Select Page

Santa Cruz County

Southern Arizona, on the Mexican Border
patagonia lake picnic

Lakeside dining at Patagonia Lake

Santa Cruz County, Arizona is a mainly rural county in southern Arizona that shares an international border with the state of Sonora, Mexico. Although it is one of the smallest counties in the state, the region is known for its natural beauty and abundance of outdoor activities to enjoy, as well as its rich and varied culture and history that reaches back for centuries.

Early residents of Santa Cruz County lived along the natural sources of water in the area that still provide sustenance for the region – the Santa Cruz River, Harshaw Creek and Sonoita Creek. The Apache, Hohokam and Yaqui peoples thrived for centuries here before the arrival of the first Europeans in 1539, Spanish friar Fray Marcos de Niza and explorer Esteban de Dorantes (“Estevanico”).

Marcos de Niza and Estevanico had been dispatched by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado from the area that is now Sinaloa, Mexico to explore the region and search for the Seven Cities of Gold. Two years later, after receiving glowing but somewhat inaccurate reports from Marcos de Niza, the Coronado expedition followed them, passing through the area in 1541 on their way to what is now the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico.

The next European of note to visit the area was Italian Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino, who arrived in the late 1600s to establish several missions along a 1000-mile route that he covered riding through the desert on horseback. Padre Kino was a man of many talents – in addition to being a mathematician, geographer, cartographer and astronomer, he taught the people of the region how to farm and raise cattle and horses, improvements that established industries that continue to this day.

nogales arizona scenery

Nogales is the county seat of Santa Cruz County, Arizona

The first European settlement and outpost in the area that is now Arizona was established in Santa Cruz County in the early 1850’s in what is now the town of Tubac. At the time, the Presidio de Tubac was the northernmost outpost in New Spain, and was the starting point for a famous expedition from Tubac to California, led by Juan Batista de Anza.

Juan Batista de Anza was a Spanish soldier who was born in New Spain, near what is now the town of Arizpe, Sonora. In 1772 Batista de Anza, who had led several expeditions in the region, proposed to the Viceroy of New Spain (the territorial leader at the time) that he lead an expedition to California. The plan was approved by the King of Spain, and in January of 1774 Batista de Anza left Tubac with a contingent of 20 soldiers, three priests, 11 servants along with cattle, horses and mules.

The expedition reached Monterrey, California that April and returned to Tubac, where he was promoted by the king of Spain and ordered to return to California to settle the region of Northern California, which was also being colonized by Russian explorers at the time. So in 1776 Batista de Anza took 240 settlers to California, where they established a settlement in what is now the city of San Francisco.

The land that is now southern Arizona was ceded by Mexico following the conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848, and five years later the southernmost part of the county was added by the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. The area was part of the Arizona territory that was established in 1863, and Santa Cruz County was officially formed in 1899 by the Arizona Territorial Assembly. Arizona officially became a state in 1912.

At the time the residents of Santa Cruz County were living just across the border from where the Mexican Revolution was occurring, and Nogales, Sonora was a key city involved in the revolution that lasted from 1910 to 1920. Colorful figures like Pancho Villa, General Alvaro Obregon, Venustiano Carranza and American General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing all spent time in the area. And history continues to be written in Santa Cruz County, as it remains a major trade route into the United States in a prominent location on the Mexican border.