Settling The Homeland



The History of the Tonto Apache, Chapter Three

In their new surroundings of central Arizona and New Mexico, it was necessary for the Apaches to learn how to subsist in the dry, desert climate.


There is evidence of the ancient people who lived here, written on the walls of caves and on the sides of cliffs.

They needed to know the kinds of game to hunt, the fruits and their seasons, and the places where all of these were to be found. They encountered a culture that had preceded them from which they could learn and borrow. We have called these earlier people by many names: Anasazi, Mogollon, Hohokam, Sinagua and Salado. Those in the Payson have been identified as perhaps an even older, different race -- nicknamed "Bunheads" because of the large occipital extension on the back of their skulls. All of these "ancient people" had reached a high point of development around A.D. 1350, after which they seemed to disappear. Apparently they became so numerous throughout the Southwest that, according to scholars, it was overpopulation coupled with a severe drought that caused their demise. Possibly pressure from the invading Athapascans added to their retreat. In any case, their successors are supposedly found among the pueblo dwellers of Arizona and New Mexico. Such conclusions continue to be a matter of discussion among anthropologists.

Meanwhile, the Athapascan migrants were becoming "Apaches," enemies who were not exactly welcomed. They branched into distinctive groups: the Navajo in the Four Corners region, the Jicarilla and Mescalero in New Mexico, the Chiricahua in southeastern Arizona, northern Sonora and Chihuahua, and the Western Apache in central Arizona. This latter group ranged from Flagstaff on the north to Tucson on the south, from the Verde River on the west to Springerville on the east. It was a vast area, and according to Grenville Goodwin, the first Anglo to study them, these people divided into five distinct groupings, each with family bands and semibands. The five groups are White Mountain, Cibecue, San Carlos, Northern Tonto and Southern Tonto.

The Northern and Southern Tonto Apaches occupied a quiet land, shattered only by the call of elk in rut or the scream of a lion asserting its authority. Lightning from the summer monsoon would split the air, shattering trees and igniting the fires that brought new life to the forest. After the long drought that had pushed the fragile lifeline over the edge for the ancient ones, summer and winter rains had returned. The land waited for new occupants to rediscover its multiple riches.

It remains for archaeologists and anthropologists to determine the decade or even the century the people we call Tonto took up residence in the basins and mountains of the Rim Country. It is certain that another group, the Yavapai, were coming in from the west about this same time, perhaps arriving slightly before the Apaches who entered from the east and north. The intermingling of these two groups was inevitable. Their life ways were so similar that experts are unable to distinguish between their artifacts and campsites.

It was during the 16th century, while the Tontos and Yavapai were taking possession of central Arizona, the Spanish Conquistadors explored northward from Mexico. There are no records of the Spanish entering directly into the Tonto territory, though they came close when visiting the Zuni, the Hopi, and entering the Verde River Valley. The Rim Country appears on European and Spanish maps as Tierra Incognita, the unknown land. It was such a rugged and isolated place, the Spaniards avoided it. They apparently decided any precious metals that might be there were not recoverable.

When travel between New Mexico and California later became important, the Apache country was not only dangerous, but out of the way. It was far better to use routes south or north of the central mountains. Thus the Tonto Apaches and Yavapai could mingle and develop their own way of life for 250 years without interference from an encroaching world of White-eyes.

Grenville Goodwin relates a story told by an Apache named Old Man He Goes To War. It told of a time when the Apache had not yet moved into the Tonto Basin, but had come only as far west as Cibecue and San Carlos. When some of them explored the Tonto Basin, they encountered what they called the "sand house people."

They made friends with these cliff dwellers and some of the Apaches moved close to them. But trouble erupted when the cliff dwellers accused the Apaches of thievery, and war ensued. The ancient people abandoned their houses and moved down into the Salt River Valley.

Such stories indicate that not all of the ancient pueblo dwellers had disappeared before the Tonto Apaches entered the area.

It is probably safe to say the people who became Tontos settled in the Payson environs around 1600. Some scholars believe the Yavapai arrived 100 years before that. Frequented campsites for these two groups included Rye Creek and Gisela, Indian Gardens and Christopher Creek, as well as the uplands of Payson and Pine.

Next: The Yavapai Connection

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