October 17, 1999
Freight boss Ochoa sought to build community
By Jim Purdy
Tucson was a rough town in the 1860s; the region, rougher yet as Apaches continued to roam and raid.
Survival was iffy. Civilizing the place seemed impossible.
But men like Estevan Ochoa managed the trick.
Ochoa was a short, soft-spoken businessman who became the leading citizen of Tucson in the latter 19th
Tucson showed its appreciation by electing him mayor in 1875. His 187-40 victory made him the first
Hispanic mayor after the Gadsden Purchase of 1854.
Ochoa's rise to prominence began with his freighting business. His mule trains made the arduous journey
over the Santa Fe Trail, which ran from Missouri to New Mexico. Ochoa made the connection to Tucson,
fighting Apache raiders along the way. Without men like Ochoa, Tucson wouldn't have had much contact
with the outside world.
``Ochoa's mule trains were the only pipeline of goods, information and lifestyles to Tucson,'' historian
Charles Polzer said.
Ochoa's mule teams traveled with well-armed men through a wild landscape.
Makeshift graves and the bodies of mules, horses, freighters, travelers and Apaches were common sights.
To make matters worse, food and water often ran out during the treks. Freight men forged their own trails
through blistering heat and wagon-engulfing floods.
Tully, Ochoa & Co. was one of the premier freighting organizations in the Southwest - before the railroads
laid their tracks through town. Tully and Ochoa supplied Army posts, mines, ranches, Indian reservations
and the many towns and cities along their routes.
Tucson had always been isolated. Even after the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, Tucson was just a patch of
dirt that trains might some day roll over. Apache-plagued and water-challenged scrub land didn't do much
to attract outsiders' interest.
But Ochoa was interested. He and Pinkney Randolph Tully, a Mississippian who had moved to New
Mexico, started a little freighting company with 10 wagons in 1864 and opened a wagon road from Mesilla
(Las Cruces) to Tucson, where both then settled.
Ochoa and Tully's business was huge. The Arizona Citizen wrote that ``the wagon trains of this firm wound
like great serpents over every road and to every town, post and camp where humanity had found habitation.''
Ochoa, who was born in Chihuahua in 1831, had grown up in the business, traveling with his family's
wagon trains, hauling goods from Chihuahua to as far away as Independence, Mo.
That brought him in close contact with Anglo freighters and merchants. He gained business acumen and
mastered the English language.
After the Mexican-American War, Ochoa, like many Mexican citizens, sought his fortune north of the border.
Thomas Sheridan writes in his book ``Los Tucsonenses,'' that the Ochoa confines were fabulously
luxurious. Don Ochoa and his wife, Altagracia, even kept a peacock in their home.
Tucson was Ochoa's adopted home and he was determined to make it a marvelous one.
``Ochoa sought to create a sense of community,'' Polzer said. ``He wanted to see the community stick
together and keep Tucson's spirit alive. All the families who lived in Tucson made great commitments to it.
They didn't try to Mexicanize it, nor bow down to the Anglo way of life. They had a commitment to building a
dignified community in the Old Pueblo tradition.''
That didn't happen in most former Mexican territories. In California and Texas, Anglos overwhelmed the
pioneer Mexicans in numbers and quickly dominated the economy and the culture.
Tucson's Anglos and Hispanics mostly lived together in harmony.
Many of Tucson's prominent Anglo settlers, like Sam Hughes, Hiram Stevens, Peter Brady, John Sweeny
and William Oury, married into Hispanic families and embraced their culture. Frontier life here was brutal
and people had to stick together to survive.
``In Tucson, the Anglos were Hispanicized,'' Sheridan said. ``Tucson was really a bicultural community.''
According to Polzer: ``Ochoa tried to meld together the cultures that were here into a singular and
The diminutive Ochoa had the character for the job.
That was never more evident than when the Confederate ``Arizona volunteers'' came rumbling into town on
Feb. 28, 1861, and were cheered by most Tucsonans, who, frankly, would have welcomed any troops
capable of fighting off Apaches.
The Confederates demanded pledges of allegiance from civic leaders. Union sympathizers scattered.
Ochoa refused. He was given an hour to pack his things.
Ochoa rode out of town alone, bravely facing the threat of death at Apache hands, all the way to Mesilla.
On April 15, 1862, the Confederates won a skirmish at Picacho Pass, where they killed Lt. James Barrett
and two Union enlisted men, but Col. James Carleton's California column swept in from the west, shooing
the Confederates away.
Ochoa quickly returned to his role as leading citizen of the town. He supported civic causes, helping to
establish a public school system and build a cathedral.
Ochoa fought for public education alongside Gov. Anson P.K. Safford, another Tucsonan who saw public
education as a way to build the territory.
When funds came, they were woefully inadequate. Ochoa not only donated the land for the Congress Street
school, he kicked in his own cash to complete it.
Ochoa's and Safford's efforts paid off. By 1879, there were 101 public schools in the territory.
But Ochoa's time was running out. The Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1880, undercutting his freight
business and his influence.
``Ochoa wanted the railroad; he wanted to see Tucson grow. He and his partners were for progress,''
Sheridan said. ``Ironically, the railroad was the very thing that put him out of business.''
When an SP locomotive smashed into two of Tully and Ochoa's wagon trains in November of 1880, it
symbolized the passing of an era, Sheridan writes.
The same railroads that killed Ochoa's livelihood almost killed Tucson as well.
Travelers passed right on by. The silver boom ebbed. The Apache wars ended in the 1880s and the
military, with no foe to fight, skedaddled. Tucson's population dropped from 7,007 in 1880 to 5,150 in 1890.
The late '80s and '90s brought drought and flood, crop and business failures.
The only bright spot was Tucson's 1885 acquisition of the Territorial University of Arizona. (see related
The region, however, was set to prosper with copper, cattle and cotton.
But at the end of the 19th century, it would have been tough to predict the future Tucson would build.
``Ochoa could never have conceived of Tucson being the home of 700,000 people,'' Sheridan said. ``He
would have been flabbergasted. Modern Tucson would have been stranger to Ochoa than any science
fiction you could write.''
Thomas E. Sheridan's elegantly written books, ``Arizona: A History,'' 1995, and ``Los Tucsonenses: The
Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941,'' 1986, both published by The University of Arizona Press, give
a fuller picture of the development of Tucson and Arizona.