Massacre at Skeleton Cave: A four-hour battle turned into 54 dead Yavapai Native Americans
History isn’t always bright. Across humanity the darkest parts of history are quite dark. Arizona history is no exception.
The winter of 1872 is one such dark spot.
The Battle of Salt River Canyon, known as the Skeleton Cave Massacre, was the first principal engagement during the Tonto Basin Campaign under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Crook of the United States 5th Cavalry.
General Crook made a decision, based on false information that a hostile anti-reservation Apache chief he sought was hiding in Skeleton Cave with a band of warriors. A frightened child that had been captured, Hoo-moo-thy-ah, pointed out the cave to Captain James Burns.
At dawn on the snowy morning of Dec. 28, 1872, a force of 130 men, led by Captain William H. Brown and Apache scout Nantaje, crept toward the cave. The soldiers shot at a small party hunched around a small fire in front of the cave.
They hit their targets, killing at least six.
Yells of surprise answered the soldiers from warriors inside the cave, who shot arrows in the general direction of the U.S. soldiers, but the men were safe behind rocks.
Captain John Bourke wrote that when the Yavapai were told to surrender, “The only answer was a shriek of hatred and defiance, threats of what we had to expect, yells of exultation at the thought that not one of us should ever see the light of another day.”
Brown positioned his forces so that “one-half was in reserve behind the skirmish line … the men on the first line had orders to fire as rapidly as they chose, directing aim against the roof of the cave, with the view to having the bullets glance down among the men, who had massed immediately back of the rock rampart.”
This plan worked “admirably.”
The ricochets caught the victims huddled inside. Cries of wounded and wails of frightened children showed the indirect fire was effective.
A death chant began. It was described as a “strange, haunting sound, half wail and half exultation, the frenzy of despair and the wild cry for revenge” by Bourke.
At one point in the battle, a 4-year-old boy ran to the mouth of the cave “and stood thumb in mouth, looking in speechless wonder and indignation at the belching barrels,” wrote Bourke.
“Almost immediately a bullet glanced off his skull, knocking him to the ground. Nantaje rushed forward and dragged the boy to safety amidst the cheers of the soldiers who stopped firing momentarily, then resumed with redoubled intensity.”
The end of the Yavapai’s resistance came when Troop G of the 5th Cavalry appeared on the overlook above the cave and threw rocks and shot the Native Americans hiding below. A vivid account narrates how “screams of the dying pierced the dust, rising high in the air. Only echoes responded. The death chant was quiet. No rifle spoke. The cave was the house of the dead.”
Bourke wrote that the soldiers advanced to find a ghastly scene of slaughter.
“There were men and women dead or writhing in the agonies of death and with them several babies, killed by our glancing bullets, or by the storm of rocks and stones that had descended above,” he wrote.
“My people thought that they were strongly protected and could not see to shoot the soldiers,” Hoo-moo-thy-ah, later adopted by Captain Burns and known as Mike Burns, wrote about the end of the slaughter. “But the soldiers were ordered to shoot down volleys of buckets of lead behind those big boulders, so that the walls of the cave would scatter the glancing bullets into the people beneath. The showers of lead simply shattered the people so completely that they could not be recognized as humans. The war songs ceased.”
The scouts rushed into the cave after the last shots were fired and announced all the men were killed. Any surviving women and children were spared and given to the soldiers. The survivors were taken to Fort Grant.
Then Brown and his men put away their carbines and left the dead where they lay. The total battle had lasted about four hours. Three months later the Yavapai tribe surrendered to the U.S. forces at Camp Verde. The skeletons lay unburied in the cave for almost a half century. Supposedly the name “Skeleton Cave” was given to this cave due to the terrible smell that emanated from the cave for many years and the piles of bones filling the cave. Sixty-one years later a visitor to the cave testified, “the bleached and crumbling bones of the slain still lay in and around the cave.”
One survivor, who later went on to fame as a doctor and leader of the Yavapai people, was a small baby who was almost suffocated under the body of his dead mother. He was adopted by a Maricopa woman and later taken in by a wealthy easterner and educated. He is known by his assumed name, Dr. Carlos Montezuma, and was a cousin of Mike Burns.
Even today, accounts differ on the number of Yavapais killed and the number of survivors. On an application form for the National Register of Historic Places, it states that “the lop-sided casualty ratio justifies the term ‘Massacre’ in the name of the nomination.” Their figures are 54 dead and 20 captured.
An article in the February 1959 Arizona Highways magazine lists 76 men, women, and children killed outright, another 18 mortally wounded and left to die, while about 35 wounded were taken prisoner. A National Park Service description of the massacre states there were 75 total killed. An Army report, by Bourke, listed the same numbers as the NRHP form.
The only casualty on the Cavalry’s side was one Pima scout killed and one Pima scout wounded.