Richinbar Mine

Richinbar Mine
Richinbar Mine - Photo from 1940 - Courtesy of Arizona Geologic Survey files

Sunday, June 19, 2011

John B. Townsend - Arizona Pioneer and Indian Fighter

Photo of John B. Townsend

This story begins with a non-descript hill, named Townsend Butte, located near Cleator, Arizona, about halfway between Crown King and the I-17 freeway.  Although I have driven past the hill hundreds of times, and scrambled to the top to view an Indian ruin more than 10 years ago, I never knew the story behind the hill’s name.  The steep slopes, the lack of any trails, and acres of loose rock would discourage all but the most motivated hikers from venturing to the top.

Townsend Butte with Dripping Spring at the Upper Right Corner

A cursory internet search yielded the name John Townsend, along with a few brief newspaper articles.  My curiosity was peaked when a friend informed me of the local legend: John Townsend was killed by Indians at the top of the butte.  A good murder mystery is suitable motivation for a historical research project.  My initial questions were:
1-     Why was Townsend killed by the Indians?
2-     Was their some reason for the murder occurring at this location?

I was skeptical about the location of the killing based on my experience scrambling up the steep slopes 10 years ago:  how could a murder occur at the top of such a formidable defensive position?

Here is the story of John B. Townsend:

The following is excerpted from:
“The Townsend Expedition”, by James N. Barney and
“John B. Townsend His Fame Was the Indians He Killed”, by Claudette Simpson  Sept 20, 1974 Prescott Courier

John Townsend left Bernard County (around 1868), Texas with a wagon train of several other families.  He brought his wife, a four-year-old daughter, and a two-year-old son as far as Prescott.  Here he settled on a ranch at Agua Fria and raised grain and hay which he sold to the government.

The Indians were hostile to the newcomers in Yavapai County then and townspeople thought Townsend a brave man to settle in an isolated region and withstand Indian attacks.  Often he was the only man on the place and defended his family with a double-barreled muzzle-loading shotgun.  He couldn’t get shots for his gun so he hammered lead balls out and cut them into slugs about as big as a grain of corn.

On the 5th day of June, 1871, a large band of hostile Indians made an attack on the ranch of Bowers Brothers, Herbert and Nathan, located on the Agua Fria River, about 20 miles from Prescott.  The savages killed one of the two herders and ran off about 137 head of horses, mules and cattle;  the other herder escaped and, eluding the Indians reached the ranch with word of the attack.

The Indians had no sooner obtained possession of the herd that a messenger was dispatched to convey news of the outrage to the people of Prescott.  Another courier was sent to Camp Verde asking for help from the commander of the military forces stationed there.  Upon receipt of the news at Prescott, a party of eleven citizens volunteered their services to go in pursuit of the Apaches, and about midnight this little force was already mounted and on the way to the scene of the depredation.  Arriving at the Agua Fria settlement they were joined by a party of five citizens from that valley, and early the following morning the whole force, sixteen determined and experienced Indian fighters, under the leadership of John B. Townsend, took up the trail of the savages, which they followed for a distance of 35 miles.

Soon after leaving camp the next morning, the 7th, they met a detachment of troops from Camp Verde, also in pursuit of the same Indians.  The soldiers were under the command of Lieutenant Charles Morton, and after a brief conference between the military and civil leaders, the two pursuing forces were combined under the command of Lieutenant Morton and the pursuit at once resume with fresh vigor and encouragement.  After traveling 25 miles to the Verde River, the command went into camp at a late hour in the evening.  On the evening of the 8th they again took up the trail, which they followed for a distance of 20 miles, and at one o’cloock in the afternoon came upon a good-sized Apache rancheria, which they quickly surrounded and attacked, killing 31 of its…dwellers…They came upon (more Apaches) after crossing the divide between Big Verde and Tonto Creek, and a desperate fight immediately ensued, which resulted in the killing of 23…Indians…

The Prescott portion of the citizen volunteers reached home on Sunday morning, the 18th, and brought the first tidings of the great success attending the pursuit.  The news that the raiding Indians had been overtaken and fifty-six of their number killed, spread quickly and preparations were immediately set on foot by Prescott citizens for the property celebration of the event…In consideration of the great service he had thus rendered the Territory he was presented by Prescott citizens, on Thursday, June 22, 1871, with a beautiful Henry rifle, of the latest improved patent, as a token of their esteem.  On one side of the stock was a silver plate…which bore the following inscription:  Presented to J.B. Townsend By the citizens of Prescott, June, 1871, HONOR THE BRAVE!

But time was running out for the Indian fighter.  Perhaps he sensed it.  Ed Wright related this scene in his letter.  “Along in the late fall, after I burned out, we heard the government was going to sell government horses at Camp Verde.  Your father, Theodore Boggs, and myself went over to Camp Verde to the sale to buy some horses, as I hadn’t been able to buy any since I had my horse and mule burned up by the Indians.  Just before we got to the edge of the camp, there were a bunch of Indians, old men and old squaws and three or four young squaws with a lot of children ranging from little babies up to 14 or 15 years old.

“I don’t know whether they were brought in by the soldiers or come in from starvation, and as we rode by they were pointing toward your father and Boggs said, ‘John, they are taking about you,’ and your father said, ‘Yes, they know me.’  I told him they would get him.  He said, ‘If you and Theodore are here when they get me, I want you to look after Lizzie and the children till they are provided for.”

They got him.  The date was September 16, 1873.  Single-handed he left the ranch to trail eight Indians who had raided his home garden on the Agua Fria River.  According to an interview years later with his daughter, his last words to his wife and children who had left the house to pick green beans were, “don’t go any farther than the fields”.  He was never seen alive again.

Townsend followed the small band of Indians.  He climbed a mountain in order to see farther and at the highest point, Dripping Springs, he was slayed with bullets.  From the locations of the wounds he must have died immediately…He was found by a party of his fellow scouts who took the trail of the horse and followed it back…

Dripping Springs is somewhat like the lime formation of Montezuma’s Well.  Townsend had evidently ridden around the rim rock above and had dismounted and stopped on the very edge to look over the country with his field glass.  He was shot by some Indians in the cliffs below.  He fell back with arms outspread.  When the party found him his hat was over his eyes, the field glass was about 20 feet away from the body and his gun was gone, but had evidently fallen over the cliff as he fell back.  Townsend was buried where he fell, but his body was later taken to Prescott and given a Masonic burial.

I have included recent photos that were taken from the top of the sandstone cliffs directly above Dripping Springs.  From this vantage point, you can look south to see Townsend Butte (photo 1), and look down to see Dripping Springs (grove of trees) and Townsend Butte in the distance (photo 2).

The lyrics of my new song pose the question, “Was it anger, fear, or hatred that drove him to the end?”  We will never know the answer to this question, but we can understand the tragic consequences that result whenever a person is driven to extreme behavior which is ultimately self-destructive.  Although he was acclaimed as a famous Indian scout and fighter in Territorial Arizona, our historical perspective leads us to ask questions that will remain unanswered.  Was it anger, fear, or hatred that drove him to the end?

Stay tuned for my new song.  I will post it later this week.


  1. Wow, Bob. You are amazing. Linda at AHF thinks so, too. Seems like a revenge killing. Townsend had crossed a dangerous line. Attempt at payback. But these things never even out. FF

  2. My research suggests that it was hatred (perhaps from PTSD--He was wounded & his brother killed in the Civil War.)

    One thing that Townsend did that set him apart from other Indian fighters is that he would go out at night during the new moon, by himself--just to find Indians to kill whether there was a recent raid or not.

    Some of the original source material is even more distressing. The killing of Indian babies, for example. Frankly, I believe this man was a serial killer of Indians.

    My argument is here: