August 13, 2017

"Lost" Bell's Canyon Was Infamous

Originally the wagon trail going through Bell's Canyon was meant as an alternate route from Kirkland to Date Creek. However, the topography of rock outcroppings and the need to go slowly over the extremely rough road made it the perfect place for angry Indians to ambush weary whites.

Indeed the area would become so notorious and so avoided that the anglos eventually allowed it to melt back into the wilderness. Today there are no roads going to Bell's Canyon.

Described once as "a place that will forever remain a rough spot in the memory of Arizona pioneers; the road (to Bell's Canyon went) right through one of the roughest granite mountains on earth." (*1)

The condition of the road through the canyon was always poor. The Arizona Miner once complained: "It is a narrow gorge through a rough granite mountain. The road for several miles, is rough and dangerous; more wagons have been wrecked in it than any other canyon in the Territory, and when we knew that one quarter of the money that has been expended in repairing said wagons would make a good road through it." (*2)

Bell's Canyon was named after the first white man killed there, Richard Bell. He was traveling through the canyon with Cornelius Sage and Charles Cunningham when on May 3, 1865, they were surprised and killed by Indians. (*3)

They were the first, but they would hardly be the last. The Miner described Bell's Canyon "as that detested place where at various times, Indians have murdered 10 or 12 men, beside having attacked and wounded more than a score of others." (*4)

The account of the Kakaka, the paranormal, Indian Little People who live in the mountains of Yavapai county.

The most infamous incident at Bell's canyon happened on November 10, 1866. (*5)

It involved a man named George W. Leihy, successor to Charles Poston as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, his clerk WH Evarts, and two Native Americans. (*3)

Leihy was a controversial man in his day. He believed that peace should be made with the Indians and that the government should provide for them on reservations. This was highly unpopular among most of the local citizens, particularly those who knew someone or had suffered depredations themselves. They felt strongly that Indians could not be trusted under any circumstance and "the only good Indian was a dead Indian."

This feeling was exasperated in part by a complete misunderstanding of ancient American history by the anglos at that time. It was widely believed then that the impressive Indian ruins that were found in this area were made by the "industrious and civilized Aztecs" and that the "savage Apaches," along with other equally savage local tribes, were responsible for overrunning and destroying the great Aztec civilization here. Back then anglos considered the Apaches and their cohorts to be the enemies of civilized being itself!

This was the position authored by William H Prescott, for whom the town is named and the reason why all of Prescott's first (downtown) streets were given names involving Aztec culture. This clearly indicates the widespread popularity that was held for this misguided theory back then.

The intriguing biography of Viola Jimulla, the first woman chief in America. She lead the Prescott Yavapai Tribe through one of their lowest times by relying on her Christian faith.

As Leihy, Evarts and the two Native Americans readied for the trip to Date Creek through Bell's Canyon, his inclusion of one La Paz Indian was considered particularly foolhardy by locals. This brave was just taken from the battlefield fighting the whites in Skull Valley when Leihy freed him and brought him along!

The four men set out from Skull Valley; Leihy and the two Indians were in a drawn buggy while Evarts followed on mule back. (*6)

"About an hour after their departure the mule returned...with several arrows sticking in him. The settlers there immediately sent word to the camp at Skull Valley and, with a squad of soldiers that hurried to join them, went out upon the road to Date Creek until they came to Bell's Canyon, where they first found the body of Mr. Evarts beheaded and filled with arrows. Near at hand (was) the body of Mr. Leihy, dreadfully mutilated. The head had been mashed with stones until it had been literally flattened. The arms and legs had been broken in many places and the heart (was removed with) a pair of bullet molds being left in its place." (*6)

"The buggy had been burned, saving a wheel or two--one of the horses had been cooked and partially eaten. Of the other horse and the two Indians (who were with Leihy) nothing could be found. It is believed that they went off with the attacking party, which, from the signs, is supposed to have consisted of from 40 to 70 savages" (*6)

Beliefs aside, it is unknown whether the two Indians joined the attacking party; were captured by it; or were simply set free.

The paper reflected what most townspeople thought: "The Miner, although at variance with Mr. Leihy, honestly believing his policy to have been wrong, deeply regrets that he should have fallen a victim to it, and extends its warmest sympathy to his bereaved family (of a wife and child.) The death of any man at the hands of savages is to be mourned." (*6)

When those responsible for the terrible killing were caught, their given motive for the killing revealed another great gulf in the two colliding cultures. For many Indian tribes, when the Chief was killed, the battle was lost and survivors withdrew.

Unfortunately, the Indians who killed Leihy thought the whites would react the same way--that they would pick up and leave the area!

A captured Apache woman later gave the details of Leihy's death which were "believed by the officers at Ft. McDowell to be entirely correct:"

"A band of Apaches...had been visiting the Colorado River Indians and were on their return with passes given them upon the river." (These "passes" (italics original) were meant to show that the Indian in possession of it was considered "friendly.") (*7)

As Leihy's party approached the canyon, one of the Indians recognized him and Evarts "and announced to the band who they were. It was then concluded to kill Mr. Leihy, the great chief of the whites, as they thought him to be, would alarm the whole white population and soon restore the country to the peaceable possession of the Indians. Acting at once upon this idea, they brutally murdered the Superintendent and Mr. Evarts, and to make the work more shocking to the whites, the bodies were mutilated..." (*7)

Leihy's federal position made his murder national news. From then on, not a local, not a stranger, not a tourist was ignorant of the dangers of Bell's Canyon and the route became abandoned.

Today it requires a long hike to get into Bell's Canyon (on the extreme lower left on this map.)

Nearby Bell's Spring was also named for Robert Bell. (*3)

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.

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(*1) Weekly Miner 4/16/1875 Pg. 2 Col. 2
(*2) Arizona Miner 10/14/1871 Pg. 3 Col. 1
(*3) Arizona's Names: X Marks the Place, by Byrd Howell Granger; 1983; Falconer Publishing Co. ISBN# 0-91-8080-18-5
(*4) Weekly Arizona Miner, 5/24/1873 Pg. 1 Col. 1
(*5) Arizona Place Names by Will C. Barnes. University of Arizona Press, 1988. ISBN # 0-8165-1074-1
(*6) Arizona Miner 11/30/1866 Pg. 2, Col. 3
(*7) Arizona Miner 6/29/1867 Pg. 2 Col. 2 (Note: using this link, go to page 4)

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