Q&AZ: How Did Tonto National Forest Get Its Name?

By Bridget Dowd
Published: Monday, December 23, 2019 - 1:47pm
Updated: Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 11:34am

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Tonto National Forest
U.S. Forest Service
Tonto National Forest.

Through our Q&AZ reporting project, a listener asked how the Tonto National Forest got its name.

In short, it’s because the Tonto Basin lies at the forest’s core. But, that still raises the question: Where did Tonto come from?

The basin is the center of the area historically inhabited by the Tonto Apache. But there are many connotations for the word, and it’s unclear which one is intended.

Steve Germick is an archaeologist with the forest, and he’s been there since 1988. He said the Chiricahua’s term for the Tonto Apaches could translate to “those you don’t understand.”

“The Tonto Apache intermarried with the neighboring Yavapai who spoke a different language," Germick said. "These groups would speak both Yavapai and the local Apache dialect, which would make it difficult for other Apache groups to communicate with the Tonto.”

Tonto also could mean “silly” or “fool,” and some historians believe they were called that because they chose to live in a very rugged area.


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