Vail & Gates, 1888-1907

1888 Tax Assessment

Two tax assessment forms were filed in 1888. One for the Empire Land & Cattle Company which declared over 3,400 acres of land, 8,360 cattle, 190 horses, 304 bulls, and 4 mules.  The second one was for Vail & Vosburg’s  Pantano Ranch that paid taxes on 2,280 acres of land, 2,300 cattle, 20 horses, 85 bulls, and 2 mules.

Empire Ranch cattle herd, 1920. ERF archives: A119-2a


Overgrazing Problems—1888

In the late 1880s overgrazing in Arizona was beginning to be a serious concern.  In October Walter Vail went to Tempe, AZ and arranged to lease “500 acreage of alfalfa pasturage” and purchased 200 tons of hay to fatten his cattle. [Tucson Citizen, 10/6/1888].  He also began to look for property in California.  In 1888 he and a new partner, Carroll W. Gates, leased the 26,700-acre Warner Ranch in San Diego County.

View a summary of the forces at work in Arizona ranching at:

300 tons of alfalfa hay grown in the agricultural fields at the Empire Ranch in the South Barn, at the Empire Ranch, 1924.  ERF archives A301-001


Carroll W. Gates (1860-1920)

Carroll W. Gates, 1909.  ERF archives: A540-009

Carroll Gates was born in New York in 1860 and moved at an early age with his family to California.   Educated in the San Jose area he first worked for David Jack’s Pacific Grove Resort at Monterey from 1880 to 1887. In 1887 he moved to Los Angeles to deal in real estate with A. E. Pomeroy. He knew nothing about ranching, but his strong business and investment background proved extremely helpful to Walter Vail.






William Banning Vail—April 1889

Nathan Russell, Banning, Mary, and Walter L. Vail, Jr., ca. 1890.  ERF archives A530-21.

The fourth of Walter and Margaret’s children, William Banning Vail, was born in Los Angeles on April 13, 1889.  He used his middle name, Banning, and was named after Walter Vail’s good friend, William Banning, whose family owned Catalina Island from 1892-1919.






Southern Pacific Railroad Announces Rate Increase–1889

As overstocking increased in the late l880s, Vail and Gates had begun shipping more yearlings and two-year-olds to Warner’s Ranch near San Diego. In fall of 1889, just before the larger ranchers commenced their annual shipments of stock to winter pastures outside Arizona, the Southern Pacific raised its rates to various points in California. Company officials in San Francisco believed Arizona cattle growers could afford a twenty-five percent increase and would have no alternative but to accept it.

Southern Pacific Railroad engine and crew, circa 1910. Courtesy of Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block.


Defying the SPR Rate Hike—January 1890

Rather than accept the Southern Pacific Railroad price increase Tom Turner, foreman of the Empire Ranch, and Edward “Ned” Vail volunteered to drive 900 steers overland to the Warner Ranch.

The drive began on January 29, 1890 and ended 2 months and ten days later.  In addition to Edward Vail and Tom Turner the men who participated in the drive included “six Mexican cowboys from the ranch and a Chinese cook.”

Men who drove 900 cattle to California in 1890.  Left to right: Chapo Miranda, Jose Blas P. Lopez, George E. Lopez, Nestor [last name unknown], Francisco [last name unk], man in black outfit is Ranch Foreman Tom Turner, Jesus Elias, Rafael [last name unk], and rider in black on white horse is Edward L. Vail.  ERF archives: A300-037

Diary of a Desert Trail–1890

In 1922 Edward Vail shared the colorful story of the cattle drive, which he recorded in his diary, through a series of articles in the Arizona Daily Star. The Empire Ranch Foundation re-published the articles in 2016 as the Diary of a Desert Trail. The posts that follow were written by Edward Vail.

Diary of a Desert Trail can be purchased from Amazon—we hope that the excerpts will prompt you to read the full story.

Cover of Ed Vail’s diary at University of Arizona Special Collections

Diary of a Desert Trail publication











Empire Ranch to south of Tucson—1/29/1890

We left the ranch the 29th of January and after watering and camping at Andrada’s that night, we drove on and found a dry camp on the desert about 15 miles southeast of Tucson. Our cattle were still steers: there were over 900 in the bunch and as most of the big ones had been gathered in the mountains, they were very wild and none of them had been handled on the trail before.

The part of the desert where we made camp was covered with chollas, a cactus that has more thorns per square inch than anything that grows in Arizona. Cowboys say that if you ride close to a cholla, it will reach out and grab you or your horse, and as the thorns are barbed it is very difficult to get them out of your flesh. They also leave a very painful wound.

Cholla cactus. Courtesy of Gene Taylor from Pixabay


On to Tucson—February 1890

With breakfast before daylight our cattle were headed toward Tucson and “yours truly” rode on ahead to buy a new chuck-wagon and have it loaded with provisions and ready for the road. I had two 40-gallon water barrels rigged up, one on each side. John, the cook, came into town after breakfast and exchanged his old chuck-wagon for the new one.

Our camp that night was to be on the Rillito Creek, just below Fort Lowell, about eight miles northeast of Tucson. We drove the cattle east of Tucson, past the present site of the University of Arizona and over what is the “north side” now, the best residence section of the city. At that time, the foundation of the University’s first building was just being laid and it was about a mile from there to the nearest house in town. The surrounding country was covered in greasewood (creosote bush).

Photo taken by Ned Vail of the cattle near the Rillito Creek.  ERF archives: A530-07.


Tucson to Maricopa—February 1890

Tom Turner, Empire Ranch foreman, ca. 1900.   ERF archives A537-041, courtesy of Gary Turner.

We followed the general directions of the S. P railroad. The watering places were from 15 to 20 miles apart until we reached Maricopa, but several times we had to water in corrals. That night we camped between Casa Grande and Maricopa. Turner and I concluded we would try to get a good night’s sleep for once. We had been sleeping with all our clothes on and our horses ready saddled near us every night since we left the ranch, but as the cattle had been more quiet than usual for several nights past, we concluded to take off our outside clothes and get a more refreshing sleep. Sometime near midnight I awoke and was surprised to find we were in the middle of the herd and a lot of steers were lying down all around us. I awoke Tom quietly and asked him what he thought of our location. He answered, “The only thing to do is keep quiet. The boys know we are here and will work the cattle away from us as soon as they can do so safely. If the brutes don’t get scared we will be all right.”

The boys moved the cattle away from us a short distance, and not long after we had the worst stampede of the whole trip. Tom and I jumped on our horses without stopping to dress and we finally got most of the steers together, but as it was still very dark we could not tell whether we had them all or not. As soon as we had the cattle quieted, we made a fire and put on our clothes. We were nearly frozen.


Which route to take from Maricopa?  February 1890

The next day we reached Maricopa. At this point there was a choice of two routes; one went north and then followed the Gila River, which makes a big bend to the north here. This route would give us plenty of water but would be much the longest. The other way was to follow the old stage road along the S. P. railroad to a place near Gila Station and then drop down on the river. This meant a drive of 50 miles without water but was about half as far as the other and gave us a chance to find a little more grass for our cattle, as well as our horses which needed it badly. As we expected, our trail ran through a very poor country to find grass or other feed for either horses or cattle. We had two horses to each man and a few extra.

Section of 1887 Railroad and county map of Arizona by George Cram.  Courtesy of Library of Congress


Maricopa to Estrella– February 1890

In the afternoon we hit the trail for Gila Bend, and driving out slowly about ten miles on the old stage road riding the north side of the railroad, we made a late camp for the night. The next afternoon we reached Estrella, which is at the head of a valley which would be rather pretty if it were not so dry. There are desert mountains on each side and south of the little station a mountain higher than the rest forms a rincon. Tom concluded we would turn the cattle loose that night by grazing them in the direction of that mountain and then guarding them only on the lower side, thus giving them a chance to lie down whenever they liked, or to eat any grass or weeds they could find. I remember it was a beautiful night and not very cold. In the moonlight, I could see the cattle scattered around on the hills and could hear the boys singing their Spanish songs as they rode back and forth on guard. I am not sure whether cattle are fond of music or not, but I think where they are held on a bed ground at night, they seem better contented and are less excitable when the men on guard sing or whistle. This custom is so common on the trail that I have often heard one cowpuncher ask another how they held their cattle on a roundup. The other would reply, “Oh, we had to sing to them!”

Herding Empire Ranch cattle, 1800s.  ERF archives A510-082a


Estrella to Gila Bend—February 1890

Arizona map showing Gila River and Gila Bend.  Courtesy

We expected to reach Gila Bend on the river the next evening and started the cattle early in the morning toward the Gila Valley. We had reached a point which was clear of the hills on a big flat that gradually sloped toward the river; suddenly, the big steers in the lead threw up their heads and commenced to sniff the breeze, which happened to be blowing from the river, while a weird sound like a sigh or moan seemed to come from the entire herd. I had been driving cattle for many years, then, but had never heard them make that noise before. They were very thirsty and had suddenly smelled water! They had been dragging along as if it was hard work even to walk, but in a minute they were on the dead run. Every man but one was in front, beating the head cattle over the heads with coats and slickers trying to check them, as we feared they would run themselves to death before the water was reached. Close to the river we turned them loose, or rather they made us get out of their way.

The lead steers plunged into the Gila River like fish hawks, drinking as they swam and crossing to the other side. The drags (or slow cattle) must have been at least three miles behind us when the first steers reached the river and, after watering our horses, which we did carefully, some of the cowboys went back to help the man we had left behind to follow them in.


Gila Bend to Oatman Flat—February 1890

We grazed our cattle and horses at Gila Bend for several days and gave them a chance to rest. Turner or I generally did some scouting ahead to find a good watering place for our cattle and the next day’s camp. We found a trail along the south side of the river, about 30 feet above it, with a steep mountain on the other side and only wide enough for a man on horseback to pass. We followed it for about a mile and it brought us out on the Oatman Flat., a nice piece of land named for the Oatman family, the members of which were killed there by the Apaches in 1850. The way of reaching this place was over a very rocky mountain road and much longer. We decide to drive the cattle over the trail by the river. The cattle were started in that direction with a rider leading them as usual. As soon as we had a few lead steers on the narrow trail the others followed like sheep and all reached Oatman safely. So many cattle walking single file was an unusual sight. The wagon had to go by the longer road. At the Oatman Flat we met the Jourdan family, with whom we were acquainted. Turner and I spent the evening very pleasantly at their house. The Jourdans were doing some farming and also had cattle. Gila Bend is about half way between Tucson to Yuma, and from what I saw of the Gila Valley I did not think much of it as a cattle country. We had some trouble with quicksand when watering cattle in the river. If a steer got stuck in the sand the only way to get him out was to wade in and pull out one leg at a time and then tramp the sand around that leg (this gets the water out of the sand which holds it in suspension). When all the legs were free we would turn the animal on its side and haul it to the bank with our reatas.

Empire Ranch foreman Harry Heffner with reata in hand, 1899.  ERF archives: A536-123



A Hot Bath at Agua Caliente—February 1890

While we were at Gila Bend I went with the cook and his wagon to Gila station and bought barley for our horses and provisions. Before we reached Agua Caliente (Hot springs) near Sentinel I rode on ahead as we heard there was a store at the springs and laid in another supply there. The hot springs are on the north side of the river, and as there was considerable water in the river there a man in a boat rowed me over. I took advantage of the opportunity and enjoyed a good bath in the warm water, which is truly wonderful. I doubt there is any better in the country. At that time the accommodations were very poor there for persons visiting the springs, especially for sick people.

Ned Vail’s signature on a rock at Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, Arizona.  In addition to hundreds of symbolic and artistic rock etchings, or “petroglyphs,” produced centuries ago by prehistoric peoples, there are also inscriptions made by people who passed through during historic times.  Courtesy of Doug Hocking


Replacement Horses and Mules—February 1890

About 30 miles from Yuma, Jim Knight and one of his cowboys met us – Knight was the foreman of the Warner Ranch and a cousin of Tom Turner’s. He brought us saddle mules and horses and they were all fat. These were to take the place of some of the horses we had ridden so far.

The mules Jim brought were young and unbroken and as stubborn as only a mule can be. It was hard to turn one around on a 10 acre lot. Two of our boys refused to ride them. We told them if they would go as far as Yuma we would pay for their fare back to Pantano, as that was the agreement we made with our men before leaving the ranch, but I think they were homesick and I could not blame them much. We paid them off and they took the next train for Tucson at the nearest station to our camp.

Mule in Empire Ranch corral, ca. 1900.  ERF archives: A536-007


Yuma At Last—February 1890

In a few days more we reached Yuma and camped on the Colorado River, about three miles southwest of the town. The river was rather high owing to an unusual amount of water flowing into it from the Gila which joins it on the north side of the town. The next day we let all of our cowboys go to town to buy some clothing, which some of them needed badly and we gave them free rein to enjoy themselves as they pleased. Of course they did not go all at one time as some had to stay and herd the cattle. Among the last of our men to get back to camp that night was Severo Miranda (Chappo). Pa Chappa as he is called now, commenced working at the Empire Ranch about 1880 and is still on the payroll [1922].

Chappo Miranda (on ladder) with his family and Empire Ranch foreman, Hadden McFadden (left) and manager Harry Heffner (right), ca. 1900.  ERF archives: A536-115.


Preparing to Cross the Colorado River—February 1890

Turner and I got a boat with an Indian to row it, and spent the day looking for the best place to swim the cattle. We rode two or three miles up and down the Colorado River and prodded the banks with poles to see how deep the quicksand was. We found it very bad, especially on the west bank where the cattle would land. Finally we found an island near the west bank of the river where the landing was better. The water was not very deep from the island, with a good landing on the other side. We then returned to the Arizona side of the river and found it was impossible to drive the cattle into the river, there as the bank formed a 10-foot perpendicular wall above the water. We hired a lot of Yuma Indians with picks and shovels. They graded a road to the water. This work occupied a day or two. We were then ready to attempt taking the cattle across.

Bridge across the Colorado River at Yuma, 1877.  Courtesy of Library of Congress


Crossing the Colorado, Day 1—February 1890

Yuma musician, photographed by I.W. Taber between 1870-1912.  Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The herd had not been watered since the day before in order to make them thirsty. The current was very strong and the river very deep. We found it would be impossible for men on horseback to do anything in guiding the cattle across, so we hired the Indians and three or four boats. We placed them so as to keep the cattle from drifting down stream.  The idea was not to let them turn back for land so far down as to miss the island. We got the cattle strung out and traveling as they had on the trail with the big steers in the lead and men on each side to keep them in position to go down the grade which we had made to reach the river. Most of the large cattle reached the island all right. Then our troubles began!

Two or three hundred of the smaller steers got frightened as the current was too swift for them and they swam back to the Arizona side. About this time the sheriff from Yuma showed up and said he had orders from the district attorney to hold our cattle until we paid taxes on them in Yuma County. I told him I thought the district attorney was mistaken but we were too busy to find out just then. Cattle were scattered all along the river on the Arizona side and as they could not climb the banks and get out, many of them were in the water just hanging to the bank with their feet. We hired all the Indians we could get and with the help of our own men we pulled all excepting two or three of the cattle up that steep bank. It was then about 10 o’clock at night.

Photo caption/credit:

Crossing the Colorado, Day 2—February 1890

In the meantime here is the way we were situated. Our chuck wagon, cook and blankets were across the river; our 600 cattle were loose on the island in the river where we could not herd them; nearly 300 steers were loose in the thickest I have ever seen and on the Arizona side: and we were in the hands of the sheriff of Yuma county. The next morning Mr. C. W. Gates arrived on the train from Los Angeles. He went down with us to the scene of yesterday’s operations. The first thing we did was to pull out the two steers we left clinging to the river bank. Then we told Mr. Gates that if he would take what men we could spare and start to gather the cattle we had turned loose in the brush that Tom and I would go over in a boat to the island and swim the cattle over to the California side of the river. Throwing our saddles into the boat leading the horses, swimming behind, we soon reached the island. The cattle seemed to be all right. We did not have any trouble in getting them over as we found the big steers could wade across, but most of the younger ones had to swim a short distance. When we got them all across, we looked up the best place we could hold them and made camp.

1880 painting of cattle entering a river.  Wyoming Tales and Trails.


Mr. Gates and John the cook—February 1890

When we got back to where we had left Mr. Gates we found him and Chappo on a boat along the river bank. Mr. Gates said, “Tom, you can never gather those cattle in that brush,” and I admit it did not look possible. At that time Mr. Gates had only been a short time in the cattle business and never worked them on a range. So Tom and I told Gates if he would go to Tucson and see his attorney about the tax matter we would gather the lost cattle if possible.

I forgot to say how our Chinese cook left for Pantano on the train soon after we arrived in Yuma. He said if he crossed the river he would never come back again. The day before he left he bought a large Colorado salmon alive from a Yuma Indian who had just caught it. John took the fish, which was over two foot long, up to Mr. Gandolfo’s store and got permission to put it in a large galvanized water tank in the back yard. John said: “I am going to take that fish back to the Empire Ranch for Mrs. Vail.”

Colorado Pikeminnow.  Early settlers called them “Colorado white salmon” because of their migratory behavior and quality of their meat. Courtesy of National Park Service.


Gathering the Cattle in the Brush—February 1890

At first we did not make much progress in gathering those steers. The brush was so thick we could not get through it on horseback. It was screw-bean, which does not grow high but the limbs are long and dropping on the ground and lying there between them arrow weed was as thick as hair on a dog and higher than a man’s head. We found that we could run some of the steers out of the brush afoot by starting near the river and scaring them up to the open mesa as the brush only extends back a short distance from the river. After a few days the cattle commenced coming out themselves and we soon had quite a bunch together.

After four or five days we had gathered most of the cattle on the Yuma side. Then I ordered cars and shipped them across the bridge there. We made a chute of an old wagon box and railroad ties and unloaded them. It would no doubt have been cheaper to have shipped our cattle across the bridge at $2.50 a carload but we did not like the idea of depending on the railroad in any way.

Screwbean mesquite.   Courtesy of Gary A. Monroe, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.


Crossing the “Great Colorado Desert”—March 1890

We soon got all our cattle together on the California side and were ready to move. All were glad to get away from Yuma and take our chance on “The Great Colorado Desert,” as it was then called. We followed the river and met a man named Carter, who had a small cattle ranch, from whom we bought half a beef that he had just killed. Our cattle were too poor for beef and a while beef was more than we could haul, and as the days were warm, we were afraid it would spoil before we could eat it.

Carter was said to know the desert well and I tried to hire him as a guide and offered him $20 a day to show us where the water was on the desert. He said, “He had not been out there for some time. Sometimes there was plenty of water out there and often no water as it depended entirely on whether there had been rain.”

We decided that Mr. Carter was probably right about the water on the desert and what we saw afterwards confirmed that opinion. We did not travel very far down the river before we were overtaken by two young men with four or five very thin horses. They said their name was Fox, that they were brothers, and that they had been following us for some time and were anxious to cross the desert and heard we were driving the cattle across to California and asked if we could not give them a job to help drive our cattle.

Tom Turner told them we had plenty of help as the cattle were getting very gentle and we had all the men we needed. Tom and I then had a talk and we decided to let them go with us as they said they were afraid to cross the desert alone as they knew nothing about the country. We told them if they were willing to help us we would let them go along with us. Tom told them that they could turn their horses in the “Remuda” (loose horses) and he would let them ride some of our mules which came from the Warner Ranch.

Colorado Desert landscape. Wikipedia.


A Fortuitous Meeting—March 1890

Jesus Maria Elias. Courtesy of Arizona Historical Society

We followed the old stage road down to where it left the river. I have forgotten the exact distance, but it could not have been over 20 miles. In this place there was quite a lagoon of water, so we camped there. Next day Tom and I followed the old road out into the desert looking for water for our next camp. We rode a good ways that day and came back to camp late quite discouraged as owing to the poor condition our cattle we were afraid of driving them a long distance without water. When we reached camp we were surprised to find several tents pitched close to us on the lagoon. We immediately inquired of our men as to who the people were. They did not know but thought they were engineers of some kind. Tom and I went over to see and introduced ourselves to the head man.

He proved to be D. K. Allen a civil engineer who told us he was making a preliminary survey for a railroad from Encinado [Ensenada], Lower California to Yuma and he had been out in the desert all winter. We then told him our anxiety about finding water and he assured us there was plenty of water on the desert and that the first water we would find was only 17 miles from our present camp. This he said was not sufficient for all our cattle, but further on about 10 miles just across the line near the boundary monument on New River there was quite a large charca in the channel of the New River which would probably water all the cattle for a week.

While we were at his camp the cook was preparing supper and we asked him what he was cooking. He said it was rattlesnake and he invited us to partake of it. We passed it along to all our crew who had called on Mr. Allen, as people were so scarce in that country they were as much interested in meeting someone as we were. The only man among us who tasted it was Jesus Maria Elias, who told us that when he was with General Crook as his chief trailer he had frequently eaten it. I knew Elias and his family well, but I never knew he was so celebrated a man as he really was.

I afterwards learned that he was the leader of the celebrated so-called “Camp Grant Massacre.” He with William Oury, eight Americans, quite a number of Mexicans and a large number of Papago Indians marched over to the mouth of Aravaipa Canyon, which was right in sight of the old Camp Grant but then occupied by American troops and nearly exterminated that band of Apaches. They killed all but the children whom they brought to Tucson as prisoners. The cause of this expedition was the constant raids of the Apaches against the settlers on the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers


Calexico and New River—March 1890

Map of the New River in Imperial County, California.  Courtesy of California Department of Water Resources.

The next afternoon we bid goodbye to Mr. Allen and the Colorado Valley and drove out 10 miles and camped for the night. The next morning early we were on our way and about afternoon reached the first watering place that Mr. Allen had referred to.   After looking at it we decided we would only be able to water the weakest of the cattle. We had held the cattle back some distance from this water and Turner and I went ahead and looked at it as we were afraid the cattle would make a rush for the water. We cut our herd in two. As the stronger cattle were ahead on the road, we drove them on and let the weaker ones have the water.

About dark that night we reached the second watering place. This was near the New River stage station on the old overland road, but just across the line. This is the present site of the town of Calexico. We were quite pleased at the looks of what we could see of the country thereabouts. The mesquite was beginning to bud out with plenty of old grass around. The grass is commonly called guayella. The green shoots grow out of the old roots with a head like timothy. Also there was a great deal of what cattlemen call the “careless-weed.” All the cattle ate heartily and enjoyed their first good feed for some days. We concluded to stay for several days. And give our cattle a chance to rest.


Indian Wells—March 1890

Catbird drawing by John J. Audubon. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The next day Turner and I thought we would take a ride over to Indian Wells, the next watering place. We easily found the water and the ruins of the old stage station. This is near what is called Signal Mountain, a very peculiar peak the only one I saw in the desert as the country all around is very level. The water at Indian Wells was in a round basin with mesquite trees growing all around it. While we were there Turner’s horse was taken sick and seemed to be in considerable pain. We laid down under a tree to rest. I soon fell asleep.  Some kind of bird cried over my head and made a noise like a rattler.

Turner afterwards told me it was a catbird. I don’t know what it was, but at the time I nearly jumped into the water. As it was getting late we concluded we had better be getting back to camp. We decided to leave Turner’s horse there so we tied him up. I was riding a little horse which although small proved to have plenty of endurance. We put both our saddles on my horse one on top of the other. We took turns riding. One would ride ahead, then dismount and walk, leaving the horse for the one on foot to catch up to and ride. Alternating this way we had no difficulty in getting back to camp.


On to Carrizo Creek—March 1890

From our camp at New River we drove to Indian Wells, north of Signal Mountain. Late the next day we started for Carrizo Creek which makes the western boundary of the desert. This was the longest drive without water we had to make crossing the Colorado Desert. I think it was 40 miles. Our cattle had done well while camped at New River as there was more pasture for them there than at any place on the trail since we left the Empire Ranch. The country was open so we loose herded them. Strange to say the only steers we lost on the desert were drowned in the charco at New River. The reader may remember we turned our cattle loose the night we arrived there. The two steers were young and very weak and probably got their feet fast in the mud in the middle of the pool. We drove frequently at night as the days were warm on the desert. We hung a lantern on the tall board of our wagon and our lead steers would follow it like soldiers. Before we reached Yuma only one man was necessary on guard so we changed every three hours which gave the men more sleep, but it was rather a lonesome job for the fellow that had to watch the cattle.

Mount Signal, Imperial Valley, California.  Courtesy of Artarchives


Carrizo Creek—March 1890

When we reached Carrizo we found a shallow stream of water in a wash the banks of which were white with alkali. Not only the stream but the hills, barren of all vegetation, were full of the same substance. I never saw a more desolate place in my life. In all of Arizona there is nothing to compare with it that I know of.

The next morning the cattle were scattered up and down the creek most of them lying down and a few of them eating what little salt grass they could find. They had come through all right from our last camp, except one young steer that could not get up. We tried to lift him on his feet but he could not stand so I told the boys I was going out to see if I could find bunch grass along the hills and the youngest of the Fox brothers offered to go with me. He was a good looking young man, nearly six feet tall and about 20 years old I should think. His brother was a rather short and heavily built. These boys had worked cheerfully since they met us and were on good terms with all our men.

Ruins of the Carrizo Creek Butterfield Stage Station. California State Parks.


The Sheriff’s Unexpected Arrival—March 1890

Tom Turner’s Santa Cruz County Sheriff badge.  Turner was sheriff from 1901-1904. Courtesy of Jim Loushin.

Young Fox and I found some grass and brought it to the sick steer. Fox was a pleasant young fellow and said that Tom Turner had offered to give them work on the Empire Ranch if they would go back there with our men. A little later was surprised to see a carriage with four men in it coming toward our camp from the west. One of the men beckoned to me and I walked over to see what they wanted and who they were. They were the first people we had seen since we left the Colorado River, about a hundred miles back. He said he was a sheriff from Arizona and as he spoke, I recognized him. He then asked if we had two Americans with us who joined us near Yuma, and I replied that we had. Then he introduced me to the other three men, one of whom was his deputy and the other, his driver, who was from Temecula, California, and I think he said a deputy sheriff there. The fourth man, the sheriff told me came with him from Arizona and was the owner of some horses which he said the Fox boys had stolen from his ranch. The sheriff then told me that he and his deputy had followed the Fox brothers all the way to Yuma and then they had followed our trail after the boys until we crossed the line. They then returned to Yuma and took the train for California, as he could not go into Mexico.


A Tragic Ending—March 1890

As nearly as I remember I said: “Sheriff, you know the reputation of our outfit; it has never protected a horse thief and has always tried to assist an officer in the discharge of his duty.” I also told the sheriff that the boys had done the best they could to help us in crossing the desert and that I was sorry to hear they were in trouble. I felt it was my duty to tell him that the boys were well armed and quick with a gun. “You have plenty of men to take them,” I said. “Be careful. I don’t want anybody hurt.” The sheriff answered, “If they ask you anything, tell them that we are mining men going out to look at a mine.”

I knew if the boys were sure that the men were officers there would be bloodshed at once. It was a very unpleasant position for me as I really felt a good deal of sympathy for the brothers and I knew them to be young and reckless. The older one came to me and said, “Who are those men and what do they want?”

I had to tell him what the sheriff told me to say: viz, that they said they were mining men out to look at a mine near there. I could see he was not satisfied and was still anxiously watching the sheriff’s party.

Very soon after I was standing on one side of the chuck wagon, the elder brother was leaning against the back and his brother near the front wheel on the opposite side of the wagon from me. Suddenly I heard a scuffle and when I looked up I saw the sheriff and another man grab the elder boy and take his gun. His deputy and assistant were holding his brother on the other side of the wagon. They had quite a struggle and young Fox pulled away from them, ran around the wagon past me with the deputy in pursuit. He ran about a hundred yards up a sandy gulch and the deputy was quite close to the boy when he raised his gun and fired. Young Fox dropped and never moved again. I was close behind the deputy as I had followed them. When the latter turned toward me with his six-shooter still smoking and he was wiping it with his handkerchief. “I hated to do it,” he said, “but you have to sometimes.”

Roundup chuckwagon at the 41 Ranch in Wyoming, 1947. ERF archives: B407-106 courtesy of Jim Van Auken.

A Proper Burial—March 1890

I was angry and shocked at his act, as I had never seen a man shot in the back before. I then saw the other Fox boy walking toward his brother’s body, which was still lying on the ground. The officers who had him handcuffed tried to detain him, but he said, “Shoot me if you like, but I am going to my brother.” He walked over to where the body lay and looked at it. Then he asked me if we would bury his brother and I told him he could depend on us to do so.

Then I told the sheriff there was no excuse for killing the boy as he could not get away in that kind of country. He replied that he was very sorry about what had happened but said, “You know, Vail, that I got my man without killing him, and that it was impossible for me to prevent it, as I had my hands full with the other fellow at the time.”

Tom Turner was not in camp when this happened as he had gone out around the cattle. The sheriff and his posse left shortly after and took their prisoner with them, but they left the body of young Fox lying on the ground where he fell.  We dug a grave and, wrapping the young man’s body in his blanket, buried him near the place where he fell. It was the best we could do. I saw a man in Tucson last week who told me he was at Carrizo Creek a few years ago where he saw the grave which had a marker with the inscription, “Murdered.”

Headstone at Frank Fox grave.  Courtesy of Gary Turner.

Carrizo Creek to Warner Ranch—March 1890

We were glad to leave Carrizo the next morning and be on the way to Warner Ranch. The country was dry and barren until we reached Vallecito creek, which is in a pretty little valley with some green grass growing in it. Between there and Warner, we passed the San Felipe Ranch and from there on to Warner the road ran through a better country for cattle. Finally we reached Warner Ranch and it looked good to us and I have no doubt our horses and cattle enjoyed the sight of it as much as we did. The grass was six to eight inches high and as green as a wheat field all over the ranch, which covers about 50,000 acres.

We had been about two months and ten days on the trail since we left the Empire Ranch. There was not a man sick on the trip that I remember. We had slept on the ground all the way except at Yuma for a few nights when our blankets were in the wagon across the river. Our men had been loyal and cheerful all the time and I am glad to have all them share with Tom Turner and myself in the success of our drive. After we reached Warner, the Justice of the Peace sent for men and inquired about the trouble at Carrizo Creek. I told him what I saw just as I have related it in this diary, he then told me that the officers were out of their jurisdiction in California as they had no papers from the California Governor at that time, but I believed they obtained them later.

Warner’s Ranch, California, 1920s.  Courtesy of Whitney Wilkinson.

Some Well-Deserved R&R—April 1890

We had to hold the herd for a few days until they were counted and received. Most of our men were at liberty and we all went to the Warner Hot Springs and took baths which all enjoyed. The Indian women seemed to be always washing clothes and our men would join the group and wash their own and sometimes borrow the soap from the Indian girls. There was a good deal of laughing and joking in Spanish during the performance. The water was as it comes out of the ground is hot enough to cook an egg. Close and by running parallel to it is a stream of clear cold water.

Very soon all the cowboys were sent to Los Angeles where they remained for a few days to see the sights of the largest city they had ever visited, but after a short time they said their legs and feet were sore from walking and that they were all right on horseback but no good on foot, so we shipped them back to Tucson and the ranch.

Spring Street in Los Angeles, 1897.  Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The S.P. Capitulates—1890

A short time after our return, a meeting of cattlemen was called at the Palace Hotel (now the Occidental) then owned by Marsh & Driscoll who were at that time among the largest cattle owners in Arizona. The object of the meeting was to consider the matter of establishing a safe trail from here to California for cattle. From our experience I was able to make some suggestions, viz: To build a flat boat to ferry cattle across the Colorado River. To clear out the wells at the old stage stations on the Colorado Desert and put in tanks and watering troughs at each of them and if necessary to dig or drill more wells. Without delay all the money necessary for this work was subscribed.

The Southern Pacific Railroad Company when they heard of the proposed meeting asked permission to send a representative and the cattle association notified the company that the cattlemen would be pleased to have them do so. Therefore the S.P. agent at Tucson was present.  Soon after our cattle meeting, we received an official letter from the S. P. Company at the Empire Ranch saying that if we would make no more drives, the old freight rate would be restored on stock cattle. The company kept its promise and it held for many years. Therefore the trail improvements were never made.

Map of the cattle drive route.  Empire Ranch Foundation.


Fred Paine, a California cattle buyer, wrote about his cattle buying expedition in the 1890’s when he found the area in the grip of a drought. He arrived at the railway shipping point of Pantano, about twenty miles east of Tucson, and found an ordinary station house and a small wooden shack about a hundred yards away, about 10’ x 12’. These were the “shipping yards” from which most of the Empire cattle were loaded out. Jim Brady was the proprietor of the shack, which was connected by telephone with the Empire Ranch. He served coffee and a shot or two of very raw whiskey for breakfast but was cordial to the new arrival. Bradly was a soldier who had served in Arizona and elected to stay there when his service was finished. Paine left this establishment for the Empire Ranch to meet with Tom Turner, the foreman, whom he knew. The road led through a gap in a small mountain range, and then down a gently sloping and rolling country, past several deserted houses, and to the ranch house which was about twenty miles from the railroad.

From the ranch house, Paine left for the round-up camp, but first climbed a nearby hill to size up the surroundings. ”The mountains were most too far away to call this a valley, the ranges being fifteen or twenty miles apart. Between were gently rolling hills with a little oak brush here and there. It looked like a big country.” He noted that the cattle were in very poor condition, understandable since there was no grass in sight. Many starved to death and died, but on the vast acreage of the ranch, many survived until the rains fell again. ” Scattered over an immense range they browsed on the oak bushes, gnawed on the grass roots and I saw, later, twelve thousand head rounded up in one bunch after they got enough strength to stand handling. After dying by the thousands and shipping out train load after train load, we still found about twenty thousand head after grass came.”

Carleton Watkins photograph of Pantano Station, Arizona, 1880.  Courtesy of Pima County.

Gila Monster Bite—May 1890

Edward Vail wrote to his father on May 4th: “I was afraid you may have heard reports in the papers about Walter having been bitten by a Gila monster.  It happened at the Happy Valley where they were branding last Friday.  I am glad to say he is alright and will go home to the Empire today. Walter found the reptile while riding and wishing to show it to Mr. Gates who was in camp killed it as he supposed and tied it to the back of his saddle.  When he put his hand back to get off the brute seized the middle finger of his right hand and he had to call for help to get its mouth open. Walter tied the finger tight about the wound and then cut it open and put it in carbolic acid and started alone for Pantano.  Dr. Handy met him there and we came in at once to Tucson on a locomotive.  Walter was in great pain and at 6 o’clock that evening his tongue and throat were so swollen that he could scarcely speak—he suffered great agony at times but after 9 p.m. began to improve and slept well the balance of the night.  Dr. Handy is greatly interested in the case as in previous cases the bite of a Gila monster has proven fatal.  Maggie and I came in with Walter and were of course very anxious, but he now feels all right.”

Gila Monster. Courtesy of National Park Service.

Mahlon Vail is born—November 1890

Mahlon Vail at 10 mos., 1891. ERF archives, A405-2

Mahlon Vail, who was named after Walter Vail’s father, was born in Tucson on November 30, 1890.  Mahlon was the only Vail child not born in New Jersey or Los Angeles.  Maybe Margaret wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving at the Empire Ranch and did not make it to Los Angeles in time for the birth.  The family now consisted of four boys and one girl.








Good Horses—February 1891

Good horses played a critical role in ranching operations and transportation.  Walter Vail discussed the thoroughbreds he had purchased to improve his stock. “My horses are doing very well. I have been raising ordinary horses…for saddle use. I am going in to raise fine horses now. I have two Rise Dike Hambletonians stallions. Both are on the herd book. I have a four-year old from Sultan raised by L. J. Rose. He was sired by Sultan. He is on the herd book as Sir Richard. Ben Bolt and he will trot a mile together in 2:50. I am breeding these small horses because they are better saddle horses and travelers.” [Arizona Weekly Citizen, 1/19/1884].

In 1891 there were several newspaper reports of Vail horses participating in horse races, including “Sleepy John” who was sold that year for $250 to General Royal A. Johnson.  Horse racing did not become a serious preoccupation for Walter Vail—no doubt ranching and Total Wreck mine operations kept him too busy.

Two white horses holding down a roped cow.  This Image was used for the Vail & Gates letterhead.  ERF archives: A530-505

Wild Carriage Ride—April 1891

Walter Vail was reputed to be a fine “four in hand” driver and he loved speed.  His passengers not so much. There are several stories of his driving adventures: “Walter Vail, Mr. and Mrs. Gage, and R.R. Richardson came in town yesterday with Walters fine four-in-hand. They had a fine dash along the road. Things looked queer for a time and Walter says he would give a thousand dollars for a photo of their looks at one time. This thing of driving four spirited horses to a buckboard with three lines on the ground and only one line in hand is not exactly to the taste of the remainder of the party even if Walter does like it. Mrs. Gage stuck to her seat but Mr. Gage was missing but soon turned up and without injury It was no child’s play for some time but fortunately wound up with but little damage and no one injured. In keeping company with Walter, it would evidently be advisable to take out a life or accident insurance or not go.” [Arizona Republic, 4/11/1891].

Child on a horse-drawn cart.  ERF archives: A530-554