Monday, October 07, 2019

The Skeleton Cave Massacre (Arizona)

The Skeleton Cave Massacre was the first principal engagement during the 1872 Tonto Basin Campaign in Arizona conducted by the U.S. Army. On December 28, 1872, elements of the 5th Cavalry under the command of Captain William H. Brown, together with thirty Apache scouts took up positions around the Yavapai stronghold at Skeleton Cave in the Salt River Canyon. The soldiers approached the cave before dawn and surprised the defenders when they tried to leave.  The warriors refused to surrender and the soldiers opened fire. Some of Brown's men aimed for the roof of the cave, causing the deaths of women and children, as well as warriors, within the cave by ricocheting bullets. Others soldiers rolled rocks and boulders down from the cliffs above.

“… (Captain) Brown ordered our fire to cease, and for the last time summoned the Apaches to surrender, or to let their women and children come out unmolested. On their side, the Apaches also ceased all hostile demonstrations and it seemed to some of us Americans that they must be making ready to yield, and were discussing the matter among themselves. Our Indian guides and interpreters raised the cry, ‘Look out! There goes the death song; they are going to charge!’ It was a weird chant … half wail and half exultation—the frenzy of despair and the wild cry for revenge.” So wrote Captain John G. Bourke, U.S. Cavalry.

The warriors counter-attacked to buy time for their women and children to escape. The soldiers stopped the counter-attack, and the surviving Indians were driven back into the cave where they resumed their death chant. At this point, the soldiers were ordered to fire “as fast as the breach-block of the carbine could be opened and lowered ... into the mouth of the cave,” where, according to Captain Bourke, “lead poured in by the bucketful.”

The battle continued, with cries of wounded women and children becoming ever more desperate. “It was exactly like fighting with wild animals in a trap,” observed Captain Bourke. The massacre lasted most of the morning and about seventy men, women, and children were killed. The survivors were taken prisoner. The dead were left unburied.

The cave was rediscovered in the 1890's. Jeff Adam's found the cave again in 1906 and reported it to newspapers. Walter Lubken was guided to the cave in 1908 where he photographed the bones and artifacts within the cave. Around 1920, the bones were removed and buried by some Yavapai Indians. Nothing remains in the cave now.  This site is located on the north shore of Apache Lake, about 1/2 mile northeast of Horse Mesa Dam.

Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.

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