In 1871 ambushers struck a California-bound coach in Arizona Territory and murdered six of the eight people aboard. Were Indians really the culprits?
In the 1870s Arizona Territory could be a hard place to live and to stay alive. Indians, particularly Apaches, periodically went on rampages, raiding homesteads and torturing and murdering settlers—men, women and children. Outraged citizens sought vengeance and sometimes got it, such as in April 1871 when Tucson citizens orchestrated a Tohono O’odham Indian attack on sleeping Apaches in what has come to be known as the Camp Grant Massacre. The attackers slaughtered dozens of Apaches. On the morning of November 5 that same year others carried out a smaller massacre after ambushing a stagecoach 8 miles west of Wickenburg. The attackers, presumed at the time to be Indians, killed and butchered six travelers, scalping two of their victims. One body was missing hair and skin only at the top of the skull. Apaches didn’t ordinarily scalp their victims, but when an Apache brave killed an especially courageous enemy, he might scalp him in this manner to “absorb” the man’s power. The other scalping victim was missing the skin of his neck, head and face, which was the practice of the Yavapai tribe.
So who made the brutal attack, Apaches or Yavapais? San Francisco’s Daily Alta California reported a week later: “We can get no particulars as to the cause of the attack, further than a supposition that it was in retaliation for the shooting of an Indian recently. The supposition is strengthened by the fact that the Indians took nothing from the stage.” But one might also wonder why Indians would stop a stagecoach and kill a half-dozen men yet leave the horses, harnesses and jewelry. In any case, this gruesome incident seemed to change the mindset of many Easterners. Particularly after the Camp Grant Massacre they had expressed only sympathy for the “noble red men” and contempt for Arizona Territory’s warring settlers. But they began to suspect lasting peace could not exist in the territory unless the Indians were first whipped and subdued.
Immediately after the Wickenburg Massacre, however, some suggested that Indians, regardless of possible motives, were not the ones responsible for the heinous crime. One story headlined Were They Indians or Mexicans? in the November 11 Arizona Miner created a stir about who had done it. Citizens of Wickenburg and other area towns no doubt believed Indians were capable of such a horror, but they also saw another possibility—stagecoach robbers. Various alternative theories cropped up even after a 10-month investigation by Brevet Maj. Gen. George Crook not only pointed to Indians as the culprits but also named names. In an article in the June 17, 1911, Los Angeles Mining Review Yavapai County pioneer Charles Genung insisted that Mexican bandits had perpetrated the Wickenburg Massacre. The bloody event remains shrouded in mystery and a subject of debate, as some people persist in believing the version put forth by Genung, who after all was a renowned Arizona pioneer.
On Sunday morning, November 4, 1871, a celerity (or mud wagon) stagecoach left Prescott, Arizona Territory, headed south toward Wickenburg. The seven passengers on board included chief topographer Peter M. Hamel, teamster William George Salmon and newspaper correspondent and secretary Frederick Wadsworth Loring. The trio, which had just completed a seven-month trek with a contingent of Lieutenant George M. Wheeler’s surveying expedition west of the 100th meridian, were bound for San Francisco. Hamel and Salmon lived there, while Loring intended to embark there by ship for his Boston home. Passenger Charles S. Adams, recently of the W. Bichard & Co. flour depot in Prescott, was also returning home to San Francisco. Passenger Fred W. Shoholm, who had just sold his share of a Prescott jewelry shop, planned to return by ship to hometown Philadelphia via Panama. The other two passengers were a couple, at least on a temporary basis. The reportedly roguish William Kruger, who worked for Army quartermaster Captain Charles W. Foster, planned to go only as far as headquarters in Ehrenberg, Arizona Territory. His paramour Mollie Sheppard, the archetypal soiled dove with a heart of gold, intended to ride on to San Francisco. Over a period of several years the wives of the county supervisors had browbeaten their husbands into using their influence to drive Sheppard out of Prescott.
The celerity wagon raced over a newly improved road that whisked the party to Wickenburg before midnight instead of by morning, which would have been the case on the old route. Ironically, Genung had completed the road improvement using Date Creek Indians, whom he paid just 50 cents each for a 12-hour workday. In 1870 Camp Date Creek, some 60 miles southwest of Prescott, was tapped to oversee one of Arizona Territory’s first Indian reservations, and Date Creek Indians were the ones General Crook would blame for the 1871 stagecoach massacre. Genung may have had reason to want to exonerate his Indians.
After a brief rest and a hearty breakfast the seven travelers from Prescott boarded a deluxe Concord stagecoach bound for Los Angeles (where six of them would connect with a coastal steamer to San Francisco). While boarding, Kruger pressed Loring to arm himself with a pistol for protection against murderous Indians. Loring said he did not need a weapon, as he hadn’t seen an Indian in seven months—a curious response, since Hamel, Salmon and he had almost certainly seen Indians during their fieldwork. Also boarding at Wickenburg was Aaron Barnett, though he would soon disembark. The Concord, driven by “Dutch John” Lance, left on schedule at 7 a.m. Two miles outside town Barnett, saying he had “forgotten something important,” hopped down and walked back to town. His forgetfulness likely saved his life.
Lance drove on. It was his first trip westbound on that route, but he had driven the coach east from Ehrenberg to Wickenburg the previous day and was familiar with the road, mostly a dry wash. At about 8 a.m., with the coach 8 miles west of town, Dutch John suddenly cried out, “Apaches! Apaches! Apaches!” as more than a dozen Indians rose up from the brush on the left. They all fired two rounds from their repeating rifles, either Spencers or Henrys. A shortage of ammunition kept the Indians from firing additional rounds. Nevertheless, they did plenty of damage. Driver Lance, seated on the right, took bullets to his head, arm and chest and died instantly. Shoholm, who was riding inside, also took a fatal bullet right away. The coach surged ahead a few yards but came to an abrupt halt when one of the wounded horses collapsed. As the coach lurched to a stop, the badly wounded Loring, who was riding atop on the left, was thrown onto the roadway. He had suffered bullet wounds to his chest, eye and temple but was still alive. Adams, seated atop between Loring and Lance, was shot in the back twice and tumbled onto the roadway next to Loring. One of the bullets had severed his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, though like Loring he remained alive.
Inside the coach things were just as grim. Shoholm was dead. Kruger had taken a slug to the shoulder. Another bullet had drilled through the side of the coach and struck Sheppard in the right arm, also driving splinters into her wound. Salmon was mortally wounded with a bullet to the belly. Only Hamel seemed to have escaped the two volleys unscathed. He exited the coach on the side of the attackers, apparently intent on attacking them. How much damage the fighting topographer might have done is unknown, but once the attackers subdued Hamel, they scalped him in the Apache way, carving off just the topknot of hair and flesh. Salmon, who must have known he was dying, exited the coach on the side opposite and stumbled eastward 60 yards, perhaps trying to intentionally draw away the attackers. Someone ultimately thrust a lance through his chest and then scalped him in the more thorough Yavapai way. Whether Hamel or Salmon were alive when scalped is unknown. But their actions certainly drew the attackers’ attention, which bought Kruger time to help Sheppard escape westward through an arroyo. Some of the ambushers followed them and got within shooting range, but they had run out of ammunition. Back on the roadway the raiders finished off the badly wounded Loring with a lance to the chest, and the paralyzed Adams also breathed his last—one report said his throat had been cut ear to ear, while another claimed he’d been shot in the head with his own pistol.
History records few such attacks on stagecoaches by Indians (see “Stagecoach Attacks—Roll ’em,” by Gregory Michno, in the April 2015 That aside, why would Indians of any tribe travel such a distance to ambush a coach? The November 16 Sacramento Daily Union Wild West provided ). one possible answer: “Parties are in pursuit of the savages, who seem to have been incited by revenge rather than hopes of plunder.” A month before the Wickenburg Massacre Indian commissioner Vincent Colyer had taken the same westbound stagecoach for his eventual return to Washington, D.C. President Ulysses S. Grant had sent Colyer to Arizona Territory to negotiate peace with the Apaches following the Camp Grant Massacre (see “Massacre at Dawn in Arizona Territory,” by Carol A. Markstrom and Doug Hocking, in the October 2013 Wild West). But in the wake of the November 5 massacre the commissioner faced ridicule for fueling the Indian unrest with unfulfilled promises. Perhaps in response to this criticism, Colyer shared an anecdote he had heard from a rancher near Date Creek—a story that supported the revenge motive. According to this rancher, a Yavapai who sometimes did odd jobs at the ranch was working there when three white men stopped by and admired his fine Henry rifle. The Indian refused to surrender it and for his trouble suffered a beating with the butt of his own rifle. Then one of the white men, angered by the Yavapai’s arrogance, shot him to death with a pistol. After the trio rode off with the Henry, the rancher buried the Indian in his garden. On the morning the stagecoach carrying Colyer was due, the rancher saw 20 Indians headed down the road toward his ranch. Fearing they had come for revenge, the rancher fired into them, wounding several in the party. Expecting the enraged Indians to attack again that evening, he then put his wife and daughter aboard the coach to spirit them out of harm’s way. That incident could have been the reason Indians attacked the stage on November 5. It is also possible the Indians specifically targeted that particular stagecoach because they knew a man who had killed another Yavapai was aboard. That man could have been one of the survey men—Loring, Salmon or Hamel.
Lieutenant Wheeler’s recent survey had lasted seven months, traveling through northern Nevada and Utah Territory, swinging southwest into California and finally crossing Death Valley eastward into Arizona Territory to wrap things up in Prescott in mid-October. Loring was along as a correspondent for the Boston Globe and Appleton’s Journal, but he had also collected voluminous notes for a book he planned to write once back in Boston. He had made himself useful by keeping the survey party log and cataloging the surveyors’ maps and sketches of flora and fauna drawn by the team’s scientists.
Loring’s offhand comment in Wickenburg that he had not seen an Indian in seven months was simply not true, as he had published an article titled “A Council of War,” describing a northern Nevada peace conference with a large party of Shoshones. The strange antics of the “bug collectors” had aroused the Indians’ suspicions, but the council convinced them the white men were their friends. Wheeler made a practice of hiring an Indian guide from among the tribes inhabiting the area he was about to cross. In August 1871, as the party was about to enter Death Valley, Loring wrote of “the great delight of an Indian—‘a heap good Indian,’ of course, who is stealing ‘muck-a-muck’ from us daily.” This Indian may have been a Yavapai hired as a guide when the expedition prepared to enter Arizona Territory. It is rumored that Loring, Hamel or Salmon might have inadvertently or accidentally shot and killed this Indian, which if true would account for other Yavapais wanting revenge and targeting the stagecoach. If Loring was the one who pulled the trigger, that might have been reason enough for him to tell Kruger on November 5 he had not seen any Indians and did not want to arm himself for the stagecoach trip. Of course, for all this to hold true, there had to be a dead Yavapai somewhere, and there is no record of such a killing.
Whether or not the attack on the stage was done out of revenge, there is little reason to doubt the attackers were in fact Yavapai Indians. Within a week of the massacre General Crook, then commanding the Department of Arizona, began an investigation that lasted from November 12, 1871, through September 1872. Crook examined the original, detailed report Captain Charles Meinhold had made after going over the scene of the crime the day after the massacre. The captain had secured evidence and mentioned Mexicans and Indians in his report but had reached no conclusion as to who was guilty. Crook also heard the testimony of an Indian boy being raised by a local white man. The boy said that in the wake of the massacre he had explained the denominations of stolen currency to the Indian attackers, who could not understand why paper of the same color and size could be worth different amounts. On January 2, 1872, Crook sent Captain George H. Butcher to the Mohave Indian reservation on the Colorado River to hear a report from Chief Irataba. The chief, through agent Dr. John A. Tonner, told Butcher he had heard the guilty Indians boast of their successful attack and seen them dispose of the few bobbles and dollars they had stolen.
Crook determined through his investigation that 50 Indians had been involved in the planned attack on the stagecoach. Most of these Indians, including all of the leaders, were Yavapais. He further concluded that 15 of the 50 had carried out the actual attack, another 15 had stood in reserve, and 20 had gone out from the Date Creek reservation to create a distraction by raiding nearby ranches to the west. Crook named the ringleader of the band—Yavapai Chief Ocho-cama, who apparently had ordered his braves to leave untouched anything that might identify them as the murderers. Ocho-cama had learned a lesson from a previous raid, during which one of his warriors had left behind a single identifiable arrow. The other leaders of the Wickenburg Massacre, according to the general, were Hock-AChe-Waka, Ocho-cama’s brother Tee-Yee-Made-Yee, Indian Jim, What-E-Ora-Ma, Chimhueva Jim, Chimhueva Sal and Ah-Pook-Ya.
In 1872–73 Crook orchestrated his Tonto Basin campaign against the Yavapais and Tonto Apaches, who were historically and culturally linked with the Yavapais. In late September 1872 he sent out a 5th U.S. Cavalry column commanded by Captain Julius W. Mason to chastise the Yavapais, many of whom had had nothing to do with the November 1871 massacre. The young captain was successful, killing 40 and wounding many more. Ocho-cama already had been arrested and then wounded in an attempt to escape. He would recover and live for years afterward. Most of the Yavapais were placed on the Camp Verde Reservation, where the land was fertile, and they built an irrigation ditch to grow crops. As settlers on both sides of the Verde River coveted the land, the Army forced the Yavapais to relocate in February 1875 during a blizzard. More than 100 died during the 180-mile trek (dubbed the “March of Tears”) to the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, where the Yavapai tribe remained for a quarter-century. Today the Yavapais are split between the Fort McDowell, Camp Verde and Yavapai-Prescott reservations in Arizona.
If a party of Yavapais was indeed responsible for the Wickenburg Massacre, the whole tribe paid a heavy price for it. But, as mentioned earlier, not everyone was convinced Chief Ocho-cama and his Yavapais did the dirty deed. One early theory suggested white men had stopped the stage after learning that evicted soiled dove Mollie Sheppard was carrying a great deal of money. But that theory was based entirely on conjecture, and Captain Meinhold immediately dismissed it. Another theory suggested a Mexican gang led by Anglo strongman Chuck Stanton had robbed the stagecoach, but this was disproved; in fact, there was no confirmed robbery of a stagecoach in Arizona Territory until 1876.
The involvement of other Mexicans was possible, though the man who floated that theory, Charles Genung, had no use whatsoever
for Mexicans. In fact, several Mexican men who ended up dead, including some killed by members of Genung’s inner circle, had been fingered as participants in the Wickenburg Massacre. For example, Joaquín Barbe and companion —shot down in Phoenix in early 1872 for arguing with lawmen while being escorted out of town—were said to have been the massacre leader and one of his men. Legendary Arizona rancher and notorious Indian fighter King S. Woolsey claimed to have information (never revealed) implicating outlaw Ramon Cordova in the massacre; arrested and held in Phoenix on an unrelated charge, Cordova was lynched when a mob broke into the jail. Genung said another Phoenix prisoner named Juan Revel, who was facing a life sentence, told him the names of 15 other massacre participants, but Genung never produced a list, and there is no written record of the alleged interview. According to Genung, five of the 15 had been killed and the rest had fled the territory.
Bear in mind that by 1911 Genung himself was an ex-convict, and that June he claimed in the Los Angeles Mining Review he had gotten most of his information about the Mexican bandits/ killers from J.M. (“George” or “Crete”) Bryan, a member of the original 1871 posse. One thing Genung failed to mention is that on November 18, 1871, Bryan had sent a signed letter to the Arizona Miner identifying the Date Creek Indians as the actual attackers. By 1911 Bryan was unable to refute Genung’s tale about the Mexicans, as he had died on August 29, 1883. In any case, General Crook had already refuted it years earlier.
Henderson, Nevada, resident R. Michael Wilson, who served for 24 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, often writes about Old West crime in his own books and for Wild West. For further reading see his 2007 book Massacre at Wickenburg: Arizona’s Greatest Mystery.
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.