The Murder of Phil Shanahan, 1886

by Mary Kasulaitis

After alluding to the Shanahan murder in the last article, I thought I should tell the whole sad story. Apaches had been the biggest deterrent to settlement in Southern Arizona up until the early 1870s when they were subdued and put on a reservation, but the last ditch effort in 1886 by Geronimo and his band to maintain a free life brought tragedy to the local settlers.


A little background: for decades, both Mexican and American settlers had been moving into country that the Apache considered theirs. Being nomadic, they had no farms or towns, and actually had only been in Arizona, south of the Little Colorado River, since the 1600s. They tried to maintain their traditional hunting way of life in spite of the growing number of settlers on both sides of the border. A warlike mentality prevailed, especially among the Chiricahua Apaches. Treaties were made and broken. Apaches tended to live in small bands and each was autonomous. For a long time this confused the American military, which would consider the whole tribe responsible whenever one band attacked.
American settlers realized the value of military protection during the U.S. Civil War when troops were removed to points east and Apache attacks escalated. After the war, the military returned to the Southwest and attempted to “pacify” the Indians. Reservations were set up. The Chiricahua Apache were to go to the San Carlos reservation. This included one of their leaders, Geronimo, who would not stay put. Geronimo was on and off the reservation several times between 1878 and 1886. In 1885, thinking they planned to hang him, he left with forty-two followers. General Crook, premier Indian fighter, took chase. When they had gone into Mexico, he tried to keep them there. In March 1886, Crook thought he had Geronimo again. But that didn’t last long. Geronimo, Naiche, and thirty-five other Chiricahuas including women and children escaped again. In the wake of this colossal failure, Crook was reassigned. General Nelson A. Miles took his place.


Up till this time, most of the Apache action had been in Mexico, New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Now both Mexican and American armies chased the small group, pushing it from here to there. The band split into two small groups. Roberts says, “Geronimo took six men and four women and slipped once more through the intensive border patrol, then raided north all the way to Ojo Caliente. Along the way, he killed his last white Americans, raising the pitch of terror among the settlers.” Some of those last unfortunate Americans were Mrs. A.L. Peck and her baby in the Santa Cruz valley near Calabasas, and Phil Shanahan at the Bartlett-Hewett ranch in Bear Valley, southeast of Arivaca.


The Arizona Daily Star recounted the murders:
“At A.L. Peck’s ranch on Tuesday, Mrs. Peck and her eleven month old baby were brutally murdered. Mr. Peck and his assistant, Charles Owen…were about two miles up the canyon above the house at the time and were themselves surprised by the assassins. Both were unarmed. Mr. Peck’s horse was shot under him at the first fire and he was captured, tied and kept under guard for half an hour or more. Young Owen made a dash for his life, being mounted on a fine animal. Turning into a side ravine he met a shower of bullets…a shot broke the young man’s neck and another broke an arm. . . At the house with Mrs. Peck, was her little niece, Jenny, twelve years of age. She was taken into captivity. Old Geronimo finally came up and had a brief conversation with the Mr. Peck, saying he (Peck) was a good man and he could not kill him. He then released the prisoner, took his boots away from him, gave him thirty-five cents in money and told him to go, but not to go to the house. Mr. Peck asked permission to talk to the little girl, who was on a horse behind a buck, and crying bitterly, but they were not permitted to speak to each other. Mr. Peck went directly to his house and there found his wife and child lying dead by the door.” It is unknown why Peck was spared but his wife and child were slaughtered. Perhaps it is because Geronimo’s family was killed by Mexican soldiers and he retaliated by killing families, leaving the bereaved husbands alive.


However, Geronimo may not have been with this band. The leader was supposedly young and spoke good English, possibly the younger, English-speaking Naiche. About six weeks later Jenny was rescued from the Indians by some Mexican cowboys at a point about forty miles from Magdalena, where she was delivered to Mr. Peck, who had gone after her.


The day following the killing of Mrs. Peck and her baby, Phil Shanahan left John “Yank” Bartlett’s ranch in Bear Valley at the entrance to Sycamore Canyon, and headed for his own home a few miles away. His ten-year-old son Phil was staying back with his friend Johnny Bartlett, Yank’s son. A few minutes later the boys heard shots, then a yell, and Phil staggered into the yard, saying he had been shot by Indians. Yank saw he was badly wounded and would need a doctor, so he told Johnny to run to Oro Blanco to fetch Dr. Noon and warn the folks there. He directed Little Phil to go home and warn his mother and two little sisters of the danger. Phil made it there successfully and they concealed themselves in the mountains until the following day.


Johnny set off on horseback for Oro Blanco but within a few miles he saw three men ahead of him dressed in black and acting as if they were drunk. He came back quickly, finding the Indians firing on the house. He reached the house safely, but his horse and another were shot. One horse followed them into the house and fell dead in the doorway. Yank himself received a wound of which he later recovered.


When night came, Yank sent Johnny off to get help again. For the first two miles he went barefoot to move more quietly. At the Smith house, south of Oro Blanco, he found E.W. Smith, whose home had been broken into and black clothes, guns and a bottle of brandy taken. They went on to Oro Blanco, arriving at 2 in the morning, where the settlers were raised and armed. Johnny was put to bed. Early the next morning he and the men, including Dr Noon and Yank’s partner Hank Hewitt, set off for Bear Valley. Arriving back at the ranch, they found Shanahan on his deathbed and Mrs. Shanahan and the children newly emerged from hiding. At the Shanahan ranch the Apaches had taken all their food and clothing, killed several head of horses and run off many others. Perhaps Mrs. Shanahan would have been killed had it not been for little Phil’s warning.


For their bravery, Johnny Bartlett and young Phil Shanahan were rewarded with rifles and money. However, the Oro Blanco settlers were still uneasy. Women in particular were nervous and fearful in the wake of Mrs. Peck’s death. The Tonkins had been spared, but no one knew what would happen next. All summer long, Ella and Herman Searle wrote worried letters to their family members back East. The attacks had been so unexpected. Apaches could move so fast and so far that no one knew exactly where they might be and speculation was rampant. So it was with considerable relief that the settlers heard the news in September, 1886, that Geronimo had surrendered for the last time.


References: Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo and the Apache Wars, by David Roberts; The Arizona Daily Star; unpublished Peck family manuscript; Searle family letters; No Place for Angels by Roscoe Willson

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