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May 6

Winslow, Arizona

Apache Death Cave

A stealthy Apache hideaway becomes a haunting mass grave 

In 1878, a group of Apache raiders attacked a Navajo encampment near the Little Colorado river. Almost every Navajo man, woman, and child was killed in the raid. When the Apache finished looting the encampment, only three girls remained and they were swiftly taken prisoner by the Apache.

When the Navajo leaders got word of this attack, they sent out 25 men to avenge the fallen encampment. They employed their usual strategies, tracking the Apache across the land, and blocking the borders to the region. However their efforts failed and the trails went cold, disappearing into the river and volcanic cinder. 

News arrived that another nearby Navajo encampment had been raided, which meant that the Apache were still in the area. Scouts were deployed again, two of which were sent to check the short arm of Canyon Diablo. The scouts had found nothing until they were startled by a blast of hot air that was coming from underneath the ground. Upon further investigation, the scouts discovered that the hot air was coming from an Apache campfire in an underground cavern beneath them, large enough to house both the Apache raiding party and their horses.

The scouts returned with news of their discovery, and the Navajo came back with a vengeance. After they killed two unsuspecting watchmen at the mouth of the cave, they gathered up the dry sagebrush and driftwood on the canyon floor and started a fire at the entrance of the cave. Now aware of the attack as smoke billowed into their hideaway, the Apache slit the throats of their horses and used what was left of their water to put out the flames, doing their best to seal off the entrance with corpses of their former mounts.

A lone Apache man escaped from the fiery barrier and begged for mercy. The Navajo, as per tradition, proposed the customary payment of goods and stock in exchange for forgiveness. The spokesman agreed, and it seemed that the Apaches’ lives would be spared.

However, when the Navajo asked about the three girls that they had taken prisoner, the Apache spokesman hesitated, which confirmed the Navajo’s worst fears; the girls had already met their end.

Enraged, the Navajo shot their guns into the cave and added more fuel to the fire. It wasn’t long until smoke and the sound of the Apache singing their death songs filled the air.

When the songs faded and the smoke cleared, the Navajo broke through the charred horse-corpse barrier. They retrieved their goods, and stripped off the valuables of the 42 Apaches that suffocated inside of the cave.

From that point on, no Apache has used that cave for any reason. Apaches would never again raid the Navajo people.

Local tribes would warn would-be pioneers about the cave, saying that the land around it was cursed, but it was often passed off as silly superstition by the settlers. The pioneers who lived there would later report hearing disembodied groans and ghostly footsteps outside their cabins, the horrendous stories of the massacre at the cave finally burrowing their way into their imaginations. 

Know Before You Go

On Old Route 66 between Flagstaff and Winslow, Arizona.

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