Frontier Teacher In Tonto Basin

Chapter 1: The Most Barbaric Country


It had been raining “awfully” the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 14, 1880. Because of the weather Angie Mitchell and her fiancé George Brown didn’t leave Prescott until nearly two o’clock that afternoon. The two, along with Angie’s mother, Angeline Brigham Mitchell, were heading east over the Mogollon Rim to the Tonto Basin, where Angie was under contract to became that area’s first teacher.

Her application for the job was made to spite her boyfriend. On Sept. 5, nine days before their departure from Prescott, she wrote in her diary, “George went downtown about 10 and found out from Dan O’Leary and St. James concerning the Tonto Road, then came back at 12 and said things about my craziness in wanting to go to such an out of the way place. I merely reminded him that I promised him I’d go to the most barbaric country I could if he ran for anything on the ticket. He promised not to and I abandoned my intention of going to St. Johns, Apache County; that he broke his share of the agreement and I thought Tonto would answer my purpose nearly as well as St. Johns.  [George Brown was elected to the 11th Territorial Legislature.] I hoped he’d be willing to take me there, but if he wasn’t I’d go to Phoenix by stage and get some way to going to Tonto Basin from there. He looked disgusted, but the whole thing is a little amusing.  We both laughed, and he said he’d assuredly take me if I was going anyhow.”

Angeline was named after her mother, so they raised her with the nickname Angie to distinguish her. Her father, Daniel F. Mitchell, was a surveyor, and brought his family to Arizona in the fall of 1875, answering the Territorial governor’s invitation to make a formal, federally acceptable survey of the town of Prescott. With 21-year-old Angie and her parents was her stepbrother Daniel Mitchell. He would become a prominent photographer documenting life in the territorial capital throughout the latter years of the 19th century.

Angie had been educated at the University of Kansas at Lawrence and obtained a teaching certificate. She had taught in several Kansas communities before joining her family in their trek to Arizona, and a year after her arrival she obtained a certificate to teach in Yavapai County. During the next years she taught three- and four-month terms at Walnut Grove, Tiger Mine (in the Bradshaw Mountains), Chino Valley and Miller Valley northwest of the village of Prescott.

It was this writer’s good fortune to come upon her handwritten diary while doing research in the Sharlot Hall Museum. The diary covers the period from 1877 until the summer of 1881, after she had married George Brown in April.

Her keen use of metaphor and sensitive description of life in the 1870s and 1880s make fascinating reading, and provide a detailed account of everyday happenings in the Territorial Capital. However, of greatest interest is her vivid description of the Tonto Basin during her four months there, its frontier culture and the intimate lives of early settler families like Adams, Armer, Blake, Cline, Harer, and others.

“August 31, Tuesday. Applied to W. A. Hancock for Tonto School.”

The mail service was very good, with stage coaches running regularly between Prescott and the Phoenix-Mesa communities. It was the following Saturday Angie had her answer from the superintendent of schools for Maricopa County. 

“September 4, Saturday. Letter from Hancock. He says I can have the school. Applied to Sherman for Territorial Certificate…”[1]

She would soon have occasion to encounter Superintendent Hancock in another context. He first appeared in Territorial history as a 2nd Lieutenant commanding an Army detachment in 1865, which was raiding Apache camps in the Tonto Basin.  While searching an abandoned camp in the foothills of the Sierra Ancha he discovered a one-hundred-dollar legal tender note in the ruins of a collapsed Apache wickiup. This gave rise to naming the site Greenback Valley. After leaving the Army Hancock went on in various roles, superintendent of the farm at Camp McDowell, Justice of the Peace in Phoenix, a trader at Camp Reno. His lasting marks were made as a civil engineer in the Salt River Valley, building the first house and store in Phoenix, serving as the first sheriff of Maricopa County in 1871, and then he was postmaster for Phoenix. He also served as a district attorney, coroner, probate judge and the county’s first superintendent of school. During his career in Phoenix he became good friends with the David Harer family, which was looking for a place to homestead. Hancock pointed them to Greenback Valley and a site on the stream of the same name that was a tributary of Tonto Creek. That is where the Harers settled, and as their family grew, along with those of other settlers, David Harer built the first school in the area along Tonto Creek and hired a teacher – Angie Mitchell.  Hancock would meet her on a visit to his friends the Harers.

Having been hired and receiving her credentials, Angie put in a frantic ten days getting ready for her sojourn. “September 6, Monday. Washed my duds, then sorted trunk and boxes for Tonto. Can only take a little trunk and it is hard to decide what I can do without. Mother will go with us and she is merely resigned not jubilant. Really, one would think I was going to the Feegee (sic) Isles.”

Her mother and friends were “resigned” only after they had done all they could to persuade her to stay home and instead start a “select school” with paying pupils. At first she agreed to try. “I got 12 without any trouble and was actually scared lest I’d get 3 more. Time favored me and I couldn’t get any more positively promised, though I honestly did my best, and so that settled it.”

The Prescott Weekly Miner, Sept. 14, 1880, published the following about one of their favorite local ladies, “Miss Angie Mitchell has gone to teach the school in Tonto Basin. The people of that new and thriving community could not have made a better selection. Miss Mitchell is an experienced and accomplished teacher, and we congratulate the Trustees of Tonto District on their good judgment as well as good fortune in securing her services.”

“September 14, Tuesday. I intended to start early but it rained awfully, and we did not get off till nearly 2. George has Andy M(iles)’s durable spring wagon and his own team Mug and Charlie.  Ma, George and I got to Hance’s at 9.”

Angie Mitchell could not know that she was setting out on the most harrowing journey of her life.

[Next chapter, Wild Ride To Tonto Basin]

[1] William Hancock, while in the cavalry came upon a valley and creek in the Sierra Ancha, which he named Greenback Valley. The name was derived from the discovery of a greenback bill under a rock in the Indian village the soldiers had raided. ?    Moses H. Sherman, was the principal of the Arizona Territory’s first graded school, the Prescott Free Academy, which opened in 1876. Sherman was appointed Territorial School Superintendent in 1879 by Governor Fremont. Since Maricopa County was beyond Angie’s Yavapai County teaching credentials, she needed a Territorial Certificate.


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