Participating in the sheep crossing at the Verde River, a tradition that has been going on for over 100 years, was truly an experience of a life time. I am the Forest Archaeologist on the Kaibab National Forest. For years the Kaibab Archaeologists were identifying and recording these small “U” and “C” shaped hearths and vaguely knew they were associated with sheep grazing, but that was all that was known about these sites. Also there were no “old timers” left on the forest who knew the history of them. In 2010, the forest contracted a company to conduct an archaeological survey of a large area west of Parks, AZ. The archaeologists found over 30 of these hearths and that led me to one question. Why were they there and in such quantities? I decided to find out.
After much research, I found that the Kaibab played an important role in one of Arizona’s earliest industries and that until the 1950s, sheep were annually driven along an established stock driveway known as Bear Springs. The Bear Springs driveway, according to hand drawn maps I found in old map atlases in our forest files, was about a half mile wide; it started east of Williams, went south through the Williams Ranger District, roughly parallel to the Perkinsville Road, and crossed the Verde River just before entering Chino Valley around Avenue 4. Then they crossed the valley to Tonto Canyon located west of Prescott and down to Wickenburg where the sheep were grazed for the winter. I also learned that the Auza and Monterola families, who still have permits to graze sheep on the Kaibab, were the last in the state that still carried on the tradition of driving sheep up a historic driveway known as the Beaver Springs/Grief Hill. This driveway, which roughly parallels Interstate 17, was traditionally used to drive sheep from Phoenix to the Coconino National Forest.
Over the years, I had heard stories from people who happened upon the sheep during the drive and every spring I passed trucks full of rams driving up Interstate 17 (apparently only the ewes are driven up the driveway). When Barbara Jaquay invited me to attend the crossing, I jumped at that chance. I have seen photos showing sheep being driven across the Verde River and knew that the crossing was an important part of the drive. What I did not know was that the crossing was an Auza Family event.
I drove down to Cottonwood from Williams on an early Saturday morning. On my way to meet up with Barbara Jaquay and her husband Dick, I could see the dust in the distance and presumed it was the location of the herd being driven towards the river. According to Barbara, a herd of 2,000 sheep were trucked up to Cortes, AZ which historically was an important way station along the driveway, and dropped off there along with the donkeys, dogs and Peruvian herders. By the time they reached the Verde River, the herd had traversed roughly 20 miles in about a week. I arrived in time to see and hear pannier laden donkeys (pots lashed to the panniers made a banging noise), followed a few minutes later by a huge herd of sheep swarming like bees down a narrow drainage toward a staging area along the river.
Soon members of the Auza Family, including their venerable matriarch and patriarch, Carmon and Joe, arrived. They brought supplies for the Peruvian herders to last them for the next several days on the drive, and food enough for an army to feed the family and friends who gathered. The herders were the first to be asked to fix their plates from the impromptu buffet under the trees, followed by the guests and family. After all had eaten and visited with each other, the family and friends got up and headed down a path to the river crossing. As a group which included Joe Auza making his way using his tall walking stick, we walked talking and joking.
Some carried dried palm frowns and other tools they could use to encourage the sheep to cross the river. We all milled around with the sheep herd as the panniers were filled and placed back on the donkeys. A few of the herders changed into shorts and shirts with their favorite Peruvian sports team printed along their shoulders, then waded into the river followed by a few of the younger family members. They created a sort of human line across the narrow river crossing. Then the family and friends lined up behind the huge herd and it started. Like a ballet that had clearly been performed many times, the whole family in mass started making noise and waving their palm frowns to move the large herd and keep them moving forward across the river. All the while, tall Joe Auza stood in the middle of the herd leaning on his walking stick and the sheep parted around him kind of like Moses parting the Red Sea. Within about 15 minutes the whole herd was across and milling on the north side of the river. Next came some of the dogs, who also had to be “encouraged” to cross. Once it was done, the group once again walked back to the lunch spot and cleaned up the remains of the gathering.
In preparation for this write up I reviewed the photos and video I captured that day. It only reinforced how important these traditions are and how grateful I am that the Auza Family still practices them. It was a very special experience for me and I can only hope that the next generations of the Auza family continue to value this tradition.