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  • Nabor served as County’s first Mexican-American sheriff

    The Way We Were logo
    By Tom Prezelski

    We in Pima County proudly embrace our Mexican-American heritage, though this comes with an inconsistency. Since the very beginning, Mexican-Americans have been prominent in local politics, but have largely been underrepresented in elected office. As an example, of the 34 individuals who have served as sheriff since Pima County was organized in 1865, only one, a man named Nabor Pacheco, who was first elected in 1904, has been of Mexican descent. He was also the first, and, thus far the only sheriff who was a native of Pima County.

    Pacheco was born in Tucson in 1863. Though his parents were immigrants from Sonora, his extended family was prominent and well-established locally, with roots going back to the 1790s. His father, Refugio, was a successful farmer who served a term on the Board of Supervisors from 1871 until his death in 1873.

    Once old enough to inherit the farm, Nabor Pacheco continued the success of the family business and expanded into real-estate. He soon became prominent in community affairs as a volunteer firefighter and a founder of the Alianza Hispano-Americana, an organization that advocated for the interests of the Mexican-American community. He was active in the Republican Party and served on a bipartisan committee that advocated for the coinage of silver, a contentious issue which was more popular among Democrats.

    In 1896, the City Council appointed Pacheco as an officer in Tucson’s small police force, where he quickly gained a reputation as “capable and efficient.” In 1900, he secured the Republican nomination for one of Pima County’s two constables and was elected to two two-year terms. As constable, he led the manhunt for an errant telegraph operator who was implicated in the grisly 1903 train wreck at Esmond Station.
    Nabor Pacheco and others
    Pacheco was overwhelmingly nominated for Sheriff over an unknown opponent at the Pima County Republican convention in October 1904. A month later, he was narrowly elected largely on the strength of the Mexican-American vote in Tucson.

    As sheriff, Pacheco’s most reliable deputy was “Jack,” a dog who began to follow him around during his days as a policeman. Jack “jumped in and helped” during arrests and “had become so accustomed to the court house that he acted as if the building was his.”

    Though times were changing, Pacheco’s job still called on him to perform his duties like the hard-riding, gun-slinging sheriffs of yore. He personally pursued a robbery suspect to El Paso, and traveled to Globe to nab a bank president who was wanted for fraud. However, he did take steps to modernize the office.

    Though he did much of his work on horseback, he seems to have been the first sheriff to regularly use an automobile. The remote mining camp at Silver Bell had recently boomed, and Pacheco posted a sturdy deputy with a reputation as a marksman there. Despite this, the camp was so rough that Pacheco had to travel there himself on occasion to help maintain the peace, particularly on paydays, or to take miscreants back to Tucson. Pacheco made the trip by car, along a new road which was described as the best road in Pima County. The trip was reported to take about three hours.

    One duty that Pacheco found particularly distasteful was presiding over executions. During his service as sheriff, he held two public hangings, both within a month of each other in 1908, prompting him to comment:

    “It seems to me that Arizona is behind the states of the east in this respect. There they take the men to the state penitentiary and the thing is done quietly by the warden and his assistants. There is none of this disgusting and unavoidable lack of privacy which turns a hanging into a morbid holiday and kills a convict while hundreds of men and boys stare and gape at him.”

    Pacheco lobbied to remove this responsibility from “inexperienced” county officials and to have executions performed in private at the territorial prison. Thanks to his efforts, Pima County had seen its last public hanging.

    The sheriff had been easily reelected in 1906, earning the support of even the stridently Democratic Arizona Daily Star. However, in 1908, his once solid support in the Mexican-American community was starting to crack thanks to efforts by newly resurgent Democrats. Pacheco did not seek the nomination that year.

    Upon stepping down as sheriff, Pacheco was appointed Tucson’s city marshal and chief of police (the terms were interchangeable). Pacheco personally conducted a series of raids against opium, gambling and prostitution as a part of a larger effort to show federal officials that Arizona was sufficiently civilized for statehood. Though praised for his energy, Pacheco quickly became a target of controversy. First, his son was implicated in the murder of a prostitute. Then, he found himself in a strange feud with the mayor. Nonetheless, his reputation remained intact and he retained the support of the Council. However, later that year, he lost his post after Democrats swept the city elections. He returned to his life as a gentleman farmer, managing land holdings as far away as Arivaca.

    Still active in politics and business, Pacheco died unexpectedly at his home in Tucson in 1920. The fate of Jack is unrecorded.

    Photo: Nabor Pacheco (left), Sheriff John Nelson, Undersheriff Joseph Hopley, Deputy Sheriff Charles Huss and Jack the Dog.

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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