Tonto Apaches' Rim Country History


Long before anyone thought to start recording the history of the Rim country, the ancestral territory of the Tonto Apaches ranged from the Mogollon Rim to the Tonto Basin area.

In the late 1860s, the government tried to exterminate the Western Apaches, including the Tonto Apaches, by rounding them up like cattle and shipping them to the San Carlos Reservation. But many of their descendants, lonesome for their homeland, returned to the area only to find that their land had been taken over by white settlers.

Until the early 1970s, the Tonto Apaches were considered "squatters" on their own land a designation forever altered by the three men and one woman who became the "founding fathers" of the Tonto Apache Tribe and reservation.

Wally Davis, the last surviving founding father, was 12 years old when he left his family to work in a Christopher Creek sawmill. In 1950, though, he suddenly found himself unemployed when the sawmill shut down due to consistently poor weather.

Davis traveled further west to Payson, where he found a new sawmill job, as well as a makeshift home a cardboard shack, actually on top of Indian Hill, in the vicinity of Rim View and McLane, along with about five other Native American families.

"But one day, some people came and told us to move because they were going to sell the land," Davis said in an interview last year. "None of us knew what to do. We didn't have any place to go."

A Rim country resident named Alan Curtis came to the families' rescue.

"He went to the Forest Service to see if he could get us squatter's rights to move to where the rodeo ground is now," Davis said. "The Forest Service said OK, so we moved there and built some new cardboard shacks to live in.

"We stayed there I don't know how many years ... We eventually got road gravel, and electricity came in. But we never had running water. We had to haul water in five-gallon cans from the sawmill (where Sawmill Crossing now sits). We had no real 'bathroom.' It was really bad."

The families' lives began to change for the better in 1962, when they were visited by a local preacher, Jesse Orrin "J.O." Martin.

"He told us that the Lord sent him to us," Davis said. "He started working with us. We all started going to church together. We told J.O. that because we didn't have any land of our own, we had been chased here and there. So he and Nan Pyle, who owned an art gallery right across from the Presbyterian Church, helped us to get started in getting some land, and told us we needed to form a tribe."

"We didn't know that a tribe had to have a chairman and a council," Davis' wife, Polly. said. "The only thing we knew was to respect the elders.

With the help of late Valley attorney Joe Sparks and other locals, the families formed both a tribe and a council, for which "Chief" Melton Campbell (who as a child was given the nickname "Chief" by his white playmates) was chosen as chairman; Davis as vice chairman; his half-brother Justin Johnson as a council member; and Vinnie Campbell, Chief Campbell's sister, as secretary.

Using J.O. Martin's tiny, one-light-bulb church located where the Payson Event Center now stands as their council chambers, the foursome began traveling to Phoenix twice a week to meet with attorney Sparks about obtaining grant money and to learn how they should operate as a council.

What the new tribe needed most, the three founding fathers and their secretary knew, was its own land. So they twice traveled again at their own expense to Washington, D.C.

"The first time the government said 'no.' A flat 'no.' They didn't want to give Indians any more land for reservations," Davis said. "But the second time, we got the land. Right where we are now, where the old dump used to be."

The Tonto Apache tribe was federally recognized in October, 1972. President Richard Nixon signed into law an act of Congress giving the tribe consisting of 42 members the option to choose 85 acres of forest land, which was finally selected and set aside in May, 1974.

"Things had really changed for us," Polly said. "We had a toilet and running water in the house. We had a real floor instead of just dirt. We had chairs and tables, so we could sit with our friends and have pie and coffee."

The change that was hardest to get used to, Polly said, was actually being the owners of a real home, on land from which they could not be removed by anyone.

"I couldn't believe it at first. I couldn't believe it was ours. I kept thinking that somebody was going to come around and tell us we needed to go someplace else. But it was a good feeling to throw away the milk can we'd used to haul wood. For a long time, we still cooked outdoors. We didn't know how to use the (kitchen appliances). But we really enjoyed the house once we realized it was really ours."

"It felt good, it really felt good," her husband agreed. "When I first came (to Payson), I didn't know any of these people. But they took me in like I was one of them. They were the nicest people I ever met."

Many of those people are now gone. Vinnie Campbell died in 1976. Justin Johnson died in 1989. "Chief" Melton Campbell died in 1992.

Wally Davis Sr. still lives on the Tonto Apache reservation.

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