Fort Mcdonald: A Refuge From Apaches


A number of folks have asked me about Fort McDonald recently. I have been able to find little written information on the old fort, so most of what I write here is oral history handed down through the old Payson families.

First, we need to note that there are two McDonald families in the annals of Payson history.


William and Sarah Hazelton McDonald. William McDonald, an Illinois native, was responsible for Fort McDonald, a handy refuge from the Apaches.

Mart McDonald arrived on the scene in 1884 and attended the first Payson Rodeo. He punched cows for the Hash Knife Outfit on top of the Mogollon Rim, and later bought and operated the Doll Baby Ranch west of Payson.

Mart was the father-in-law of Howard Childers and the Mart McDonald family certainly made their mark in the Rim Country, but it is not Mart's family for whom Fort McDonald was named, so we will leave Mart for another time and talk of the other McDonald.

William McDonald was born in Illinois on April 24, 1840 and came to Payson some six years earlier than Mart, in 1878.

William set up camp near where William Burch had built the first house in what is now Payson and helped Burch work his gold mine for a couple of years before the two became partners in Payson's first sawmill.

The Apache Indians were still very much a threat to Rim Country settlers in 1878.

William McDonald was a prudent man and made note of a high hill that stood between two main valleys in the area. Atop this hill was a great Indian ruin where once many dwellings built of red sandstone had stood. McDonald spent no small amount of time constructing a stronghold from the rocks left there. Nearby miners and cattlemen moving into the area soon dubbed the results of McDonald's labor Fort McDonald or McDonald's fort.

There was, in fact, an Indian scare in 1878 which sent many folks scurrying to Fort McDonald, and although the scare turned out to be false, the fort was a welcome refuge.

By 1881, Apaches on the San Carlos Reservation had grown tired of being short-rationed and lied to by the whites. Their leaders had signed treaty after treaty only to have them broken again and again.

The Chiricahua Apaches had been promised that they could live in the Dragoon Mountains. The White Mountain and Warm Spring Apaches had also been given their own reservation lands, as had various other bands, only to have the United States government violate treaties and attempt to move all Apaches to the San Carlos Reservation.

They did move all peaceful Apaches to San Carlos, along with those "renegades" they could capture and hold. But many Apaches fled to the Sierra Madres in Mexico.

The Tonto Apaches suffered the same fate, many being hunted down by General Crook and taken to San Carlos while others managed to elude the grasp of the military by slipping west into Bloody Basin or God-knows-where into the hidden canyons and mountains of Arizona.

In short, our benevolent government tried to take a nomadic mountain people who lived by gathering and hunting their food, sit them down in a patch of desert, and tell them to be good Indians and grow pumpkins. To compound the problem, a long list of Indian agents sold most of the food the government allotted to the Apaches to merchants in Tucson.

They contracted with ranchers for tough scrub cattle they could buy for half the government money allotted for beef and pocketed the remainder. The result was that periodically an Apache family was given a bit of weevil-infested flour and some poor old cow, tough as India rubber, on which they were supposed to subsist and thank the "Great White Father in Washington." If you think I exaggerate, I can recommend some good books on the subject.

With conditions what they were, small bands of Apaches would leave the reservation to loot and raid, or sometimes just to hunt and gather food.

This situation continued to worsen and an Apache medicine man, Nochaydelclinne, whom the soldiers at Fort Apache simply called "Bobby" for obvious reasons, led his people in a ceremonial dance that lasted 45 days and nights. The Indians got drunk on Tiswin and became insolent and almost more than the soldiers could handle.

There was talk of war and 85 soldiers along with 23 Apache Scouts assembled under General Carr with the intent of capturing or killing Nochaydelclinne. They were met in the Valley of the Cibicue by "swarms of painted Indians buzzing like rattlesnakes" as Lt. Cruse was to say later.

Carr cautiously arrested Nochaydelclinne, but that same day a bloody fight ensued and the medicine man was ultimately killed along with more than 18 Apaches and eight of Carr's command.

Following the Cibicue Incident, the still fuming Nochaydelclinne followers found a new leader, Nantiotish, under whose leadership three troopers and four Mormons were killed the following day near Fort Apache.

At the Middleton Ranch on Cherry Creek, 10 miles from the present-day town of Young, Nantiotish and his 80-some strong band killed George Turner and Henry Moody. In a pasture at Middleton Ranch they found 75 head of horses which they stole for fresh mounts.

They continued north into Pleasant Valley and raided the Tewksbury Ranch and the Al Rose place before hitting the Bar X Ranch where they killed Bob Sixby and wounded his brother and partner, George.

Word of the outbreak reached Payson and the locals gathered, some at the Piper Saloon and some at Fort McDonald. More information came to the town of Payson that the Indian outbreak had been thwarted and the danger was past. This information was wrong.

Nantiotish and his Apaches then continued west under the Mogollon Rim on what we now call the Highline Trail until they came to the East Verde. Here they rode down the river to the Diamond Valley Ranch where they killed John M. Meadows and wounded two of his sons, Henry and John Valentine Meadows. Henry died a month after the fight from wounds he received.

On the trail of Nantiotish, Major A. R. Chaffee of Fort McDowell was tired of trailing the Apaches and arriving too late to help the families that had fallen victim to the latest Indian outbreak from the Fort Apache Reservation. Chaffee and his Sixth Cavalry combined forces with Al Seiber and his scouts to run down Nantiotish and the renegade Apaches on what was to become known as Battleground Ridge.

It was on this ridge, on top of the Mogollon Rim, above the head of the East Verde, that Chaffee overtook Nantiotish and his followers. The Indians were jerking meat and putting on a big feed.

Chaffee gave the order, "Shoot to kill!"

From the time of their attempted rescue of Nochaydelclinne until they came up against Major Chaffee, the Apaches had done pretty much as they pleased and had suffered little retribution, but things were about to change.

In what was to become known in military circles as the Battle of Big Dry Wash, a ridiculous name considering the battle took place on a ridge, a reported 80 Apaches, including Nantiotish, were killed. Six were captured and six escaped.

One soldier was killed and was buried near the battleground.

From the late 1870s to about 1900 Fort McDonald stood proudly atop McDonald Hill. After the turn of the century, there was no need for sanctuary from the Apaches. The Tontos had returned to their homeland to live peacefully with the white settlers.

But there was a need for the red sandstone rock on top of McDonald Hill, and over the next few years, most of it was packed down to the valley and used to build foundations for some of the town's many buildings.

The folks who carried the rocks away had no more intent to destroy a part of history than did William McDonald when he used the rock from the Indian ruins to build his fort. They were simply using the material at hand, putting it to what at the time seemed a better use.

Although Fort McDonald was never a military fort, it undoubtedly gave many an early settler some peace of mind, and even though McDonald Hill is covered with houses, I can still look at it and imagine how it looked to William McDonald and those early settlers back in 1878.

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