Sixth in a series
Those who enter the Sopori Ranch Cemetery are greeted by a carved chunk of granite stuck in the ground at the entrance.
“Tread softly here,” the inscription says. “These stoney mounds shelter the bones of Arizona's oldest pioneers.”
The cemetery is the final resting place for an unknown number of people, buried as Arizona transitioned to the U.S. from Mexico. But while the rock could be referring to anyone interred there, it's specifically referencing one family whose experience in Southern Arizona was full of hardship and bitterness.
Sopori Ranch dates back to a land grant given to Juan Bautista de Anza. After becoming part of the new territory of Arizona, it would exchange hands several times, abandoned and acquired as owners died or were driven off by Apaches. In the 20th century, it was owned by Jack Warner, one of the founders of Warner Bros. Studios, before being bought by John Croll in 1993. The Croll family still owns a fair portion of it, including the ranch house and cemetery, though they sold more than 10,000 acres for potential development in 2004.
The Sopori Ranch Cemetery is accessed off Arivaca Road, just a few miles from Amado. A barbed-wire gate, easily overlooked, leads to a short hike through cholla-infested desert to the cemetery.
It sits back on private property, so few have the chance to tread into this cemetery, softly or otherwise. A faded wooden sign with a cross and “Sopori Ranch Cemetery” hangs from the fence, keeping any livestock out.
Inside are a handful of rock mounds, showing where people have been interred, though nothing remains of any grave markers. There is also a raised concrete tomb with a tree growing out of the top. Several old headstones are scattered here or there. One inscription is worn away completely. Another, that of “Diego Valenzuela,” is still visible, if nearly illegible. The headstone itself has fallen over.
The oddity here is a clean, modern headstone for John Brissot Croll (Dec. 31, 1940 – June 29, 1999). It sums him up as “Owner of the Sopori Ranch.” He is the newest known burial in the cemetery in over a century.
And then there are the Penningtons.
Three more carved granite chunks match the warning stone at the entrance. One reads “Ann Pennington, died at the Sopori, 1867.” Another, “James Pennington, killed by Apaches, August 1868.” And finally “In memoriam, Elias G. Pennington, Green Pennington, killed on the Sonoita 1869, Ellen Pennington Barnett Died at Tucson, 1869.”
Elias Green Pennington and his wife, Julia Ann Hood, were originally from South and North Carolina, respectively, and had relatives who fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The couple moved to Tennessee shortly after marrying in 1831. Ever mobile, the Penningtons relocated to the new state of Texas. Julia died in 1855, leaving behind 12 children. The motherless family would start for California, but came to a stop in Arizona along Sonoita Creek after Larcena, the third oldest child, became ill.
Over the next 13 years, they would make a go at a life in the new territory, living in Tubac, Tucson, along the Mexico border, Calabasas and the then-abandoned Sopori Ranch between 1866 and 1868. Their house on the ranch is described as fortress-like, situated on an upthrust of rock, with stone walls all around it. The protection was necessary; their home was along a well-traveled route for Apaches coming and going from Mexico, and Elias was frequently absent freighting goods to earn money.
The family would eventually relocate back to Texas in 1870 after several swift tragedies struck – which is how the grave markers ended up at the Sopori Ranch Cemetery.
It started when 24-year-old Ann Pennington died of malaria in 1867 while at the ranch. The next year, 35-year-old James, the oldest son, met his end while hauling lumber to Tucson from the Santa Ritas. Apaches made off with his oxen while they camped north of San Xavier del Bac. He and two teamsters followed their trail, but only one survived an ambush laid by the Apaches. James was originally buried in Tucson, but when the family left for Texas, his brother Jack had the body moved to Sopori Ranch so Ann would not be alone.
The next year, Elias took his son Green to farm near Sonoita Creek in a notoriously dangerous area for white settlers. Several people tried to warn Elias about the threat of Apache attacks in the area. Author Virginia Culin Roberts, who wrote a book about the family called “With Their Own Blood,” records a neighbor saying “Goodbye, Mr. Pennington, I don't expect to see you alive again.”
On June 10, 1869, Elias was at his plow – a rifle resting on its handles – when a group of roughly two dozen Apaches attacked from the brush, hitting him with numerous arrows. Green, not realizing his father was already dead, rushed forward to save him, and took three arrows himself. He lived long enough for soldiers from nearby Camp Critterden to arrive. He and his father were buried in the camp's cemetery.
After losing Elias and Green, the family decided to move on to California. They were only 20 miles out of Tucson when 34-year-old Ellen caught a serious case of pneumonia. They returned quickly to Tucson, where she died a mere two days later. At that point, Larcena, the oldest remaining sibling, reached out to Jack, already in Texas, to help move the family. Only one of the younger daughters, Amanda Jane, would ever see their original destination of California.
Larcena, probably the most famous Pennington, is not buried in the cemetery. Shortly after marrying John Page in 1859, Larcena and the young ward of a business associate were captured by Apaches in Madera Canyon. Forced marched through the Santa Ritas, Larcena stumbled down a ridge when she couldn't keep the pace they demanded. The Apaches left her for dead after striking her several times with lances. Larcena would spend two weeks painfully crawling her way off the mountains. She would be the only Pennington to stay in Arizona. She married William Fisher Scott in 1870, her first husband having died several years earlier. She died in 1913, at 76, and is buried in Tucson's Evergreen Cemetery.
Pennington Street in the heart of Tucson is named after the family, on the site where they operated a lumber saw pit. According to Roberts, Josephine Peak and Josephine Canyon in the Santa Ritas are named for the family's youngest daughter.
The grave markers at Sopori Ranch Cemetery were put in place by Robert H. Forbes, a professor at the University of Arizona, and his wife, Georgie, Larcena's daughter. Forbes became fascinated by the Penningtons' woeful tale, and chronicled it in a 1919 account published by the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society. After the last of Elias' living children, Mary Francis, passed away in 1935, Forbes and Georgie were moved to honor the family with the engraved granite that today still warns people to tread softly.
David Rookhuyzen | 547-9728