A Pincers On The Tontos

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Chapter 21: The history of the Tonto Apaches

While the Tontos were being attacked by troops from Fort McDowell on the south, a new threat loomed from the west. A colony of white settlers had begun farming the bottomlands of Clear Creek in the Verde River Valley. Since this area was the informal borderland between the Tonto and Yavapai bands, the new white settlement was encroaching where both tribes claimed sovereignty. A second colony of farmers soon moved into the valley, establishing farms a few miles north at the mouth of Beaver Creek.

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Fort McDowell is now a ruin, but it was one of a series of military posts surrounding Apache territory. These bases enabled the army to conduct a pincers movement against the Tontos.

The Indians enjoyed both of these communities as a handy source of grain and livestock, and the settlers pressed the government for protection. Their pleas were answered by a military presence at the end of August 1865, when a detachment of New Mexico Volunteers from Fort Whipple set up a camp near the Clear Creek settlement. As they were descending into the Verde Valley, 300 warriors armed with rifles, bows and arrows attacked them. Though none of the soldiers was killed, many of their supplies and records, as well as the surgeon's wagon, were burned, and their horses driven off. The tattered detachment of soldiers arrived at the Verde River settlements on foot, in spite of being a cavalry unit, and was of little help other than being a threat to the Indians by their physical presence.

Ten days later the Tontos raided the cornfields, escaping up Beaver Creek and scattering on top of the Mogollon Rim. The soldiers, two civilian guides and six of the citizens pursued the raiders, but after marching a grueling 11 miles into the mountains, they gave up and returned home.

The Indian raids on settlers' cornfields continued to increase as the crop ripened for harvest. Literally, scores of Indians would come down the canyons from the east, and the fields became the site of numerous skirmishes, wounds and deaths on both sides.

In October, Company A of Arizona Volunteers from Prescott arrived to bolster the camp and lift the morale of both civilians and army. They brought with them a sweeping declaration of war from General Mason, who had visited Fort Whipple. "All Apache Indians in this Territory are hostile, and all men large enough to bear arms who may be encountered, will be slain wherever met, unless they give themselves up as prisoners. All rancherias, provisions and whatever of value belonging to the Indians that may be captured, will be destroyed, except such articles as may be of value to the United States, which will be turned in to the proper officers and duly accounted for."

Acting governor Richard McCormick in his December 1865 message to the Second Territorial Legislature expressed the prevailing attitude of the Whites. "For the relentless Apache by whose hands so many of our patient pioneers have fallen, whose hostile presence is... the chief obstacle to the growth and development of the Territory... utter subjugation, even to extermination, is admitted as a necessity by all who are familiar with (the Apache's) history and habits... It is the primary and all-important work to which our attention must be given."

More gentle voices, such as Army surgeon Elliott Coues, were drowned in the clamor for Apache genocide. Coues wrote from Fort Whipple, "We are fighting Apaches continually, killing a few only to stir up the rest to renewed atrocities... (If we would) treat the Indian as if he were a human being (it would) encourage him to return the favor."

In the month of December the post on the Verde River was named Camp Lincoln, to honor the martyred president. Early that month a severe two-day snowstorm hit the Tonto Basin and its surrounding mountains. The Tontos were hard-pressed to find food, especially since the continuing attacks from Camps Lincoln and McDowell were destroying their crops and caches of food. Scouts from McDowell observed Apaches scraping the snow in search of seeds.

In spite of the severe weather, an army scouting party crossed the Mazatzals and Tonto Creek, and marched into the Sierra Ancha. The Tontos knew they were coming and abandoned their rancherias, but their tracks in the snow encouraged the troops to continue the pursuit. However, the army horses were becoming lame and the soldiers' shoes and clothing wearing out. Most of the scouts and soldiers returned to the post empty-handed. The harassing invasions continued, and since their pursuers trapped the Tontos, the Indians were unable to escape the cold by moving to lower ground, as was their custom in winter.

During one raid into what would later be called Greenback Valley, Lt. William Hancock found a $100 bill and a soldier's letter in one of the wickiups. A Tonto Apache had apparently stashed it after a raid on a mail courier. Before the detachment returned to Camp McDowell they attacked another rancheria, killing one woman and taking seven prisoners. The commander proudly reported the entire foray had netted 18 Tontos dead and 15 prisoners.

Next: The Battle of Five

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