Frontier Teacher In Tonto Basin

Chapter 4: Introductioin to Pioneer Life

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The Mitchell family’s second day in Tonto Basin was one of leisure. George and “Ma” had planned to begin their return trip to Prescott, but after he hitched up the wagon that morning he “concluded to our surprise that he was too tired to go home.” It was Wednesday, Sept. 22, 1880. Andy Blake suggested that they all go fishing, and taking a wagon they “all went up Tonto three or four miles to some pools.” Angie actually means they went up Rye Creek, but in that early day, many still called Rye Creek a branch of Tonto Creek, and the main branch of the Tonto was called “the North Fork.”

“While Mrs. Blake and I were sitting pretty near the wall of the canyon in the shade talking and watching the three men on rocks in a pool fishing, mother had climbed up the canyon lower down and gone to gathering flowers.”

This description sounds as though they were in “The Narrows,” which would mean they had gone downstream instead of up. There is a canyon there where Rye Creek cuts through, and since the1920s it has been bridged by a one-lane steel bridge. It is this location where one of the Apache families had their traditional campsite, and where the late Chief Melton Campbell was born. However, in 1880 the Apaches were all incarcerated on the San Carlos Reservation, and would return to this area about 10 years later.

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Map of Tonto Basin area

What happened to Angie next was one of those many events in the Tonto Basin she would long remember. Her mother, gathering flowers, “was just above us, some 30 or 40 feet, where the wall is nearly straight and was calling down to us, when her foot struck a rock as big as a hen’s egg. It of course fell over the edge. A second passed and a shriek from Mrs. Blake scared all of them. They turned and saw me stretched out as if I was dead. Everybody on the rocks came running to shore, and Ma nearly fell over the cliff in her hurry. They flung water in my face and in a minute I sat up and gasped, ‘Why did you throw that rock at me?’

“I was sitting with my head bent a little forward looking at a curious rock I had picked up. That small rock Ma dislodged had fallen and struck me a terrible blow, first under the shoulder blade and close to the spine. It had knocked the breath out of me and made me feel faint for a minute. Ma presently arrived to see what ailed me and was astonished to know that she was the innocent cause of all the commotion. After that they all fished but me, and I was too lame to care to. About dusk we went home.”

That evening Angie and George along with her mother, Andy and Janie Blake walked “around the place.” She commented, “Such magnificent moonlight nights.”

George and Angie’s mother did start their journey home the next day, Thursday Sept. 23. They went the way they had originally planned their trip, returning to Green Valley and then following the road to Pine and Strawberry. That evening as Angie made her diary entry she described her pangs of loneliness in this unfamiliar surrounding.

“Today for the first time in my life I know what it is to feel utterly cast away and homesick. This is isolation itself here, high frowning hills, a long stretch of dusty road, no fields, no trees except a few near what is a creek part of the year. No shade near the house, no porch around it ...”

Then she proceeds to describe the interior of the Blakes’ primitive home. For the young lady who had known relative luxury all her life, it was all quite shocking.

“No furniture in it except a broken cook stove; two shaky tables, a rough board bedstead, 3 or 4 homemade camp stools, an almanac and 3 or 4 papers a month old. A law book and book of forms; 1/2 a dozen plates, 3 saucers, 2 cups and 3 or 4 tin cups, 3 or 4 tin plates; steel knives and forks, a tin cup to hold sugar, a tin cup for salt and lard buckets to cook in. (There is) a gourd dipper, an old tin water pail and ditto milk pail, a nice new style churn; 2 old battered tubs, a broom, and a rough bench; a dozen good milk pans, a piece of tin with holes punched for a skimmer, and a lot of iron and tin spoons assorted sizes all ages, constitute the household goods of this family. I’m not slurring them. I’m simply filled with amazement that people, sensible, nice people can live in such a way! Oh yes, there’s a block with 3 nails in it for one candle stick and a bottle for another. The beds are ticks filled with hay; the pillows about the same, hard anyway and there’s only one. Heavens! Will my boarding place be a duplicate?”

The next day Angie went exploring on her own and pursued one of her favorite hobbies, exploring prehistoric ruins. As in most of Arizona, Tonto Basin is rife with the artifacts of ancient people. The later Apache and Yavapai arrivals were transient, hunter gatherers, and left little evidence behind other than potshards, arrowheads, monos and metates. The earlier dwellers were farmers who built pueblos of rock and left many utilities, which the late comers picked up and reused. In the archive at Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Angie Mitchell’s papers include a list of many artifacts she collected over the years, most of which were given to museums. She was doing this before current laws forbidding such collecting had come to pass.

On Saturday she and Mrs. Blake washed clothes, including Angie’s soiled garments from the trip. She wrote, “Judge Blake went to Reno. The Prather Brothers have run the station there, but lately they have leased for a year to a man named …” She strikes a blank line in her diary, apparently not knowing his name.

“Reno” referred to Camp Reno, a military outpost of Fort McDowell from 1867 to 1870. Today the site, with a few ruins, can be accessed opposite Punkin Center in the foothills of Mount Ord, a little over a mile from the Tonto Basin road (Highway 188). In 1880 Reno contained the local post office, and had a store and a campsite for travelers. Isaac and William Prather, two bachelors who had come from Illinois, were 30 and 39 years old, and had kept the station at Reno.

That afternoon, while the family had “gone across the creek after some stock” and Angie was alone, a frightening thing happened.

Next: Moving Down to the Lower Tonto.

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