The University of Arizona
MASRC Working Paper #22 (November 1994)
Emergence of the Frontier Civilian: An Introduction
The Mexican Period of Arizona history started much like the “new beginning” in our volume on the Spanish years, 1767-1821, when the spectacular Anza expeditions to California eclipsed routine events on the local Sonoran scene. (See Desert Documentary: The Spanish Years, 1767-1821.)
Shortly after ushering the Tucson presidio into the era of Mexican independence in 1821, Captain José Romero strove to reopen Anza’s historic overland route to California. A regular mail service was implemented. Like Juan Bautista de Anza before him, Romero also received his lieutenant-colonelcy upon reaching California. His exploits, like Anza’s, enjoyed wide publicity in Sonora, California, and as faraway as Mexico City. They succeeded in distracting later historians from a development of much greater moment: the first establishment of representative government within what is now Arizona, and the emergence of the frontier civilian.
Because of frequent Apache incursions from both the north and east, far northern Sonora — including for centuries what is now southern Arizona — was politically referred to as tierra de guerra, roughly equivalent to what we would call today “a
war zone.” It was completely dominated by the military. Civilian settlers occupied lands and homes only by virtue of subordination in all things to the military activity of the presidio. The presidial captain was the only authority known to military personnel and civilian alike. In legal cases involving civilians, even with the sophistication of prosecution and defense attorneys, the presidial commander was always the judge. In Tucson’s first murder trial in 1814, presented in our first volume (pp. 93-110), details of this arrangement are spelled out.
The development of any form of civilian government within the geographical scope of the present documentary was slow in coming. Its roots began, of course, in events relating to the independence movement in central Mexico.
One of history’s not infrequent paradoxes was that in the autumn of 1820, the army that set Mexico free was given to Agustín de Iturbide by the viceroy Juan Ruiz de Apodaca, for the sole purpose of putting down the last of the anti-Spanish insurgents, Vicente Guerrero.
Quite unexpectedly, Iturbide joined his royalist forces with Guerrero’s insurgents at Iguala on the road to Acapulco, leading to the Plan de Iguala of February 24, 1821, often referred to as Mexico’s Declaration of Independence. Then, both armies took the road to Veracruz, to meet at Cordoba a sympathetic Spanish liberal of Irish descent, General Juan O’Dónoju, Mexico’s new viceroy. On August 24, 1821, the Treaty of Cordoba was signed by O’Dónoju and Iturbide, making Mexico’s independence official.
The Treaty of Córdoba set off a chain of events in Mexico City that hindered, rather than hastened, any form of representative government on the far northern frontier. Provincial delegations appointed from Mexico City were quite ineffective because Mexico City itself was torn apart by factions. Liberals favored a republic, and conservatives wanted a monarchy headed by a European prince. The so-called Iturbide Empire, predictably, lasted only ten months and ended like a Greek tragedy.
Provincial delegations notwithstanding, the only effective political control over the frontier in our region was excited by
Antonio Narbona, a popular commander of the Tucson presidio earlier in the century, and later (1820) adjutant inspector at Arizpe for the commandancy general. On September 6, 1821, at Arizpe, he swore to Mexican Independence at the head of his troops, and with the retreat of his superior, Antonio Cordero, to Durango and the royalists, Narbona inherited the position of political chief and military commander of Sonora.
It was not until the seventh of November of 1823 and the fall of Iturbide that the Constitutional Congress — until then
manipulated by the emperor toward centralism with himself in the center — was able to achieve a federalist majority from
among the liberals. Fifteen days later, on November 22, 1823, the instrument appeared for binding Mexico’s scattered
provinces, which were already talking about definitive, but dangerous, separation — one from the other — into a mutually
The document became known as the Acta Constitutiva de la Federción and was promulgated on January31, 1824, dividing Mexico’s first federal republic into nineteen states, each with its own government. Sonora and Sinaloa were named Occidente, the State of the West, one state. Their constituent congress at El Fuerte (Sinaloa) was seated on the twelfth of day of September, 1824, something of a record, since it preceded by all of twenty-two days the proclamation of the national constitution itself. As its president, the constituent congress of Occidente elected Manuel Escalante of Arizpe, whose figure would loom large in desert history for more than a decade.
Occidente would have to wait well over a year, until November 2, 1825, for its state constitution to be proclaimed, and a
corresponding state government to be established. Consequently, for the sake of law and order throughout the state, the
constituent congress arranged for local governments as early as December of 1824. Towns of less than three thousand
inhabitants, e.g. presidial towns such as Tucson, would be governed by a mayor of law and order and a town attorney,
doubling as town treasurer. December 19 was set for town elections. Local civilian government, conducted by popularly
elected officials, operates for the first time in the history of presidial towns on the Apache frontier.
We therefore begin the main text of this book, our first original document, with an insight into the daily life of the “Old
Pueblo” through a week-by-week report for the month of January 1825 by the first popularly elected civilian mayor of
Note: The documents in this Working Paper later became part of McCarty’s book, Frontier Documentary: Sonora and
Tucson, 1821-1848, published by the University of Arizona Press in 1997.