Life among the Apaches/Chapter 11


Letter from Senator Clemens.—Resign from the Boundary Commission.—Departure of the Commission.—New Expedition.—Ride up the Gila.—Terrible Conflict with Apaches.—Desperate Personal Encounter.—Defeat of the Savages.—Return of the Expedition.—Long for a Quiet Life.—San Francisco.—Cogitations on Indian Character.—Advice Given and Disdained.—The Fatal Results.—Necessity for Constant Caution.—Extent of Apache Country.—Numerical Strength of the Apaches.—Female Warriors.—False Impressions of Indian Character.

A week after our safe arrival in San Diego, worn-out and suffering from nearly two years' wandering upon the uninhabited deserts of Texas, Arizona, northern Sonora, and a portion of New Mexico, I received a warm, cordial and brotherly letter from the Hon. Jere Clemens, Senator from Alabama, who had been my Lieutenant-Colonel during a portion of the Mexican war, after the death of Col. Ransom, and the capture of Chapultepec, which letter informed me that although the appropriation for the Boundary Commission had passed Congress, yet John B. Weller, Senator from California, had managed to have inserted in it a proviso which would have the effect of rendering that appropriation unavailable, and that the probabilities were we would be disbanded in the deserts, without money, or the means of return to our friends and home at the East. He also advised me to leave the Commission, as we had arrived within the precincts of civilization, and pursue some other avocation. The advice and arguments of my former superior, whose kindness and remembrance had followed me throughout our toilsome and dangerous career, convinced my mind of their value, and I resigned my place in the Commission. Three weeks afterward it returned toward the East, while I remained in San Diego.

About a month after the Commission had departed, carrying with it my warmest and most kindly esteem toward its gallant and noble-hearted members, a small party of ten men was formed for the purpose of entering and exploring a portion of Arizona, with a view to locate and exploit some of its valuable gold and silver mines, and I was engaged as the interpreter and guide of the party, on a salary of five hundred dollars per month.

On an appointed day we started, and after a tedious march, reached the Colorado, which was then the theater of an active war against the Yuma Indians. Col. Heintzleman had arrived with his troops and had begun a vigorous campaign. We were immediately crossed by the guard in charge of the launch, and cautioned about the Yumas, who were then supposed to be in force on the Gila, about thirty miles from its junction with the Colorado. In consequence of this warning, we determined to proceed by night instead of day until we had passed the field occupied by the savages. The rumbling of our two wagons, and the watchful stillness of our party, impressed the savages with the belief that we were an armed body stealing a march upon them, and we passed unmolested in the dark, arriving at Antelope Peak in our march from Fort Yuma. Here we considered our selves comparatively safe from the Yumas, although exposed to visits from the Tonto Apaches, who inhabit the northern side of the Gila from Antelope Peak to the Pimo villages. Our party was well armed, each person having two revolvers, a good rifle and a large knife, and we felt ourselves equal to four or five times our number of Indians in an open fight, but were also aware that the utmost precaution was necessary at all times.

Just below and about what is known as Grinnell's Station the road is covered from four to five inches deep with a fine and almost impalpable dust, containing an abundance of alkali. The lightest tread sends it in clouds far over head, and a body of men riding together in close column are so thoroughly enveloped as to prevent the recognizing of each other at the distance of only three feet. In some places the road passes through the middle of an extensive plain, apparently incapable of affording covert to a hare. We had arrived at one of these wide openings, and were inclosed in a cloud of dust so dense as completely to bar the vision of all except the two who occupied the advance. One or two others attempted to ride on one side of the road, but the terrible thorns of the cactus and the pointed leaves of the Spanish bayonet which soon covered their horses legs with blood, and lamed the poor animals, induced them to resume the dusty road. No one expected an attack in so open, exposed and unsheltered a place, yet it was the very one selected for such a purpose. The wily savages knew that we would be upon our guard in passing a defile, a thick wood, or a rocky canon; and also judged that we might be careless while crossing an open plain. They were well acquainted with the dusty character of the road, and relying on it to conceal their presence, had secreted themselves close to its southern edge, awaiting our approach.

At a certain spot, where a dozen or two yucca trees elevated their sharp-pointed leaves about four feet above ground, and while we were shrouded in a cloud of dust, a sharp, rattling volley was poured into us from a distance of less than twenty yards. It has always been a matter of astonishment to me that none of our party were either killed or wounded; but we lost two mules and three horses by that fire. The dense dust prevented the Apaches from taking aim, and they fired a little too low. It was no time for hesitation, and the order was at once given to dismount and fight on foot. We could distinguish little or nothing; shot after shot was expended in the direction of the savages; now and then a dark body would be seen and made a target of as soon as seen. Each man threw himself flat upon the ground; but scarcely any could tell where his companions were. It was pre-eminently a fight in which each man was on "his own hook."

While we laid prostrate the dust settled somewhat, and we were about to obtain a good sight of the enemy, when John Wollaston cried out—"Up boys, they are making a rush." Each man rose at the word, and a hand to hand contest ensued which beggars all description. It was at this juncture that our revolvers did the work, as was afterward shown. Again the dust rose in blinding clouds, hurried up by the tramping feet of contending men. We stood as much chance to be shot by each other as by the savages. The quick rattling of pistols was heard on all sides, but the actors in this work of death were invisible. The last charge of my second pistol had been exhausted; my large knife lost in the thick dust on the road, and the only weapon left me was a small double-edged, but sharp and keen, dagger, with a black whalebone hilt, and about four inches long on the blade. I was just reloading a six-shooter, when a robust and athletic Apache, much heavier than myself, stood before me, not more than three feet off. He was naked with the single exception of a breach cloth, and his person was oiled from head to foot. I was clothed in a green hunting frock, edged with black, a pair of green pants, trimmed with black welts, and a green, broad-brimmed felt hat. The instant we met, he advanced upon me with a long and keen knife, with which he made a plunge at my breast. This attack was met by stopping his right wrist with my left hand, and at the same moment I lunged my small dagger full at his abdomen. He caught my right wrist in his left hand, and for a couple of seconds—a long time under such circumstances—we stood regarding each other, my left hand holding his right above my head, and his left retaining my right on a level with his body. Feeling that he was greased, and that I had no certain hold, I tripped him with a sudden and violent pass of the right foot, which brought him to the ground, but in falling he seized and carried me down with him. In a moment the desperate savage gained the ascendant, and planted himself firmly on my person, with his right knee on my left arm, confining it closely, and his left arm pinioning my right to the ground, while his right arm was free. I was completely at his mercy. His personal strength and weight were greater than mine. His triumph and delight glared from his glittering black eyes, and he resolved to lose nothing of his savage enjoyment. Holding me down with the grasp of a giant, against which all my struggles were wholly vain, he raised aloft his long, sharp knife, and said—"Pindah lickoyee das-ay-go, dee-dab, tatsan," which means, "the white-eyed man, you will be soon dead." I thought as he did, and in that frightful moment made a hasty commendation of my soul to the Benevolent, but I am afraid that it was mingled with some scheme to get out of my predicament, if possible.

To express the sensations I underwent at that moment is not within the province of language. My erratic and useless life passed in review before me in less than an instant of time. I lived more in that minute or two of our deadly struggle than I had ever done in years, and, as I was wholly powerless, I gave myself up for lost—another victim to Apache ferocity. His bloodshot eyes gleamed upon me with intense delight, and he seemed to delay the death-stroke for the purpose of gladdening his heart upon my fears and inexpressible torture. All this transpired in less than half a minute, but to me it seemed hours. Suddenly he raised his right arm for the final stroke. I saw the descending blow of the deadly weapon, and knew the force with which it was driven.

The love of life is a strong feeling at any time; but to be killed like a pig, by an Apache, seemed pre-eminently dreadful and contumelious. Down came the murderous knife, aimed full at my throat, for his position on my body made that the most prominent part of attack. Instantly I twisted my head and neck one side to avoid the blow and prolong life as much as possible. The keen blade passed in dangerous proximity to my throat, and buried itself deeply in the soft soil, penetrating my black silk cravat, while his right thumb came within reach of my mouth, and was as quickly seized between my teeth. His struggles to free himself were fearful, but my life depended on holding fast. Finding his efforts vain, he released his grasp of my right arm and seized his knife with his left hand, but the change, effected under extreme pain, reversed the whole state of affairs. Before my antagonist could extricate his deeply-buried weapon with his left hand, and while his right was held fast between my teeth, I circled his body and plunged my sharp and faithful dagger twice between his ribs, just under his left arm, at the same time making another convulsive effort to throw off his weight. In this I succeeded, and in a few moments had the satisfaction of seeing my enemy gasping his last under my repeated thrusts. Language would fail to convey anything like my sensations during that deadly contest, and I will not attempt the task.

About the same time the battle terminated with the defeat of our assailants, who lost ten killed and several wounded, how many we never knew. On our side, we lost one man—James Kendick—and had three wounded, viz: John Wollaston, John H. Marble and Theodore Heuston. Houston and Marble died of their wounds soon after reaching Tucson, although they received the kindest nursing and attention from that noble Castilian gentleman, Juan Fernandez, and his amiable family. This sad result broke up the party, and I returned to San Diego shortly afterward with a party of immigrants coming to California.

The above was one of the few occasions wherein the Apaches have boldly attacked travelers from whom they could expect no great booty and lose many lives in a conflict. They were probably incited to the surprise by some more than usually daring spirit, who planned the affair and trusted for success in its distinctive and unexpected nature. We were precisely in a portion of the country which afforded no ostensible covert, and consequently made us less cautious. They knew the character of the road, and the blinding nature and volume of the dust. They depended upon the first fire to slay a number of our party, and produce a panic among the survivors. They counted upon a surprise and an easy victory, and expected to inherit our horses, mules, arms and provisions. They had conceived well, and acted gallantly, but were frustrated, although the results were of the saddest nature to our small company, as they completely upset our original intentions by the death of Theodore Heuston, who was the capitalist and founder of the expedition.

This event initiated me into another phase of Apache character I had never before seen. It proved that they are capable of bold and dangerous undertakings under very adverse circumstances, or when the chances are nearly evenly balanced; but this seldom occurs, as they almost invariably have opportunities to examine, at their leisure, all persons or parties who enter the regions inhabited by them, and form their plans so as to take every advantage with the least possible chance of losing a man.

After my return to San Diego, I determined to forsake my wild, almost nomadic life, and return to civilized existence. I was tired and disgusted with the incessant watchfulness, the unceasing warfare, and unrequited privations I had suffered. Life had been a round of contentions for two years. I had passed through an unbroken series of tribulations and dangers during that period. Hunger, thirst, severe cold and excessive heat, with much personal peril, had been my invariable concomitants, and I panted for a more quiet life. San Francisco held forth the only inducement on this coast, and thither I wended my way, on the steamer Sea Bird, then commanded by Capt. Healey, with Gorman as mate.

As this narrative is wholly devoted to incidents and adventures among Indian tribes, the author will be excused from giving a recital of his life until he was again compelled, in obedience to orders, to renew acquaintance with nomadic races. It is sufficient to say, that twelve years elapsed before such intimacy was effected, faithful details of which will be given in the succeeding chapters.

During the period of quiescence from exciting life which succeeded two years' eventful wanderings across the North American continent, abundant opportunities existed for reconsidering and drawing just inferences from the past. The conclusions arrived at then appeared well founded, if judged from the light of the experiences through which I had passed; but a subsequent career, under unusually favorable circumstances, gave me to comprehend how much my early judgment had erred. I had seen but the outside—had witnessed but the husk; the interior—the kernel of the nut—still remained untasted and unknown. I had nattered myself with having achieved a fair knowledge of Indian character. I believe my personal observations had been sufficient to instruct me on that subject. Former travels through South America, from Buenos Ayres to Valparaiso—when I was a sort of captive among the Pategonian Indians for seven months—seemed to justify me in thinking I had made a correct analysis of Indian traits. But I was much in error. Sufficient credit had not been given to their mental powers, their ability to calculate chances, to estimate and foresee the plans of others, to take precautions, to manœuvre with skill, to insure concert of action by a recognized code of signals, to convey information to succeeding parties of the route, numbers and designs of those who preceded, and to bring together formidable bodies from distant points without the aid of messengers. Much, very much, was yet to be learned.

A boy of twenty years is very apt to credit himself with having acquired a very satisfactory idea of human nature, and no amount of instruction and advice from his elders will induce him to change his views until a fuller experience makes him realize the fact that when he thought himself master of the situation, he was in reality only entering upon its rudimental knowledge. Of all people, Americans seem less inclined to receive and profit by the advice of others founded upon a larger and more matured experience. They want to know for themselves, and place the most abiding faith in their own judgment and readiness of resource. They seem to regard a warning as a sort of reflection upon their personal courage or skill, and frequently treat friendly counsel with somewhat of petulance. A most lamentable instance of this nature occurred to myself. After my second term of military service in Arizona, I was returning home via Fort Yuma, when I received an introduction to a Paymaster, with the rank of Major, in the Regular service. Dr. Tappan, Assistant Surgeon of Volunteers, was present at the time, and asked me to favor him with some instructions in reference to the marches, camping grounds, distances, and dangers to be met on their projected route up the Gila river to the place formerly known as Fort Breckinridge. It was clearly my duty, as well as my pleasure, to put him in possession of all the knowledge I had gleaned in reference to these points, and I closed my information by tracing a map of the route, and volunteering advice to the following effect.

You must never, said I, permit your zeal to outrun your discretion. Remember that a well appointed and careful party may travel through Arizona from one year's end to the other, without ever seeing an Apache, or any trace of his existence, and from this cause travelers frequently become careless and fall an easy prey to their sleepless watchfulness. Indeed, it is not difficult to point out many who have no faith in their apparent ubiquity, but believe that they must be sought in their strongholds. There are others again who will not be convinced that the eyes of these Indians are always upon them, because they see nothing to indicate that fact; but the truth is, every move you make, every step you advance, every camp you visit, is seen and noted by them, with the strictest scrutiny. If they perceive that you are careful, prepared for any contingency, and always on your guard, they will hesitate about making any attack with ten times your force, especially if your party does not offer sufficient inducement in the matter of plunder. But if they observe the least neglect, or want of precaution on your part, you will be assaulted at the very moment, in the very place, and under circumstances when least expected, with every probability of success in their favor. I further remarked, your party, I understand, will be a small one, of not more than ten or twelve persons, including an escort of nine men of the Regular Infantry. None of these men have probably ever been in an Indian country, and, if they have, no experience elsewhere will avail them among the Apaches, whose mode of warfare is so entirely at variance with those of all other tribes. The Regular soldiers, in order to preserve the polish and fine appearance of their guns, are in the habit of carrying them in covers and unloaded. This should be avoided. The men should be made to carry their muskets loaded, capped, and ready for action at a second's warning. They must be restrained from straggling, and moved in such order as will guarantee the greatest amount of security to every individual. Special care should be observed soon after entering a camping ground, when the men generally lay aside their weapons and separate into detachments to bring wood and water. I cannot too strongly impress you with the necessity for a rigid observance of this caution in all cases where the party is small, and no sufficient armed body left in camp, or provided as guards for the protection of those engaged in other necessary duties.

Dr. Tappan thanked me cordially for the information imparted, and especially for the advice given in relation to the Apaches, but the Major rather coolly intimated that he was quite capable of managing his own affairs, and had seen enough of Indian life to put him in possession of all necessary information. I touched my cap and withdrew somewhat mortified. Soon afterward intelligence was received that the Major, Dr. Tappan and three others had been killed at the Cotton-wood Springs, by the Apaches. It seems that soon after entering upon the camp ground, the party broke into small unarmed squads, which went in search of wood and to bring water, when their ever-watchful and tigerish foes seized the opportunity to dash in and massacre all they could. In this miserable manner the lives of two valuable officers and three brave men were sacrificed for the want of a little caution which could have been easily exercised.

Let it be borne in mind at all times that the Apaches have scarcely ever been known to make a fighting attack at night. Under cover of the darkness they will steal into camp and conceal themselves from detection with wondrous skill, in the hope of effecting a robbery; but that is the extent of their night operations, unless they become emboldened by the most reckless and foolhardy carelessness. Their onslaughts are almost invariably made by day, and at such times and places as tend to impart the greatest sense of security. When they mean mischief no marks are to be seen—no traces, no tracks, no "signs" discoverable. The unsuspecting traveler, lulled into, a fatal belief that none of them are near, relaxes his caution, and is caught as surely as the spider meshes the confiding fly. I have seen men, who, being in company with large and well armed parties, had never seen an Apache after a year of wandering in their country, actually doubted the existence of those savages except amidst their strongholds, until a recklessness begotten of unbelief, induced them to relax their watchfulness and incur special risks. In some cases, they have succeeded and got off scot free, but in ninety out of a hundred they have either fallen victims to misplaced confidence, or escaped almost by miracle. Let no one flatter himself with the idea that, from the moment he has passed the Pimo villages, he is at any time unobserved by the Apaches. Being a non-productive race, subsisting wholly on plunder and game, and incapable of providing a commissariat which will maintain any considerable body for even a week or two, they are scattered in small but active parties throughout the whole of Arizona, a large part of New Mexico, and all the northern portions of Chihuahua and Sonora, and in some parts of Durango. The territory over which they roam, and in which they appear to be ubiquitous, is more than three times larger than California; and California possesses more area than all the New England States, together with New York and New Jersey. This is to say, that the country over which the Apache race holds the mastership—which is literally the fact—is nearly as extensive as all the States which border on the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico put together. No great expenditure of arithmetic is necessary to prove that, to domineer over a region so vast, to guard all its passes, to keep watchmen on all the principal heights overlooking the plains usually traveled, to keep up a regular system of videttes over its expanse, to strike a half dozen places two and three hundred miles apart at the same time, to organize parties for scouring the wide valleys and attending the movements of travelers, and to be a terror and a scourge throughout its whole area, must employ the utmost resources, activity and energy of a numerous people, exceedingly vigilant and rapid in their movements.

Casual observers have, unintentionally, done serious evil by underrating their real strength, to an extent almost inconceivable among those who are better informed. I have been in company with a body of fifteen hundred at the very time that intelligence was received that a half dozen other parties, numbering from twenty to three hundred each, were actively engaged in committing depredations at other points embraced in a radius of five hundred miles, and yet I have seen the number of Apaches estimated as low as fifteen hundred and two thousand. Nearly eight years of personal experiences have satisfied me that the Apache race, collectively, will number fully twenty-five thousand souls. In this estimate the Navajoes and Lipans are not included, but those are who inhabit portions of northwestern Mexico. Of this number five thousand are capable of taking the field and bearing an active part in their system of warfare. A boy of fourteen is quite as formidable an antagonist as a man of forty. From behind his rocky rampart or wooded covert he speeds a rifle ball as straight to the heart of his foe, while his chances for escape, in the event of failure, are greater than those of his more aged and heavier associate. Many of the women delight to participate in predatory excursions, urging on the men, and actually taking part in conflicts. They ride like centaurs and handle their rifles with deadly skill. I cannot conceive why the bullet sped by a woman should not be quite as much an object of danger as the one shot from the weapon of a man. In the estimate made, no account is taken of the fighting women, who are numerous, well trained, and desperate, often exhibiting more real courage than the men.

If any one indulges the idea that the Apaches are weak and few; that they can be reduced to submission by the establishment of scattered forts in the regions occupied by them; that they can be tamed, and rendered peaceable under any circumstances; that they are to be bound and holden by treaty stipulations; that they are susceptible of any law except the lex lalionis, or are to be constrained by any rule but that of the argumentum ad hominum, they are wonderfully in error. The succeeding chapters of this unpretending volume of personal experience—acquired after nearly eight years of extraordinary facilities to learn the truth—will probably have the effect to disprove these sophistries in a convincing manner. And here, I assert, that I was in every way predisposed to offer every kindly act toward that race. Admiring their unyielding resistance; their acknowledged prowess; their undisputed skill and dexterity; their undoubted intelligence and native force of character; acquainted with their language, traditions, tribal and family organizations, and enjoying their confidence to a degree never before accorded to any but an Apache, I strenuously used every effort in consonance with my orders and plain duties, to better their condition, and instill such information as would best conduce to their future peace and happiness. These facts will appear in the course of my narrative, together with the lamentable failure of all conciliatory schemes, which were notably aided and seconded by the commanding General and his subalterns.