As the Indian War in the Rim country developed, the Army planned access to the Tonto Apache heartland by building a road over the Mazatzal Mountains from Fort McDowell.
The ambitious undertaking began in October of 1867. The infantry cleared the trail, essentially following Sycamore Creek north and establishing base camps as they went. The cavalry units worked out of these camps to protect the road workers and to send detachments on raids against Apache and Yavapai villages.
On Feb. 2, 1868, the Army established their third camp in a place they named Sunflower Valley, 32 miles from McDowell.
Each military post was named to honor a fallen soldier, and this one in Sunflower was called Camp O'Connell. It honored Major John D. O'Connell of the 17th Infantry who had died the previous September in Texas from yellow fever.
A Yavapai band under chief Ash-cav-o-til and a Tonto apache band under chief Del-che-ae accepted the commander's invitation to camp near the outpost. He promised that if they would be peaceful they would receive protection and rations.
The Indians became confused that the White commanders changed so often, being transferred in and out. Policy changes usually accompanied these changes of command. The Indians would no sooner become familiar with the personality of one than a stranger replaced him.
In early April the Indians were confronted with Major Andrew Alexander, who had taken command of the Verde Military Subdistrict as well as Camp McDowell. His visit to Camp O'Connell was not simply social. He and his detachment were in pursuit of alleged Apache raiders who had killed two herdsmen near Picacho Peak and driven 700 head of cattle in the direction of Tonto territory. He had preceded his cavalry unit to engage in talks with the Indians. Alexander's conference had to go through a double translation, since the Apache-speaking translator only spoke Spanish. Then someone else had to take it from Spanish to English. By the time that process was reversed, misunderstandings readily entered the conversation. Alexander said he wanted the Indians to remain camped at Sunflower Valley until he returned from his search for the stolen cattle. He thought they had agreed, when suddenly the cavalry troops appeared over the hill. With them were the Pima Indian Scouts, deadly enemies of the mountain people. Ash-cav-o-til rallied his people and they disappeared into the mountains within minutes. Del-che-ae lingered, but as the cavalry set up camp he and his people melted into the surrounding juniper and oak covered canyons.
What happened next was described by a soldier who corresponded with Prescott's newspaper, The Arizona Miner, calling himself "Reno." It seems Alexander moved out of Sunflower with his command in search of the stolen cattle, heading for Del-che-ae's stronghold in the Sierra Ancha. In a narrow canyon up there Del-che-ae and his warriors suddenly appeared on a small hill next to the trail. The Tonto Apache motioned for the leaders of the detachment to come up and parley.
They did, taking the Spanish interpreter half way up the hill. Alexander asked what they wanted. The war chief stood on a projecting rock, his gun in hand and wore a black hat. He called out that he was declaring war on the Americans, having made up his mind to that the night before. He ordered the soldiers to leave the country, and said that a band of a thousand warriors was coming to attack their camp in Sunflower. If the White men did not leave they would be wiped out.
All of this was communicated with formidable gestures and abusive language. Alexander called for the translator to come down, and then ordered his soldiers to shoot the chief. At least six shots were fired, and Del-che-ae disappeared over the hill. The soldiers charged the hill, but no Indians could be found. The chief later claimed he had been wounded by the shots, but certainly not mortally since on the following May 24th he led about 150 warriors in an attack on the newly established Camp Reno in Tonto Basin.
This encounter near Sunflower convinced the Apache chief that the White military was not to be trusted, and from then on he dealt with them as enemies. At times Del-che-ae compromised in order to win food for his people, and pretended to negotiate for peace.
Meanwhile, back at Sunflower three men and seven women and children from Del-che-ae's band had been captured and were held in the Camp O'Connell guardhouse. One of the men escaped, yelling curses at the Americans from a nearby hill. Four of Ash-cav-o-til's band entered the camp under a flag of truce, not knowing about Alexander's order to incarcerate all Indians. They were coming with a message from their chief to apologize for running away, and stating how they now wished to return. However the four were thrown into jail, as were other Yavapai and Apache people who innocently walked into Camp O'Connell. One of them was killed trying to escape.
While at Sunflower a detachment of soldiers explored for a suitable place to locate a military post deep in Tonto territory. During this foray they explored and named Green Valley (later to become Payson) but decided it would be too vulnerable and too far from the source of supply.
Upon returning to Sunflower Valley some of the troops raped two of the Tonto women being held prisoner. The commander ordered an inquiry, but no additional reports appear.
After that Camp O'Connell was simply a camping place along the military trail leading into Tonto Basin. The outpost was established near today's Punkin Center, in the shadow of Mount Ord, and called Camp Reno.
It would be six years before further settlement took place in Sunflower.