Apache War Along The Tonto



Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 11

The historical events that unfolded along Tonto Creek were often closely related to the Tonto Apache Indians. [1] As early as the spring of 1864, a rancher from near the Territorial Capital of Prescott, named King Woolsey, led a civilian militia of 100 men toward Tonto Creek in pursuit of livestock the Indians had stolen from their ranches. As they traveled they gave English names to landmarks which already had Apache names. [2] It was the Woolsey party that named Fossil Creek. When they reached Rye Creek they called it "Wild Rye Creek" because of the grasses that lined its banks. On June 7, 1864 they reached the junction of Wild Rye Creek with a larger river which they named Tonto Creek. [3] After exploring the northern reaches of Tonto Creek, Woolsey's party continued its sojourn down the basin toward the Salt River.

This was the territory of the powerful Tonto headman Del-che-ae. As Woolsey's party penetrated Tonto territory farther than American settlers ever had before, the Indians never let them out of their sight. It struck the Tontos strange that these men would scramble up hillsides with their picks or pan for gold in the streambeds. While the Indians would not understand this frantic activity until later, they knew it was a terrible inconvenience to have this entourage disrupting their life. They had to continually abandon their villages, and after the Whites moved through, they had to move back and assess the damage. During this invasion, the Indians put aside their hunting and gathering as well as social dances in order not to be found and to follow these bearded, heavily clothed people.

The Woolsey party was very thorough in its exploration of the basins, mesas and canyons that spread across the foot of the Mogollon Rim. The Tontos must have felt secure, however, in their fortress-like territory, and probably laughed among themselves at the cumbersome way these invaders conducted their scouting parties. The supply train of 60 mules was especially enticing to Indians who relished mule meat.

Tontos made sure the would-be soldiers did not catch a glimpse of them. They were entertained from their secluded watch-posts by the sight of White men getting lost time after time trying to cross the chasms. Although the rancherias they came upon were deserted, the militia destroyed all the stores of food they could find. At night the Tontos would surround the White man's camp and shoot arrows at them as soon as the men rose in the morning. On April 8 one of the party, J. Donohugh, was struck by an arrow that passed between his jugular vein and windpipe, protruding out the other side. The physician accompanying the invaders, John T. Alsap, was able to extract the arrow so that Donohugh recovered. [4]

At the mouth of Tonto Creek they found a basin surrounded by the meeting of several mountain ranges. The conjoined rivers broke through canyons sending their waters raging toward the desert valley. The Tontos called the place "Water Going Together." [5] This place was rife with the ruins of ancient pueblo mound dwellers, and the abandoned camps of Tonto and Pinal Apaches, as well as Yavapai, who had found this a hunting and farming paradise. Woolsey's crew called it Cottonwood Camp. Not far up the basin, along Tonto Creek, beaver dams had formed a refreshing lake. The citizen army's superior fire power kept the Indians at bay while these intruders fished, swam, hunted, and feasted. An Apache taboo on fish resulted in an abundance of very large fish in these waters.

F.A. Cook wrote, "We made a willow drag and caught about 200 fish, the largest one looked very much like cod but had no teeth, and would weigh from 10 to 20 pounds. This kind of fishing was new to many of us, but was very fine sport for we had to go into the river and in some places it was up to our necks. But the weather was very hot and the waters warm."

It was June 17 when they broke camp and explored as far as the headwaters of the Salt River. [6] The Woolsey army was now moving out of Tonto Apache territory and into Pinal Apache land. By mid-August the party reentered Tonto Apache territory, and camped again near the mouth of Tonto Creek. At that time one of the men, O. Allen, accidentally discharged his gun and killed a fellow camper, Gaston Moreal. Woolsey does not mention this in his report. Nor does he mention that an Apache killed another of the men en route, while his militia had killed no Indians.

The contingent of ranchers retraced their way up Tonto Creek and the Rye Creek drainage. Then once on the East Verde River they followed it to its mouth, along the rugged wilderness west of today's Payson.

Throughout these days the Apaches shouted and rolled rocks down from the high cliffs. No one was hurt and the shots from the White men's rifles usually scattered the warriors.

It is a wonder that the Tontos and their allies, the Yavapai, harassed but did not attack the Woolsey party. There had been time to call upon clan loyalties and gang up on the invaders. Nevertheless, the Apaches allowed them to pass through. Perhaps the Indians did not realize what this event would mean for the future. The Woolsey party did not accomplish any of their immediate goals, to kill Indians, find gold, and recover lost livestock. However they had followed Tonto Creek its entire length and explored as far east as the San Carlos and Black Rivers. They also brought back to Prescott glowing reports of Apacheria.

In his report to the governor, Woolsey said, "The whole country through which we have passed is covered with excellent grass. Water is plentiful for all ordinary purposes. In many places beautiful little valleys invite the farmer and rancher to follow the occupation of their choice. We never found gold in any paying quantities and yet I cannot help thinking that there is in that part of the country great mineral wealth."

Settlers were itching to take possession after that. The expedition also served notice on the Tonto people that a war against them was about to begin. As white men often did, Woolsey underestimated the tenaciousness of the Tonto Apaches.

His report contained this evaluation, "We have followed the trail of the Apache to his home in the mountains and have learned where it is located. We have dispelled the idea of vast numbers that has ever been attached to that tribe. A few hundred poor, miserable wretches compose the formidable foe so much dreaded by many. They will be brought to terms speedily, or exterminated, I cannot doubt, when once the government shall know how small is the enemy by which so much annoyance has been caused."

To bring the central mountains of Arizona under Euro-American control would take the next 20 years. By the second half of the 1860s the United States military forces were in hot pursuit of the Tonto Apaches and their allies, the Yavapai. By the summer of 1874 all but one band had surrendered to General George Crook's army. The leader of this band was 35-year-old Del-che-ae, or Red Ant, commonly called Delshay. [7]

"This savage has been a terror to Arizona for many years," said General Crook in his annual report of August 1874. "It has been notorious that he has never kept any promise he has made!"

The young and vicious war leader maintained his home camps in the Sierra Ancha range just east of Gisela. One of the obscure valleys, southeast of Gisela, retains the name "Delshay Basin." Throughout the Apache Indian War that began in 1864, the army found it impossible to quell the defiant Tontos. Then Crook stumbled onto a solution. He used native scouts who knew the territory to seek out the Apache camps and while they were seldom able to capture prisoners the army would destroy their supplies, their crops and their houses (called gowas, or wickiups). Several severe winters brought starvation and caused the bands to surrender one by one. Crook vowed to kill on sight all Indians who did not surrender by a certain date, and in the winter of 1874 one of the last renegade bands begged to be forgiven and taken in. Crook refused at first, and then made a deal with their leaders. He wrote, "They begged to be allowed to remain, making all kinds of promises for the future. I finally compromised by letting them stay, provided they would bring in the heads of certain of their ringleaders, which they agreed to do."

During the following months a number of bloody heads were brought to the San Carlos Agency and placed on posts around the parade ground. However Crook's enemy, Delshay, was still at large, and the general offered to pay $50 for his head.

Camp Verde's Commander Walter Schuyler sent out three Tonto scouts, and gave them so many days to return with the head. The deadline arrived and Schuyler set out with a detachment to do it himself. That same night the three scouts returned to camp and handed Dr. William Corbusier, the camp physician, a crumbled rag, saying, "Del-Che." The physician wrote, "On opening the parcel I found a whole scalp with the left ear hanging to it, in the lobe of which was tied a pearl shirt button." Chief Delshay was known to wear this memento in his left ear, taken from some White victim. The scouts claimed to have killed Delshay near Turret Mountain on July 29. Turret Mountain had been the scene of an earlier Tonto defeat, and a known stronghold along the Verde River.

Almost a month later, August 21, a Tonto warrior named Desalin brought a head into the San Carlos Agency that he claimed was Delshay's. General Crook reported that the Indians at San Carlos and Camp Verde each tried to persuade him theirs was the authentic remains of Delshay. "Being satisfied that both parties were earnest in their beliefs, and the bringing in of an extra head was not amiss, I paid both parties."

However, an Apache at San Carlos told Crook that the head taken there was his son, not Delshay. Other former followers of Delshay also testified it was not the chief's head. General Crook concluded that the Camp Verde scalp and ear were Delshay's, and the San Carlos head was of someone else. He affirmed in his annual report of Aug. 31, 1874 that Delshay "was killed by his own people near Turret Mountain."

The mystery revived when Army contract physician William Corbusier came up with a full skull said to be Delshay's. He took it from Camp Verde to his home in Schenectady, N.Y. There it sat on his mantle with the inscription "Delt-Che, A.T. 1874." Corbusier had treated Delshay at the reservation for an illness, and was certain this was the chief.

Yavapai-Apache tribal archeologist Chris Coder suggests, "I heard somewhere that the Army would not fork out for the scalp and the turncoats came back a day or two later with an actual head, which was then paid for. I speculate that the cagey Del-Che initially sent some of his men into Camp Verde with some hapless Apache's scalp and his earring on it as a ruse. When the Army did not accept it, these fellows went back and got the real thing for the money."

Descendants of the army doctor donated the skull to the Fort Verde Museum during the 1960s. The curator of that museum, Bob Munson, told me that when he arrived at Camp Verde he found himself dusting a skull on display in the officer's quarters that had been identified as Delshay's. He decided it belonged in the Smithsonian Institution, and sent it by way of Phoenix. Somehow it ended up in the collection of artifacts at the Arizona State Parks Department. With the recent emphasis on returning the bones of ancestors to their tribes, archaeologist Coder was contacted and asked if the Apache Nation wished to have it back. The answer was affirmative, and Mr. Coder hurried to Phoenix to pick up the artifact. Within hours the skull had been handed over to tribal Elder Ted Smith Sr., who, with a native holy man, drove off into the White Hills and gave the remnant a secret, prayerful and ceremonial burial.

So the brave and fierce Chief Delshay had been put to rest. [8]

A series of Indian Agents on the reservations during the 1870s and 1880s were withholding rations from the Indian families and selling them for their own profit. This resulted in hunger that forced the Apaches to break away in war parties to make raids around Arizona. However, by the 1890s the military control of the reservations had relaxed enough so that Apache and Yavapai families began leaving San Carlos to return to their places of birth. A number of the Tontos found a welcome among the white settlers around Gisela, and set up several camps along Tonto Creek. From there they could find employment on the ranches, or working for the county and state governments, which were beginning to put through roads.


[1] The Tonto Apaches have often been called "the westernmost bands of the Western Apaches." Athapaskan speaking tribes drifted south from the Yukon over the centuries and began to form the many Apaches, Navajo, and Comanche groups in what would become America's Southwest. The name "Tonto" is Spanish for "silly, foolish, dull, or stupid" and was bestowed on the native people in central Arizona by the Conquistadores. Later other Western Apache tribes narrowed the title to those bands living in the Tonto Basin and Rim Country because their dialect sounded so foolish. The Athapaskan speaking Tontos had intermarried with the Yuman speaking Yavapai, and the mingling of languages resulted in a twang that sounded to other Apaches like "baby-talk."

[2] Apache place-names always told a story about something that had happened there. The very mention of a place recalled the story told by the fathers. Thus the history and heritage of the tribe was kept alive. The Apache language is vividly descriptive. A rough English translation of a place might be rendered, "The place where the bear attacked the warrior." Names were likewise descriptive. One member of the Tonto tribe was named, "He who defecated in his pants."

[3] The Woolsey party's name for Rye Creek apparently was not common parlance in the 1870s when General Crook's aide John Bourke wrote in his diary. He considered Rye Creek to be an extension of Tonto Creek, and he called the two rivers at their junction the north and west branches of the Tonto.

[4] We are indebted to at least two eyewitness accounts for the details of King Woolsey's expedition into the Rim Country in the spring of 1864. One account was given by Henry Clifton, who was appointed secretary for the march and whose notes were printed in the Prescott Arizona Miner on May 11 and May 25. The more detailed account comes from the diary on F. A. Cook, one of the participants. His original diary is in the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Ariz.

[5] This according to the late Chief Melvin Campbell of the Tonto Apache tribe.

[6] Salty springs along the upper reaches of this river give it a brackish taste. The Tonto Apaches called the Salt River, or Rio Salado, the Black River. It rises 20 miles east of Fort Apache and is the largest tributary of the Gila River. It flows southwesterly over 200 miles to a junction with the Gila west of Phoenix. Today the upper portion of the Salt is called The Black River. The Woolsey expedition often referred to those headwaters as the Prieto, or Black.

[7] "Delshay" was the common spelling given to this Apache warlord's name in military reports and newspaper releases. In the native language it would be spelled more like Del-che-ae, and its meaning was "Red Ant." As many Apache children were named for the circumstances of their birth, speculation suggests there was a hill of red ants at work where he was born. He may have earned the name later because of the stinging bite of his fighting spirit, or because he worked hard and led others.

[8] Sources: 1874 Annual Report of General George Crook; personal correspondence of Crook from Huntington Library (California). Vince Randall (Tonto elder living in Middle Verde, oral history by Stan Brown). Chris Coder, archaeologist for Yavapai/Tonto Apache tribe in Verde Valley, in correspondence with Stan Brown. The handwritten notes of Dr. Corbusier (Camp Verde Army physician) at the Arizona Historical Society library, Tucson. An oral history taken by Stan Brown with Bob Munson, curator of the Fort Verde Museum.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.