Crossing Tonto Land, Part B



Chapter 19: The history of the Tonto Apaches

As King Woolsey and his citizen army continued to invade Tonto Apache territory, the Indians observed how these men would scramble up the hillsides with their picks and dip their pans into the streambeds. It was strange behavior, not understood by the Tontos for whom this procession of white men was a terrible inconvenience, disrupting their lives. They had to put aside hunting and gathering activities, to say nothing of social dances, in order to follow these bearded, heavily clothed people. They had to abandon their villages and camps, and then after the whites moved on they returned to assess the damage. The invaders destroyed the food stores and crops at the Tonto camps.

After exploring the northern reaches of Tonto Creek, Woolsey found the creek took an abrupt turn toward the southeast, flowing through a basin bordered by several mountain ranges. The mouth of Tonto Creek emptied into the Salt River, and the conjoined rivers broke through the mountains, racing down canyons toward the desert valley.


Palisades overlooking the East Verde River in the Mazatzal Wilderness. From here, Tonto Apaches hooted and threw stones at the Woolsey party as they were returning down the river.

What Woolsey's crew called Cottonwood Camp was a paradise for Tonto Apaches. Here a Tonto band lived peacefully along side a Pinal Apache band. Many old and new wickiups were about the area, as were the ruins of ancient pueblo and mound dwellers. The Apaches had made good use of the tools left behind by the earlier people.

Not far back up the Tonto Basin, beaver dams formed a refreshing lake. Only the White man's superior firepower kept the Indians at bay while the intruders fished and swam, hunted and feasted. The Apache taboo on fish resulted in an abundance of very large fish in Tonto Creek and the Salt River. F. A. Cook wrote, "We made a willow drag and caught about 200 fish. The largest ones looked very much like cod but had no teeth, and would weigh from 10 to 20 pounds. This kind of fishing was new to many of us, but was very fine sport for we had to go into the river and in some places it was up to our necks. But the weather was very hot and the waters warm."

It was June 17 when they broke camp and headed up the Salt River. The Woolsey army had now moved out of Tonto Apache territory and into that of the Pinal Apaches. The invaders followed the streams and stayed near the springs, while the Apaches burned signal fires on the surrounding hills and yelled indistinguishable words from a distance.

Several times Indian emissaries carrying white flags actually approached the white men's camp ostensibly to beg for food. It was a clever Apache custom to enter an enemy camp under a flag of truce to assess its strength before an attack. In this case the attack did not come, probably because the rag-tag army continued to pass through and their firepower was superior. They went as far as the newly established Fort Goodwin near the Gila River, and entered White Mountain Apache territory. They prospected up the Black River, one of the headwaters of the Salt River. All the time the various tribes of Western Apaches were attentive to Woolsey's militia. The awful tales of Spanish atrocities, scalps for pesos bartered by white trappers, and the tortured death of Chief Mangas Coloradas by the Army with the Walker party the year before were told around Apache campfires. The Apaches must have known this invasion boded evil for them.

It was nearing the end of July when the men, now more interested in gold than stolen cattle, turned homeward. While still in White Mountain Apache territory, the Indians drew first blood. One of the party, J. W. Beauchamp, went to the top of a mountain to survey the surrounding country. A band of Apaches waylaid him, shot, lanced, stripped and left him for dead. He lived for some 20 minutes after his cohorts reached him but died before they could return to camp. "We buried him at the foot of the mountain," wrote Woolsey in his report, "which we named Beauchamp Peak in memory of the unfortunate victim of Indian cruelty and cowardice."

By mid-August, the party was back in Tonto territory, and camped near the mouth of Tonto Creek. There one of the party, O. Allen, accidentally discharged his gun and killed a fellow camper, Gaston Moreal. Woolsey does not mention this in his report, probably embarrassed that two of his men were killed on the tour, but his citizen army had no success in killing Tonto Indians in their own land.

The party retraced their way up Tonto Creek and the Rye Creek drainage. Then once on the East Verde River they followed it to its mouth, through the rugged wilderness west of today's Payson. Throughout these days the Apaches shouted and rolled rocks down from the high cliffs. No one was hurt and shots from the white men's rifles usually scattered the warriors.

The Indians were so invisible the white men had no idea how many there were, and Woolsey underestimated the tenaciousness of the Tonto Apaches. His report to the governor contained this evaluation, "We have followed the trail of the Apache to his home in the mountains and have learned where it is located. We have dispelled the idea of vast numbers that has ever been attached to that tribe. A few hundred poor, miserable wretches compose the formidable foe so much dreaded by many. They will be brought to terms speedily, or exterminated, I cannot doubt, when once the government shall know how small is the enemy by which so much annoyance has been caused."

To bring the central mountains of Arizona under white control would take the next 20 years.

Next: The Infantry Invades

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