Battle of Grant’s Hill

**NOTE TO READERS – Here’s a battle off the beaten path which you’ve probably never heard of.**

September 14, 1758. The French and Indian War.

Battle of Grant's Hill

The Battle of Grant’s Hill was very one-sided, as the British showed yet again that they were not proficient in fast moving, close in wilderness fighting. Twenty years later in the American Revolution, they still weren’t. There’s no trace remaining of the battle area. It’s now in the middle of the “Golden Triangle” in downtown Pittsburgh. The site of the heaviest fighting is the location of the Allegheny County Courthouse.

This battle was fought as part of the British effort to capture Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh, PA during the French and Indian War. It shouldn’t have been fought at all. Major James Grant was leading a reconnaissance-in-force mission from Fort Ligonier, about 50 miles to the east. He had strict orders from his commander, Col. Henri Bouquet, to not get into a decisive engagement. He was to do a thorough recon, take prisoners and gather intelligence.

Grant ran his mission to perfection. He got his force undetected to within 1/4 mile of the fort on a hill overlooking the forks of the three rivers. Then he got stupid. Seeing Fort Duquesne as a ramshackle, under-manned fort, he decided to attack. It was a disaster. He lost 400 of 800 men and himself became a POW.

Survivors made their way back to Fort Ligonier and reported to Col. Bouquet that Fort Duquesne was a mighty bastion defended by thousands. That cast a pall over the entire British plan. In reality, Fort Duquesne was falling apart and the French were preparing to abandon it.

The hill where Grant was defeated is no longer there. It was leveled a century ago to make room for expansion of the downtown business district. However, the area is still called Grant’s Hill and has been since the earliest days of the city.

I’ve got lots more information about the Battle of Grant’s Hill and the Fort Duquesne campaign. Just click on the links.

Big Daddy Saguaro

Nothing says “desert” like the Saguaro (swor’- oh) Cactus. Although it is associated with all American deserts, it actually has a very small range. It is found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, southeastern California and western Sonora, Mexico. Even there, its range is further limited by altitude and water. The Saguaro can only survive in a very specific set of environmental conditions.

Saguaro cactus

This is one of the biggest Saguaros I’ve ever come across. We stumbled on to while hiking and geocaching in the back country of Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, AZ (near Tucson). Besides a couple dozen challenging geocaches, this mountainous 5,500 acre park has over 5,000 Saguaros but you’ll be hard pressed to find one bigger than this. It’s a good 50 feet high and is probably close to 200 years old.

Saguaros live to a ripe old age – up to 250 years. They don’t start growing arms until they are 75. Their roots are shallow – typically 4-6 inches with a 2 foot tap root – and spread out as far as the plant is tall. Saguaros store water like a camel’s hump. During the rainy season, it swells as it absorbs and stores water. A full grown Saguaro that has stored up water can weigh up to 5,000 pounds.

Early Native Americans used every part of the Saguaro. It was a source of water, which it stores internally and fruit which is said to be quite tasty. The spines were used as needles. Dead Saguaro are tough and woody. They were used for roofs, fences and furniture.

The Saguaro Cactus is not endangered but it is protected. Both Arizona and the feds have strict laws and severe penalties for unauthorized harvesting, digging or damaging these magnificent plants.

Saguaro also provide homes to a variety of birds and small mammals. We once saw a bobcat sitting on top of one watching the world go by. How he got up there is beyond me. Getting down was probably a bit dicey also. I know it would be for me and Natasha.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Shortly after the birth of Christ, an indigenous race started to inhabit the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona halfway between present-day Phoenix and Tucson. Nobody really knows who they were, where they came from or what happened to them. History calls them the Hohokam. Anthropologists prefer a more generic term – ancient Sonoran desert people. Starting out as hunters and gatherers, they quickly advanced beyond that. Over the course of the next 10+ centuries, on the banks of the Gila River, they developed a thriving culture with sophisticated knowledge of agriculture, architecture and astronomy. They achieved all this despite having no tools, no working animals and no livestock. They never knew about the wheel and they had no written language. Then, in the space of one or two generations, they were gone. We know all this because of what they left behind at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

Casa Grande National Monument

The high point of this ancient Sonoran culture was the construction of a large central building, which Spanish missionaries named “Casa Grande” over 250 years after it was abandoned. Sixty feet square and four stories high, nobody really knows what it was used for. It was built with a substance called “caliche” (cuh-LEE-chee). Hard clay under the desert floor was ground up and mixed with water to create a sticky mud that could be molded like Play-Doh and dried as hard as rock. This was the main construction material used for everything. Casa Grande contained an estimated 3,000 tons of caliche, all hand molded in two foot layers built on top of one another without scaffolding or tools. Floors and internal supports were built with pine and fir logs brought from 50 miles away and imbedded in the wet caliche. Fifty years after its completion around 1350, the Sonoran culture fell apart. For four centuries after it was abandoned, Casa Grande stood mute, ravaged by weather, vandals and souvenir hunters. You can still see graffitti carved into the walls by stagecoach passengers and cowboys. The U.S. Government began preservation efforts in 1891. It became a National Monument in 1918. The protective roof was built in 1932. Preservation efforts are ongoing and have successfully maintained the ruins in their 1891 state.

The achievements of this long gone culture were astounding. The Casa Grande is an obvious one but there were many more. Using only pointed sticks, they dug hundreds of miles of irrigation canals to bring water from the Gila River into the desert. This created an oasis of almost 1,000 square miles of fertile crop land in which they grew corn, beans, squash, tobacco and cotton. Artisans created pots, jewelry and baskets with intricate artwork, some of which have been found in the area. Trade flourished down into Mexico and all the way to the Pacific coast. But, in my humble opinion, the most fascinating part of the culture was their interest in astronomy. The walls of the Casa Grande have tales to tell about that.

The Sonoran culture tracked major astronomical events to guide their planning, activities and religious ceremonies. Key among them were summer/winter solstice and the spring/fall equinox. They did this through a series of “alignments”, which were holes or channels constructed in the Casa Grande walls. On the day of those celestial events sunlight would shine directly through those alignments. There was one other event they tracked – the 18.6 year lunar nodal period. This is a cycle of declination (angle) changes of the moon’s orbit around the earth. Throughout ancient history, it was used for ceremonial religious observances, particularly among pagan religions. However, the lunar nodal cycle is also a key component of eclipse prediction. This cycle is followed at many ancient sites, including Stonehenge. Could the ancient Sonoran desert people predict solar and lunar eclipses? Your guess is as good as anybody’s.

West wall of Casa Grande

This picture is the west wall of Casa Grande. It is the best preserved and the most interesting. The round portal under the gold arrow was the alignment for the summer solstice – the longest day of the year. The square portal under the blue arrow was the alignment for the peak of the lunar nodal period, which astronmers call the lunar standstill. Other alignments are have been identified but are not readily visible and some are just gone, eroded away with the walls.

Casa Grande was completed around 1350. By 1400, the Sonoran culture was in a steep decline from which it couldn’t recover. Theories abound as to why. There’s no evidence of warfare or conquest. The conquistadors were still two centuries away. One version that seems credible is supported by geological data. In the late 1300’s, the Gila River Valley experienced flooding on a monumental scale. This deepened the river channel to the point where no water could flow into the irrigation canals unless they were rebuilt. This flooding was followed by years of drought, which lowered the water level even more. The desert began to reclaim its land. Unable to sustain themselves, the Sonoran people began to leave. Within 30-40 years, this 1,000 year culture was gone. They most likely dispersed to different areas in smaller groups and formed the genealogical base of today’s southwest tribes.

Sonoran canal system

This National Park Service diagram shows the extent of the Sonoran irrigation system. There were hundreds of miles of canals. Parts of it are still in use today. This entire system was dug with pointed sticks, the most sophisticated tool they ever developed.

At its peak, the Sonoran culture had several thousand people living in compounds over hundreds of square miles on both sides of the Gila River. The Casa Grande was one of these compounds, centered on a one acre site surrounded by seven foot walls. It was just one compound out of many, although it was the biggest. This culture pre-dated other Native American cultures and lived in peace. Today, the Pima, Hopi and Zuni nations consider this culture to be their ancestors

Excavated canal.

In this 1964 photo, an archaeologist is standing in an excavated section of a Sonoran culture irrigation canal. They were built with steps for gravity flow and lined with caliche. Not bad for pointed sticks.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is located in Coolidge, AZ – about 20 miles due north from Exit 211 on I-10. It’s small. You can see the entire thing in 60-90 minutes. Nevertheless, it is one jaw dropping discovery after another. If you get out to Arizona, make sure you take the time to visit.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Tubac, AZ

This is the chapel of the Misión San José de Tumacácori. Franciscan missionaries began construction in 1811 although no services were held here until 1822. Even though it was still a work in progress after 11 years, it was a magnificent structure. It represented the zenith of a Catholic mission community that stretched back to 1691. In that year, Father Francisco Kino arrived at a Pima Indian village on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. His ministry was to advance Spanish influence and spread Catholic teachings into New Spain, an area that encompassed the entire present-day southwestern United States on up to the San Francisco Bay. The name of the Pima village in their native language is lost to history. The Spanish phonetic version of it became Tumacácori (too-mah-ká-ko-ree).

Tumacacori Chapel

The chapel design is very interesting from a cultural standpoint. It strongly reflects a style brought to Spain by the Moors, who established an Islamic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula that lasted 700 years (roughly 750 A.D. to 1490 A.D.). The pointed window niches in the front, the distinctive arches in the bell tower and the white domed roof above the altar are right out of Islamic architecture. The faux columns on the front and cutouts in the walls for statues and icons were usd by the Romans. On the other hand, it was brightly painted and decorated both inside and out, reflecting Mexican and Native American cultures. Everything in the picture is original construction. Even some of the original paint can still be seen today.

For the first 70 years of its existence, the mission had no church. All services were conducted among the people, often by visiting priests. Father Kino ministered to his flock until his death in 1711. The first real church was built in 1757. The outline of its foundation is nearby. Tumacácori carried on through good times and bad until 1848, when it was abandoned for good – a casualty of the Mexican War and Apache raids. The magnificent chapel, which had been under constant construction since 1811, was never finished. In 1853, the entire area became part of the United States after the Gadsen Purchase transferred most of New Spain to American hands. In 1908, President Teddy Roosevelt established the thoroughly dilapidated mission as a National Monument and began preservation efforts. It became a National Historic Park in 1990, incorporating all the missions and presdios in the I-19 corridor.

Inside the chapel

The main sanctuary inside the chapel. The layers of white limestone, mud and adobe brick used in the construction are clearly visible. You can also see some of the original paint on the far back wall of the altar. There were no pews. People stood or knelt for the service, which was in Latin and sung by the priest and choir like Gregorian chants. Most of what’s in here is original construction, although the roof was rebuilt by the Park Service. Their charter is to preserve the ruins, not restore them.

On a fairly regular basis, we stumble into things and places that we’ve never heard of and come away saying “wow!” This is one of those places. We came here on a Saturday road trip looking for a geocache and ended up spending half the afternoon. The Tumacácori National Historic Park is located just off I-19 about 20 miles north of Nogales, AZ. You can also visit the nearby Tubac Presidio State Historical Park or do some hiking on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. We’ll be doing both and will let you know what we find.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha