By Robert Mason
Life for Caucasian explorers in Arizona Territory during 1849 was uncertain. Most Native American tribes were curious rather than hostile but some were accustomed to attack any intruders from outside their own ranks. In addition, water sources were not yet marked on maps; actually, there were few maps of any kind and those were not reliable.
The Stage is Set
Following the Mexican War, the Treaty of Guadalupe provided that a bilateral boundary commission would establish a boundary line between the two nations. This group surveyed a line through Arizona Territory that crossed the Pima Indian villages near the Gila River around Maricopa Wells. During this early encounter this group welcomed the Caucasians, a practice that they followed throughout most of early settlement.
Archaeologists and historians have since noted that the Pima tribe, and others, kept accurate records of important happenings on “calendar sticks” that were guarded and revered. They believed that meteor displays and other unusual astronomical occurrences were predictions of natural disasters and to be greatly feared. The boundary commission in 1849 obviously did not know of these beliefs.
A civilian worker with the Boundary Commission, John Cremony, later wrote of their experiences in a book, “Life Among the Apaches,” and tells of an amusing and nearly dangerous situation that occurred at this time. Lt. Amiel Whipple, for whom Ft. Whipple near Prescott was later named, was a member of the commission. Whipple invited Cremony to assist him and other officers in setting up their equipment to observe a full eclipse of the moon that was scheduled to occur that night. The naturally dark skies would make an ideal setting for better observation.
Hundreds of curious Indians followed the men as they set up two large telescopes on the top of a nearby small hill. A Pima who could speak and understand English asked about the strange apparatus. Cremony playfully responded by saying, “This is a huge cannon, the shot of which will reach the moon.”
As the full moon rose and illuminated the desert, the news of Cremony’s remark spread among the Pimas. They crowded around the commission members and began to become agitated. The chief of the tribe asked Whipple and Cremony what they were doing. Cremony decided to continue his joke and said, “We are shooting and killing the moon.”
As this was translated to the group, they immediately began yelling and a rush was made toward all of the commission members. The chief said, “What are we to do without the moon? How are we to know when to plant and reap? How can we pass our nights in darkness and be kept from preventing Apache raids? What have we done to you, that you should do this thing to us?”
Cremony and Whipple quickly assured the Pimas that if they would keep quiet and not molest the telescope, they would be able to restore the moon to its original condition. As the eclipse progress toward totality the yells and moaning increased and the men realized that the joke had gone too far. Weapons were brandished. The commission members were fearful for the equipment and even their own safety. They did all they could to reassure the native people that the moon would soon reappear. With a quick second look at their charts, they actually told them how long it would be before they began to see the lunar light.
When the earth’s shadow finally started to clear the face of the moon, the threatening gestures and wailings ceased and the whites were embraced and patted on the back. Years later Cremony again met some of the same Pimas and was called Captain Killmoon. They challenged him to again perform such a feat but Cremony declined, remarking in his book that the astronomical calendar wasn’t in his favor that day.
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