For some years I have desired to set down an orderly account of the town of Payson, Arizona, founded by gold miners and established by cattle ranchers in the late 19th century. It is a story that begins in the spring of 1868.
The snow pack was melting and sending the creeks over their banks. A detachment of U.S. Army cavalry rode up the basin they were calling Tonto Basin, after the Tonto Apache bands that dominated this central area of Arizona Territory. They hoped to be able to cross the many streams that rushed down from the mountains on either side to merge with Tonto Creek. Their mission was to locate the best place for a permanent military post to be named Camp Reno, after the Civil War hero General Jesse Reno, killed at Turners Gap in 1862.
The Arizona Miner would later verbalize the venom on the lips of most white settlers those days, "Let the posts be planted in the homes of the reptiles at any expense, roads made there, and it is the end of the hostile Apaches in Arizona ..." (Prescott, June 8, 1869)
On this particular day in mid-May, the soldiers were being more cautious than blatant. They looked around furtively, knowing they were in the heart of Tonto Apache country.
Since the previous autumn the army had been building a military road from Fort McDowell on the lower Verde River over the Mazatzal Mountains and into the Apache stronghold. After many skirmishes with the Indians, by mid-April the trail had reached into the Tonto Basin where, near a plentiful spring of water, they had established a temporary post. It was at the foot of Mount Ord just two miles from Tonto Creek, a likely place from which to launch attacks on Apache villages. [iii]
From here, a communique was sent to Prescott, the Territorial Capital, which appeared in the local newspaper, "In a few days a scout will leave for Green Valley, which is to be Camp Reno instead of the first place located. This valley is ten miles from Meadow Valley and a little north of it. A splendid place for a post and to hunt Indians ..."
As far as one can tell by studying the military forays that had taken place the previous winter, Meadow Valley was the name the soldiers gave to Spring Creek where later the Flying W Ranch would be located. At first they considered this a good location for Camp Reno, but it was too remote into the Sierra Ancha for a safe supply line. On one occasion, a severe snowstorm had driven the soldiers out after being attacked by Apache warriors. Another time the soldiers attempted to attack the Indian camps in this secluded valley, the Apaches, well warned and hidden, had set an ambush. A 15-minute skirmish followed in which the Indians were dislodged, but it was obvious that a post in the wild Sierra Ancha was impractical.
During some of the army scouts for Apache camps they had stumbled into what seemed a perfect location. There was so much grass in evidence in the meadows flanking a running stream they called it "Green Valley." It met the criteria of being deep into Tonto territory, and would place a military post about half way between Fort Whipple in Prescott and Fort McDowell in the Salt River Valley.
So it was that in the middle of May 1868, U.S. troops marched perilously up Wild Rye Creek, and around Ox Bow Hill, forging a trail that came into Green Valley from the west. [iv] Here they viewed what they believed to be the ideal spot for a military post, from which they could drive the Apaches out of Arizona's central mountains. Today's chamber of commerce might take a page from the military correspondent's report to The Arizona Miner, appearing in its June 24th issue, "It is situated in some of the finest country in Arizona, and right at home with the Indians ... Central Park, New York, would be laid in the shade alongside of Green Valley, and I doubt if Prescott will stand the test."
By August the army had completed a rough military road into Green Valley, but fending off Apache attacks made the task particularly difficult. This invasion was a direct threat to the Tonto bands that called the area tega-sugah. They included in their special homeland not only Green Valley, but also East Verde and Gisela. The people from there were called tega-sugin. [v]
The continual skirmishes left many dead on both sides, and the military was hardly able to keep their cattle herd intact. However, the detachment from Fort McDowell was still under orders to establish a permanent military post in Green Valley. They struggled for a year to do this, but in addition to intense Indian opposition, the long supply line required made the location most impractical. In July 1869 Green Valley was abandoned by the military, and the post in Tonto Basin was considered the permanent Camp Reno. However, the constant Apache attacks and the need to maintain the long supply line over the mountains proved too much, and Camp Reno was abandoned in 1870. Immediately the Apaches burned the buildings, although the site would continue as a staging area for cavalry and infantry to pursue the Indians.
During the military occupation of Green Valley, the reporter embedded with the soldiers reported to the newspaper, "There are already big stories of gold being around Green Valley, but until I have sound proof I will not try to excite anyone. All who want farms should come out and take a look around; there are no toll gates on the road, as yet, between Prescott and here."[vi]
It was an invitation too good to refuse, and even before the Apache/Yavapai bands were finally confined to reservations in 1874-75, miners and cattle ranchers had begun to find their way to Green Valley, the surrounding Rim Country and the Tonto Basin.
[iii] The 7,128-foot-high mountain peak was named for Edward Otho C. Ord, an army officer with distinguished service in the Seminole Indian War, the Civil War and other Indian wars. He had been instrumental in forcing the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He was also the designer of Fort Houston.
[iv] Several tales about the naming of Ox Bow Hill include the one that the soldiers found an oxbow there and so named it. Others say miners later bestowed the name, after the name of the Ox Bow Mine.
[v] This information came from Tonto Chief Melton Campbell, in a 1970 interview with Nickolas Houser. It is difficult to know if the spelling of these names is correct from the transcription of this oral interview.
[vi] The Arizona Miner, June 24, 1868