Apache County is in the northeast corner of Arizona. According to the 2010 census, it had a population of over 71,000. Since its formation in 1879, the county has had quite a few interesting stories to tell from its history to its most current events
County Overview and History
Apache County’s name came from the Apache Native American people. The county was established on the 24th of February in 1879 during the Tenth Territorial Legislature. It was formed out of Yavapai County, which was one of the four primary counties in the state of Arizona.
When it was created, Apache County included Navajo, which it still does up to the present day. It also consisted of other parts of Greenlee and Graham counties. Apache has a total land area of 11,218 square miles and most regions were uninhabited and unknown when it was established.
Navajo and Apache Indians did not stop raiding settlements at that time. There was a range war happening between Texas cattlemen and Indian and Mexican sheepmen, which put most of the county in peril. The natives were divided because of what was going on. During that period, the cattlemen who hailed from the state of Texas were new to the place. These groups, along with Mormon pioneers in the area, inhabited the region for a while. The rest continued to be empty and wild.
The soon-to-become Apache County did not stay undisturbed for a long time. In 1881, the area where the Black and Gila Rivers flowed, which was originally a part of Apache, was taken from the county. It was designated to Graham County, which still owns this region. Later on, Navajo County was established and it also took a significant territory from Apache.
Back in the day, Apache had almost 21,000 square miles of total land area. However, because of the divisions and the inception of the two mentioned counties, Apache now only has 11,000+ square miles, which it has kept up to this day.
Apache County is believed to be unique among all the other counties in the nation for quite a few reasons. One is that it is the longest county in the entire United States. Apache runs 211 miles from the borders of Utah and reaches the south of Alpine. Additionally, the county’s population – about two-thirds of it – comprises of the Navajo Nation, along with more than a half of the total land area of the county. The Navajo is the biggest Native American tribe.
The inhabitants also agree that Apache is a county of contrasts. It starts with mountains close to Nutrioso and Alpine, which are covered with aspen and blue spruce. The trail moves forward to the Greer Valley all the way to the clear waters of the Little Colorado River, which then flows northward proceeding to St Johns and Round Valley.
The northern half of the county is within the boundaries of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, which runs for more than 21,000 square miles. While the reservation has changed in many ways over the past several years, its history and landmarks remain without modifications. The Navajo land has some of the most remarkable monuments that nature has created, prompting the belief that the Seven Wonders of the Navajo World lie in this land. It shows that the Navajo Nation is a world apart while the Navajo Indians dwell in many parts of the county. They refuse to leave and reside on their part of the reservation.
The Indians mostly prefer to drive their cattle and sheep on lands that are situated outside the Navajo reservation since grazing is better, especially the southern part of the county. On the other hand, the northern area has picturesque canyons and gorges because of the floods that affected the region a few centuries ago.
The county is remembered for its natural resources. Even back in the day, its residents knew that it was destined to have a massive agricultural population. Today, Apache has numerous herds of cattle as well as flocks of sheep roaming over the county’s fertile valleys and wide mesas.
Apache County is indeed growing with a population that is well over 71,000. Its main population centers are Fort Defiance and Window Rock in the South, while the north has Chinle, Ganado in the center, and there are several other little towns in between. Aside from this growth, it has also experienced various positive changes, including the creation of new permanent jobs that can help support the expanding population in the county’s communities.
The increasing land values are a testament to Apache’s progress. Many subdivisions have received approval and having second homes have become the norm, especially for those who live in the metropolitan areas of Arizona.
Over the past few years, the county has been viewed as one of the places with a rich culture. It offers numerous recreational activities and sceneries that are difficult to forget. With such attributes, Apache County has turned into an important travel destination in the state. Among its widely known attractions are Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Four Corners Monument.
For scenic opportunities, Wheatfields Lake is a must-see, which is just close to the base of Chuska Mountains. Its ideal location puts it at the east of Canyon de Chelly National Monument and at the southern part of Tsaile. To get a glimpse of the Navajo culture, the Navajo Nation Museum is a great start. It was established way back in 1961 and is now situated in its new home since 1998.
The Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park is also an excellent place to visit since it is the only zoo in the country that is owned and operated by a Native American. It does not just feature more than 50 species of animals but also provides the visitors a peaceful site to reflect.
Since the county’s celebration of its 125th year in 2004, Apache has seen many significant changes. During the last few years, several improvements to its justice courts, schools, jail, and roads were evident. Additionally, there have been a few technological advances, which are expected to continue in the future.
County Seat Overview and History
During the first few years of becoming an official county in the state of Arizona, the town of Snowflake was designated as Apache County’s county seat. However, the title was transferred for St. Johns, which turned out to be temporary at that time. For two years since 1880, Springerville became the county seat, but it was later returned to the city of St. Johns, which it still holds today.
In Navajo, St. Johns is Tsézhin Deezʼáhí, which is also its original name and refers to the rock formations in the area. The city is right at the US Route 180, which is mostly where this highway meets US Route 191. In 2010, it was recorded that St. Johns had almost 3,500 residents. St. Johns was once a crossing of the Little Colorado River, which is why it was known as El Vadito (The Little Crossing in Spanish).
The Spaniards were the first to explore the city. One particular story was that Solomon Barth who was a trader passed by the city in 1864. He was simply crossing the area to transport salt to Prescott in Arizona which came from a salt lake in the territory of Zuni people.
Barth loved to play poker and his luck came to him in 1873 when he won a huge game that allowed him to earn enough money to buy land and cattle in St. Johns. He used the money to achieve his purpose and brought his two brothers Nathan and Morris with him. At that time, St. Johns was still known as El Vadito, which the Spanish called it. Barth, however, did not like that name and changed it to San Juan.
It is still unknown as to where the name originally came from. Some people debate over it, saying that it came from Maria San Juan Baca de Padilla who was the first woman in the city. Barth honored her by naming the city after her. On the other hand, some would argue that St. Johns got its second name from the feast of San Juan.
Another trader, William R. Milligan came from Fort Craig before he reached the city in 1870. He arrived with his oxen-drawn wagon and his routes were New Mexico, Round Valley in Arizona, and Tularosa to Fort Apache. He delivered his corn and stopped at Round Valley, which was the place where he built a log house for himself. It was an important time for the city because it was the first improvement ever made here, as well as in the valley.
In 1872, it was apparent that an agricultural community was born with a Spanish-American influence. Juan Sedilla built a stone cabin in 1874 and Solomon Barth sold his property to Ammon Tenney, a Mormon who encouraged many other Mormons to inhabit the area. In fact, the Mormon community, Salem, was founded on March 29, 1880. Wilford Woodruff directed the place, which was just north of the St. Johns of today.
Many people may remember St. Johns as the county seat of Apache County. However, Snowflake was first designated in 1879. It was only after the first election in the same year that the government of the county chose to transfer the county seat to St. Johns even though Springerville took that away in 1880. Still, as mentioned earlier, the city got it back and it has remained the county seat since then.
The US Census Bureau states that St. Johns measures 26.1 square miles in total in which only 0.19 square miles is made of water and the rest is land. The city enjoys a cold semi-arid climate with cold and dry winters. Meanwhile, summers are typically hot but with huge amounts of rainfall through unpredictable thunderstorms. Also according to the census, it had a population of a little over 3,200 in 2000, which jumped to about 3,500 10 years later.
St. Johns is the proud home of the Apache County Historical Society Museum. The city is also where locals and visitors can find four sites that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, namely the Isaacson Building, Rattlesnake Point Pueblo, Lower Zuni River Archeological District, and the Lyman Lake Rock Art Site.
Aside from the mentioned attractions above, St. Johns is also close to the Placerias Quarry where several Samuel Welles and Charles Camp of the University of California (Berkeley) discovered several Placerias fossils back in 1930.
Spending time in St. Johns will allow the visitor some of the exciting annual events in the region, including the Apache County Fair, San Juan Fiesta, which the St. Johns Catholic Church sponsors, Pioneer Days, which is also sponsored by another group, the LDS St. Johns AZ Stake, and the Christmas Light Parade.
The St. Johns Unified School District serves St. Johns, where there are a few primary and secondary schools, including the St. Johns High School and the Coronado Elementary School. It is also where the St. Johns Center of Northland Pioneer College can be found.
The city does not run out of educational places, aside from the museums in the area. It has the Apache County Library District, which is one of the two public libraries in the city, together with St. Johns Public Library in St. Johns.
County Courthouse – Overview and History
In Arizona, the courts have three levels namely Superior Court, Appellate Courts, and Limited Jurisdiction Courts. Each of the 15 counties, including Apache, has branches of the courts mentioned.
Limited Jurisdiction Courts are also known as Municipal and Justice Courts. These courts handle civil and criminal traffic violations, as well as small claims, misdemeanor crimes, and orders of protection. They also hear about civil complaints with a value of $10,000, injunctions against harassment, and evictions concerning landlords and tenants.
In Apache County, the Justice Courts are Chinle Justice Court, Round Valley Justice Court, Puerco (Sanders) Justice Court, and St. Johns Justice Court. Honorable Butch L. Gunnels presides over the Justice Court in St. Johns and serves as the Magistrate for the Municipal Court in the same city as well.
As for the Superior Court, it is Arizona’s general Jurisdiction Court and has locations in all the counties in the state, including Apache County. Every county has one or more Super Court judges who operate on their assigned divisions. In the case of Apache County, the Superior Court presiding judge is Honorable Michael Latham who has been in this position since 2014. Honorable Allan Perkins and Honorable Steve Williams serve as the judge pro tem of the county.
The constitution, statute, or rule grants the powers of the Superior Court, which can proceed to its ruling according to what the law states. Article VI Section 14 of the Arizona Constitution states that the Superior Court will have original jurisdiction of proceedings and cases where the law in other courts have not vested exclusive jurisdiction. It shall also have authority over equity cases, including the possession or title of a real property.
The Superior Court will also handle proceedings that tackle insolvency of an individual or company, matters of probate, actions to stop or lessen nuisance, and criminal cases that lead to a felony. This Court can also act as an Appellate Court for Municipal and Justice Courts.
Apache County has impressive courthouses, including the one in St. Johns. The historic building has a huge dome in the small town. It was built in 1917 and became the main building for St. Johns Courthouse a year after in April. The courthouse has two stories and the whole building only had a budget of $45,000.
The concrete building used native stone as its main wall material while the roofing composed of tar and gravel. Galvanized iron architrave was also utilized to form the building. In 1964, the building had other additions and more work was done, including the supplementations to the East, West, and North wings.
The county courthouse is situated at 70 West 3rd Street South or South 1st Street West. The building style is a classical revival with its architect from El Paso, Texas. It faces north and is quite easy to spot, thanks to the stone structure of the building that comes in a red-pinkish hue. The building contains a recessed portico that two stone columns support. On top, the observers can see a pediment that extends along the line of the roof.
In 1964, the building’s west side was added. Several years later, remodeling for the building was later performed in 1993. The contractor for the courthouse had a winning bid of a little over $36,300, which the Board of Supervisors approved in April of 1917. The company had eight months to conclude the construction of the courthouse building.
The El Paso Public Library has the drawings of the plan for this building, which comprised of eight sheets of ink-on-linen drawings, which included the front, rear, and side elevations. The plans were dated February 1917.
Details about the Past and Present County Sheriffs
During the early years when Apache County was first established, Commodore Perry Owens served as the county sheriff in the late 1880s. He was a legend in the Old West as a gunfighter. Before becoming a renowned name in gun-fighting, he ran away from his home back when he was only 13. He went West and was hired as a buffalo hunter in which he had to kill buffalo every day whose meat was food to the railroad workers.
With his experience, he became an excellent shooter with the ability to shoot a rifle from the hip without missing and while closing his eyes. Owens can use both his hands and his ambidexterity allowed him to wear two pistols. He would shoot cans from a distance while alternating the gun from his left and right hands to entertain his friends.
When he got a little bit older, he worked as a cowboy on the ranches of New Mexico and Oklahoma. At 28, he worked as a ranch foreman in Navajo Springs in 1881. Two years later, he was arrested for the murder of a Navajo boy whom he shot but he was acquitted by the Apache County jury.
Due to his incredible shooting skills, it was not long until the people around him noticed him. He was an established gunfighter and the People’s Party later nominated him for Sheriff of Apache County in Arizona. The Apache County Stock Growers Associations supported him, along with the Mexicans and the Mormons.
In 1886, he officially became the sheriff of the county against his Democratic opponent Tomas Perez by 91 votes. At that time, Apache County was still divided into two counties until 1895. The western part later became Navajo County. Owens was responsible for more than 21,000 square miles of territory, which is larger than the combined area of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Owens was quite well-liked during his time as the county sheriff. He was described as a quiet and unassuming man with immense popularity mainly because of his honest and honorable dealings.
One of the most famous gunfights happened in Arizona and it involved the county sheriff. It took place in September of 1887 near the city of Holbrook in Navajo County. While serving a warrant on Andy Blevins who was also known as Andy Cooper, Perry Owens wounded one man and killed three. Blevins was a participant in a range war that was later called the Pleasant Valley War.
Andy Blevins was a Mason County Texas native, a region west of Austin. He arrived in Arizona in 1885, along with Charlie Blevins who was his brother. They committed several crimes in their state, including murder and they planned to escape arrest by heading to Arizona. He changed his name to Andy Cooper so the authorities would not catch him.
Eventually, their mother, younger brothers, and other relatives joined them in Arizona. Blevins was reported to have murdered three Navajo men and was later accused of rustling horses from the protected Navajo reservation. Rumors also spread about him killing two lawmen as they were trying to track him down.
A range war was brewing in the nearby Yavapai County where the Tewksbury and Graham families were involved. This war is now called the Pleasant Valley War. During this period, the Blevins brothers sided with the Grahams who were famous as cattlemen. Meanwhile, the Tewksbury family was originally cattle ranchers but would have herds of sheep around 1885.
Some historians think that that part of the feud was about racial prejudice because the Tewksbury family had Indian blood in them. The fight would sometimes spill over Apache County where Owens presided but he remained neutral.
Andy’s father disappeared in 1887 and was suspected to have been killed by the family of Tewksbury. It prompted the brothers to search for the old man. During their search, two of his brothers were killed by the faction. About three months later, Andy Blevins ambushed and killed two members of the Tewksbury family. He and his group returned to Holbrook where he bragged about his killings.
An old warrant was already out for Andy Cooper and Owens inherited it but the sheriff did not go after him. Some thought that Blevins and Owens were friends and spent some time as cowboys together. Meanwhile, other people believe that Owens was scared of Blevins since the latter was known to be an excellent shooter and could kill without mercy.
This warrant for Andy was for stealing about 25 horses whose owner was a Mormon and positively identified Blevins as the person who was driving his horses. On September 4, 1887, Owens learned that Blevins was in Holbrook so he went to his cottage to serve the warrant for rustling horses.
During that afternoon, there were 12 people in that house, including the oldest of the Blevins brothers and two more younger brothers. Their mother was also present, along with a couple and their infant son. Several children, a family friend, and a house guest were around as well.
Sheriff Owens brought his Winchester rifle with him as he knocked on Andy Blevins’ door. The latter carried a pistol with him when he answered. Owens told Andy to go out of the house because he had an arrest warrant for him. Blevins did not want to comply so he tried to close the door. The lawman was forced to fire a shot through the door, hitting Andy in his stomach. The other people in the house tried to run to Andy’s aid, including his half-brother who tried to shoot the sheriff. He did not hit his target and instead killed his brother’s saddle horse. Owens took the opportunity while the other Blevins was confused and fired at him, leaving the brother wounded in the arm.
Owens found a place where he would get cover but could still see the sides of the house. He saw Andy moving inside and he fired through the front wall, hitting Blevins in the right hip. The house guest, Mose Roberts, went out of the window and tried to run but Owens shot him in the back. Some accounts say that Roberts was unarmed but the jury report from the coroner found a pistol covered in blood near where Roberts reentered the cottage. Also, the doctor who cared for Roberts testified that there was a pistol with his patient.
After Roberts, the younger brother of Andy, Samuel, who was only 15 years old, took his revolver to shoot the lawman. His mother tried to stop him but Samuel was able to set himself free from her grip. Owens immediately shot and killed him where he died in his mother’s arms. The whole shootout only lasted for less than a minute and it made the sheriff a legend.
Today, the Apache County Sheriff is Joseph Dedman Jr. who has the responsibility to uphold the law in all 11,000+ square miles of the region. Apache is larger than a few states in the country and is placed at the third spot among the 15 counties in the state.
The sheriff grew up in Nazlini, Arizona, a Navajo community which is about 15 miles north of Ganado, located in the northeastern portion of the state. He lost his mother at a young age and took care of various responsibilities since then. He has three sisters and a brother whom he would plant corn and take care of horses with during the summers.
As a young man, Dedman Jr. already knew about the value of working hard and caring for his family. He went to high school where he also managed to earn money not only for himself but for his siblings. He later pursued a career in law enforcement in which he stayed for almost 30 years. His job allowed him to serve US President Bill Clinton, Vice President Albert Gore and US Senator John McCain. He supervised their safety whenever they would visit the Navajo Nation.
Sheriff Joseph Dedman Jr. is responsible for the duties of law enforcement in Apache County, including the housing subdivisions and unincorporated towns. Currently, the sheriff’s office staff is comprised of 80 people, including communication specialists, detention officers, and administrative and maintenance staff. There are also 28 deputies who serve the office. Sheriff Dedman also allows volunteer assistance through the Reserve Deputy program, as well as with the help of both Northern and Southern Apache County Posses.
A few organized citizen groups help the sheriff’s office, too. It is also where the prisoners from all the county courts are housed, along with three incorporated police departments. The county jail has inmates who come from the Federal Bureau of Prisons while some prisoners are from the Arizona Department of Corrections.
A part of the Northern Apache County is made of Navajo Nation but the county still has the jurisdiction for the non-native Americans who live in the area. The sheriff’s office has its own communication center, which receives and dispatches routine calls, as well as 911 calls for every part of the county. The communication center is also responsible for receiving calls for three police departments in Apache, seven fire departments, and ambulance companies. It also assists the Arizona Game and Fish Officers and the United States Forest Service in taking calls and dispatching help.
Facts about the Apache County Jail
As mentioned, the Apache County Jail is situated in the city of St. Johns, its county seat. The jail is categorized as a medium custody jail, which means the inmates in the prison are eligible for work camp placement within a secure perimeter. However, they are not qualified to perform outside work without the supervision of armed personnel.
Different jurisdictions for offenders use the Apache County Jail, specifically those who have short state sentences. They typically have one year or less in their sentence. The jail also houses probation violators, as well as those who await trial or sentencing. Some inmates are those who wait for their court appearances and those who may not have the means to meet the bail requirements. While they need more time to come up with the financial demands for their release, they will have to stay in this jail.
The prisoners may be moved into this jail almost immediately after they have been arrested depending on their violation. In most cases though, they will have to be transferred to the jail from a detention center or a local holding cell within the Apache County.
Relatives and friends are allowed to talk to a counselor or a case manager regarding an inmate. Currently, there are no rehabilitation or education programs dedicated to the detainees in this county jail. One of the most common complaints of the inmates and their loved ones is that the prison can be quite crowded. With several prisoners coming in, they can easily exceed the design capacity of the county jail.
When it comes to addressing the medical needs of the prisoners, the county jail has its own medical section that offers assistance to the individuals who may need special care for their injuries or illnesses. Sometimes, the situation calls for more than the care that the jail can provide. When this happens, the inmate will be rushed to the hospital with the supervision of a security officer. In other cases, the inmate will be released from custody, particularly if the charge is insignificant.
On the other hand, if the inmate does remain under the custody of the county jail, it is the responsibility of Apache County to pay for all the costs of the treatment as long as the person remains in the hospital.
Quite a number of inmates complain about not doing much while in jail. No activities are provided for them except watching TV. Those who want to read in their cell are allowed to do so, as well as those who may want to visit the library. The prisoners often pass the time by playing cards and board games with other inmates where the top choices are checkers, dominoes, and chess. They also spend a lot of time talking with the other people in jail.
Inmates look forward to their meals, which the “trustees” or those who are considered low-risk prepare. These trustees are allowed to perform work in the jail as well as outside the premises. It is seldom that they truly know how to cook but they gain experience over time. A full-time cook oversees the activities in the county jail’s kitchen.
The building is made of solid concrete. Because of the hard and thick walls, the inmates cannot access fresh air freely. They are also not allowed to go out in the sun without the permission of the authorities. The ratio between guards and inmates are heavy so it will be a huge challenge for prisoners who may have plans on escaping.
The Apache County Jail includes a cage-like structure nearby where inmates can have some time off to perform activities, such as exercises, dip bars, and basketball. They can go to this section every other day and spend exactly an hour on it. The jail has cells that two men share. The inmates spend most of their time confined in these cells.
Directions from the County Seat to Phoenix, Arizona
For those planning to drive from St. Johns to Phoenix will have to travel more than 200 miles on the road. It will take almost four hours to get to the destination. Of course, the values mentioned are approximate. The accurate driving duration depends on several factors, including the type of vehicle used and the number of passengers in the automobile.
Apache County has a few major highways serving it, including Interstate 40, US Routes 60, 64, and 180, and State Routes 61 and 260. The fastest route to take to get to Phoenix from St. Johns is to via AZ-87, which can take approximately three hours and 48 minutes. The second fastest is via US Route 60 W, which adds about 10 more minutes to the travel time. Travelers should expect a bit of traffic, which usually does not get too heavy on normal days. The route starts from US Route 180 to AZ-61 W where driving can take about less than 10 minutes for the five-mile trip.
Drivers can take on the road until they reach Co Road 5020 and proceed to AZ-277 S passing through E Concho Highway. The path should continue to AZ-260 W in Heber-Overgaard and drivers can follow AZ-260 W up to AZ-87 all the way to E Washington Street, which is in Phoenix.
For those driving to Albuquerque in New Mexico, St. Johns is located along the most scenic and shortest route starting from Phoenix. About an hour of driving will lead to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, as well as the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National park, and the Lyman Lake State Park.
Along the way, there are more Indian reservations, including the Navajo Nation, San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, Zuni Indian Reservation, and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.