The Prize for Capturing Geronimo, Part I
By Joel Kolander
Lieutenant Colonel George Crook was not having a good time. Everything should have been falling in to place. He was a nationally recognized military man whose career included decades of service. He was a renowned “Indian fighter,” having moved many Native American groups off their lands when such activities were considered desirable. Though, even among the Native Americans he was revered among them as a white man they could trust. Crook respected Native Americans, viewed them as honorable warriors, and after removing a tribe treated them humanely, helped them grow crops, and even found some employment. This was in line with the view of those who saw reservations as essential to the long-term survival of the Native Americans. Red Cloud, Chief of the Lakota, is noted as saying, “Crook never lied to us. His words gave the people hope.” He was even honorably nicknamed Nantan Lupan by the Apache, which translates as “gray wolf.” Besides his superior reputation on both sides of the Indian Wars, Crook also enjoyed professional success. He was promoted numerous times throughout his career, peaking as the head of the Department of Arizona.
Despite all that, he couldn’t seem to nail down one final loose end: Geronimo.
The wily leader of the Apache lost his entire family, mother, wife, and three children after they were slain by Mexicans months shy of his 22nd birthday, thus kindling a lifelong hatred for the country and its people. After grieving his family, he was a changed man. Once an amicable husband and doting father, he became understandably bitter and unpredictably violent. Many former friends avoided him completely, and his need to spill Mexican blood grew to an obsession. It resulted in numerous revenge raids and perpetuated the constant violence that already existed between the Apaches and Mexicans dating back to the late 17th century. In the years between 1820 – 1835 Apaches killed more than 5,000 Mexicans and demolished roughly 100 villages, causing several Mexican states to place a bounty on Apache scalps in 1835, offering 100 pesos (the equivalent of one silver dollar) for the scalp of a brave. Later, Chihuahua offered even greater rewards: $100 for braves, with lesser amounts for (presumably alive) women and children. Prices would increase and decrease as conflicts heated and cooled, though $100 was already more than some men could earn in a year. Not to mention that one could often keep the goods and livestock of the Native Americans one killed. All this further fueled the conflict, bloodshed, and distrust between Mexicans, Americans, and the Apache.
While Geronimo’s feud initially existed largely with the Mexicans, it’s not difficult to see how that violence spilled over to those early settlers and travelers in the Southwestern United States. Mexicans weren’t the only ones collecting scalp bounties, plus the whites were also busy settling on Apache lands. Regardless of who was killing who, or who was turning in human scalps as casually as trapped pelts, the violence against American citizens was something the Federal Government could not abide. While the market for Native American scalps (or those claimed to be) had largely dried up by the 1880s, the memories and hatred were still fresh as ever. This was the setting that Crook inherited in 1882 (some say the spring of 1883) as head of the Department of Arizona.
Crook had ascended the ranks in his time of military service. He had performed nobly in dozens of engagements in the Civil War, and already had a fine reputation against Indians after his performance in the Snake War, the Tonto Basin Campaign, and the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. Prior to his posting of supervising an entire state, he served as the head of the Department of the Platte from 1875 – 1882. In that role he oversaw Nebraska, the Dakota Territory, the Utah Territory, Iowa, and part of Idaho. He also helped conquered tribes on numerous occasions by speaking on their behalf in Washington, setting up irrigation projects, finding jobs, ensuring equal pay for Native American workers, and seeking markets for their newly grown crops. All this in spite of a large segment of the population that wanted all Native Americans dead, and a military supply industry that profited the most when Native Americans were hostile.
However, Crook also had his failures, though arguably of lesser consequence. After being nominated to the United States Military Academy by his congressman, he graduated near the bottom of his class. At the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in the Civil War, while attempting to cross a creek, his high topped riding boots filled with water, and he became swamped, requiring his men to pull him by his arms to the opposite shore. Later that battle, some sources say he became so fatigued with excitement and exertion that he grew faint and was unable to mount a successful pursuit of Confederate sources, that duty then fell to future President Rutherford B. Hayes. He would be captured by Confederate forces in 1865. Even in his finest hour, the Snake War, after ordering a charge on an Indian village from his safe vantage point, his horse spooked and ran ahead of his own troops, placing him squarely in the cross fire of both forces. Thankfully his horse continued through the village and both horse and rider emerged unscathed. Perhaps most damning, is that some historians still debate whether Crook’s failure to pursue the Sioux and Cheyenne forces at the Battle of the Rosebud, contributed to the massacre of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn – a far greater consequence than some waterlogged boots.
Which Crook would show up to drive the Apache from the Southwest United States: the successful rising star or the embarrassed soldier with the devil’s own luck?
The Game is Afoot
Crook did plenty to help the Native Americans when he wasn’t kicking them off their land and working to place them in reservations. He developed several tactics that were successful for decades. The first was his use of Native American scouts of the tribe he was pursuing. Utilizing the knowledge of native peoples to navigate was nothing new, but using Native American’s knowledge against their own people was. Those scouts not only had the potential to serve as translators, but also knew of their people’s routes, clandestine camps, and how the tribe was trained to avoid detection. They proved themselves to be an invaluable asset time and time again. Crook also was known for his heavy use of pack animals, especially mules. By keeping the majority of supplies on the pack animals, his cavalry could travel lighter, faster, and farther. He hoped to use these same tactics to capture Geronimo when charged with the task in 1883.
Geronimo had been placed on a reservation before. When the Chiricahua Apache were under command of Cochise, they had made peace and agreed to relocate to a reservation. Not long after that arrangement, Cochise died in 1874. Without the cooperation of Cochise things began to spiral out of control. After the sale of whiskey to some Apaches resulted in the death of two white men in 1876, the U.S. decided to dissolve the reservation in the Chiricahua Mountains and move its inhabitants to the San Carlos reservation in southeast Arizona, also known as “Hell’s Forty Acres.” A great number made the move, almost 4,000, but many escaped with Geronimo to Mexico. Those that stayed were subject to the treachery of those in charge of their welfare. Rations were shorted, but charged the same to the government, scales were tampered with during the sale of goods, and the reservation, originally totaling some 5,000 square miles, was gradually made smaller and smaller by whites who kept finding things they wanted along its border, such as silver, copper, and coal. The very next year, 1877, Geronimo surrendered at the Ojo Caliente Reservation in the New Mexico Territory, but a change in management of the reservation, brought about by ego-driven politics in the U.S. Army, resulted in his release. He returned once, in 1880, out of necessity after a long, hungry winter in the Sierra Madres, but his stay would be a short one. After a spiritual leader was arrested and the resulting riot was initially quelled, Geronimo heard rumors that he would also be arrested or worse, and so stole away again into Mexico with 74 others. In the following two years, he and his band took part in increasingly bold and violent raids, stealing property, and killing residents including women and children. It was these atrocities that lead the U.S. and Mexico to a compromise that allowed each nation’s lawmen/troops to cross one another’s borders when in “hot pursuit” of the outlaw Apaches.
Once placed in charge and the recent accord with Mexico in place, it didn’t take Crook long to locate Geronimo. He took 193 Native American scouts with him, and first hand accounts mention Tom Horn serving as an interpreter on the trek though the boulder and crevasse strewn desert landscape of the Sierra Madre. Many Apache were convinced to return to the San Carlos reservation, but Geronimo and others did not return until the next year, 1884. Once on the reservation Crook began treating the Apache civilly and implementing programs to benefit their stay, but the surrounding communities saw the treatment and felt it was too kind for a group that had raided their cattle, plundered their lands, and killed their friends and neighbors.
This atmosphere was combined with whites trying to remove several brutal Apache practices from the reservation, such as cutting the nose tips off of unfaithful women, what one source calls “vicious wife-beating,” but most importantly a prohibition on alcohol. Mixed together, all these things compelled Geronimo to act out by brewing a small batch of corn-based beer to protest the conditions. Instead of a reaction, Geronimo received no response at all due a communication error in the Army involving an extremely hungover officer. Geronimo and his band waited, waited, and waited some more before finally growing tired of their staged act and leaving the reservation. All in all 42 men and 92 women and children escaped. As the escapees made their way south again toward the inhospitable lands that made them nearly impossible to capture, they gathered supplies. One unfortunate family in their path was that of a man known only to history as “Phillips.”
Phillips owned a ranch outside Silver City and the Apache badly needed supplies for their journey. It is not specifically mentioned, but little doubt can exist that Phillips would not have been too keen on giving up his food and stock. Unfortunately, it cost him and his family their lives. When a posse arrived, his wife and infant child were found dead, but Phillips’ five-year old daughter was hanging by a meat hook that had been plunged into the base of her skull. She was still alive, a condition that would last only hours.
Crook was furious at the renewed violence and the incompetence of the men responsible for not responding to Geronimo’s insubordination. It would be no small task to capture an Apache that didn’t want to be caught, especially an angered one. If Crook didn’t already feel the urgency of the situation, the strong pressure of the U.S. Government to again rein in the Apaches was nearly crushing. Perhaps it was Crook’s anger and perhaps it was his knowledge of the arduous task that lay before him, but he wasted no time assembling the largest force up to that time in the Apache Wars: some 20 cavalry companies, more than 200 Native American scouts, dozens of pack animals, and extra surgeons; over 3,000 men in total.
The hunt for Geronimo was on.
Capps, Benjamin. The Old West: The Great Chiefs. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, 1981. Print.
http://www.discoverseaz.com/History/Crook_Miles.html (1st hand account of Crook)
http://www.discoverseaz.com/History/Miles_Geronimo.html (Miles, Lawton’s boss)