The U.S. Seeks Peace



Chapter 38: The History of the Tonto Apache

Early in March 1870, the Army introduced someone into the Arizona scene who would not only come to know the Tonto Apaches well, but play a large role in diminishing their tribe. He was 23-year-old Lt. John G. Bourke, who came from New Mexico to Camp Grant with the 3rd Cavalry, Company F, under the command of Lt. Howard B. Cushing. Although he had just graduated from the military academy the year before, Bourke was a scholar who studied the Apaches with a scientific eye and wrote much about them and their life ways. His book, "On The Border With Crook" is one of the finer sources of information regarding the Tonto war.


Stoneman Lake is a natural lake on the Mogollon Plateau, formed by the depression of a volcano. It became a watering place for military troops during the Apache Wars, and was named for General Stoneman, who headed the military department.

On March 19, Cushing's company, with John Bourke second in command, scouted over the Pinal Mountains, down Pinal Creek, past Wheatfields to the Salt River and Tonto Creek. They went a short way up Tonto Creek, but turned back and forged into the Sierra Ancha. The strategy of the wily Tontos was to abandon their rancherias, having had full warning of the approach. Then when the Army moved in to destroy the village, the Indians would surround them on the adjacent hills, and fire devastating volleys upon the soldiers. Bourke describes jungle-like conditions of scrub oak, manzanita and the like, which made the Apache positions all but inaccessible. The soldiers lost what prisoners they had managed to round up, "who darted like jackrabbits into the brush and were out of sight in a flash."

Deadly skirmishes between military detachments and the Tontos continued to take place in the Mazatzals and Sierra Ancha. Before he had left command of the Arizona military department, General Ord had outlined a plan for an extensive area in eastern Arizona to become a reservation for the White Mountain Apaches. He supposed that after the military established it, the Office of Indian Affairs would take over its supervision. He imagined the Apache bands would be isolated on this reserve, soon surrounded by white settlers and ready to follow their example as farmers. He believed this was the only alternative to a continuation of the policy of extermination of the Apaches.

Now in command, General Stoneman was torn by the dilemma of how to deal with this continuing "Apache problem." The Tontos were vexed by an even more severe white problem, but continued to hold the advantage because of the rugged terrain and their style of warfare. The Chiricahua bands in southern Arizona were rampaging so furiously that much of the territory's troop strength had to be concentrated there. Calls for genocide were growing once again, but at the same time the power structure in the East called for more peaceful methods of dealing with the Indians. Stoneman was caught between the two opinions. He was firm in his belief that to offer blankets and rations would induce the Apaches to become peaceful. Reservations were the key, he thought, where the Indians could be taught to farm and support themselves.

However, from the civilian point of view there was an economic necessity for keeping the war going and avoiding peace. Apart from mining and cattle, much of Arizona's economy was based on contracts with the government to supply the military posts. Peace would mean less Army and fewer contracts. War was lucrative, so the many who stood to gain, continued the hue and cry for a war of extermination. Peace also meant that Indians farming in the vicinity of military posts would be selling their products to the Army, undermining white contractors.

By July 1870, General Stoneman had charted his plan of action, closely following the ideas left to him by General Ord. It was to develop settlements of citizens large enough to protect themselves against the Apaches, concentrate the troops at fewer posts, consider all Indians not friendly to his plan as hostile, and win the cooperation of the civilians in fighting them. He proposed an extensive area of eastern Arizona as a permanent reserve for the White Mountain Apaches.

In late July 1870, the General made a visit to Camp Verde and was accompanied by the publisher of Prescott's Arizona Miner, John Marion. During this visit, Stoneman saw to it that a new road from there to Camp Ord (the future Fort Apache) was begun. The new route, later called the Stoneman Road, was further south than the old Beale route, which passed by the San Francisco Peaks. Stoneman's road crossed the Mogollon plateau at a lower altitude, had fewer volcanic boulders which made travel so difficult, included more watering spots and was 100 miles shorter. Stoneman Lake, which lay along the route, also received its name from the general.

As colder weather of autumn began to settle over Apacheria, troops were diverted to the south to combat the growing intensity of Chiricahua raids and few forays were launched against the Tontos and their allies. But changes for the Tontos were in the air.

Next: The Call for Reservations

Commenting has been disabled for this item.