Chapter 14: The history of the Tonto Apache
In the autumn of 1857, the United States began in earnest to develop a good road across northern Arizona.
Edward Fitzgerald Beale surveyed and then built the pioneering wagon road from Fort Defiance, west of Albuquerque, to the Colorado River. As early as the summer of 1858 immigrants began using Beale's Wagon Road, and while they encountered many hardships there are no records of Apache attacks along this route during those years.
Tonto excursions into the white man's territory were concentrated in the south during the 1850s. It was there the action intensified, especially after the Butterfield Overland Stage line began regular runs across Arizona in 1858. This road not only crossed through the heartland of the Chiricahua Apaches, but cut the major raiding trails used by all the bands of Apaches in New Mexico and Arizona.
Mining between the Gila River and the Mexican border was booming, bringing investors and laborers. To protect the settlers, military posts were increased, and in 1861, a skirmish at Apache Pass in the Chiricahua mountains brought Cochise, his warriors and his clans into a full scale war with the Americans. That same year America's Civil War broke out.
By 1862, the Tontos became aware that strange things were happening among their white adversaries. Word from their relatives in New Mexico and southern Arizona told of American armies fighting among themselves. The Tontos could not understand this War Between the States, but it became evident that United States troops were being reduced and leaving their frontier posts. The Apaches concluded that their intensified raids during the 1850s had won them a victory, and the white men were beginning to withdraw. The Indians took heart and became more ferocious than ever.
While America's Civil War raged, other events were taking shape that would directly affect the Tonto Apaches. In 1862 a well-seasoned gold hunter appeared along the Gila River headwaters. His name was Joseph Reddeford Walker. He was over 6-feet tall and strong, 200 pounds of bone and sinew to help him break trail along the rivers of the Southwest. A beaver trapper from his early twenties, Walker was now 63. He had ranged the western mountains with his friend Kit Carson since 1820. The two of them were guides on the famous Fremont Expedition, and Walker had honed his gifts of good judgment, strong will, nimble footing and physical strength. He would need them all as he became the first man to attempt the exploitation of Tonto Apache lands.
Joe Walker led a group of gold seekers from California into New Mexico, and from Santa Fe they headed back west to explore the headwaters of the Gila River. By the fall of 1862, the Walker party was camped at the mine settlement of Pinos Altos, seven miles north of Silver City, N.M. The way west seemed blocked. Not only were bands of Apaches in control of the region, but the mountains were ominous and uninviting. Endless spines and crests with intermediate canyons rumpled and angled across their view in an endless maze, affording no passage. The terrain was too rocky and steep for man or beast to break through, especially while being harassed by Indians.
They were well aware of Apache atrocities, for at one turn in the road they encountered three white men, dead, hanging by their ankles from a tree limb. Under their heads a fire smoldered which had literally cooked their brains. The gold seekers discovered Apaches had horses from the Spanish Entrada and guns from the more recent trappers. Even more significant, Apaches had a warfare tactic that consisted of stalking, harassing and luring the enemy into ambushes. It was "like fighting ghosts," said Daniel Conner, a member of the party.
In January 1863, Walker had a plan. If he could capture an Apache chief, he might use him for safe passage while the party hacked their way westward into the mountains. Just such a person lived in the region of Pinos Altos, the infamous chief of the Warm Spring Mimbreno Apaches, Mangas Coloradas.
Walker had the mistaken idea that there was a federation among all Apache tribes, and this war chief was its headman. He concluded Mangas Coloradas would be a worthy hostage even among the Western Apaches.
Just then, a contingent of California Volunteers, First Cavalry, arrived and camped with the Walker party. Some of their troops joined the civilians on the foray to capture the chief. They went to his stronghold, set out a white flag of truce and encouraged him to come to them under the ruse of making a treaty. When he appeared, the soldiers' guns were enough to persuade the chief to become their prisoner.
Back at Walker's camp, Mangas Coloradas was tethered, and during the night army guards tortured him and goaded him into trying to escape. When he tried to run, they shot him dead.
Much to Walker's dismay the chief's head was scalped after the killing and his body dumped into a gully where it was buried the next day. A few days later, the body was exhumed, the head severed and boiled so the skull could be sent back East.
Word of the atrocity traveled like the wind by runners and smoke signals, until far to the west even the Tonto Apaches had heard of it.
Next: Arizona Becomes a Territory