Most Viewed Stories
Many (frontier) roads lead to Yuma
Natural river crossing drew thousands
Editor's Note: As part of the celebrations leading up to the Arizona Centennial on Feb. 14, 2012, the Yuma Sun will be spotlighting historical places, families and events from the Yuma area each week.
Every day, thousands of people and tons of commerce pass over the Colorado River in Yuma, unknowingly following an ancient path that has been used to safely traverse the waterway for millennia.
Without the Yuma river crossing, the course of regional history would have been much different.
“Yuma played an immense part in opening the west and actually influenced the history and development of the United States,” said Tina Clark, city of Yuma historian.
According to the Yuma Crossing Heritage Area, the history of the Yuma Crossing began with the formation of two massive granite outcroppings on the Colorado River in prehistoric times.
Then ancient tribes, who were searching for a way across the once-mighty river, came upon the natural crossing.
“The Quechan people have been at this Yuma crossing from time out of mind,” Clark said.
“We don't know exactly when they arrived, but it is their native home ground and they have really been the keepers of the crossing for centuries.”
The naturally hard and unsinkable granite outcroppings made that spot the best place to cross, Clark said.
“The Colorado River ebbed and flowed depending on the snow packs. So sometimes the river in the Gila Valley would flood across the entire valley – it might be only a foot or two deep, but when these flood waters receded, it left quicksand and there really was no place to cross.
“But at the narrows, where the Yuma Territorial Prison and Fort Yuma are now, water was compressed and would speed up and get deep – but you could cross safely there.”
It was only a matter of time before European explorers would find the crossing.
According to the Yuma Crossing Heritage Area, by the early 1500s, the Spanish were consolidating their hold on New Spain and were beginning to explore new territories in search of riches.
Acting on rumors of great wealth to the north, Viceroy Antonio Mendoza organized a great expedition and placed it under the command of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. A fleet was also assembled to carry supplies for Coronado up the west coast of Mexico.
In 1540, the Spanish naval expedition, led by Capt. Hernando de Alarcon, sailed up the Colorado River and landed near the Yuma Crossing.
Alarcon was hoping to supply Coronado and his army, who were farther east searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola. However, when Alarcon saw no trace of Coronado, he buried a message stating he had sailed that far but had returned home.
“They basically were the conquistadors and were all over looking for gold,” Clark said.
According to the Yuma Crossing Heritage Area, the first significant contact of the Quechan with Europeans was with the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and his party of explorers and settlers in the winter of 1774.
“They were headed to find the first overland route and became the founders of San Francisco,” Clark said.
Relations between the Quechan and Anza were friendly, and during Anza's return from his second trip to Alta California in 1776, Chief Palma of the tribe and three of his men journeyed to Mexico City to petition the viceroy of New Spain for the establishment of a mission.
However, Spanish settlement among the Quechan did not go smoothly. The tribe rebelled from July 17 to July 19, 1781, killing four priests and 30 soldiers.
They also attacked and damaged the Spanish mission settlements of San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuñer and Puerto de Purísima Concepción, killing many. The following year, the Spanish retaliated with military action against the tribe, but the Quechan experienced several decades of freedom from outside influences as a result.
According to the Yuma Crossing Heritage Area, beginning in about 1826, American traders and mountain men began trickling into the area. The first Americans believed to arrive at the crossing were a group of men seeking beaver pelts along the Gila and Colorado rivers.
By the 1850s, the California Gold Rush was in full swing, and thousands of 49ers were moving through the area.
“My conservative numbers are between 60 and 80,000 people came through Yuma in 1849,” Clark said.
“President James K. Polk almost incited a riot when he told everyone to go west and become rich. The wagon route through Yuma became the Sante Fe trail across the Sonoran Desert. It was basically the southern route. The southern route started following the Gila River and it ended at Yuma. Because of that, to some people, it became known as the Gila Trail.”
According to the Yuma Crossing Heritage Area, due to the high amount of traffic, the American military saw the need for a survey of the area, and later established a permanent presence.
“More and more people were coming west and there was a need to subdue the native population because there were lots of incidents and conflict,” Clark said.
“The Spaniards were gone and people were thronging through the Yuma Crossing. Forts were being established to protect the 49ers and the first one established was Fort Yuma on the high ground over looking the crossing.”
To supply the forts in the region, the army set up the Quartermaster Depot, which was supplied by steamboats.
“Yuma's claim to fame was the riverboat business that was established here called the Colorado Steamship Navigation Company,” Clark said.
“One of the partners invented flat-bottom river boats that only drew 12 inches fully loaded. That was because the mighty Colorado was high in solids – meaning sand bars. What these river boats did was allow the opening of forts in very remote places in Arizona.”
The crossing was also very important to the railroad in Arizona. On Sept. 30, 1877, the Southern Pacific 4-4-0 No. 31 became the first locomotive to cross the Colorado River.
The days of the riverboats were numbered with the arrival of the railroad, but the dams built along the river would be their final death knell.
Today, a Union Pacific Railroad Bridge still spans the Yuma river crossing, and nearby Interstate 8 bridges the river, allowing for motorists to easily pass to the other side.
Chris McDaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6849.