Talk Of Peace

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Chapter 24: The history of the Tonto Apaches


The summer of 1866 found the soldiers at Ft. McDowell plagued by bronchitis, dysentery and scurvy, resulting in several deaths. Blame was put on the lack of fruits and vegetables, so an effort was made to develop a farm near the post. The "bronchitis" was actually Valley Fever. To add to the problems, the Arizona Volunteer units of Pimas and Maricopas were becoming restless as their enlistment was running out and they had not received their promised pay. Tonto Yavapai bands sensed the onset of weakness at the garrison and sent a messenger saying they wished to make peace.

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The old Army post, Fort McDowell, is in ruins today. The Yavapai reservation has grown up around what is left of it.

The post commander accepted their invitation and met with a large group of Tontos 10 miles east of the post. The Indians responded to his good will by accompanying the soldiers back to McDowell, where two days of negotiations took place. The commander invited the Tonto leaders to bring their people in and settle near the post and they would be furnished rations. In response, about 450 warriors with 40 women and children came to set up camp. They reported that about 2,000 other Tontos wanted to come in also. Because their food stores had been so decimated by the soldiers, they were hungry and sick.

However, during the next few days, rumors spread among the Tontos that what the Army really wanted was to observe and control them. On the night of Aug. 18, the entire company of Indians vanished.

The commander knew the Army had to establish outposts deeper into Tonto territory, and after waiting almost a week, he sent an infantry detachment to forge a route over the Mazatzal Mountains. Heading to the Tonto Basin, they followed Sycamore Creek to Sunflower Valley and proceeded northeast around Mount Ord, along an old Indian trail to Tonto Creek. Crossing the river they climbed into the Sierra Ancha (Spanish for "wide mountain") where they burned deserted Tonto rancherias and gathered up usable food and hides. Since their shoes were worn out, they returned to the post.

After the Tonto bands had stayed at Fort McDowell, the post surgeon Dr. Smart reported a vivid description of the Tonto people. "Their average height is about five-feet, four- or five-inches. They are slimly built, and possess but little muscular development, yet they are very agile, climbing the mountains with great rapidity, and running on more level ground for many miles without any semblance of fatigue. The skin is of a light brownish-red color... They have generally the traits well marked of the American Indian; some, however, have a full round face and Chinese cast of countenance. The head is covered with a mass of rusty black hair, cut off in front on a level with the eyebrows, and permitted to grow a little longer behind, but never reaching the shoulders; occasionally the hair is worn quite short, round head cut. The beard, when any does grow, is dragged out hair by hair, by means of an elongated piece of tin, formed into a forceps by being bent lengthwise of itself, and which is usually carried suspended from the neck by a thong of buckskin...

"With one exception they were not painted. The paint in the exceptional case was of a grayish white color, and laid on in lines, narrow, closely set, and wavy, transverse and parallel, covering the face, chest and back. Their dress consists of the breechcloth and a pair of buckskin moccasins. The latter have a stout hard sole, which curves upwards a little in front of the toes; poorer specimens only cover the ankles, but others are so long that when drawn up they encase the thighs. This, with a leather bracelet on one wrist and a bow and quiver of arrows, forms the general outfit. But others are more completely equipped, wearing a buckskin thrown over one shoulder and fastened in the opposite armpit, and perhaps possessing a waist-belt of leather and an old sheath-knife, the product of probably some Sonora enterprise..."

"None wore any covering for the head with the exception of the chief whose crown consisted of a closely fitting skull-cap of skin, unadorned behind, but covered in front with feathers and many spangles of brass and tin. He also possessed a doublet of prepared buckskin, brownish-red in color, with some blue linen markings on it... In disposition, they seem to be lighthearted, but subject to sudden fits of suspicion and timidity, which is perhaps sufficiently accounted for by the active campaign of late kept up against them..."

Throughout the fall of 1866 the soldiers from McDowell carried an intense campaign into the Sierra Ancha. Many natives were killed, taken prisoner, and their villages destroyed. The Tonto bands were shocked to realize that even their most secluded camps were vulnerable to white attack. The Military Department of the Pacific sent orders that an Army post should be established in the center of the Tonto stronghold. However the mountains were so rugged the soldiers often found themselves ambushed while Apache signal fires burned from every surrounding hill. It was determined impossible to build a wagon road into the Sierra Ancha, and any outpost should be built west of those mountains.

Meanwhile the raids on Indian camps were celebrated in the territorial newspapers, and Major General Henry Halleck, commander of the Division of the Pacific, expressed confidence that a forced peace was possible by "a hunt of extermination."

Next: Chief Delshay

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