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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
Chato—who later became Lieutenant Britton Davis’ most devoted scout—unwittingly made a serious mistake in the spring of 1883. Like many of the Apaches still at large, his fighters had managed to equip themselves with Winchester repeating rifles—booty from assaulted pack trains and ranches. The Winchester was a fine weapon, with a more lethal capacity than the ordinary rifles of the Mexican and American armies. But ammunition for it was hard to get. Usually it meant a sally across the border into American territory, where opposition from the far-ranging troopers was sure to be tough and persistent.
Chato took the risk, and in true Apache style engaged in a certain amount of rapine along the way. Near Silver City, New Mexico, on the morning of March 24, 1883, his band of twenty-six encountered Judge H. C. McComas, driving his wife and six-yearold son toward Lordsburg in a frontier wagon. They were a prominent family, but to Chato they were just ordinary white settlers, and fair game. His band descended on the McComas wagon like wolves, shot the judge seven times, clubbed the resisting Mrs. McComas to death, and rode off with Charlie McComas as a captive. A stagecoach reached the scene soon afterward, and by the next day a new wave of public exhortation was demanding an end to the Apache menace in the Southwest.
Chato and his party by this time had acquired their ammunition and slipped back into Mexico, having killed a couple of dozen other settlers in the process—but one of their number, a young man whom the American soldiers called Peaches because of his unusually light complexion, stayed behind. Britton Davis found him visiting some of his relatives near San Carlos, and arrested him without difficulty. More important, Peaches asserted that many of the Apache outlaws were growing tired of war, and he agreed to guide General Crook into the heart of the Sierra Madres—to their secret and almost inaccessible retreat. It was an opportunity not to be missed.
Crook’s carefully planned campaign into Mexico got under way on May 1, 1883. It was in several respects a novel expedition. For one thing, the American and Mexican governments had explicitly agreed that there was to be no difficulty about crossing the border as long as the object was the destruction or capture of the hostile bands. For another, the make-up of Crook’s force was a kind of double-or-nothing bet on the reliability of Indian auxiliaries: 193 of his fighting men were Apache scouts, well armed and selected for their superb physical fitness, while there were only 42 enlisted white soldiers and nine officers. Equipment was cut down to bare necessities. Except for the personal kit that no Apache warrior would travel without—a knife, an awl for sewing moccasins, and a pair of tweezers for plucking face hair—each man carried only his rifle, forty rounds of ammunition, one blanket, and a canteen of water. Rations and camp equipment were packed on the backs of hand-picked mules, organized into five trains and tended by Mexican packers.
According to Crook’s adjutant, Captain John G. Bourke, most of the outfit was in high spirits as they descended into northern Mexico toward the Sierra Madres, despite the rather depressing character of the countryside: On each hand were the ruins of depopulated and abandoned hamlets, destroyed by the Apaches. … The sun glared down pitilessly, wearing out the poor mules … slipping over loose stones or climbing rugged hills … breaking their way through jungles of thorny vegetation. … Through all this the Apache scouts trudged without a complaint, and with many a laugh and jest. Each time camp was reached they showed themselves masters of the situation. They would gather the saponaceous roots of the yucca and Spanish bayonet, to make use of them in cleaning their long, black hair, or cut sections of the bamboo-like cane and make pipes for smoking, or four-holed flutes, which emitted a weird, Chinese sort of music. …
Passing through the little towns of Bávispe and Basaraca, where they were feted with enthusiasm but little else by poverty-stricken Mexicans, they began to hear lurid tales of recent Chiricahua operations. The name of Geronimo was frequently mentioned, and Bourke concluded that the Mexicans regarded him as a kind of devil incarnate, “sent to punish them for their sins.”
By May 9, the expedition was well into the Sierra Madres. The going was extremely rough, up mountain trails so steep and narrow that five supposedly surefooted mules plunged over precipices to their death. Peaches led the command up and down the corrugated ridges and across deeply gashed canyons into country none of the white men had ever seen, and eventually they emerged from a gorge into a small natural amphitheatre some 8,000 feet up—a favorite camp site, the guide said, of Geronimo’s band. This eyrie was empty now; but a few days later Captain Emmett Crawford, pushing on with an advance party of Apache scouts, surprised a Chiricahua encampment, killed several of the hostiles, and captured four children and a young woman.
This proved to be the beginning of the end of the campaign. As the young woman told General Crook, her people were “astounded and dismayed” when they realized that the Americans, with Apaches as guides and allies, had penetrated to the innermost reaches of the Sierra Madres, where they had always felt safe from pursuit. Geronimo and Chato, she said, were away on a raid; but she was sure that when word of this new development reached them, they would find most of their warriors in a mood to surrender.