The Wild West In The Rim Country

Chapter 3: The Skull

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The skull of an Apache decorated the Schenectady, N.Y. mantle of retired Army surgeon James Reagles. He had carried it with him as a souvenir when he left Camp Verde in 1878. It had been the topic of conversation for many years as the Reagles family told tales the man whose skull it was, Tonto chief Delshay.[1] The physician had treated Delshay for malaria while stationed at the Rio Verde Reservation, and he was convinced this was the chief’s skull.

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Photos from Stan Brown Collection

Apache scouts, like these men, were responsible for seeking out Delshay and killing him in response to a reward offered by General Crook.

The odyssey of “the skull” began in 1874, as General George Crook was winding down the long war against Apaches in Arizona. Five of the most dangerous Apache chiefs were holding out against incarceration on reservations, and they had several hundred renegade warriors with them. Those chiefs were Delshay, Chunz, Cochiney, Eskiminzen, and Chan-desi. They led raids across the territory, killing teamsters, stealing goods, killing herders, razing farmers’ fields, stealing livestock and murdering settlers. The Army was desperate to rein them in.[2]

“Take no prisoners,” was Crook’s order as his detachments fanned out. That winter, early in 1874 the bitter cold and snow forced a group of renegade Apaches to approach the San Carlos reservation, pleading to be forgiven and allowed to return. “I refused to accept their surrender,” Crook wrote in his autobiography (page 310), “but I told them I could not harm them as they had thrown themselves on my mercy.” The general went on to tell them he would instead drive them back into the mountains “where I could kill them all. They had lied to me once, and I didn’t know but what they were lying to me now. They begged to be allowed to remain, making all kinds of promises for the future. I finally compromised by letting them stay, provided they would bring in the heads of certain of their ringleaders, which they agreed to do.”

On July 25 several Apaches appeared at San Carlos with a bulging grain sack. When they emptied it, seven bloody heads rolled out. Crook accepted their offering, though he could not be sure to whom the heads belonged. Most observers felt sure they included the heads of Chunz and Cochiney, along with some of their warriors. The following week the head of Chan-desi came in and others followed.

The heads were put up on posts at the edge of the San Carlos parade ground to welcome the new Indian Agent John Clum who would arrive there on August 8.

Crook recognized this new approach had merit, and perhaps this same tactic would work in other cases. At this time the renegade Tonto Apaches were asking for peace, and Crook put out the word that they would escape punishment if they brought him the head of Chief Delshay. However, until then they would not be fed their rations.

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Photo from Stan Brown Collection

A Native American skull like Delshay’s was taken to the east and then returned to Arizona to be given secret and ritual burial by his own people.

Without much delay another head was brought in to San Carlos, and it was identified as that of Delshay by scouts who knew him. Crook reported, “He had been killed by warriors sent to hunt him under the leadership of a prominent Apache named Des-a-in.” With the head, Desalin brought six captives and 39 of his own band of renegades, all of whom claimed to recognize the head as Delshay.  How the skull fell into the hands of Dr. Reagles who took it to New York is not clear, since these skulls came to San Carlos and Reagles was in the Verde Valley. However, almost 90 years later, during the 1960s, the descendants of Army surgeon James Reagles sent the skull back to the Fort Verde museum in Arizona.

It remained there until 1970 when the rangers had it transferred to the Arizona State Parks office in Phoenix and held in storage. In 1998 Apache-Yavapai tribal archaeologist Chris Coder from the Verde Valley arranged to have the skull returned to the Apache people, and in February of that year he picked it up in Phoenix. He carried the skull in a cardboard box and returned it to the tribal elders. The skull was ceremonially buried in a secret place by a medicine man (possibly Vince Randall) and witnessed by only one other council member (possibly Ted Smith).

But was this skull really that of the infamous Delshay? A letter from General Crook to Lt. Walter Schuylar, commanding officer at the Rio Verde Reservation, had this interesting quote. “There was a man at San Carlos who says that was his son’s head that some Indians brought in for Delshay, and also the remainder of Delshay’s people at San Carlos say the same thing …”[3]

If the skull buried with solemnity on a hill overlooking the Verde Valley was not that of Delshay, then where was the skull? Or was it ever in the hands of the soldiers?

When Crook ordered the death of Delshay, Lt. Schuylar made plans to go after him from Camp Verde. Word had come that Delshay declared he would never be taken alive, but his band of followers was shrinking; a new generation of Apaches had seen the futility of opposing the whites, and began going after their stubborn leaders. A group from the renegade band appealed to Schuylar to be taken in, and he replied they could return to the reservation if they brought in Delshay’s head. They agreed, and a time was set for them to return.

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Photo from Stan Brown Collection

At an old Tonto campsite near Boy Scout Camp Geronimo on the Mogollon Rim, Stan Brown inspects discarded monos, indicating the Tontos manufactured some of their arrowheads here.

When the deadline passed, the lieutenant prepared to start out after them. However, camp physician Dr. William Henry Corbusier told him to wait because by reading the signal fires on the hilltops it was evident someone had been killed.[4] The commander was impatient and started out anyway. That night three Tontos came to Corbusier’s tent. He wrote in his notes, “They handed me a dirty rag, saying ‘DelChe,’ and quickly disappeared before I could interrogate them. On opening the parcel I found a whole scalp with the left ear hanging to it, in the lobe of which was tied a pearl shirt button.”

Word was sent to Lt. Schuylar, and upon returning to Camp Verde his scouts verified that the scalp was that of Delshay, who had worn the shirt button taken from a fallen soldier as an ear decoration. The three Tontos, who were later quizzed, claimed that on July 29 they had killed Delshay on Turret Mountain, overlooking the Verde Valley.

In a letter from Crook to Schuylar August 8, 1874, he writes, “When you are fully satisfied beyond all doubt that it was Delshay’s scalp that was brought in let me know as I have to make my annual report.”

Apparently that assurance was forthcoming since in Crook’s later report to military headquarters we read, regarding Delshay, “he was killed by his own people near Turret Mountain on or about the 27th.”

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Courtesy of Journal of the Southwest

A map of Camp Lincoln (later Camp Verde) where the scalp and ears of Delshay were brought in as proof he had been killed by his own people.

It would be speculation, but it is possible the same Apaches who killed their chief also brought in the head from which the scalp had been taken. In such a case we would know how the skull of Delshay ended up at the Camp Verde post, and thence into the possession of Army surgeon Reagles. That would mean the head so ceremonially buried by latter day Tontos did indeed belong to Delshay.

More violence surrounding Apaches in the Rim Country was yet to come, but the legendary Delshay would not be part of it.

Next: Starr Valley Murder

[1] The Anglicized version of Del-che-ae, or Rel Che’e, meaning “Red Ant” in the Tonto dialect.

[2] Sources for this story include Crook’s autobiography; “Commanders and Chiefs” by Waterstrat; “Apache Chronicle” by John Terrell; “Sieber” and “Conquest of Apacheria” both by Dan Thrapp; and the handwritten notes in the library of the Arizona Historical Society by William T. Corbusier, titled “Verde To San Carlos.”  Also personal conversations with Tribal archaeologist Chris Coder, and Apache leader Vince Randall.

[3] Crook’s correspondence with Schuylar October 30, 1874.

[4] Corbusier preceded Dr. Reagles at the Rio Verde Reservation outside of Camp Verde. Corbusier was stationed there from September 1873 to August 1874. The Rio Verde Reservation was located where Cottonwood and Dead Horse Ranch are today.

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