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The Wickenburg Massacre Site – An Enduring Mystery

At approximately 8:00 a.m. on the morning of November 5th, 1871, a stagecoach carrying seven passengers and driver was ambushed eight miles west of Wickenburg while en- route to Culling’s Well, Ehrenburg and San Bernardino. This event, which led to the death of seven people, quickly became the center of national attention. The driver and five male passengers were either killed instantly or died within minutes of the attack. Two wounded passengers (William Kruger and Mollie Sheppard) made a harrowing escape and were picked up by an eastbound mail wagon approximately five miles west of the ambush site after being pursued by nine members of the ambush party. Mollie Sheppard died from infected wounds some time after January 11, 1872. Of the eight souls involved in the ambush, only William Kruger survived. [Reference 1]

Evidence, (some of which was circumstantial and conflicted), eventually led the Territorial Army to attribute the attack to a band of “Apache-Mohave” Indians from the Date Creek Reservation. This group, which would actually have been members of the Yavapai tribe, numbered at least thirteen; but may have been comprised of thirty or more. Yet, although the attack and its aftermath were investigated and heavily reported, many of the details pertaining to the incident are an enduring mystery. Many of the news articles were misinformed or speculative and were written by people who had no direct connection with the events of November 5th; but which served to inflame public sentiment against Native Americans. [Reference 2]

Based upon a letter that Kruger wrote to Loring’s family, five of the men who died at the scene were reportedly buried in Wickenburg on November 6th, three hours after a hastily called inquest. The sixth man, William Salmon, was not discovered until the morning of the 6th and was reportedly buried in a “deep cut in the hillside.” [Reference 3] Later reports claim that his remains were exhumed from the hillside and laid next to the other five men several weeks or months later. For unexplained reasons, the local graves of these men were reportedly “disturbed” in 1949 and then disappeared from local records.

The original location of their presumed graves in Wickenburg is a matter of some conjecture, but would likely have been either the Stone Park Cemetery or the so-called “Lumber Yard” Cemetery next to the present location of the Wickenburg Sun — since no other cemeteries were known to exist at that time. In the years that followed, the remains were said to have been exhumed and reinterred at least twice to new locations. The last re-interment may have returned the remains to the original site of the ambush — at least according to legend. Unfortunately, any records that could explain the reasons for moving these burials from the original cemetery are now lost in time. [Reference 4]

The “Wickenburg Massacre” has long been a cornerstone in the history and legend of our town, yet very few people know where the ambush actually occurred. [Reference 5]

The Route from Wickenburg to the Massacre

According to historical accounts, the stagecoach arrived at Wickenburg from Prescott around midnight on November 4th, 1871. It was scheduled to depart at 7:00 a.m. on the morning of November 5th on a westerly route, that would take it to Culling’s Well (in Centennial Wash, west of present-day Aguila), Ehrenburg, and then to San Bernardino. Most of the passengers had travel plans that would take them to San Francisco via Los Angeles.

The “roads” in the 1870 period of territorial Arizona would more aptly be characterized as stage coach and wagon trails that followed paths of least resistance. In other words, if it was easier to pull a horse-drawn wagon through or across a section of dry wash, that was the road. Where it became easier or necessary to rise above the wash, the road followed that path. Horse people reliably tell me that long stretches of sand can be very tiring for horses and the narrow stage coach wheels would increase resistance in soft or sandy soil. Thus, washes would have been used when no better alternative was available.

Such was the case for the route from Wickenburg to Culling’s Well. The stage coach road led west through (or alongside) Sol’s Wash to a point northwest of the airport. From there it branched into a smaller wash that would pass north of Black Mountain and descend into the Aguila Valley. This trail, which is still visible in old aerial photographs, made frequent use of flat, hard-pack areas alongside the washes; but also utilized the sandy bottom. The distance from Sol’s Wash at Tegner Street to the ambush site is 8.05 miles. [Reference 6]

Stage coaches of that era were pulled by a team of four horses and could travel approximately eight miles per hour. They would have arrived at their waypoint destination at Culling’s Well, (a distance of 36 miles), no later than noon of that day. Assuming that the coach left Wickenburg at the scheduled time, it would have arrived at the massacre site at about 8:00 a.m., as reported by Kruger and Sheppard.

The Ambush Site

Approximately 200 yards southeast of the ambush site, the stage coach road emerges from the wash onto a hard pack flat area and follows a path on the southwest side of the wash. At this point the wash begins to “fragment” into several narrow fingers, which would have made passage more difficult. So, at this location the stage coach would have been between a hillside (to the west and south) and a narrow finger of the wash to the east and north (right side of the stage coach). In Figure 1 the stage road extends from right to left, where it approaches the ambush site. The lower finger of the wash appears in the middle right of the photo before it drops from view because of a steep bank.

Stage Coach Road
Figure 1: Stage Coach Road South of Massacre Site

The steep bank measures about three feet in height as it nears the site of the ambush. See Figure 2. In this photo the stage road is now to the right (south and west) of the bank. The trail is partially visible in the upper right corner, as shown below.

The Wash Bank
Figure 2: The Wash

If this is indeed near the site of the attack, it would have been very easy for members of an ambush party to conceal themselves along the edge of this bank until the coach, traveling at a slow speed, would have reached a minimum distance from the bank. In fact, the trail comes to within fifteen feet of the wash just a few yards west (right) of the photo. It is possible that some of the attackers could have been positioned along this bank and fired into the rear of the stage coach from behind. However, most (if not all) of the wounds sustained in the initial attack suggest that the ambush party was positioned on high ground to the south of the trail. There were seventeen bullet entry points in the cabin of the coach — none of which were fired from the north (right) side of the coach. Physical evidence at the ambush site and statements by Kruger and Sheppard indicate that the primary point of attack came from the south. The two wounded survivors made their escape from the coach on the north side into the wash shown above.

Graves at Ambush Site
Figure 3: Graves at Ambush Site

Too Many Graves..?

Figure 3 shows a partial view of graves at the apparent site of the ambush. The rock pile with the wood cross is believed to be the grave of Frederick Loring, who was riding on top of the stage coach with the driver, “Dutch” John Lance, and another passenger, Charles Adams. There are additional graves to the left, uphill beyond the cross, and behind the photo. The most distant grave from “Loring’s cross” is roughly 120 feet to the northeast (behind and right of the photo) and may belong to William Salmon. Records clearly indicate that he was killed very near to that location. He may have been buried (or re-interred) at this spot.

The problem is — there are too many graves. No less than ten graves have been identified, but six men were killed at the scene, reportedly taken from the site, and buried in Wickenburg. Although Mollie Sheppard eventually died from her wounds, she was last known to be in San Francisco with Kruger on January 11th, 1872, more than nine weeks after the ambush. The circumstances and date of her subsequent death were not recorded and she had no family connections in the U.S. Kruger apparently did not report her death until twenty-nine months after her passing, but never provided any verifiable details.

To compound the problem, there are six to eight additional graves located south- southeast of this site at a distance ranging from fifty to 150 yards. Without proper context, this is an exceedingly unusual location for eighteen graves. There is no physical evidence that a settlement was ever established here before or after the ambush. Stage coach and freight wagon robberies, which occurred with depressing regularity during the gold rush days, may account for some or all of these surplus graves. However, there are no known records that establish killings other than the November 5th ambush.

There is a second problem with the view in Figure 3. This site is indeed located next to a hillside, but the eastern slope of the hill is very gentle at this point and (assuming no significant changes in vegetation since 1871) would have offered no concealment for a large group intent on an ambush. Newspaper reports and testimony suggested the ambush occurred at a distance as short as six to fifteen feet. That is virtually point blank range for Henry and Spencer rifles. Even with improvised cover, I have great difficulty accepting that thirteen (and especially thirty) members of an ambush party could have concealed themselves at this location without being noticed before the final moment. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the ambush occurred twenty to thirty yards west of “Loring’s cross” where the hillside is more steep and closer to the stage coach trail.

A Mystery Wrapped Inside an Enigma?

There is no doubt that this site was established as the massacre memorial by earlier generations of Wickenburg residents. Furthermore, the route, distance, the hillside and wash match the descriptions provided in historical accounts to within a distance of thirty yards. That is a trivial discrepancy and only acquires hypothetical significance when you examine the hillside and wash from a higher elevation.

Within a radius of forty feet from “Loring’s cross” there are clearly distinguishable graves — some with rock mounds, others with easily identifiable rock outlines. There is also a grave very near the spot where Salmon was reportedly killed. They all appear to be randomly placed. In other words, there is no apparent organization; there are no neat rows or alignment. It is, in fact, a chaotic burial site. And there lies the rub.

If the six male victims were first buried (side by side) in a Wickenburg cemetery and then eventually reinterred at the massacre site after a passage of 78 years, why would these present graves have the appearance of random placement? Why would Salmon, the sixth victim, now be buried 120 feet from the location of Loring and the others if he was previously buried next to them in a Wickenburg cemetery?

Without further evidence I can provide no concrete answers and I am unwilling to yield to simple speculation. I hope there are still long time residents among us who have first hand knowledge (or verifiable documentation) that can shed more light on these graves, as well as the circumstances surrounding the reported “disturbance” of the Wickenburg graves in 1949.

Closing Thoughts

The Wickenburg Massacre was an important event, both at the national and territorial levels in 1871. The ambush may have been motivated by a desire for vengeance against earlier killings of Indians by Arizona settlers; however, it dramatically changed popular attitudes about Native Americans and greatly influenced federal and army policy in their relentless pursuit and containment. What were once described as “noble red men” were now characterized as murderous, marauding savages by the Eastern press corps.

Between September, 1872 and March, 1873 more than 120 Yavapai were killed in army campaigns. The Yavapai tribes surrendered in April, 1873 and were forced off their ancestral lands during the winter of 1875. 1,426 Indians (a mixture of Tonto Apache, Yavapai and Hualapai, were marched to the San Carlos Reservation, but 105 died along the way. When you visit the Wickenburg Massacre, you might do well to think about the full context of this site — what transpired here, and what followed afterward.

Many local residents of the time believed the attack was carried out by Anglo or Mexicans bandits and not Yavapai Indians. Local descendants of that era grew up with an understanding that the victims were buried where they died and were never transported to Wickenburg. These strongly held beliefs persist to the present time.

If you are interested in the history and legend of Wickenburg, — particularly if you are interested in preservation — then you should visit the massacre site. By any standard of definition it qualifies as a derelict pioneer cemetery. It is not maintained. The only thing that protects it today is its location and obscurity. It is, however, on State Trust Land; which means that the area will eventually be sold to the highest bidder for future development. It is my firm belief that when we become informed citizens, when we know and understand the heritage of our land, we will be motivated to protect and care for it.

How to Get There

Getting to the massacre site is not particularly difficult, but it does require a bit of patience.

The turnoff point is six miles west of the intersection of Vulture Mine Road on US-60. This is west of mile marker 102. The turnoff is not marked and can easily be missed.

Exit from the highway to your right onto a dirt road. It will lead you to a gate with a sign that says you are entering State Trust land. The sign also states that a valid lease or permit is required for entry. This basically means (1) you are grazing cattle on leased land or (2) that you have a valid hunting license or some other type of permit. Use your own judgment about entering this area without a permit.

The distance from US-60 to the massacre site is 6.6 miles along an unimproved dirt road. See the map in Figure 3.

Route to Massacre Site
Figure 4: Route to Massacre Site

The road will take you in a northerly direction before turning east, where it leads to an abandoned ranch and corral. Turn right at the ranch and pass between the fence posts to the left of the water tanks. Continue in a southeasterly direction until you arrive at a large wash. Turn left and follow the wash until you arrive at the massacre site.

High-clearance vehicles are required and 4WD is definitely recommended. There are numerous erosion channels that cross-cut the dirt road between US-60 and the old ranch house. After turning into the wash, you will be in deep sand the remainder of the way.

GPS coordinates (WGS84)

Turnoff from US-60: N 33° 56′ 56.2″ by W 112° 52′ 35.0″ 2.
Turnoff from the dirt road into the wash: N 33° 59’09.3″ by W 112° 51′ 24.9″ 3.
Loring’s Cross at Massacre site: N 33° 59′ 21’5″ by W 112° 51′ 13.1″

Before You Go

  1. Summer monsoon storms and winter rains can produce considerable runoff in this area. After heavy rains you may encounter areas of standing water that can persist for a week or more. Traversing these areas while they are muddy will hasten the degradation of the trail.
  2. Always take an ample supply of water.
  3. Make certain that someone knows specifically where you are going and when you plan to return.
  4. Be alert for snakes between March and October.

Finally, stay on the trails — there are no shortcuts. And… pack out your litter.

Notes and References

  1. Massacre at Wickenburg — Arizona’s Greatest Mystery By R. Michael Wilson. 2008, Published by GlobePequot Press. If you would like to learn more about this important piece of history, you should read this book. Although I do not agree with all of his conclusions, his book is very well researched and provides well-reasoned observations on many of the questions raised in this article. As a general rule I do not endorse books. However, I must say that Mr. Wilson’s book is a “must read” for anyone interested in the pioneer history of our town. It is available in local bookstores and through Amazon.com. Read the book, study the relevant historical documents; visit the site — and draw your own conclusions.
  2. Even modern writers who attempt to recreate this important piece of our history acknowledge that some of their conclusions are conjecture rather than indisputable fact; including some of the findings made by the author in Reference 1.
  3. I have walked and photographed the entire eastern hillside below the site of the ambush for a distance of about 400 yards. There are four gullies, but only one of these (the one most distant from where Salmon died) could potentially qualify as a “deep cut in the hillside.” It has never been explained why Salmon would have been buried in an erosion gully when he could have been buried where he died.
  4. The Wickenburg Historical Society maintains a long-held belief that the massacre victims were buried where they died.
  5. The Wickenburg Massacre was frequently referred to as the “Loring Massacre,” particularly in the eastern press. Frederick Loring was a popular and respected young journalist from Boston.
  6. Mileage is based upon GPS tracks from Sol’s Wash at Tegner Street to the point of the graves and markers.

Last 5 posts by Allan Hall

19 comments to The Wickenburg Massacre Site – An Enduring Mystery

  • Allan Hall

    Here is an update on historical findings!

    Pat Ryland, a very diligent researcher of history in the Wickenburg area, has located two articles from the Wickenburg Sun dated March, 1948. This is before the graves in Wickenburg were reported to have been “disturbed” in 1949.

    The first article, dated March 11, 1948, announces a planned outing by the Wickenburg Saddle Club to the Massacre site to “…trek to the graves of the five men killed by Indians in the Wickenburg Massacre…” The second article, dated March 19, 1948, reports on the outcome of the trek and notes that a marker and plaque were erected. Sadly, this marker no longer exists.

    The time line of these articles dictate that the graves existed at the Massacre Site before 1949 – as reported in Wilson’s book and questioned in my article. The articles also lead to a reasonable conjecture that at least five of these men are presently buried there. It is possible that the 1948 Saddle Club group was not aware of the location of Salmon’s grave on the “island” between the fingers of the wash. It is also possible that they did not know the location of Shoholm’s grave (between the stage coach road and the wash), which was unmarked until recently.

    In either case (Salmon or Shoholm) there is a very real possiblity that all six victims are located at the Massacre Site.
    Best regards!

  • Dean

    What was the name of the stagecoach company that serviced Wickenburg at that time?

  • Allan Hall

    A fellow hiker has very kindly reported to me that my translation of GPS coordinates for Loring’s Cross appeared to be in error. His observation is correct. The article above states:
    Loring’s Cross at Massacre site: N 33° 59′ 21′5″ by W 112° 51′ 13.1″

    A more accurate set of coordinates (WGS84) is as follows:
    N 33° 59′ 21′5″ by W 112° 51′ 10″

    The difference of 3 seconds longitude will lead you to a point that is a few hundred feet west of the actual Massacre site. I used the coordinates provided in an aerial photo and performed an inaccurate translation to WGS84.
    Sorry if I have caused any confusion.
    Allan

  • Chuck

    Was the $100K ever found? Also the $40K that Mollie was supposed to be carrying??

  • Allan Hall

    Hello Chuck,
    R. Michael Wilson’s book “Massacre at Wickenburg” provides a comprehensive treament of the rumors and myths pertaining to (supposedly) lost money. There is no credible evidence that the coach from the Arizona Stage Company was carrying $100,000 or that Mollie Sheppard had $40,000 in her possession.

    An article in the “Los Angeles Daily News”, January 3, 1872, carried an interview with Kruger and Sheppard in which they claimed to have each lost nearly $8,000. Sheppard died some time after January 11, 1872. Kruger filed a claim with the U.S. government for reimbursement, since he was a federal employee at the time.

  • Roger Wayne Lippinott

    I would like to speak with you,regards Wickenburg Massacre Site.
    Home 928-684-2109
    Cell 928-231-7499

  • I am hoping that someone would be able to help me identify some old photos I am currently processing. I am processing a family collection and one of the photos is clearly the Wickenburg Massacre site as the sign is visible. My problem is that I have other photos of this family at a similar design type monument and I don’t want to identify it as Wickenburg if that is not where there are. I will gladly send you a jpeg vial email if you can help me identify the location. These photos were taken probably in the 50s but we are are still trying to get the collection in order so we can age the family. Thanks for any help you can provide.

    • James Nuckols

      I can try and identify the photos. The site of the massacre is out in the middle of the desert. It takes some effort to get there. The monument was built alongside the highway. At some point the monument was moved and rebuilt. The current monument location is near the airport and is 3.5 miles southeast of the actual massacre site.

  • James Nuckols

    I was comparing some old postcards of the Wickenburg Massacre Historical Monument to some modern images. It is clear that the monument has been moved and rebuild in its current location. Do you have any information on where the monument was originally located and when and why the monument was moved?

  • Allan

    James,
    Thanks for responding – I contacted Chaun directly to help with the identification of her photos.

    Unfortunately, I have no information regarding the date and reason for relocation of the monument to its present site. The Wickenburg Historical Preservation Society might be able to help with that question. They can be reached at (928) 684-2272.

    It has always been a bit of an irritation (to me) that the sign does not clearly explain where the massacre occurred. I wonder how many visitors think the massacre happened on the edge of U.S. 60.

  • TSSM

    Enjoyed reading this article! Followed the directions though I abandoned my truck when the jeep trail got a little too rugged for my liking. Loaded the GPS coordinates provided into my GPS handheld and hiked the rest of the way in … coordinates were spot on!

    Enjoyed seeing a piece of history 🙂

  • Allan

    TSSM,
    I’m glad you made the effort to see the site. This was probably the second most important event in the history of Wickenburg during territorial days (after Henry Wickenburg’s discovery of gold at the Vulture Mine). I’ve sat on the hilltop southwest of the ambush site and contemplated what those five minutes of terror would have been like.

    Thanks for visiting wickenburg-az.com and commenting.

  • Gary Griffiths

    It appears that the main documentation for the burial of the victims of the Wickenburg Massacre in the local cemetery comes from a letter written by Mr. Kruger, an Army clerk, to relatives of one of the victims. As an Army Criminal Investigator, I had to interface with grieving family members on a number of occasions, and often had to “soften” the harsh realities of the death of their loved one. I’m confident that Mr. Kruger may have had similar impulses, especially if asked about a “Christian” burial. His rather elaborate account of them being “decently buried in nice coffins” would be more soothing than, “We dug holes beside them and rolled them in.” which might be more in line with the facts.

    Moreover, if the bodies were buried in Wickenburg, then for some mysterious reason exhumed and reburied at the massacre site in 1949, the normal “Christian” practice is to bury bodies in a west-east orientation, whereas the graves at the massacre site are not in any particular pattern. This further reinforces the hypothesis that the bodies were buried at the site shortly after the massacre, and not transported in to town.

    Finally, there seems to be little reason to have fake graves at the massacre site, as it is not a popular tourist attraction.

    In the future, perhaps an archaeological excavation of the site will determine the facts once and for all.

  • I’m glad I came across this page. Yesterday, eight of us rode our horses to the site from near I-60. No problems getting there except a wrong turn at the ranch. We realized soon enough and went back and found the right way. I had heard about the site and had seen pictures from other members of our riding group. But being there was totally different. It was so interesting and we all left the site with many questions about what really happened to the bodies and where they were buried. I’m with Gary with his thought on maybe doing an excavation to find out once and for all if they are buried there. Very cool place to go and see, and worth the trek to get there.
    Melanie
    Arizona Back Country Riders

  • Allan

    Melanie,
    Thanks for taking the time to visit this important piece of history with your group. I agree with you and Gary that excavation would end all uncertainty about the historical authenticity of this site. Unfortunately, it is situated on State Trust Land and, without official sponsorship of the Town of Wickenburg, it is unlikely this site will ever receive the attention it deserves.

    My greatest fear is that a commercial developer will one day bulldoze this site to build a MacDonalds.

    Thanks for visiting wickenburg-az.com.

  • Allan,

    I have been doing further research on the Wickenburg Massacre, and have done some preliminary analysis of statements made at the time using modern forensic psycholinguistic analytical techniques. I have also been in touch with a forensic anthropologist regarding possible archaeological exploration of the site.

    Request you give me a call at 214-789-1119, or e-mail me. Would like to discuss additional details.

    Gary Griffiths

  • Roxanne May

    I don’t understand the controversy of where the victims were buried. It’s a fact that the bodies were brought to Wickenburg for an inquest. It was written that the bodies were buried on November 6, 1871. There are records that the bodies of five of the victims were buried in the Southeast corner of Henry Wickenburg’s cemetery, “in nice coffins”. The graves were “disturbed” in 1949 and it is unclear where they went from there. I can’t help it, I just cannot believe that people would exhume coffins after 78 years and bring them back to the massacre site. they are going to take bodies from a consecrated Christian cemetery and take them out into the desert? Then at the “massacre” site, 78 years later, they “knew” where each person had fallen and buried them in a completely unorganized and scattered fashion. I don’t believe that in 1949, they were still piling rocks on graves, especially in different ways (some piled on top, others in a circle. It makes no sense on many levels. You make a valid point that why would people concoct this supposed burial at the massacre site, but perhaps at that time, people did intend to make the site somewhere that people would visit. It does make for a better story but certainly doesn’t fit with the accounts. The graves in Wickenburg are unknown and it is much more interesting if they are out by the site. I’d be interested to learn who owned the land of the massacre site in 1949.

  • Gary Griffiths

    After using psycholinguistic analysis techniques on the contemporary news and eyewitness (Kruger) accounts I now agree that the initial burials were in town. There’s just too much extraneous information in those accounts, including crediting individuals for one thing or another, for them to be falsified to cater to Eastern sensibilities. I can see the catering, but not crediting people for things that the locals would have known they didn’t do. That just wasn’t done in the late 19th Century, when there was a high regard for honor in the local populace.

    I believe what happened was, the six victims were buried as described in the contemporary accounts. Over the years, other burials were made alongside them — perhaps other unknowns found in the desert, paupers from town, Chinese, or others not “eligible” for burial in the local churchyards. Then, in the late ’40s, Progress came to Wickenburg, and a bulldozer uprooted rotting wood and bones, as Wilson relates in his book. It takes a LOT of paperwork, permits, requirements, etc., to move a cemetery. As an historic cemetery, permission might never be granted, and the project permanently cancelled, with considerable financial consequences. In the mid-20th Century, there was still a modicum of decency in society. A couple of decades later, the graves would have been quietly bulldozed into oblivion, but not in the late ’40s. Since they couldn’t show up at a churchyard with a dozen or so dried-up corpses, they needed to find a place to decently dispose of the bodies. According to a source in Wickenburg, a lady from the historical society had recently relocated the massacre site. It seems logical to me that the construction foreman would have considered this an ideal site to bury the bodies I can see the bodies being clandestinely moved by the construction crew to that location. Although the soil is stony making grave-digging difficult, a half-dozen construction workers with a backhoe could have buried a dozen bodies there easily in a weekend. Also, while it would undoubtedly have been easier and quicker to simply dig a trench and bury the remains side-by-side, if they buried the bodies more-or-less where the locals believed they fell, there would be plausible deniability — who could say for sure that they weren’t buried there originally?

    That’s the only explanation I can come up with that explains all the facts, including the “extra” bodies supposedly buried at the site.

  • If this location is indeed a cemetery and it is older than 50 years old it is protected by the Arizona Antiquities Act. Unless permitted by the Arizona State Museum, any disturbance of the site is a crime.

    You need a permit from the State Land Department to enter its lands.