Migration in the Borderlands, by Lauret Savoy

Migration in the Borderlands

By Lauret Savoy

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 A Stone’s Throw: A Series on Race and Place in America

San Pedro River aerial view
The San Pedro River in northern Sonora, Mexico, looking southwest toward its headwaters and the sky islands of Sierra Mariquita and Sierra Elenita at Cananea.
Photo by Adriel Heisey.
Three weeks and 86 years separate the birthday and death-day of my mother, a new year’s child. Those three weeks in January weigh more heavily than I like to admit. I miss her, and need to sift through memories—mine and hers that she shared—to try to narrow the distance between us.

In those weeks, this year, news items appeared almost daily about the Tucson Unified School District’s ending of its Mexican-American Studies program so as to comply with Arizona’s ban on teaching ethnic studies. Books were cleared from classrooms, boxed, and locked away.

Thoughts of my mother are never distant. The controversial events in Arizona brought to mind that she lived there as a young Army nurse, stationed at Fort Huachuca and the prisoner-of-war camp at Florence, in the last year of the Second World War. That was a lifetime ago, long before she met my father, and more than a decade and a half before my birth. That was when Fort Huachuca was the third largest city in Arizona.

My mother’s arrival at an Army post at the edge of the San Pedro Valley, 14 miles from the border with Mexico, was part of a massive but largely unrecognized migration. But migrations of different sorts have always occurred there.

To migrate. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “migrate” comes from the Latin migrāre, to change one’s position or residence, to move from one place to another—but also to pass into a new form or condition, to shift.

History is in the Land

Flowing north from Sonora, Mexico, more than 140 miles to its confluence with the Gila River, the San Pedro is the last perennial river in the Southwest as yet undammed. The entire watershed is among the most biologically diverse areas of the country, serving as a corridor linking wildlife populations from Mexico with habitats farther north.

The San Pedro River has also been a lifeline to native peoples for millennia. Several hundred sites found in the valley—ancient villages, fields with irrigation networks, petroglyphs and pictographs—along with ceramics and other material remains point to nearly 13,000 years of residence and use. Yet the narratives of the San Pedro Valley’s human history that have been vetted over the last century by archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have tended to dismiss or neglect descendants’ voices and perspectives and thus unlink contemporary Native Americans from a published record of their own past.

San Pedro River. Photo by Adriel Helsey.
Low aerial view of the San Pedro River with cottonwood trees in southern Arizona near St. David.
Photo by Adriel Heisey.

Consider the terms long used in scholarship to define or exchange ideas about ancient cultures in the American Southwest. Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam still resonate in much of the larger public imagination, even though these terms tend not to be what the people call themselves or their ancestors. Nor are archaeological cultures, defined as distinct social groups and geographies, how indigenous people conceive of themselves in time and space. Even many of the labels once used by Spaniards to identify native peoples in the 16th and 17th centuries have survived in general and scholarly use.

Documentary records, “ruins,” and “artifacts” provide only a partial, fragmentary view of the past at best. Recognizing the need for “multivocality” in partnership in order to understand a fuller human history of the San Pedro Valley, anthropologists T. J. Ferguson, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, and colleagues established the San Pedro Ethnohistory Project, a collaborative study with Hopi, Zuni, Tohono O’odham, and San Carlos and White Mountain Apache peoples whose ancestors dwelled in the San Pedro Valley in the distant and more recent past.

This partnership is the first in-depth effort to understand the meanings of this landscape to the descendants of those who once invested themselves to and in it. The project also highlights the contrast between more fluid movements associated with ancestral land uses and migration and the more rigid geopolitical structures that define reservations, land ownership, and access today. The distinction is most stark for the Zuni and Hopi whose lands lie far to the north.

Narrative traditions of the Tohono O’odham, Hopi, Zuni, and Western Apache all emphasize dynamic movements over time. Traveling. Joining together and dispersing. Trading goods, customs, and language. Intermarrying. Padre Luís Velarde, for instance, noted in 1716 that the “Sobaipuris” (what the Spanish called ancestral O’odham groups in and around the San Pedro Valley) had trade fairs and “a mutual communication with the Moquinos” (a Spanish name for the Hopi people). Taken together traditions reveal complex mosaics that crossed supposed boundaries separating archaeological cultures. Migrations to, through, and from the San Pedro Valley were central to all.

Hopi advisors related when the Hisatsinom, the ancient people honored as Hopi ancestors, entered the Fourth World, they began their journeys to the Earth center on Hopi Mesas in different groups of clans. Each clan was guided by, and in covenant with, Màasaw who told them “Ang Kuktota”—“Along there, make footprints.” Although many anthropology texts explain that the Hopi emerged into the Fourth World from a hollow reed at the Sípàapuni in the Grand Canyon, many clan traditions place their origin instead at Yayniwpu (literally “The Beginning”), possibly in the Valley of Mexico. Hopi participants emphasized that these southern clans and others did not travel in simple linear or one-way paths as often viewed by archaeologists. Instead, clans eventually gathered from all directions to become Hopi at the mesas, after following circuitous or spiraling routes through many landscapes, and after encountering many different peoples. Each clan brought experiences, stories, borrowed elements of languages, names, and traditions unique to its migration path through the Southwest.

Tohono O’odham cultural advisors and  anthropologists at the Sosa Site, San Pedro  Ethnohistory Project.
Tohono O’odham cultural advisors and anthropologists at the Sosa Site, San Pedro Ethnohistory Project.
Photo by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh.

“The tradition is that we emerged ‘from below,’ which the Hopi word also means ‘from the south,’” offers Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, of the Greasewood Clan, Paaqavi. Migration entailed a metaphysical sense of becoming beyond geographical dimensions.

The narrative knowledge of these tribal peoples offered together in the San Pedro Ethnohistory Project reveals a far more dynamic, braided intercultural landscape than archaeological models suggest. History Is in the Land, the volume outlining the project’s work, describes how conceptions of ancestors incorporate multi-ethnic social groups. For example, while in the south, “Hopi clans would be called ‘Hohokam’ by archaeologists. Once they migrated to the Colorado Plateau the descendants of these clans are called ‘Ancestral Pueblo.’ The gathering of clans on the Hopi Mesas brought groups from far and wide, each contributing to the unique constellation of cultural traits we now refer to Hopi. . . . It was the admixture of different peoples that came to make up the Hopi people. Even as some ancestors migrated to Hopi, however, others were left behind to assume other cultural identities.”

Tribal elders and advisors who visited the San Pedro Valley as part of the project “repositioned” ancient sites, “ruins” and “artifacts”—the wi’ikam (things left behind) for the Tohono O’odham, “memory pieces” for the Zuni, and kuktota or “footprints” for the Hopi—as traces of the past left in the land, and as part of the land itself.

The Hopi include the San Pedro Valley as one of the ancestral migration paths, and the Hisatsinom who passed through deliberately left their footprints in the architecture and material remains to mark their presence and investment in the land. Far from abandoned, these “ruins are an ancestral place, where spirits still dwell,” Hopi scholar Micah Loma’omvaya explains. “It signifies places we used to live—our homeland. It helps us connect to the past, the condition in which ancestors used to live. They serve as monuments to our history; it is a textbook to open each time we go back.”

The meanings of ancestral places in the San Pedro Valley live in the present because they are part of an ongoing cultural dynamic for O’odham, Zuni, Western Apache, as well as Hopi peoples. The land situates them within the continuity of narrative tradition, within woven senses of time and space not defined by Cartesian binary notions. Land is memory, uniting past and present.

Hopi cultural advisor Dalton Taylor at the Reeve  Ruin, San Pedro Ethnohistory Project.
Hopi cultural advisor Dalton Taylor at the Reeve Ruin, San Pedro Ethnohistory Project.
Photo by T. J. Ferguson.

The San Pedro Valley has also witnessed other migrations. With Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s 1540 entrada in search of the cities of Cíbola, the frontier of Nueva España migrated north. The Rio Nexpa that this expedition followed may have been the San Pedro Valley. Regardless, the series of events set into motion by Spain’s missionary and military incursions into what is now southeastern Arizona ultimately precipitated by the 1760s the migration of ancestral O’odham peoples (Sobaipuri to Spanish chroniclers) from their agricultural villages in the San Pedro Valley west to the Santa Cruz Valley and north toward the Gila River. Their departure left the San Pedro Valley the domain of western Apache groups like the Aravaipa band. In the eyes of other governments, however, ownership of this land passed hands from Spain to Mexico, and, following war and the Gadsden Purchase, to the United States in 1853-54.

Fort Huachuca

An unpatrolled international border and the actions of the U.S. military anticipate my mother and migrations of a very different nature to a remote Army outpost on the western edge of the San Pedro Valley.

If any one post of the United States Army might lay claim to being the home station of the Buffalo Soldiers, that post would be Fort Huachuca. Both all-black cavalry regiments served there, both all-black infantry regiments, and during World War II, both all-black infantry divisions.  
   — Cornelius C. Smith, Jr., Fort Huachuca: The Story of a Frontier Post

Fort Huachuca was the latest of a string of Army garrisons placed south of the Gila River between 1856 and the late 1870s. The post began in March 1877 as Camp Huachuca (a.k.a. Camp Detachment early on), its primary task to reduce if not end what one military historian called “Apache depredations” along “plunder trails” through the San Pedro and nearby valleys into Sonora. Situated strategically on the northeastern flank of the Huachuca Mountains, with a perennial stream, woodlands and grass, the site offered a spectacular vantage. It is the last of the 19th century Army posts in Arizona to remain an active military installation.

Part of Fort Huachuca and the Huachuca Mountains in 1924.
Part of Fort Huachuca and the Huachuca Mountains in 1924.
Photo courtesy Fort Huachuca Historical Museum.

The African-American presence at Fort Huachuca began with a heated and bitter debate in the Reconstruction-focused Congress at the close of the Civil War. Should African Americans, now free citizens, be allowed to serve in a peacetime army? Their proven record in segregated Union units in the recent conflict eventually made compromise possible. The 60 new regiments of the Regular Army would include just a few “all-Black” units: the 9th Cavalry and 10th Cavalry regiments (the latter the first to be called “Buffalo Soldiers”), and four foot units consolidated in 1869 as the 24th and 25th infantry regiments. All were to be commanded by white officers.

A belief-driven policy would guide War Department decisions about Blacks in the military into the Second World War. First, African Americans were not considered intelligent enough to serve in artillery units—or, years later, in the Army Air Corps. Also in the years following the Civil War, Army assignments rotated between frontier defense and postings in more populated areas to the east. All four of the African-American regiments, however, remained on western frontier posts until the Spanish American War—and after serving abroad many were returned West. The War Department’s reasoning: the presence of African Americans in uniform in more densely inhabited eastern states, and particularly in the South, would likely provoke racial violence. Better that they serve in isolation at remote frontier posts.

Beginning in 1892, when companies of the 24th Infantry arrived at Fort Huachuca, this post overlooking the San Pedro Valley became the destination of migrations by military order. By the early 1930s, all four of the African-American regiments had called Fort Huachuca home. Their primary job for years was to patrol an international border that had no fence. They served the decade of revolutions in Mexico, beginning in 1910, when rival factions sought and lost power. They crossed into Mexico in 1916 as part of Brig. General John Pershing’s Punitive Expedition, in search of Pancho Villa. Germany’s offer of an alliance to help Mexico reclaim its lost northern territory if the U.S. entered the First World War only inflamed the border situation.


Military mobilization for another war prompted the most massive migration in uniform when Fort Huachuca became the training station for the 93rd and 92nd infantry divisions, the only “all-Negro” (but still white-commanded) divisions in the Second World War, along with smaller segregated units.

Hopi cultural advisor Dalton Taylor at the Reeve  Ruin, San Pedro Ethnohistory Project.
WAACs at Fort Huachuca, World War II.
Photo courtesy Fort Huachuca Historical Museum.

The War Department’s rationale for choosing the fort followed old reasoning. The isolated post had hosted Black soldiers since 1892, and residents of the few settlements in and around the San Pedro Valley at least had, as Steven Smith points out, “some familiarity with African Americans in uniform.” The post could also be expanded down the mountain’s alluvial slope toward the San Pedro River.

Following Jim Crow as official policy and unofficial custom, the War Department required African-American troops to train and live in separate facilities. Fort Huachuca quickly became two posts in one. As its reservation area expanded, facilities were duplicated with a segregated new cantonment area built east of the original site. Some 1,400 new buildings went up just in the months between late 1940 and June 1941. Eventually there were two sets of barracks and civilian quarters. Two officers’ clubs and USO clubs. Two station hospitals. Two sets of chapels, theaters, service clubs, day rooms—even flag poles.

Thousands of African-American men converged to Fort Huachuca under orders. This time, however, African-American women in uniform migrated as well, as Army nurses and as members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC, later the Women’s Army Corps or WAC).

As Steven Smith has noted, Fort Huachuca grew to become the third largest city in Arizona during the war. The 93rd Division’s newspaper alone had the second largest circulation in the state, with 20,000 copies produced each week. But this was a segregated city unlike any other in the nation.

Fort Huachuca was a place of firsts. It was the first post to house and train division-sized units of African-American soldiers, the largest concentration of Black soldiers ever in one place. It housed the first station hospital in the Army to be staffed and commanded by African Americans—the largest such hospital in the nation. It was the first installation to have Black WAACs who were commanded by Black officers. These noteworthy firsts all resulted from the military’s policies of segregation made manifest on a magnified scale.

It was also the consensus among the top brass in the War Department that Southern white men best understood African Americans, and thus were better prepared to lead them. Such was the case with the commander of the 92nd Division, Major General Edward Almond, who had a habit of referring to his troops as “nigras,” and whose wife requested separate shopping days for white and “colored” on the post.

Vivian Reeves at Fort Huachuca, 1944 or 1945

Barracks for African-American Medical Staff, Fort Huachuca, 1944 or 1945

Vivian Reeves at Fort Huachuca (left) and barracks for African-American medical staff (right) in 1944 or 1945.
Photos courtesy Lauret Savoy.


Regardless of achievement or position in civilian life, whether from communities in the Northeast or West where at least a hard-won level of integration existed, the Black men and women who migrated to Fort Huachuca under orders were thrust into a Southern-styled, separate-and-unequal landscape, and they could not easily leave.

The civilian atmosphere in Arizona could also add insult to injury, as in the fall of 1942 when governor Sidney Osborn sought the Army’s help in filling a labor shortage for the cotton harvest. One newspaper quoted the governor as saying, “I am sure there are many thousands of experienced cotton pickers at Huachuca and I am sure that they could be put at nothing more necessary, essential, or vital at this particular moment than aiding in the harvesting of this crop.”

The protests against racially charged incidents and discriminatory practices, the complaints made to the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, the requests for justice in the Army’s promotion policy—all fill folders upon folders in the National Archives, and give clear evidence of the unrest and low morale of the largest demographic of the then third largest city in Arizona. At least on one front, the fight for a Double V, for victory overseas against Axis powers and victory over racism at home, was far from won.

Steps leading to ghosts of buildings.
Steps leading to ghosts of buildings.
Photo by Lauret Savoy.

Enter my mother, Vivian Reeves, a young nurse and second lieutenant in her early twenties posted at Fort Huachuca’s Station Hospital Number One in 1944. She was later transferred north to the prisoner-of-war camp hospital in Florence, along the Gila River east of Phoenix. Momma began at general duty, then was promoted to first lieutenant and operating room supervisor. In that position she taught and supervised enlisted personnel and German prisoners of war in O.R. techniques. But when off duty, she and other Black officers could not patronize stores, cafés, or other businesses that welcomed and served German prisoners. In Florence or Phoenix it was always the same greeting: “We do not cater to colored.” Theirs was not a unique experience. She returned to Fort Huachuca after Germany surrendered.

Of 50,000 nurses in the Army Nurse Corps by the end of the war, only about 500 were African-American women. Yet Lt. Colonel M. O. Bousfield, commander of Fort Huachuca’s Station Hospital Number One, noted a definite trend by 1944 toward ordering Black nurses (including his) to care for captured Italians and Germans at POW camps, a situation he recognized as “again an example of using Negro personnel in places where white nurses object to working.”

I visited Fort Huachuca and Florence not long before my mother passed away. I wanted to see the places in the Arizona borderlands that I thought had marked her in unspoken ways. Her only words to me were these: “Why do you want to go there?”

The hospital grounds of the segregated cantonment at the fort had become fields dissected by unmaintained streets. Steps led up to the ghosts of buildings no longer there. The Mountain View Officers’ Club, the facility designated for Negro officers, was boarded up, abandoned. The public story presented in a little museum in Florence gave no word about African Americans stationed at the POW camp.

What I’ve related about Fort Huachuca comes not from public or popular narratives but largely from a contracted report for the U.S. Army, scholarly works by African-American historians, newspaper clippings filed at the post’s museum, and confidential records long stored at the National Archives and declassified in the decades following the war.

Fort Huachuca, Home of the Buffalo Soldier!! Beyond the ring of a mascot slogan, the public story leaves much to be desired.

Migrations in a Borderland

To migrate. To change one’s position or abode, to move from place to place. To pass into a new form or condition, to shift.

From the distant past to the present, the San Pedro Valley has witnessed countless migrations, human and otherwise. For the ancestral O’odham, Hopi, Zuni, and Apache peoples, migrations occurred through time, space, culture, and identity over millennia. Traditional narratives related for the San Pedro Ethnohistory Project speak of fluidity, of braided exchanges among social groups, of shared pasts and landscapes. These views stand in stark contrast to the models of separate and diverging archaeological cultures in separate and distinct geographic areas.

The migrations of African Americans to Fort Huachuca and the San Pedro Valley were for most an imposed separation in physical reality rather than a model or theory. Their experiences of geographic and cultural (dis)placement have not yet found voice in public history. Nor have the many instances of permeable cultural boundaries, such as intermarriages across many “racial” lines. The popular history, instead, tends to comment on the African-American presence in the Southwest in terms that are rigidly black and white rather than as acknowledgment of the complex intercultural mosaic in this place.

And, I realize, I still haven’t fully answered my mother’s question.


Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip, and Ferguson, T. J., Memory Pieces and Footprints: Multivocality and the Meanings of Ancient Times and Ancestral Places among the Zuni and Hopi: American Anthropologist, v. 108 no. 1 (2006): 148–162.

Ferguson, T. J., and Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip, History Is in the Land: Multivocal Tribal Traditions in Arizona’s San Pedro Valley  (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006).

Kuwanwisiwma, Leigh, and T. J. Ferguson, Ang Kuktota: Hopi Ancestral Sites and Cultural Landscapes: Expedition, v. 46, no. 2 (2004): 25–29.

Sánchez, Joseph P., A Historiography of the Route of the Expedition of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado: Compostela to Cíbola, in The Coronado Expedition to Tierra Nueva: The 1540–1542 Route across the Southwest  R. Flint and S. C. Flint, eds. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1997) 138–148.

Smith, Jr., Cornelius C., Fort Huachuca: The Story of a Frontier Post  (Fort Huachuca, Arizona, 1976).

Smith, Steven D., The African American Soldier At Fort Huachuca, Arizona, 1892-1946  (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina–South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2001).

Taylor, Quintard, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West  (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998).

Washburn, Dorothy K., Living in Balance: The Universe of the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, and Apache  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1995).


Lauret Savoy writes and photographs across threads of cultural identity to explore their shaping by relationship with and dislocation from the land. A woman of African-American, Euro-American, and Native-American heritage, she is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College. Her books include The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions), Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology (Trinity University Press), and Living with the Changing California Coast.

Photo of Arizona desert by DaveinTucson, courtesy Pixabay.

Buckeye (chestnut) on autumn forest floor

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