The legends of the American West — from Indian wars and massacres, to outlaw gangs and the struggles of settlers — come alive in the history of east-central Arizona. The forests, grasslands, mountain peaks and deep canyons have been witness to lost civilizations, conquistadors, Mountain Men and explorers. Cavalrymen battled the warriors of Geronimo and other famous Indian chiefs. Texas cowboys murdered Hispanic sheepherders. Mormons clashed with other settlers over land and the practice of polygamy.
Zane Grey, who did more than anyone to create the image of the Old West, visited regularly to collect material for his novels. But the rich details of the region’s history are more powerful than fiction.
For thousands of years, bands of native people struggled to live in the wildly beautiful but harsh environment with its unforgiving climate. The Desert Culture became the Anasazi and Mogollon civilizations, which in turn produced the Hopi and Zuni tribes. The Kachina religion of the Pueblos started in the area.
After wandering through North America for 10,000 years, some Apache bands began to spend most of their time in the White Mountains, gathering plants and hunting game.
Coronado, searching for the legendary seven cities of gold, found hardship and death in the desolate White Mountains and moved on. His countrymen fought the Apaches unsuccessfully for centuries. The region was still inaccessible to Europeans when Mexico ceded title to the Americans in 1848. Fur trappers and explorers came to the area, but moved on quickly.
Apaches, long accustomed to raiding into Mexico, had divided loyalties in the latter part of the 19th century. Some under leaders like Cochise and Geronimo fought to remain free, while others enlisted as scouts to help the U.S. Army track down the renegades. Civilians massacred even peaceful Apaches at Camp Grant and Bloody Tanks before Fort Apache was established in the White Mountains. The Fort and the extensive reservation surrounding it gave the Apaches some protection. Still, breakouts by Apache bands were frequent as Generals Crook and Miles tried to subdue America’s last hostile Indians. In the end, both the renegades and some faithful U.S. Army scouts were taken to prisoner of war camps to die in Florida and Oklahoma.
Chief Alchesay, who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his work as a scout, had a wild side. He killed a rival chief in a drunken fight before leading his people to a more settled life. The Apache Kid gained fame as one of the last renegades, while a small band of Wild Apaches continued to haunt the mountains of Northern Mexico even into the 20th century.
Native religious movements sprang up. One led to a battle between Apache believers and troops. Another ended after the prophet asked his followers to cut off his head to prove he would be resurrected in three days. White authorities made sure a 20th century charismatic religious leader had to serve a long prison term.
Sheepherders and cattlemen fought for the opportunity to overgraze the semi-arid slopes. The Hashknife outfit, funded by eastern banks, dumped cattle over hundreds of square miles and fought with everyone.
The region continued to be wild and sparsely developed because of the difficult climate and the reputation of the ubiquitous Apaches. This gap in the fabric of civilization remained even after 1890, when the frontier was officially declared to be extinct.
Mormons, sent by their leaders to settle the area, found water scarce and the growing season short. Their early communal settlements soon collapsed, but since the region was secluded, it became a haven for their practice of polygamy. The Latter-day Saints braved Indian attacks, repeated dam washouts and outlaws as they struggled to build communities and make a living on small farms.
The family of William Flake was first ostracized because he bolted from a Mormon commune. Later he fought outlaws and became a patriarch. Flake purchased land for many Latter-day Saint communities before being sent to prison for polygamy. His son Charles was shot to death trying to arrest a bank robber, and a grandson was the first to die in the American Expedition to Revolutionary Russia. A granddaughter, warming herself by the fire in one of the Flake’s Victorian homes, burned to death. Yet, his 15 sons and five daughters produced thousands of descendants.
In another heartbreaking incident, a seven-year-old Mormon girl was lost on the Reservation. Apaches helped in the desperate search, which consumed local communities for a month.
Scarlet fever, whooping cough, diphtheria and other epidemics swept through the area. In the tiny community of St. Johns, more than 150 children died in one outbreak. The plagues on the reservation were even worse.
Larger-than-life characters included Corydon Cooley, a gold seeker who saved peaceful Apaches from a massacre, married two Apache sisters and served as a scout to hunt down hostiles. He survived to become a famous host and storyteller. Another legendary figure was the trader Sol Barth. He founded a town, became a political leader, and went to prison for graft before receiving a pardon from the governor. Voters also forgave him, returning him to the Arizona Legislature.
The Udall clan became an important presence, providing two chief justices of the Arizona Supreme Court, four congressmen, a U.S. Cabinet member and three U.S. senators.
Timber was a resource for early settlers, but they were drawn into conflict with the government’s first attempts to protect the forest. Still, sawmills flourished for a time.
Famed naturalist Aldo Leopold developed his theories of conservation in the area. Later, 20th-century conservation practices, based on his work, protected the re-introduced elk, after the original population had been hunted to extinction.
The White Mountains were part of what was known as the Outlaw Trail, a broken swath of real estate stretching from Canada to Mexico. The remote towns along the trail were generally far from railroads, which could bring in lawmen for surprise visits. Outlaws were able to hide out in the vast wilderness along the route and even hang around the towns with almost complete impunity.
The Pleasant Valley War spilled over into the White Mountains and ended in a gun battle in Holbrook. Desperados from the shootout at the O. K. Corral came to the remote wilderness to meet their fate, and the lynchings that inspired The Ox-Bow Incident occurred near Heber.
By the turn of the 20th century, residents wanted their Wild West reputation to be a thing of the past. So, when word reached St. Johns that five outlaws were operating in the area, townspeople were primed to go after them. Sheriff Ed Beeler, a blowhard and poor organizer if not an outright incompetent, deputized citizens to take up the chase. Within a day, the posse dwindled to only a couple of boys. When the inexperienced youths were killed in a rain of rifle fire after being ambushed by the gang of hardened criminals, law-abiding people were outraged. Those shocked citizens forced the Territorial government to create the Arizona Rangers and declare an all-out war on the remnants of lawlessness.
Butch Cassidy, one of the West’s most famous outlaws, was sitting in the St. Johns Jail on suspicion of horse theft when the boys were killed. Although Cassidy’s arrest had ironically given him an airtight alibi for the murders, he knew he had to leave. Cassidy caught a boat to South America shortly after talking his way out of the jail. He rightly sensed things were getting too hot for his trade in Arizona.
Modern contraptions started to arrive in the remote region, including telephones and electricity. One enterprising man bought pipe left over from the St. Louis World’s Fair and provided running water. Many of the men who went off to fight World War I did not return. Tourists began to come, enticed by the spectacular wilderness. In addition to Zane Grey, other famous writers came to the White Mountains to gather stories and practice their craft. One was Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. The Depression hit slowly but hard, both on and off the reservation, before men began to leave to serve their country in World War II.
TO BE CONTINUED