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Chapter 46: History of the Tonto Apache

As the 19th century entered its last decade, military control over the San Carlos Reservation became lax. Tonto and Yavapai families were free to return to the places they called home, and this usually meant returning to the places where their fathers had been born. Those men who had served as Army scouts were given passes, and little was done to stop others who wished to leave. A new generation had been born on the reservation, and some Tontos who had married into White Mountain, Cibecue, or San Carlos families preferred to remain behind. Others drifted back to Payson, Rye, Gisela, Fossil Creek, and the Verde Valley. There they found that their traditional lands were occupied by white ranchers, so they made their camps where they could, usually poaching on lands that were in the process of becoming national forests.


Upon returning to their homes in the Payson area, Tonto Apaches found work waiting for them in building new roads to and from the Roosevelt Dam.

To sustain their lives in the old ways of living off the land was almost impossible. The settlers were decimating much of the big game, but deer and elk could still be found.

The Tontos harvested agave hearts to roast in pits, pinion nuts and acorns in season, and cut grasses for baskets.

The children became adept at catching pack rats, which became a staple of the diet in the Tonto camps. However, for the major part of their livelihood, the Tontos now became dependent upon the white homesteaders, hiring out as laundresses, woodchoppers and cowboys. They also found employment in some of the mines around Payson, and after the turn of the century, many found work building the new roads that county governments were constructing to link white communities.

In the Payson area, a Tonto camp was located near the mouth of Rye Creek, where it empties into Tonto Creek, just below the narrows, where later the Bush Highway would cross on a steel-span bridge.

For generations the Tontos had periodically occupied this camp, and here it was that Melton Campbell was born in 1941, later to become headman for the Payson area Tontos. His sister Vinnie Ward was also born here, as were a number of cousins.

The camp was on a flat overlooking the creek, where a spring brought fresh water from the hillside.

The fertile land flanking the creek produced good crops of corn, squash and watermelons. An orchard of peach trees was planted, and mesquite beans were plentiful.

Metates in the rocks, used for grinding the beans, were also plentiful and many dated to pre-Apache times.

A water ditch, drawn from upstream, followed the north side of the river to irrigate the crops. Modern petroglyphs reflect recent usage by the Tontos. One inscription reads "Wally Davis 1961." However, after World War II this camp was abandoned, except for its cemetery, as those who were left moved to Payson's Indian Hill.

In the 1920s and 1930s when Julian Journigan was driving the mail between Payson and Globe, the Tontos ordered goods from pictures in the Sears catalog, which the mail carrier graciously delivered. Social life flourished here, as there were two other Tonto camps nearby. The families at these camps worked cooperatively to maintain their hay fields and harvest their crops, as well as to conduct their dances and social events.

One of those was upstream on Tonto Creek at Gisela.

Leadership in the Gisela camp centered on a medicine man and patriarch named Silver Allen, who had weathered the Long March in 1875 from Rio Verde to San Carlos. Like many other Tontos, he had been an Army scout and thus the federal government had given him a parcel of land, in recognition of his service. For many years Silver Allen performed as the doctor and spiritual leader for the camps in the Payson area. Because he owned the property, he was allowed to put up a fence line, and he had a small herd of horses. He used to ride his black gelding named Nick up through Payson to visit and shop. However, he did not have a grazing permit from the Forest Service, and when Silver Allen grew old and could no longer ride, they confiscated the animals. One month when he missed picking up his paycheck at the Payson post office, the postmaster went to Gisela looking for him. He was found dying of malnutrition and pneumonia. They took him in a Jeep to the San Carlos Indian Hospital, where he died. He was buried at San Carlos. After nearly all the Tontos had left the Gisela camp, government also took over their land near the Gisela cemetery.

Another scout, Capt. Smiley, who had fought in the Battle of Big Dry Wash, was from the Gisela camp, as were a number of other Tonto scouts. In the early 1900s, another large migration of Tontos took place from San Carlos to the Payson area, because massive flooding on the Gila River and its tributaries had wiped out so many of the farms. Again in 1918, many Tonto lives were taken by the worldwide flu epidemic, and from then on, Tonto camps outlying Payson were abandoned, except for occasional seasonal crop gathering. A major factor was the need for Tonto families to live where employment was available. The building of the Roosevelt Dam and roads in the Tonto Basin took many families to the place called "Where The Waters Run Together," the convergence of Tonto Creek with the Salt River. Later, the development of a sawmill in Payson provided jobs for many years, and this enabled more permanent camps to be established.

Next: East Verde and Indian Hill

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