Skeleton Canyon
Outlaw Trail of the "Bootheel"

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

Several miles north of Apache, Arizona, a rock pylon breaks the flat landscape along SR 80. A brass plaque identifies the location nearby of one of the Southwest's most important events: Geronimo's final surrender to General Miles in 1886 that essentially ended the decades-long Indian Wars. Just south of the monument, a rugged dirt road leads east and southeast into some of North America's most rugged country, crossing the border with New Mexico to the actual surrender site – Skeleton Canyon, an ancient dry wash wandering across the arid land.

The surrender site is marked by a six foot-tall rock cairn, placed there by the troopers who witnessed the end of the vengeful old warrior's bloody career. Interestingly, the site is on private land and almost adjacent to the ranch headquarters.

Important as the event was, Skeleton Canyon's history is far more colorful than that sad incident. Some of the most famous names in Old West history have ridden the canyon's dry bed and left some of the Old West's most hair-raising tales along its course. Here, almost lost to memory, is one of the most historic sites of the Old West's story.

The canyon connects the Animas Valley in New Mexico's "bootheel" with the┬áSan Simon Valley in Arizona and has always presented a convenient and hidden route into and out of Mexico for smugglers, cattle rustlers, gunmen, and adventurers of every stripe and color. The canyon's name is not a frivolous one; over a hundred people have died in it – most of them violently – and for many years it was not unusual to find human bones lying about. And it's certain that others have yet to be found.

New Mexico's "bootheel" has been a place of violence and intrigue for European invaders and Apache defenders for two centuries – and not necessarily against each other. Many of Louis L'Amour's most popular novels are based on characters and events in that desolate and remote region.

The Skeleton Canyon Massacres – there were two of them – involved some very well known Old West characters, as we shall see.

In 1879, a group of American outlaws attacked a rancho in Mexico's northern Sonora State, then retreated across the border and up the canyon. Several Mexican "rurales," commanded by one Capitan Alfredo Carillo, followed, illegally crossing the border. As they entered the canyon, shots rang out from the hidden outlaws; only three rurales survived, including Capitan Carillo. Among the ambushers were none other than Johnny Ringo, Old Man Clanton, Billy Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius, Florentino Cruz, and others – household names to anyone knowledgeable about the Wild West.

The other "massacre" happened in 1881 when Curly Bill Brocius learned that several Mexican smugglers known as the Estrada Gang were hauling silver loot through the canyon enroute to the Tucson area. Brocius gathered the usual suspects, including Ringo, Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, Billy Grounds, and Zwig Hunt. They ambushed and killed every one of the nineteen smugglers and their 26 mules near a rock formation known as "Devil's Kitchen."

The second massacre led to the legend of the "Skeleton Canyon Treasure," yet another bloody canyon tale of buried treasure. There was no way to transport the loot, which was said to have consisted of thousands of pesos in silver coin and a box full of diamonds and jewelry. Since they had killed all the mules, the treasure was buried after each man took a share. Later, back in Tombstone, one of the bushwhackers, Jim Hughes, planned a double-cross. He recruited Zwig Hunt and Billy Grounds to move the treasure to a new hiding place while he "entertained" the others. Hunt and Grounds hired a Mexican teamster to help move the treasure, then killed and buried both him and his mules and burned his wagon. Both men then went into hiding and were eventually killed in their own unsuccessful outlaw careers, but not before Hunt had drawn a crude map and managed to mail it to his family in San Antonio. The Hunt family searched the canyon for years, finding nothing with the useless map. An earthquake had obliterated some landmarks and had stopped the flow of water in springs that were marked on the map.

In truth, the bushwhackers probably realized only a small fortune each, as there was never any record of thefts in Mexico that would have contributed to such a large treasure. It is most likely that the outlaws blew their shares on women, whiskey, and cards in Tombstone's sordid nightlife.

Interestingly, in 1891 a couple of riders discovered a leather pouch in the canyon containing several thousand dollars in Mexican coins. Perhaps the treasure might be real, after all

In August of that year, Old Man Clanton and several rustlers were ambushed and slain where they slept near Guadalupe Canyon, less than three months before the epic gunfight at the OK Corral. Historians believe Clanton was killed by Mexican rurales led by the vengeful Capitan Carillo, the survivor of the first Skeleton Canyon Massacre.

So, it was to this storied place that Geronimo agreed, at the encouragement of Lt. Charles Gatewood, to meet with General Nelson Miles and surrender his tiny surviving band of Chiracaua Apache warriors and join the rest of his people in the unimaginable imprisonment of far-away Florida. That pile of rocks at the surrender site and the rock pylon by the highway are the only reminders of one of the most important of the Old West's remarkable stories.

Traywick, Ben T.; Showdown: Wyatt Earp vs. Curly Bill; Western Outlaw, Dec. 2009