Scenic Wonders, Tragic History

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Pete Aleshire photo

While enjoying the magnificent vistas of the Mogollon Rim, use your imagination and look back at the tragic history that played out over its hills, canyons and valleys between the settlers, soldiers and Native Americans in the 1870s.

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Tom Brossart photo

Native Americans who called the Rim Country home, knew the way through the canyons to high ground and its vantage point over pursuing soldiers.

Forest Road 300 wanders along the Mogollon Rim all the way from near Show Low to near Pine, offering access to some of the best views, fishing lakes and best string of scenic camping spots in the state. The “ohhh and ahhhh” impact of the drive is even more vivid in the fall, when the road ambles through assorted groves of aspen, shimmering in the glory of fall.

But the views, fishing spots and cliff-edge camping spots have been often extolled — reason enough to devote the weekend to making the drive.

However, few people realize that the route is also one of the most historic in the state.

The trail was originally blazed by the U.S. Army to connect Fort Apache in the White Mountains and Camp Verde down in the Verde Valley. General George Crook based his brilliant, brutal and ultimately tragic campaign against the Tonto Apache on the logistics of that road to wage one of the most important, but unknown Indian wars in the nation’s history.

Here, we offer the story of that war.

The avalanche toward one of the West’s least-known, but most-tragic wars started with the slaughter of a stagecoach full of people just outside the mining town of Wickenburg, not far from the Date Creek Reservation where nearly 1,000 Tonto Apache and Yavapai Indians had settled on a reservation.

The murder of the stage passengers was the flash point for a war that had been brewing for years as incoming settlers clashed with people who had possessed the land for generations. Ironically, some historians now believe the stagecoach massacre was actually committed by white or Mexican bandits posing as Apaches, but it set in motion a tragic chain of events.

The two-year struggle between the U.S. Army and the Yavapai and Tonto Apache flared and smoldered through 1871 and 1872 across a jagged swath of desert wilderness stretching from Prescott southeast to the Superstition Mountains. On one side, General Crook respected and admired Apaches, but he proved to be their worst enemy. On the other side, Chief Delshay was the Apache’s most tenacious war leader, but in the end was betrayed and beheaded by his own people.1

The struggle pitted the cavalry against two different native people — who had more often been rivals than allies before the whites arrived. The Tonto Apache were closely related to other Apache groups as well as the Navajo. The Yavapai were linguistically and culturally related to the tribes living along the Colorado River. Both groups initially accepted a forced move to a reservation, but disease and starvation repeatedly prompted raiding parties to hit ranches in the area.

Convinced that only a decisive military defeat would force the Apache to settle permanently on the reservation, Crook looked for an excuse to launch a comprehensive war of attrition. The trigger came when he learned of a plot to kill him when he visited the Date Creek Reservation. The bearded, unconventional Crook was a fearless, taciturn, tireless commander with a shrewd sense of strategy and he set a trap for the conspirators. A fight broke out and a group of warriors fled the reservation with their families, fearing retaliation. Soldiers, led by Apache scouts, tracked and located them in a nearby canyon and launched a surprise attack that killed 40 Indians and triggered the Tonto Basin War in the winter 1872.

Crook divided his command into independent companies of soldiers, each guided by a contingent of mostly White Mountain Apache scouts — implementing his then-controversial theory that only other warriors could hope to track and corner Apache bands that could cover 60 miles a day. Crook often used Tontos against Yavapai and vice versa — helping sew a bitter crop of anger between the two groups.

Much of the fighting was centered in the Tonto Basin, a rugged contortion of deep canyons, cliffs, volcanic landforms and steep, arid mountains. The primary chiefs were the Yavapai Cha-lipun, or “Buckskin Colored Hat,” and the Apache Delshay, or “Red Ant.”

Delshay was the most warlike, perhaps because his brother had been killed for no particular reason while visiting a military post, and because Delshay himself had been wounded twice while peacefully visiting white encampments.

In the relentless campaign, starvation proved Crook’s strongest ally. The soldiers relied on supply pack trains and supplies relied along the Crook Trail — Forest Road 300 — so small, independent units could remain in the field for months at a time, keeping the Apaches on the run until they ran out of food.

Two major battles finally broke the Indian resistance.

The first came Dec. 2, 1872 in a remote, inaccessible canyon along the Salt River along the shores of present-day Canyon Lake. An Apache scout named Nantaje led soldiers and a detachment of scouts to a cave at the base of a cliff that served as a fortress for a Yavapai band. The soldiers attacked at dawn, killing six warriors at the first volley. The officers called on the trapped warriors to surrender, but they merely jeered and slapped their buttocks in a gesture of contempt. The soldiers then began bouncing bullets off the sloping ceiling of the cave with deadly effect.

A strange, haunting sound floated out of the cave.

“It was a weird chant, half wail and half exultation — the frenzy of despair and the wild cry for revenge,” wrote Captain John Gregory Bourke, Crook’s loyal assistant.i

“Look out,” cried the Apache scouts, “there goes their death chant, they’re going to charge.”

Sure enough, a moment later 20 warriors rushed from the cave, “superb-looking fellows all of them,” noted Bourke. They charged the double line of soldiers, providing cover for warriors trying to slip around the end of their line. However, the soldiers’ fire drove them back into the cave, where they resumed their death chant “with vigor and boldness” as the soldiers resumed bouncing bullets off the roof of the cave.

Suddenly, a 4-year-old boy ran to the mouth of the cave “and stood, thumb in mouth, looking in speechless wonder and indignation at the belching barrels,” wrote Bourke “Almost immediately, a bullet glanced off his skull, knocking him to the ground. Nantaje rushed forward and dragged the boy to safety amidst the cheers of the soldiers who stopped firing momentarily — then resumed with redoubled intensity.

At this point, another company of soldiers arrived at the top of the 400-foot cliff and began shooting down on the cave, then rolling boulders off the cliff to shatter at the cave’s entrance.

“The noise was frightful; the destruction sickening,” since most of the Apaches were crouched behind boulders at the front of the cave to avoid the bullets bouncing off the cave’s roof. “No human voice could be heard in such a cyclone of wrath,” recalled Bourke.

Soon, all signs of life in the cave ceased. Soldiers advanced to find a ghastly scene of slaughter.

“There were men and women dead or writhing in the agonies of death, and with them several babies, killed by our glancing bullets, or by the storm of rocks and stones that had descended above,” Bourke reported. The soldiers found 76 dead, and 35 survivors, half of whom later died.

The next major battle of the campaign came after Apache raiders struck scattered settlements around Wickenburg, stealing horses and killing three settlers — one a well-known Indian fighter who once proudly nailed the scalp of a Yavapai chief to the door of the local newspaper.

Soldiers had captured an Apache woman they “intimidated” into revealing the raiders were camped near the top of Turret Mountain. The soldiers and scouts approached the peak in the darkness, feet wrapped with rags to muffle any sound, and attacked at dawn. The attack slaughtered between 33 and 47 Indians, without the loss of a single soldier.ii

Several thousand Yavapai and Tonto Apache surrendered piecemeal in the next few months, lamenting that they could not fight both the Army and the scouts. Cha-lipun lipun came in with 300 of his followers, saying sadly that General Crook had “too many cartridges of copper.”

According to Bourke, Cha-Lipun told Crook, “we had never been afraid of the Americans alone, but now that our own people are fighting us, we did not know what to do; we could not go to sleep at night, because we feared to be surrounded before daybreak.”

Delshay was among the last to surrender. Major George Randall reported that Delshay “said he would do anything he would be ordered to do. He wanted to save his people, as they were starving. He had nothing to ask for but his life. He would accept any terms. He said he had 125 warriors last fall, and if anybody had told him he couldn’t whip the world he would have laughed at them, but now he had only twenty left. He said they used to have no difficulty eluding the troops, but now the very rocks had gotten soft, they couldn’t put their foot anywhere without leaving an impression we could follow”

But on the reservation established in the Verde Valley, Delshay could not master his fear of the whites and his yearning for freedom, so he fled with about 40 followers. Crook sent out Apaches to hunt down Delshay, warning he would resume the war if they didn’t kill Delshay. Later, as Crook sat on the porch of his headquarters, the Apache bounty hunters dumped six or eight heads on the planking at his feet — one wearing Delshay’s distinctive earring.

Tragically, Delshay’s suspicions proved well-founded and Crook discovered he could not keep his promise to protect them on a reservation in their own land — to his bitter regret.

Initially, the Apache and Yavapai bands settled near Camp Verde alongside the Verde River, planted crops, and sold hay and firewood to the fort. They used sharpened sticks and wicker baskets to dig a five-mile long, four-foot-deep irrigation ditch, and in 1873 grew 500,000 pound of corn and 30,000 pounds of beans — thus becoming largely self-sufficient.

However, in the spring of 1874, Crook was ordered to move the Indians to the sweltering, disease-prone San Carlos Reservation nearly 200 miles east at the base of the Mogollon. Crook blamed a corrupt ring of civilian contractors who often influenced government policy and who wanted to sell the government the supplies the Tonto and Yavapai had been providing.

Crook observed, “their removal was one of those cruel things that greed has so often inflicted on the Indians. When the Indian appeals to his arms, his only redress, the whole country cries out against the Indian. As soon as the Indians became settled on the different reservations, gave up the warpath, and became harmless, the Indian agents who had sought cover before, now came out as brave as sheep and commenced their game of plundering.”

Crook reluctantly complied with his orders and in February of 1875, a small detachment of soldiers escorted 1,426 Tontos and Yavapais from Camp Verde across 180 miles of snow-covered peaks, icy, rushing rivers, and hard terrain to the San Carlos Reservation — a bleak, malaria-ridden lowland selected as the ideally worthless place to concentrate the defeated Apache bands.

One man carried his disabled wife on his back the whole way. Most of the cavalrymen gave up their horses so more of the children could ride.

Crook’s policy of divide and conquer had produced victory, and reaped its bitter fruit for the Apache.

As Crook himself concluded: “The American Indian commands respect for his rights only so long as he inspires terror with his rifle.”

Delshay could not have put it better.

1) I think he was definitely beheaded — but which one of the eight heads was his is probably debatable.

i) Bourke. On the Border with Crook.

ii) Dan Thrapp. Battle for Apacheria.

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