The Wild West In The Rim Country

Chapter 16: The Mysterious Demise of Al Sieber, Chief of Scouts


A red sandstone monument stands overlooking Roosevelt Lake beside State Highway 188. Traveling southeast in Tonto Basin, this can be seen just before reaching the bridge near Roosevelt Dam. Upon close examination the travelers can see the rough marker announces that near this spot the Army’s famous Chief of Scouts Al Sieber was crushed to death by an immense boulder.

The date was February 19, 1907. Work parties of Tonto Apaches were strung out along the new wagon road under construction that would connect the work begun on the dam with Tonto Basin. This road was high on the hillside and it would replace the lower trail that would soon be underwater. The Reclamation Service had hired Sieber, in his retirement from the Army, because he could speak the Apache language and was adept at managing Apache laborers.

So it was that two decades after trailing Geronimo into Mexico, Sieber was superintendent of a road crew made up of the same tribe he had employed earlier as scouts in General George Crook’s war against the Apaches.

Albert Sieber was born in Germany in 1844 and came to Pennsylvania with his widowed mother and siblings in 1856. In 1862 to enlisted in the Union Army at tender age of 18, and was wounded in the head at Gettysburg. A second bullet crushed his leg from the ankle to the knee, causing him to walk with a limp the rest of his life.

Following his muster out of the Union Army he worked his way across America, and settled on life in the Rim Country looking for gold. Over the next 30 some years he was in and out of the area, he filed a number of mining claims in Tonto Basin and the surrounding mountains.  One of those claims, in Del Shay Basin in the Sierra Ancha range, would support him for the rest of his days. His name appeared on the sales books of Emer Chilson’s store in Marysville as well on the records of the Pieper Saloon in early day Payson.[1] The volume of drinks he charged indicates he had a very large habit.

When the Apache War was in full swing, Generals Stoneman and Crook sized up Al Sieber as the man to help them recruiting and organizing Apache Scouts. It was a new idea at the time to use Apaches to hunt other Apaches. His work as Chief of Scouts began in July of 1871 and continued for 20 years.


Stan Brown photo

The current reconstructed monument site for Army Scout Al Sieber.

After his Army service he remained in the Rim Country and prospected with some other local residents, Sam Hill being one. When the massive Roosevelt Dam project was begun, Sieber was called back to work with Apaches.

At one point during this stint he was enlisted in his old job as a scout. It was July 1906, and two residents of a Tonto Basin ranch had been murdered. With a detachment of Apache Scouts he tried to track down the murderers, but the trail had grown cold and the culprits got away, for the time being.[2] Sieber and the crew went back to work on the road.

On a bright, crisp February day, 1907, Al Sieber was studying the huge boulders that blocked the progress of his Apache crew. One especially large rock, which weighed at least six tons he figured, had to be moved. For more than a day they had been undercutting the stone on the downhill side, and prying it from above in the hope it would roll down out of their way.

It would not budge, but as the day began to fade Sieber determined to have the boulder dislodged before quitting time. He called to those working on it from above to hold off while he scrambled down the slope on his game leg. He thought to investigate the underside of the boulder and see how far the digging had gone. Suddenly, as he probed under it with a stick, the giant piece of granite began to move, unstoppable, and it rolled over the old Indian fighter. He made no sound, crushed instantly by the huge rock. The Apache workers rushed to his aid, but it was over and they began a traditional moan for the dead.

The Apaches cut and chiseled a monument that they erected on the spot where he died.[3] The tribes had respected Al Sieber for his honesty and consistency, traits that they highly valued. Even during the war his enemies had called him a Man of Iron. His old friend Will Barnes, in notes on Sieber, summed up the man and his work: “Sieber was a born scout, and his influence over the Indians with whom he came into contact was little short of marvelous. Especially did he have a control of the Apaches who both loved and feared him as they did no other man who has ever been among them.”

This extravagant statement may be more Barnes’ opinion than that of the Apaches. On one occasion, before he ended his military service, a San Carlos Apache had shot him in the foot.  It took him a long time to heal from that and probably helped influence him to retire.

The Chief of Scouts’ own self evaluation was expressed like this, “I do not deceive them but always tell them the truth. When I tell them I am going to kill them, I do it, and when I tell them I am their friend, they know it.”

Again his friend Will Barnes recounts his own understanding of the accident.

“Sieber was directing matters and as the Indians prepared to roll one great boulder down the side of the mountain to clear the way for the work, they called to him to get into a safer place. With his usual disregard for danger he told them to go ahead and he would take care of himself.  As the giant rock started slowly down the steep side of the mountain he tried to climb far enough to one side to allow it to pass him. But he misjudged its motion, and as it neared him he gave a spring, his foot slipped and he fell back directly in the path of the oncoming death. The rock weighing tons passed over him and every Apache who saw it turned his face and dare not look to see what was lying there in the bright sunlight with the life crushed out of it.”

The Arizona Republic on February 20 reported that, “the stone rolled across Sieber, terribly mangling both his legs. It is said he became unconscious almost immediately and died in a brief time. His head was not hit by the rock, so his features were not disfigured.”

In spite of these reports, rumors persisted that among the Tonto Apache crew there were some long-time enemies of Sieber. Historian Dan Thrapp refers to several old Army men who believed the rock did not roll without a final, intense shove when the Chief of Scouts was inspecting it. An anonymous informer, quoted by Thrapp, said he was told this by some drunken Apaches at a later date.[4]

Tonto Apache Tribal members Paul and Rose Burdette, Ola Smith and Eva Engle reported in their oral histories that their families were all working on the road with Sieber, and their fathers told them about the day he was killed. Paul Burdette said of the Apache workers, “I heard they rolled a rock over him…”

Al Sieber was buried in the old cemetery at Globe, a narrow hill with a canyon on either side, which rises steeply over that historic mining and ranching center. His grave is in one of the sections that are cordoned off by an old wrought iron fence. Various lodge fellowships have claimed the fenced areas and Sieber is buried in that of the Odd Fellows. His grave marker is of red sandstone, like the marker on the road where he was killed. The monument over the grave was placed after rancher Jesse Ellison pressed the Territorial Legislature to appropriate $100 for the marker.

NEXT: Another Year Of Violence

[1] These records are found in the Arizona State archives in Phoenix. Stan Brown made copies and they are lodged in the library of Rim Country Museum.

[2] In the next chapter we will explore this gruesome murder and its aftermath.

[3] The monument was originally placed on the spot where he was killed, but in 1934 the highway had been rerouted still higher on the mountain to avoid the rising waters of the Roosevelt Lake. The monument was still 12 feet below the level of the road where no one could see it. A movement led by former state historian Dan Williamson had the monument moved up along the road. A concrete base was built with the help of the C.C.C. During the more recent work to elevate the dam, the monument was moved once again, and given a more elaborate pedestal.

[4] Al Sieber: Chief of Scouts, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.


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