Lummis and the Apache War

In the spring of 1886, Charles Lummis, tied to his desk for 15-hour days as city editor of the Los Angeles Times, was beside himself with boredom and wanderlust. To keep his star reporter happy, Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis agreed to let him take off on an assignment beyond his wildest dreams: go to Arizona to cover the final days of the Apache War.

Otis could hardly spare his one-man city desk. But he may have figured it would be a quick trip. By March 1886, the last hot Indian war in North America was expected to end any day with the capture of the infamous renegade Geronimo.

Besides helping keep Lummis content, the trip could serve a couple of other purposes, Otis may have reasoned. Lummis’s reports would give the Times unsurpassed coverage of a controversial war that the whole nation was talking about, which would boost the paper’s reputation and circulation. Otis also hoped Lummis’s reporting would help shore up the eroding reputation of the regional U.S. Army commander responsible for catching Geronimo, Brigadier-General George Crook.

Crook was reviled by many Arizonans at the time. Though earlier in his career, he had developed a reputation as a ruthless Indian fighter, in the waning days of the Indian wars he had grown increasingly sympathetic toward his erstwhile enemies. In Arizona, he adopted a number of unconventional tactics such as making heavy use of Apache scouts. And once a group of renegades was cornered, Crook or his officers would approach unarmed, and after convincing them to turn themselves in, he would let them keep their weapons. The territorial press, in particular the Tombstone Epitaph, hated him for his “soft” approach, and even national papers grew critical as months passed and Geronimo remained on the loose.

Fort Bowie today

Fort Bowie today

Lummis reached Crook’s headquarters at Fort Bowie, Ariz., the day after Geronimo had slipped out of the Army’s grasp once again. Though Crook had succeeded in bringing in many of the last group of renegades, including the Apache leader Chihuahua, just two days after Lummis arrived the general got word from Army headquarters in Washington that he was being relieved of his command. So Lummis was unable to help him save his job. But in dispatches he wrote in the two weeks before Crook’s replacement arrived, Lummis did his best to burnish the general’s image for posterity.

The following excerpts from American Character describe the reporter’s mission to salvage Crook’s reputation.

Crook’s critics had no shortage of mouthpieces. In the late 1800s, there were more newspapers in Arizona than there are today and most of them reflected the views of their readers advocating extermination of the Apaches. No territorial newspaper kept up a steadier barrage against Crook than the Tombstone Epitaph and its editor, J.O. Dunbar. The paper regularly skewered Crook for trusting his scouts….

Crook’s suspicious affinity for his Apache charges, and his curious refusal to go for the kill when his troops seemed to have the renegades boxed in, suggested to the Epitaph that the veteran Indian fighter had fallen dangerously under the sway of “hypocritical kid-gloved philanthropists” of the East. “New England humanitarians believe – or profess to believe – that the whites are the aggressor.” When the Indians kill whites, they “intimate in as many words, that it serves us right for maltreating their pets,” the Epitaph complained. “If it were only possible for Geronimo to go on one of his murderous raids in the eastern states, the Indian problem would soon be solved.”

The San Francisco Chronicle was less hysterical but no less critical, reflecting a growing consensus about Crook’s performance in the spring of 1886. His “mismanagement of the Apache campaign has cost him not only advancement in rank but a large share of his reputation as an Indian fighter,” the paper declared.

All spring, Lummis had followed the press campaign against Crook from his desk at the Los Angeles Times. There was no question about whose side he was on. He was itching to jump into the fray and fight back against the “venomous novelists” who were attacking Crook.

General George Crook

General George Crook, courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, N42641.

Lummis arrived at Fort Bowie, an isolated post near Apache Pass in the Dos Cabezas Mountains southeast of Tucson, on March 31, 1886. The night before, Geronimo, in the midst of surrender negotiations with Crook, had fled back into the rugged mountains of Sonora, Mexico, with a few diehard followers.

Crook was holed up in his headquarters, consulting with his officers, when Lummis reached the fort. But later that day, the general spared a moment to greet Lummis, and accepted a few questions but offered just a “few non-committal words” in response. “It is like pulling teeth to get anything out of him,” Lummis lamented. But he didn’t allow the general’s cold shoulder to color his first impression of Crook. He understood that this wasn’t, to put it mildly, one of the better days in the Indian fighter’s long career. “I like the grim old general,” Lummis announced.

Much like Lummis, Crook was supremely self-assured, but down to earth and informal to a flamboyant degree. He was in short, like Lummis, an iconoclastic oddball. Crook and the troops under his command had mercilessly killed countless thousands of Indians over the decades, including women and children, and had corralled tens of thousands of others onto reservations. He had dutifully worked his way up through the ranks of the military hierarchy, playing his career by the book. But at in his old age, Crook had become something of a humanitarian.

His unorthodox appearance began with the great cotton-candy mounds of gray muttonchop sideburns that covered most of the lower half of his face, above which protruded a strong, straight nose and piercing, deep-set blue eyes. Crook’s chief sartorial hallmark was the fact that he almost never wore a uniform, preferring overalls or a canvas suit. He also had a peculiar preference in headgear – a conical hat such as that worn by a Japanese farmer at work in a rice field. In other departures from standard-issue Army gear, he carried a shotgun instead of a Springfield rifle and passed up a horse as his mount in favor of a mule, affectionately named Apache, an animal that he insisted was far superior to a horse in the arid, mountainous terrain of the desert Southwest.

It took a while for Crook to open up to Lummis, which was frustrating to a reporter who had come to rescue the “old gray wolf at bay.” But Crook didn’t even care to rebut the nastiest rumors hurled against him…. “He is here to fight not to justify himself,” Lummis wrote. Lummis would try to fight back for Crook, whether Crook wanted him to or not. “If ever there was an honorable task in letting in the light on a libeled career it lies before me now,” wrote Lummis.

In his latest campaign against Geronimo, Crook was far more successful than his critics were prepared to acknowledge, Lummis asserted. Though Geronimo and a few die-hard followers were still on the run, “Crook has reduced the number of renegades by four-fifths within a fortnight without a single death in his ranks,” Lummis noted, in an April 7 dispatch, crediting Crook’s tactics. “[T]hey knew that Crook would give them fair play. This absolute confidence of the Indians in his honor is almost as important a factor in Cook’s success as his matchless knowledge of their traits. The hostiles would not have surrendered thus to any other man.” Members of “the blowhard fraternity of Arizona” who talked as if they knew better how to defeat the Apaches were rank failures as Indian fighters when given a chance, Lummis added.

Though two days after Lummis’s arrival, Crook received word from Washington that he was being relieved of his command, his replacement, General Nelson Miles, didn’t arrive until the middle of April. Crook remained in his post until then, and Lummis had a chance to get to know him.

“You observe that Crook goes by the assumption that the Apache is a human being, after all,” Lummis wrote. “That’s one of the reasons Arizona is down on him.”

While Lummis could no longer save Crook’s job, perhaps he could help salvage the general’s reputation for posterity’s sake. He set out to do that in a series of articles about Crook’s views on Indian policy that he wrote over the next two weeks.

The lame duck commander suddenly had plenty of time to talk to Lummis, though he was reluctant to go into much detail about military strategy. Lummis, however, was able to obtain a copy of Crook’s final report on his recent activities in Arizona, and he drew on that for several stories.

Chasing the Apaches in their own homeland would have been a formidable assignment for any commander, Lummis noted. “Hunt the world over and you will find no more inhospitable and savage mountains,” he wrote, exaggerating just a bit. “No campaign in the Civil War, or in any of the northern Indian wars, was ever so entangled and crippled by topographical cussedness.”

Crook was fully justified in letting the Apaches keep their weapons, Lummis added. As the general explained in his report, “The disarming of Indians has in almost every instance on record proved a farcical failure.” They would hide their best weapons and turn in inferior arms, if ordered to disarm. Moreover, Crook wrote, it was best to show that you were not afraid of them even when they were fully armed. The Apaches also needed their weapons for their own protection against “white scoundrels who, rmed to the teeth, infest the border,” Crook insisted.

As for the loud chorus of calls for removal of the Apaches from Arizona, taken up even by his more responsible critics such as the editorial writers of the New York Times, Crook pointedly noted that the suggestion was “in cool disregard of the fact that Arizona belongs to the Apaches, that they were forced to accept the small reservation in lieu of the whole Territory and that even the Reservation has been thievishly stolen from them and cut down five times to fill the pockets of grasping settlers.”

Crook could commiserate even with the Apaches’ infamous barbarity toward their enemies and civilian captives. For centuries, they had been bred on warfare with enemies ranging from the Spanish conquistadors to white settlers who were “as cruel as the beast,” Crook said. For generations they had seen that their women and children were the first to fall under their enemies’ merciless knives. As an inevitable result, for the Apaches, “no act of bloodshed is too cruel or unnatural,” Crook told Lummis, refusing to fault them for that. “It is therefore unjust to punish him for violations of a code of war which he has never learned, and which he can with difficulty understand.” Crook concluded that “sweeping vengeance is as much to be deprecated as silly sentimentalism.”

Crook spoke “with an earnestness which showed how deeply his heart was enlisted in this perplexing question,” Lummis noted. “You observe that Crook goes by the assumption that the Apache is a human being, after all. That’s one of the reasons Arizona is down on him.”

Lummis was on hand in 1886 when a large group of Apaches who had turned themselves in were sent by train to a federal stockade in the east.

Photograph of Geronimo taken in a studio in 1887 by Ben Wittick,

Photograph of Geronimo taken by Ben Wittick in a studio in 1887, less than a year after he and his last band of loyalists surrendered.

On April 7, the day of the Apaches’ departure from Arizona, Lummis wrote that whites who had heard the news came from miles around to gawk as the Apaches marched to the rail line accompanied by their horses and dozens of dogs. A total of eighty-seven Apaches were shipped to Florida that day including Geronimo’s wife and children, leaving thirty-seven of the tribe led by Geronimo still at large in Sierra Madre. The captives were loaded into the rail cars. As the train picked up speed, their dogs started yelping in distress. One reportedly chased after the train for twenty miles. But most of the dogs were left wandering aimlessly around Bowie Station where they served as target practice for the milling crowd of gleeful whites. The horses – including Chihuahua’s children’s pet — were rounded up and auctioned off on the spot.

The crowd wasn’t as large and nasty as it might have been. At Crook’s request, Lummis withheld his report about the departure of the Apaches until they were gone. “There are plenty of alleged white men who would jump at the chance to signalize their bravery by shooting a captive squaw through a car window if they had received sufficient notice to brace themselves with brag and whisky,” Lummis wrote in explaining his act of self-censorship.

The removal of the Indians was a triumph for Crook, as Lummis told it. They were not going back to the San Carlos reservation, as the Apaches had hoped. But neither were the warriors among them going to the gallows, an outcome that many Arizonans demanded. In fact on March 31, the day Lummis reached Fort Bowie, Cochise County Sheriff Robert Hatch also rode into the fort for a meeting with Crook during which he presented the general with a warrant for the arrest of Geronimo and forty-one John Does. Crook turned them away, telling them that the Apaches who were surrendering to him were federal prisoners of war and he had no intention of relinquishing custody.

Crook himself packed his bags and left Fort Bowie a week later when his replacement, General Miles, arrived to take charge of the ongoing pursuit of Geronimo. Lummis was sad to see Crook go. When he told the general so, Crook retorted, “I’m not.” Lummis could only hope that the kindly general would win vindication in this life and not have to wait until the next, though that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. “When the mongrel pack which has barked at the heels of this patient commander has rotted a hundred years forgotten – then, if not before, Crook will get his due,” Lummis wrote.

“When the mongrel pack which has barked at the heels of this patient commander has rotted a hundred years forgotten – then, if not before, Crook will get his due,” Lummis wrote.