The Fight On Spring Creek

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Chapter 26: The history of the Tonto Apaches

As the U.S. Army continued their inroads to the Tonto stronghold, seeking a location for a new post, it was evident to the Apaches they could no longer be safe by retreating to secluded fortresses.

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The valley of Spring Creek was a favorite place for Tonto Apache camps, and the military made devastating raids here on several occasions. As soon as the Apaches were controlled, settlers, like Houdon (for whom a nearby mountain is named) moved in. His cabin remains there today. It is now the location of the Flying-W Ranch.

Delshay and other headmen came periodically to parlay with the white military leaders, who offered them a reservation at Fort Goodwin, to the east on the Salt River. However, not only did the Tontos see this as imprisonment, there were often bad feelings with the Pinal and San Carlos bands that had settled at Fort Goodwin. Then the Tontos and Yavapai were offered a safe camp near Fort McDowell if they would settle peacefully. This was hardly acceptable because their sworn enemies, the Pimas, would be nearby. The Tontos now began to bargain for a reservation in their own Tonto Basin, which would include rations and military protection.

As the year 1867 approached, the Tontos sorely felt the pinch of winter. So many of their stores had been destroyed and so much of their freedom to hunt had been taken away, their raids now took a desperate, wider girth. They increased the numbers of their warriors by cooperative ventures with the Yavapai, and at times with the Mojave. During January and February, the Indians staged a series of raids on Fort McDowell, taking horses, mules, and hides for their cold and starving families.

On Feb. 19, a military party left Camp McDowell to choose a site in the Tonto territory for an outpost to be named Camp Reno. The name was to honor Major General Jesse Lee Reno, killed in a Civil War battle in Maryland.

Pima and Maricopa scouts were to have accompanied the party. They had been at McDowell drawing rations and clothing since their December enlistment. Because a new commander, outranking Sanford, had come to McDowell, whom the Indians did not respect, the scouts refused to prepare for this mission. The day before the planned departure they disobeyed orders and returned to their villages on the Gila River.

The Tontos, observing the smaller military party headed for their Sierra Ancha stronghold without native scouts, spread the word among their bands. They allowed the soldiers to enter a beautiful valley on Spring Creek, just south of Diamond Butte. The army had named it Meadow Valley; in later settlement days it became the location of the Flying-W Ranch. Sanford's detachment had been there before, and they knew several rancherias were there, but these had been deserted while the Army advanced.

The afternoon of Feb. 22, the weather turned cold and a heavy snow began to fall. The Tontos then closed the net they had planned. In a highly unusual move, they attacked the soldier's camp at 2 a.m., taking the whites by surprise.

Amazingly, only one white man was killed, a packer, and a corporal was wounded, before the army could repulse the Tontos with superior firepower. When the attackers scattered, the soldiers moved their camp to the top of the hill and waited defensively until dawn. At least 150 Tontos set up ambuscades on the hills and passes, preventing escape. Other Tontos approached within 200 yards of the troops to snipe at them from behind trees.

The soldiers tried to march in first one direction and then another, but the deep snow and Tonto positions had them hemmed in. The troops had to dismount and defend themselves from behind trees. Indian bullets penetrated the coat and belt of the accompanying surgeon, Dr. Charles Smart. The troops held their position until the dark of night, when they escaped by detouring over the mountain. The deep snow and heavy forest made their retreat extremely difficult.

When one of the pack mules could not keep up with the march, the soldiers killed it and left it behind. The starving Tontos descended upon it to feast, which gave the Army its opportunity to get away. The natives had won the day, not only in defeating the goal of the soldiers, but also in proving again the Sierra Ancha stronghold was a most illogical place for a military post. When Army headquarters continued to insist on establishing a post in the heart of Tonto territory, Fort McDowell's commander suggested a site in Tonto Basin would be more reasonable.

As the military detachment returned to Camp McDowell, it was taunted all the way by Tontos who occasionally showed themselves and fired into the company. When throughout the month of March the Army made no forays against them, the Tontos felt some sense of victory.

However, in April, 70 soldiers and 180 Indian scouts moved over the trails toward the Sierra Ancha. Interestingly, many of the Pimas and Maricopas refused to cooperate with their white commanders, and lit large campfires that warned of their approach. By the time the Army company again reached the valleys of the Sierra Ancha, the rancherias had been abandoned.

Next: Road into the Tonto Heartland

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