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Frontier Days of the Southwest

Duncan figured significantly in the tragic and bloody end of the Apache reign over the Southwest’s lower plains and mountains. Much of this local history was painstakingly preserved by the family of Jennie Parks Ringgold, daughter of pioneers from Texas who helped settle the Duncan Valley in the late 19th century. Her memoirs, collected under the title Frontier Days in the Southwest, have been kept in print by her descendants. The book is sold at the Duncan Library and is worth every penny of its $20 price (the profits support the library).

Frontier Days Book Cover

"As early as 1871, the Arizona legislature had memorialized Congress for protection, suggesting that the industrious race of prehistoric people had probably departed from the Gila Valley because of the Apaches, that the white settlers would undoubtedly meet a similar fate if they were not better protected, and that the Indians were not yet thoroughly subjugated by military power.

The older members of our family recall instances when the soldiers were hot on the trail of the Apaches, but would have to stop and await orders, thus giving the Indians a chance to escape. Consequently the Indians considered themselves masters of all the vast area of Arizona and New Mexico. In the early part of April, 1885, the citizens of Duncan decided to form a volunteer organization for the protection of the people in the little towns of their section of Arizona. As Father had been a great admirer of the Texas Rangers before he came to the southwestern frontier, he wanted a similar organization. He was familiar with the regulations governing such a company and knew what it could do. But at that time militia companies were being organized in different regions in Arizona, and the majority of the settlers wanted the Duncan group to be a militia company.

On March 8, 1881, Governor Trittle succeeded Governor Fremont. A militia company was organized in Duncan and was taken in as a unit of the First Regiment of the territorial militia. It was mustered into service late in May by Lieutenant-Colonel M.J. Egan, commanding officer of both the Duncan and the Clifton companies.

When the Duncan Militia Company was on the field, as it was on many occasions, the men could be depended upon to continue pursuit of the Indians every time the enemy came into that section of the country. But the wives of the militiamen spent miserable and agonizing days and nights while their men-folk were out on the trail. Alone with their small children, the women were fearful always that their family might be massacred, or that their husbands would not return.

Many nights these women slept in Father's adobe corral with their children. This high-walled corral was built to serve as a fort, with portholes on all sides to shoot from. A few men were always assigned to guard duty there when the militia was called away. But the corral was 50 yards from the house, and in case of a surprise attack the mothers feared that they could never get all the children safely across that strip of ground between house and corral. So they were willing to put up with all kinds of discomfort to sleep in safety.

About the time the militia was mustered in, but before the commissions were signed, the greatest Indian outbreak occurred. On May 17, 1885, several hundred Apaches left the San Carlos reservation and went on the warpath. Though the militia was still a volunteer organization, orders came from the headquarters of the territorial militia in Prescott for the Clifton and Duncan companies to engage in active service in the protection of the citizens of Graham County [Greenlee County had not yet split off from Graham] from the hostile Indians. Colonel Egan was to direct the movements of the two companies, taking his orders from General George Crook.

At that time the Indians were becoming very bold. One night a band of the hostiles passing through the country went into the field surrounding the home of Henry Collins, who owned a small farm at the edge of Duncan, and killed his work team by cutting the animals' throats. The Indians then stole a span of little mules belonging to Nels Mattison, a Dane whose farm joined Mr. Collins' field.

Sometime after midnight, a Duncan resident left the saloon and started home. He caught sight of a man on a side street and called out: You're out late tonight.” Receiving no reply, he decided that the man did not want to be recognized. But the next morning, when moccasin tracks were found in that side street and in other sections of the town, he knew that he had seen one of the Indians that had lurked about town in the night. Outside the window of the room where three of my brothers, Jim, Will and Olin, were sleeping, at least one Indian had stood and peered inside.

A number of horses were stolen from the settlers that night, and next morning the militia started in pursuit, crowding the hostiles so hard that they abandoned some of the horses along the trail, among them Mattison's span of mules. But the Indians managed to evade the militia and escaped into the mountains.

After the Duncan Militia Company was organized, it was almost constantly in the field trying to track down the savages who had killed settlers or stolen their stock. For a year and a half following the Apache outbreak on May 17, 1885, the Indians did not return to the reservation. Until Geronimo surrendered, they were constantly on the warpath, murdering settlers, both whites and Mexicans, in southwestern New Mexico, southern Arizona and northern Mexico. When pursued, they would take refuge in their strongholds in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico, where they spent much of their time between raids. During that year and a half, over fifty white and Mexican people around Duncan, Clifton and Carlisle, and on the Blue and Gila Rivers, were killed by the Indians. The savages never fought in the open and would not engage in battle unless the odds were greatly in their favor. They would fight from ambush or from rocky peaks and canyons, always an unseen foe. A number of times, the Duncan company was so close on their trail that they hostiles would scatter, eluding the company. Then they would proceed separately to some designated place. They were excellent walkers, capable of covering long distances at a time."

Ringgold's story goes on to tell of a battle from which her father returned with an Indian baby boy still in his papoose carrier, his parents having been killed in the fight. The baby was adopted by a family called Adams that raised him as their own, first in Duncan and then in Solomonville.

Later that year, several murders of settlers by Apaches near Duncan brought General George Crook to focus on the roles of trails and hide-outs in the Upper Gila. He wrote at the time, "The country is so indescribably rough that any pursuit is almost a farce.”

But heightened tensions drove an increasingly successful campaign against the enemy, and by 1886 the Indian Wars were ended.