Probably no encounter in Arizona's "Apache Wars" has become so legendary as the Dec. 28, 1872, attack in the heights of Arizona's Salt River Canyon.
Unfortunately, details of the Skeleton Cave "battle" have been confused and probably intentionally dramatized. Even the identity of the Indians has often been wrong, reported as "Apaches," although evidence shows they were Kewevkapaya (Southeastern) Yavapais.
The facts of the attack are as follows: In mid-November 1872, Lt. Col. George Crook sent out soldiers to force Arizona's Indians to surrender and go to reservations. Several minor skirmishes had occurred between the troops and Yavapai and Apaches bands. On the morning of Dec. 28, 1872, troops G, L, and M of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, with 90 Pima and 30 Apache scouts, attacked "hostiles" in a steep drainage high above Central Arizona's Salt River. Most of these Indians - 76 of 96 - were killed, and the rest were wounded and captured. No cavalryman was injured, although one O'odham (Pima) scout was killed. The dead were left unburied to be rediscovered in 1906, triggering stories of a cave full of human skeletons.
Tribal territories strongly suggest that the dead and wounded were Kewevkapaya (Southeastern) Yavapai who were sometimes called "Mohave Apaches." This is substantiated by the autobiography of Hoomothya (aka Mike Burns), a Kewevkapaya who witnessed the massacre of his kin as a captured child. Relatives of the Skeleton Cave victims live at Fort McDowell today. In the early 1920s, Mike Burns led a project to retrieve the bones for burial at the Fort McDowell cemetery, where they lie under a common headstone.
In 1974, I first climbed up to Skeleton Cave. Immediately, I was struck by how different the site was from my mental image of it, gained from "On the Border with Crook," and other popular literature. The "cave" was little more than a semi-circular rock shelter about the shape and size of a smallish high school theatrical stage. It butted against the base of a slightly overhanging, 150-foot, volcanic cliff. I also noted the funnel shape of the drainage leading up to the cave. Probably, in 1872, the "hostiles" retreated up the drainage ahead of the attackers, only to be shot like fish in a barrel.
Most accounts of the Skeleton Cave attack have followed John Bourke's "On the Border with Crook." As an observer for Department of Arizona Commander Lt. Col. George Crook, Bourke kept a straight-forward journal. However, by the time he wrote "On the Border" and "General Crook in the Indian Country (Century Magazine), both published in 1891, he had either forgotten details of the fight, or simply decided to tell a better story. With Victorian flourish, Bourke described how the Apaches sheltered behind a "great rock wall not an inch less than 10 feet in height at its lowest point and smooth as the palm of the hand." In that account (but not in Bourke's 1872 journal) soldiers triumphed by ricocheting bullets off the cave's ceiling, onto the defenders behind the wall.
Undoubtedly, as Bourke says, Troops L and M, the Apache scouts, and various civilians, attacked up the drainage below the cave. However, there is no sign, either today or in Walter Lubkin's 1908 photos, of a wall at the opening of the rock shelter. Also, since it is a simple direct shot into the rock shelter from either side of the drainage, why bounce bullets from the cave's soft volcanic rock ceiling?
Bourke's 1891 accounts also claimed that Troop G, 5th Cavalry, with Pima scouts, turned the tide of battle when they appeared on the pour-over above the cave. From there, the soldiers rolled boulders, and fired down into the defenders. Bourke waxed lyrical about the hot-blooded Irish troopers who hung over the edge on their suspenders and even threw their revolvers at the Apaches packed into the cave below them.
Here again, I was mystified. Fired 50-70 cartridges had been collected on the pour-over, so attackers had certainly up there. But even going over the cliff's bulging "brow" on a rope, I couldn't see to the back wall of the rock shelter. However, the pour-over affords a direct shot at anyone sheltered behind the two huge boulders in the drainage before the cave these would have been excellent defensive positions against attackers coming up the sides of the drainage.
In 1990, supported by the Fort McDowell and Prescott Yavapai tribes, Alan Ferg (Arizona State Museum) and I nominated the "Skeleton Cave Massacre Site" to the National Register of Historic Places. It was so listed on Feb. 21, 1991. During the nomination, the term "massacre" was challenged - but the body count during the attack was 76 to nothing - difficult numbers to interpret as an even fight. An O'odham (Pima) scout may have been shot by a soldier for smashing the heads of wounded Indians.
Ferg and I also set out to examine all the Skeleton Cave material we could locate to see if it was possible to differentiate 1870s Yavapai vs. Apache material. In 1997, we co-authored "The Mortal Remains of Ethnicity: Material Culture and Cultural Identity at Skeleton Cave," published as a chapter in "Vanishing River," (SRI Press, 1997). Incidentally, we were not surprised to find we could not differentiate the cultural origin of any of the cave artifacts.
Many fired cartridge casings are known from Skeleton Cave. The roughly 240 attackers were armed with breech-loading U.S. 50 caliber weapons. Examination of 44 cartridge cases showed 41 to be government 50-70 (50 caliber and 70 grains of black powder), the other three were either 56-56 (caliber 52) or 56-50 (caliber 50) Spencer rimfires. One unfired Spencer cartridge had apparently been salvaged for its powder and lead possibly for recycling to a muzzle-loading weapon. Spencer seven shot repeating carbines were claimed to have been popular with mule packers who wanted considerable firepower from a relatively compact weapon.
Twenty-five of the 50-70 cases showed the distinctive firing pin drag mark of the M1865/M1867 Sharps carbine, primary weapon of the 5th Cavalry others showed ejector marks of M1868/M1870, or M1866 "Second Allin Conversion" Springfield rifles. Troop L of the 5th had several M1868 and 1870s, possibly issued for hunting. Pima and Apache scouts were photographed with a variety of Springfield rifles.
The Superstition Mountain Museum, Goldfield Ghost Town, has an M1866 Springfield rifle said to have been recovered from in front of Skeleton Cave in 1908. This specimen looks hardly weathered enough to have been in the open for 36 years as is claimed. Also, its barrel is crudely cut to 25 7/16 from original 36 inches presumably even scouts would not have been allowed to do this to a weapon which was still in current issue in 1872.
In contrast to the soldiers and scouts, the 96 Yavapai logically included men, women, children, and elderly. Probably 30 or 40 of them were fighting aged "warriors." Although John Bourke ("On the Border with Crook," page 199) describes weapons in the cave as: "-- bows and arrows in any quantity; guns of various kinds with ammunition both fixed and loose," no cartridge cases nor percussion caps have been recovered that suggest Yavapai use. And Hoomothya (aka Mike Burns) claimed that his people had only a few old muzzle-loaders and bows and arrows. A single sheet-iron arrowhead was found.
In 1906, a Salt River area rancher discovered the rock shelter full of human skeletons and broke the news in Phoenix. Two years later, Bureau of Reclamation photographer Walter J. Lubkin photographed artistically arranged skulls, artifacts, and bones in the cave. Offensive as these images are to many Native Americans, they provide a "base line" for the looting of material from the cave. It is interesting that similar photos taken in 1921 by Phoenix photographer James McCullough, illustrate how many skulls had disappeared in the interim. Possibly these were taken by the McDowell reburial party.
Norm Tessman plans a book on the many factors around the Skeleton Cave Massacre. He would like to see and photograph any material (pottery, cloth, weapons, etc.) from the site. Contact email@example.com.