Chapter 40: The History of the Tonto Apaches
The decade of the 1870's was the time of devastation for the Tonto Apache bands. By the end of the decade, their land had been wrested from them and their identity as a unique people all but extinguished. The campaign led by General George Crook, from 1871 to 1874, was an intensive crusade by the U. S. Army to starve the native tribes into submission and incarcerate them on bounded reserves, where their lives could be controlled.
When General Crook took command of the Military Department of Arizona, the war against the Indians had been raging for seven years. He was determined to conclude it and wage a campaign against the native tribes that would eliminate them as a threat to white settlement. However, a peace movement had gripped the Federal government in Washington, in reaction to the genocide of Native Americans advocated by many settlers.
President Grant sided with the "Peace Party" saying, "I do not believe our Creator ever placed different races of men on this earth, with the view of having the stronger exert all their energies on exterminating the weaker. If any change takes place in the Indian policy of the government while I hold my present office, it will be on the humanitarian side of the question."
Executive orders now prevented General Crook from launching an all-out campaign. Instead, the plan was to confine the Indians to reservations, where these traditional hunter-gatherers would become farmers. Throughout 1871 the government established reservations around the periphery of Apache Territory, and one, Camp Apache, in the midst of it. At Date Creek, a reservation was established for the Yavapai and Mojave. At Camp Verde, on the dividing line between Tonto Apache and Yavapai Territories, the Rio Verde Reservation was created. On the lower Verde River the Camp McDowell Reservation was established for Yavapai bands, and in 1872 the San Carlos Reservation was established along the Gila River. All Indians were warned to surrender and register on one of the reservations or be considered renegades, liable to be killed on sight.
As General Crook made a grand circle of the military posts, it seemed that the White Mountain Apaches were most amenable to peace. Of course, their reservation in the White Mountains included ancestral lands, with room to continue their hunting life. At Camp Apache, the general enlisted several of the chiefs and their warriors to be Army scouts. He was aware that "it took an Apache to track down an Apache." Such willingness to betray other Apaches belied the idea of an Apache federation. The bands were committed to looking out for themselves, even if it meant going against other Apaches.
Crook saw that getting supplies to Camp Apache required a long trek north from Fort Whipple, to follow old trails east and then drop south into the White Mountains. He determined to create a new military and supply road across the edge of the Mogollon Rim, leading from Fort Whipple to Camp Verde, and then eastward to Camp Apache. In the fall of 1871, the well-posted Tontos saw a military party heading for their country from Camp Apache. None of this section of Arizona had been mapped at that time, and Crook was proceeding cautiously with a survey team and a detachment of cavalry. As the party of whites approached the headwaters of the East Verde River, a group of Tonto warriors could see they were at ease, admiring the awesome beauty of the view from the Rim. Crook's aide-de-camp John Bourke would later write about the vast resources of timber and grass they observed, and the details of what happened next.
Fifteen or 20 Tontos hid behind the large girth ponderosa pines, and then let fly, their powerful arrows. The air was filled with the whizzing of these lethal, feathered sticks, one of which buried itself to the feathers in a pine tree that shielded General Crook. Miraculously for the military personnel, who had leaped for cover at the first sound of the attack, none were wounded or killed. The cavalry troops were quickly on the scene and with the explosion of their rifles, drove the Indians back into the forest. Two of the Apaches headed for the Rim. Bourke wrote, "There they stood, almost entirely concealed behind a boulder on the very edge of the precipice, their bows drawn to a semi-circle, eyes gleaming with a snaky black fire, their long unkempt hair flowing down over their shoulders, bodies almost completely naked, faces streaked with the juice of the baked mescal and the blood of the deer..."
They fired their arrows one more time and then leaped over the edge of the Rim. The soldiers were certain they had fallen to their chosen death. But upon looking over, saw the natives jumping like mountain sheep from rock to rock down the almost vertical cliff. A shot by General Crook wounded one of them, whose arm hung limp and bleeding, though he continued to make his escape into the forest below.
Crook's party continued their exploration and upon reaching Fort Whipple, the general gave orders for the building of the new road. Throughout 1872 and 1873, crews of soldiers and hired laborers blazed the trail, and by 1874 it had been widened enough to accommodate supply wagons. Furthermore, it would serve to quickly disburse cavalry units that could intercept renegade Apaches escaping toward the north.
Next: White Anger and Apache Vengeance