Crossing Tonto Land, Part A

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Chapter 18: The history of the Tonto Apaches

Tonto Apaches had raided the ranches around Prescott, and an expedition of civilians was organized to pursue the raiders in hopes of killing them and recapturing the cattle. They started on the night of March 29, 1864 and trekked down the Agua Fria River. In several running gun battles with a cluster of Yavapai camps they killed more than 30 Indians. The appointed secretary of the group, Henry Clifton, wrote, "After the fight was over we commenced hunting the brush to see how many we had bagged."

To these men, the Indians were simply varmints to be killed at every opportunity. They believed they were justified when the Yavapai camps yielded the tails of horses and mules as well as hides that carried the brands of ranchers in the party.

We are indebted to at least two eyewitness accounts for the details of King Woolsey's expedition as it continued into the Rim Country during the spring of 1864.

One account was given by Henry Clifton, whose notes were printed in the Prescott Arizona Miner on May 11 and 25.

The more detailed account comes from the diary on F. A. Cook, one of the participants. His original diary is in the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott.

After their foray against the Yavapai camps, Woolsey's army rested and healed their bruised feet before moving on to the Verde Valley. Because this was their second venture into the Verde Valley, they knew the best route to take. After crossing the Verde River, they ascended the Clear Creek Canyon, a distance of six miles. The Mogollon Rim is such a maze of canyons it was impossible for the Tonto bands to always know their enemy's movements.

Woolsey's party surprised one small Tonto family who were camped and roasting mescal (the hearts of the agave plant, a staple Apache food). The Apaches were able to escape into the forest, but the running gun battle alerted the entire region. After that, the Tontos and Yavapai made sure the would-be soldiers did not catch a glimpse of them. In fact, the Indians were entertained from their secluded watch-posts by the sight of White men getting lost time after time in the uncrossable chasms. The white men could not replenish their water without descending into the depths of Clear Creek Canyon and this hampered their progress.

Although the rancherias they came upon were deserted, the militia destroyed the Apache's food stores. The Tontos would surround the White men's camp at night and shoot arrows at them as soon as the men rose in the morning. On April 8 one of the party, J. Donohugh, was struck by an arrow that passed between his jugular vein and windpipe, protruding out the other side. The physician accompanying the invaders, John T. Alsap, was able to extract the arrow so that Donohugh recovered.

As the Woolsey party advanced they gave names to landmarks, as though these storied places had no history before this. The Apaches had very descriptive names for these same places, each carrying a rich tradition passed on from generation to generation. However, the names given by Woolsey are the ones that have come down to us. A favorite camp of both Yavapai and Tonto Apache had been along a creek whose springs put forth water at a consistent 72 degrees. The Woolsey party observed how that warm water leached the limestone rock through which it flowed and left a crystallized coating on whatever it touched. Branches, leaves and stones acquired a fossil-like appearance, and so Woolsey named it Fossil Creek.

The Woolsey party was very thorough in their exploration of the basins, mesas and canyons that spread across the foot of the Mogollon Rim. The Tontos must have felt secure, however, in their fortress-like territory, and probably laughed among themselves at the cumbersome way these invaders conducted their scouting parties. The supply train of 60 mules was especially enticing to Indians who relished mule meat. The warriors followed the progress closely as the muleskinners tried without success to locate a potential wagon route eastward.

On the night of June 6 the white militia camped on a flood plain beside the East Verde River. They were probably at the future location of the LF Ranch, an area later settled by the Chilson, Taylor and Pyeatt families. The field contained stalks of Apache corn from the previous autumn. Signal fires burned brightly on the surrounding hills and the Apaches drew close enough to yell from the hilltops at the supply train. The Indians had sense enough to stay just out of gunshot. Their purpose was to worry the whites.

When the Woolsey party came to the mouth of Pine Creek, they went over a low divide heading southeast and followed a stream Woolsey named Wild Rye because of the grasses that were growing. On June 7 they reached the junction of Rye Creek with a larger river, which they named Tonto Creek. This was the territory of the powerful Tonto headman Del-che-ae. Already the Woolsey party had penetrated Tonto territory farther than white men had ever ventured before.

Next week: Crossing Tonto Land, Part B, the Woolsey party invades as far as the headwaters of the Salt River.

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