Manuela Sánchez Sotelo
María Sotelo Miller
Before Arizona’s statehood, pioneer Manuela Sánchez Sotelo and her daughter María Sotelo Miller became important players in the development of the area we now know as Tempe. In the late 1800s, the unforgiving terrain challenged farming skills, required homesteading talents and presented dangers from American Indian conflicts. Both women helped ease the settlers’ plight with a helping hand, astute business advice and advocacy for education and other fundamentals of civilization.
Manuela Sánchez was born in 1820 in the town of Tubac, 45 miles south of Tucson. She was well-schooled in the art of survival due to droughts and the volatile political climate of the area along the Santa Cruz River. By 1846, she had married Tiburcio Sotelo, whose father, Ignacio, served as the Spanish Commander of the Tubac presidio around 1814.
Manuela and Tiburcio settled in southern Arizona and had three sons and eight daughters. In 1870, Tiburcio and his eldest sons José and Feliciano traveled to Tempe to work on the Mexican Ditch, also known as the San Francisco Canal, and on the construction of the first irrigation ditch on the south side of the Salt River. Tiburcio bought a small share in the Tempe Irrigation Canal Co. and purchased 160 acres on the southeast corner of what are now Rural Road and University Drive.
Tiburcio died of an illness in 1871. That same year his son, José, 23, drowned in the Salt River and Feliciano, 21, was killed by Apache Indians while carrying mail for the Southern Overland Express.
With her husband and two eldest sons dead, Manuela had little choice but to challenge established gender roles. She assumed responsibility for the family’s land and investments and moved to Tempe with the rest of her kids, a 5-year-old son and eight daughters, ranging in ages from 5 to 20.
Manuela planted wheat as a cash crop and sold or traded her produce with other farmers in the area, forging lifelong relationships. She filed a homestead claim on her property and over time, acquired additional acreage in Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek. She became one of the few women in the Valley to hold water rights to her property.
A savvy frontier woman, Manuela was known as an entrepreneurial rancher, farmer and homemaker; she shared her knowledge on how to grow and use medicinal herbs, how to administer first aid, how to cure meat and how to can and dry fruit.
María, the oldest of the Sotelo daughters, married Winchester Miller in 1873. Miller, a zanjero (water master) and superintendent for the Tempe Irrigation Canal Company, would later become the sheriff of Maricopa County.
The couple’s first child, Anna Manuela Sotelo Miller, was born in October 1873. Generally believed to be the first Anglo-Mexican child born in Tempe, she exemplifies the results of the mixed-culture marriages that brought prosperity and progress to Tempe, and gave the community its rich heritage of cultural diversity.
In 1885, Gov. F.A. Tritle signed a bill to establish the Territorial Normal School in Tempe; Manuela and the Millers where among other education advocates who contributed to raise funds and procure land for the effort.
María and Winchester raised 10 children; six of them attended the Arizona Territorial Normal School from 1896 to 1906. Daughters Anna Manuela Sotelo Miller and Clara María Sotelo Miller graduated with two-year teaching diplomas, becoming the first Mexican-American ASU alumni.
Throughout their lives, Manuela and María were recognized for their vital contributions to the economic, cultural and educational foundations of Tempe. In 1902, Manuela passed away from pneumonia at the age of 82. María’s love of learning and respect for education continued to help her forge new friendships in a bilingual, bicultural world. In 1937, she passed away from heart disease at the age of 84 in her home in Tempe.
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