By Janelle Winters, NMNH Department of Botany intern
“When the cattle were driven in to the Tonto Basin the grass was everywhere…Today, riding through the basin for a distance of 50 miles, scarcely a single culm of grass can be seen. This almost complete annihilation of grasses in this region has occurred in less than half a score years. From these facts it must invariably follow that many of our best grasses will soon be unknown upon our southern ranges.”-J.W. Toumey, 1892
J.W. Toumey, a young graduate student acting as Special Agent for the Department of Agriculture, traversed the Arizona territory in the summer of 1892 with a small wagon team. He intended to survey the botany of different geographic regions of the territory, so he kept a careful expedition journal and plant catalog. His expedition was undoubtedly successful – it led to the deposit of more than 800 specimens in U.S. herbaria. Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the window it opens onto turn of the 20th century ranching in Arizona.
Over the last century, the field book containing Toumey’s journal, an original expedition map, correspondence between Toumey and Smithsonian botanists, and about a fifth of the plant specimens that Toumey collected in 1892 have found their way to the Smithsonian Institution. Together, they tell a dramatic story of post-Civil War land seizures, rampant speculation, overzealous faith in the “bounty of nature,” and the lasting botanical legacy that they left in Arizona. During my internship working with field books for the Arizona Project, I have had the unique opportunity to perform original research necessary to telling this exciting story. In doing so, I surprisingly learned a bit about my own family history in the Old West.
The Tonto Basin, a “watered oasis of the semi-desert” (Sowards 1998), lies above the Salt River and under the Mogollon Rim in south-central Arizona. Its mountains support mixed conifer forests, and are surrounded by grasslands. Toumey describes the Tonto landscape in his journal:
“The northern part is a series of small valleys drained by tributaries of the Verde River which break through the mountains to the left. The basin proper is drained by Tonto Creek which flows south to Salt River. This basin is naturally the best watered of any equal area in the Territory. Many springs flow from the mountains at either side and the Tonto creek is never dry. Arising from this abundant flow of water this region has come to be one of the most popular and exclusive ranges in the Territory.”
An original Arizona territory map from Toumey’s expedition, c. 1883. To view a full-size map, visit http://botany.si.edu/references/MapsCatalog/subject.cfm and search “Toumey”
|Close-up of the same map, focusing on the Tonto Basin region. The red pen marks are in Toumey’s hand, and show his intended 1892 route.|
Cattle in the Tonto Basin, vicinity of Bishop Peak, date unknown. Bishop Peak was named in the 1870s for the author’s relative John F. Sanders Sr.
The resulting 700% increase in cattle over twenty years (1871-1891), which peaked at 1.5 million in the Tonto alone, surpassed the carrying capacity of the land at about exactly the time that Toumey visited the region. In the months after his visit, from late summer of 1892 to 1893, Arizona experienced a significant drought. This was the ecological breaking point for ranching; by the summer of 1893, lack of forage grasses left between one half and three fourths of the cattle dead (Bahre and Shelton 1996, Sowards 1998).
Toumey predicts this catastrophic ranching future in the Tonto. He writes that,
“From reliable sources I hear that when cattle were driven into Tonto Basin the grass was everywhere… The cattle are now feeding upon bushes and weeds, which year after year must necessarily furnish less and less forage and this of a very poor quality. Under the present conditions, the few grasses, water seeds, perennials are tramped out or fail to survive the long droughts. ..I think that it is safe to say that our mature grasses, at present time, do not furnish one tenth of the range forage…Tonto basin however can no longer support the increasing thousands of horses and cattle.”
Specimen of Centarium calycosum collected by Toumey in the Tonto Basin on July 26, 1892 (From the U.S. National Herbarium, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)
He, therefore, gathered very few grass - but numerous shrub - species. Interestingly, many of the plants Toumey collected, including Asclepias subverticillata (whorled milkweed), Centarium calycosum (Arizona centaury), and Oenothera elata (Hooker’s evening primrose), are now known to be unpalatable or toxic to cattle (14-18). Rather than observing the gamma grass and cottonwood stands so prominent in the times of the early settlers (Sayre 1999, Croxen 1926), Toumey notes that the Quercus undulata (woody wayleaf oak) and other shrubs constitute the “few” forms of remaining vegetation.
Toumey’s journal entries, map, and specimens ultimately shed light on the struggling forces of the American Dream and the ecological resources that it required (and sometimes destroyed). Further research into the lasting impacts of these forces will be the topic of an upcoming blog post -- stay tuned!
My immersion into the world of 19th century Tonto Basin also led to an intriguing personal discovery; my great, great, great, great grandfather, John F. Sanders Sr., was one of the original Mormon ranchers that entered the Tonto in the 1870s. He had received a “call” from Brigham Young to colonize the area, which led to the establishment of the ranching town ofGisela. Some of my not so distant family members still ranch within its shrubby grasslands today.
- Toumey, J.W. Journal, Catalogs 1-809 Arizona (S.I. Library, 1892)
- Graves H.S., “Obituary: James William Toumey” Science June 3 1932: 575-577.
- Toumey, J.W. Correspondence to George Vasey (S.I. Archives, 1891-1892)
- Toumey J.W. 1892 Expedition Map (S.I. Department of Botany, Map Collections, 1892)
- Sowards A.M., “Reclamation, Ranching, and Reservation: Environmental, Cultural, and Governmental Rivalries in Transitional Arizona,” Journal of the Southwest Autumn 1998 40(3): 333-361.
- Sayre N., “The Cattle Boom in Southern Arizona: Towards a Critical Political Ecology,” Journal of the Southwest Summer 1999 41(2): 239-71.
- Pearce J, History of Gisela, Arizona: Centennial Edition 1881-1981, Jayne Pearce, Payson, 1981.
- Abruzzi W.S., “The social and ecological consequences of early cattle ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin,” Human Ecology 1995 23: 75-98.
- Bahre C.J. and Shelton M.L., “Rangeland Destruction: Cattle and Drought in Southeastern Arizona at the Turn of the Century,” Journal of the Southwest Spring 1996 38(1): 1-22.
- United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plants Database , <http://www.plants.usda.gov>
- University of Texas- Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Native Plant Databse <http://www.wildflower.org/plants>
- Western New Mexico University, Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness <http://www.wnmu.edu/academic/nspages/gilaflora/index.html>
- AgriLIFE Extension Texas A&M, Toxic Plants of Texas <http://essmextension.tamu.edu/plants/toxics>
- Croxen F.W., “History of Grazing on Tonto” Tonto Grazing Conference (Phoenix, Arizona) Nov. 4-5, 1926