If you’ve done any exploring around the Southwest, you’ve probably visited a few places with rather ominous names: “Bloody Basin,” “Skull Valley,” “The Superstition Mountains.” Seems Arizona is full of places named after grim legends. “Deadman Flat” is no exception. It’s a place writer Scott Thybony has visited many times. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Thybony tells the tale of how “Deadman Flat” got its name.
Deadman Flat has earned its name more than once. I used to cross it twice a day when we lived on an old homestead down eight miles of dirt road. How the place got named remained a mystery to me until I stopped for a Navajo hitchhiker one evening. We drove north of the San Francisco Peaks, and where Highway 89 approaches Sacred Mountain Trading Post, entered Deadman Flat. I asked him about the name.
“Long ago,” he said, his people fought some Hopi and New Mexicans who leading a pack string westward.
“Who won?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” he answered before adding with a smile, “all they told me was we came away with horses.”
Since then a handful of different accounts about the origin of the name have surfaced. A former CO Bar cowboy recorded the murder of a lone traveler who was found stabbed to death at the waterhole. The sheriff’s posse believed a rustler, known to be operating in the area, had mistaken him for a cattle detective. And Pete Espil told me a version when his truck broke down near our place one day. I gave him a lift back to his ranch house in Deadman Flat, and along the way asked about the name.
“Well,” he said, “I heard it got named for a drunk cowboy who couldn’t catch his horse. Every time he got close to it, the horse spooked and ran off. He kept chasing it for a couple of hours. The longer he chased it, the madder he got. Finally he drew his six-shooter and shot the horse. He felt so bad about what he’d done, he turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger.” A day or two later they found his body sitting propped against the dead horse.
These incidents from the early 1900s happened after the name was already in use as shown by an 1892 diary. And then yesterday an old manuscript arrived containing the earliest account of the naming I’ve found. In it a Navajo elder related an incident, which happened before the Long Walk in 1864 when his people were driven hundreds of miles into captivity.
On a fall afternoon, the story begins, a Navajo man, woman and boy were herding horsed in upper Deadman Flat. The woman was in the lead as they approached a gap in the hills. Suddenly she spotted a party of New Mexican raiders being guided by Hopi scouts. She began waving an antelope skin to turn the herd back and warn the others. The boy immediately rode to get help as the Navajo man drove the horses across the flat, chased by the raiding party. From horseback he picked off the pursuers with his bow and arrows. Finally the New Mexicans cut their losses ad turned back, leaving behind their dead and a name for the wide opening among the junipers.
Like Deadman Flat, many Arizona place names hint at a grim past. But for every Massacre Point I’ve come across, there’s a Mystic Spring or a Bright Angel Creek – and I’m still wondering how Holy Moses Wash got named.
Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Canyon Commentaries are produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.