Revolutionary War-Era Spanish Fortress
by Daryl F. Mallett
In 1775, big things were happening in the New World. The Colonies were busy on the east coast. Paul Revere and William Dawes are riding to warn Lexington, Mass., that the British were coming. The “shot heard ‘round the world” triggers the U.S. Revolutionary War. Ethan Allan and Benedict Arnold capture Fort Ticonderoga. Meanwhile, Irish-born Spanish Army Colonel Hugh O’Conor was busy establishing Presidio Real de San Augustin del Tucson, marking the official “birth date” of the City of Tucson.
That same year, though, O’Conor also established what is now known as Presidio Santa Cruz de Terranate on a bluff overlooking the San Pedro River roughly a mile from what is now the ghost town of Fairbank, Arizona. It was one of a chain of similar fortresses extending from Los Adaes, Louisiana to Alta California that marked the northernmost boundary of the Spanish Empire in the New World.
Captain Francisco Tovar was the first commander of the presidio, but was only on duty for about eight months before he and 25 of his soldiers were ambushed and killed on July 7, 1776 at Las Mesitas. Two years later, on September 24, 1778, Captain Francisco Trespalacios and some 27 soldiers were killed. Another 39 soldiers were killed between November 1778 and February 1779, and Captain Luis del Castillo was killed in May 1779.
If the losses were not discouraging enough, droughts drove off many of the ranchers and farmers, and then flooding of the nearby river rapidly encroached on the presidio. Never mind quicksand surrounding the riverbed.
Southwest historian and archaeologist Deni Seymour has excavated at the site and continues to research the area. Her website (http://www.seymourharlan.com) is filled with information on the presidio and the area. She writes:
“The presidio was never completed to specifications due to the attacks of the Apache, administrative greed, corruption and poor morale. The failure of the presidio was due to numerous problems like the lack of crops, raids on the horse herds, surprise attacks on the mule trains carrying supplies, and the continuous attacks by Apache directly on the fortress. These contributed to the abandonment of the garrison in 1780.”
In a phone interview, Seymour said the fortress was used on and off for over 100 years by travelers including the U.S. Army, who occupied the presidio for a brief time in 1878. She also said there is evidence that the area was inhabited possibly as far back as the 1200-1300s.
Built of adobe, not much of the fortress survives after some 250 years of exposure to the elements with no upkeep. Two of the chapel walls and a handful of corners of the commandant’s house are all that remain.
A mile west of the ghost town of Fairbank, Arizona, turn north on Inbalance Ranch Road. The parking area will be on the right side of the street about a half-mile up. A relatively easy 1.5 mile hike from the parking area will take visitors to the Presidio. A memorial cross stands by the river, commemorating the nearly 100 soldiers killed during the fort’s short lifespan. Throughout the site are informational signs. Take water and sun protection, stay away from the cliff edge and stay on the paths. Remember, it is illegal to dig on or remove anything from the site.
(Originally published in different form in THE KGVY COMMUNITY QUARTERLY, Winter 2014.)