Trappers Threaten Apacheland

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Chapter 12: The Story of the Tonto Apache

By the first half of the white man's 19th century, trailblazers were working around the fringe of Tonto lands. Explorers Garces, Beale and Kearny traveled from east to west across the flat mesas in the north, utilizing the springs around today's Flagstaff, Ariz. To the south, the Gila Trail passed through Tucson, blazed by the Mormon Battalion and the Butterfield Overland Stage. Both of these trails avoided the rugged mountains and foothills, canyons and forests, rims and valleys of central Arizona, and this allowed the Tonto Apaches to develop their lifestyle without reference to white men. Secluded as they were, Tonto Apaches could not know that the changing fashions of western civilization were about to affect them.

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Students visit Beaver Dam on Arizona's San Pedro River. In the early 19th century, trappers followed the Verde River to trap beavers and were attacked by Tonto Apaches. Beaver pelts were in demand for felted top hats.

The rage among European and American men was to wear top hats, manufactured from beaver pelts that were felted. "Felting" is a process in which the fibers of the material are matted by pressure and rolling. The price of beaver pelts could go as high as $6 a pound in St. Louis, and an average pelt weighed a pound and a half. That meant good money for those who dared to penetrate the wilds of America's western mountains and rivers. The French, English and Scottish trappers had already taken most of the available beaver in Canada and the northern Rocky Mountains. Furthermore, the monopolistic trading companies controlled their fur trappers, employing them with an annual salary. Men who called themselves free trappers were not content with such limits, and looked to the untapped sources of beaver in the Southwest.

Around 1824, this new breed of men began to appear on the fringes of Tonto lands. Their skins were white, but their language was incomprehensible to the Apaches because it was not Spanish. To add to the confusion, they dressed in the skins of animals, like Indians, wore moccasins, and preferred the company of natives to their own kind. They even took Indian wives, raised families and established kinship with various bands. These mountain men moved in stealth, like the Indians, and were so fierce it seemed wise for Apaches to befriend them, if only to find out what they were up to. These white men apparently hated the Mexicans as much as Apaches did, and hope glimmered that they would become allies against a common enemy. In addition, the trappers were just passing through, utilizing the land as they went. They did not seem to have designs on the land itself.

The party of James Ohio Pattie followed the Gila River in 1826 from its headwaters to the Colorado River. During two such trips while skirting Apache territory they were harassed by Apaches, and Pattie was almost killed in one skirmish by two arrow wounds.

A few years later, young Kit Carson was in a party of trappers that followed the Verde River all the way north to the Mogollon Rim. On the way they engaged in a skirmish with Apaches, in which 20 Indians were killed and many more wounded. Carson reported that they camped for three days "in the meadows and pine and aspen groves of the Black Forest where the Verde reaches up to drain the southern rim of the Mogollon Mesa." (Quoted in "Dear Old Kit: The Historical Christopher Carson," edited by Harry L. Carter, University of Oklahoma Press, 1968) Carson's party had come very close to the Tonto stronghold. In dictating his life story, Carson said at this point, "We were nightly harassed by the Indians. They would frequently of nights crawl into our camp, steal a trap or so, kill a mule or horse and endeavor to do what damage they could." ("Kit Carson's Own Story of His Life," Carson Memorial Foundation, Taos, New Mexico 1955 reprint, page 12). From there Carson and others of the party went on to California.

A little later the Mexican government in the state of Chihuahua offered a bounty for Apache scalps, and a number of the trappers joined the hunt. A terrorist-type war developed around the fringes of the Tonto territory. While the Tontos kept as aloof as possible, it was a warning that even though their land was on the fringes of the white incursion they would soon have to fight. Some of the pressure was relieved when the dwindling finances of the Mexican government caused the bounty to be withdrawn. Furthermore, the demand for beaver pelts slackened when Chinese and Japanese ports were opened to clipper ships in the 1840s, and silk was being brought back to America. It soon replaced felted beaver as the top hat of choice.

In spite of explorations by the mountain men, the territory between the Rio Grande River and the Pacific Ocean was a mystery to Americans through most of the 1840s. That was about to change when, in May of 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico, and a strong military force commanded by General Stephen Watts Kearny was marching west to capture California. His troops were aiming right for the central mountains of Arizona.

Next: The Noose Tightens

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