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From the Earps to Billy the Kid, the Absolutely Arizona history of the Sierra Bonita Ranch

Jesse Hooker Davis is a sixth-generation rancher operating one of the nation's oldest cattle ranches
Posted: 2:38 PM, Jun 17, 2024
Updated: 2024-06-17 20:10:56-04

BONITA, Ariz. (KGUN) — Sierra Bonita Ranch is one of the oldest cattle ranches in the country. It has been owned and operated by the same family in Southeast Arizona for more than 150 years.

"I'm just kind of taking my turn at the wheel," said Jesse Hooker Davis.

He is taking his turn as owner of the massive Sierra Bonita Ranch. It certainly is beautiful as the name suggests. His family has been on this land for six generations.

Sierra Bonita Ranch

"We've been told we're the oldest ranch, in the same family, on the same location," Davis said. "I'm very proud of it."

The 60,000-acre ranch is located in Sulpher Springs Valley, northwest of Willcox, just into Graham County. The views are stunning.

"Got mountains on both sides," explained Davis. "I think he chose wisely"

The "he" is Jesse's great-great-great grandfather, Henry Hooker.

Henry Hooker

The story passed down to Jesse from his grandmother is that Henry Hooker was moving cattle through the area when the herd ended up in a cottonwood grove.

"That's an indicator of groundwater, and so when you have groundwater that prevalent that's a good place to hang out," explained Davis.

Henry Hooker -- also known as "The Colonel" -- did hang out. In 1872, he established Sierra Bonita Ranch.

The Colonel became the largest supplier of beef to military units stationed in the Arizona Territory.

Henry Hooker on his Sierra Bonita Ranch

His property grew to nearly 250,000 acres across Graham and Cochise counties, covering 800 square miles, with nearly 30,000 head of cattle.

While Henry Hooker succeeded as a rancher, he dressed more like a gentleman from New England -- his birthplace.

"Very hospitable, would always invite people to the dinner table," said Davis. "But you must wear a coat. If you didn't have one, he'd provide you with one."

Henry Hooker and Sierra Bonita Ranch have a connection to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Played by Charlton Heston in the 1993 movie "Tombstone," Henry Hooker let the Earps and Doc Holliday stay at the ranch in the spring of 1882.

"Yeah, they were friendly and they stayed here at the house," Davis said. "So that was accurate in that movie."

The history of the Sierra Bonita Ranch also includes a notorious outlaw.

"Billy the Kid worked here allegedly for almost a whole day," said Davis.

Historical accounts say Billy the Kid was being bullied by blacksmith Francis P. "Windy" Cahill in the nearby village of Bonita.

Billy the Kid shot and killed Cahill on August 18, 1877 -- then escaped on a stolen horse back to New Mexico.

"He wasn't exactly the employable type I don't think," Davis said.

Francis "Windy" Cahill grave in Bonita, Ariz.

It was the first of nearly two dozen men Billy the Kid allegedly killed. Cahill's grave is still in the Bonita Cemetery.

"Everything you're looking at building-wise right here is all original," explained Davis.

Today, the Sierra Bonita is a living history ranch. You'll find the original wood and adobe barn and the original adobe home that Jesse and his long-time girlfriend now call home.

Original barn on Sierra Bonita Ranch

The Sierra Bonita has been designated a National Historic Landmark since 1966, and still uses Colonel Hooker's brand.

Sierra Bonita Ranch established 1872

"The brand is called the Crooked H," said Davis. "Kind of curved sides and tilted to the left. It stands for my middle name, Hooker."

Jesse still raises Henry Hooker’s original Hereford cattle.

"You've got to be careful when you developed a bloodline that's been here for over 100 years," Davis said.

Cattle on Sierra Bonita Ranch

He is a long way from his football playing days at Cornell University.

Davis is now a cow-calf producer, selling the offspring at a year old. He aims for about a thousand head of cattle on his ranch.

"I'm very proud of these."

While he works to protect the blood line, Davis is also working to protect his land.

He has been awarded a pair of conservation rancher awards.

Jesse Hooker Davis recognized as a Conservation Rancher

"You have to make a concerted effort that involves the care-taking of the land and wildlife," Davis explained.

Proof that he's doing more than just taking his turn at the wheel.

"Want to hand it off in better shape than I received it," said Davis.

While the Sierra Bonita Ranch is a National Historic Landmark, it is a working ranch and closed to the public.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.