Captain Francisco Elias Gonzalez de Zaya, a Spaniard, came to Mexico in 1729 at the age of 12. From this Spanish army captain descended the Elias family that for six generations produced important figures in the military, religious, governmental and economic life of Arizona and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. The family contributed a president of Mexico, two governors of Sonora, a governor of Chihuahua and several priests of the church in Mexico.
As landowners and ranchers, the various members of the Elias family acquired and operated no less than 30 large land grants and ranches in Sonora and southern Arizona between 1766 and 1855. One member of this remarkable family was Eulalia Elias, who was born in Arizpe, Sonora, in 1786. She spent 16 years managing the Babocomari land grant in southeast Arizona. It was the first major cattle ranching operation in what would eventually become a major industry in Arizona.
The family’s expansion into the area began in 1827. That year, Eulalia and her brother Ignacio Elias took advantage of Mexico’s 1824 Law of Colonization to purchase a tract of land on the San Pedro River. The following year they purchased approximately 130,000 acres a few miles north of the present day city of Sierra Vista. This land was referred to as the San Juan de Babocomari grant. The title to the grant was issued by the treasurer general of Sonora, Mexico, on December 25, 1832.
In the spring of 1833, the Eliases began construction of a fortified hacienda on Babocomari Creek. The hacienda was built of adobe and consisted of 15 foot high walls that formed a square about 100 feet long on each side. There was only one entrance, a gate on the east side. The interior of the square was lined with rooms, the roofs of which formed a fighting platform behind the wall. The layout was typical of the early fortified haciendas on Mexico’s northern frontier.
The administration of the ranch at Babocomari was handled primarily by Eulalia and her brother Juan Elias, a priest. The Elias women were not the secluded and protected ladies of old Spain; they played an active role in managing the family’s ranches, stores and agricultural holdings.
The Eliases grazed thousands of cattle and horses on the lush grasslands that extended from the Santa Rita Mountains to the San Pedro River. By 1840, the Baboconiari ranch apparently supported 40,000 head of cattle. But after 18 years of relative prosperity, the family’s fortunes turned. By the end of the 1840s, Ignacio had died and two of the Elias brothers had been killed by Apaches. The Indian raids, which were more and more frequent, took their toll. In 1849 the family was forced to abandon the hacienda and return to Arizpe in Sonora.
Just two years later, J.R. Bartlett, head of the U.S. Boundary Commission, which was charged with establishing the international boundary line between the United States and Mexico, stopped at the Babocomari ranch. He wrote the following account:
“The valley of the Babocomari, is here from a quarter to half a mile in breadth, and covered with a luxuriant growth of grass. The stream which is about twenty feet wide winds through this valley, with willows and large cottonwood trees growing along its margin … This hacienda, as I afterwards learned, was one of the largest cattle establishments in the State of Sonora. The cattle roamed the entire length of the valley, and at the time it was abandoned there were no less than forty thousand head, besides a large number of horses. The same cause which led to the abandonment of so many other ranches and villages, had been the ruin of this. The Apaches encroached, drove off the animals and murdered their herdsmen. The owners, to save the rest, drove them (the cattle) further into the interior and left the place. Many cattle and horses remained, however, and ranged over the hills and valleys nearby. From these, numerous wild herds have sprung which now cover the entire length of the San Pedro and its tributary, the Babocomari.”
Eulalia died in Arizpe on August 6, 1865, at the age of 79. She was buried with the cofounder of Babocomari, her brother Ignacio, in the cemetery at Arizpe.