The story of a lonely Arizona pioneer named Gold Tooth Pranty
Fred Pranty was a rancher, prospector, hunter, and Arizona pioneer whose story was lost throughout history. He lived a solitary life in the Sierra Ancha mountains and was known as the greatest mountain lion slayer in the territory. He was said to have graced everyone’s dinner table and was a cheerful, joyful man who never bothered anybody. He was described as a medium built, fair complexion, finely educated man, and nobody could understand why he was out prospecting.
Fred was born Christopher Fredrick Prante to Ernist and Mary Prante on December 22, 1861, in Friendship Indiana. Fred and his family lived a rough life in Indiana. After suffering from years of depression, Fred’s father committed suicide. Mary Prante was left widowed with ten children.
She sent her two oldest sons to meet with her brother in Puru, Nebraska. She gave them the entire family savings to purchase land for a new settlement. The boys left with cash and returned with nothing. The Prante family would continue to live a rough life for the next ten years.
Fred’s story began when he was 17 years old. In 1879 Fred’s mother once again attempted to resettle near her family in Puru, Nebraska. Mary commissioned Fred to drive the family’s cattle to Paru, but once again, she was let down. Fred never arrived, and his family thought he had been killed.
Little did they know, he took off on his own and would become one of Arizona’s early pioneers. His whereabouts were unknown for the next 12 years until he eventually showed up in the Superstition Mountains in Arizona.
Arizona pioneer days
In 1890 Fred arrived in Arizona under the name Pranty. He purchased B. L. Tiffany half interest in the Lewis and Tiffany ranch near Fish Creek. Lewis and Pranty Creek was named in their honor. Later, Fred Pranty’s name shows up on many mining records around Gisla, Payson, and Tonto Basin. In 1892 His name was found in Great Register at 30 years old and living in Globe and again in 1900 living in Payson.
John W. Lewis was a cattleman and miner who lived in Cave Creek, Arizona. In 1906 John Lewis and his brother Bill established the 6L Ranch and also dug into the mining industry. He also served as Sheriff of Cave Creek, Arizona, and discovered the massacre at Skeleton Cave.
|1907 map showing Lewis and Pranty Creek. The ranch was located somewhere in this area.|
“I am lying under the shade of a Mesquite at the edge of Flippin’s barley field, after a campfire dinner of Salt River fish and feeling quite comfortable and happy in spite of the heat. Mr. Flippin has just informed me that his thermometer on the shady side of the house stands at 120 degrees. I have always found it hotter here than in Phoenix, but today there are compensations. Among them, the negligee that one wear in camp; and the fact that a heavy black thundercloud is just now threatening to glide over from the Sierra Ancha and give us a drenching.”
“We have come this far, Mr. J A Stewart and self on a trip to the head of the Salt River, where we intend to revel in mountain trout, deer, turkey, Indians and everything else that cannot be had in the valley. We came on horseback with pack mule from Gold Field, over a fearful and wonderful trail that hugs the south side of the river along the Box Canyon. It is a wild and lonely region of gloomy mountains, with bare rocky slopes, dizzy precipices, and impassable gorges, and the descent of the trail into Fish Creek Canyon, down a succession of precipices and terraces for 1200 ft at an angle of about 15 degrees from the perpendicular, is an engineering feat that, were it better known, would place the names of Lewis and Pranty, its Constructors, high up on the proud pinnacle of fame.”
“Louis and Pranty are Cattleman, and at the ranch where the canyon is shaded by sycamores and a cold spring burst out of the black soil, we spent the night. Their dwelling would have been a splendid model of a hunter’s cabin for the World’s Fair, so filled is it with trophies of the chase. Skins of lion, wildcat, deer, coon, and fox cover the walls, antlers do duty on all sides for racks and over the fireplace are arranged half-a-dozen Fierce, grinning skulls of mountain lion. So numerous were the ladder varmint on their range, that they imported three fine hounds and became hunters perforce. This was two years ago, and since that time, they have hunted down and killed 34 lions.”
“But before I forget, I must tell you the story of an Indian killing that occurred in a large cave on the north side of Salt River Box Canyon, as it was told to me by Mr. Lewis, the discoverer of the cave.”
“4 years ago Louis was exploring along the bustling cliffs on the north side of Box Canyon, near Cedar Canyon, when climbing down the summit, he came to a little shelf we’re over 60 cartridge shells lay and scattered manner. Looking over the cliff from where he stood, he discovered that the point commanded a view into a cave some 80 feet beneath him, on the floor of which he could see a heap of bleaching bones. The pile of empty cartridge shells taken in connection with the heap of bones formed a coincidence to ominous and too suggestive to be discarded, so descending into the bottom of the canyon, he searched and found an entrance to the cavern. Here he was confronted by a startling sight. The floor of the cabin, which was nearly 100 ft in length, was literally covered with bones and fragments of bones and grinning skulls. He counted sixteen human skeletons entire, and from the other crumbling fragments, he estimated many more. Lying here and there among the ghastly remains are 12 or 15 butcher knives and many Indian baskets and broken earthenware.”
“Great was his desire to learn the time and cause of this wholesale Massacre. His curiosity was not satisfied until a year later, when he met Al Sieber, the old-time chief of Scouts, and describe the cave to him. Sieber told him that in 1872 he was scouting on Salt River Canyon with a band of Pima Indians who were employed as Government Scouts. He was camped on the river above the Box at the place now known as Coffins Ranch, when one afternoon the Pimas, who had been nosing around for Apaches, brought in the word that they had discovered a cave full of them. They were eager to be allowed to attack them, and accordingly, after dark, he led to the vicinity of the cave, and all ensconced themselves at points of vantage to await the dawn. Just before day, he gave the word, and the Pimas turn themselves loose, and the slaughter commenced.”
“From the bed of the Salt River, one cannot see into the cave, but by directing their shots at its flaring roof, the balls were deflected downward onto the helpless victims to the farthest end of the chamber.”
“That is all there is to tell. When they thought all were dead, they entered and finished the survivors. Sieber counted 59 bodies, of bucks, squaws, and papooses; but one of them escaped, for years afterward an Apache on the reservation told Sieber that he was in the cave at the time and had hidden himself under the heap of dead until the attacking party had departed. Mr. Sieber presented me with one of the butcher knives that he had found in that blood-stained cave, which I shall bring home as an addition to the CJ Dyers curio collection.”
Phoenix Weekly Herald – July 2nd, 1896
In 1898, Fred and partner Davin Gowan discovered a coal deposit along Turkey Creek at a survey marker along the mineral belt railroad. One coal bed was 20 inches, and the other was 4 feet in diameter. The coal was described to be of first-class quality and burned very well.
In 1899 Fred discovered a copper and gold deposit along Gun Creek in the Sierra Ancha range. The claims were bonded to Winslow investors, and four teams of men and supplies were sent to do development work. Work quickly begun to extract the valuable minerals from the Earth. Throughout time, four adits and two vertical shafts were dug, and an unknown amount of ore was processed. During this time, a cabin was built, and Fred called Gun Creek home.
|Fred’s cabin sits propped up on a rock retaining wall near Gun Creek.|
|A closer look at the front. It’s built strong with steel wire and massive vertical timbers in each corner. You can see the mine behind the cabin.|
|The front window to the left and shingling to the right.|
|A look at the side and rear of the cabin. It looks to be a storage area of some sort.|
|The rear door was right up against a mountain.|
|A look inside the Black Warrior mine.|
|The door to the mine was cool! The whole tunnel was timbered with raw Cedar logs.|
|The doorway was made from a Hamelton Shoe Company crate.|
|The current resident of Fred’s cabin. A Black-Tailed rattlesnake, and he didn’t make a sound.|
|A look through Fred’s side window. Not much to see anymore.|
|A look inside the cabin at a shelf on the wall. Wonder what Fred kept here?|
|Looking into Fred’s cabin from the front door.|
In 1900 Fred was in charge of the Bonacker Pack Train and made frequent trips from the Mogollon Rim to Globe. E. C. Bonacker was a merchant and postmaster of Payson and a close friend of Fred Pranty. Bonacker supplied freight services to two apple orchards below the rim. Fred was in charge of hauling freshly picked mountain apples over 100 miles through the most unforgiving terrain.
Fred’s last days in Gun Creek
On the second day of December in 1924, Just a few weeks before his birthday, Fred dropped all but two of his burros off at the Wilbanks Ranch just a few miles east from his cabin. He told the Wilbanks family during dinner he was going to “fatten them up” while he was on a 10-day prospecting trip in the Sierra Ancha mountains. This was the last time anyone ever saw Fred Pranty.
Eventually, his absence was noticed when his two burros wandered in the Ogilvie Ranch near Tonto Natural Bridge. One burro carrying Pranty’s chuck box and bedroll while the other carrying his saddle. A local rancher formed a posse of cowmen, and an investigation of his cabin revealed a locked door, a coffee pot on a charred fire, his watch on the table, and his rifle on the wall, but no clue of his whereabouts.
Upon reporting their suspicions to the justice of the peace in Payson, they were ordered to retrieve Fred’s belongings for safekeeping. When they returned, his cabin had been looted. His disappearance became the talk of the rim country, and the search for his body continued for years. Some speculated he struck it rich and was murdered.
|Wilbanks Ranch, formerly known as Soldiers Camp|
|The Wilbanks Ranch is private property. No Trespassing!|
|Corral at Wilbanks Ranch|
Eventually, Fred’s mining claim in Gun Creek expired and was up for grabs. Dudge and Albert Greer started shipping ore from the mine. While prospecting, they would hunt for food. One afternoon while staring over a bluff, Dudge Greer spotted Fred’s skull from above. His remains were found showing the devastation of time, weather, and the varmint he hunted. A bullet hole in the skull and broken leg bone suggested he took his own life to ease the agony of pain. Fred Pranty died at the age of 62 years old.
|Sheep Basin Mountain, where Fred’s bones were found. The specific site is to the far right in this photo.|
“There was bones and equipment scattered all over, probably scattered by rains and animals. There were shovels and picks, a canteen, pack saddle. It was initialed F.P.”
– Dudge Greer
His revolver and miners pick was found nearby and was used to identify him. Fred’s signature marking, three dots identifying his tool were evident. Carrel Wilbanks was called to serve on the coroner’s jury and agreed. He presented a hammer that Fred had given him years earlier with the same three dots. Carrol Wilbanks also confirmed the revolver found, indeed, belonged to Fred Pranty.
“The pick had three dots on it made with a centerpunch, just like the hammer, and I identified his gun. Course I didn’t have a serial number, but it was a .380 automatic like he owned. We decided it was Fred Pranty all right and that he must have shot himself.”
– Carrel Wilbanks
His bones were loaded in a burlap gunny sack and taken to the justice of the peace in Payson. There, they sat in a jail cell for 14 years. Fred wasn’t put to rest until May 27, 1938, when Hal Greer was elected Justice of The Peace. Hal Greer cleaned house at the old jail. After discovering Pranty’s remains for a second time, Hal Greer ordered his remains to be buried in the Payson Pioneer Cemetary. His remains were put in a coal can and buried just inside the gate near a large oak tree.
“Well, sir, they took them bones up to the jailhouse in a gunny sack, threw em on the shelf, and forgot about em. It wasn’t until sometime after Hall Greer got elected justice of the peace that he got to nosing around and found they had an unauthorized inmate in the jail and took the bones down to the old Payson cemetery and buried em”
– Carrel Wilbanks
|Fred Pranty’s grave in the Payson Pioneer Cemetary.|
“Aside from the fact that it was plain sacrilegious, it made me mad to think old man Pranty had to spend years in jail after he died.”
– Hal Greer
Even though Fred’s mother Mary was let down again, she eventually made it to Puru, Nebraska. She died May 1, 1911, and is buried in Mount Vernon cemetery.
It’s unclear why Fred decided to leave his family. Regardless, 40 years later, his Niece wanted to know what exactly happened to uncle Fred. Louis Prante Stevens, the niece of Fred Pranty, started her research in 1976 after her cousin found a topo map listing Lewis and Pranty Creek. She eventually came to Arizona and met with Carrel Wilbanks, The only person still alive who knew Fred.
She published her story in True West Magazine in March of 1978 titled “Mystery of Pranty Wash” In that story, she writes,
“We think he should be remembered and perhaps even celebrated, not only because he was one of our early western pioneers, but because he is likely the only man in history to spend upwards of ten years in jail for committing suicide. He must have been a model prisoner, certainly made no complaints, gave them not one whit of trouble, or even put them to any expense, yet they never gave him one day off for good behavior!”
It’s unclear if Lewis and Pranty were the constructors of the original descent into Fish Creek. The article describes a trail that hugs the salt river near Skeleton Cave. I speculate the story mentioned above describes present-day county road 80 that heads to the dam at Apache Lake.
Research continues on the Pranty family and Fred’s mark on Arizona history.