The Rim Country's First Settlers



As another Columbus Day is celebrated in America, our thoughts turn to the Native Americans who met the first European explorers on this continent. Just south of the town of Payson, hidden on the backside of a ridge, is the Tonto Apache Reservation. It was formally established by an act of Congress in 1972, one of the last Indian reservations to be created in America. Last Friday, Oct. 6, the Tribe marked 28 years on this reservation where its modern houses are already outgrown.

When they came to Arizona's Rim Country 500 years ago, the ancestors of today's Tonto Apaches filled a population void. The previous occupants had abandoned the area over one hundred years earlier. The remnant of "ancient ones" living in the pueblos of the Four Corners region called these Athapaskan speaking invaders apachu, meaning "the enemy." Tonto Apaches were the western-most of the Western Apaches, and were dubbed by other Apache tribes as "foolish" or "crazy" because of their different dialect. The Spanish Conquistadors picked up on this, giving them the Spanish equivalent, or Tonto.

That different dialect had resulted from their intermingling, and often inter-marrying, with the Yuman speaking Yavapai people who had entered the area from the west shortly before the Apaches came in from the east. The two groups had identical hunting and gathering lifestyles, so living close to one another was acceptable. When the Euro-American invasion began in 1864, the two native groups were driven together even more closely for mutual defense. For hundreds of years the isolation provided by these mountains enabled the Tontos to remain unmolested. What we call the Rim country thus became one of the last areas in the Southwest, if not all America, to be settled by European civilization.

When the white invaders did come, they thought it would be an easy matter to settle here. The first citizen army that tried to wrest the land from the Tonto Apaches was led by Indian fighter King S. Woolsey. His ranch in the area of today's Dewey became the staging ground of four expeditions into Apacheria, one of which went all the way to the White Mountains.

He reported to the Territorial governor, "We have followed the trail of the Apache to his home in the mountains, we have learned where it is located. We have dispelled the idea of vast numbers that has ever been attached to that tribe. A few hundred poor, miserable wretches compose the formidable foe so much dreaded by many. They will be brought to terms speedily, or exterminated, I cannot doubt, when once the government shall know how small is the enemy by which so much annoyance has been caused."

A bloody, 20-year war was launched by both civilian settlers and the military, in which genocide was the stated goal not only of the Territorial settlers but of its legislature and its governor. By 1871 the Apaches had been so decimated and their food supplies so eliminated, that they began to surrender family by family and allow themselves to be incarcerated on reservations like prisoners. These reservations were set aside near Territorial army posts, and any Indian found outside was considered hostile and subject to be killed. Some of the ancestors of Payson's Tonto tribe never registered on any reservation, but continued to hide out in the canyons and forests living off the land. They were often helped by their extended families who lived on the reservations.

Living conditions, and the broken promises of the Whites to provide for the families, forced bands of Apaches to break away for raids on government cattle herds, ranchers and pack trains.

By the decade of the 1890s, the military grip on the reservations began to relax, and the Apaches were given permission to return to their native lands.

Tontos began coming back to the Rim country, where they found that white settlers now occupied their land. So they set up camps near their various birthplaces and continued raising their families. They still hunted and gathered the fruit of the land, but most of their living now had to be derived from labor performed for the Whites. When developers forcibly moved some families off Indian Hill, where they had lived for half a century, the tribe began to assemble itself, with the permission of the Forest Service, where today's rodeo ground and community center have been established. With the help of sympathetic Payson residents, a Lutheran pastor who had established a church among them, and several congressmen, the tribe was granted a reservation of less than 90 acres in 1972, one year before Payson itself became incorporated.

As one makes the last ascent into the piedmont of the Sierra Ancha, coming north, a dazzling sight takes the visitor's eyes away from the panorama of the Mogollon Rim.

A stoplight appears on the brow of the hill, lights glitter to the right of the highway and traffic increases. A large and beautiful building of native stone is surrounded by a huge parking lot, with every place taken.

The entrance to the building is capped by the colorful stylized feathers of the headdress of a Gaan, the Mountain Spirit of the Apache.

This is the casino of the Tonto Apache tribe.

The place is packed with White-eyes who have come to pay for the land they took by force.

Payson's Tonto Apaches are the people who would not be conquered.

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