This region boasts a vivid past, from ghost towns and mining camps to legendary figures like Geronimo, Wyatt Earp and Pancho Villa.
The entire Wild West didn’t take place in Cochise County. It just seems that way because of its legendary cast of characters. This is where Cochise and Geronimo rode. This is the home of the Buffalo Soldiers. This is where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday shot their way into the history books and where Clantons and McLaurys sleep in cold graves on Boothill. This is where citizens gathered on hilltops to watch Pancho Villa in battle and where Texas John Slaughter restored the peace. This is a land of sprawling ranches, rowdy boomtowns and some of the richest mines in the country.
What Cochise County has done so well is preserve that heritage. Evidence is scattered across the region in Southern Arizona. Visitors will discover historic sites, weathered ghost towns, informative museums and living re-enactments.
Start in Tombstone, where stagecoaches still roll through downtown and gunshots still ring out at the O.K. Corral. Stroll the wooden boardwalks and bend a casual elbow into a swinging saloon door. Be sure to tour the Birdcage Theatre. The combination theater, saloon, gambling hall and former brothel opened in 1881 and hosted world-famous entertainers upstairs and the longest running poker game in history downstairs.
Nearby, Tombstone Courthouse State Park houses artifacts and exhibits that capture the spirit of the “Town Too Tough to Die.” Talented re-enactors at the O.K. Corral resettle the most famous disagreement in Western history daily. You can pay your respects to the losers of that contest and dozens of other real-life characters at the sunbaked cactus-dotted slope of Boothill Graveyard.
Ghost Towns of Cochise County
For spirits of the wood and adobe kind, take time to explore prominent ghost towns like Fairbank, Gleeson, Courtland, and Pearce. All thriving communities at one time, they’re now gnawed by the elements and teeter between ruin and redemption. Ghost towns are the bones of an era gone but not forgotten.
In Bisbee, visitors don hardhats, headlamps, and slickers, and head underground on a Queen Mine tour, where guides recount the dangerous days when vast amounts of copper were being pulled from the earth. For an overall look at that booming time, visit the Bisbee Mining & Historical Museum, part of the Smithsonian’s Affiliation Program.
Fort Huachuca, Arizona’s oldest active military installation, was the only post that served as home for every unit of black soldiers during the time the Army was segregated. The nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” was given to the soldiers of the 10th Cavalry by the Indians of the plains who likened their hair to that of the buffalo.
This was also headquarters for General Nelson Miles and his campaign against Geronimo, and where Blackjack Pershing launched the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa. Today, Fort Huachuca features two museums, including one that details the history of the post.
Clovis Paleo-Indian Culture
Although Cochise County has been populated with some very rough customers, the hardiest lot came along 13,000 years ago. The Clovis culture lived at the end of the last Ice Age, and they survived by hunting big game like bison, mammoths and saber-toothed cats by wielding nothing but sticks with sharpened stone spear points. Two prominent spots along the San Pedro River have yielded invaluable information about the Clovis Paleo-Indian culture: the Lehner Mammoth Kill Site and Murray Springs Clovis Site, both near Sierra Vista.
History spills outdoors in Cochise County. The Dragoon Mountains rise suddenly from the sagebrush plain. They’re a long narrow range, a chaotic clutter of rough granite that changes color with the whim of the light. These ramparts once provided refuge to the Apache chief, Cochise. In the mountains, Cochise and his followers could find food, water, and medicine, and had a commanding view of the valleys below. Hikers can climb to Cochise Stronghold and enjoy the same spectacular vistas.
If you love to hike, don’t miss Muleshoe Ranch, a desert oasis hidden away in the rough hills west of Willcox, with 22 miles of trails and multiple streams crisscrossing the historic property. It was the foreman of Muleshoe Ranch who gunned down Warren Earp in a Willcox saloon. Warren is the only one of the famed Earp brothers buried in Arizona.
Head for Slaughter Ranch, perched on the Mexican border east of Douglas. The National Historic Landmark preserves the ranch and buildings of Texas John Slaughter, who served two terms as Cochise County Sherriff in the 1880s. Fearless and deadly in any kind of fight, Slaughter is credited with cleaning up the territory. The beautiful ranch serves as a living museum and provides access to the adjacent San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.
On your way through Douglas, be sure to stop at the Gadsden Hotel downtown. Enter the stunning lobby with soaring columns and a Tiffany stained glass mural, and look for the chip in the marble staircase. Legend has it that it was caused when Pancho Villa rode his horse into the hotel and up the stairs.
While it’s impossible to know if that particular legend is true, Cochise County has plenty more. This is a land of legends, with a history vivid and violent stretching back through the years. These are characters we think we know, but do we really? Their stories are here. They’re etched into the rugged landscape of lush valleys, soaring mountains and endless sky that is Cochise County.
Once you open this history book, you’ll never want to put it down.
(Brought to you by the Cochise County Tourism Council and contributor Roger Naylor, (520) 432-9215, www.ExploreCochise.com.)