Frontier Teacher In Tonto Basin

Chapter 18: Early Visitors to “Tonto” Cliff Dwellings


Just one week after teacher Angie Mitchell’s fateful hike into the mountain that nearly took her life, she eagerly tackled another weekend adventure.

After school on Friday, Dec. 10, Sarah Armer and her teacher went with Mrs. Hazelton and two children to the Hook ranch to obtain a horse they planned to use on a Saturday excursion. On the way home they “explored some ruins and did not get home till long after the others.”

Saturday turned out differently. Anticipating the months ahead when she would be back in Prescott, Angie has applied for a clerkship with the Territorial Legislature. Saturday she received a message in that regard, though she did not record the contents in her diary. Instead, she stayed home and taught school “to make up a lost day.” At sunset “Alice, Clara, Melinda and I started to Armer’s on Salt River and got there quite late.”[1]

The plan was to spend the night there, and get an early start in the morning for some cliff dwellings Angie had heard about along the Salt River.

“Dec 12th [Sunday] We ate breakfast long before day and were well on our way at sunrise. I rode ‘Selim,’ a horse of Mr. Armer’s. Melinda rode Brownie, the one I got from Hook, as he is not quite as gentle as Salim and Melinda is a first-class rider while I’m not of late years. We went 5 1/2 miles or so to the foot of Ute Mountain in which the “caves” are located.[2] We fastened our horses to brush and climbed the mountain, which was by no means an easy task as it is covered with debris from the ruined walls. One slides back a good deal like the ‘frog in the well’ who jumped ‘two feet forward & then fell back three.’[3] But we finally reached the dwellings. It was far superior to what I had anticipated & worth the trouble.

“The dwelling is built of small rocks laid in cement and is cemented inside and out and sets well back beneath an over hanging rock. The rock is, I should think, about 200 feet high & curves over something like this. [She sketched a side view of a pueblo under an overhanging rock.] We found traces of 33 rooms & some 18 of them are in fair preservation. It has been seven or eight stories high, or perhaps more, I should think judging from the poles still clinging high up to the rock. There was originally no opening in the outer wall but the dwellers in the house climbed up a ladder of some sort and went in at the second story, as the Zunis and kindred tribes do yet! One room is walled up solidly without any door opening into it. Of course one can enter it now from above for the ceiling is partly fallen in. Another had a door originally but for some reason the people living there decided to close that room also and so smoothly and well was the work done that not a trace of any doorway having ever been there can be seen from outside the room. But inside of it one can easily see the rocks filling in the doorway, laid up in cement but not cemented over on the inside. When the ceiling of this room was intact, after the door was walled up, it must have been nearly air tight and one wonders why it was done. It is located in a rather central situation in the second story. One can conjecture several reasons. It may have been to hide treasure, to hide a crime, to punish a criminal or for several other reasons.

“In one room in the first story a Mr. Danforth (I think is the name) two years ago this winter found the skeleton of an infant in the wall about 5 ft from the floor, or possibly a little less.[4] I saw the place today. The child was wrapped in many folds of a silky looking cotton cloth, like some we found in the same room. Tom says (and he was here when the child was found) the material had a kind of drawn pattern in small diamonds & stars, and had shredded bark in its mouth and ears like a mummy, and sandals of yucca fiber on its feet made like a pair we dug from another part of the ruin only very much smaller. Then there were some turquoise & red pipe-clay beads, clay toys, a doll and dog, and bone ornaments with it. Also a number of other trifles. The place in which it lay was hollowed out of the wall and cemented inside smoothly. Then the tiny corpse was laid in and a few rocks laid up in cement hid it forever from its parents, and then the outside was smoothly cemented till it could not be distinguished from the rest of the wall.”

In the course of this chapter Angie refers to Tom, Frank and Bud. These lads were Armers. In the 1880 census Tom was 10, Frank was 8, and “Bud” (probably James) was 6. Tom Armer would become head of the family after their father died in 1909, and during World War I he was elected as sheriff of Gila County. He ran cattle on their range above Roosevelt Lake.

Frank Armer never married, and in his early 20s participated in a train robbery that landed him in the Territorial Prison at Yuma. During an escape attempt he was shot and the resulting lung ailment caused his death in 1909.

James Armer would marry Mary Margaret Chilson from Payson.

Angie’s diary continues. “Another room has on its eastern wall a hieroglyphic representing probably the sun & some other lines that might be anything. In several places are prints of fingers or of the hand complete and perfect as the day ages ago when the hands were pressed into the plastic clay. There is much to be seen in the building that I’ve not time to speak of. One ought to stay a week to explore it if they hope to satisfy their curiosity.”

She continues to describe a second cliff house, separated from the first by “a gulch … It is the most perfect I’ve ever seen, with traces of 22 rooms. 16 are in fair order, 3 of them and a hall are as perfect as the day they were finished. The hall is a narrow space between two rooms and has a short flight of steps leading to a tiny landing on the upper floor. The stairs are quite wide but very low, not more than 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches I should think in height, from one step to the next, and so worn by the myriad feet that ascended and descended them as to be hollow troughs in the center.

“We were rambling around one of the upper story rooms exclaiming on the extremely fine state of preservation it was in, when Clara saw something in a dark corner she wanted to look at and started toward it. The floor was covered with various sorts of trash several inches deep and she ‘waded’ towards the corner. Suddenly there was a scream and the place where Clara had stood was vacant, but certainly not silent for heartrending cries came from below. For a minute we stood nearly petrified with fright and then I flew out of the room and down the stairs to a room opening from the landing on the east side. Poking my candle in, I beheld Clara, hysterical from her scare, sitting in an immense heap of chollas that filled the room half way to the ceiling & were evidently stored there by rats, tho for what purpose I’m sure I can’t guess. Truly this was appalling! But when Clara saw that she could reach the door by crawling thro’ that agonizing pile of thorns she bravely stopped crying and started. The only aid any one could give her was to hold the candle so she could see and that I did. If we had had a rope we might have lowered it down the aperture she fell through and pulled her up. It would have been less painful. But there was no rope, so she crawled out and if we had not been frightened at the consequences of so many cholla thorns in the poor child’s tender flesh we would certainly have laughed for a more ridiculous object was never seen.

“The chollas were all over her clothes, her limbs & her hair & piled up 8 & 10 deep till she was a walking stack of them. Well, we took her & pulled off all the big ones till we reached the inner layer, which was attached principally to her skin. And then trouble for us and agony for her began in earnest. Of course the cruel, hooked barbs broke from the cholla rather than let go the flesh and after we finally got the last whole cholla off she still had scores of those thorns all over her, excepting her face. Then we girls half led, half carried her to an empty room, one where there was not much debris, though dust of course. Spread my big waterproof down on the floor, stripped her and two of us, Alice & I, picked and cut and pulled out all the cholla we could while Melinda got all the thorns possible out of her clothes. We had part of a bottle of milk left from lunch and we rubbed her with that. It eased the pain a little. She dressed and we took her to a cozy corner outside under some mesquite, rolled her up snugly in our cloaks and she sobbed herself to sleep. Melinda, who had made several trips to the cave, so to whom it was an old story, offered to stay with her while Alice and I continued exploring. So we returned to the ruins and after spending another half hour getting the cholla out of our hands, which we had got in pulling them at first off Clara, we began (exploring) where we left off. Tom & Frank & Bud had examined the upper room and the place Clara fell thro’ was an opening for a trap door. Probably there used to be a ladder extending to the lower floor. Our cholla incident had taken a long two hours, so we hurried up our inspection. We found many finger prints here too, and a room that evidently had been a kitchen. The floor is formed partly by a big rock (which also forms part of the side) and in this rock were 1/2 a dozen metates hollowed out of it and varying in size, depth & shape. This rock wall and the ceiling above were black with smoke & there was a quantity of ashes etc. in it.”

As the sun was setting, the little company built a campfire and prepared supper, capped by “bread and butter, pi and cookies” that Mrs. Armer had sent along. In a fitting summary of the experience, Angie’s imagination identifies with the prehistoric people.

“It seemed strange to be chatting and laughing so gaily in a house built unknown centuries ago by people unlike us in appearance but who had known joy and grief, pleasure and pain same as our race of today knows them, and who had laughed, cried, sung, danced, married & died, mourned or rejoiced their lives away in this once populous town, or castle, or whatever one would call it! It made an uncanny feeling come over us as we rested till moon rise and talked of this long dead people and told the little we knew concerning them.

“By & by the moon rose & softened the marks of time on the scarred, weather stained cliff dwellings till it was beautiful.”

They reached the Armer ranch about 9:30, “tired but happy.  Even Clara, sore as she was, declaring she was glad that she went. Mrs. Armer had supper waiting & we did justice to our second one after our ride.”

Heading on home from there, Angie and her “children” (as she calls them) got home after midnight and were soon asleep.

The young teacher adds the next day, “Armer fairly made me promise to teach the spring term. I’m glad he is suited.” However, she was anticipating returning to her fiancé in Prescott, and probably had no intention of returning for another session of Tonto School.


[1] Sara and Melinda Armer are listed in the 1880 census as 14 and 13, just as Angie reports them. Melinda would die while still a teenager.

[2] Her reference to “Ute Mountain” is obscure, since there is no such place name in Gila County. The Ute Mountains in Arizona are far to the west in Mojave County. However, she proceeds to describe in detail the cliff dwellings that today are named The Tonto National Monument, near Roosevelt Lake. When this author submitted Angie’s description to the ranger archaeologists at the Tonto National Monument, they confirmed the location, and were grateful to have this firsthand account of how the cliff dwellings appeared in 1880.

[3] It is possible Angie has confused several fables here. “The Frog in the Well” is both an Irish jig and a Chinese fable, having to do with a frog who sees only the sky above from his well and has no notion of the vast ocean beyond. There is nothing in it about “two feet forward and falling back three.” It is also possible that the idea of a frog falling into a well and fruitlessly trying to escape was a contemporary saying.

[4] The Danforth family lived in Richmond Basin, a ghost town today between Tonto Basin and Globe. In 1880 it was a ranching area, and later became a silver mining camp. George Danforth was born about 1830 in Massachusetts.


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