The Bones Of Payson

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In our search for the isolated graves of Rim Country pioneers, we should not overlook "the ancient ones" -- those people who populated Payson and its surroundings from at least 1000 B.C. until they disappeared around A.D. 1250.

Rim Country residents know the area was heavily populated during those millennia. They left the remains of their stone houses, pottery, arrowheads, grinding tools, even their jewelry and clothing on every ridge and hilltop.

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Early Payson Tonto burial site.

However, the ruins at Risser, Shoofly, Goat Camp and the many smaller prehistoric communities that encircle Payson are not the only places burial sites have been uncovered. Right in the town, the bones of early hunter-gatherers have surfaced. Public Works Director Buzz Walker reported two ancients' skeletons found during the renovation of Green Valley Park. Then, in February of 1996, the remains of a pre-historic man were unearthed on Payson's Main Street, near the Winchester Saloon (that would burn down the following October).

These incidents were passed over with little fanfare, for fear the public would begin digging for more bones. All these burials had to be covered over and left undisturbed, or the remains of those identified as pre-historic had to be turned over to the Hopi/Zuni tribes, the oldest identified native strains in Arizona.

The real excitement came when a plumber working at the Julia Randall Elementary School came upon a skeleton in a crawlspace. It was an unlikely gravesite, and theories were conjured that surely this involved a murder or some foul play.

Then pieces of the mystery began to come together when Duane Kaufman came forward to tell about a boyhood prank he and two of his buddies had carried out in the early 1960s.

The Kaufmans moved in next door to the late Anna Maw Deming, Payson's famous weather lady. One day as Duane cut through her back yard he spotted bones protruding from the ground. He proceeded to dig up one-third of a human skeleton, and with his friends made a marvelous plan. They knew of the dungeon-like basement under the old part of their school, and a crawl space leading from it. They could lead girls and younger pupils down to this "secret place" and scare the willies out of them. Their clandestine practice was stopped as soon as the teachers detected it, but the bones remained undisturbed, to be forgotten until the plumber discovered them in 2003.

The partial skeleton was sent out to be analyzed, and the report asserted these were truly pre-historic bones. In fact they were from one of the legendary "bun heads" who lived in the Payson area.

That peculiar nickname carries a fascinating story regarding the Rim Country's earliest burials. These people were here long before the other ancient groups moved in. The Sinagua to the north, the Anasazi to the northeast, the Mogollon to the southeast, the Salado to the south, and the Hohokam to the southwest, formed a cultural ring around the "little pocket of people," as archaeologist/anthropologist Penny Minturn called them. Living at the center of these other cultures and on the major north-south trading route, the Payson "bun heads" became trading moguls.

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Roasting pit at Butterfly Springs.

The fascination with them is that they were not genetically related to any of the surrounding peoples. They were probably related to the archaic people who lived in the Southwest from 4000 to 1500 B.C., and are readily identified by a protrusion on the back of the head called an "occipital bun." It ranges in size from a baseball to a softball, and is located about where a hair bun would be -- thus, bun heads. Those groups who had built their cliff dwellings and pueblos outside of Payson from A.D. 900 to A.D. 1250 did not have such a physical trait. The additional skull room was on the visual portion of the brain, and one speculates it indicated a highly developed ability to spot game during the hunt. Another intriguing aspect to this phenomenon is that the occipital bun has been found in European Neanderthals and Australian Aborigines. Could there be some ancient link in this human chain, or was the Payson bun head an independent development?

Another series of isolated Native American graves in Payson belong to the Tonto Apache bands. They have lived in the Payson area from the 1500s, except for a 20-year period in the 19th century when they were relegated to reservations.

One of the Tonto's longtime encampments was up from Main Street on the divide dubbed Indian Hill. The late Tonto Apache leader Melton Campbell, in an interview with me, told of the graves of five individuals east of McLane and overlooking the high school. The last burial there was in the 1940s, and each grave was encircled, Apache style, with stones. Campbell said, "Even today they do that. Every member of the family takes one rock and lays it down. Just one rock; whether he's a member in the immediate family or a distant cousin." This is to show respect, and for the more superstitious, the rock circle keeps evil spirits away.

Those graves have been lost to view since the Tonto families moved from the hill and their land was taken over by developers. Their move in the 1950s was to "The Camp," west of the highway from today's Tonto Apache Reservation, and in the vicinity of the rodeo arena and event center. At least one burial is out there somewhere. Lee Bread, a member of the tribe reported that the father-in-law of Silver Allen (an Apache medicine man) died and "they buried him right there at that place."

Finally, one of the little known Apache burial places dates to pre-reservation days. One of the original campsites for the Tonto (along with Indian Hill, East Verde Estates, Flowing Springs, Deer Creek, Gisela, Lower Rye Creek) was on the south slope of Burch Mesa. The Apache name for the place translates "A Spring of Water In the Oak Grove," and a common name for the area is Butterfly Springs. In a recorded oral interview, Lulu Randall, a Tonto Apache, said, "Ed Smith and his group of people lived there."

That area was Forest Service land, but developers were eager to claim it, in the heart of Payson and south of the airport. One day I accompanied a party consisting of Forest Service rangers and their archaeologist, tribal elder Vince Randall, of the Yavapai Apache Tribe of the Verde Valley, and several officials from the local tribe. We combed the area as the Tontos pointed to evidence of Apache occupation. There were shards and grinding tools; there were old junipers whose limbs had been cut off for fuel to roast agave hearts. The roasting pit was in plain sight nearby, with charred rocks and disturbed soil.

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Butterfly Springs roasting pit and tree.

The Tonto also pointed out the rock out-crops all along north Vista Road where burials had occurred. It seems a favorite place to consign their dead was a crevice or an overhang in a massive outcrop of rock. The body would then be sealed in by placing rocks over the opening.

My mind flipped to another oral history in the Rim Country Museum archive, made in 1970 with Pearl Hilligas Morrison. She said, "We found a skeleton in a rock over there on Burch Mesa. We kids used to love to play up there, and we found a skeleton, and all his beads. He'd been there a long time, but we wouldn't touch anything."

The next installment is our final chapter of this series on the isolated graves of pioneers in the Rim Country; in it we will take "A Final Stroll With the Pioneers" in Payson's Pioneer Cemetery.

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