By Rhema Sayers
“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!”
August 26, 1875
When the messenger burst into her home in Tucson, Jesusita Suarez de Carrillo and
her children were eating lunch on the huge mahogany table that she had brought from her
parents’ home in Mexico. With the man on the verge of collapse, Jesusita helped him to a chair and placed a glass of cool water to his lips. The man drank greedily and leaned back in the chair, hot, sweaty and covered in dust.
“Don Leopoldo” he gasped. “The Mexicans are going to hang him!”
Several of the children gasped and the youngest began to cry, but their mother was a
strong woman, a daughter of pioneers. She simply said “Tell me.” The messenger choked out the terrible report that he had ridden 203 miles in less than a day to deliver.
Jesusita’s husband, Leopoldo Carrillo had left for the little town of Caborca in Sonora,
Mexico two weeks earlier to buy cattle for his ranch near Sabino Canyon. A wealthy
successful man, an innovator, he was a man with extraordinary ideas. He had arrived in Tucson in 1859 at the age of thirty-three, the owner of a freighting company that ran goods from St. Louis through Tucson to El Paso to the east and Guaymas to the south. He and Jesusita had done very well. They now owned several homes, and two ranches as well as the freight company.
In addition to being wealthy he was a man of influence in both Arizona and in Mexico.
He was reputed to be sympathetic with the egalitarian rebels in Sonora who were trying to overthrow the military government of General Ignacio Pesquiera. When General Pesqueira learned of Leopoldo’s presence in Mexico, he ordered Carrillo’s immediate arrest and execution, assuming unjustly that the American had been supplying guns and ammunition to the rebels. Through the intervention of friends in Caborca, Leopoldo was able to obtain a delay in the execution. If he could arrange for a ransom of $15,000 to be brought to Caborca within four days, he would be freed. Carrillo immediately wrote a letter to his wife, imploring her to gather the money and deliver it to him as quickly as possible. Otherwise he would hang. This was the message Carrillo’s manservant had ridden so hard to deliver.
The stay of execution had started Wednesday morning. Now it was nearly 2 PM on
Thursday August 26, 1875 and Leopoldo was to hang on Sunday the 29th. More than twenty- eight of the ninety-six hours granted were already gone. Jesusita sat down amidst the ruins of their lunch and wrote out a list of the people in town that she could contact to ask for help in this emergency. Sending her older sons out to some prospects, she got in a buggy and set out to visit friends and assemble the ransom.
She went to the men Leopoldo had suggested in his letter – businessmen who promised
to raise as much money as they could on short notice. Next she went to friends. And there were a lot of friends, people that Leopoldo and Jesusita had helped over the years. In an era when Chinese immigrants were considered unwanted aliens competing for jobs, Leopoldo had rented land to Chinese people and helped them establish themselves in a new country. The Chinese population contributed to the ransom with as much as they could. The Carrillo servants and employees also gave what they could as well.
When she had called on everyone she could think of, Jesusita began organizing for the
trip, preparing food and packing essentials. Meanwhile a blanket was laid on the front step of the house. Two of her sons sat there while neighbors, friends and relatives brought coins or gold ornaments and laid them on the blanket. And every coin, every trinket was listed on a large sheet of paper with the contributor’s name to be paid back later. The pile grew larger throughout the afternoon and evening.
All through the long, anxious night Leopoldo’s children took turns guarding the
mounting pile of gold. Friends and neighbors sat up with the boys and encouraged Jesusita to go to bed. Protesting she went. She realized that she needed to rest before setting out the next day. But she tossed and turned, unable to banish the image of Leopoldo on the gallows from her mind. He was her first and only love and a cold stone of fear had lodged in her heart. She got up and paced in her room, quietly so that her children wouldn’t know and spent the night planning so that she could make the trip as quickly as possible.
But in the morning the golden pile wasn’t quite big enough. Jesusita had scavenged
every coin and gold article from her homes. Now she sold heirlooms to make up the difference. Finally in the early afternoon the total was enough. Forty-four hours to go.
The buckboard was packed. The ransom was placed in a wicker basket and covered
with clothes to hide the gold. Jesusita climbed into the back seat of the wagon and placed the wicker basket between her feet. Her maid, Lupita, joined her and Raul, the driver, flicked the reins. They were off with only forty-three hours left to get to Caborca.
From the Carrillo home they veered west to follow the Santa Cruz River, their guide
down to the Mexican border. The messenger had arranged for changes of horses at many points along the way. As Jesusita stared at the sunlight reflecting off the water, exhaustion claimed her. She slept until the driver stopped in Tubac to change horses. The two women got down to stretch their legs, but climbed back in as soon as new horses were hitched up. Now Jesusita was somewhat rested and she looked about her curiously as the wagon hurried south. The sun was nearing the horizon and the trees in the river valley cast long shadows. As they passed the ruins of Ft. Mason, a U.S. Army outpost that had been abandoned in 1866 because of persistent malaria, she reflected on how beautiful and verdant the valley was after the monsoon rains. She had not been this far south since she had married Leopoldo and moved to Tucson from Mexico.
Remembering, she smiled. Her wealthy Mexican parents had not found Leopoldo
to be a satisfactory suitor for their daughter. His background was not sufficiently upper class and having spent most of his time outdoors, he was quite dark. So they had forbade the marriage. But that hadn’t stopped Leopoldo. Oh, no. Her father had thought he could get rid of the unwanted suitor by demanding that the young man bring him her weight in gold. And Leopoldo had done exactly that. And now her smile persisted as she considered the early years, when they had moved to Tucson and established their business.She had helped him in those early days with the freighting company, but as the years passed and the children arrived, she had her hands full with running the household and raising seven children. But she missed the partnership she had valued when she worked side by side with her husband.
The scenery slowly changed as they passed through Nogales into Mexico. The land
became dryer and browner and greenery disappeared. Mountain ranges rose on either side as they traversed the wide valley of the Rio Magdalena. Meandering back and forth across the brown, sluggish river, the dusty road seemed to stretch out forever. The sun set, but they kept going. For a few hours Lupita walked with a lantern in front of the wagon just to gain a few more miles. Finally they stopped and pulled off the road and curled up under blankets. All three slept while coyotes yipped and other night predators prowled.. The moon when it finally rose before dawn was just a sliver and by that time they were moving again through the barren landscape.
Jesusita, Lupita and Raul talked to pass the time. They shared stories of their childhood
experiences in Mexico, very different experiences. And Jesusita made the other two laugh with her tales of Leopoldo’s exploits and her stories of their children.
They talked about courtship and Lupita told of the young man she was seeing. “He is
so handsome, Senora. So kind and gentle and handsome.”
Jesusita raised an eyebrow. “What kind of work does he do?” she asked.
“He is a vaquero for Don Juan Tellez at Box Ranch.” Jesusita smiled, relieved that at
least the suitor had a good position The Tellez Ranch was well built and maintained, although the Apaches still raided occasionally.
Raul talked of his family. His wife was the most beautiful woman in Tucson and his
three sons were all strong and handsome and clever. The horses kept silent except for snorts of discontent on the uphill stretches.
There were times when the road climbed steeply and all three had to get out of the
wagon and lead the horses. Several times as the horses hauled the cart over rocky ground,
Jesusita held on tightly, fearful of breaking an axle. Hot, sunbaked and exhausted, they arrived in Magdalena late Saturday afternoon. The Carrillos had friends there and as they drove into town, they were surrounded by well wishers with food, water and a new, lighter wagon. Lupita and Raul stayed behind for well deserved rest, while Jesusita and the ransom transferred into the new wagon with a fresh driver, Carlos. And they were off again. She had seventy-seven more miles to go and only seventeen more hours.
Worn down with exhaustion, Jesusita slumped back in the seat under a parasol and
tried to sleep. She didn’t think she could, but she woke when they changed horses in Santa Ana. As they continued their wild flight across the desert, Carlos pointed to the southwest where black thunderheads loomed on the horizon. Nervously they watched the storm approaching and soon the rain poured down, first pelting them with high winds and sand, then drenching them with rain. Fortunately it passed quickly, leaving them feeling almost refreshed. Sunset had come and gone and still they traveled. They did not stop throughout that night and changed horses in Altar Municipality as the sun of the day of the deadline rose behind them.
Their last change was in Pitiquito. Only seven more miles! Carlos pushed those fresh
horses for all they were worth. Jesusita held on tightly to the seat, barely daring to breathe as the buggy bounced and careened over the dirt road. Then up ahead through the dust, they could see Caborca. Jesusita’s pounding heart rose in her throat. Would they be in time? It was so close to the end of the ninety-six hour reprieve. She quashed that thought and prayed. And continued praying until they came to the jail and she looked up and saw Leopoldo, standing at the foot of the gallows. The Mexican police were taking him out to be hanged. The ransom had arrived in the nick of time.
Jesusita half fell from the buggy and stumbled into her husband’s arms. Holding his
face in her hands, she kissed him over and over. Tears streamed down both their faces,
Leopoldo in shock after waiting for so long, then having to face his death. Jesusita’s appearance was miraculous. Once the ransom was paid, Leopoldo was given three days to get out of Mexico. So after spending a day resting with their helpful friends in Caborca, the Carrillos started back home.
When they reached the border, Leopoldo fell on his knees and kissed the ground,
thanking God and his brave and wonderful wife that he was back in the United States.
Her incredible journey had been hard on Jesusita, but she seemed to recover.
Everything seemed back to normal for the family. Jesusita had another child in 1876 and then became pregnant again in 1879. This would be her ninth child. The baby was born healthy, but Jesusita died suddenly after the birth. Leopoldo was devastated. He had lost the love of his life. But even as he grieved, he realized that his children needed a mother. In 1880 he married Jesusita’s sister, Elvira, but he always carried his beloved Jesusita in his heart.
He died in 1890, after creating a public park for the people of Tucson in honor of
Jesusita. Called Carrillo Gardens, it had fruit trees, ponds, where the Carrillo children rowed people around. There were bath houses and a restaurant, a saloon and a dance hall, an ice cream parlor and even a circus and a zoo. There was a racetrack where monkeys raced ponies and on the weekends there were dances and music and occasionally hot air balloons. Eventually the springs that fed the ponds dried up and an elementary school was built on the ground. Carrillo Elementary School is named after him.
The Carrillo family has endured and flourished in Tucson. I want to thank Leopoldo
Carrillo and Walter Jacobs, great-grandsons of Leopoldo and Jesusita for their assistance in my research for this story. The facts are true and I have tried to portray Jesusita as she was – courageous, strong, inventive and above all, determined.
Rhema Sayers is a retired physician, trying out a new career. She lives in the desert with three dogs and a husband. She has had one short story published – “A Certain Lack of Interest” – in The Literary Hatchet. A nonfiction piece – “The Train Robbery at Pantano Station” – will be published in November in The Desert Leaf, a local Tucson magazine.