Baker Butte is a small extinct volcano that perches on the edge of the Mogollon Rim along the Crook Military Road. Because it is the highest point on the Rim (8,077 feet) it can be easily identified. This significant landmark is enveloped in at least four legends about how it got its name.
There is a story among ranchers in the Rim Country that it was named for a man named Baker who owned and worked a mine with several “half-breed Indian sons.” However no mining activity has ever been observed on Baker Butte. “Old-timers” I interviewed over the years insisted “there never was a mine on Baker Butte. Nothing there to mine.”
Another theory comes from a memo by Coconino Forest Ranger Williamson to Forest Supervisor Doug Morrison, regarding a grave at the base of Baker Butte. Williamson wrote, “It has been a common knowledge that the (grave) mentioned in your latest correspondence 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 a result of a misunderstanding during the construction of the old military road.”
That construction took place from 1872 to 1874, except during the winters, and since Bourke was calling it “Baker’s Butte” in the spring of 1873, such a murder would have to take place the previous summer or fall. It remains to be discovered if a worker named Baker is the body in that grave.
The source of the name for the butte is even more confused by a 1933 list of place names by Elwood Lloyd IV, published in Flagstaff’s Coconino Sun. It states that Baker Butte was “named for James Baker, who brought sheep from California to Arizona ... in 1868.” Historian Platt Cline affirms this in his 1976 book “They Came to the Mountain.” He refers to a rancher named James M. Baker who was headquartered in Chino Valley north of Prescott as early as 1868, and he brought sheep to Yavapai County “near the butte that now bears his name.” All other references to the rancher James Baker locate him in Chino or in the Verde Valley.
The argument against this James Baker as the butte’s namesake is the fact that before and after 1868, the Apaches controlled this entire area. No rancher could operate around Baker Butte during that period of time.
Historic maps like the Smith map of 1879, call it “Backer’s Butte.” The 1880 Eckhoff and Riecker map also identify it as “Backer’s Butte.” There were no official government survey maps at the time and these were all privately produced from hearsay.
We turn to General George Crook’s right hand assistant, John G. Bourke. In 1882 he told the author of Arizona Place Names Will Barnes it was named for an army surgeon named Baecker, but in the publication Barnes added a disclaimer, “There is no record of such an officer.”
However almost 10 years earlier in his handwritten field diary, Wednesday, April 2, 1873, Bourke himself called it “Baker’s Butte.” He even included a sketch of their route, clearly identifying the butte.
Our fourth person for whom the butte may have been named takes us to an incident on May 18, 1868. Col. Devin was leading a detachment of soldiers on a scout searching for Apache camps. They came across the Rim from Camp Verde, down the canyon of the East Verde River, and over to Tonto Creek. Running low of supplies Devin sent his packer, John C. Baker, back the way they had come to get new supplies. Retracing their route they mounted the canyon on what today is “the Devin Trail” and were attacked by Tonto Apaches. Baker was killed, and the soldiers buried his body where it fell, as was the custom.
As the detachment proceeded along the Rim trail they had a magnificent view of the butte. It is possible that to honor him they named it “Baker’s Butte.” It is also possible that General Crook gave that name to the butte in 1871. Apaches had just attacked him at the head of the East Verde River canyon, barely escaping with his life. He knew the Baker story and named the butte in Baker’s honor. Instead of telling Bourke he named it for an Army surgeon, he had named it for an Army packer named Baker. When Bourke passed the word to Will Barnes, nine years later, the name was mistaken as Backer’s Butte.
Take your choice of legends about the name Baker Butte. For a scholarly study of this subject see article in Journal of Arizona History, Autumn 1996 issue, “The Bakers of Baker Butte” by Stanley C. Brown.