The Camp

Chapter 48 - The History of the Tonto Apaches


It was simply called "The Camp," located in the Tonto National Forest south of Payson. When the Tonto Apaches were forced to move there from Indian Hill, a forest ranger tried to stop it. Allen Curtis stood his ground with a shotgun, and said, "Over my dead body." The ranger retreated, and the Tonto people created their village west of the highway.

Martha Johnson, the mother of Melton Campbell, made a decisive statement. "And now again, the white man tells us that we must move. They always want something, and they never leave nothing for the Indians, who always called this place their home. In the old days, when I was small, we could move and live wherever we wanted to. There was no people to order us around. Again, they're trying to force us off this land. But we're determined now that we're going to stay and fight. They want us to move back to San Carlos, but I'm never going to move away. I'm going to live here!"


When the Tonto Apaches settled in the 1950s at what they called "The Camp," they were visited by a pastoral couple that helped them build this church. It became the center of life for the tribe, and their newfound faith brought strength and sobriety to the members of the tribe. During this time, Chief Melton Campbell, following his father, rose to leadership.

And they did.

They had no power, phone or water. For any emergency, someone had to run to town and get the fire department or sheriff or doctor. In the first few years, five houses were lost to fire. Garbage had to be hauled a mile away to the dump, or buried or burned. The butane lanterns they used were considered a great improvement over the kerosene lamps of Indian Hill. They heated and cooked with primitive wood stoves, and in summer, cooked outside on portable gas stoves. Water was carried in milk cans or even empty fuel cans by borrowed pickups. Water was obtained at the sawmill in the hope of finding somebody with a pickup willing to run it out.

The Payson sawmill was the Tontos' primary source of income. They appreciated the generous attitude of their employers, where if a man missed a day of work, he could go right back to the job the next day. At San Carlos, the mill operators made an employee miss a whole week of work, if he failed to show up one day. In Payson, the Owens brothers, and later Kaibab Industries, the sawmill owners, allowed the Tontos to freely take all the discarded and scrap wood they wanted. Again, a pickup truck would have to be commandeered.

Vinnie Ward, Melton Campbell's sister, worked in town doing laundry, housecleaning and cooking, as did some of the other women. There was a general feeling of not wanting to invest any of their small incomes into fixing up roads or houses at The Camp, because they did not own the land.

The Tontos had gradually felt an identity apart from the Apaches living at San Carlos. Chief Campbell said in 1970, "We are not desert people and we are not farmers. Even today, I cannot go down to San Carlos and live." He would go to visit relatives for a day or two, but could not stand the air and "there are too many Indians." He felt like a stranger, and the continued drinking at San Carlos turned him off. However, family members from San Carlos would move up to Payson to join their clan.

The Forest Service finally gave up trying to evict them, and overlooked the presence of The Camp, as long as the people did not cut wood or allow animals to run loose on forest property. Livestock had to be penned up. There was a certain amount of pressure on the government to allow them to remain because their labor was needed for the mill, the mines and the local householders.

At The Camp there were about 80 people, few of whom had ever been enrolled on a reservation. A Tonto Apache from San Carlos named Lily Swift moved to The Camp, because she was an aunt of Allen Curtis' wife. George Campbell built her a house, for which she paid him only half of the agreed price. It was four rooms, the largest house in The Camp.

Lily Swift was very zealous for her Christian faith, and held Bible studies in her home, as well as directing the building of a brush arbor shelter for services.

One year, the Rev. and Mrs. J. O. Martin arrived from Oklahoma, saying they had been called of God to come and serve the Apaches. Pastor Martin was an evangelical preacher who won the hearts of the Tontos and soon he and his wife became much loved. Under his leadership, the community built a wooden church that also became a community center. They even acquired a generator to light the building.

After the Martins arrived, Lily Swift returned to San Carlos. Pastor Martin had a profound influence on The Camp. Among other things, his evangelistic message brought sobriety to the people. Previously there had been much drunkenness. While the Indians were not allowed to buy liquor in town, they often sent non-Indian friends to buy it for them. While on Indian Hill, the drunkenness became a severe problem and continued at The Camp. Vinnie Ward said, "Some of them used to drink all day and all night, and never got sobered up until about Tuesday."

The fellowship of the church and Martin's message of salvation through faith in Christ enabled them to stop the drinking. Vinnie Ward said this was not because there were rules against it, but because "it's just best not to drink ... I guess they make a vow to God that they wouldn't drink no more." She said her husband would not go to visit at San Carlos after he stopped drinking, because they were still drinking all the time down there.

This change freed up the whole community both economically and in their ability to pursue independence. After J. O. Martin left, he passed the mantle of spiritual leadership to one of his protégés, Melton Campbell. When Campbell was a young boy, he had come under the influence of Payson teacher Julia Randall. She encouraged the Indian boys to attend school, and Melton Campbell was one of the first to do so. While in school, the white kids nicknamed him "Chief" and the sobriquet stayed with him the rest of his life. As an adult, he grew into the title.

Several of the local families in Payson took a special interest in the Tontos, and sought to better their lives. One of the most active was Mrs. Lewis Pyle. Nanette Smith Pyle was independently well off, having come from the East with an inheritance and married rancher Lewis Pyle. She initiated a day care facility, called the Small Fry Day Care, and had a building constructed so that the Indian children could be brought in for preschool training. Later she was able to get the government to bring a Head Start program to Payson, and gave the building to the School District for the town's first kindergarten.

She also enlisted the support of the Save The Children Fund. Each child of a needy family received $100 a year, paid quarterly, for school clothes and books. Fifteen children received this help. $20 of each $100 was set aside by the community for improvements, such as gravel for the roads. During the hard snowfalls in the winters of 1967 and 1968, Nan Pyle rounded up food, blankets and Coleman heaters for The Camp, and hired a truck to break through drifts of snow to deliver them.

Awareness of the Tonto Apaches' plight was gaining much attention among the non-Indian citizens, and great events were about to happen.

Next: The Dream Comes True.

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