Monday, March 5, 2018

The Treasure of Fortress Hill

February 26, 2018 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

You might say I enjoy recording historical events and also investigating them if they involve the Superstition Wilderness Area. Now, let me tell you about a trip I made into the Superstition Wilderness in March of 1985, to check out a story about a military skirmish.

An old friend of mine told me about a small hill deep in the wilderness that served as a refuge for a small band of Yavapai-Apache in May of 1866. This hill was a short distance from another landmark known in military parlance as Dismal Valley. Two Army infantry companies, the 14th and 32nd, stationed at Fort McDowell, had cornered a small band of Native Americans on a conical-shaped hill. None of the Native Americans planned to surrender a way of life they had known generation after generation. All of them would have fought to the death rather than become slaves of a culture foreign to their way of life.

A Native American Camp of the period would have looked something like this when the Army destroyed the Rancherias in the Superstition Mountain region. Photo: Walter J. Lubkin, USRS.

For many years, I had heard stories about the campaigns waged against the Apaches in the Superstition Mountains (Sierra Superstition). I researched the topic, but failed to find much material. It wasn’t until I met a man named Joseph Crary that I was successful. Joe did a lot of research in and around Washington D.C. while in the U.S. Army. He found a considerable amount of documentation on military activities and campaigns in the Superstition Mountain and Salt River region. He found several reports dating back to the mid-1860s.

Some of these reports recorded vivid descriptions of military action by the U.S. Army against Native Americans in the Superstition Mountain area. Such places as Quail Camp, Dismal Valley, Picacho Butte, Coyote Tank and Fortress Hill were all disasters for the Native Americans. The United States Army had one soldier killed and three wounded in all of the Superstition Mountain skirmishes. The Yavapai-Apache fought these battles with bows, arrows, clubs, lances and a few outdated and primitive Mexican cap lock muskets.

Some historians call this period between 1864-68 as the Rancheria Campaign. The mission of the Army during this period was to search and destroy the Yavapai-Apache Rancherias, kill those who didn’t surrender and return all others to the reservation. The reports indicated the body counts ranged from 11 to 53 dead at each of the Superstition rancherias (villages) that were raided.

By 1870, most of the rancherias had been destroyed. Only raiding parties from San Carlos entered the Superstition area after 1868. The surrender of Geronimo at Skeleton Canyon down near the Mexican border in 1886 ended the Indian Wars of Arizona Territory.

As I rode a lonely trail toward Horse Camp Ridge, I thought about the battles that once raged in the area and on distant hilltops more than a hundred years ago. I wondered what kind of artifacts I would discover if I located the hill my friend had told me about. The directions I had to the hill were quite vague, but I knew the area well and felt I would recognize the hill from the description I had been given. The conical-shaped hill actually stood out among the many other hills in the area. As I rode toward the hill, it fit the exact description I had been given.

The old man who told me about the hill described finding brass casings, lead ball, stone projectile points and even a brass button. He said erosion had carried the artifacts down from the slopes of the hill. I was quite excited about what lay ahead as I quickly assembled my White Gold Master metal detector.

I began a systematic grid search of the lower slope of the hill. Within a few minutes I got my first beep. It was a brass casing and appeared to be a 45-90 or 45-70 cartridge. The find was followed by the discovery of more casings, lead mini-balls and one solitary brass button. I found some twenty mini-balls and almost as many brass cases. These artifacts indicated something had to have occurred on the top of this hill many years before my arrival. The metal detector made my job easy. I was convinced I had found Fortress Hill.

I had been told this story about a long forgotten hill in the heart of the Superstition Wilderness. I researched the military history of the area with the help of Joseph Crary and the United States Army Archives. I then traveled to the site to prove the old man’s story. I was very fortunate and pleased to find relics from a battlefield dating back almost to the time of the American Civil War. It was so refreshing to hear a story about the Superstition area that panned out, because most don’t. The discovery of these relics convinced me this battle occurred at this site. The discovery was also supported with military sketch maps of the area dating to the 1860s. This was an untold story of American history hidden deep in the Superstition Wilderness Area.

In closing, I hope the site remains protected and unknown. I will never give directions to the site. In my mind, it is a memorial to people that once lived here and lived a completely different life than what we know today. They depended on resources of the area and their raiding parties that attacked their enemies along the Gila and Salt Rivers. The Superstition Wilderness Area preserves many historical sites that are totally unknown today. I remember the enormous controversy over the designation of the Superstition Wilderness Area in the early and mid 1960s. It is only a miracle we have the wilderness to help protect such sites east of Apache Junction when so many people were against it in the beginning.