Rim Country Places

Chapter 3 – Baker Butte

Devin Switchback offers a perfect view of Baker Butte.

Devin Switchback offers a perfect view of Baker Butte.

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The highest point on the Mogollon Rim is a conical hill named Baker Butte. This distinctive landmark sits on the edge of the 1,500 foot escarpment, and can be seen from almost anywhere in the Payson area. The old military trail built by General George Crook in the summers of 1872 to 1874 snakes around the north slope of Baker Butte, linking Forts Whipple and Verde with Fort Apache. The army used the summit of this butte for heliograph signals in the 1880s, and a fire watch tower has been there since 1937.

All the maps from the 1860s show the Mogollon Rim as open and unexplored. The dark, brooding shadows of its deep canyons and thick pine forests caused the Apaches to call it the Black Mesa. Apaches controlled the entire area until around 1874 when they were finally confined to reservations. In fact, it was in the fall of 1871 when General Crook and his party were scouting the area, seeking a route for his proposed military road, that they were attacked by an Apache band just a few miles from Baker Butte, and barely escaped with their lives.

How then did Baker Butte get its name? There are several stories that would give the answer, but they bear close scrutiny.

One story revolves around a grave and military head stone along the Crook Trail, right on the side of Baker Butte. A memo from the files of the Coconino National Forest archives in Flagstaff states, “I have done a little informed checking on the grave on Baker Butte. It has been a common knowledge that the spot mentioned… is a grave of one known as Mr. Baker. The report is that he was a colored fellow killed by a soldier with a pick. This was the result of a misunderstanding during the construction of the old military road. Perhaps this is in need of a little more research…” (District Ranger Bob Williamson of Long Valley to his supervisor Doug Morrison)

More research indeed! No documentation except hearsay is given.

“Arizona Place Names” states, “There is a story in the upper basin to the effect that the butte was named for a man named Baker who once owned and worked a mine on this butte and had several half breed Indian sons. Rather doubtful.” (Barnes, University of Arizona Press, 1988 paperback edition, page 38) Again, there are no documents, not even mine claim records, to back this up.

In 1933, a few years before Will Barnes published his compilation of place names, the Coconino Sun, Flagstaff’s newspaper, published “Arizonology: A Compilation of More Than Two Thousand Names Found on the Maps of Arizona” (by Elwood Lloyd). The author claimed that Baker Butte was “named for James Baker, who brought sheep from California to Arizona, through the Mojave Desert in 1868.”

Flagstaff historian Platt Cline, in his excellent book “They Came To The Mountain,” picks up on this in discussing the butte. “…It was said that it was named for James Baker, who brought sheep into the area in 1868… The first permanent sheep ranch in the northern part of Arizona was established in 1868 by James Baker near the Butte which is named for him in the Mogollon Rim country.”

It is true that James M. Baker was a sheep and cattle rancher as early as 1868, headquartered in Chino Valley north of Prescott. They brought 1,000 sheep from  California to start with, and the Prescott newspaper, The Arizona Miner, reported that in May, 1869, Baker went to New Mexico to purchase more sheep, but returned in August with 300 head of cattle instead.

A 1936 article in the Arizona Historical Review titled “Early History of the Sheep Industry in Arizona” by Bert Haskett, picks up on this story and states that James Baker brought sheep into Arizona in the early1870s and settled “in what was then Yavapai County near the butte that now bears his name.”       

Since Barnes, Platt and Haskett all wrote after the Lloyd book published in Flagstaff, it seems that was their source, without any further documentation.

All of these stories are belied by John G. Bourke, aide and sidekick with General Crook. In his book “On The Border with Crook,” where he describes the Apache attack on their party at the headwaters of the East Verde River (just east of Baker Butte), he makes it clear that ranching was not being carried out in that area in 1871. The Rim was unmapped, they were breaking trail, and the Apache presence made settlement there impossible. Furthermore, Bourke in his hand-written diary on Wednesday, April 2, 1873, referred to Baker’s Butte. This author read and partially copied that diary from the Arizona Historical Society. Bourke and Crook were camped on the Rim, and he wrote, “Baker’s Butte is due east about 12 miles.” On another page he makes a pen and ink sketch, clearly labeling the Black Mesa and Baker’s Butte. Because of this reference, any events that inspired the name had to precede that date.

The first documented record of white men entering the area of Baker Butte comes with the January 1868 military scout under the command of Col. Thomas C. Devin. They entered the Rim from the west, and followed Indian trails in their search for Apache camps. At the canyon where the East Verde River heads, Devin’s party blazed a steep zigzag trail, which he called “the jump off,” and followed the river down to a trail that led them eastward to Tonto Creek. That trail later was developed into the familiar Highline Trail. Along the way they discovered a number of creek side gardens, which they destroyed, but apparently no active camps. The expedition had been more difficult than Devin anticipated, and they were running out of supplies. The Colonel’s report to Army headquarters afterward gives fascinating detail of their adventures. He st up camp at the head of Tonto Creek, and “sent my pack train back to Camp Lincoln for twenty days’ rations…” The detachment returned the way they had come. “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 the soldiers dashed forward with all of the speed the steep ascent would admit.”

The post returns for Fort Whipple report that the man killed was Col. Devin’s chief packer, John Baker, a civilian employee. Thomas Farish in his “History of Arizona” also refers to this incident in his list of “Indian outrages” for 1868, “May 18th they killed John C. Baker east of the Rio Verde.”

It was the custom for the cavalry to bury their casualties near where they fell, unless they were close enough to an army post to bring in the body. This is what they did, at the top of the Rim near the drop off. This is the same location where three years later Crook himself would be attacked. After the burial, the pack train continued west along the trail Devin had followed. I have walked along that route, and just west of the “jump-off” the trail swings to the right, away from the Rim, and there straight ahead is a perfect view of Baker Butte rising before one’s eyes. It seems reasonable that the soldiers who buried Baker at the head of the East Verde River named the next major landmark they came to in his honor. From then on the soldiers who passed that way began calling it Baker’s Butte, as did John Bourke in his 1873 diary.

An 1879 map calls it Backer Butte and the 1880 Eckhoff and Riecker map, compiled from older maps and hearsay, picks up on “Backer.” It sounds as if someone with an Irish brogue told the mapmakers the name. We defer to Bourke’s earlier diary deference.

Like a mysterious attraction, the name Baker continued to gather around this place. When an 1887 coroner’s jury from Pine assembled at this place to decide who murdered the freighter Andres Moreno, one of the six jury members was W. T. Baker. In 1901 Forest Ranger Charles E. Baker was assigned to the area, and Sarah McDonald, born in 1898 and raised in Payson, told me in an interview, “There was an old man named Baker who had a ranch right below and on the north side of the butte, and it was named for him.”

With so many Bakers associated with the little extinct volcano, that name hovers like a ghost over the place.

NEXT: The Mysterious Black Mesa?

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