Yavapai and Tonto Apaches

The Yavapai and the Tonto Apaches are closely connected. In the 1800s, American settlers and soldiers often confused the two. The Yavapai and the Western Apaches lived similar ways of life, as nomadic hunters and gathers, but they represented completely different linguistic groups and might have different ancestry. Yet both groups have creation stories which trace their origins to the first humans who emerged from Montezuma Well. Tonto Apache and Yavapai history intermingled as they shared many struggles together.

Ancestors of the Yavapai and Apache

Over 700 years, their ancestor's way of life changed or merged into the Apache and Yavapai. It's also possible that they moved into the area long after a different people moved out of the cliff dwellings. Both the Yavapai and Western Apaches lived in Tonto Basin. The two distinctly different languages intermixed and overlapped. Early American settlers often referred to all natives in the region as Tonto Apaches or Mohave Apaches.

Bloody Tanks Massacre

The Spanish, Mexicans, and Anglo-Americans seldom intruded into the Tonto Basin until the late 1800s. Then came events which changed everything: discovery of gold in central Arizona and the founding of Prescott in 1863. From the outset, prospectors and settlers showed little regard for Native lives or territory. Yavapai and Tonto Apaches watched a rapid intrusion into their traditional hunting grounds. Prospectors shot at Natives for sport. Natives raided and stole livestock. In January 1864, civilian "rangers" led by rancher King Woolsey, lured Natives to a parley in the Superstition Mountains and then open fired on them. The Bloody Tanks Massacre left more than 30 Natives dead.

U.S. Army Forts

The region continued in turmoil and violence into the 1870s. Fort Whipple was established near Prescott in 1864 and became the main headquarters for the U.S. Army in Arizona, the same year Fort Verde was build near the Verde River. Fort McDowell, at the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers, was posted in 1865. Camp Reno near Tonto Creek was established in 1867 and Fort Apache was built on the headwaters of the Salt River in 1870.

Reservations Established

In 1871, President Grant's administration attempted to pacify the Apaches through a "peace policy" by providing Native American reserves. One such reservation- the Rio Verde- was created in 1871. It extended for more than 40 miles on both sides of the Verde River upstream from Fort Verde. A number of Yavapai and Tonto Apaches agreed to settle there but many did not accept the offer. In 1872, the San Carlos Reservation was created on the Gila River, in response to the Camp Grant massacre on Aravaipa Creek. The original intention of the San Carlos Reservation was to provide a safe reserve for the Western Apaches.

The Tonto War

The peace policy failed to stop the conflict between American settlers and the Yavapai and Tonto Apaches. The U.S. Army under General George Crook initiated the Tonto War in November 1872. Instead of moving the army's baggage with cumbersome wagon trains, he used mule pack trains moving quickly over the rough trails in Tonto country. He recruited and hired Apache scouts to fight on his side. The army establishment was reluctant to create Native allies, but Crook was willing to exploit historic factions and enmity among the Apache bands. Crook's troops, heavily reinforced with native scouts from the White Mountain Apaches as well as Pima, Maricopa, and Yavapai, began a push north into Tonto Basin; one target was the rancheria of Delshay, a major chief of the Tonto Apaches.

The Skeleton Cave Massacre

A significant battle of the Tonto War came to be known as the Skeleton Cave Massacre. Troops were led to a rock shelter of the north wall of the Salt River Canyon, above what is now the waters of Apache Lake. As many as a hundred Natives had fortified themselves in what became their deathtrap. Unwilling to surrender, they fell to ricocheting bullets from above and below. The final death count was between 50 and 75, including warriors, women, children, and elderly. An estimated 20 Natives survived. At the time the army identified this as an attack on Tonto Apaches. Fort McDowell Yavapais believe that the fallen were their people. The Native dead were left unburied: hence the name, "Skeleton Cave." Beginning in the 1920s, remains of the victims were removed and buried at the Fort McDowell Reservation. In 1985, a memorial stone was dedicated at the grave: "In remembrance to the brave Yavapai men, women, and children who were massacred at the Skeleton Cave December 1872 by the U.S. Army."

The Last to Surrender

The campaign against the "renegade" Yavapai and Apaches continued into the spring of 1873. The army followed General Crook's methodical strategy of taking the fight into the mountains, using native scouts, and destroying one rancheria at a time. One of the last surrenders was on April 6, when Cha-lipun, an Apache - Mohave/Yavapai chief, came in. Chief Delshay surrendered on April 25, telling Crook that he was down to only 20 warriors.


Forced Relocation

Following the war, some 1,500 Yavapai and Tonto Apaches were relocated to the Rio Verde reservation, extending northwest from Fort Verde. Many Tonto Apaches were also sent to the San Carlos Reservation on the Gila River. Neither place was particularly hospitable and the first years were miserable for the people at both reservations. There was not enough food and people were not permitted to leave the reservations to hunt or gather. They suffered from malaria, smallpox, and other diseases. By the summer of 1873, many lives had been lost. There were breakouts by "renegade" chiefs such as Delshay, and Cook found it necessary to direct a second war against some of these Tonto Apaches.

Concentration Policy

By 1874 conditions had improved on the Rio Verde. With the army's assistance, the Natives had created an irrigation system and began productive farming. Their best customers for hay and other farm products was the army itself at nearby Fort Verde. This improved situation was unacceptable to the so-called "Tucson Ring", businessmen who profited by contracting to supply the army. Local white settlers had their eyes on the Rio Verde Reservation as potential land for development. Business and bureaucratic interests prevailed and a "concentration policy" was implemented: all Apaches were to be concentrated on one reservation, the San Carlos on the Gila River.

The Exodus

This began the terrible episode, known to the Yavapai and Tonto Apaches as the Exodus. Rather than allowing the people to travel by the longer and easier Crook Trail Wagon Road, the exodus route covered a fairly direct, but very difficult 150-mile trail through the Tonto Basin. The two week trek was made in February and March of 1875. The Salt River crossing, probably not far from Tonto National Monument, was described as particularly hard with water that was both high and cold. Of the 1,450 Apaches and Yavapais who began the journey, at least 100 died along the way. The Yavapai-Apache Nation commemorates Exodus Day each February.

Life in San Carlos

At the San Carlos Reservation, John Clum, a government agent, arrived in 1874 and immediately went to work on infrastructure, adequate food distribution, and the beginnings of native self-government. However, fair treatment of the Apaches didn't last. Disagreements over policy caused Clum to resign in 1877 and the reservation reverted to its more typical history of misery and corruption. The Chihuahua bands also were forced onto the San Carlos. Their discontent and frequent breakouts led to another decade of Apache warfare in the southwest, most famously lead be Geronimo. Reservation life became even worse when the federal government completed Coolidge Dam in 1928. The project displaced San Carlos residents from farmland along the Gila. For the Yavapai and Tonto Apaches, this was the third time that their land was taken away from them due to government policy.

New Reservations on Ancestral Lands

During the century after its inception the concentration policy was slowly disassembled. The Fort McDowell Reservation was established by Executive Order in 1903 and continued to be home for the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. In 1934, Congress recognized the Yavapai Apache Nation and created a new reservation in the Verde Valley, much smaller and more marginal than the original Rio Verde. Many Tonto Apaches are part of the Yavapai Apache Nation, a tribe that recognizes that they are made up of two distinct peoples. Other Tonto Apaches, beginning around the turn of the last century, returned in small numbers to the National Forest land near Payson. In 1972, 97 years after the Exodus, the Tonto Apache Reservation- only 85 acres, the smallest in Arizona- was created on Tonto National Forest land near Payson. There are 110 enrolled members.

Last updated: October 11, 2020

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