Rim Country Places

Chapter 7 – The Secrets of Butterfly Springs

This is a roasting pit at Butterfly Springs; note the stump of an old cedar tree, indicating the Apaches whittled away at it for wood to burn in the roasting pit

This is a roasting pit at Butterfly Springs; note the stump of an old cedar tree, indicating the Apaches whittled away at it for wood to burn in the roasting pit


Tucked obscurely away inside the Payson town limits is an ancient Native American campground. It is on the slope of the Burch Mesa, just south of the airport, and the Apache name for the place is “A Spring of Water in the Oak Grove.”  The Anglo name for it is Butterfly Springs. I had explored the area on my own several times over the years, but in May of 1998 I was invited to join a most interesting group for a professional search of the campsite. Certain real estate interests were seeking to make a land swap with the Forest Service for development of the area, but of course if it was proven to be a historic Native American campsite that deal would be put off, and the site could be preserved.

It was a lovely spring morning when I joined the others. They included Ginny Newton, a consultant with SWCA Environmental Consultants, Scott Woods, chief archeologist for the Tonto National Forest, Esther Morgan, archeologist from the Payson District of the Tonto Forest, and several Tonto Apache Elders. These included two interpreters Anna Goseyan, archivist at the Fort Apache Museum, and Vince Randall from Camp Verde. In addition there were four “old timers,” two each from White River and San Carols. It was a day to get any historian excited.

Our pilgrimage over the forested area proved beyond doubt that this had been an Apache campsite from the dim past down to the early 20th century when the Tonto people returned from San Carlos and took up residence in the Payson area.  In the days preceding the reservation era there had been an Indian trail from Cibicue, to Young, to Houston Creek, on to this Butterfly Springs, and then to Fossil Creek, Camp Verde, and north up over the Rim. This trail and several from other directions made Payson a central trading location for various tribes. This campground became a rendezvous place for people coming and going. The Elders explained how the Hopis would come to the edge of the Rim but not down over it. The Apaches would climb to the top to trade bundles of mescal (the agave plant that was one of the native’s basic foods) for blankets and pots. The Elders also made it clear that in those days Apaches from the Oak Creek or Chediski band, the Cibicue band, and the Tontos intermingled freely.

The drainage for this area runs down the mesa to eventually join the East Verde River. The pre-reservation camp was on the west side of the drainage, and the post reservation camp was on the east side. Our careful search that day revealed numerous signs of Apache occupation in the past, and I learned much from those Elders about how to identify such places.

Among the more evident was the scattering of pottery shards. These are not light brown and smooth like the prehistoric pottery we often find in the Rim Country, but blackened on the inside with striations on both sides. This more recent pottery is gray, and sometimes a piece carries the fingernail marks of the potter.  Less frequent, but here and there were small, quartz arrowheads, delicate and artfully formed. The rangers were quick to replace them where they had lain all those years, and even cover them with a leaf or a rock.  Several locations revealed a thick scattering of quartz pieces and chips where the people had gathered to make arrowheads.

The Elders explained to us that the Apaches often retrieved and used arrowheads from prehistoric sites. The prehistoric people were considered holy, sent by God to show humans the good way to live. An Apache medicine man would chew the ancient arrow point, pulverizing it, and then spit it onto the person needing healing. “They got well,” the old man said, and then added, “Maybe they would have gotten well anyway.”

Native rocks that are obviously out of place appeared in several formations. Green and black rocks did not match the local bedrock and were apparently imported. Some rocks were standing on edge and half buried, not natural, but placed by human hands. Other rocks overlapping domino fashion, we were told, had originally been higher for windbreaks to sleep behind, usually in conjunction with a bush or tree. Also a small circle of rocks may have been the foundation for a sweat lodge. The Elders estimated it was to hold about three people.

Of course the long, smooth, flat stones called metates were occasionally found, half buried in the ground. These were used to grind and smooth beads, as well as to grind corn and seeds.

One of the less obvious signs of encampment is the roasting pit, used to bake the precious mescal. The Elders pointed out that one of the first signs that such a pit is near could be found in surrounding juniper and oak trees. Several very old stumps, up to seven feet in height, had been stripped of their branches for wood over the years to fire up the roasting pit. Upon closer observation we could plainly see the slight mound identifying the pit itself. A cluster of rock debris, cracked and blackened, covered the mound. A small rodent hole dug into the mound revealed diggings of pure ash from not far under the surface.

Down in the wash a small stream trickled from the spring. Water collected in several natural tanks where the people developed sand filters to collect more purified water. Along the drainage, on either side where bedrock was exposed, there are numerous metates worn into the rock. There also is a rock overhang, the perfect place for an Apache family to live close to the water and the grinding stones.

Just west of the campground, along the road that runs from the Payson Golf Course up Burch Mesa to the airport, there is rugged cliff and in this outcropping of rock there are many crevices that became burial sites for the old generation of Apaches. The Elders pointed out that a favorite place to consign the dead was a crevice or an overhang in a massive outcropping of rock. Placing rocks over the opening sealed in the body.

I recalled a 1970 oral history from the Rim Country Museum archive, in which Pearl Hilligas Morrison told about her girlhood explorations with friend Julia Randall.

“We kids used to love to play up there, and we found a skeleton in a rock there on Burch Mesa. He had all his beads. He had been there a long time, but we wouldn’t touch anything.”

After covering the pre-reservation camping area, we went across the drainage to where the post-reservation people had camped. Here we found evidence from the more recent Apache usage of this place. We could see various caches of used cans, weathered leather, string and metal strips hanging from the trees. The camp living areas were removed from a roasting pit to avoid excess heat and smoke.

We crossed back over the depression with its trickling stream, and I heard laughter ringing out from the Apache women in our group. Momentarily I was whisked back to another time when Apaches were free to laugh and the land echoed with their happiness.

That was before the second half of the 19th century when they dared not make noise lest they be detected by the cavalry troops who were always hunting Indians. The laughter now underlined a different era, and hopefully a time when Apache ways and places will be respected.

We walked gently on this land that has been hallowed by so many before us. To come in contact with the artifacts they left behind gives us to sense a kinship with these human beings, with whom we have so much in common.

NEXT: Chediski, A Farm Not A Fire


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