At the western edge of the Pinal Mountains is the small town of Superior. It is a true "gem" because of its unique history.
The region in which Superior is located once was roamed primarily by small bands of Yavapai Indians. The most important band was known as "Kewevkapaya," meaning "people of the east." They were very good friends with the neighboring Athapascan-speaking Apaches, but the languages were completely unrelated. In time, the Yavapai began to be known as the "Mohave-Apaches" because of their close friendship with the Athapascan-speakers.
The Mohave Apaches were just as courageous in defending their lands as were the San Carlos Apaches, but during the Indian wars of the latter part of the nineteenth century they suffered huge losses. One of the most interesting stories of the Kewevkapaya is that of Hoo-moo-thy-ah, a young boy who lost his entire family at the massacre of Skull Cave. Only a few Kewevkapaya descendants still remain. Some of them are located on the San Carlos Reservation, and others live on the Fort McDowell Yavapai-Apache Reservation near Mesa. Perhaps no more than one hundred Yavapai still speak the old language.
In November 1870 the first significant settlement by white men was made in what was later to be called Superior. In that month General George Stoneman, commanding officer of troops in Arizona against the Indians, built a small camp at the base of what the Mexicans called "Tordillo" Mountain. The soldiers began calling the butte "Picket Post," because they used it as a sentinel point to guard their settlement. At the foot of Picket Post they began constructing a pack-mule trail towards the Pinal Mountains.
The troops started their mule trail at "Infantry Camp" at the foot of Picket Post and then extended it into Picket Post Creek (later called Queen Creek). The trail then crossed Devil's Canyon (named by the troops) and halted at a post they intended to build in what was then called "Mason's Valley" (later, Camp Pinal). The valley area is now known as "Top-of-the-World" or "Sutton's Summit."
By April 1871 the mule trail and post were both completed. General Stoneman planned on making Camp Pinal his headquarters, but the project was abandoned after General George Crook replaced General Stoneman because of the Camp Grant Massacre of April 1871. By August of that year General Crook abandoned the post, and only the mule trail was left to indicate the intended ambitious presence of U.S. soldiers.
Even today the only physical reminder of the early military history of the Superior region is the old mule trail. It was dubbed "Stoneman's Grade" by the troops and can still be seen across the gorge of Queen Creek from Highway 60. It was quite an engineering feat, but it takes sharp eyes to recognize it today.
There is, however, still another, if not physical, reminder of the early presence U.S. troops in the region. The origins of the "Apache Leap" legend can be traced to these troops. Although no official record exists of a skirmish between troops and Indians at what is now called Apache Leap, it is very likely that the legend has basis in fact. The legend relates that "Apache" warriors were trapped on the large rock ledge by cavalry troops from Camp Pinal. Rather than surrender, however, about 75 of the warriors leaped off the cliff to their deaths. It was because of this incident that the cliff became known as "Apache Leap." Fragments of translucent obsidian embedded in perlite that can be found in abundance not far from the cliff are often called "Apache Tears" by residents of Arizona, in token of the legend.
Immediately after abandonment of the region by the military, prospectors and ranchers began to arrive. For example, Camp Pinal was resettled by the Craig family, and descendants of the family remained owners of that area for about 100 years. The original ranch house built by the Craigs in the 1870s still stands. Many tales are based upon incidents that occurred on the old ranch.
In 1875 the prospectors William Long and Isaac Copeland passed through the Superior area on their way to one of the earliest prospects in the Globe region the "Globe Ledge" (1873). On their way to the ledge they found a chunk of black rock and immediately recognized it as pure silver. The boom mine of Silver King, the richest silver mine in Arizona history, was thus born. By 1878 a town of about two thousand residents had grown up at the foot of Picket Post Mountain, and a smelter had already been constructed. In 1879 the town's name was changed from "Picket Post" to "Pinal," or "Pinal City."
Pinal City and the Silver King Mine became the destination of hundreds of miners. Among those who visited were some of the old West's most notorious characters, including Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
Earp's consort at the time was Cely Ann "Mattie" Blaylock, and, for some reason, she wished to return to Pinal City in the last years of its existence (late 1880s). After the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone between the Earps and the Clantons (and others) in 1882, the relationship between Wyatt and Mattie began to deteriorate. As Mattie became more and more dependent upon booze and "laudanum" (an opium-derived drug), Wyatt became more interested in another woman, Josephine Marcus.
On 4 July 1888 Mattie Blaylock, age 38, was found dead in her apartment in Pinal City, after she had spent the night drinking and dosing on the laudanum. An empty bottle of the drug was found at her side. She had died alone, spurned and forgotten, in a town that was itself to disappear that very same year. The Silver King had "played out," and Pinal City was no more by the end of the year. (More material about Mattie can be found on my Wyatt Earp page.)
There was, however, another mine not far from the Silver King that did not fail in the 1880s. The Silver Queen had begun in 1881 as a silver mine also, but it gradually became a better producer of copper. A settlement formed around the mine, and by 1900 the townsite of Superior was laid out by George Lobb.
In 1904 the town had many tents and a few primitive board houses. In 1910 the Magma Copper Company took over the Silver Queen properties and began to develop them into large-scale producers. A huge smelter was constructed in 1914 and continued successful operation until 1981, when copper mining began to diminish in the Superior area. Copper mining finally ceased altogether in Superior in 1995.
One of the most interesting spots in Arizona is located near Superior (in fact, on the exact location of old Pinal City). In 1923 one of the mining engineers of Magma, Boyce Thompson, moved to Superior to better oversee operations. He purchased the land where Pinal City had been and initiated a pet project of his own: an arboretum. Some residents of nearby Superior felt he was trying to gain control of a vast mineral treasure that they believed lay under Picket Post Mountain (never proven). But, Thompson's arboretum has become a real treasure of its own. The Boyce Thompson Southwest Arboretum was created between 1923 and 1929, but it has been continually improved since. It is now recognized as one of the world's most important arboretums. More than 6000 plant species from every continent can be found there. It is also a refuge for 150 kinds of birds and 40 other wildlife species. It is truly one of the great treasures, among many, located near the Pinal Mountains.
Granger, Byrd H. Arizona's Names. Tucson: Treasure Chest Publications, 1983.
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