The Battle Of Five Caves

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Chapter 22: The history of the Tonto Apaches

After the snow melted, the Army moved Camp Lincoln in the Verde Valley three miles north to the settlement at the mouth of Beaver Creek. This location was on higher ground, and the Army hoped both the upper and lower communities could have better protection from this point.

In January 1866, while Camp Lincoln was being relocated, the all-Mexican Company E of the Arizona Volunteers marched from Fort Whipple to the Verde Valley. Wind and thunderstorms made their trip unusually long, and the bedraggled company arrived on Jan. 16 with "their feet tied up in rags..." reported the post surgeon Dr. Edward Palmer. "The condition of these men was wretched beyond description."

The Apaches, lurking in the nearby forest, gleefully noted the soldiers' poor condition. They had no pack animals so it seemed they could pursue the Indian raiders. At Camp Lincoln there were no buildings to shelter the troops, and they had to live in hand-made dugouts or caves on the edge of the mesa where a steep bluff descended to the creek below. However, the Mexican soldiers were eager to pursue their old enemy and to collect the $100 bonus each of them was promised at the end of their one year of service.

The company of California Infantry, which had been stationed at Camp Lincoln, left on Jan. 31. Captain Hiram S. Washburn of the Arizona Volunteers took command of the post at that time.

Several major streams flowing west from the Mogollon Rim feed the Verde River. These are Oak Creek, Beaver Creek, Clear Creek, the East Fork of the Verde, and Fossil Creek. Each of these streams creates a canyon leading into the rugged mountains, and when the soldiers pursued the Tontos up these canyons they found themselves confronted by a labyrinth of trails in an endless forest. The Indians moved more rapidly than the soldiers did and could spread out in their well-known territory. The soldiers packed their rations and blankets on their backs, and these burdens, together with the fact that they had no shoes and wore homemade moccasins, made travel difficult. During their first scout against the Tontos, on Jan. 26, the soldiers discovered their moccasins lasted only four days on the trail. The Indians were well-warned and watched from their secluded posts as Company E returned to Camp Lincoln empty-handed.

In the middle of February the Tontos suffered the largest massacre of their people to that date, at the hands of the Volunteers from Camp Lincoln. A band, or extended family, was living in a series of five caves clustered on the side of a deep canyon near the headwaters of Beaver Creek. On present day maps, this was probably near Apache Maid in the Coconino Forest. The stealthy Volunteers, in their quiet moccasins, surprised the Tontos at dawn on Feb. 15, firing into the caves from different directions so that the shots would ricochet off ceilings and walls. The air was filled with bullets and arrows, the shouts of soldiers and the screams of wounded Apaches.

The leader of the Volunteers, Lt. Manuel Gallegos, called in Spanish for the Tontos to surrender. They yelled back that they would rather die first, which all but a few did in the battle that followed. After three hours, 30 Apaches lay dead, 12 were taken prisoner, and two were seen to escape. Six of the troopers were wounded, though none were killed.

Dr. Edward Palmer said, "The caves presented a horrible sight, as dead of all ages and sexes, with household goods and provisions, lay mixed with the dirt from the caves brought down by firing of the guns, while the blood of the dead freely mixed with all."

The soldiers were apparently not as overwhelmed as Dr. Palmer by the sight, and plundered the goods and buckskins that were in the caves. The 12 Tonto prisoners included two adult women and 10 children. One of the children died from a wound soon after reaching Camp Lincoln. The laundresses and mistresses in the camp baptized the dead child along with the other captured children, according to their Catholic faith. Then they held a funeral service in a secret place and buried the child. The burial was in secret because the soldiers and women learned Dr. Palmer wanted the child's body for "a specimen," and would send the bones back to the Smithsonian Institution.

The other children were sold into slavery, and the Battle of the Five Caves was heralded among the Americans as a great victory in Arizona's Indian War. Lt. Gallegos and his company gained praise in the newspapers as having "in one scout, while his men were without shoes, and living on half rations, killed more Indians in three hours than all the other (soldiers) in the Territory killed in the past year." The governor and Third Territorial Legislature also joined in the plaudits.

After that, the Tontos increased their attacks in the Verde Valley. When one of the soldiers went fishing, hoping to supplement their meatless diet, he was murdered by three Apache warriors and stripped of his clothing and ammunition.

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