Natural Bridge Discovered

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Chapter 23: The history of the Tonto Apaches

Throughout 1866, the Tonto Apache War escalated, as troops from Camp Lincoln and Fort McDowell increased their forays into the Mogollon Rim, its foothills and the Tonto Basin. Villages were burned; newspaper reports victoriously announced 20 Indians killed here, 10 there, a dozen another time, then again 25.

It was clear to the Tontos that their small family bands had become like wild game to the invaders. Fortunately, their lifestyle of mobility made it easy for them to elude the soldiers, but they retaliated by ambushing soldiers as they traveled and attacking Army supply trains in the south.

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The Natural Bridge on Pine Creek was the location of early Tonto camps. The first documented discovery by the invaders was in 1865 when the Volunteers from Camp Lincoln (later Camp Verde) attacked a Tonto family here, capturing one of their old men.

In the spring the Volunteer army from Camp Lincoln made another foray into the Tonto territory, all the way from the Tonto Basin to the Little Colorado River. No sooner did the company return, than they were sent eastward again. After crossing the Black Mesa (Mogollon Rim) along now-familiar canyon trails, they descended following Pine Creek. The explorers sighted numerous smoke signals as Apaches warned one another of the approaching troops, and eventually they came to what today is the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

From the high, overlooking hills they saw a rancheria, with Indians moving about. This is the first recorded discovery by Americans of the Natural Bridge.

Gallegos sent one party around behind the Tonto camp, and waited with the remainder of his troop to cut off their retreat. The scouting party encountered an Indian and shot him. That alerted the others, who fled as the troops then advanced to scorch the abandoned rancheria.

Gallegos reported, "I sent four soldiers with the two who had shot the aforesaid Indian, and they had to give him three more shots before killing him entirely, for he was fortified among some rocks and defended himself to the last."

They captured one old man who was hiding among the rocks. He informed them there had been five men, one woman, and a child in this band, and that they had only been at this place two days, fleeing from another force along the (East Verde) River. It was probably a detachment from Fort McDowell. The company took their prisoner, retraced their march and arrived back at Camp Lincoln on the afternoon of July 20.

The old Tonto Apache confessed that his people were completely demoralized by the constant pursuit, and no longer knew where to flee for safety.

The pitiful old fellow became the butt of jokes by the troops in camp, and Dr. Palmer recounts his fate. "For a long time a paymaster had been expected at Camp Lincoln, so as the scout returned they palmed off the prisoner as the paymaster that had been looked for, for so long a time. These troops had not been paid since they entered the Army. Many had come to the conclusion they would get nothing for their service... As no paymaster came through, in spite of plenty of promises, the soldiers concluded that this poor, dried-up old Indian, without a tooth and almost naked, was as good a paymaster as they would see. By that name he was called as long as he was in camp. He was allowed his freedom about camp by day, as he was quite lame, but at night he had to sleep in the guardhouse.

"One morning he was missing. Search was made. He was said to be found in a ravine. As he was nearly blind, as well as lame, he missed the footpath and as he reached the (ravine) fell in and so injured himself that he must soon die. They had no means to remove him to Camp ... the discharge from a rifle was thought to be the best and most charitable way of ending his extreme sufferings..."

Palmer's interpretation is difficult to believe, especially when Captain Washburn's account says the prisoner tried to escape, was pursued, leaped down a steep bluff and was killed. One has to ask, if it had been a white man or a soldier lying in that ravine, whether he would have been shot as "the most charitable way of ending his extreme sufferings."

The Tontos took advantage of the monsoon that drenched the American troops nearly every day that July. Many of them, including Lt. Gallegos, were too sick to effectively pursue raids, and the Indians intensified their stealing of grain from the Clear Creek settlement.

By early August, the Volunteers at both Camp Lincoln and Fort McDowell were being mustered out of the service, as their terms were expiring, and no level of government had funded an extension.

The Tontos began to sense victory, as reflected in this letter by Capt. Washburn to Col. W. H. Garvin, Sept. 12, 1866. "The Indians are now harvesting the corn at this settlement at the rate of about 30 or 40 bushels nightly. There is but one soldier left who is able to shoulder a musket, and he has charge of the commissary stores at this Camp, what there are; no meat left. When the bearer of this leaves, there will be two citizens left who call themselves well. I am hourly expecting an attempt to take the stock. I have to do guard duty day and night. If assistance does not come very soon, I shall have to abandon what government property I am trying to protect, and shall seek security for myself and animals."

Next: Talk of Peace

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