Near the San Pedro River west of Tombstone the ruins of the Spanish Presidio de Terrenate still stand. The site was chosen on August 22, 1775 by Hugo O’Conor, the Irish mercenary who had come up with the plan of relocating the three presidios. He chose a spot on a bluff overlooking the San Pedro River, which seemed to provide a natural fortification on several sides. The area had pasturage, wood and water.
In the early part of 1776, the same year the American revolution began, a Spanish garrison marched north from the original Terrenate site further to the south in Sonora. Their commander was Francisco Tovar, and the company consisted of fifty-six men, 352 horses and fifty-one mules. The soldiers were “leather-jacket cavalry,” a type of heavy cavalry equipped (at least in theory) with six horses apiece, a pair of pistols, musket, sword and lance. The group setting forth from Terrenate in Sonora would also have likely included some civilians from the former fort who were reluctant to remain in an unfortified area once the troops left. There were also friendly mission Indians from San Xavier del Bac and San Agustin de Tucson to help with the construction of the buildings and the walls. Surely every available hand was put to work constructing the foundation and wall which was to be their first line of defense.
They did not have long to wait before hostile Apaches began to harass the settlement, attacking anyone who ventured out for water or to try to plant crops in the nearby fields. The Apaches were attracted by the large number of horses kept at the settlement and ran off the herds whenever they were unguarded. As the number of their horses became fewer, the soldiers were less and less able to pursue the raiders to try to reclaim them.
On July 7, 1776 a battle left the commander and twenty-nine of his men dead. In August the fort finally received a shipment of weapons. Captain Francisco Ignacio de Trespalacios replaced the fallen commander and brought reinforcements to bring their number up to eighty-three men. In mid-November Trespalacios led thirty of them almost a hundred miles south to the aid of the mission of Magdalena on the Rio San Ignacio. When they arrived they found that forty raiders had looted the settlement, murdered the inhabitants and burned the church.
In 1777 the Spanish forces gained ground, winning a victory at La Tinaja and mounting an expedition to the Gila River, but in February 1778 the Apaches made a successful raid on the fort’s horse herd, and between June and September the fort again lost its commander and nineteen other soldiers and settlers. Lieutenant Colonel Pedro Fages brought reinforcements to the fort and tried to get things on a more secure footing. He had enough manpower to protect the settlers as they set to work restoring the irrigation aqueducts of the Sobaipuri Indians, who had once lived in the San Pedro valley. Fages was able to report that they had successfully planted grain, corn, beans, lentils and chile. But soon the relentless raids again began to take their toll, killing thirty-nine men.
In 1779, when Inspector Roque de Medina came to Santa Cruz de Terrenate, he found forty-six soldiers, ninety-eight horses and twenty-three mules. Only twenty-six of the “leather-jacketed cavalry” survived, and only sixteen of the reinforcements were still alive. Four Indian scouts remained and twenty others had deserted. On inspection nineteen of the muskets in the armory were useless and thirty-eight of the lances supplied the men were of such inferior workmanship as to be unserviceable. Eight of the men did not even have uniforms.
A great number of the missing arms and uniforms were captured by the Indians as evidenced in the fact that in April 1780, a raid was made on the Gila River Pima villages in which the Apaches were disguised as soldiers in leather jackets, with Spanish-style hats. They carried muskets and killed or captured 120 of the Pimas. The survivors believed they had in fact been attacked by the Spanish until a Pima woman captured in the raid made her way home and explained that the attackers had been Apaches.
After examining the situation at Santa Cruz de Terrenate, Medina strongly recommended that the garrison be moved back to its former position, citing poor communications, the isolation of the presidio and the extreme difficulties of getting supplies to the present location.
The San Bernardino fort, Terrenate’s nearest neighbor, had already been abandoned during the previous year, because of similar problems–strong opposition by the Apaches, difficulties of communications and the impossibility of secure lines of supply. Worsening attacks prevented the settlers from either receiving outside help or harvesting their own crops so that they were literally starving to death. At last, in 1780, it was decided to move the troop back to Las Nutrias, near the former site of the Terrenate garrison. Teodoro de la Croix summarized the reason:
“The terror instilled in the troops and settlers of the presidio of Santa Cruz that had seen two captains and more than eighty men perish at the hands of the enemies in the open rolling ground at a short distance from the post, and the incessant attacks which they suffered from the numerous bands of Apache, who do not permit the cultivation of the crops, who surprise the mule trains carrying effects and supplies, who rob the horse herds and put the troops in the situation of not being able to attend their own defense, making them useless for the defense of the province.”
Today, the remains of the fort look lost in the vastness of the desert. Traces of numerous buildings and adobe walls remain, including the gate and fortified wall, the chapel, the soldiers’ barracks, and the commandant’s quarters. From the bastion the soldiers scanned the valleys on all sides for enemies. The traditional Spanish fort warfare was ineffective against the lightning raids and guerrilla tactics of the Apaches. In 1780 the Presidio was abandoned, and a visitor to the ruins can easily imagine the bleak isolation those early Spaniards must have felt there. They probably found more comfort in the chapel than in their weapons.