Cotton in Pinal County
An important Pinal County
crop has been around for
An Arizona Pioneer who
lived for a short time at
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Cotton in Pinal County
Cotton’s rich history in Pinal County is not limited to the current era
of super-farming with six-row cotton pickers and international
product marketing. Cotton has been in our area prior to written
history and was a marketable commodity prior to the birth of Christ.
The earliest evidence of cotton production has been unearthed as part
of the Pre-Columbian cultures of the Hakataya, Mogollon, Anasazi
and Hohokam. The primary cotton producers were the Hohokam
people who migrated into Arizona from Northern Mexico.
The Hohokam lived in villages along the major rivers in central
Arizona where they had access to water and were able to flood
irrigate their small fields through a system of irrigation canals.
In his book, Arizona, A History, Thomas E. Sheridan states that the
Hohokam devised the most extensive system of water control on the
North American continent. Archaeologists have traced almost 100
miles of Hohokam canals in the Florence area. Because of the water,
Gila River villages became important trade centers for the region.
One large cotton growing settlement was Snaketown, down river of
today’s Sacaton. The cotton grown there was used for fiber as well a
food supply. Cottonseed was parched and used in food.
The cotton grown by the Hohokams was quite different from what
we see in the fields today. As opposed to the dense, fluffy cotton
bolls of today, Hohokam cotton was a scrubbier bush with sparse lint
growing from the seedpod.
Native American cotton was a variation of wild cotton that can be
found today in the desert of north and eastern Pinal County. Like the
highly educated modern plant breeders, early cotton growers selected
seed from plants that produced better than others and thus developed
cotton which is more productive than the wild varieties.
Early cotton farmers constructed small dams and diversion canals to
get the water to their small fields. This allowed for an expansion of
settlements in the area around 500 AD With the increasing
settlement, larger canals were built and between 1250 and 1400 and
the Southwestern pre-Columbian cotton system prospered.
In the 1400’s the Hohokam culture was in decline and eventually lead
to the abandonment of much of the canal system along the Salt and
Gila Rivers. However, a remnant remained.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Arizona they found the
Pima Indians and cotton. The Pimas had built their production upon
the existing systems the Hohokams had abandoned a century earlier.
Spanish missionaries made note of the cotton production and in 1522
Spain established their rule of Mexico which included present day
In 1539 Fray Marcos de Niza described the Pimas as “an agricultural,
pottery making people who irrigated by means of artificial canals.” In
1600 Juan de Onate began exploring Arizona and its peoples,
including the cotton growing regions of the Gila River valleys.
Father Eusebio Francisco Kino established two missions on the Gila
River among the Pimas, the Immaculate Conception and St. Andrews
in 1700. He was accompanied by Captain Juan Menje through Pima
and Cocomaricopa villages near present day Sacaton.
When Father Kino died in 1711 written records of Spanish
exploration stopped. As momentum in agriculture was again building
in the mid-18th century a revolt took place that ushered in a new era
in Anglo/Native American relations.
The Pima Revolt of 1751 led to shaky relationships between the
Europeans and Native Americans. Luis Oacpicagigua, from the O’
odham nation rebelled against the harsh discipline of several Jesuit
missionaries. Two priests and more than a hundred Spanish settlers
As a result, a presidio was established in Tubac. The cultures of the
central Arizona Gila River valley continued to trade cotton and other
agricultural products, but the relative peace of earlier times was rife
with raids from hostile tribes.
The Spanish abandoned their ranches in Southern Arizona and
eventually the Jesuits, who were instrumental in the relationships
established with the Native American communities were expelled.
A great flux in relationships between Spain, Mexico and the United
States occurred from the mid-1700s until the organized development
of roads began in the mid-1850s. During this time international
disputes, Apache raids and the general wild nature of Arizona made it
a place of great unrest. However, agricultural communities of the
Pimas on the Gila River maintained their tradition of growing and
trading small amounts of cotton.
In 1846 the Mormon Battalion moved west from Santa Fe, building
the road to the coast. Scribes referred to the cultivation of cotton
among the Pima villages of the central Gila River Valley.
However, in the following years changing markets, defiled seed stock
and the disruption of irrigation water supplies, lead to decline of Pima
Indian produced cotton.
In the spring of 1877, a group of Mormon farmers moved into the
Salt River area of what is now Mesa. There they began to produce
cotton as a subsistence crop. Like the Indians they relied heavily on
the perennial flow of water on the Salt. With the guaranteed water
source they began increase their yields.
The Arizona Canal Company was chartered in 1882 along the Salt
River. The canal was completed and promoters claimed that it would
help bring 100,000 acres of unproductive desert under cultivation..
As the settlers increased their number, so did the acreage of Arizona
grown cotton. By the turn of the century, irrigation efficiency had
increased and cotton was becoming a major Arizona commodity.
South of the Salt River valley, Pinal County farmers began working
bring more land into production.
In 1907 the US Department of Agriculture established an
experimental farm in Sacaton, in cooperation with the Indian Service.
The goal was to develop a strong variety of long staple cotton, often
called American-Egyptian, that could be grown in this region.
The Sacaton station would be instrumental over the next 50 years in
the development of Arizona’s long staple Pima cotton.
The August 19, 1917 edition of the Arizona Republican declared,
“Alfalfa was King, Cotton was Queen..." Soon however, that would
change; cotton would usurp the throne to reign as Arizona’s number
one cash crop.
The First World War helped to drive the demand for fiber. Arizona
cotton was used to make rubber tires, rubber belting and rubber hose.
Eighty-five percent of the production of Arizona’s cotton went into
rubber consumption, all in demand because of the war effort.
In 1919 the total cotton acres in Pinal County was 2,500. The
following year it more that tripled to 9,000 acres.
Increased pump usage for ground water allowed more land to be
brought into production. Farmers in Pinal County moved away from
their reliance on canals carrying water from the Gila River and
allowing land on higher desert ground to be used.
In the 1920s and 1930 agriculture development Pinal County took
place at an incredible pace. Coolidge, Casa Grande and Eloy boomed
and land was placed under cultivation and water was pumped for
During the Dust Bowl entire families moved west from the Plains to
pick cotton in Arizona. The Department of Agriculture document
migrant workers in Pinal County Cotton camps. During this time,
production thrived and continued to increase as more land was
brought into development.
The Sacaton cotton station was closed in 1954 when a Cotton
Research Center was developed on land between Phoenix and Tempe.
By the 1960s there were more than 100,000 acres in agricultural
production in Pinal County. Desert land was no longer being brought
in to production because of water restrictions, however the cotton
market was thriving and many of the larger cotton farms had reached
The Central Arizona Project reached Pinal County in the 1980s and
while water was reliable it was also became expensive.
The University of Arizona’s Cotton Research Center was moved to
Maricopa in 1984 and variety development continued on that site.
Several seed development companies maintained nurseries in Pinal
County where major developments were taking place in
biotechnology. Varieties of cotton containing insect resistant genes
were engineered and growers in the area leapt at the chance to
incorporate the varieties into their farming practices.
The 1990s brought troubled times for the area cotton growers.
Weather, exotic insect and production problems plagued growers at
the same time that prices began to drop because of increased
competition from overseas. However, the cotton community endured.
In 1996 the first transgenic cotton was released commercially. And,
the effects were profound. An entire species of exotic pests were
being controlled as never before. And, populations of beneficial
insects like ladybugs, lacewings and small wasps were rebounding in
cotton fields across Pinal County.
Today, Pinal County beats the rest of the state in production acres.
It also remains one of the most productive cotton production areas in
the US. As the nation experiences low prices and increased
competition, area farmers struggle to make a profit.
However, the progressive cotton farmers of Pinal County continue
keep pace with the world by breeding efficient new varieties, cleaning
up the environment by using more earth friendly pest control
measures, and utilizing the latest technology in electronics, water
conservation and mechanization to increase their productivity.
For many, cotton is still king in Pinal County.
Hiking Picacho Peak
Play video at Right. Rebecca
provided about half of the
Friendly Corners, Eloy, Arizona -
Cotton camps and migant workers
in the area were featured by
Dothea Lange in her photo work
from the depression era.
The perfect environment - Arizona's
warm, arid climate is perfect for
growing abundant, clean, white
White Gold - The genes of
Arizona's upland cotton go back to
varieties grown in Arizona and
Mexico hundreds of years ago.
Charles M Clark:
A Quiet Pioneer
Charles M. Clark is not recognized as one of Pinal County's
prominent historical figures. However, some of his stories,
which were published in 1929 in the Arizona Republican, give
great insight into life in Arizona in the 1870s.
Clark came to Arizona as a military telegraph operator and he
was the first operator at Maricopa Wells in the early 1870s. He
was only 17.
The Wells had been long established as a trading station along
the Gila River. In 1858 the Butterfield Overland Stage Mail
Line was given a government contract to haul mail from St.
Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California. A station was
built at the Wells to accommodate the stagecoach and its
When Clark arrived at Maricopa Wells, traffic from throughout
the West was a consistent mix of American culture. However, a
culture unto itself was well established and deliniated at the
The family of the station manager sat down for each meal with a
white tablecloth covering their end of the long table. Clark
describes the rest of the table, where the guests and staff ate,
being covered by "a well-worn oilcloth of vintage of 1864…was
installed-crushed, cracked and darkened by use and abuse to a
The flies were so thick that a worker was stationed outside the
adobe building to manhandle a contraption used to keep the flies
away from the diners. An iron bar, which extended through the
eaves of building, was tied with "successive loops of faded,
dirty calico, bolt width, dropping to within ten or twelve inches
from the top of the table."
The noise that the bar made and the motion of fabric made little
difference according to Clark. The flies continued to molest the
diner. After Clark, in an act of defiance to the station manager's
wife, one day sat down on the family's end of the table he was
banned from the dining room.
So, he took to cooking his own food. He supplied the gun and
ammunition to a Maricopa Indian sharpshooter who would
return with game and one less bullet for each item he shot. The
hunter earned the nickname, Mata Pato or duck killer for his
Soon the station manager's wife, jealous of the feast on which
Clark was dining and his pie making skills, told Clark he was
welcome back at the station table.
The manager's wife, Jane Moore or 'Aunt Jane from San
Berdoo,' was a force with which to be reckoned. "She lived hard
and worked hard," according to Clark. He once saw her chase a
"Big Missourian" out of her coral with a huge axe and throw his
shotgun after him.
A copy of a manuscript found at the Casa Grande Historical
Society tells of a good trade of "rich ore" from mines far south
of the Gila Valley. The native tribes knew of quantities of ore
to the south but Clark says, "I only know of one case in
Arizona where an Indian showed the location of rich minerals to
a white man."
In 1876, after a stint in the US Military Telegraph office in
Phoenix, Clark was sent to the telegraph office in Florence
because an epidemic of smallpox had hit hard and left the local
operator stricken. One in Florence Clark was inundated by two
weeks of backed up business.
Four days after Clark's arrival in Florence the former operator
died. Other sufferers were, according to Clark, covered with so
many sores that they were, "black as tar." They also "lost their
hair, eyebrows and mustasches."
There were 400 cases of small pox, according to Clark, but only
four deaths. Two doctors worked day and night to care for the
ill. Clark, having been vaccinated, jumped into the fray and
helped as he could. However, Clark soon came down with the
One day while recovering on a cot in the telegraph office, a man
shouted through the office glass that he wanted an urgent
message sent to San Francisco. Clark got up from his cot and
began the transaction. When giving the man back his change
from the transaction, the man noticed Clark's condition. "Hell,"
the man yelled, "you have got small pox. Rush that message
and keep the change."
Clark says in his manuscripts that during the five or six days
that he worked in the office during his illness his tips increased
because people didn't want their change. He soon recovered and
lived long a long life, remaining in Arizona.
A collection of Clarks memoirs can be found at the Arizona
Historical Society, the Casa Grande Valley Historical Society
and in the book, Reflections of a Small Dessert Town by
Reprinted from Land, Home & Life in Pinal County,
April 1, 2016 Feature
Story, Home Page Feature,
For more Cotton Farming ar