By Tom Kollenborn
The Superstition Wilderness Area and Superstition Mountain in particular have been an attraction to human kind for more than a millennium. First came the Native Americans who found the region conducive to their way of living and lifestyle. They were primarily hunters and gatherers. Primitive agriculture had not been developed in the beginning. The introduction of growing wild plants and corn didn’t occur for another thousand years or so. Still, hunting and gathering prevailed for another millennium or more. Once their nomadic way of life began to diminish, primitive forms of agriculture were developed with various wild plants. The introduction of beans, squash and corn from Meso-America helped to stabilize the Native American population in the region. The region offered numerous caves for shelter. Their ruins, such as pit houses, cliff dwellings and temporary shelters were a mute testimony to their early occupancy of this rugged mountain region in Central Arizona.
Death was no stranger to these early inhabitants of this mountain wilderness. Many lost their lives to accidents, attacks from animals and other warring groups that mounted raids against their mountain homeland. Of course, these deaths were pre-historical, without documentation. The excavation of a couple of sites adjacent to the wilderness area suggests some of these early Native Americans died from wounds caused by an adversary. An Apache Junction resident was excavating for a pool in his yard when he came across a burial site on his property. The skull that was found in a grave had severe damage from blunt force trauma. The ulna and radius bones of the arm and the clavicle bone of the shoulder had sharp knife marks indicating an attack that was defended with the individual’s arm. These injuries were probably the results of a battle with a raiding party member or members that ended in the demise of this individual several thousand years ago. This Native American was probably one of the earliest people to die in this vast mountain wilderness we call the Superstitions today.
The Superstition Mountain region has a long history of missing people, suicides, homicides, accidental deaths and injuries. The earliest recorded history of these events occurred when the U.S. Army Infantry Companies were sent out to Camp McDowell to quell the raids of the Apache-Yavapai who lived in the Superstition Mountains (Salt River Mountains) and Pinaleno Mountains (Pinal) in the 1860s. The U.S. Army armed and effectively used the Pimas against the Apache-Yavapai during this era. Several hundred Apaches and Yavapai were slain in their Rancherias or villages throughout the Superstition Mountains. These areas included Pinyon Camp (near Weaver’s Needle), May 11, 1867; Dismal Valley (Tortilla Ranch area) March 14, 1868; and Tortilla Creek near Tortilla Flat later in 1868. Tortilla Creek was later called “Bloody Tanks.” Also several small villages were destroyed, and all the males where clubbed to death by the Pima Scouts. The Pima Scouts captured Apache-Yavapai women and children and then forced them into slavery. The Pima Scouts clubbed all young boys, non-combatant men and old men to death. Armed Pima scouts and soldiers shot those who tried to escape.
Major John Brown led the 5th and 10th United States Cavalry units on a campaign against the Apache-Yavapai in the Superstition Mountain region and the Pinal Mountains between 1872-1874. Many of the skirmishes were fought around the Reavis Valley. One battle was fought from March 8-17, 1874, with men of the 10th U.S. Cavalry and the Apaches. Many Native Americans died during these campaigns of annihilation.
These were the first deaths in the Superstition Mountain area that was accurately documented and recorded by the United States Army.
Sadly, deaths still occur today, but in a very different way. Earlier deaths were part of a campaign of destruction and annihilation by the United States Army and the Pima Scouts.
The other side of the coin was that the Apache Yavapai preyed on the Pimas for hundreds of years. When the Pima finally allied with the United States Army, the Yavapai were totally defeated ending their predations and hiding in what we call the Superstition Wilderness today.
Probably the most important military trail into the Superstition region was the First Water – Charlebois Trail, also known as the First Water Trail. This was the first water for animals after leaving the Salt River near Blue Point and heading southeast toward Salt River Mountain (Superstition Mountain in 1860s). Riders and hikers use many of the military trails today in the Superstition Wilderness. “Trails of the Superstitions” are as historical as many place names and were used by Native Americans, military, cattlemen, miners and prospectors long before the Superstition region became part of the Tonto National Forest and the Superstition Wilderness.
The wilderness has historical meaning to everyone who has ever experienced it in any way.