The Wild West In The Rim Country




Author at the site of a prehistoric camp, later occupied by the Apaches, looking at the manos left behind. This site was on a hill above Webber Creek.

For some weeks we have been investigating the violence that plagued the Rim Country during the closing years of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries. In this concluding chapter we take a flight of imagination back over the centuries to seek answers for several discoveries of ancient bones in the Payson area.

The Rim Country is an archaeologist’s paradise. This is a land that abounded with human life from at least 1,000 BC to 1,250 AD. Burials have been found in the most unlikely places, in addition to identified prehistoric camps such as the Risser, Shoofly, and Goat Camp ruins.


Neanderthal skull showing the occipital bun compared to skull of modern human.

The bones of two American hunter-gatherers surfaced during the renovation of Green Valley Park, according to Public Works Director Buzz Walker. This incident was passed over with little fanfare for fear the public would begin digging for more bones. Then in February of 1996 the remains of a pre-historic man and his pottery were unearthed on Main Street across from the Lone Pine Hotel. The utility crew digging a conduit trench had made the eerie find. In accordance with Arizona State Law, the State Museum sent an anthropologist to inspect the bones and permission was given to rebury the remains where they were found. The utility project continued, but if any additional human remains had been found everything would have been halted while a survey of the entire area was conducted to determine its importance. Fortunately for business on Main Street that did not happen. The burial was apparently an isolated one.

One day as I stood staring at the embankment on Hillcrest Drive, my eye caught a red object protruding from the soil. This area had been the trash dump for the Risser Ruin community. Trash dumps were often used as burial sites because of the ease of digging there. When the developer put in the street, a bulldozer simply plowed through, destroying an undetermined number of burials. I picked the red object out of the bank to find it was a small fetish, a beautifully carved coyote or fox from an argillite stone. There was a hole in the animal’s back where a thong had run through to create a necklace that was around the neck of one whose body had been buried there. I would like to have kept it and given it to my wife, but dutifully placed it in the Rim Country Museum’s display of ancient people.

However, drought and overpopulation ended an era. Charles Redman, in his book “People Of the Tonto Rim,” states, “Our own excavations and archaeological surveys, as well as those by others, indicate that by 1,300 AD, and probably a bit earlier, the Payson region had been depopulated.”[1]

There was a 200- to 300-year hiatus before the next wave of population moved into the area, the Apache and Yavapai people. They often pitched their seasonal camps on the ruins of their predecessors because these locations were near water and provided an abundance of tools for arrowheads and spears, matates to grind corn and seeds, as well as a sense of spiritual power from the ancients.

Then there was the day of excitement when a plumber came upon a skeleton in a crawlspace at the old Julia Randall Elementary School. This was an unlikely grave, so theories were conjured about a murder or some other foul play. However, pieces of the mystery fell into place when Duane Kaufman came forward to tell about a boyhood prank he and two of his buddies carried out in the early 1960s. The Kaufmans had moved in next door to the late Anna Mae Deming, and one day, as Duane cut through her backyard, he spotted bones protruding from the ground. He and his friends clandestinely dug up one-third of a human skeleton, and they concocted a marvelous plan. They knew of a dungeon-like basement under the original part of their school, and a crawl space that led to it. They would place the bones there, and then lead younger pupils to this secret place and “scare the willies” out of them. Their plans were stopped as soon as it was detected by the teachers, but the bones remained undisturbed until the plumber discovered then in 2003.

The partial skeleton was sent out to be analyzed, and the report was that these were prehistoric bones from one of the legendary “bun-heads” who lived in the Payson area. That nickname results from a fascinating story about the Rim Country’s earliest burials.

These people were here long before other ancient groups moved in. There were the Sinagua to the northwest, the Anazazi to the northeast, the Mogollon to the southeast and the Hohokam to the southwest. Payson became a center for trading and racial mixing. But the people “native” to the Payson area were not genetically related to any of these. Rather they were related to an archaic people who lived in the Southwest from 4,000 to 1,500 BC, and were identified by a protrusion on the back of the head called an “occipital bun.” This extension of the skull ranged in size from a baseball to a softball and was located about where a hair bun would be — thus the moniker bun-head. The additional room in the skull was for the visual portion of the brain, probably indicating a highly developed ability to spot game during a hunt. Another intriguing aspect of this is that the occipital bun has been found in European Neanderthals and Australian Aborigines.

The Tonto Apaches were among the “late comers,” living in the Payson area from the 1500s AD. They had a number of burial sites around the area. The late Chief Melton Campbell told me that when his people lived on Indian Hill individuals were buried east of McLane where it tops the hill, overlooking today’s high school. The last burial there was in the 1940s.

Another of the pre-reservation Apache burial sites in Payson was on the south slope of Burch Mesa. In this area south of the airport a band of Apaches camped at Butterfly Springs; the Apache name for the area translates to “A Spring of Water in the Oak Grove.” One day I accompanied there a party of forest rangers, their archaeologist, and tribal elder Vince Randall, along with several others from the local tribe. With developers breathing down the neck of the Forest Service, a survey was being conducted to determine evidence of Apache occupation. There was plenty: shards, grinding tools, old junipers whose limbs had been cut to fuel nearby roasting pits. The tribal leaders also pointed out the rock outcropping along north Vista Road where burials had occurred. A favorite place to consign their dead was a crevice or an overhang in the rock. Then the body was sealed in with rocks.

I recalled an oral history with Pearl Hilligas Morrison from 1970. She said, “We found a skeleton in a rock over there on Burch Mesa. We kids used to love to play up there, and we found a skeleton with all its beads… but we wouldn’t touch anything.” The young girl Julia Randall was among Pearl’s playmates who discovered the bones.

Today we walk gently on this land that has been hallowed by so many before us. To come in contact with the artifacts they left behind makes us feel kindred to those people who, like us, thrilled to the storms, the sunsets, the wind in the trees, the smell of pine, and the wild animals.

NEXT: Rim Country Places And Their Stories

[1] People of the Tonto Rim: Archaeological Discovery in Prehistoric Arizona by Charles L. Redman, Smithsonian Institute Press, 1993


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