Cowboy Heroes

Gene Aguirre.

touple years ago, I told you about Don Yginio F. Aguirre, the 100-year-old walking and talking history book. Unfortunately, on March 26, 2011, at the ripe ol’ age of 101 and one half, Mr. Aguirre passed on to the next realm.

Born September 10, 1909 in what was then the Arizona Territory (Arizona became a state in 1912) Yginio (Gene) Aguirre started life on a large desert cattle ranch near Red Rock.

As a young boy Gene inquisitively inquired and listened to stories told by his dad and uncles. Stories of family history told to them by their dads and uncles. Things like freighting on the old Santa Fe Trail, stories about fighting wild Indians before the West was settled, stories about developing mines, ranches and businesses . . . about developing the West in general. These were first- and second-hand accounts of the way things actually were in the mid and late 1800s, not stuff merely read in books. These were stories young Gene grew up on.

The Aguirre families were Spanish noblemen from the “old country” (Spain) before they migrated to “New Spain” (what is now Old Mexico) in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The Aguirre’s played a part in the settlement of Mexico and soon were among the leading families in Chihuahua and the State of Sonora. By the mid 1800s however, political ties were strained in Mexico when Don Pedro Aguirre (Gene’s great-great-grandfather) backed the wrong politician who wound up loosing an election; then for “health reasons” (fear of being shot) the family patriarch decided to move his clan north. The adventurous Aguirres were off to conquer new frontiers in what is now the southwestern United States.

“My Aguirre ancestors were some of the first freighters to haul hundreds of tons of freight across the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico and points beyond.” Gene would say. “And the Aguirre family was also some of the first, and finest, I might add, ranchers in the American Southwest. The pioneering Aguirre family helped settle and develop this country through mining, freighting, trading and ranching during the 1800s just as they had done in Mexico during the 1700s. You can read the history books and find that many historians have documented the adventures of my family extensively.”

When Gene was a boy in the early 1900s, stories told to him had only happened a few years earlier and then, details were recounted to him a few short years later. One such story Gene liked to tell is of the time his great-uncle, Epifanio Aguirre, made headlines by being credited with saving the stage that ran from Socorro, New Mexico to El Paso, Texas back in 1864.

“Uncle Epifanio was traveling with his wife, their two small children and a couple of servants in a big four wheeled ambulance and also a saddle horse. They were following the stage and about eight soldiers and wagons brought up the rear. Out in the middle of the Jornada Del Muerto between Las Cruces and Socorro, New Mexico, they were jumped by a large band of Apaches. They said it was Cochise.

“Luckily only a few of the Apaches were armed with rifles, and the rest just had bows and arrows. When they were attacked, Uncle Epifanio mounted the saddle horse and ran out in front of the stage with a pistol in each hand and the bridle reins in his teeth. He would empty his pistols and clear a path for the stage and then run back to his coach where his wife would hand him two more loaded pistols! This went on for a while and it was very touch and go as they tried to lose the Apaches.

“The passengers on the stage and the soldiers also fired at will, but it was said that Uncle Epifanio showed courage above and beyond what any of them had ever seen before. After several miles of a running battle, a small village came into view. It was only then the Apaches finally decided to quit the attack.” Said Gene Aguirre of the battle some 145 years later!

Indians south of Sasabe, AZ later killed Epifanio near the Mexico border. Gene would chuckle and say, “Those Indians and my uncle always had a thing for each other.”

It’s a good thing stories such as this were told to Gene, for you see, he guarded the stories and traditions passed on to him well. Telling other people the true history as it was told to him was a favorite pastime of Gene’s. Fortunately he did not waste the gift. Gene wrote four books on the subject of settling the West, about history and how his family was involved. What a treat for anyone who loves history or Old West tales to have known Gene or have one of his books.

Not only did Gene have a tremendous family history of pioneers and nobility to his credit, but he was a great trailblazer and an accomplished man himself. Gene grew up living the cowboy’s dream on his father and uncle’s ranches in the Red Rock, Arizona area. These large ranchos ran as many as 8,000 to 10,000 head of cattle in their heyday and the young man was fortunate to grow up working with some of the best cowboys of the entire Southwest. These cowboys were actually Vaqueros and had been practicing the art of handling cattle for generations in the area. Most of our current knowledge and traditions of cowboying are direct spin-offs of what old-time vaqueros taught the first Anglo cattlemen back then.

According to Gene, he grew up, “Learning the art of cowboying from the best vaqueros in the land and learning the business of being a cattleman from his family.” One of Gene’s other great-uncles, Pedro Aguirre, is credited with developing the famed Buenos Aires ranch along the Arizona / Mexico border. This ranch started as a stage stop circa 1860s, went on to run around 15,000 head of sheep and cattle during Pedro’s tenure, and now is a large wildlife preserve. Gene started with quite a set of cowboy / pioneer credentials!

It only seemed natural, that as Gene became his own man, he would follow in the ranching traditions of his ancestors. In his early years, Gene ran cattle in northern Mexico and southern Arizona. He bought, sold, traded and raised livestock while continuing to help the Aguirre family operations near Red Rock. He continued ranching and buying cattle in Mexico to be fattened out and sold in America right up till the late 1940s . . . then had a lifestyle change for a few years.

In the late ‘40s an event happened that moved Gene in another exciting direction. You see, it was then that the dreaded hoof and mouth disease was discovered in Old Mexico. The United States and Mexican governments decided to fight it there before it spread all across Mexico, and inevitably into the United States. Young men from the southwestern United States who could speak Spanish and had a ranching background were highly sought after for this mission. So Gene loaded up his young family and moved to Mexico to work on the eradication of hoof and mouth disease or La Comision Mexico-Americana para la eradicacion de la Fiebre Aftosa as it was called on that side of the border.

During the late 40s and early 50s, Gene worked for the American Government on the Aftosa comision. He worked as a livestock inspector, a supervisor of livestock inspectors and an appraiser of livestock. Gene’s tales of those years could be likened to stories of the American Frontier in the late 1800s. Imagine a foreigner coming in and telling a poor farmer he is going to shoot all of his animals, his only means of a living, and then promising him the government will make it right with him later. Resistance from the locals was inevitable but that was part of the task Americans took on. Gene lived and saw a way of life most Americans will never see. He had many adventures.

Gene says, “I saw things that you would not believe today. I forded swollen rivers during flood season on a Mule, crossed high mountain passes where the trails were narrow, slippery and treacherous; and even faced down armed men while standing up for my job and what was right. It was pretty tricky down there a time or two!”

If you ever get a chance to read books or talk to the folks who went to Mexico during those years, I highly recommend it. Most accounts are amazing, down right impressive! Kind of like Old West adventures happening in more modern times. The work those men did in Mexico saved the American cattle industry millions of dollars and tons of headaches, even to this very day.

While in Mexico, Gene continued his ranching ventures. Every once in a while he would take time off to buy or sell cattle somewhere in Mexico. Even though he currently had a job, it did not stop him from running cattle on the side. He leased ranches here and there, or at times put together loads of cattle to be shipped other places. Ranching was in the Aguirre blood.

When Gene left Mexico, upon the completion of the eradication, he came back to Red Rock where he helped run the family operations once again and also to ranch on his own. He felt like he was back where he belonged at the Aguirre family ranches. It was the perfect place for Gene to raise his family.

As Gene got older, it became evident his background and family history were something special. Not only were they special to him and his immediate family but to the people of the Southwest as well. By the time he reached retirement age, there weren’t many people still alive having had first-hand experience with the old time vaqueros or with pioneering families who had tamed the West. The old stories handed down to him as a boy were now considered historical. People who keep track of history took note.

“In 1976, Arizona, to honor the bicentennial celebration, decided to re-enact the second march of the Don Juan Bautista De Anza expedition, and they chose me to portray the part of De Anza,” Gene recalled with pride.

Who else should they choose to play the part of a Spanish nobleman and frontiersman but a descendent of those very things?

It was an honor for Gene to be involved in this celebration of the West, especially since his own ancestors were involved with the wild frontier. The ride started off in Sonora, Mexico and wound up in San Francisco, California. Gene participated in the part from Sonora, Mexico to Yuma, Arizona. In addition, the Historical Society leaned heavily upon Gene’s knowledge to add a flare of authenticity to the event.

“They were always asking me about the old Presidial Soldiers my family told me about as a boy” Gene said about preparation for the re-enactment.

After Gene’s retirement in the mid 1970s, he became deeply involved with the Arizona Historical Society. Not long thereafter, Gene decided to start writing down what he knew. Gene wrote four books, all filled with great adventures and of course, history. True history. At times Gene would remember an event about a certain vaquero and himself chasing a wild steer, or perhaps gathering wild mustangs and he would jot it down. He also wrote quite a bit about his experiences in Mexico while on the Aftosa Comision. His stories were well written and entertaining. As a bonus, they are as close as one can get to being historically accurate. After all, he was there!

Gene researched his family’s history all the way back to the old country in Spain. For one of his books he traveled all over Mexico and Spain doing research. His father and uncles told him stories as a young man, but he took it a step farther and went back and found the old documentation.

“I went to ancient churches and government offices all over Mexico and Spain. I poured over all of the old records that I could find. Each place, each new discovery, would lead me to a new adventure in another town,” Gene said of the research. This was quite an undertaking, but well worth it, Gene was proud of his ancestry.

When asked about the secret of longevity; Gene had this to say “Well I eat meat, potatoes and beans on a regular basis and maybe enjoy a glass of red wine now and then. But most of all you have to enjoy life. You can’t go around worried and stressed out all of the time; you have to have fun. You need to smile.”

That advice worked well for Gene as he did enjoy a long, full life . . . 101.5 years worth! Yginio F. Aguirre was a true gentleman, cowboy, and pioneer. Simply put, “Un Caballero.”