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Legend of pioneer Pete Kitchen a classic of 1850s

Citizen Staff Writer



“Pete” Kitchen was a southern Arizona legend in his own time for a number of reasons – perhaps not the least of which was his penchant for buying a round of drinks for whoever happened to be in his vicinity.

By all accounts, the pioneer rancher, farmer and American Indian fighter was generous to a fault, and, ultimately, to his own detriment. He was also a crack rifle shot and a fearless and a hard-headed individual who was not easily deterred from his course.

According to Dan Thrapp’s Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, Kitchen was born in Covington, Ky., in 1819, but soon thereafter his parents moved to Tennessee. In 1846, during the Mexican War, he became a teamster with Zachary Taylor’s army in south Texas, ending that conflict promoted to wagonmaster.

Three years later, he served the Mounted Rifles as they trekked from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Vancouver in Oregon Territory. With many others, he followed the lure of gold to California with other “forty-niners,” and, failing to find riches, moved on to Arizona in 1854.

Kitchen established a small ranch in Santa Cruz County, about 25 miles south of Tucson, and was contracted to supply beef to Army posts at Calabazas and Fort Buchanan (near Sonoita).

Apache raiding was on the rise, and escalated even more so when troops were withdrawn from Arizona for Civil War duty in the East – something the Apaches interpreted as a retreat. Many settlers abandoned their property and sought sanctuary in Tucson, but Kitchen held out until his ranch was burned by Apaches in 1861.

He and his common-law wife, Rosa, moved to Tucson briefly, then on to Magdalena for the duration of the war, operating a store there. They returned to southern Arizona in 1868, this time determined not to be taken by surprise by Apaches.

Settling midway between Calabazas and the Mexican border, Kitchen built a fortresslike house with adobe walls 2 feet thick and a flat roof surrounded by a 4-foot-tall parapet, with an armed guard posted 24 hours a day.

Another guard was posted with the stock, and workers on the farm, many of them friendly Opata tribal members, carried rifles, cocked and loaded, hung from their plow handles.

Despite such precautions, however, raids continued, one of which ended with Kitchen’s 12-year-old son being killed and scalped. Several of his workers were killed or wounded over the years.

Casualties were such that a cemetery area was established near the house, with both “good guys” and “bad guys” – including Apaches and bandits – given a Christian burial, according to accounts of the era.

Kitchen’s hogs and other livestock were described in various newspaper accounts as “looking like pincusions, they were so full of Apache arrows.”

The rancher continued to produce bacon, ham, lard, beef, vegetables and fruit in the fertile Santa Cruz River valley bottomland, in spite of it all, and was a major supplier of provisions for the beleaguered populace of Tucson. It was common to see signs proclaiming “Pete Kitchen hams” in stores here.

His products were hauled by mule-drawn wagons as far as Yuma and Silver City, N.M.

Kitchen’s Potrero Ranch, also known as Las Lagunas, was considered the only sanctuary from Apaches between Tucson and Magdalena. His door and table were open to all comers, and his hospitality was legendary.

Many stories were told about Kitchen, probably apocryphal, including one claiming he shot at – and hit – a retreating Apache raider at 500 yards who thought he was out of range and stopped to “moon” the rancher.

Another has it that Kitchen was the intended victim of a holdup, but managed to draw his weapon and get the drop on the bandit. Kitchen allegedly insisted the bandit hand over his money, instead, and when it turned out the two had less than $3 between them, Kitchen suggested they pool their money and “go have a drink.”

Yet another was one recounted often by Kitchen himself, in which he had pursued bandits who had stolen some of his horses into Sonora. He is alleged to have killed one, lost one and captured a third.

Needing rest as he returned with his captive, whose hands were bound behind him, Kitchen looped a noose around the man’s neck, tossed the rope over a tree limb and secured it to the tree trunk.

While Kitchen slept, he would recall with a grin, the horse “wandered off,” leaving the bandit dangling at the end of the rope.

The arrival of the railroad ended Kitchen’s monopoly on the ham and produce market, and his fortunes declined.

He sold the ranch in 1883 (various accounts in succeeding years list the sale price as $5,000 or $33,000 or $60,000) and moved with Rosa to Tucson, where they lived at 321 S. Main Ave., an area now occupied by elements of the Tucson Convention Center.

Whatever the amount, the overly generous Kitchen found the easy access to Tucson’s gambling emporia and “watering holes” irresistible, and he and friends eager to help him soon exhausted his grubstake. Bad mining investments hastened the depletion.

When he died at age 77 on Aug. 5, 1895, the Arizona Pioneers Historical Society put up the $40 for his funeral.

His ranch served as a museum for several years after World War II, later evolving as a restaurant, Molina’s P.K. Outpost. Today it is a restaurant and bar called, simply, Soto’s Outpost.

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