The turn-of-the-century West was a violent time and place, and Arizona was no exception. Inhabitants of the western territories butted heads over land ownership, grazing rights and the laws of the land. Railroads, ranchers, miners, towns folk, cattlemen, Native Americans farmers and herders, and law officers were involved in episodic incidents of violence - frontier gunfights, range wars, vigilante movements. The level of violence in the Old West may have surpassed violence in eastern cities like New York and Boston.
The Padre Canyon Incident happened 104 years ago, but the story of this colorful shoot-out is still fresh in the retelling. This tale of the Old West has every element of drama and courage - an outraged Anglo rancher, an avenging sheriff's posse, a Navajo deer hunting party going about their business, a white missionary who rose up to defend them and a territorial judge who dared to acquit the Navajo men.
The tale as told at the Museum of Northern Arizona is "Tolchaco — Violence, Courage, Justice," a new exhibit opening Sunday. The show features approximately 35 historic photographs from the collections of Richard E. Sloan and Philip Johnston that were donated to the permanent collection of the Museum of Northern Arizona Archive.
The photographs illustrate parts of the history of this shoot-out that was the last and one of the bloodiest incidents of the so-called "range wars" between Anglos and Native Americans in Coconino County when Arizona was a territory. The photos also document the aftermath which included a Navajo Roundup of celebration at a spot northeast of Leupp.
"It's kind of neat that we have two different collections which tie into the same story," said Tony Marinella, MNA photographer and photo archivist. "For me, the whole Padre Canyon Incident, the fascinating part, is how many historic stories have come about because of this one incident. There are many accounts of the same story, with slight variations. There's no way to pin down whose remembrance is the most accurate. It's ambiguous —the more I dig into it, the more stories I hear."
One thing is crystal clear, despite the tensions and loss of life, the episode proved to be a positive turning point in the difficult relationship between ranch owners and Native Americans in northern Arizona.
The Nov. 18, 1899 edition of the Coconino Sun published a lurid account with a bold headline of a "Fight with Navajoes," which told in detail the Anglo side of the shoot-out and how "Officers make a brave stand against odds of two to one."
It all began when a four-member posse of cowboys and county lawmen saddled up early on Nov. 11, 1899, and rode out of Flagstaff in pursuit of a five-man Navajo hunting party that had allegedly rustled horses belonging to William Roden Jr., a rancher who grazed stock on land near Grand Falls on the Little Colorado River. Other accounts said that one of Roden's cowboys had been roughed up by two Navajos, or that Navajo hunters had killed deer out of season on county forest lands. The exact cause of the posse expedition is shrouded in the dim mist of history.
Whatever the reason for the pursuit, the posse rode into a Navajo camp, some 35 miles southwest of Flagstaff, and a lethal skirmish followed in Padre Canyon. When the gunsmoke cleared, two of Navajo hunters and 19-year-old Roden ranch hand W. A. Montgomery were dead.
News of the deadly encounter reached Flagstaff and the Navajo Reservation. Emotions in Flagstaff and on the reservation ran high in the days following the killings. People feared some sort of violent reprisal in a land where disagreements over the use of former railroad lands were common place.
As townspeople in Flagstaff nervously watched the east for the arrival of avenging war parties, Navajo leaders in Tuba City expected an attack from armed Anglos.
"The Navajo were living on some of the land that the Anglo cattle people moved into and there was obviously going to be conflict," said Flagstaff resident Jerry Snow, 64, a retired forest service employee who has spent the last seven years researching this poignant period of local history. "The Navajo have a totally different concept of ownership and land. From the Anglo point of view, every other section were railroad land and every other section was public domain. You could made claims on public domain land, or make offers to railroads for railroad land."
Rev. Johnston acted as mediator between the Navajo and the authorities in Flagstaff. He promised the accused Native Americans that he would make sure they received an adequate defense. The three remaining Navajos agreed to surrender.
They were tried at the Coconino County Courthouse in Flagstaff in September, 1900. A critically injured Navajo, Haastiin Biwoo Adin, passionately addressed presiding territorial Judge Richard E. Sloan. Johnston's son, Philip, 9, translated the speech for the judge. Impressed with the Navajo's stature and words, Judge Sloan found all the Navajo men innocent. On Sept. 20, they were acquitted of all charges.
The outcome of The Padre Canyon Incident had important consequences for modern northern Arizona.
The subsequent murder trial led to the addition of the Leupp Extension lands being permanently added to the Navajo Reservation, and the founding of a Christian mission at Tolchaco, just south of Leupp, by Rev. Johnston.
"The Navajo really put their trust in the word of this missionary, W. R. Johnston, that he would make sure that they would get a fair trial," said Snow. "It's important that they were acquitted in a town that was mostly made up of ranchers and lumber people who had not looked favorably on the Indians prior to the trial."
As a result of the acquittals, tension eased between Anglo ranchers and Navajos.
The incident got a lot of publicity, Snow said, and news went all the way to Washington D.C. In October, Johnston and a contingent of interested parties, met with President Theodore Roosevelt. They carried a map showing where the Navajos lived and how long they could remember their ancestors being there. Philip Johnston translated the Navajo message for the president.
"When they left, they felt the president was on their side," said Snow.
The president issued an executive order on Nov. 14, 1901, setting aside the land between the Hopi reservation and the Colorado River and putting it into the Navajo reservation boundaries. These lands became known as the Leupp Extension, named after Roosevelt's Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Francis Leupp.
As a gesture of appreciation for Rev. Johnston's mediation efforts, Leupp residents invited him and his family to establish a mission settlement at Tolchaco, seven miles downstream from the present-day community of Leupp on the Little Colorado River.
Judge Sloan's thank you is a special celebration rodeo in his honor, held at "the Fields," a gathering spot northeast of Leupp.
Photographs in the exhibit show the two men's adventures on Native American lands, including pictures Sloan took from the Hopi Snake Dance at Walpi.
Strands of history entwine years later when little Philip Johnston, now fully grown and a WW I veteran, suggests to the U.S. Marines that they consider using the Navajo language as the basis for an unbreakable code for use against the Japanese in the Pacific during WW 11.
They agreed, and the rest is history.
After floods and a 1918 fire, the mission at Tolchaco was abandoned. Today, only fragments of the original building foundations remain.
Museum notes on display with the photographs include commentary by Rev. Johnston and excerpts from accounts of the time. The photographs in the show are in black and white, and range in size from 16 x 20 inches to 4 x 5 feet. They were digitally reproduced from original prints.
"Tolchaco — Violence, Courage, Justice" opens Sunday and runs through May 18, 2003.
— Arizona Daily Sun