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It took five thousand American troopers a year and a half to run down the great Apache raider and his lethal band. They did it by tough persistence and skill—or was it guile?
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
As a result of a fine Civil War record plus some outstanding exploits against the Yakimas and Paiutes in the eighteen fifties and sixties, Crook already had a high reputation when he was assigned as commander of the Department of Arizona in July, 1871, at his brevet rank of brigadier general. With characteristic vigor and contempt for the orthodox, he launched a program of negotiation salted with chastisement that in. four years had most of the Apaches on reserves in New Mexico and Arizona. His campaign innovations included heavy reliance on pack mules instead of horses—because of their greater endurance and mountain-climbing ability—and selection and training of a corps of Indian scouts who soon gave new meaning to an old saying of the Southwest: “It takes an Apache to catch an Apache.” The idea of Chiricahua ex-warriors being deliberately armed and equipped by the Army and sent out to pursue their own kin struck many frontier observers with dismay; but Crook had learned that a counterpart to Indian ferocity was Indian loyalty—if his employers proved to be worthy of his trust.
Unfortunately, Crook had more to contend with than Apaches. His surprisingly successful efforts to teach the new reservation Indians the rudiments of farming were sabotaged by white greed for money and land. The business of supplying rations to the government for use by peaceful Indians was already one of the dirtiest in the annals of American enterprise. To cheat an Indian was commonly regarded as a perfectly good way to make a living, and Crook’s young officers fought an endless struggle against watered stock, false weights, and adulterated supplies. Nor could many white settlers tolerate the sight of Indians becoming self-sufficient on good, fertile land: it meant less business for contractors, and less land for whites. Through political manipulations, and against the protests of Crook and his staff, the Apaches were moved from the better reservations and concentrated at places like San Carlos, Arizona—an arid, treeless waste to which Lieutenant Britton Davis referred, not humorously, as “Hell’s Forty Acres.” It was small wonder that Apache warriors, remembering the free life of the cool and lovely mountains, drowned their bitterness in tiswin drunks or stupefied themselves with rotgut whiskey bootlegged in by avaricious white traders.
Crook’s policies were nevertheless so generally successful that in 1875 the War Department moved him to the northern plains, where he was soon deeply involved, along with such officers as George Armstrong Custer, against the hostile Sioux. By the time Custer and Crazy Horse had gone to their doom and things had quieted down in that region, the Southwest was again afire with Apache terror. Cochise, one of the trrbe’s great patriarchs, had died as a reservation Indian. But other chiefs who still revered the valiant memory of Mangas Coloradas had now taken over the leadership of the Chiricahuas and their cousins the Mimbrenos: Nana, Loco, Victorio, Naiche (son of Cochise), Chato—and Geronimo. Operating sometimes together and sometimes only with small, individual bands, these tireless outlaws rejected the miserable certainties of the reservation for the desperate freedoms of the old Apache way. Weaving back and forth across the Mexican border, they repeatedly ambushed both Mexican and American troops sent in pursuit of them; they slaughtered scores of civilians as well as soldiers, and stole hundreds of horses and whole herds of cattle. The success of their baffling maneuvers drew Indian recruits from the American reservations every time they swooped into New Mexico or Arizona, and the whole situation began to go—from the white point of view—precipitately downhill.
To try to halt the debacle, General Crook was ordered back to Arizona in the late summer of 1882. He began a series of patient interrogations and conferences with Apache leaders to discover their grievances, and he set about the unpleasant task of ridding the reservations of unscrupulous and grafting agents, squatters, and traders. In October he issued general orders to his troops that emphasized an approach to Indian affairs almost eclipsed since his departure from the Southwest in 1875. “One of the fundamental principles of the military character,” he said, “is justice to all—Indians as well as white men. … In all their dealings with the Indians, officers must be careful not only to observe the strictest fidelity, but to make no promises not in their power to carry out.” It was a noble ideal, and the final crisis of Crook’s career would come in a strenuous effort to make it a reality.
Crook’s enlightened attitude, coupled with the growing efficiency of his corps of mule-pack troopers and enlisted Apache scouts, soon began to bear fruit. Slowly but steadily the restlessness of the reservation Apaches subsided, and Crook was left free to operate against the holdouts, most of whom were Chiricahuas. The word from Mexico was that Victorio had been killed in action; but Chato, old Nana, and Geronimo were still enjoying themselves, stripping isolated Mexican settlements of everything worth taking and swiftly disappearing into the fastness of the Sierra Madres, where they drove off pursuing Mexicans with ridiculous ease.