Editor's Note: The Yuma Sun is reprinting articles from past newspapers throughout the year as part of the Arizona Centennial celebrations, marking the area's history. This column is one in a series written by local historian Frank Love that appeared periodically in the newspaper.
Stagecoach service between San Diego and Tucson by way of Yuma started in 1870. From Yuma, then called Arizona City, the coaches followed a route east of here that had been used by the Butterfield Line before the Civil War.
The trail followed the Gila River much of the way so that water would be available. Instead of going through Telegraph Pass as the highway does today, drivers went around the north end of the Gila Mountains. When they reached a point about five miles west of Wellton, they changed teams at Mission Camp Station.
Charles Reidt managed Mission Camp Station with the assistance of his wife and a cook, “Old Tom” Oliver. Since the man who brought the stage from Yuma ended his run there, a relief driver was always present at Mission Camp, too.
All but Mrs. Reidt were killed at the station on Christmas Eve in 1870, and she was gravely wounded. Angered by the murders, Yumans demanded that Territorial Gov. Anson Safford take action against the killers, who had fled to Mexico. When they were never brought to justice, relations between Arizona Territory and the Mexican state of Sonora were almost irreparably damaged.
Reidt, his wife and relief driver James Lytle were sitting down to dinner at about 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve when there was a knock at the door. Reidt inquired, “Who's there?” and a stranger opened the door. He asked if he could purchase barley for his horse.
“I'm sorry, but I haven't any to sell,” Reidt replied. “We have only enough for the stage horses.”
“How much would you charge me to put my horse in your corral?” the man asked.
Before Reidt could respond, his dog, lying under the table, began to growl at the stranger. “Don't come in,” the station manager warned, fearing his dog might attack the man.
Without warning, the stranger in the doorway raised the rifle cradled in his arms and shot Reidt in the head. Followed by two other men, he ran into the station, firing another shot at Lytle, who had been standing by the stove. The driver collapsed in a pool of blood.
Hearing the commotion, the cook, “Old Tom,” ran into the room and was cut down by another round from the intruder's weapon.
The killer next aimed his weapon at Mrs. Reidt, but the family dog sprang at him, deflecting his shot. It struck her in the thigh, saving her life.
Dragging the wounded woman by the hair from the building, the three questioned her about money that they believed was there. Discovering that Tom Oliver was still alive, one of the assassins cut his throat.
The trio next looted the station. When some sheep herders approached, they interrupted their thievery and fled south for Mexico. They carried off guns, supplies, $150 in cash and five horses from the corral.
Yumans learned of the murders when the next stage from Tucson reached town. The driver described the carnage he saw at the station. He also reported finding a body on the road not far from Mission Camp. Presumably, it was another victim of the same gang.
Newspaper reports about the Mission Camp massacre don't tell how folks in Yuma knew the names of the murderers. Their names are given as Jesus Ortega, Tomas Sanchez and Pedro Pina in a letter to Gov. Safford. Written by Arizona City's mayor, James Barney, it demanded extradition of the three from Sonora.
Safford's first response was to offer a reward of $1,000 for the capture of the killers. When that brought no results, he sent his personal representative, George Cooler, to Sonora to see its governor.
The request to hand over three Mexican citizens to Arizona authorities couldn't have come at a worse time. Arizona had been a part of Sonora before the Mexican War. Many of our neighbors to the south felt the United States had robbed a poorer, smaller country of some of her best lands.
“No way,” was Gov. Pesqueira's response. While his reply was couched in polite diplomatic language, it was based solidly on a treaty between the United States and Mexico negotiated in 1861. Citing the document, Pesqueira pointed out that its language said, “Neither of the contracting parties are bound by the stipulations of this treaty to make delivery of their common citizens ... “
As far as can be learned here, the Mission Camp murderers were never punished.