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Mary Bernard Aguirre


Inducted in 1983

Used by permission from the Arizona Historical Society

“. . . we began to meet herds of buffalo and had quantities of meat. The tongues were something delicious after they were pickled. We had plenty of them as my husband was a great buffalo hunter and kept us well supplied. I can never forget the first one (buffalo) I saw. It had just been killed and we rode to where it was, off the road, I had a curiosity to measure the hair on its neck, which I did with my arm, and it covered it from my finger tips to the shoulder.”

–an account of a wagon trip across the Great Plains, from the journal of Mary Bernard Aguirre

Mary Bernard Aguirre’s journal began: “Our lives are through highways and byways  — some over Rugged ground and some ‘down blossoming ways.’ I have been a traveler all my life and have seen many highways and byways in my time.” The journal is a vivid account of many of the experiences in her life, including her years as one of the first teachers in Tucson’s public schools. It is considered an important documentary record of a time when travel was by steamboat, railroad and stagecoach.

Mary Bernard was born on June 23, 1844, in St. Louis, Missouri, when it was a small town with narrow, muddy streets and no gas or city water. “When I was six months old, my travels commenced — my parents moved to Baltimore, Maryland, (my mother’s birthplace) and we went as far as Wheeling, Virginia, by steamboat and from there to Baltimore by stage,” Mrs. Aguirre wrote many years later in her journal. “Imagine what a trip that must have been over the Allegheny mountains in a stage with three small children.”

For the young Mary, it was the beginning of a life of travel. After 12 years in Baltimore, the family again packed its bags — this time moving to Westport, Missouri, where Joab Bernard owned a large store. “So, in April (1856), we started on our long journey ‘out West,’ ” Mrs. Aguirre recalled. “I can well remember hearing it called the ‘jumping off place,’ having in my mind’s eye an immense bank from which one could look down into space.”

This time the family, which had grown to seven children, traveled part of the way by railroad car. According to the account in her journal, “With us went the servants, two Negro women and a white housekeeper, and no end of luggage. I can remember the immense lunch baskets and the delight of lunching on the cars and the wonderful views as we sped along.”

In 1862 Mary met and married Epifanio Aguirre, a wealthy Mexican trader. Aguirre, whose family owned a large amount of land near Chihuahua, Mexico, quickly made a name for himself in the business world. By 1864, he owned the bulk of the government contracts for freighting along the Santa Fe Trail between the Colorado and Missouri rivers. The hundreds of mules and oxen he owned carried supplies to Army posts throughout the Southwest, and he is said to have employed more than 300 men as teamsters and roustabouts.

The year after her marriage, Mrs. Aguirre traveled extensively — visiting Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore — before embarking in September 1863 on a trip with her husband across “unknown lands” — the Great Plains.  She traveled in a wagon train that “consisted of ten wagons, each one drawn by ten fine mules and loaded with 10,000 pounds of freight.”  Her journal documents the trip in detail: “We journeyed on for weeks and weeks. Went through Council Grove, Fort Larned and many other points where there are towns now, on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad, but then (it) was only a wilderness." There was nothing to be seen but grass for miles — one long unending road with not a shrub even and never a tree except for an occasional small one near a water hole. “We made thirty miles a day when we drove a good day’s driving. The tall grass was turning gray with the cold that came upon us very gradually. The very monotony of it became pleasant at last. There seemed nothing more to expect, nothing to look forward to and nothing to do.”

The Aguirre family continued to travel extensively during the next seven years. During this time, Mary bore three sons, Pedro, Epifanio, and Stephen. Then in January 1870, her husband was killed by Apache Indians near Sasabe, Arizona. Mrs. Aguirre returned to Missouri to be with her family.

In 1875 she decided to come back to Arizona to take a teaching job in a small town called Tres Alamos. But an Indian raid in April 1876 closed the school, and so she moved back to Tucson, where in May of the same year she was named head of the public school for girls. “There were about 20 girls in the school when I took charge,” she recalled later. “With a few exceptions, they were the most unruly set the Lord ever let live. They had an idea that they conferred a favor upon the school and teacher by even attending.… The recess bell was a signal for those girls to climb out the windows into the street, to whoop and scream like mad, and to generally misbehave. I let the first recess pass, but when the afternoon recess came, I would not allow a girl to leave her seat. Of course, there was rebellion and muttering dire, but I told them that the first one who left her seat should go home and stay there. So order was restored and no one left the room.”

Mrs. Aguirre continued her disciplinary measures, sending students home who misbehaved. At the end of a week, her class of 20 students had dwindled down to five. Mrs. Aguirre’s determination paid off. The next week the girls returned and by the end of the month she had 40 students. In 1879 when she resigned, the school’s enrollment stood at 85.

Mrs. Aguirre’s achievements in the field of education continued, and in 1895 she became head of the Spanish language and English history departments of the University of Arizona. She died on May 24, 1906, in San Jose, Calif., of injuries suffered in a Southern Pacific train wreck on May 9.

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