Abraham Lincoln created the Arizona Territory in 1863, separating the future 48th state from the Territory of New Mexico. Fort Whipple, near what is now Prescott, became the first territorial capital.
Henry Wickenburg uncovered a gold bonanza in the Bradshaw Mountains the following year and established the extremely lucrative Vulture Mine, south of Prescott and east of Cave Creek. When the word got out, gold seekers poured into central Arizona. In 1865, the U.S. Army established Camp McDowell about 18 miles from the future town site of Cave Creek to protect the outnumbered miners and ranchers from the marauding Tonto Apaches. The Army identified and named Cave Creek by 1866. Phoenix and Cave Creek credit their establishment and initial survival to this seminal fort.
Yet getting to Fort Whipple from Camp McDowell was arduous and circuitous. The cavalry initially headed the opposite direction—toward present-day Phoenix—made a loop and then headed north to Fort Whipple. In 1870, the commanding officer of the Arizona army, Col. George Stoneman, learned of a potential shortcut to the capital—an American Indian trail with a flowing creek, at least two natural springs and an abundance of tall grass to feed horses. This shortcut eventually became the town of Cave Creek.
Along that flowing creek is a bandshell-shaped cavern that’s about 60 feet wide, high and deep. The Apaches felt this cave was a secure place to store food and to erect their wickiups. Christmas morning, 1873, proved to be devastating for the awakening Apaches. The cavalry, on the hunt for Apaches who had left the reservation, opened fire on them, leaving nine Apaches dead, including their chief, Nanotz. The calvary torched much of the Apaches’ essential winter food supply. The cavalry’s mantra of “surrender or starve” had been duly executed.
What a decade that turned out to be for Cave Creek—from prospectors with dreams of gold rush riches to a Christmas Day massacre. But thankfully Cave Creek grew up to become less fraught with danger and more a place where folks could horse around, starting in the 1930s and still true to this day.
Kraig Nelson is the docent at the Cave Creek Museum in Cave Creek, Arizona.
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