1890, the U.S. government officially declared the American Frontier closed.
With this act came the end of an era - the "Wild West" was considered
tamed. Frontier InfantrymanOnly a few years before, however, maps labeled
the area west of the Mississippi as "the Great American Desert"
- home only to wild animals and wilder tribes of Native Americans. This
situation was not to last, as the end of the Civil War ignited a great
westward migration. Prospectors, ranchers, farmers, settlers of all types,
began filling this "wasteland," transforming it to meet their
own needs and bringing with them the means to militarily subjugate the
Indian tribes that threatened this advance.
The end of the Civil War also brought a new type of military commander
to the West. One experienced in the practicalities of war and hardened
to the demands of combat. General George Crook epitomized this new breed
of Western General. His success in subduing the Indians of the Northwest
prompted President Grant in 1871 to order him to the Arizona Territory
to deal with the Apache raids on white settlements throughout the region.
Atrocities occurred on both sides. Apaches swooped down on isolated farms
and small settlements killing all. In retaliation, whites attacked peaceable
Apache camps, massacring innocent women and children. General Crook was
ordered to end the Apache raids and bring peace to the region.
His tactics were simple - relentlessly pursue the hostiles wherever they
may flee and provoke battle or surrender. Columns of infantry and cavalry
lead by friendly Apache scouts familiar with the land crisscrossed a region
until contact with the enemy was made. Crook began his campaign in December
1872. It ended in the spring of 1873 with the surrender of the hostile
elements of the Apache and their removal to the Reservation.
Attack On An Apache Fortress
Under cover of the cold darkness of the early morning of December 28,
1872, one of Crook's columns approached an Apache stronghold established
in a cave etched out of a sheer cliff bordering the Salt River. Captain
John G. Bourke led a unit engaged in the assault and recalled his experience
19 years after the event:
"We moved onward again for three or four hours until we reached a
small grassy glade, where we discovered fifteen Pima ponies, which must
have been driven up the mountain by Apache raiders that very night; the
sweat was hardly crusted on their flanks, their hoofs were banged against
the rocks, and their knees were full of the thorns of the cholla cactus,
against which they had been driven in the dark. There was no moon, but
the glint of stars gave enough light to show that we were in a country
filled with huge rocks and adapted most admirably for defense. There in
front, almost within touch of the hand, that line of blackness blacker
than all the other blackness about us was the canyon of the Salt River.
We looked at it well, since it might be our grave in an hour, for we were
now within rifle shot of our quarry.
Nantaje (an Apache scout) now asked that a dozen picked men be sent forward
with him, to climb down the face of the precipice and get into place in
front of the cave in order to open the attack; immediately behind them
should come fifty more, who should make no delay in their advance; a strong
detachment should hold the edge of the precipice to prevent any of the
hostiles from getting above them and killing our people with their rifles.
The rest of our force could come down more at leisure, if the movement
of the first two detachments secured the key of the field; if not, they
could cover the retreat of the survivors up the face of the escarpment.
Lieutenant William J. Ross, of the 2ISt Infantry, was assigned to lead
the first detachment, which contained the best shots from among the soldiers,
packers, and scouts. The second detachment came under my own orders. Our
pioneer party slipped down the face of the precipice without accident,
following a trail from pack-mulewhich an incautious step would have caused
them to be dashed to pieces; after a couple of hundred yards this brought
them face to face with the cave, and not two hundred feet from it. In
front of the cave was the party of raiders, just returned from their successful
trip of killing and robbing in the settlements near Florence, on the Gila
River. They were dancing to keep themselves warm and to express their
joy over their safe return. Half a dozen or more of the squaws had arisen
from their slumbers and were bending over a fire and hurriedly preparing
refreshments for their valorous kinsmen. The fitful gleam of the glowing
flame gave a Macbethian tinge to the weird scene and brought into bold
relief the grim outlines of the cliffs between whose steep walls, hundreds
of feet below, growled the rushing current of the swift Salado.
The Indians, men and women, were in high good humor, and why should they
not be? Sheltered in the bosom of these grim precipices only the eagle,
the hawk, the turkey buzzard, or the mountain sheep could venture to intrude
upon them. But Mounted Infantrymanhark! What is that noise? Can it be
the breeze of morning which sounds 'Click, click'? You will know in one
second more, poor, deluded, red-skinned wretches, when the 'Bang! Boom!'
of rifles and carbines, reverberating like the roar of cannon from peak
to peak, shall lay six of your number dead in the dust.
The cold, gray dawn of that chill December morning was sending its first
rays above the horizon and looking down upon one of the worst bands of
Apaches in Arizona, caught like wolves in a trap. They rejected with scorn
our summons to surrender, and defiantly shrieked that not one of our party
should escape from that canyon. We heard their death song chanted, and
then out of the cave and over the great pile of rock which protected the
entrance like a parapet swarmed the warriors. But we outnumbered them
three to one, and poured in lead by the bucketful. The bullets, striking
the roof and mouth of the cave, glanced among the savages in the rear
of the parapet and wounded some of the women and children, whose wails
filled the air.
During the heaviest part of the firing a little boy, not more than four
years old, absolutely naked, ran out at the side of the parapet and stood
dumfounded between the two fires. Nantaje, without a moment's pause, rushed
forward, grasped the trembling infant by the arm, and escaped unhurt with
him inside our lines. A bullet, probably deflected from the rocks, had
struck the boy on the The Attacktop of the head and plowed round to the
back of the neck, leaving a welt an eighth of an inch thick, but not injuring
him seriously. Our men suspended their firing to cheer Nantaje and welcome
the new arrival: such is the inconsistency of human nature.
Again the Apaches were summoned to surrender, or, if they would not do
that, to let such of their women and children as so desired pass out between
the lines; and again they yelled their defiant refusal. Their end had
come. The detachment left by Major Brown at the top of the precipice,
to protect our retreat in case of necessity, had worked its way over to
a high shelf of rock overlooking the enemy beneath, and began to tumble
down great boulders which speedily crushed the greater number of the Apaches.
The Indians on the San Carlos reservation still mourn periodically for
the seventy-six of their relatives who yielded up the ghost that morning.
Every warrior died at his post. The women and children had hidden themselves
in the inner recesses of the cave, which was of no great depth, and were
captured and taken to Camp McDowell. A number of them had been struck
by glancing bullets or fragments of failing rock. As soon as our pack-trains
could be brought up we mounted the captives on our horses and mules and
started for the nearest military station, the one just named, over fifty
Bourke, John G., General Crook In Indian Country, Century Magazine (1891);
Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American
"Battle With The Apache, 1872," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com