June 11, 2017

1865: The Clever Ambush at Battle Point (Skull Valley)


It was a usual day in the freighting business for Sam and Jake Miller. Yet in 1865, freighting through the Arizona wilderness was unusually dangerous. Indian raids on the toll road from Ft. Mohave to Prescott were happening regularly and this time the Miller brothers would be taking mostly passengers as well as some supplies and stock.

"People wishing to come to Arizona traveled with freighters for protection." Every precaution would have to be made to protect both riders and supplies. (*1)

The Miller brothers were getting their wagons in order at Fort Mohave on the Colorado River. The wagons were equipped with high wooden sideboards to offer protection from arrows. Canvass was then stretched over the top. Passenger wagons were exactly the same as the freight wagons. (*1)

"There was a trailer behind each wagon and both were pulled by a team of 12 mules. At least 5 or 6 wagons travelled together and sometimes many more. The teams were driven with a jerk line and the driver ordinarily rode one of the wheel mules. The wagon master (a man named Dick Decator in this case) rode horseback and guided the party along the best route." Dick was an experienced wagon master who was "ever on the watch for Indians or their smoke signals. He kept the wagons close together or helped those who might break down or have any trouble." (*1)

Of course "all the freighters were well armed; usually they carried revolvers, a rifle, and a large hunting knife." (*1)

This was necessary because military escorts were few and far between. When the escorts could be had, the safety of the freighting party increased greatly. Generally Indians stayed clear of soldiers. Before the employment of Indian scouts, anglo soldiers on scouting missions would wander for weeks and return without having seen a single Indian--they simply hid from them.

One man's account of the trials and tribulations of simply traveling to Prescott, Arizona in 1871.


Freighting was a potentially deadly career, but it could also be quite lucrative if you could get the shipment through. Once Sam Miller wrote a relative back east: "At times we had 22 teams, 12 mules to a team with two wagons to each team. We receive from $.15-$.25 per pound;" sometimes traveling 640 miles all the way to Los Angeles. To put this into perspective, on the high end of this rate scale, shipping 100 pounds from L.A. to Prescott would cost eight ounces of gold! (*2)

However, at this time, the Indians had found a successful modus operandi for raiding the freighters. Whenever they saw a military escort, they simply waited for one without the guard. They would then approach in insurmountable numbers and take what they wanted. Additionally, the extra warriors were able "to carry off all they could," stripping the wagons of most every supply while also taking a mule or horse to roast. (*1)

Lately it seemed that the Indians were raiding nearly every unguarded wagon train. For the Millers and the rest of their party on this trip, there would not be a military escort anywhere in sight--only a lonely, long, nondescript, wagon train.

Leaving the safety of Fort Mojave, the travelers went to Beale Springs, then Camp Willow Grove. So far, so good. (*3)

There were now in hostile Hualapai country. As they passed Mount Hope, Fort Rock, and Anvil Rock, tensions ran high. It was reported that in this area "Hualapai atrocities on white females of any age was horrendous." (*4)

The account of the Kakaka, the paranormal, Indian Little People who live in the mountains of Yavapai county and elsewhere in Arizona. They are a vital part of Indian culture.

A rush of relief was felt when Fort Toll Gate finally came into sight. The next stop on the toll road was Simmons (now known as Williamson Valley). For travelers this was also known as The Crossing. It was at this point another road cut south into Skull Valley and then onto Prescott. Here the wagon master, Dick Decator, made the fateful decision to leave the toll road and take the Skull Valley road south. (*3)

Instead of avoiding the Indians, the party would run head-long into them. This clash would occur at what was then called "Battle Point." Today it is very near the location of the Skull Valley Depot. (*1)

As the Miller party approached, Decator began to notice some troubling signs. He spotted one Indian, then two. Soon scores appeared out of hiding and their chief stood in the middle of the road motioning the train to stop. Miller had little choice. Both sides were weary of tricks.

"The chief pointed to the wagons, then to his mouth, rubbed his stomach and grunted: 'Flour.' There was no doubt as to what he wanted. By signs and words, the Indians were made to understand that they must put all their bows and arrows across the wagon track in the road, as a sign of friendship, then they could have flour." (*5)

The Indians talked among themselves concerned that it might be a trick. Still, they decided to comply. Then "with a wild yell, the first (wagon) driver cracked his whip and quickly drove over the bows and arrows" destroying them. (*5)

The Indians expected that something like this might happen and were ready with a surprise of their own. They still greatly outnumbered the whites and from underneath their clothing they pulled out hunting knives and started charging towards the wagons. (*5)

For a moment it seemed that all would be lost. But just as the Indians reached the wagons, Miller's passengers quickly removed the canvass covers and made themselves known. It was a regiment of US Army regulars being transferred to Fort Whipple! (*1)

Standing in the wagons, the soldiers had a height advantage. They held the barrels of their guns and used the butts as clubs to bust the Indians' skulls open. (A practice employed by both sides in the Civil War when it was found that bayonets were hopelessly difficult to extract.) "All of the Indians in reach were hit with the butts of the soldier's guns and those who ran were fired (upon)." (*5)

When the smoke cleared, it was found that a white woman had been killed, but she was with the Indians. Her body presumably brought to Prescott, "no one was ever able to identify her." (*5)

The Miller Party suffered no injuries. The amount of Native American dead and wounded is lost to history.

When the wagon train reached Prescott, there was rejoicing over the success of the ploy and its lesson of deterrence to the raiding Indians.


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Tourist Tips:


Visit the Fort Whipple Museum located on the VA Medical Center grounds off 89, just north of the 69 junction.
If you are an historic house enthusiast, you will enjoy touring the first and second floor rooms for their architectural interest alone. If you want to learn the history of Fort Whipple from its beginning in 1864 to the modern-day hospital, it is all there in riveting exhibits with crisp text, historic photographs and compelling artifacts. Friendly, knowledgeable docents will give you a tour of the exhibits and answer any questions you might have.


#PrescottAZHistory


Source:
(*1) The Toll Road: Prescott to Fort Mojave. By Ada Francher Heckethorn. Pioneer Heritage Publishing, Prescott AZ. (c) 1997. ISBN #9657778-0-4. Page 93.
(*2) IBID. Page 91.
(*3) IBID. Page 52.
(*4) IBID. Page 19.
(*5) IBID. Page 94.
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