By John Hernandez
The Cañon del Oro, the “Canyon of Gold” in Spanish, is a remote canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Through the canyon runs the perennial creek known as the Cañada del Oro. The creek is fed by rain and melted snow from the north face of Mount Lemmon. The creek flows northward towards the town of Oracle and then curves southward to the town of Oro Valley. It probably got its name from the Spanish explorers that discovered gold in the area in the 17th century. It has a history of mining activity after the Civil War when American prospectors began searching the area for gold. The legendary “Mine with the Iron Door/Lost Escalante Mine” is reported to be somewhere in the canyon area. The area during the Apache Wars was also the scene of a number of encounters with Apaches including battles between Americans, Mexicans, and the U.S. Cavalry.
It is believed that the Pinal and Aravaipa people first encountered the Americans at the Canyon del Oro in 1850. In 1859, the Canyon was the site of the first recorded treaty between the United States and the Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches. Negotiations had begun in March. At that time it was agreed that the parties would meet again two weeks later at Canyon del Oro.
On March 22, Captain Ewell and his troops, reported as 100 dragoons from Fort Buchanan set up camp in the Cañon del Oro. Colonel Walker, agent of the Pima and Maricopa Indians accompanied Ewell as well as citizens from Tucson looking to trade with the Apaches if the negotiations went well. The Apaches showed up in small groups in the afternoon. After surveying the situation, the rest of the band came into the canyon. The newspapers reported that there were over 300 warriors and six hundred women, children and old men in attendance. On the arrival of Dr. Steck, the Apache agent, the treaty was made. The Pinals agreed not to raid or harm the Americans in exchange the government would provide goods and provisions on a regular basis. Arizona newspapers, which did not distinguish between the different bands and clans of Apaches, were reporting that the Pinals had broken the treaty within a month. The Tucson newspaper wrote editorials calling for more military action against the Indians.
The Canyon del Oro was along the road from Tucson to Camp Grant which had been re-established in 1866. The road was isolated and dangerous as Apaches roamed the area freely. There was nothing between Tucson and Camp Grant. Oracle and Mammoth did not exist, nor did the Steam Pump Ranch. The only known ranch in the area was established by Francisco Romero around 1844. It was located in part of what is now Catalina State Park.
The Apaches knew that freighters and travelers between Tucson and the fort, which was established where the San Pedro River and Aravaipa Creek meet, usually traveled on the road without military escort. They knew that the freight wagons carried lots of supplies for the military and for the stores which supplied goods for the ranchers and farmers that were starting to settle in the area around Camp Grant. The years from 1864 to 1871 were a very violent and dangerous time for settlers in Arizona, especially those that traveled outside of the large towns or attempted to settle in areas far away from established military outposts. The Camp Grant Road and the San Pedro Valley had more than their share of the violence during the Apache wars.
To understand the depth of violence and frequency of attacks by the Apaches, there was a petition to President Ulysses S. Grant dated Oct. 14, 1871 that was printed in the Arizona Miner newspaper. Attached to the petition was a list of 301 names of people killed in the Territory of Arizona by the Apaches since 1864. At the time it was estimated that those killed amounted to ten percent of the adult population in Arizona. A list of some of the Apache raids and some of those killed in the Copper Corridor area is provided.
In May 1867, three Mexicans were murdered between Tucson and Camp Grant. The Mexicans worked for Jesus M. Elias at his ranch near Camp Grant. Later the same night, the Elias ranch was attacked. Jesus Elias was at Camp Grant, where he was often used as a guide for the military. His brother Juan was wounded in the neck and shoulder by a shotgun blast. Some people believed it was an assassination attempt intended for Jesus. The Elias family had been fighting the Apaches for years.
On Jun. 4, 1867, a Mexican worker named Francisco was murdered on the ranch of Jesus M. Elias. Elias was in the field near the attack but was able to hide from the Apaches. He would be one of the leaders of the Tucson vigilantes who participated in the Camp Grant Massacre in 1871. He would guide the Americans, Mexicans and Papagos (Tohono O’odham) to the Aravaipa village where the massacre took place. His brother Juan also participated in the massacre.
Jun. 4, 1867 – the ranch of Israel, Tommalson & Co. was attacked by Indians. Mr. Tommalson was killed by a spear thrust through his lung.
May 14, 1868 – a train of three wagons one belonging to Tully & Ochoa and two to Mariano were attacked on the road to Camp Grant by seven Indians. The men drove off the attackers, killing two and bringing in their scalps as trophies. The owners of the wagons divided $300 among the seven men who were with the wagons and helped drive off the Indians.
Jul. 16, 1868 – Elonzo M. Erwin murdered at Camp Grant.
Dec. 10, 1868 – Indians endeavored to fire a ranch at Camp Grant and stole a government mule.
Jul. 24, 1869 – a Mexican named Corozozo was murdered near Camp Grant.
Feb. 26, 1869 – Indians attack the train of Thomas Venable near Camp Grant. They murdered two men, Price and Davis, wounded one, captured 80 mules and destroyed two wagons.
Mar. 23, 1869 – a white man was murdered near Camp Grant.
May 11, 1869 – between Tucson and Camp Grant, three men were murdered.
Sept. 30, 1879 – Fred L. Austin a merchant and a party of 12 men were attacked by approximately 150 Apaches on the road from Tucson to Camp Grant. They fought them from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. when troops from Camp Grant arrived.
Oct. 1, 1879 – Captain E.F. Bernard of the First Cavalry followed the band of Apaches that had taken a train on the road from Tucson to Camp Grant. They trailed the Indians to the Aravaipa Mountains. They found 300 Apaches there and were “obliged to retreat.”
Jan. 8, 1870 – Samuel Brown and J. Simms were murdered by Indians at the San Pedro settlement and their team captured.
Apr. 18, 1870 – Indians visited Camp Grant and stole three horses from Captain Hind’s wagon, and four mules, the property of C. Conwell.
Jun. 25, 1870 – Indians attacked a prospecting party near Cottonwood Springs, on the road from Florence to Camp Grant, wounded Messrs. Myers, Johns, and Curtis, and captured the wagon and its effects valued at about $2,000.
Feb. 14, 1871 – Hind’s and Hooker’s herd at Infantry Camp, was attacked, when two herders were killed and their arms captured by the savage assailants. Later in the day the camp sentinels were fired upon.
Feb. 15, 1871 – Indians attacked Lt. Riley and ten men while guarding a government herd, near Infantry Camp in the Pinal Mountains, killed one soldier, wounded two others and captured about seventy heads of mules and a number of cattle. (Infantry Camp was established by General Stoneman and located about 6 miles west of present day Miami at the Pinal Ranch near the headwaters of Mineral and Pinto Creeks. It would later be moved further west and renamed Camp Pinal then Camp Picket Post near the town of present day Superior)
Mar. 10, 1871 – Mr. Ainza’s train, in route to Infantry Camp, with government supplies, was attacked by a large band of Indians, and two teamsters were killed and one wounded. On the same day, Indians attacked the train of Manuel Ynigo between Camp Grant and Pinal, killing one soldier, one Mexican and capturing sixteen mules.
Apr. 10, 1871 – A.J. Jackson murdered by Indians at San Pedro.
Apr. 12, 1871 – a band of Indians from the Camp Grant Reservation, swept over the San Pedro Valley, killing Mr. Long, Mr. McKenzie, E. Unter and Oury Chapin and wounding Nicholas Lopes.
Sept. 10, 1871 – Indians fired into a detachment of Pinal prospectors, killed one man and two horses.
Sept. 13, 1871 – a mail rider and a stock herder murdered by Indians two miles from Tucson, the mail captured and destroyed, and the mule of the mail rider taken by the Indians to the Camp Grant Reservation.
Sept. 23, 1871 – a party of Indians captured a herd of cattle from a ranch two miles south of Tucson. They were followed by a party of citizens, and so closely pursued that they abandoned the plunder and took refuge on the Camp Grant Reservation.
Two of the more well known battles with Apaches along the Cañada del Oro were the Israel-Kennedy wagon train attack and the attack on the Tully & Ochoa wagon train.