The dependable presence of water in this otherwise arid environment has helped support an eventful human history. Populations of Native Americans occupied pit house village sites here between 1500 and the 1400s BC.
The first Europeans likely to have passed through the region were survivors of the failed 1527 Panfilo de Narvaez expedition. Later, Fray Marcos de Niza and Friar Onorato followed the old Bavispe-Acoma trail passing through the San Bernardino Valley in 1539, followed by the Francisco Vazquez de Coronado expedition, which passed through the general area in search of the fabled seven cities of Cibola during 1540-1542.
The Apache utilized this region for hunting, gathering, and raids beginning in the early 1600's. Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, accompanied by Captain Juan Mateo Manje, visited San Bernardino in 1694. To provide a base for a general offensive campaign against the Apache, the Spanish presidio established at Fronteras was temporarily relocated to the San Bernardino springs between 1775 and 1780 and extensive fortress-like buildings were constructed.
Ranching began in 1822 with the acquisition of the San Bernardino Land Grant by Lieutenant Ignacio Perez, which he purchased at a cost equal to about ninety dollars. Cattle grazing increased and was widespread for many years until the Apache drove out the ranchers.
Because of the well-known perennial springs, this area remained an important stop for travelers. When the Mormon Battalion camped at San Bernardino in 1846, the rancho had been abandoned but feral livestock were still present in the area. Boundary Commissioner John Russell Bartlett surveyed the area in 1851 and provided a good description of the San Bernardino Valley.
Cattle ranching resumed on a large scale when J. H. "Texas John" Slaughter, rancher and sheriff of Tombstone, established the 65,000-acre San Bernardino Ranch in 1884 that extended from Mexico into the United States. Slaughter grazed cattle and irrigated farmland from wells tapping into an artesian aquifer. ‘Arroyo cutting’ was a common practice, one that drastically altered the landscape (A farmer or rancher would excavate a channel from a marsh or wetland to allow the area to drain and then farm or graze the area. In addition, the arroyo or channel that fed the wetlands was diverted so that the water could be used for irrigation).
General George Crook used the Slaughter Ranch and its springs as a stopping point during incursions into Mexico pursuing hostile Apaches in March 1886. During this campaign, Crook was successful in locating the hostiles and negotiating their unconditional surrender and return to Arizona. However, the surrender was delayed. Slaughter Ranch cowboy Frank Leslie reported that a man named Tribollet, who also lived on the Slaughter Ranch, had sold thirty dollars’ worth of mescal to the surrendering Apaches as they traveled north. Under the influence of this alcohol, many of the Apaches, including Geronimo, fled back into Mexico rather than surrendering. General Crook was subsequently relieved of his command, and Geronimo and his band of warriors ultimately surrendered for the last time at Skeleton Canyon just northeast of the dependable springs at San Bernardino during September 1886.
In 1937 the ranch was again sold, with various sections passing among other owners until 1978 when The Nature Conservancy bought the United States parcel. This portion of the ranch was passed to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and on April 1, 1982, the historic landscape became the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
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The primary role of San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge is to provide recovery for the native fish in the Río Yaqui watershed.