Frontier Teacher In Tonto Basin

Chapter 2: Wild Ride to Tonto Basin

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Stan Brown photo

This is the flat in the area of Pine Creek’s junction with the East Verde River. Pine Creek is in the line of trees in the distance, the East Verde on the left. It was in this area that the Mormon settlers established what they called Mazatzal City in the 1870s.

 The young teacher Angie Mitchell was on her way from the comforts of the Territorial capital in Prescott to the unknown settlement of Tonto Basin. Her mother and her fiancé George Brown, who drove an overloaded spring wagon, accompanied her. The first leg of their trip found them spending the night at the ranch of George and Parthena Hance in Camp Verde. Hance had been one of the earliest settlers in the Verde Valley and was the local Justice of the Peace. Like so many frontier families, they provided an overnight stop where travelers could be refreshed — an early day “Bed and Breakfast.” 

The next day they followed the Crook Military Road east from Camp Verde and it was extremely steep. That night they camped on top of Government Hill, about halfway to the top of the Mogollon Rim and near the 13-Mile Marker on the Crook Trail that can be visited today just off State Highway 260.

Angie writes, “September 16, Thursday, Rained all night but our camp was high and dry among the cedars and our impoverished tent kept us dry and comfortable (Ma and I) while George fared equally well in the wagon. Got up early and found the sun shining over the mountains. Ate a hearty breakfast and started on. Went to Mud Tanks about 4 miles over a fearful road.[1] There George fed and watered the horses and we started again. Only went about a mile when a big black cloud came overhead and promised to hail us out of existence. In a jiffy George unhitched the train and in two jiffies fixed a shelter under the wagon for us. The storm passed by us and we only got a very little of it, and were thankful. Then we went to Government Wells and camped for the night.”

Government Wells is a name commonly used on trails in America, and it is difficult to identify exactly where they were, but it was a restless night.

“September 17, Friday, Ma sick with cramp colic part of the night. (She was) all right today. Also had bad pain in her lungs so I did her up in mustard, rubbed her in liniment and dosed her with hot whiskey and she got better…” Angie was well prepared with various treatments for sickness, as one had to be in the wilderness. At the top of the Rim they left the Crook Trail and went south over the Rim to the village of Strawberry. That required a drop of at least 1,000 feet, and would have been on the trail over Nash Point. It was named for the homesteader at its base, and in the 1870s settlers coming from the north sought out the gentlest route they could find. There had been a faint Indian trail, which was widened, but the wagons had to drag large pine logs behind them as brakes so they would not overrun the horses. 

“…Then to Pine Creek and camped at the Mormon’s ranch. This man has 2 or else 3 wives and we saw 16 children sitting on some logs. They seemed to be nearly the same age and size, and looked exactly alike — about as wild a quail. There are also an assorted variety of dogs and one of them lying down near the wagon had a tick or something on its back. As it tried to scratch it off it kept up a funny grunting noise that sounded, ma said, exactly as if he was swearing. It was ridiculous. Tonight after the cows were milked the 16 twins and about as many older ones each with a bowl of bread and milk scattered around the yard and ate their suppers. George says he counted them and there were 73, but he exaggerates a trifle, though there really are 22 or 23 of the kids. But I don’t suppose they belong to one family.”

The next morning, Saturday September 18, “the Mormon Father directed us, I presume correctly, how to get to Green Valley. But another Mormon, Fuller, arrived during the night and he chipped in and gave other directions and told us to follow his wagon track to East Fork of Verde, and from there it would be a straight, plain road to Green Valley.”

It is helpful for those not familiar with the history of Pine to know that the community is deeply rooted in a Mormon heritage, and is inseparable from the family name of Fuller. The patriarch, Elijah Knapp Fuller, sent three of his sons in 1878-79 to settle at the mouth of Pine Creek, where it joins the East Verde River. Others joined them, but because of danger from Apache attacks all but a few of the Mormon families moved north along Pine Creek to its headwaters under the Rim, where they established the community of Pine.

It is not possible to identify which of the homesteads in the Pine area became Angie and George’s campsite that night. In her diary Angie simply strikes a blank line in place of that Fuller family’s first name.

Their original plan had been to follow the trail to Green Valley (in 1884 Green Valley would become Payson) along the general route taken by today’s State Highway 87 from Pine. Apparently, after the rancher directed them “correctly“ to Green Valley, one of the Fullers from the community at the mouth of Pine Creek suggested it was shorter for them to go south along the creek to the East Verde where his ranch was located, and then follow a well used army trail into Green Valley. The Mitchell party assumed that since either way had to cross the East Verde, it would be okay to take the suggested shorter route.

They started out in their “well loaded” spring wagon pulled by “two medium sized horses… The track led over a country that was well nigh impassable for us, and in one place we drove for a long ways along the side of a steep mountain, with no road, only a kind of rut marked for the upper wheel to follow and at an angle that it seemed as if no one could drive. We got out. George took off the halters and some harness straps and pieced them together the best he could. Then tied them around the wagon in some shape and gave me one with the instructions to walk leaning uphill and keep the line taut if I could. But be sure to let go if it started to go over the canyon side, 75 feet or more to the bottom. He held the front one and drove the horses that seemed to sense the danger and did their best. Ma walked a safe distance from us. Twice it almost went and if George had not repacked the wagon putting trunk, bedding, seat etc. all the way on the upper edge and tying them there, the thing would surely have gone.”

When they looked over the edge of the canyon they saw “the total wreck of what had been at some time a loaded freight wagon, the bones and hides of four horses, and parts of the harness.”

When they finally got that harrowing experience behind them they spent another half-hour repacking the wagon and adjusting the harnesses. “We traveled over a horrid road till just after dark we came to what seemed to be the jumping off place of all Creation, but found it to be the mountain overlooking the (East) Verde River.”

They went down “like going down the side of a steep roof,” dragging a log behind them to act as a brake.

“Once down we discovered we were in a bowl-like valley which had only one tiny log house in it. We went there and the woman looked at us in amazement as she asked, ‘How on earth did you get in here in that rig and where are you going?’”

NEXT CHAPTER: Arrival in Tonto Basin

[1] Mud Tanks was a spring located on the Mogollon Rim at a junction with several other trails. The elevation is 6,250 feet, so they still had a 1,000-foot climb ahead of them.

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