While making new explorations in the Rim country, one is often taken by surprise to find another hidden pocket of beauty. I remember gasping with awe the first time I stood on the mesa overlooking the junction of Pine Creek with the East Verde River, about 10 miles west of Payson.
An alluvial plane showed the telltale dikes of once-irrigated fields, and the mountains closed in on all sides to hold this beautiful, well-watered place in its embrace.
On this very plane a bloody battle took place in 1875. U.S. soldiers were pressing a forced march of Tonto Apache and Yavapai Indians from their reservation in the Verde Valley to their new location in San Carlos.
It was February and bitter cold as snow made the way especially difficult. Babies were dying, every one was hungry, old people fell by the way, and some of the Indians escaped to the uplands.
In the midst of this tension an argument arose between the two tribes over who should possess a deer that had been shot. A riot erupted as Yavapai and Apache attacked one another. The soldiers fired their rifles and when it was over many lay dead across this open field. When the first White settlers arrived over the next three years they found the bones of the victims still scattered over the area.
In July of 1876 the presiding elders of the Mormon church in Joseph City, Ariz., sent a contingent of men to scout the region between the Mogollon Rim and the Salt River for a possible Mormon settlement. They were John Bushman, Pleasant Bradford, William C. Allen and Peter Hansen.
Considering the inaccessibility to the country and the continuing threat from renegade Indians, they reported in the negative.
However, the Tonto Basin with its superior grazing sounded too good to ignore, so the next year, 1877, Erastus Snow called a group of the saints from St. George, Utah, to make another reconnaissance. They were John Willis, Thomas Clark, Alfred J. Randall, Woodward Freeman, Revilo (Vi), and Wyllys (Wid) Fuller.
They came upon the place Davy Gowan had settled, called Gisela today, and marked it as a good spot for a settlement. Then following up Rye Creek to the northwest and crossing a low divide they came upon the open meadows occupied later by the Doll Baby Ranch, and just beyond that was the junction of Pine Creek with the East Verde. This whole area was lush with grass and plentiful water. It was also far to the west of the San Carlos reservation and the occasional outbreak of raiding Indians.
A prospector named Jim Samuels was claiming squatter's rights in this area, and the Mormons bought his claim for $75, dividing the land among them. He told them the name of the surrounding mountains was Mazatzal. They decided their projected settlement would be named Mazatzal City. They returned and gave a very positive report to the church authorities.
The following year settlement began. In March of 1878 John Willis returned with his family and a herd of cattle, followed closely by the Woodward Freeman and Rial Allen families. That summer Vi Fuller brought his family to Pine, and then moved down the creek to the growing settlement on the East Verde. Wid Fuller did not return with his brother because his wife had recently died.
By the end of the year the families of Alfred J. Randall, Cecil Allen and Marion Allen had joined the settlers. Together they formed the first village or close knit community in the Rim country, though of course there had been scattered settlers for several years.
However, by the spring of 1879 these Mormon settlers had begun to move north along Pine Creek to the settlement of Pine. Perhaps their secluded place along the rivers was too hot, it certainly was isolated, and other squatters upstream were claiming water rights for Pine Creek.
Most of all, Mazatzal City turned out to be on a major trail of the Apache Indians. There were still some Apache bands roaming freely in the uplands, which had never been registered on any reservation. Every rumble of rebellion from Fort Apache and San Carlos sent fear into the settlers, who imagined a horrible fate for their families in dawn raids.
Rial Allen and Al Fuller moved their families to Pine in 1879, and were soon joined by other members of the extended clan. The census of June 1880 recorded 38 people in Pine, but that summer and throughout 1881 the Mormon population in Pine began to increase rapidly. Most of the pioneer names associated with that village arrived in those years.
Several families remained at Mazatzal City t0 organize the East Verde Branch of the Mormon church, though it never developed enough to send a report to the church fathers. There were still at least six families at Mazatzal City when the murderous Apache outbreaks of 1881 and 1882 occurred that left ranchers dead and buildings burned along the East Verde.
This was too close for comfort, and most of the remaining Mormon settlers abandoned their prosperous fields to join the saints at Pine. However, some must have stayed, because historian James H. McClintock made note of the settlement. He wrote in 1921, "The author, in September 1889, found a very prosperous little Mormon settlement on the East Verde, raising alfalfa, fruit and livestock. It was called Mazatzal City and lay within a few miles of the Natural Bridge, which is on the lower reaches of Pine Creek before that stream joins the East Verde."
After the Apache threat had been quelled the Tonto Basin became a prime target for cattle ranchers from Texas and California. During the next 30 years the area of Mazatzal City was in constant use by ranchers including the Taylors, Lazears, Belluzzis, and Pyeatts. When the Mazatzal Wilderness was set aside, the NB ranch at Pine Creek was abandoned and the LF Ranch further down the East Verde remained in private hands.
Today the owners have special permission to enter the wilderness area with motorized vehicles to access their ranch. When you hike to old Mazatzal City, be careful of the open, rock lined cisterns which still dot the site, but enjoy one of the Rim country's most beautiful hideaways.