Mixed Signals From The Tontos

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Chapter 30: The history of the Tonto Apaches

In early April 1868 Chief Del-che-ae shouted a declaration of war as the Army invaded his stronghold in the Sierra Ancha. The white troops boldly continued their march toward Meadow Valley (Spring Creek) looking for stolen cattle. The Tontos hid themselves, until one of the Army units began climbing out of the deep valley. The Apaches had set an ambush, and a 15-minute skirmish followed. The troops dislodged the Indians and retreated without further incident.

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Apache Scouts at a Fort Apache powwow, dressed as their forefathers during the days of the Indian wars. The Army used Indian scouts to track the Tonto Apaches to their hideouts in the Sierra Ancha.

It had become obvious to the military that an outpost in the Sierra Ancha was impractical. It would be impossible to keep a long supply line through such rugged terrain where the Tontos were so deeply ensconced. Still the Army was under orders to establish a post deeper into Del-che-ae's stronghold than on Tonto Creek. The road building crew had camped on Reno Creek, three miles west of Tonto Creek along an arroyo coming from Mount Ord. This was to have been the last camp along the road over the Mazatzals to a military post deep in Tonto territory. The Apaches observed cattle and supplies being moved to the new camp, and did their best to harass the soldiers. This was getting too close to land they held sacred.

On April 20, 1868, a detachment of troops forged a trail up Tonto Basin, following Wild Rye Creek and around Snowstorm Mountain into a place they named Green Valley. It would one day become the location of Payson, Ariz. Here they considered a possible location for the permanent Camp Reno. An Army correspondent, under the pen name of Reno, wrote to Prescott's Arizona Miner, "This valley is... a splendid place for a post and to hunt Indians... With plenty of cavalry the Apache will be kept hopping. Let the posts be planted in the homes of the reptiles at any expense, a road made there, and it is the end of the hostile Apache in Arizona."

As they returned from Green Valley, the detachment killed 10 Tontos.

On May 24, 1868 Del-cha-ae made an appearance once again. He claimed to have received six bullet-wounds from the confrontation with Major Alexander's troops the previous month. Obviously, they had healed because he led 150 warriors in an attack on the herd at the camp on Reno Creek. His encounters with the Army had convinced Del-che-ae that the white military were not to be trusted and from that decisive hour, he did not hesitate to deal with them as enemies. Sometimes he would compromise in order to win food for his people, appearing at the Army camps and pretending to negotiate in peace. Such efforts were always short-lived, and like a restless fly, the Tonto chief evaded all efforts to swat him down. His on-again, off-again professions of peace earned Del-che-ae the moniker of "the liar."

On the other hand, one of the Pinal Apache chiefs, Ash-cav-o-til, became convinced the only way to save his people was to cooperate with the growing white presence. He was soon disillusioned. Four men of his band entered the Army camp under a flag of truce. They were bringing a message from their chief, apologizing for the time they ran away when the cavalry rode into camp. Now they wished to return. However, the four messengers were thrown into prison. Several Yavapai Indians, as well as three men and seven women and children from Del-cha-ae's band were also placed in the guardhouse. The soldiers raped two of the Tonto women. One of the men escaped and yelled curses at the Americans from a nearby hill. Another was shot and killed trying to escape.

While Del-cha-ae and Ash-cav-o-til cooperated with each other against the military when it suited a mutual purpose, they did not hesitate to play each other off for their own benefit.

Ash-cav-o-til had complained to the army commanders that his band had been unjustly blamed for raids made by the Tontos. He offered to fight the Tontos, and to furnish hay and wood to the soldiers as well as make adobe bricks for the proposed buildings at Camp Reno. He would then expect seed for planting, and the tools used in building the road after it was finished.

The growing desperation of the Indians was evident in their willingness to sell each other out in exchange for the good offices of the Army. Thus the Tontos found themselves fighting not only white men, but also rival Indian bands over the hunting and planting grounds.

Next: Invasion from the North

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