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A Short History of Cave Creek

By Kraig Nelson, DFLT Docent and Preserve Steward


Abraham Lincoln signed the Arizona Organic Act, February 28th, 1863, creating the Arizona Territory and separated the future, forty-eighth State from the Territory of New Mexico (which was created September 9th, 1850).  Fort Whipple, near what is now Prescott, Arizona, became the first Territorial Capital. 


In 1864, Henry Wickenburg uncovered a gold-bonanza in the Bradshaw Mountains, establishing the extremely lucrative Vulture Mine, south of Prescott and east of Cave Creek.  When the word got out, gold-seekers were pouring into central Arizona; ranchers, farmers, and store-keepers always follow. In 1865, Camp McDowell, later Fort McDowell, was established about eighteen miles from the future town of Cave Creek to protect the out-numbered miners and ranchers from the marauding Tonto Apaches. Phoenix and Cave Creek credit their establishment and initial survival to this seminal fort and the brave Cavalry.

Getting to Fort Whipple from Camp McDowell was circuitous. The Cavalry initially headed the opposite direction- toward present day Phoenix- made a loop, and then headed north to Wickenburg and on to Fort Whipple. In early October of 1870, the commanding officer of the Arizona army, Colonel George Stoneman, was advised of a potential shortcut to the Capital- an established, Native American trail, which provided a flowing creek, at least two natural springs, and an abundance of tall grass for the hungry and tired horses (near today’s Rancho Manana). This short-cut and place of respite eventually became the town of Cave Creek!


So, we know there’s a creek in Cave Creek but is there a cave on the creek?  The answer is yes; however, it’s more of a band shell-shaped cavern – about sixty feet wide, high and deep. This wind and erosion-created cavern creates a natural refuge from the elements and is the name-sake of our historic town. The Apaches felt the Cave was a secure place to store food and erect their temporary brush and branch shelters called wickiups. Christmas morning, 1873, proved to be a frightful day for the awakening Apaches. The exhausted but prepared Cavalry opened fire, leaving nine Apaches dead, including their Chief, Nanotz. Tons of winter food was burned. The Cavalry’s mantra of “surrender or starve” was duly executed. The message was clear: Cave Creek was going to be settled.


A long-time miner in the Cave Creek area was the Missouri-born, articulate, Confederate deserter, Edward G. Cave - old “Rackensack” as he was affectionately known. Rackensack mined the Cave Creek area for thirty years and discovered some of the best mineral-rich mines in the area. The quick-witted miner wrote numerous, clever letters to the Phoenix newspapers illustrating his adroit skill with words. Near the end of his life, perspicuity gone, Rackensack built a crude shelter and lived in the Cave. Around 1912 he died a pauper, in or near the Cave; no grave was ever found. Some postulate Edward G. Cave was the namesake of Cave Creek; however, we know the Army had identified and named Cave Creek by 1866; Old Rackensack arrived in Tucson in the 1870s and moved to Cave Creek later. 


Do you remember the popular television western-Bonanza? Cave Creek has its own version featuring another Cartwright family. Reddick “Red” Cartwright with his wife and ten children arrived in Arizona, in 1876, via the Oregon Trail.  By 1887, Red and his son, Jackson Manford Cartwright, had established the Cartwright Ranch, northeast of Cave Creek.  Jackson’s son, Jack Jr., took over the ranching empire until he turned it over to his son. By the time the Cartwright Ranch was sold in 1980, a period of ninety-three years, the Ranch had grown to 65,000 acres with over 5,600 head of cattle!  Some of the Cartwrights who live in the Cave Creek area today claim there are no ties to the iconic television show.   


Another colorful rancher was the tough but kind-hearted and generous “Cattle Kate.” Theodore and Catherine Jones owned the 1300-acre Cahava Ranch, located along Cave Creek. Cattle Kate was a tiny lady with bright blue eyes, usually in Levis, but always armed. In the Prohibition years she encountered two moonshiners on her property attempting to utilize one of her natural springs for “white-lightning” production. While sitting on her black pony Apache, firearms ready, Kate ordered the moonshiners to leave. The moonshiners were contemplating their next move when a chipmunk scampered between the probable combatants; without hesitation, Kate shot the chipmunk in the head and the moonshiners were hastily on their way. 


Some of the local ranchhands have interesting stories. One Cave Creek cowboy, who had been riding the range for fourteen years, found himself unemployed. Lon Megargee, the retired cowpoke, turned to painting…it was that or hunt mountain lions for bounty. Lon started as a commercial artist and eventually became involved with western art: cowboys, Native Americans and magnificent desert landscapes. Lon developed a friendly relationship with the first Governor of Arizona, George W. P. Hunt. Impressed with Megargee’s talent, Governor Hunt commissioned fifteen paintings for the Arizona Capitol.  All fifteen, 4’x7’ paintings (murals), may be found, on the second floor, in the Arizona’s State Capitol today. Mr. Megargee was paid $250.00 for each painting.


Boom times came to Cave Creek between 1935 and 1943 with the construction of the Bartlett and Horseshoe Dams, both on the Verde River. There was a proliferation of new saloons, liquor stores, and restaurants. This money-flowing environment facilitated what is now Cave Creek’s oldest business - Cave Creek Corral (and in 1950, Harold’s Cave Creek Corral). This rustic and classic western bar was started in 1936 by Johnny Walker (no, not that one).  The original, 1880s mahogany bar, purchased by Johnny Walker, came from the Crystal Palace Saloon, in Tombstone, Arizona. Although a non-drinker, the legendary Wyatt Earp probably had coffee at this bar. In recent years, former local resident, Dick Van Dyke, could be found, on stage, entertaining star-struck and very appreciative locals.


Cave Creek is a microcosm of America’s intrepid, pioneering-spirit: from the rapacious Tonto Apaches, the first large-scale gold mine called the “Golden Star Mine” on Continental Mountain (later, the “Golden Reef”), to the first homestead on Cave Creek in 1877, the first dude-ranch called Spur Cross in 1928, later Rancho Manana in 1943, until today. The nineteenth century Americans called the coast to coast, Providence-mandated expansion: Manifest Destiny; and yes, America’s thrilling history is here, in our backyard!

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