Tragedy, courage hang over grounds of Fort Verde

[Source: Pete AleshireThe Payson Roundup]

The tale of two Medal of Honor recipients and the complex history of Apache scouts threaded through exhibits at historic state park

I stood in the drizzle on the porch of the headquarters of Fort Verde, peering at the bronze plaque honoring the Medal of Honor recipients once based here, thinking of a cheerfully loyal warrior and a fearlessly selfless sergeant.

Closing my eyes, I half waited for the sound of their boot heels on the worn planks of the headquarters porch where I stood — a century from their hardship and heroism.

Embedded in the 3,600-pound boulder of quartz and lava, the plaque honors the two soldiers who received the nation’s highest medal and the 17 Indian scouts who served at the best-preserved fort used in the tragic struggle between the Apaches and the U.S. Cavalry.

“Rowdy,” an Apache scout, earned his medal in 1890 for leading a cavalry troop on the trail of a band of raiders and then slipping in close enough to dispatch the rival chief. Sgt. Bernard Taylor earned his medal in 1874 for carrying his wounded commander through 300 yards of enemy fire. Ironically, Rowdy and Taylor came from bitterly opposed warrior cultures, but their stories span the whole history of Fort Verde between its establishment in 1873 and its abandonment in 1899.

Perched inconspicuously on a mesa alongside the Verde River almost in the center of the present-day town of Camp Verde, Fort Verde lay on the supply line between Fort Whipple in Prescott and Fort Apache in the White Mountains and served as the chief staging ground for General George Crook’s relentless war of attrition against the Yavapai and Tonto Apache in the early 1870s. Snatched from the jaws of deterioration and ruin by Arizona State Parks, the meticulously restored, re-roofed and furnished adobe headquarters and officers’ quarters provide the state’s most intimate glimpse of the conflict that has helped spawn and shape the myth of the West.

The exhibits and loquacious, low-key rangers and volunteers in the main building offer an absorbing jump-off for a tour of the fort that can easily soak up several hours for a $4 entrance fee. A bookstore library, filing cabinets in the back full of primary documents and exhibits featuring guns, uniforms, artifacts and explanations of life at the frontier post crowd the main building. That includes a room devoted to the tragic history of the Apache scouts, warriors recruited by General Crook to lead soldiers against rival bands. In the end, the scouts did much of the real fighting — hoping to safeguard their own bands and families by cooperating with the whites against other bands.

Long before the state rescued the fort, settlers had dismantled the enlisted men’s barracks — where the immigrants, drifting Civil War veterans, failed prospectors and adventurous farm boys who constituted the frontier army slept four to a bunk and endured the unthinkable hardships of Indian fighting with a combination of gossip, whiskey, bawdy humor, rank bigotry, physical hardiness and routine courage. But locals converted the thick-walled, adobe officers’ quarters into private homes, which the state then bought and restored to their original condition.

The cavalry first arrived in 1865 in the Verde Valley, rich with the 1,000-year-old ruins of the Sinagua and dominated by the warlike, raiding-based cultures of the Tonto Apache and Yavapai. The settlers took over the best farmland and drove off the game — prompting the Apache to raid their livestock.

Volunteer Army units established Camp Lincoln on the malarial Verde River near the fork with West Clear Creek in 1865, but the volunteers deserted wholesale after more than a year without pay or supplies. A regular army detachment arrived 1866 and moved the camp to the present location in 1870.

In the early 1870s, General Crook directed arduous winter campaigns against the Tonto Apache and Yavapai, relying heavily on Apache scouts from other bands. The scouts led the soldiers in an unrelenting pursuit of the Tonto resisters, who had to provide for their wives and children in the harsh, winter landscape.

Defeated by starvation as much as bullets, the Tonto Apache and Yavapai finally surrendered in large numbers.

Although Crook initially settled the Tonto and Yavapai on a reservation near the fort, the government soon drove them into a winter march across 200 miles of rough country to the San Carlos Reservation and forced them to settle among rival bands.

All that painful, tragic, thrilling history haunts the adobe stillness of Fort Verde, swirling like dust devils across the sweep of the parade ground, lurking in the rusted guns and objects of everyday life displayed on display — ghosts with breaths held.

A procession of vivid characters galloped, slouched, staggered, blustered and blasted their way across that parade ground and into the contradictory chronicles of history.

Fort Surgeon Dr. Edgar Mearns collected the eggs of hundreds of new bird species and once crawled into the open under enemy fire to collect a new flower.

Chief of Scouts Al Seiber led Apache scouts into battle, administering lethal discipline and earning the respect of his rough, warrior followers. Col. John Coppinger, once an Irish terrorist, joined the U.S. Army and became a Civil War hero and then an Indian fighter — drawing covert, soldiers’ laughter on account of the dressing case he insisted on bringing into the field for his clothes and toothbrushes and his inability to pronounce “r’s” or “th.”

And here also, Rowdy and Taylor earned the nation’s highest medal.

Taylor earned his medal in October of 1874 in a battle at nearby Sunset Pass. First Lieutenant Charles King led the 40-man detail in pursuit of a band of Tonto Apache who had run off a herd of cattle and killed a cowboy.

King and Taylor were ahead of the rest of the troops with the Apache scouts when the hostiles opened fire, hitting King in the face and shoulder and scattering the scouts. King retreated dazed and bleeding, but fell from the top of a rock and lay helpless. Taylor charged forward.

Although King fiercely ordered Taylor to leave him and seek safety, Taylor slung King across his back, and carried him through heavy fire for 300 yards back to the main body of troops — pausing repeatedly to hold off the Apaches with his pistol. King suffered from his unhealed wound for the rest of his life, but became one of the most vivid and important of western writers of his time.

Rowdy earned his medal through less selfless, but no less daring actions. A fierce, good-natured warrior, he led a detachment of soldiers and scouts on the trail of a small band of raiders who had killed a Mormon freighter and taken his horses.

Rowdy trailed the renegades to a canyon near Cherry Creek. Once the soldiers caught up, they surrounded the hostiles and opened fire. The Apaches dug in behind good cover, so Rowdy led the scouts from cover to cover to close the distance.

Finally within 40 feet of the enemy, Rowdy took a position on top of a rock as bullets spattered all around him and hit the leader of the band twice — prompting the mortally wounded chief to surrender.

The officer in charge initially wanted to carry the wounded man back to the distant fort, although Rowdy observed “I don’t think we’ll ever get that feller up that hill: I think we better kill him.” Finally, moved by the prisoner’s own entreaties — between snatches of his death song — Rowdy dispatched him.

As one officer later recalled of him, “Rowdy was an original and interesting character. He had some virtues of a high order and many vices. He was unswervingly faithful to his friends and terribly faithless to all others. He would kill a wounded prisoner to save the trouble of getting him to camp but would cry like a child on saying good-bye to a friend.”

So I thought of Rowdy — and of Taylor — standing there in the drizzle on the porch where they had once awaited their orders. Faintly, I heard the clomp of boots on boards. I turned — but saw only the empty parade ground and heard only the echoes of silence.

Overhead, a vulture wheeled, heavy on the sodden air — still on patrol after all this time.

Camp Verde Centennial Project Gets Official Nod

[Source: Steve Ayers, Verde Independent]

The State of Arizona has given its official endorsement to a local project that will celebrate the state’s centennial in 2012.

A letter from the Arizona Historical Advisory Commission, dated Nov. 4, officially notified the Verde Confluence Centennial Committee that their digital storytelling project would be included among dozens of Legacy Projects being carried out by communities and organizations statewide.

Titled “Echoes of the Verde Confluence,” the project will, over the next year, produce a series of three- to five-minute digital videos that will tell bits and pieces of the history of the lower Verde Valley.

The short movies will be stitched together into a full-length presentation and shown to the public on or around Arizona’s 100th birthday on Feb. 14, 2012.

Partners in the project include the Yavapai-Apache Nation, National Park Service, Arizona State Parks, Town of Camp Verde, Beaver Creek Regional Council, Yavapai College, Camp Verde Unified School District, Beaver Creek School, plus some are charter schools and community organizations.

The group received a $2,500 contribution from the National Park Service to purchase digital recording equipment and pay for storytelling workshops for anyone wishing to participate.

Three groups of students from Camp Verde High School are producing the initial videos. One will tell the story of the Wingfield family, another the story of the 1899 murder of Clinton Wingfield and Mac Rodgers and one the story of Main Street, past and present.

The project, however, is not just for students. The public is invited to participate.

“We are encouraging anyone who would like to produce a short history story to contact the Camp Verde Historical Society. We would love to have as many people as possible from Camp Verde and the Beaver Creek communities, participate,” says historical society president Shirley Brinkman.

According to Judy Piner, archivist and video storyteller for the Yavapai-Apache Nation and one of the committee’s technical advisors, a five-minute video takes about 30 to 40 hours to produce.

“We teach workshops for the tribal members, old and young, and the results are phenomenal. Anyone with a desire to tell their story can and should do so. No one needs to feel intimidated by the technology,” Piner says.

Those who like to participate but are unsure what story to tell can contact the historical society. They have lots of suggestions, according to Brinkman.

“There are so many stories to be told – so many good stories. We have lots of historic documents, recordings made by some of the area’s pioneers, photos and other resources that can be used to make a good story a great story,” Brinkman says.

The Camp Verde Historical Society can be reached at (928) 567-9560. The museum, located at 435 S. Main Street, is open Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and by appointment.

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Group debates the future of state parks in Arizona

[Source: John Hutchinson, Verde Independent] – A powerhouse panel of political players combined with a standing room-only crowd of State Parks supporters and conservationists gathered to help strategize the long-term sustainable operation of the State Parks system Thursday. Supported by a documentary film, “Postcards from the Parks,” which tells the story of Arizona’s State Parks long-running financial crisis, the panel took five aspects of the issue and fielded questions.

Birgit Lowenstein, who helped organize the Benefactors of the Red Rocks, said, “we have taken State Parks for granted.” There were also representatives from Cottonwood, Jerome, and Yavapai County, plus a flood of volunteers of the Parks system. “We have created a financial band-aid, but it is not sustainable. We must find a long-term solution,” urged Lowenstein.”

Chief among the messages of the documentary film: “A closed park doesn’t make any money.” The closure of the parks would save the government $8 million, but cost $260 million in economic decline to the surrounding communities from the parks’ closure. The documentary film quotes Director Renee Bahl, “We don’t have to chose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. We can have both.” [to read the full article click here].

Fort Verde Prepares Fence For Tom Sawyer Day

[Source: Mark Lineberger,]

It’s time to roll up the sleeves and make Aunt Polly proud, because Fort Verde State Historic Park is looking for volunteers for its annual Tom Sawyer Day.

The event is inspired by the story of Tom Sawyer tricking people into doing his fence painting job in Mark Twain’s classic novel.

The fort, however, isn’t trying to trick anybody. Organizers are just looking for people to come out for a day of family fun.

If the white picket fence happens to get a nice new coat of paint in the process, then all the better.

The event came into existence a few years ago when staff at the fort was trying to think of something that would really bring people out, said Sheila Stubler, fort manager.

“We thought this would be a really great community volunteer project,” Stubler said.

She was right, and Tom Sawyer Day has become quite popular over the years.

Last year’s event brought out more than 80 people, Stubler said.

It’s a great opportunity for groups like the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Builders Club and anyone else who wants to help give a little something back to their community, Stubler said.

“It’s great,” Stubler said. “They’ve done such a good job that we had to look for parts of the fence that people could actually paint. Some people have asked me if we could do something like this twice a year or more, but there’s only so much fence to go around.”

This year’s Tom Sawyer Day is set to run from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 25.

If people would like to participate, Stubler only asks that they call the fort ahead of time so staff can get an idea of how many supplies they’ll need.

The fort will provide scrapers, buckets and paint. They’ll also have paintbrushes, but Stubler said people should bring an extra if they have one.

The fort will also have water and snacks on hand. It’s not all manual labor, Stubler said. There will be historical reenactors wearing period clothes from the 19th century, and if it gets hot, “Tom Sawyer” the movie will be playing inside the air-conditioned fort, a luxury not enjoyed by its original inhabitants.

The fort has been heavily dependent on volunteers since the state gutted the budget of Arizona State Parks. Through a community effort, a small army of volunteers stepped up to help keep the fort running, and Stubler said they deserve a lot of credit.

“An assistant director with state parks was here the other day,” Stubler said. “He said he hadn’t seen the fort look this clean in 30 years.”

For more information about Tom Sawyer Day, call the fort at 567-3275 or contact Nicole Armstrong-Best with Arizona State Parks at (602) 542-7152. Anyone age 13 or younger will need to be with a parent or legal guardian.

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