Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate, Arizona, was a short-lived Spanish military post built along the San Pedro River west of present-day Tombstone, Arizona. It was established in 1776 on a bluff overlooking the river by Irish mercenary Hugh O’Conor, for the King of Spain Charles III.
This presidio was part of a network of forts and missions in present-day southern Arizona. The others included:
Presidio of San Ignacio de Tubac (1752-1776)
Presidio of Tucson (1775-1756)
Presidio de San Bernardino (1776-1780)
These outposts were built as part of a more extensive series of territorial defenses stretching from Louisiana to Alta California to protect the frontier of New Spain.
From the beginning, these presidios were under constant attack from hostile Apache Indians and could not adequately protect themselves, much less build and protect any surrounding missions. On July 7, 1776, the First Battle of Terrenate commenced along the San Pedro River near the fort. More than half of the 56 men in the garrison died, along with their commander.
The Presidio was never completed to specifications due to the attacks by the Apache, administrative greed, corruption, and poor morale. The failure of the Presidio was due to numerous problems such as poor crops, supply problems, raids on the horse herds, surprise attacks on the mule trains, and the continuous attacks by Apache directly on the fortress. These contributed to the abandonment of the garrison in 1780.
The last commander of the Presidio of Santa Cruz summarized the reasons for abandoning that post:
“The terror instilled in the troops and settlers of the Presidio of Santa Cruz that had seen two captains and more than 80 men perish at the hands of the enemies in the open rolling ground at a short distance from the post, and the incessant attacks which they suffered from the numerous bands of Apache, who do not permit cultivation of the crops, who surprise the mule trains carrying effects and supplies, who rob the horse herds and put the troops in the situation of not being able to attend their own defense, making them useless for the defense of the province.”
In 1878, the Presidio was briefly occupied by the United States Army but abandoned later that same year.
Though the post was short-lived, portions of the slowly eroding remains of the long-ago military fort still stand in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area west of Tombstone, Arizona. Here can be seen a few stone foundations and adobe wall remnants.
To get there, drive 13 miles west of Tombstone on Arizona State Route 82, continuing about a mile past the San Pedro River crossing at Fairbank, to In Balance Ranch Road on the right (North Kellar Road on most maps). Then follow the dirt road for about a mile to the trailhead on the right. The trail is about a 3.5 mile round trip over an uneven gravel trail.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated February 2022.