Estévan Ochoa was born in Chihuahua, Mexico on March 17, 1831. His family had several businesses during his childhood and early teen years. Among the businesses was a freight hauling business that operated along the Santa Fe Trail. The Santa Fe Trail was a key transportation route between Santa Fe and Independence, Missouri. Santa Fe was the capital of the Mexican territory of Santa Fe de Nuevo México until 1846.
Ochoa went along on his family’s wagon trains from Chihuahua to points as far away as Independence. During those trips along the trail he became fluent in English and learned the skills of a merchant as well as potential freight opportunities throughout the region.
Moving to the United States and becoming a successful businessman and politician
Following the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846 – February 2, 1848), Ochoa decided to move to the United States. At 17, he opened his first store in Mesilla, New Mexico Territory. Then he opened a second store in Las Cruces. Not long after, he and Pinckney R. Tully founded the freighting and mercantile firm of Tully & Ochoa in Mesilla.
In February 1858, the New Mexico territorial legislature adopted a resolution to create the Arizona Territory. More than two years went by. In April 1860, the territorial legislature was impatient because Congress had not yet acted on the resolution.
The territory called a convention and 31 delegates met in Tucson. Ochoa was one of the delegates, and in July 1860 the convention drafted a constitution for a “Territory of Arizona” to be created from the New Mexico Territory. However, the Tucson convention proceedings were never ratified by Congress and the Provisional Territory was not considered a legal entity.
Meanwhile, Tully & Ochoa saw a business opportunity; the company organized a large supply train of wagons to deliver supplies to Tucson, which was also in the New Mexico Territory then.
The supply train’s merchandise was sold out in just a few hours. Based on that success, Tully and Ochoa decided to open stores in Tucson and Tubac. In addition, Ochoa decided to move to Tucson in 1860.
The 1860s and 1870s
When the American Civil War broke out, Ochoa chose to support the Union cause. What had been proposed as the Arizona Territory was claimed by the Confederate States of America. In 1861 a Confederate column reached Tucson. Its commanding officer sent for Ochoa and demanded he swear a loyalty oath to the Confederacy. Ochoa refused, stating that he “owed all he had in the world to the Government of the United States, and it would be impossible for him to take an oath of fidelity to any hostile power or party.”
Ochoa also told the officer he was willing to leave Tucson rather than signing the oath. Ochoa was allowed to select a horse and pack his saddlebags. He was given a rifle and was escorted out of town. Ochoa survived a journey of 250 miles through Apache territory to Union forces on the Rio Grande River.
After Union forces regained control of Tucson, Ochoa returned. Prosperity also returned; in addition to its stores, Tully & Ochoa were awarded lucrative government contracts supplying Indian reservations and military outposts. The company’s freight hauling operations developed a system of relay stations. The Tully & Ochoa brand was widely recognized because the company brought goods to Arizona and New Mexico from as far away as Kansas City.
However, working on the company’s wagon trains was dangerous. The trains were armed because of frequent attacks by Apaches. But Tully & Ochoa persevered and the company became a key link between Tucson and the rest of the country during the 1860s and 1870s. In an attempt to buy peace, Ochoa “instructed his wagon masters to give limited amounts of supplies to hostile Indians in an effort to placate them.” This tactic limited the company’s losses and the firm gained a reputation for “getting through.”
Tully & Ochoa also operated a stagecoach line connecting Tucson to Yuma and Santa Fe and the company was an agent of Wells Fargo. Ochoa’s other business interests included mining operations and an experiment manufacturing woolen goods in Tucson in the 1870s.
Ochoa married Altagracia Salazar at the age of 46. The couple had a son (Estevan II) and an adopted daughter, Juana.
On February 24, 1863 the Arizona Territory was created by the U.S. Congress, and Ochoa had become one of Tucson’s leading citizens. He and his friend, Governor Anson P.K. Safford were champions of public education. During the 5th and 6th sessions of the Arizona Territorial Legislature, Ochoa represented Pima County.
During the 6th session Ochoa introduced legislation that created Arizona’s first public school system. He followed this by donating the land for Tucson’s first public school building. When tax revenues were not enough, Ochoa paid to complete the school’s construction.
Ochoa was elected Mayor of Tucson in 1875. In addition, he served as President of Tucson’s school board. His final public service came with his election to the 9th Arizona Territorial Legislature.
In 1880, railroads began to service Arizona. This led Tully & Ochoa’s investment in wagons and livestock to become virtually worthless. Many other companies that used wagons and livestock to move goods met the same fate. Tully & Ochoa lost over $200,000 (more than $5 million today), and it collapsed shortly thereafter.
Ochoa died in Las Cruces on October 27, 1888 at the age of 57. He was buried in Las Cruces; however, his family moved his remains to Tucson in 1940 and they were buried beside his wife. Ochoa Street in downtown Tucson is named after him, as is Tucson’s Ochoa Elementary School.