to the safe passage of travelers through the desert. Due to its location between Ehrenberg, Arizona on the Colorado River, and Prescott, the three creeks provided a critical water source. One of the principal wagon trails from California went directly through the current headquarters, and the ranch was the site of two stage stops and a US government military camp.

Several early descriptions of the area exist. Lewis Kingman, a railroad engineer, described his trip across the desert as follows: “As is commonly known, this region is one of the most forbidding of deserts and fraught with hardships. Scarcely a blade of grass could be found for our animals and it was by rare good luck that a ranch was found on Date Creek. We bought corn for the horses for 8 cents per pound”.

One of the first known descriptions of the headquarters was by Charles Genung, who eventually settled in Peeples Valley, AZ and was a respected citizen of the state. He was a member of a group traveling on the trail from La Paz to Prescott in 1863. Upon topping a hill, he looked down on an oasis with water flowing and Indians camped on the banks. This area was what is now the headquarters of the O X Ranch. He wrote in his notes that, “I feasted my eyes on fields of meadow grass and flowers which grew belly-high, and groves of walnut trees and great cottonwoods.” One of the members of his party was reported to exclaim, “ My God, we’ve found the Garden of Eden!”

Companies hauling freight first used this wagon road. Freighters were said to have carried bags of mesquite beans for their draft animals, and the prevalence of mesquite trees on the ranch now attests to that. In 1868 the Arizona Stage Company started offering passenger service, followed by the Arizona and California Stage Company in 1875. Just west of the current headquarters, travelers stopped at William Gilson’s Ranch to change horses. It was described as having a nice home, an orchard, and a number of cattle. Another stage stop was operating on the Martinez Ranch on Martinez Creek, closer to the town of Congress.

During the 1860’s and 1870’s YavapaiCounty was a dangerous place, as Indians were attacking travelers and raiding homesteads in the area. The help of the US Government was enlisted, and cavalry troops were sent to establish FortMcPherson in 1864 on the banks of Date Creek. Due to incidences of malaria, a new fort – Camp Date Creek - was built above and just east of the river in 1867. The availability of water in the valley meant feed could be grown for the soldier’s horses.

Camp Date Creek was an active military fort from 1867-1874. John Bourke, aide to General George Crook, in his book, On the Border with General Crook, described it as “a sickly and dismal post”. While two buildings were constructed of the malapai rock found on site, most had only rock foundations with adobe walls. Roofs were made of scraps of canvas, branches and mud, with floors covered with boards or left as dirt. Life was difficult, and the journals of cavalry wives living there told of the centipedes, scorpions and snakes that seemed to access the inside through holes in the adobe. They had few fresh foods, and appreciated the watercress found in nearby streams.

When one visits the quiet and peaceful O X Ranch today, it is hard to imagine the severity of the Indian conflicts that resulted in so many deaths of both settlers and Indians in that area. Revenge for incidents seemed only to result in more incidents. Camp Date Creek was operating at the time of some of the worst problems. Senator Barry Goldwater’s great uncle, Joseph Goldwater, was shot when traveling near by and taken to the camp to have the bullet removed.

Camp Date Creek was also the site of the Date Creek Massacre. While there are different accounts of what occurred, it was precipitated by the Wickenburg Massacre on November 5th, 1871. A stagecoach traveling from Wickenburg to the Colorado River was attacked by Indians, and all but two of the 8 passengers were killed, one being Frederick Loring, a well known surveyor and writer. At that time it was felt that the Indians responsible were from the Date Creek Reservation, located on what is now the O X Ranch. Later accounts suggest that those responsible might have been Mexicans dressed as Indians.

General George Crook, headquartered at FortWhipple in Prescott, was furious. He was determined to identify and arrest the killers. Arrangements were made to have the Yavapai Apaches meet with General Crook at Camp Date Creek. The General received word, however, that the Indians planned to kill him at a predetermined signal. Crook alerted his men and when the signal was given, and the Indians raised their weapons, Crook’s men shot them. General Crook survived only as a result of an Indian gun barrel being deflected. A number of Indians were killed during that incident, others being captured and jailed.

At that time, temporary Indian reservations had been set up for bands of Apaches in several locations, one of these being located at Date Creek. Most of the Indians were peaceful and cooperated with the Whites, but some continued to stir up trouble. In 1874 Camp Date Creek was closed, and in 1875, the 1,400 Yavapai Apaches that had been living on the Date Creek Reservation were moved to the Fort Apache Reservation in the White Mountains of Arizona.

The search for gold brought many people to the area. After the gold strike at Rich Hill in 1863, just east of the town of Congress, a flurry of mining activity ensued. Gold was discovered in the DateCreekMountains in 1884, and the opening of the Congress Mine in 1887 resulted in a town of more than 3000 people who worked in the mine. A railroad spur was built, and United States President William McKinley visited the mine for two days in 1901. By 1910 over seven million dollars of gold and silver had been extracted. Shortly thereafter the mine closed, but it has been purchased and reopened a number of times since then. It last closed around 1994. As the price of gold rises, there is always talk of its opening again. Numerous deserted mining claims can still be found where O X Ranch cattle graze.

The railroad also played a part in the history of the O X Ranch. Riding on a passenger train, on what is now the Burlington Northern Railroad, Elladean Hays Bittner, a YavapaiCounty pioneer and long time resident of Congress, was a two year old child when the bridge collapsed while crossing Date Creek. The cowboys from the O X Ranch were reported to be the first to arrive on the scene to assist the passengers. No passengers were injured, but the engine was said to have been swept downstream, and never found. The railroad still carries freight through the ranch on a route from Phoenix to Seligman.

Several different owners lived and worked at various areas of the current O X Ranch. The first of record was William Gilson, mentioned above in a part of the DateCreekValley, and was apparently an outstanding man. Starting in 1864 he farmed, had an orchard, and raised cattle and carp there for 19 years until 1883 when the Prescott Miner reported that the Gilson Ranch had been sold to General George Crook, Hugo Richards, and Jim Oneal. Gilson moved to Phoenix, where he farmed until his death in l909.

Other owners of portions of the current ranch include William Kirkland, founder of Kirkland. Bud Ming owned property there that he called the O X Ranch at the same time. His partner, WA Anderson, was there for almost 20 years until he died in 1936.

Cecil Billingsley and his brother, Ketch, homesteaded a portion of the ranch in 1906. Cecil worked as an accountant for the Congress Mine, and his six children rode their horses over the DateCreekMountains to school in Congress. In 1936 Cecil bought land in the DateCreekValley – the location of the current O X headquarters. His family lived and farmed there for 33 years until 1969. They planted 300 trees in an orchard, grew corn and grains, grazed and fed out cattle, and even raised angora goats. They had a reputation for being excellent farmers.

For over 40 years on nearby private lands, the Hawkins family had a large and productive farm stretching over an area along what is now the O X Ranch road. They raised sugar beets, strawberries and peaches, until selling in the 1950’s. After that, several different groups owned the O X Ranch for shorter periods.

In 1990 the Murphy Family purchased the Ranch. It was in a rundown condition with the orchard gone, the fields lying fallow, fences falling down, and the houses and barn in disrepair. The challenge of restoring it was irresistible. Replacing a badly leaking pipeline that carried water from the spring to the lake was the first order of business. The 13 acre lake was cleaned and open ditches were replaced by underground pipes carrying water to the fields.

Over the ensuing years, the barn and shop were re-roofed, fences and corrals repaired, a well house constructed, and riparian areas fenced to manage grazing. Solar pumps have been installed on pasture wells, and pipelines and drinkers now supply reliable water to the far reaches of the ranch for cattle and wildlife. This has spread out animal use and enabled better utilization of the forage. The fields have been leveled to conserve water and maximize irrigation efficiency. Pastures were divided, allowing greater management flexibility. Roads have been rebuilt, an orchard planted, and staff houses built or restored. Erosion control projects have reduced the head-cutting of uplands.

Working to improve the rangeland and monitor all aspects of the environment has been an ongoing effort. Projects with the University of Arizona, Natural Resource Conservation Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of Agriculture, and the Farm Service Agency have all made significant improvements to the land. Utilizing the Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, trees were planted around the lake – now a haven for birds. Numerous other trees were planted along the fields to provide shade.

In a project with the Arizona Game & Fish Department, two beaver were placed in Date Creek. Their dams raised the water table, encouraged seed germination, and resulted in one-half mile of new cottonwood and willow trees, as well as a healthier riparian area. Working with NRCS, a number of tamarisk trees – an invasive species – have been eliminated.

After obtaining the ranch, the Murphys purchased a mixed herd of desert cows, but the ranch has gradually shifted to angus/brahma cross cows and angus bulls. Animal health and a quality meat product are of prime importance. Their genetics and smaller size ensures their ability to thrive in the heat on the desert vegetation. After weaning, the offspring graze all summer on a forest allotment south of Flagstaff, after which some are sold. Accommodating public interest in local grass-fed beef, others are raised without hormones or antibiotics, and return to the desert to be finished on the pastures and irrigated fields at the O X Ranch. These are sold over the internet, to restaurants, and to retail meat markets in Phoenix.

When one sees the O X Ranch now, it is hard to visualize its decrepit condition when first seen in 1990. The DateCreekValley is once again the oasis seen by early settlers, with trees, green grass and flowers. The effort put forth has resulted in healthier pastures, the ability to pick a fresh peach from the orchard, or a rose from the bushes along the road. While not being the “Garden of Eden” as Charles Genung’s friend remarked in 1883, it is an oasis enjoyed by those who live there, as well as by people who come and learn about ranching and the importance of a healthy environment.

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