Posted with permission from Southern Arizona News-Examiner
Walter Vail. He and his partners were instrumental in getting the Empire Ranch in southeast Arizona started in the late 1870s

By Allison Bunting

2016 marked the 140th anniversary of the establishment of the Empire Ranch which began with the purchase of a 160 acre homestead north of present-day Sonoita by Walter Lennox Vail and Herbert R. Hislop. Letters written by both partners during the formative years of the Empire Ranch provide a fascinating view of the adventures and challenges they faced.

Walter Vail left his family home in Plainfield, New Jersey in mid-1875 to make his fortune in the American West. His first stop was Virginia City, Nevada where he worked as a time keeper for a mine, but he wanted to become a rancher. He visited Tucson in late 1875 with Mr. McCartney, who was interested in partnering with Vail, to explore the possibilities: "I just returned yesterday from a trip in the country. I went out with Mr. Fish to look at a ranch which belongs to Mr. F. and is about 50 miles south of Tucson, which brings it in the middle of a splendid grazing country which is covered with grass the whole season. Mr. Fish's title only covers 160 acres but as he has all that water in his section of the country there is very little danger of anyone settling near there..." McCartney did not like Arizona, so Walter returned to Virginia City "where I can make a living..."

Herbert Hislop

Herbert Hislop hailed from England. He had met Walter's uncle, Nathan Vail, in London and Nathan persuaded him to partner with Walter in a ranching venture in Arizona. Herbert arrived in New York on May 23, 1876 aboard the ship "The Queen." He wrote to his sister Amy that he went "...through the custom house satisfactorily, though they stopped my gun and rifle and made me swear a lot of stuff about my having used it, etc." After seeing the sights in the New York area he and Nathan Vail "...journeyed on together to San Francisco which took us exactly 5 days and 5 nights constant travelling, sleeping all the time on the Pullman sleeping cars. You cannot form any idea what size America is until you begin to run on the railway which takes 7 days and 7 nights from New York to San Francisco." On June 23, 1876 Vail and Hislop met and the partnership was formed. "Hislop seems like a very pleasant fellow, he is decidedly English... it won't take long to naturalize him I think." "I met Walter Vail my partner who is a very nice fellow and seems to be very sharp and quick, knowing what he is about..."

Back in Arizona William Wakefield transferred the title for his 160 acre homestead claim (NE part of Section 18 of Township 19S, Range 17E) on June 20, 1876 to his brother-in- law, E. N. Fish, a Tucson merchant and businessman, for a fee of $500. This was the same property Vail visited in 1875 that Fish claimed to own. Fish's granddaughter, Virginia Flaccus, provides an explanation in her oral history: "Grandfather, Edward Nye Fish, sent his brother-in- law, William Wakefield, out to homestead the Empire Ranch. Far be it from Grandpa to bother about that! Evidently Uncle Will did a lot of his footwork for him. Grandpa would put up the money, and then Uncle Will would go out and do it. And then after he had proven up on it, then Grandpa paid him off and he assumed ownership of the property."

The stage is set and the actors are in the wings. Read all about Walter and Herbert's trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and the first leg of their trip to Tucson next month.


Alison Bunting, volunteer archivist and historian for the Empire Ranch Foundation (ERF), holds a Masters in Library Science from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She retired from a 32 year career at UCLA in 2002, having served as the Director of the UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library and as interim University Librarian. She was member of the ERF Board of Directors (2006-2009) and ERF President (2007-2009). She established and coordinates the ERF docent program, served as project director for the Arizona Humanities Council grant to ERF to create a Cowboy Life Exhibit now on display in the Empire Ranch House, is the ERF webmaster, and coordinated the republication of Edward L. Vail's Diary of a Desert Trail: 1890 Cattle Drive from Arizona to California, 2016.