Tel Che'e: Apache warrior turned legend

Courtesy Arizona State Parks
Dr. William Corbusier is said to have identified Tel Che’e skull when it was brought into the Rio Verde Agency. Corbusier served as the reservation’s doctor and is said to have treated Tel Che’e for both malaria and tape worm in the brief time the chief was at on the reservation.

Courtesy Arizona State Parks Dr. William Corbusier is said to have identified Tel Che’e skull when it was brought into the Rio Verde Agency. Corbusier served as the reservation’s doctor and is said to have treated Tel Che’e for both malaria and tape worm in the brief time the chief was at on the reservation.

Somewhere along a remote creek bed, somewhere in Central Arizona, sometime in the early 1860s, an unknown prospector lay dead.

Over his body stood an exceptionally large, broad-shouldered and slightly stooped, 20-some-year-old Apache.

From the dead man's clothing, the Apache plucked a single pearl button. Then, along with his companions, he headed off to one of his remote mountain sanctuaries.

The scene was not unusual. There were a lot of bodies littering the landscape at that place and time. But the Apache warrior, who would soon fashion the pearl button into an earring, was.

His name was Tel Che'e. The whites who later came to his ancestral land, unaccustomed to his indigenous people's foreign dialect, called him Delshay, Deluche, Delche or Del-che-ae.

Other Apache chiefs would achieve greater notoriety, but none would bear the enmity of the U.S. military to the degree eventually reserved for Tel Che'e.

Cochise signed a treaty and died of natural causes on a reservation of his own making. Geronimo was given an opportunity to surrender and die peacefully of old age. But Tel Che'e would be hunted down and die with a bounty on his head.

For 10 years, between 1864 and 1874, virtually every depredation committed across Central Arizona was attributed to him or his band. With every murder and every theft, his reputation grew.

Gen. George Crook, commander of military operations in the state during much of that period, called him "the Liar" and swore he was personification of evil.

Tel Che'e would say it was Crook's army that made him that way.

Tel Che'e, which translates to "Red Ant," was a Dilzhe'e Apache, born around 1838 somewhere in the central highlands of Arizona.

According to Apache tribal elder Vincent Randall, at the time of the Anglo incursion into their homelands, the Dilzhe'e were led by three chiefs.

Clans in the mountain areas around Pine and the Mogollon Rim were lead by Haas Tin Nez (Tall Old Man). Cha Tii Pah (Gray Hat) was the leader of the Dilzhe'e that lived in the area beneath the Rim, stretching as far west as Perkinsville.

Tel Che'e's people roamed an area stretching from the Black Hills above the Verde River, east to the Mazatzal Mountains, the Sierra Anches and the Salt River Valley.

His were the clans of the Porcupine People, the Bamboo People, the Crooked Water People, the Stingy with the Sun People and the Pine Tree Bent Back People. There were Yavapai among them.

Tensions between the Anglos and the Apache began in earnest in 1864, and Tel Che'e's people were among the first to suffer.

Seeking retaliation for the theft of livestock, King Woolsey, a rancher living in the Dewey area, led a group of settlers and prospectors straight into the heart of Tel Che'e's homeland. They prospected for gold and killed Apaches on the way, wherever either could be found.

At a skirmish known today as the battle of Bloody Tanks, Woolsey's men opened fire during a parley with clan members related to Tel Che'e, killing 24.

Woolsey was named lieutenant-colonel of Arizona's territorial militia for his actions. Tel Che'e sought revenge.

Soon the Tonto Basin and the surrounding mountains became a war zone. In 1867 the Army began building a wagon road from Fort McDowell to Green Valley in the Mazatzels, with the intent of establishing a fort to keep Tel Che'e in check.

The distance to Green Valley proved too far. Camp Reno was instead constructed in Tonto Basin, just outside the modern day community of Pumpkin Center, north of Roosevelt Lake.

The camp eventually proved to be a failure for the military, a near tragedy for Tel Che'e and catalyst for the growing mistrust between Tel Che'e and the military.

In April 2, 1868, following a parley that went bad, soldiers opened fire on Tel Che'e. He reportedly received six wounds in the fusillade.

In May 1868, Tel Che'e's brother "Rising Son" was shot and killed by soldiers who said he was trying to escape after being caught stealing cattle.

His band left Camp Reno following the incident only to return in the spring of 1869 seeking peace. The actions of one man assured the peace was short lived.

On New Year's Day 1870, as the Army worked to lessen the tension, Camp Reno's surgeon, Dr. James Dunlevy shot Tel Che'e in the chest after summonsing the chief to the doctor's tent. Dunlevy said it was an accident.

Clutching his chest, Tel che'e walked slowly to the post perimeter, "gave out a yell or two and bounded off on a bounding run, his people all following him in the same defiant spirit."

From that New Year's Day until April 1873, Del Che'e and his followers remained on the loose, raiding to survive, gaining a reputation as proficient guerrilla fighters and being relentlessly pursued.

Tel Che'e's band was reported to be everywhere, including at a skirmish south of Squaw Peak in which troops under Fort Verde Lt. George Cradlebaugh were attacked in a rare nighttime battle.

It is also Tel Che'e who was being sought in December 1872 when troops killed 76 Yavapai men, women and children at the Skeleton Cave massacre above the Salt River Valley.

During this period, the Dizhle'e clans under Haas Tin Nez and Cha Tii Pah surrendered at Fort Verde and began what was to have been a new and prosperous life on the Rio Verde Reservation -- a 20-by-40-mile swath encompassing most of the Verde Valley.

The military eventually caught up with Tel Che'e's band on April 25, 1873, in the upper reaches of Camp Creek in the Mazatzal Mountains.

"Every rock has turned into a soldier," he told his captor, Capt. George Randall when he surrendered his starving band.

He and his people were sent to a reservation in the White Mountains, but soon jumped, later explaining that other Indians on the reservation were abusing his people.

This time, instead of resuming raiding, Tel Che'e's band traveled to Fort Verde to be among the rest of the Dilzhe'e, where he once again surrendered.

According to Vincent Randall, Tel Che'e's band stayed on land that is now Dead Horse Ranch State Park, across the Verde River from rival Yavapai camped next to the agency headquarters at Haskell Springs.

By mid-summer, though, he was growing disenchanted with life on the reservation.

After Tel Che'e began spreading rumors that the reservation was being dissolved, and after rumors were spread that he was obtaining guns, Gen. Crook ordered him arrested in early October 1873. Helped by an insider, Tel Che'e, 18 warriors and 24 women escaped.

Others followed.

A manhunt that lasted all winter and into the following spring captured and killed most of those who left the reservation. But the soldiers were unable to locate Tel Che'e or his band.

Finally, Gen. Crook offered a $50 bounty to anyone who would bring him the head of Tel Che'e.

On July 29, 1874, three Apache scouts, one or all said to have been related to Tel Che'e, reported killing the leader near Turret Peak.

To prove it they brought in his scalp, with an attached left ear sporting a pearl button.

A month later another head showed up. Crook paid for both.

A story is told that just two weeks before he was killed, Tel Che'e snuck back to the Rio Verde reservation and warned his people that the government was going to send them to the desert to die.

Where he got his information is unknown. But it proved to be true.

On Feb. 23, 1875, less than seven months later, the Rio Verde Reservation was dissolved. The 1,426 Yavapai and Apache remaining were forcibly marched to San Carlos.

Few ever saw the Verde Valley again.

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