Curing 'amnesia' about state's most blood-soaked day

2009-05-03T00:00:00Z Curing 'amnesia' about state's most blood-soaked dayBy Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 03, 2009 12:00 am  • 

It was the bloodiest day in Arizona history, and it is seldom discussed.

Three recent books and a campaign to mark the site of the Camp Grant Massacre attempt to cure what one historian calls our "amnesia" about the slaughter of more than 100 Apaches, mostly women and children, who were clubbed to death or shot as they fled Aravaipa Canyon about 60 miles northeast of Tucson.

Before dawn on April 30, 1871, a group of 47 Mexican and seven Anglo men from Tucson trained their rifles on an encampment of Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches who had surrendered to the protection of the U.S. Army at Camp Grant.

A force of 92 Tohono O'odham allies then swarmed into the encampment, carrying knives and clubs made of mesquite or ironwood and bludgeoned the sleeping Apaches. Those who fled were gunned down by the riflemen.

Estimates of the number of dead vary. Lt. Royal Whitman, commander of Camp Grant, testified at trial that his troops found and buried 125 bodies, only eight of them men.

One of the raiding party's leaders, William Oury, in an account published in the Arizona Daily Star in 1877, took credit for the "killing of 144 of the most blood-thirsty Devils that ever disgraced mother Earth."

The attackers also kidnapped 29 children, six of whom were later returned by the Tucson families to whom they were entrusted. The others were believed sold in Mexico by their Tohono O'odham captors.

Some of the raiders were reluctantly indicted for murder by a Pima County grand jury under the federal government's threat of martial law.

During a six-day trial in Pima County, witnesses — none of them Apache — related tales of raiding and robbing, though they knew little about the bands settled along Aravaipa Creek.

The defendants, including Sidney DeLong, who would become mayor of Tucson that same year, and Oury, the future sheriff of Pima County, were exonerated by a jury that deliberated for 19 minutes.

The verdict was praised by local newspapers, which saluted the men for helping to clear the Apache menace from territory added to the United States just 17 years prior. Arizona Citizen publisher John Wasson, in lauding the attack, called the Apaches "untameable brutes; fit for nothing but slaughter."

The Massacre at Camp Grant is "Arizona's Wounded Knee," says ethnohistorian Ian Record, author of "Big Sycamore Stands Alone," the Apache place name for the site.

Record became interested in the story of the massacre when he came to the University of Arizona to work on his master's degree in Native American studies. Telling the tale from the Apache point of view became his thesis project.

The Camp Grant conspirators slipped out of Tucson in small groups and bypassed the usual routes to avoid alarming the soldiers stationed at the confluence of the San Pedro River and Aravaipa Creek, just north of present-day Mammoth.

The 400 to 500 Apaches in the canyon, led by Chief Hashké Bahnzin and Capitán Chiquito, had surrendered to Lt. Whitman, seeking an end to the clashes between them and white settlers, hoping to settle in protected fashion in this canyon where they had long tended crops.

The violence of the times was no excuse for what happened, says Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías, a descendant of two men, Juan and Jesús Maria Elías, who helped organize and lead the attack.

"They knew this was wrong."

Elías said he was singled out by his professors in Native American studies courses he took at the UA: "Are you one of those Elíases?"

"It really helped me come to grips with it. My professors made me understand that we all shared a commonality. If anything, it has given me a resolve to work hard in my political life to include native peoples at the table."

Elías said he is proud of his family's pioneer history, but "not all the moments." He bought several copies of Record's book to educate some of his relatives, he said.

Raising the issue can produce a vociferous backlash, said Tucson businessman Brad Rollings, who tried to do so on the massacre's 125th anniversary in 1996, by suggesting the renaming of his daughter's school, Sam Hughes Elementary.

Hughes, a grain and beef dealer, was one of Tucson's most successful businessmen at the time of the massacre. He was also adjutant general of the Arizona Territory and supplied the raiders with rifles and ammunition, as well as a wagonload of supplies.

Though Hughes did not join the raid, he was, writes Record, one of its organizers.

Rollings said he knew about Hughes' role in the incident and the consequences — "primarily women and children just butchered."

"Knowing what I know and with my daughter going to that school, I said I have a responsibility to my own perception of history to do something about that. I made a little speech to the PTA, and it polarized the community. I got some support. Others found it despicable that I would slander such a revered name."

Rollings dropped the campaign but says he is pleased by the renewed attention of historians to the massacre.

The three recent books, published in 2007 and 2008, all take pains to include the Apaches' stories, and to document the effect of the extermination campaign on their lives to this day.

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, author of "Massacre at Camp Grant," said, "Apaches in general and particularly Western Apaches are reluctant to talk about these difficult histories that revolve around murder and captivity and enslavement."

Tucsonans seemed equally reluctant. Colwell-Chanthaphonh was born and raised in Tucson, so he had walked on Oury Street and hiked Wasson Peak.

It wasn't until he took anthropology courses at the UA that he connected those and other Tucson place names to this dark chapter in our history. "I certainly have no memory of talking about the Camp Grant Massacre in school," he said.

Yet the massacre is important still today because "it established the movement away from the Apaches' traditional lands to the south," Colwell-Chanthaphonh said. "It isn't just something that happened 138 years ago. It is a living event."

The raid had its intended effect. The Apaches who returned to Aravaipa after the massacre were moved north to a new reservation that same year. Most of the land along Aravaipa Creek and the San Pedro River that had traditionally been farmed by the Pinal and Aravaipa bands was claimed by non-Indian settlers.

That move to the San Carlos reservation, Record notes, was only the first constriction of their lands. Boundaries were pushed farther north and east to make way for mining claims. The old capital at San Carlos was later flooded to create a reservoir mostly for the benefit of downstream non-Indian farmers.

"Aravaipa," said Record, "is a perfect example of what happens when the places we rely on are destroyed or weakened and our ability to engage those places is restricted," he said.

The Apaches' connection to ancestral lands, central to their sense of themselves, was severed, and the scars remain, he said.

San Carlos Tribal Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. said the Apaches did not simply lose land when they were pushed onto the reservations. They lost important connections between nature and their language, culture and spirituality.

Restoring those connections requires that sites be preserved, he said. "Being victims of our past, being displaced, has played a big part of our identity," Nosie said.

"That's my biggest push right now, is to regain that identity."

A push for Awareness

John Hartman would like to see the Camp Grant Massacre take its place in the public awareness alongside other atrocities — Wounded Knee in South Dakota and Sand Creek in Colorado, both now National Park sites.

He has convened meetings of the descendants of an Aravaipa chief known as Capitán Chiquito, seeking agreement on a plan to mark the site and historically interpret it. He has formed a nonprofit, Apaches of Aravaipa Canyon, and is working on a grant for surveying and planning.

The land where the people died and are buried is owned by a group of Apache descendants, including Hartman's wife, Velma Bullis.

Today the site is a field of cholla on a flat shelf of land above the wide, sandy bed of Aravaipa Creek. The Apaches called the place "Big Sycamore Stands Alone," but the big sycamore that once stood there is long gone.

Before he does anything else, Hartman said, he would like to fence the place to keep out the cows and the pot-hunters and grave-robbers from the mesa where round impressions still mark where wikieups once stood and two rectangles of stone outline the mass graves where the Army buried the Apaches killed here.

Until then, he does not want the site specifically identified. It's location is not specified on the National Register of Historic Places, to which it was added in 1998.

The presence of remains and the Apache reluctance to talk about the dead are the big stumbling blocks to Hartman's campaign to memorialize the massacre. Even his wife is not sure she wants the place marked and developed as a historical site: "It just seems so long ago," she said on a recent visit.

When the tribal council of elders last discussed the issue, they cautioned against marking the actual grave site, said San Carlos Tribal Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. The tribe needs to reconnect to the canyon and its stories, Nosie said, but a decision on how to do that will need time.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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