Rim Country Places

Chapter 22: Mazatzal Mountains

The Apaches constructed forts in the Mazatzal and Sierra Ancha ranges when they took a stand against the U.S. military. This fort is overlooking Boardinghouse Canyon near the East Verde River.

The Apaches constructed forts in the Mazatzal and Sierra Ancha ranges when they took a stand against the U.S. military. This fort is overlooking Boardinghouse Canyon near the East Verde River.


The Mazatzal Mountain range forms a boundary between Gila County and Maricopa County; it rises on the southwestern edge of Tonto Basin and descends into the Sonoran Desert at the Phoenix metropolitan area. These mountains were the primary barriers that kept explorers, prospectors and settlers out of central Arizona. The Apache and Yavapai bands thus were able to control the country from the Mogollon Rim plateau south to the Sonoran Desert. It is not surprising that the attempts of Americans to invade and settle the land became the source of endless stories, and many of those stories involved this large mountain range.

Among the mysteries of the Mazatzals there is none more puzzling than the origin of the name.

Speculations include the joke old-time ranchers loved to tell. Fred Chilson, in an oral history said, “Somebody came across an old prospector up there and wanted to know if he was lost. He said, ‘No, I’m not lost. I know where I’m at!’

Those who found him said, ‘Well, where are you at?’ 

The prospector said, ‘I’m not going to tell you, and I’m mad as hell.’

After that, said Chilson, “they named the mountains Mad-az-ell.”

Other writers have made more educated guesses. Ranger Fred Croxen wrote in 1928, “It is said to be an Indian name meaning very rough and rugged.”

“In Apache it means bleak or barren…” claims State Historian Marshall Trimble in his “Roadside History of Arizona” (1986).

David Mazel in “Arizona Trails” (Wilderness Press, Berkeley, 1981, page 267) writes, “The name is a Paiute Indian term, and when accompanied by the gesture of pointing between spread fingers it meant ‘empty place in between.’”

“The Yavapais called the mountain range just east of the Verde ‘Maz-at-sark’ and held up four fingers each time they would say this… The four fingers of course referring to Four Peaks.” (Robert H. Mason, “Our Desert Oasis.” 1985. Page 11.)

Ranger Robert Ingram, National Forest Service, may have given the definitive word, in a presentation for the Gila Trails Association at the Mazatzal Casino. He said, “Mazatzal is an Aztec word meaning ‘an area inhabited by deer.’” 

This suggestion for the origin of the name is probably the most accurate. We are told by scholars that the influence in southern Arizona by Aztec-speaking natives from Mexico and Central America was long and complicated. Between 500 and 1300 AD there were successive waves of migration northward, so that Aztecan terms inevitably found their way into Arizona place names. The Uto-Aztecan language and culture had its influence on the prehistoric Hohokam society, and over the centuries trade took place between them and the Yavapai and Apache people. Trading parties probably went both directions over the Mazatzals, and the Apache/Yavapai traders had to deal with the language called Uto-Aztecan. [1] Linguistic scholars are unanimous that the name of the mountains comes from the northernmost tribe of Aztecs in Mexico called Nahuatl. We recognize the Aztec place name “Mazatlan,” which is derived from the Nahuatl word “mazatl” meaning “deer.” So Ranger Ingram came close when he said, “Mazatzal is an Aztec word meaning an area inhabited by deer.”

Now we come to the matter of spelling and pronunciation.

Army troops in the 1860s and 1870s heard the name from native people and passed it on to historians and cartographers who had trouble pronouncing it. In 1864 territorial judge Joseph Pratt Allyn referred to “a great landmark of the Apache country, the Massessl Mountain.”  That spelling was picked up by the Prescott Miner in 1874, and by the Army Navy Journal that same year. General Crook’s aide John Bourke refers to it as “the Mititzal range.” (“On The Border With Crook,” page 145). Other early military records include “Massagl” and “Massusuhl.”

The 1880 map by Eckhoff & Riecher got it right, spelling it Mazatzal, but in 1889 the map by E. H. Cook, compiled by asking local people the names of landmarks, picks up the local pronunciation, “Matazal.” If you prefer correctness, try pronouncing it “Mah-tah-zahl.”

A panorama of Arizona history unfolds as one drives over the mountain. Name as many storied places as you can: North Peak at the extreme right end of the range, and Four Peaks on the left end; Slate Creek, Cain Springs, Sycamore Creek, Reno Pass, Sunflower. As I stood one day at the top of the fire tower on Mount Ord, I felt I could see “from here to eternity.” The 103-ft. tower added to the mountain top of 7,128 feet enabled me to see as far as Mt. Graham at Safford, and down into the Valley of the Sun. There was Bartlett Lake and Cave Creek, and I began to have a new appreciation of how close Tonto Basin is to Phoenix. It just took so long for people to make it through the wilderness.

At last the trip over the mountain was made possible by the establishment of a military road from Ft. McDowell into the Tonto Basin. Here hangs one of the great dramas of the Mazatzals. In 1868, the United States was in the process of waging an all-out war against the Apache and Yavapai Indians, in order to make possible the settlement of Arizona’s central mountains. A military outpost was established in the foothills of Mt. Ord, several miles upstream from Tonto Creek. In order to do this, a military road had to be blazed over the range, terminating at the outpost named Camp Reno. The name honored Major General Jesse Lee Reno, killed by friendly fire in the Civil War. This attempt to gain a foothold in the heart of Apache/Yavapai country was doomed to failure, because the necessary supply line over the mountain was too long and too vulnerable. The Indians harassed the post and murdered the soldiers bringing supplies, until the post was abandoned in 1870. In June of that year, the Apaches burned Camp Reno to the ground.

After the war the military road so bravely blazed by the army became a route for pack mule supply trains and traders between the Rim Country and Phoenix/Mesa. It was replaced by the Apache Trail after the new road was created in 1906 to serve the new Roosevelt Dam construction. However, in the 1930s the C.C.C. and merchants in Mesa developed the old military route into a road, the Bush Highway, passable by automobiles. Further improvements in the 1950s, and then again in the 1990s, created the Beeline Highway over the Mazatzals — touted as Arizona’s most scenic highway. [2]

This magnificent range of mountains offers an endless supply of adventures, history and marvelous stories. When you travel that way, keep in mind the amethyst mine on Four Peaks, the stop-over at Sunflower, the life-giving waters of Sycamore Creek, remnants of the old Bush Highway, the engineering marvels of the Beeline, the prehistoric ruins in the Mazatzal Wilderness, the mercury mines, and probably some interesting sights you could not imagine ahead of time.

[1] This linguistic family includes Hopi, Comanche, Shoshoni, Ute, Paiute, Mayan, Opata, Yaqui, Tarahumara, Papago and Pima.

[2] For the extended stories of Camp Reno, the Bush Highway, and the Beeline Highway, see Stan Brown’s book, “The Tale of Two Rivers at the Rim Country Museum.”


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