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Skeleton Cave Massacre,
Salt River Canyon, Arizona
December 28, 1872

Last updated: 3 months ago

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THE BATTLE AT SKELETON CAVE

 

An apt quote about history is: "History, though we seldom so think of it, is not really the story of what happened; history is necessarily the story of what is preserved in the record." The Battle at Skeleton Cave was recorded by Captain Burns, John Bourke, and General Crook in diaries and in official Cavalry reports. These reports stressed the role of the scouts and soldiers and their military tactics. A more intimate, human view was offered in the posthumous autobiography of Hoo-moo-thy-ah. An article on one web site stressed the use of the Sharp's rifle. Later historians in magazine articles and books attempted to condense and coordinate information from many sources. Readers of accounts, often far removed from the scene in the East coast, had varied and often negative reactions to what they perceived happened in far-off Arizona in a remote cave.  Here's a generally agreed-upon outline of events of the Battle at Skeleton Cave.

 

General George Crook made a decision, based partly on false information that another Apache chief he sought, Delchay, a hostile anti-reservation chief, was hiding in the cave with a band of warriors. The military had been aware of reports that there was a hidden rancheria somewhere in the Salt River Canyon. When the frightened child, Hoo-moo-thy-ah, uncertain of his fate among the soldiers, was first captured, he pointed out to Captain Burns the location of the cave, by taking him to a ridge and telling him what he wanted to know.

 

The evening before the attack, Companies L and M, Fifth Calvary, commanded by Captain William H. Brown, accompanied by 30 Apache scouts, struggled through the snow-covered Superstition Mountains to join Company G of the same regiment, from Fort McDowell, with their 100 Pima Indians. This combined group was in the heart of hostile Apache country and "looking for a fight:" They were camped at the mouth of Cottonwood Creek on the Salt River. The native scouts, commanded by a half-breed named Archie MacIntosh, went ahead to look for this rancheria supposed to be in the Mazatzal or Four Peaks area, where Delche was possibly hiding. An Apache scout, named Nantaje (known to the soldiers as Joe), working with Major Brown, could lead the white men to the hiding place of the peoples. The plan was to surround and surprise the people in Skeleton Cave and bring an end to the attacks and powers of the chiefs and warriors. That night, the Apache scouts skinned a mule and feasted in anticipation of the fight.

 

At dawn, on the snowy morning of December 28, 1872, the 130 man force led by Captain William H. Brown and Nantaje, used techniques learned from the scouts, and crept towards the cave with their moccasins stuffed with dry grass (instead of heavy Cavalry boots). Their footsteps were thus muffled as they worked their way on hard rocks towards the cave. Soldiers carried only bacon, bread, and a little coffee, and their guns and ammunition. Mules and surplus equipment were left behind. 

 

Nantaje and MacIntosh led a detachment of six of the best shots under Lt. William J. Ross along a rough trail down the canyon of the Salado. A fall would have meant instant death. As they rounded a turn, there was the shelter on a shelf above the canyon, protected by great, smooth boulders that had fallen from the cliff. The soldiers fired on a small party, supposedly just back from a raid, who were hunched around a small fire in front of the cave. They hit many of their targets, who were silhouetted by the fire, killing at least six. Then, yells of surprise and hatred answered the soldiers from warriors inside the cave, who shot arrows in the general direction of the attack, but Ross and his men were safe behind rocks and he quickly rushed some of the men to rocks on the other side of the entrance.

 

Major Brown called on the supposed Apaches, who were actually Yavapai, to surrender. In defiance, one warrior supposedly climbed to the top of a rock some distance down the canyon and gave a yell of defiance and bared his buttocks. A blacksmith named John Cahill had his Sharp's rifle in position "like a flash" and shot the Indian. Another version is that the warrior had begun his war-whoop and 20 carbines were gleaming in the sunlight, 40 eyes were sighting along the barrels....Immediately the resounding volley had released another soul from its earthly casket, and let the bleeding corpse fall to the ground as limp as a wet moccasin." Bourke records that when the Yavapais were told to surrender, "The only answer was a shriek of hatred and defiance, threats of what we had to expect, yells of exultation at the thought that not one of us should ever see the light of another day.,,,They seemed to be abundantly provided with arrows and lances, and of the former they made no savings, but would send them flying high in the air in the hope that upon coming back to earth they might hit those of our rearguard."

    

According to an article about Sharp's carbines, Brown positioned his force so that "one-half was in reserve behind the skirmish line...with carbines loaded and cocked and a handful of cartridges on the clean rocks in front...the men on the first line had orders to fire as rapidly as they chose, directing aim against the roof of the cave, with the view to having the bullets glance down among the men, who had massed immediately back of the rock rampart." This plan worked "admirably", and the shots were "irritating the Yavapais to the degree that they no longer sought shelter, but boldly faced our fire and returned it with energy, the weapons of the men being reloaded by the women." These weapons were possibly Henry and Spencer rifles like those used in the Wickenburg Massacre.

 

The ricochets caught the victims huddled inside. Cries of wounded, and wails of frightened children showed the indirect fire was effective. Suddenly a death chant began. The Apache scouts warned, "Look out, there goes their death chant, they're going to charge." Charges followed from inside. The defenders were driven back with bloody losses, but the death chant continued. It was described as a "strange, haunting sound, half wail and half exultation, the frenzy of despair and the wild cry for revenge" by Captain Bourke.

 

At one point in the battle, a 4-year old boy ran to the mouth of the cave "and stood thumb in mouth, looking in speechless wonder and indignation at the belching barrels," wrote Bourke. "Almost immediately a bullet glanced off his skull, knocking him to the ground. Nantaje rushed forward and dragged the boy to safety amidst the cheers of the soldiers who stopped firing momentarily, then resumed with redoubled intensity."

 

The end of the Yavapai's brave resistance came when Troop G of the 5th Cavalry appeared on the overlook above the cave and rained rocks and bullets upon the Indians hiding out in the drainage below. A vivid account narrates how "screams of the dying pierced the dust, rising high in the air. Only echoes responded. The death chant was quiet. No rifle spoke. The cave was the house of the dead."

 

 

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