Life in the Arizona Territory

The diary of a schoolteacher who worked in a remote town in the Arizona Territory.

Content Warning: This resource contains racist depictions of Indigenous people.

Document Text

I. On chores:
Saturday, October 16, 1880
Washed and ironed my belongings and it is quite a new way. We go to the creek bank, set a few rocks and build a fire; put a big zinc pail over it on the rocks and fill it with water. Then we take the one tub and put some water in it and soak the clothes. As we have at present no wash board, we hunt up a big rock, as nearly flat as possible, tote it to the edge of the water in the creek, and get another smooth round or oval one not very large. We take the clothes a piece at a time from the tub, put them on the big rock over which the creek flows, and soap them, then pound them well with the smaller rock. We keep them under the surface of the creek as long as we can. After we’ve hammered them we drop them into the zinc pail of hot water and cook them. Then we get another bucket, smaller, and a tin milk pan or two and rinse them and hang them out to dry on the sage brush and arrow weeds and various bushes… To my surprise my clothes look white and nice as if I’d had all the modern conveniences, and I washed over 80 pieces.
II. On an encounter with Apache warriors:
Monday, October 18, 1880
Up to the house with a horrible whoop rode a band of Indians. The chief rode his horse into the house but when he found he could not sit erect on the animal after he got inside and could barely turn around on him, he dismounted, turned, walking all over Mrs. H’s bed which was still on the floor and led him out. Then he returned followed by Indians till they quite filled the small room. We counted 14 and 1 half-grown boy. The bucks were in war paint and each had on a cartridge belt well filled, pistol in holster, a fine rifle in his hands, and all but one or two had big wicked looking knives. The boy had a knife and bow and arrows.(…)One of the ugliest and most hideously painted of the Indians came and stood as nearly in front of me as my position permitted. Of course I did not look up at him. I couldn’t, but putting his hand under my chin he jerked my head back with a force that nearly broke my neck. I looked at him then straight and unflinchingly in his cruel, gleaming eyes and I know I wondered if Satan in all his kingdom had a more fiendish looking devil.
III. On an unexpected classroom visitor:
Friday, November 12, 1880
I furnished a good deal of amusement for my school today quite unexpectedly. I was hearing a geography class and feeling something tugging at my dress as if there was a weight on it, shook it off and went on with my class. Presently feeling it again I looked down and there lying on my dress skirt, in array of sunlight, was as hideous a reptile as I’ve ever seen. He was black and yellow and tawny, and had a body like a monstrous lizard, a spiky-looking tail, and a head like a snake. It was over a foot long. “Lord!” I gathered up my dress, and with a yell one could hear a mile, jumped on the stool I had been sitting on.
Thursday, December 2, 1880
I’ve forgotten to say that the Gila Monster who gave me such a scare comes out every morning and suns himself. I’ve taken to picking him gingerly by the tail and putting him on the back of my desk where he lies out at full length in the sun. Sometimes he snaps up an unwanted fly and seems to enjoy himself greatly. I cease to fear him, though it will be long before I shall consider him handsome.

Stanley C. Brown, A Frontier Teacher in Tonto Basin: The 1880 Diary of Angeline Mitchell, 2018. Northern Gila County Historical Society.


The land that is now the state of Arizona was acquired by the United States after the Mexican-American War through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. Arizona was originally part of the New Mexico Territory. It became its own territory in 1863 and a state in 1912.

In the 1860s, miners discovered gold and silver in Arizona. This attracted many fortune seekers from the eastern United States. The territory had been home to Indigenous people, settlers of Mexican origin, and descendants of Spanish colonists. As more white settlers moved to the territory, the U.S. government wanted to give more land to white settlers. They pushed Indigenous people onto reservations, where resources were scarce and the land was difficult to cultivate. In 1880, the same year Angie Mitchell arrived in Tonto Basin in the Arizona Territory, the government forcibly relocated the Apache tribe to the nearby San Carlos reservation.

About the Resources

Angeline “Angie” Mitchell moved with her parents and brother to Prescott, the capital of the Arizona Territory, in 1875. She was 21 years old when she arrived. Angie previously worked as a teacher in Kansas and started teaching in the Arizona Territory in 1876. She took a teaching position in the remote Tonto Basin in 1880. Only a few families who ran ranches lived in the area.

During her time in Tonto Basin, Angie kept a diary. The diary is a rare glimpse into the daily life of a woman on the so-called frontier. The first excerpt describes the labor required to complete the basic task of laundry. The second excerpt describes an encounter with a group of Apache visitors. Angie’s inhumane description of her Indigenous neighbors is an important and painful example of the racism that informed and defined the relationship between white settlers and Indigenous communities. The third excerpt describes a Gila monster in Angie’s classroom. The poisonous lizard is native to Arizona.


  • cease: To stop.
  • gingerly: Carefully.
  • hearing: Teaching.
  • inhumane: Cruel.
  • jerked: To move suddenly or quickly.
  • pail: A bucket.
  • ranches: Large farms where people raise cattle.
  • tawny: Pale brown color.
  • territory: Land that is part of the United States but not a state.
  • tote: To carry.
  • unflinchingly: Strongly and steadily.
  • whoop: Loud shout.

Discussion Questions

  • How does Angeline describe life in Tonto Basin? How did she have to adjust to this new way of life?
  • How does Angeline describe the encounter with the Apache men? What does this tell you about her biases towards Indigenous people? Why is it important to read these kinds of accounts and think about the biases of white settlers?
  • Describe the environment of the Tonto Basin area. What challenges and opportunities did it present for settlers like Angeline?

Suggested Activities

  • White settlers like Angeline Mitchell played a role in the U.S. government’s treatment of Indigenous people. Consider how white women took part in this treatment by combining this resource with photographs of Carlisle Indian School, a speech against relocation, and the life story of Lozen.
  • Compare Angeline’s description of the Apache men to the life story of the Apache warrior Lozen. Ask students to think about how perspective can change our understanding of history and why giving voice to underrepresented people like Lozen is important.
  • Explore the experiences of female pioneers by pairing this resource with Exodusters and the life story of Polly Bemis. How did their backgrounds shape their experiences?
  • Pair this resource with the life story of Florence Merriam Bailey, another educated woman who left the comforts of city life behind for her career.



Source Notes