Tonto Apaches Long Journey Home – Part 3

The Struggle For a Home Continues

The primary stumbling block to land acquisition for the Tonto Apaches was the Secretary of Interior’s recommendation to deny tribal status.  His suggestion was to refuse any government services and to prohibit calling acquired land a reservation.

In the eyes of the Secretary of the Interior, the Apaches in Payson were detached members of the San Carlos tribe.  (A number of Tonto Apache names still appeared on San Carlos roles due to their days of confinement at that  reservation).  The Secretary held that they could only receive federal benefits if they moved back to San Carlos.  The San Carlos Indians did not want the Payson band on their reservation…nor did the Payson band want to live there.

The theory that the Payson band was comprised of immigrants from the San Carlos reservation was refuted by a study funded by a grant from the Doris Duke American Indian Foundation (through the Arizona State Museum in Tucson).  Anthropologist Nickolas Houser collected oral histories from Indians and non-Indians in Payson, Middle Verde, and San Carlos.  Mr Houser gathered information from the U.S. Forest service, the State Archives of Arizona, Yavapai and Gila County court records, Payson precinct records and private collections.  His study supported an ancestral claim to the forest land occupied by the Payson band.

When the press became interested in the situation, news articles appeared reporting the plight of the “lost tribe of Payson”.  The “cranky attitude of the Department of the Interior” was cited as the holdup in resolving the issue.  Finally and amended version of H. R. 3337 passed leaving the door open for tribal status and reservation land to be acquired.

On October 6, 1972 President Richard Nixon signed into law a bill giving the Payson band title to an 85 acre reservation in the Tonto National Forest, as well as federal status and benefits.


Part 3 of a 3 part series.


  • Rim Country History by Northern Gila County Historical Society; pgs 4-5
  • Ten for the Tonto (Correspondence of Doris Sturgis relating to the quest for tribal status and a reservation for the Tontos of Payson); NGCHS Archives
  • Nickolas Houser Interview of Melton Campbell, October 18, 1970; NGCHS Archives
  • Ancestral Study Backs Steiger in Payson Apache Land Claim by Doris Sturgis; AZ Republic; July 18, 1971
  • The Story of Payson – Chapter 44: The Neighbors on the Hill by Stan Brown; Rim Review; June 23, 2010