Stoneman Lake has been known to white people since the 1500s and has important ties to local historic characters.
Forty six miles south of Flagstaff, Arizona, at the bottom of a steep, gravelly path, lays Stoneman Lake. For years, this small, shallow lake (an area of 100 acres and an average depth less than 10 feet) has been a favorite spot for bird watchers, fishermen, and other outdoor enthusiasts, and today, numerous cabins that are seasonally occupied dot its circumference.
For others, Stoneman Lake is just the name on a sign along I-17. To those interested in history, it is a reminder of some important characters in Arizona history.
Early Exploration of Stoneman Lake
The first white person to see Stoneman Lake was likely Antonio de Espejo, a Spanish conquistador. From 1582-1583, Espejo led an expedition of twelve soldiers, several friars and servants, and 115 horses and mules. Originally designed as a rescue party to find a missing Franciscan friar, the group traveled from Mexico to New Mexico and Arizona.
The mission was later modified to explore the mineral and other natural resources of the area. In Arizona, Hopi guides introduced the party to the Verde Valley where, among other places, they stopped at what eventually became known as Stoneman Lake.
Francisco Chavez and George Stoneman
In 1863 Arizona became a U.S. territory and John Goodwin was named the first territorial governor. To ensure Goodwin’s safe arrival to his new post, a military contingent was assigned to escort Goodwin from New Mexico to the Prescott area. The leader of the group was Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Chavez, whose family was well known in New Mexico.
Because of his importance and fame, the Chavez name became the namesake of several features in the area – Chavez Road, which ran from Verde Valley to what is known today as Winslow; Chavez Pass, on the Mogollon Rim; and Chavez Lake.
The name Chavez Lake only lasted a few years, until the editor of a Prescott newspaper, John Marion, changed it to Stoneman Lake around 1869-1871. George Stoneman was an army officer who first came to Arizona in 1846. He fought with the Union Army in the Civil War, for which he was later immortalized in a song written by Robbie Robertson and first recorded by The Band in 1969. The second line of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down bears out “Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again”.
In 1869, Stoneman was named the military commander of the Department of California, a district that included the Arizona Territory. One of his primary duties was to quell the various Indian uprisings in the area, a goal that he never was able to accomplish. He lasted two years in this post, being replaced by the incomparable General George Crook. It was during this short-lived tenure that Stoneman’s name was forever linked with the lake.
Today, Stoneman Lake is just a footnote in Arizona history, but the names associated with it represent some of the important characters in Arizona history.
- Trimble, Marshall. 1986. Roadside History of Arizona. Mountain Press.