Reasons behind Camp Grant massacre still a bloody mystery

Time Before Now- April 1871  — It was the start of a big year in Brooklyn.  The first brownstone was completed in the mostly rural Bedford-Styvasant neighborhood, the Brooklyn Bridge was under construction (right) and P.T. Barnum’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” opened there April 10. 

April 30, 1871

On this day, more than 100 Pinal and Aravaipa Apache women and children were murdered at Camp Grant, Arizona, 50 miles northeast of Tucson,  It was the beginning of the decade-long Apache Wars that didn’t end until the surrender of the legendary warrior, Geronimo, 15 years later.

Desolate Camp Grant in 1871

The motives behind the massacre are still being debated by historians.  Some speculate it was purely economic.  Business interests in Tuscon, prospering financially from Federal efforts to pacify the Apache, feared peace might break out and hurt their trade while others simply attribute it to long simmering animosities among the parties.

The  primary instigators, Augustus Oury (right) and Jesus Maria Elias, were pretty much case studies for both popular theories.   Former Texas Ranger Oury, was an Arizona rancher, a teenage eye-witness to the Alamo and a survivor of the “black bean” execution lottery as part of the 1842 Mier Expedition into Mexico.

Elias was a prosperous farmer, listed in the 1870 census as owning property valued at $4,700, about $80,000 today.  He was described alternately as a scout and inveterate“Indian hunter.” 

Enter 37-year-old First Lieutenant Royal Emerson Whitman, (left) a U.S. Cavalry officer who had covered himself with glory in the Union’s losing battle at Sabine Crossroads, Louisiana.  As commander of Camp Grant, Whitman had rendered  compassionate aid to five elderly Apache women, sending a steady stream of Aravaipa and Pinal sanctuary  seekers to Camp Grant.  As many as 500 Apache eventually camped on traditional Aravaipa land five miles east of Whitman’s post. 

But at dawn on an April Sunday morning a volatile stew of half dozen Anglos, 48 Hispanic and nearly 100 allied members of the Tohono O’edham tribe surrounded the refugees and opened fire, gunning down those who tried to escape.

Tucson residents had become enraged by reports of a number of raids, stolen cattle and the murder of several ranchers.   They were convinced Whitman’s camp was the source of the problem.  The territory’s commander, General George Stoneman, (left) was even less popular than Whitman, partially over his pacification policies or simply because he was a Yankee in the formerly Confederate Arizona.

A breathless runner interrupted Whitman’s  Sunday breakfast with an urgent warning about the planned ambush.  But by the time translators arrived, they found only victims and the camp on fire.  Most of the dead  had been scalped, all but eight were women or children.  An unknown number of children, believed to be about 30, mostly young girls, were captured, reportedly to be sold as slaves. 

The Aravaipa head man, Ezkiminzin, (left) managed to escape into the mountains with his two daughters and a number of his band.  Architect of the Camp Grant sanctuary arrangement he and Whitman had agreed that the Aravaipa would trade work at area farms and ranches in exchange for food and protection.  But stories of the murder of a local rancher by Ezkiminzin had alarmed Tucson residents.     

Arriving too late at the smouldering ruins, Lieutenant Whitman buried the victims. He dispatched messengers into the mountains to find the Apache men, away hunting, to assure them his soldiers had no hand in the murders. 

Headlines in Tucson’s hometown newspaper called the slaughter “justified retribution.”  A merchant, William Hopkins Tonge, however, took exception with that characterization, and wrote the Commissioner of Indian Affairs describing the incident for the first time as a massacre.

Sympathetic Easterners and Lieutenant Whitman’s written reports eventually created sufficient pressure for President Ulysses S. Grant (left) to demand some sort of accountability.  Try the responsible parties, Grant ordered, or face the threat of marshal law. 

Six months after the fact, 104 defendants were tried in Tucson.  It took jurors just 19 minutes to acquit all 104.  But Tucson continued to vilify Lieutenant Whitman, claiming he had acted dishonorably and had actually been complicit in the murders. 

Defendants tried for the massacre

Whitman was court marshaled, exonerated, and cleared of all charges but his military reputation was irreparably damaged.  A bitter resignation  followed eight years later.   He retired to Washington D.C. and following the death of his second wife, married the widow of poet and historian, Henry Ames Blood.  He died in 1913 at 79 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

 Many of the Tucson defendants were voted in to public office, rewarded with patronage jobs and had streets named in their honor.  Augustus Oury was elected alderman and Jesus Maria Elias served in three territorial legislatures.

Aravaipa leader Ezkiminzin was instramental in founding the San Carlos Apache Reservation, cooperating with Indian agent John Clum, more famous as the founder of the Tombstone Epitaph.   (Right, Clum with Apache leaders, Diablo and Ezkiminzin) 

When conditions on the San Carlos became dire, however, he led his band into the mountains and was imprisioned as a result. Clum demanded his release but Ezkiminzin wound up in chains, suspected of aiding his fugitive son-in-law, The Apache Kid.    He and his followers were exiled to Alabama.  They were released from Federal custody three years later and returned to San Carlos but  Ezkiminzin died soon after.

Details of the incident involving Ezkiminzin that had so alarmed Tucson’s citizens eventually filtered out.  According to contemporary accounts, the chief visited an Anglo friend at his ranch.   The pair shared a meal and an after-dinner smoke of the porch at which point Ezkiminzin pulled out a pistol and shot his friend dead.    Any coward can kill s a man, he explained, but only a brave man can kill a friend. It was a warning to his fellow Aravaipa, he said, not to become friendly with “white people.”   

Camp Grant was abandoned in 1873, a few scattered remains are now located on undeveloped private land.  The site of the massacre is unmarked, simply noted as upstream on Aravaipa Creek.

Fort Lowell Museum, 2900 N. Craycroft Road , Tucson, is located in the historically reconstructed officer’s quarters of this Camp Grant era military post.  Central to the Apache Wars and compact in size, the exhibits chronicle daily life at the fort, typical on the frontier.   It’s the starting place for the site’s walking tour and steps away from a wildlife park with picnic facilities, and playground.  Built  in 1873, the post was active until 1891. 

Originally established as “Camp Lowell” during the Civil War, among the post’s remnants include the post’s most notable building, the hospital.  Best known of the officers stationed there, Walter Reed, for whom Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. is named.  

The fort and Fort Lowell Park were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.    The museum is handicap accessible, kid and pet friendly, as well.  Admission to the museum and the park is free. Regular museum hours are 10 to 4, Thursday through Saturday.  For more information go to,  call (520) 885-3832 or write 2900 N. Craycroft Road Tucson, Arizona 85712 

In accordance with current CDC guidelines, the museum is  temporarily closed to the public but staff is working remotely.  For the latest information go to the Arizona Historical Society website above.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.