Scott Dyke: Eva Wilbur and the Arivaca ranch war

Eva Wilbur. Photo courtesy of Leo Banks.

By Scott Dyke

In 1868, Ruben Wilbur and his wife, Rafaela, started a ranch in Arivaca. He had come from back East with a medical degree from Harvard, employed by the Cerro Colorado Mining Company. They raised three children; the oldest, Augustin, and his wife, Ramona, continued running the ranch. They had five children. Augustin embraced discipline and solitude.

Their daughter Eva Antonia was born in 1904. Her father molded her at an early age to be independent. She was also held responsible for chores and ranch duty, tasks usually reserved for boys. Often her father placed her in charge of ranch hands, which was a pretty poor strategy, given her sex and age. Eva grew up rock hard, which was her father’s intent.

In an interview with noted Tucson author Patricia Preciado Martin, Eva described her childhood. During the conversation, Eva gave this chilling account: “As I told my grandmother, I would have poisoned him (Augustin). He never broke my spirit, nothing ever did.”

Martin included Eva in her book “Songs My Mother Sang Me,” a tribute to Mexican-American women. Arizona writer Leo Banks captured Eva’s essence in an article in the Tucson Weekly in 2002. “The land had wind and wolves, and it had Eva…each untamed.”

Most of her early years put Eva in touch with the land and its denizens, domestic and wild. She grew up with many four-legged friends, but hardly any humans. She was sent out to a California convent. It was a lousy fit. Her background clashed with others. A writer befriended her and gently guided her to literary appreciation. She returned to Arizona in 1921, but the magical connection to the land and its creatures had diminished. Returning to California, she attended Woodbury College.

In 1933, her father fell from a horse and impaled himself. He died from peritonitis. Eva headed back to Arizona to operate the Wilbur Ranch. She also inherited a ranch war.

Austin and Charlie Boice, operator of the huge Chiricahua Cattle Company, were battling over water, fences and stolen stock. An all-too-familiar tale in the West. Threats and accusations were hurled from both sides about murdered livestock, poisoned wells and ambushes.

Eva was all too willing to take up the fight. That edge that her father initiated in her childhood was aroused. The war raged for 10 years. Night-time gunfire became an Arivaca ritual. Eva threatened Boice on the court house steps in one of their frequent legal battles. A newspaper in LA took up the story, dubbing an incident of dead horses (Eva’s) as a “machine gunning.”

Eva contributed to the mayhem, too. She dispatched a trespasser with pistol shots and followed him to town. She also claimed she was ambushed one night and pointed out the bullet holes. Eva contacted the Sheriff Department. According to the Tuscon Daily Citizen, not much was made of it since there were frequent shootings in Arivaca. Eva acquired the nickname “La Pistolera.”

Stock shootings became rampant. Her horses, which often strayed off her ranch, were killed by the dozens. Local opinion believed that her land could not offer enough grazing. The horses were to become a special story.

Horses and spiritism

At one time, the Wilbur Ranch had a great deal more acreage. Eva’s grandfather had purchased horses in the late 1870s from a Mexican trader running a herd to Kansas City. The story repeated was that the horses came from Magdalena and were Spanish bred. Father Kino had established the herd brought from Spain by explorers in the late 1600s. At one time there were rumored to be 700. The original stock were inbred for decades. Eva threatened to kill Boice’s cows for every horse that died.

After her return from California, Eva met and married Marshall Cruce. When the Great Depression unfolded, they made Tucson a home base, returning weekends to Arivaca. He clerked for a department store and resourceful Eva invented the character “Elaine Lutrell,” whose gift was spiritualistic, for a price. Two events collided to bring about an end to the conflict.

Charlie Boice sold out and left. Eva ran afoul of the law. She and a hired vaquero named Luis Lopez were tried and convicted for killing a mare and stealing a colt that belonged to Carlos Ybarra. After several appeals, Eva landed in the Florence prison where she languished for a year. There was a belief by some that she had been set up. Her spirit remained, as she had promised, unbroken.

History clash

Her grand-nephew Robert Zimmerman, who functioned later as a caregiver, told of Eva in prison.

She had a session with a priest. She was queried about her crime, and was told vengeance was a sin. Her response, “Yes, Father, I am a sinner. And as soon as I get out I am going to sin again.”

In her 80s, she authored a book, “A Beautiful, Cruel Country” published by the University of Arizona Press. It became a nationally publicized read. The New York Times gave it a favorable review.

However, not all embraced it. Arivaca’s noted historian, Mary Noon Kasulaitis, has a different take.

She mentioned that the Spanish horses were of questionable pure Spanish stock.

Locals tried to tell the authorities that the blood line was questionable and that most of the area’s equines had Spanish blood lines as well, but to no avail. Also, she pointed out several discrepancies in the book.

“Eva’s book was a memoir, not Arivaca history,” Mary said, “It was an opportunity to reinvent her life. It was another opportunity to get even.”

Eva sold the property, sans abandoned ranch house and 10 acres, to the Nature Conservancy in 1990. They in turn sold it to the U.S. government. It is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The remaining 70 horses were sold as well, with the provision their bloodlines remain pure, that is, if they were ever pure.

Eva aged but never mellowed. In her 70s she interrupted a guy trying to steal her bike in a Tucson park. Fast on the draw, she leveled her pistol in his direction. He stammered that her act was some sort of violation. She dryly told him, “Then call a cop.”

Her nephew recounted that she was always armed.

Eva Wilbur-Cruce died in 1998. She had lived 93 tumultuous years. Likely a pistol was found under her pillow.

The Wilbur Ranch house, now just a burned-out shell, sits in an isolated spot west of Arivaca.

There is a wisp of its heyday lingering about the adobe walls. I sensed a presence there, and

in the rotting corral. There is a tenseness about the place. It is Eva. She’s there. She is resolute and she’s packin’.


Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western lecturer, writer and researcher. He can be reached at Article appeared at the Green Valley News and is republished here with the author’s permission.


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