April 4, 2015

Skull Valley Earned Its Gruesome Name Twice

It would be a strong statement to say that a piece of land is "cursed"; something this author would rather avoid.  Yet it seems that some spots in the world are painfully familiar with the angel of death.

Skull Valley, AZ (a half hour west of Prescott,) is one such place, having earned its gruesome name not once, but twice.  Both times involved a large loss of life to the Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe.

It's been said that "Ploughing-time down (in Skull Valley) means, among other things, grave-exhuming time – the annual harvesting of dead men’s bones.  And the supply of these grisly evidences...of long ago appear to be inexhaustible." (*1)


The Prescott Journal Miner of 3/27/1915 told the story of another in the endless list of discovered bones in Skull Valley. (*2)

This time the bones of an Indian chieftain were discovered while expanding a well. With him, "a bunch of wampum beads,...metallic trinkets and other articles were found by the side of the remains."  "The articles recovered," the paper continued, "are on exhibition at the Arizona Mine Supply Company" (*2)  (The practice of displaying Indian remains thankfully ended in the later 20th century.)

The Indians do not call this place Skull Valley. According to the book "Oral History of the Yavapai" by Mike Harrison & John Williams: "We call this place Bakwaeguo. That means 'Hair.' That is, because a mountain there looks like a pile of hair. But the White people call it Skull Valley. They named it after our heads." (Page 112)

Indeed, when anglos first entered the area it was a graphic scene of countless, bleached skeletons. These were from a terrible battle between the Pima and the Yavapai.

The exact year seems unknown.  However, more than 150 years ago, there was an extreme drought in the Prescott area and the hunter-gatherers of the Yavapai Prescott tribe were starving to death.  Their options were both stark and limited.  They had no choice but to travel to their arch-enemies, the farming Pima, to ask for food. (*1)

ALSO ENJOY: 1865: The Shocking Twist at Battle Point (Skull Valley)
True story of a 1865 clever ambush at "Battle Point" where the Skull Valley, AZ depot is located today.


For the Pima, the sight of the Yavapai was most unwelcome.  After discussing it, they decided to give the Yavapai just enough food to get their strength restored so they could get back to their homeland.  However, the Yavapai had no place to go.  The only thing waiting for them at home was starvation.  So instead, the Yavapai hid near by and waited for most of the Pima to leave their farms for a ceremonial festival.  When they did, the Yavapai took the opportunity to not only take the Pima's food, but also captives that did not make the ceremonial trip.  Later, the Yavapai killed their captives. (*1)

For the Pima, this meant war.  The chase was on and the Pima finally caught up with the Yavapai in what would be called Skull Valley.  The Pima killed every Yavapai they could catch there.  "The Yavapais of today admit that only such of their tribe as were fleet of foot came out of that battle alive." (*1)  The dead were simply left where they fell. (*3)

The english name of Skull Valley actually derives from the first white men, (Captain Hargraves’ company of the First California Volunteers,) who entered there and found piles of bleached Indian skulls. (*1)

With the coming of the whites, Skull Valley continued to be a killing field.

"With the arrival of Americans, the Yavapai’s hunting and foodways were disrupted forever. Starving Yavapai raided the settlers, the settlers had retaliatory raids. In 1864 a massacre of Yavapais at Elbe’s ranch in (Skull Valley)...occurred," (*3) where "At least thirty-five more skulls were added to the bleaching bones as a result..." (*1)

The true story of the Battle of Skull Valley, AZ in August, 1866 as told through the eyes of a teamster who was there and nearly killed--Mr. Freeman.

The 1915 discovery of bones "revives the history of the bestowing of the morbid title of Skull Valley, when one of the noted fights between the red and the white man culminated in hundreds of Indians being killed and their bodies left laying around, from which this name arose." (*1)

The author can only imagine that for the Yavapai Prescott Indians, "Bakwaeguo" must be a place of great sadness, tragedy, and reverence.



Tourist Tips:
Unfortunately, the charming Skull Valley General Store recently closed, but there still is a small museum and several events. CLICK HERE for the Skull Valley Historical Society for these events and museum hours.

Getting to Skull Valley from Prescott (Scenic!):

All-Paved Loop Route:
Starting from "Whiskey Row" head north.  Although you continue straight, the road changes names: Whiskey Row; Montezuma; Whipple; Iron Springs; and County Rd. 10.  Shortly after passing under a railroad trestle, turn left crossing over the RR tracks into Skull Valley.  After visiting, go back over the railroad tracks back to County Rd. 10 and turn LEFT (continuing your journey away from Prescott.) Continue 6.8 miles to Kirkland, AZ and County Rd. 15--turn left heading toward State Rt. 89.
Kirkland was a stagecoach stop back in the day, and a few historic buildings still stand.

At State Rt. 89, turn left (North) to head up the beautiful mountain road right back to Whiskey Row in Prescott.  If you enjoy antiques or would like to visit the Memorial for the 19 lost "Hotshot" firefighters, you can turn right at 89 and head a few miles into Yarnell where there are a few restaurants and gas.

Historic "Back" Route to Skull Valley:
For the more adventurous, this route involves dirt roads, but the scenery of Copper Canyon and the surrounding Sierra Prieta mountains is truly breathtaking!  This route is historic in that it was the MAIN route in the 1800's.  This route is best in the late spring or early summer--otherwise low clearance vehicles could be problematic...

Take Gurley St. west toward Thumb Butte.  Continue as the name of the road changes to "Thumb Butte Rd." Keep going straight, past the Thumb Butte parking area.  The road will become dirt.  Not long after, you will have the opportunity to turn left at a blue directions sign.  Indeed, turn left heading towards Copper Canyon.  In about 5 miles, you will reach a four-way intersection.  (If need be, you can turn right onto Copper Basin Rd., which will soon become paved and take you back into Prescott at State Rt. 89--turn left to get back to downtown.)  Otherwise, turn RIGHT to head into Skull Valley via "the back way".  Continue past the service station, over the railroad tracks, to County Rd. 10.  Turn right to head directly back into Prescott, or turn left to make the loop trip via Kirkland,AZ.
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Sources & Bibliography
*1 https://sharlot.org/2006/december/1405-how-skull-valley-got-its-name
*2 Prescott Journal Miner, March 27th, 1915 pg. 3 col. 3
*3 http://www.azjerome.com/jerome/history-yavapai/