PIONEERS SELDOM DIED OF OLD AGE -- Chapter 13
The stories of early settlers buried in isolated graves are often difficult to get straight, because so many conflicting folk stories can surround them. Never was this more true than in our attempt to decipher the story of Mr. Starr, for whom Starr Valley is named.
One morning the late Raymond Cline took me outside his home and pointed to a nearby hillock where, he said, Mr. Starr and his wife are buried. A tree shaded the site that was marked by eight round fieldstones lining the north side of the grave. Recent development may have obscured even that vague marker, but what we can know of this significant name is important to record for posterity.
We shall piece together the narration I received from Raymond Cline, an interview I had with Charlie Chilson, interviews Ira Murphy had with Theresa Boardman and Ernest Pieper, the various writings of Ranger Fred Croxen who interviewed old-timers in the 1920s, and some information from the "Rim Country History" published by the local historical society. Nick Houser interviewed Walter Haught, who gives us bits and pieces. A relative of Starr Valley settler John Azbill from California looked me up one year and shared family information. In addition, we shall search the Great Register, the census records, the school enrollments, and glean several articles in Wild West and Old West magazines.
The family name of Starr has been common in Arizona, but tracing the lineage of many families with that name leads everywhere except to the Starr Valley Starr. Apparently, he, whose first name has disappeared, came out of the shadows and his origins remain a mystery.
Some have suggested he came from the infamous Starr family of outlaws who hailed from Indian Territory in Oklahoma. There was Tom Starr, a Cherokee whose son Sam married Belle, and Belle Starr's criminal activities became legendary. Henry Starr, a cousin of Belle and Sam Starr, was a bank robber in New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma, and died in 1921 after being shot during a robbery.
There were three men with that last name in Globe for the 1870 census, coming from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois respectively. There was a John Starr in the area that same year, who could possibly be our man. There was Jacob Starr, "one of the pioneers who opened up Salt River Valley to civilization" according to his obituary in 1893, but that is too late for our man. Maybe he was a brother.
Raymond Cline said that Mr. Starr came to this place in the 1870s and married an Indian woman, who could have been Apache since there were Tonto Apache camps in the area then. Chief Melton Campbell once told me the Apache name for Starr Valley is Chiga-nut-so-giseen, meaning "They had a good time," or "A dance around a tree." However, the first settler was not having a very good time since legend says the Indians killed both he and his wife.
The name Starr is familiar to the Yavapai-Apache Reservation near Camp Verde, and two women who hailed from there in the late 19th century could have been the children of Mr. Starr and his Apache wife. However, a 1978 article by Ralph Fisher in the Roundup states that Starr was "married to an Oregon Indian woman." I have no idea where he obtained that information.
The story seems to have begun with John Azbill. He came from California to this place, perhaps because he knew or was related to Mr. Starr and had been invited to join Starr here. It could be that Starr communicated what we know to Azbill while writing him about coming to stake a homestead. The most reasonable sequence is that Starr came from California in the early 1870s, married an Indian woman and they lived in a dugout on what would later be the Houston ranch.
John Azbill, having been urged to come, arrived in 1875, only to find Mr. Starr, and perhaps his wife, dead in the dugout that formed their living quarters. He buried the bodies on the little ridge, and sent word to the Houston brothers in Visalia, Calif., to come and develop a cattle ranch.
The Houstons may have been related to either Azbill or Starr. They arrived in 1877, but it was a very dry year, not good to start ranching. They returned to California and returned with their cattle herd in 1878.
Azbill and his wife Mary were living in the old dugout, but moved over to the East Verde, according to Raymond Cline, at what was later known as the Azbill Place, or Lower Sidella (because the Sidles family had settled Flowing Springs just upstream).
Mrs. Azbill may have moved back to Starr Valley after John died because she alone is listed as the parent of five children in the 1891 school record for the Starr Valley School. The school did not have a building, but met in a tent, and each family had to furnish seats for their own children.
The Houston family built a house and barn on the property, and called the area Starr Valley after their predecessor. According to Fred Croxen, "When they fenced the barn they built the fence so his grave would be on the cienaga side of the fence and would not be trampled by stock."
There is another story about Starr's death that is untrue and needs to be clarified. When Payson educator Ira Murphy interviewed Ernest Pieper, Pieper said, "I know where Starr got killed." He went on to say that Valda Mae Taylor had taken him to see the grave "on the old road that went to Starr Valley, where the old Fox Farm used to be." According to the tale, Starr's team was running and straddled a tree, smashing Starr and killing him. Murphy picked up the misinformation given him by Pieper and printed it in the history written for Payson's Centennial, "Mr. Starr moved onto a small homestead and the little flat became Starr Valley. Starr grew corn, potatoes and fruits on his farm, but later sold the farm to the Houston brothers and the location became the headquarters for Houston's cattle ranching. Mr. Starr was killed in the little valley when his team of horses ran away and forked an oak tree. This was shortly after he had sold his farm." In turn Ralph Fisher picked up the misinformation and published it in the Payson Roundup. By that time the folktale had become "gospel."
Raymond Cline gave us the more likely story, that it was Dick Williams who was killed at the Fox Farm. Williams had retired in 1898 from his Tonto Creek property, having sold to the Henry Haught family. He was camped on the Houston Ranch in Starr Valley, where he raised a garden and would often take his wagon to Payson for groceries and libations. In those days the road between Payson and Starr Valley went by the Fox Farm at the end of what today is called Granite Dells Road. On this occasion Williams had drunk his fill, and simply gave the horses their head as they raced for home. They ran away with the groggy Williams, and coming to a tree in the road, went on either side. The wagon smashed, killing Dick Williams instantly. Raymond Cline went on to tell me, "Williams is buried out here to the west of my house."
Unfortunately for grave hunters, it is forever an unmarked grave; one of many in the Rim Country where "pioneers seldom died of old age."
Next time we will visit a family cemetery along the old road up Ox Bow Hill, and learn the sad story of Sam and Dagmar Haught.