The Wild West In The Rim Country

Chapter 2: Victim of Apache Attack

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A very early murder in the Rim Country occurred in May 1868 when a chief packer in the Army was killed by Tonto Apaches at the head of the East Verde River Canyon.

The story begins as Colonel Thomas C. Devin took command of the military sub-district of Prescott, Arizona Territory on Jan. 17, 1868.

He soon received orders from headquarters at Fort Whipple to take a significant detachment of soldiers from Camp Lincoln (later renamed Fort Verde) and head east in search of Apaches and their camps. It would be a 45-day scout for the sole purpose of killing Indians and destroying their crops and homes. In his report after the trek, he describes a route that would take them along the edge of the Rim, following Indian trails that later were developed by General George Crook into a military wagon road. Today this is Forest Road 300, one of Arizona’s most scenic byways.

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Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

This is the sign on the Colonel Devin Trail beside the East Verde River. Here is where Col. Thomas C. Devin led his cavalry troop in 1868.

The troops passed over Baker’s Butte, though this landmark was not named at the time, and continued eastward to the canyon of the East Verde River. Col. Devin described what happened next in his report to Ft. Whipple, dated June 12, 1868.[1]

“I descended into Tonto Basin near the head of the east fork of the Verde, at a point where the mountain rises about 2500 feet above the basin. The first 500 feet being barely a perpendicular cliff, I was obliged to cut a zigzag path down the face, after which the breaking of a trail was comparatively easy.”

This “zigzag path” can be found today as a rough, switchback wagon road that for years afterward was used by settlers to commute off the Rim and to drive cattle to market at Winslow. Devin’s trail down along the river has been designated the Devin Trail and many hikers use it today.

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Photos courtesy of Stan Brown

This is part of the original switchback trail blazed by Col. Thomas C. Devin in 1868 over the Rim. He called it “the jump off.” Along this stretch, just under the edge of the Mogollon Rim, Army packer John C. Baker was killed in an Apache ambush.

That night the soldiers camped at the head of the East Verde. “That same night,” Devin’s report continued, “my camp was fired into by Indians, killing one horse.” He sent out a detachment to look for Apache campfires, but the attackers had disappeared.

The next day the cavalry troops continued down the canyon for over a mile, and as they proceeded, with caution, “detachments were sent out from the front and right flank to scour the country. Many rancherias were found, but all had been abandoned, some of them quite recently; others for months.”

They came to a well-defined Indian trail that led east. This trail is now known as “The Highline Trail,” a favorite hiking trail for people from all over the state. Following this trail they soon came to Tonto Creek, and scouted upstream to its headwaters just under the Rim. They discovered a number of creek-side gardens, which the Apaches had prepared for spring planting, but the movement of the troops had given the Apaches plenty of warning, and they were nowhere to be found.

While camping on Tonto Creek the colonel reassessed his supplies. The terrain had proven to be much more difficult than his provisions allowed. They had even lost some pack animals from exhaustion and “falling over precipices” so that both animals and rations were lost. He realized he could not continue this mission without new supplies.

“I therefore ... sent my pack train back to Camp Lincoln for twenty day’s rations.” While they were gone Devin sent scouting parties into the Tonto Basin. After the new supplies arrived he planned to push the search down through the basin to the Salt River. From there he would search for Indian camps.

Near the end of the report Devin recounts several casualties that occurred on this junket, and we read this enticing bit, “The pack team, while on its return for the rations, was ambushed near the top of the ‘jump-off’ I had constructed down the mountain, and the pack master, Mr. Baker, was killed. The Indians fled before the troops could reach the summit, though they dashed forward with all of the speed the steep ascent would admit.”

The Post Returns for Fort Whipple tell us that the man killed was the chief packer, a civilian employee named John Baker. Another reference to the killing is found in Farish’s History of Arizona where a list of “Indian Outrages” in 1868 includes, “May 18th they killed John C. Baker east of the Rio Verde.”[2]

Previous to this, in 1860 John Baker was a private in Company E, 3rd Infantry, stationed at Fort Defiance. He was, as so many other recruits, an Irish immigrant. By 1866 he was stationed in Tucson at Fort Lowell. After mustering out of the Army, Baker remained attached with a civilian contract as a packer. It was common for soldiers in the Southwest to take up vocations like packing and scouting as civilians in the Army.

When a detachment of soldiers was in the field and several days away from their post they would bury the dead where they fell. The cavalry troops took Baker’s body the short distance up the trail to the edge of the Rim and buried the chief packer. No graves have been found in the immediate vicinity of Devin’s “jump-off” but the troops would have made sure all traces of the grave were eliminated so the Indians would not return and exhume the body to mutilate it. This was done by having the horses stomp about the area until one could not tell where the ground had been dug. Apaches believed that a dead person would enter the afterlife in the physical condition they had before their body disintegrated. Thus the worst desecration for their enemy was to mutilate his dead body. Whites often assumed this mutilation was evidence of torture, but it was usually post-mortem.

It is speculation, but a distinct possibility that when John C. Baker was killed and buried at the head of the East Verde River his fellow troops named the next outstanding landmark for him. As the troops proceeded west along the Rim Trail toward Camp Lincoln they came to the highest point on the Mogollon Rim, a little volcanic mountain perched on the edge and they called it Baker’s Butte. If one follows west from the East Verde canyon there is a spot on the trail where Chase Creek has cut a deep canyon back into the Rim, and as the trail snakes around it the hiker looks across the divide to see Baker’s Butte in all its glory. It was at this point the troops might have decided to honor their fellow packer.

Although several other sources suggest the name came from other early settlers, as early as 1873 General Crook’s assistant John Bourke, in field notes for April 2nd, records the name as “Baker’s Butte.”[3]

Thus, the murder of John C. Baker is the earliest recorded violence in the Rim Country, aside from 1864-1867 military operations against the Apaches.              

NEXT: The Skull

NOTES

[1] Quoted by historian Thomas Edwin Farish in his “History of Arizona,” Vol. 5, page 277.

[2] Volume VI, page 130

[3] “Field Notes, Scouts in Arizona Territory. Bvt. Maj. Gen. Crook Commanding, from Nov. 18, 1872 to April 8, 1873, John G. Bourke 2nd Lt. 3rd Cav.” on microfilm in the library of the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson. See also article The Bakers of Baker’s Butte by Stan Brown in the Journal of Arizona History, Autumn 1996, for detailed study of the name source.

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