The Camp Grant Massacre looms over the history of the Southwest -- sullen, black and violent as a lightning-laced summer monsoon storm. But it also illuminates a remarkable friendship against all odds, like a lance of sunlight through a ragged hole in the thunderhead.
The nation was horrified by the slaughter of perhaps 140 Apache women and children in their camp in Aravaipa Canyon in 1871, the site now just off one of the state’s scenic parkways. Certainly, the story features a hailstorm of hatred. But it also offers a lighting flash of courage and compassion as a result of the friendship between Apache chief Eskiminzin and First Lieutenant Royal Emerson Whitman.
Whitman, a civil war hero and a principled abolitionist from Maine, arrived in the Arizona Territory in November of 1870. A descendant of Mayflower pilgrims and governors, Whitman rose to the Civil War field command rank of colonel in the Maine Volunteers. He shifted to the regular Army as a first lieutenant after the war, and was sent to Camp Grant, a remote outpost at the junction of the fitful San Pedro River and the year-round paradise of Aravaipa Canyon.
Hunters, gatherers and raiders, the Apaches had lived in scattered bands for centuries across the area encompassing central and southeastern Arizona. Skirmishes and raids between bands were part of survival, and the practice extended to the invading Spanish, then to Mexicans and Americans, who disregarded the differences in the bands and knew them all as warring Apaches. The Aravaipa Apaches clung tenaciously to their homeland centered on the deep gash of Aravaipa Canyon, which provided crucial, year-round food supplies and game.
The canyon was also layered with myths and sacred places. To the Aravaipa Apaches, the spirit of the land offered the path to wisdom, balance and spirituality. But by the time Whitman assumed command of Camp Grant in 1871, the Aravaipas had been ground down by their enemies. For years, they had fought other Apache bands like the fierce Chiricahuas, the Papagos (now known as the Tohono O'odham Indians) and the inrushing of Anglos. Hiding in the jagged recesses of Aravaipa Canyon, they dwindled toward starvation.
In February, five old women cautiously approached the camp under a flag of truce. They came seeking information about a son captured months earlier. Whitman, an idealistic, educated and compassionate man, treated them kindly and promised to look for the boy. He feed women and encouraged them to bring their people to him for peace talks. A week later, Eskiminzin and 25 of his people, proud but starving, arrived at the fort. Eskiminzin said the once numerous Aravaipa Apaches had scattered and dwindled to 150 people, now hiding in the canyon and nearby mountains.
Whitman, concerned for the safety of these peaceful Apaches, urged him to take his band to the distant White Mountain Reservation, but Eskiminzin refused. He pleaded with Whitman to let them settle near the Camp Grant, several miles from Aravaipa Canyon, explaining that the reservation “is not our country, neither are they our people. Our fathers and their fathers before them have lived in these mountains and have raised corn in this valley. We are taught to make mescal [from the hearts of agave] and in summer and winter here we have a never-failing supply. At the White Mountains there is none, and without it we get sick.”
Sensing an opportunity to end the raiding that had plagued southeastern Arizona, Whitman agreed to let them camp nearby, hoping Gen. George Stoneman, based in San Francisco, would approve. He sent an urgent dispatch to San Francisco, seeking permission to establish a reservation and feed the Indians. Tragically, his appeal was returned six weeks later, unopened. A clerk returned the appeal with a note saying Whitman had failed to attach a required summary of the contents.
The Apaches flocked to the camp, and by April they numbered perhaps 500. They had few weapons and some soon even sold their best bows and arrows to the soldiers. When Whitman offered to buy hay harvested from local meadows for one cent per pound, the Apaches in two months gathered 300,000 pounds. Soon Whitman knew almost every one of the 500 Indians by name and had completely won their trust. So when summer dried up the San Pedro River and the lower reaches of Aravaipa Creek, he allowed the bands to move 5 miles up the creek into the canyon. All the while, thunderheads of hatred and fear were boiling in Tucson, a day’s journey to the west.
In 1870, the non-Indian population of Arizona totaled about 10,000 – half of Mexican origin. Tucson was the largest city, and the settlers there had suffered repeated Chiricahua Apache raids. A bewildering array of war parties conducted the lightning raids, capturing cattle and horses and spreading terror. They usually struck and retreated quickly to their mountain sanctuaries.
The Tucson newspapers and many leading settlers insisted only a war of extermination would solve the “Apache problem,” and railed against Whitman’s impromptu reservation for the Aravaipa Apaches. Continued raiding by other Apache bands stirred fear and hatred. In March, raiders struck a supply train near the fort, killing two men and escaping with 16 mules. A week later, raiders hit Tubac, killing a rancher and kidnapping a woman. Some Tucsonans, who’d been leery of Whitman’s impromptu reservation, quickly placed blame on the Aravaipa Apaches.
When several citizens appealed to the distant General Stoneman for protection, he effectively dismissed their complaints, saying they had enough men to take care of themselves. Later, the citizens cited that offhand comment as justification for vigilante action.
On April 19, Apache raiders ran off cattle from the outskirts of Tucson. Settlers chased them down, recovered the cattle and killed one Indian. Four days later, Apaches killed four Americans along the San Pedro River. William Ouray, a rancher and former mayor of Tucson, tried to whip up a retaliatory expedition among the Anglo residents of Tucson, enlisting 86 men after a fiery speech. But most changed their minds after a day or two. “In a few days, with sorrow be it said, the valor of all these plumed knights seemed to have oozed out at their finger ends, and everything was at a standstill,” Ouray later wrote in disgust.
During the winter of 1870, Ouray joined forces with Jesus Elias, a political leader among Tucson’s Mexican citizens, and together they formed the Committee of Public Safety. Outraged over the latest events, they planned to take action, enlisting the help of the Tohono O’odham Indians who had suffered the depredations of Apache raiders. On April 28, 92 Tohono O'odhams, 42 Mexicans and six Anglo Americans gathered on the banks of Rillito Creek. Ouray sent several men to waylay any Tucson soldiers heading to Camp Grant to warn Whitman. Then the vigilantes set off, traveling all through the night. They reached the Aravaipas' camp just at dawn and after killing two sentries -- a man and a woman playing cards -- launched an attack.
Ouray later recalled, “The Papagos bounded forward like deer for about two miles before we struck the rancheria. . . . In less than half an hour not a living Apache was to be seen, save the children taken prisoners. . . .” Thus ended the so called Camp Grant massacre, denounced as a dastardly outrage by General Stoneman, and justified by Ouray as “the killing of about 144 of the most blood-thirsty devils that ever disgraced mother earth.” But Ouray glossed over the shocking details. The dead included only eight men, many of them elderly. Most of the warriors were away hunting in the canyon. The attackers raped the women and mutilated the children, without suffering a single casualty themselves. The Tohono O’odham carried away 27 children to sell in Mexico as slaves. The dead included four of Eskiminzin’s wives and five of his children.
Tucson messengers who had been held at gunpoint for hours by Ouray’s men rode into Camp Grant to warn Whitman as he sat at breakfast. He rushed the 5 miles to Eskiminzin’s camp, to find a scene of devastation. “The camp was burning and the ground strewed with their dead and mutilated women and children,” wrote Whitman. He sent for a wagon and the post surgeon to collect the wounded, then formed burial details. He offered translators a small fortune -- $100 --to go into the hills and convince the returning warriors to come in to talk, but none would risk it.
Hoping that Eskiminzin would come in when he saw the soldiers burying the dead, Whitman directed the burial parties. Soon, warriors begun trickling into the camp “and indulged in their expressions of grief, too wild and terrible to be described,” wrote Whitman. “That evening they began to come in from all directions, singly and in small parties, so changed in forty-eight hours as to be hardly recognizable, during which time they had neither eaten or slept. Many of the men, whose families had all been killed, when I spoke to them and expressed sympathy for them, were obliged to turn away, unable to speak, and too proud to show their grief. The women whose children had been killed or stolen were convulsed with grief, and looked to me appealingly, as though I was their last hope on earth. Children who two days before had been full of fun and frolic kept at a distance, expressing wondering horror.”
News of the massacre horrified the nation but approving citizens of the area declared the attack necessary to ensure their safety. President Ulysses S. Grant threatened to impose martial law on the Territory if Ouray and his band were not brought to trial. Ouray and other members of the raiding party were put on trial in Tucson, but on December 13, nearly eight months after the attack, the jury acquitted them after just 19 minutes of deliberation. Reviled by the settlers and slandered by the newspapers, Whitman spoke out against the slaughter.
For his actions, he faced three court martial trials in the nine months following the massacre. Eskiminzin did his best to guide the shattered remnant of his people. After another attack, a blunder by an Army scouting party, he and some of his band left the area and struck out in retaliation. His first act of revenge offered one bitter object lesson. He went to see an Anglo rancher who had been his friend for years. They visited and had coffee, then Eskiminzin pulled out his gun and killed him. Much later, the chief told an Army scout, “I did it to teach my people that there must be no friendship between them and the white men. Anyone can kill an enemy, but it takes a strong man to kill a friend.”
The next month, Eskiminzin led an attack on a wagon train. Only one soldier died, but 13 warriors were killed. The unsettled survivors of his band gradually gathered on the White Mountain Reservation. Eventually, their chief joined them, but his effort to live peacefully eluded him. He farmed and ranched on the reservation, becoming an assistant and friend to John Clum, the Indian agent. Still he was harassed and accused of many crimes without any proof or witnesses. He was arrested in 1891 for aiding the renegade known as the Apache Kid, who was Eskiminzin son-in-law. For that false charge, the chief and his people were sent to a camp in Mount Vernon, Alabama, joining other bands of Apaches that had been exiled in 1886 after Geronimo’s surrender.
Released in November 1894, the Aravaipas were the only Apaches allowed to return to Arizona. Eskiminzin died on the White Mountain Reservation one year later. later. Now, the canyon that Eskiminzin loved, lies empty and echoing -- a wilderness area occupied by bears, mountain lions, bighorns, deer and ghosts. No trace of Camp Grant or the massacre remains. You can hike through the deep, shaded canyon with a permit from the Bureau of Land Management, crisscrossing the stream and wandering, unknowing, past the unmarked site of the massacre. And here the story of Eskiminzin and Whitman lingers, like the smell of rain after the storm has passed. It is a stirring tale of honor and compassion, all the more remarkable for the fury of the storm.