Blás Lopéz family (L to R): Maria Pallanes holding daughter Rita, Eléna, Arnulfo Peña, Blás (seated), and Rosario, 1900. Photo courtesy Eddie Gardner

Most of the large ranches established in the late 1800s in the Cienega Valley relied on vaqueros of Mexican heritage for their operations. Some were employed full-time at the ranches, and others were hired to assist during busy times such as the bi-annual roundups. The vaqueros and their families resided or homesteaded near the ranches where they worked, sometimes raising their own cattle to supplement their income. The Empire Ranch, established in 1876 by Walter Vail and Herbert Hislop, employed many local vaqueros and in 1890 seven of them participated in the famed cattle drive from the Empire Ranch to Warner’s Ranch in California. This story, about two of these vaqueros, brothers Blás Lopéz and George E. Lopéz, is dedicated to Edward F. Gardner (1932-2020). Eddie, who was Blás’ grandson, documented and willingly shared the history of his family. Eddie’s mother, Rita Lopez, married David J. Gardner, grandson of famed pioneer, Thomas Frederick Gardner. Rest in peace Eddie, and I hope you’re enjoying swapping stories with all your ancestors.

Tomás Lopéz was born in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico on Dec. 19, 1827. In 1850, age 23, he emigrated to Los Angeles and farmed near the Olvera St. area. In 1862 he married Sacramento Peña and adopted her three daughters. Tomás and Sacramento had 11 children together, six girls and five boys. About 1872 the family was traveling in Arizona Territory when their wagon was attacked by raiding Apaches. One son, José Maria, was severely injured and they lost all their possessions. They were forced to settle in Arizona Territory, as they had no funds to return to Los Angeles.

The 1880 U.S. Census has two listings for Tomás. He was “herder” living at the Empire Ranch. Tomás and Sacramento are also listed as living in the Cienega Valley with six of their children: George, José, Blás, Carlos, Chunita and Thomása. George, age 15, and José, age 13, were also working as herders. The family’s neighbors were P. M. Hilton, who had a large sheep ranch, and Don Alonzo Sanford, who owned the Stock Valley Ranch, so the boys likely worked for one of them. 

In the 1880s, Tomás settled on land southeast of the Empire Ranch headquarters, known as “The Cottonwoods” in Section 21 of Township 19S, Range 17E. This land was eligible for homesteading, but Tomás did not initially register his claim. On January 12, 1885 he filed a notice with the Tucson Land Office for Homestead 253 for this property, and the notice was published. [Arizona Weekly Citizen, 2/14/1885]. A hearing before the Register and Receiver was scheduled for February 25, 1885. Sadly, before the hearing was held, Tomás was found dead, hanging from a cottonwood near his property. Some say it was suicide, but many believe he was murdered. 

George Lopez worked for the Empire Ranch in the early 1900s. He later worked in local mines and ranched in the Alto area of Santa Cruz County. He married Zeferina Espinoza in 1891 and they had eight children. George died in Tucson in 1946 at age 82.

Blás started working for the Empire Ranch in the 1880s, alongside his father. Tomás and Blás planted “cottonwood switches” along the Empire Gulch north of Empire Ranch headquarters, creating the wonderful cottonwood grove we see today. Blás married Maria Pallanes in 1925 and they had four daughters. Maria died in 1900. In the 1920s Blás was the Empire Ranch foreman and a most trusted Vail family employee. By 1930 he was ranching on his own spread in Elgin and assisted in Empire Ranch roundups. [Arizona Daily Star, 10/2/1932]. Blás died in Los Angeles in 1946 at age 78.