Chiricahua Memories

Descendants of Apache Warriors Revisit Cochise’s Final Battleground

Reprinted courtesy of the Tucson Weekly December 10-16, 1998

By Sam Negri

ON OCTOBER 9 Berle Kanseah loaded his pickup truck and left the high country of the Mescalero Apache Reservation in western New Mexico.  In the next six and a half hours he drove south and west 362 miles to Tucson, the first leg in a  journey that would take him 129 years back in time.

Kanseah is a Chiricahua Apache.  Like all other Chiricahua Apaches who were evicted from southern Arizona at the end of the Indian wars in 1886, his ancestors were shipped to an overcrowded camp in Florida as prisoners of war, later to Alabama and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  In 1913, the U.S. government said the Chircahuas were no longer prisoners of war and gave them a choice of remaining at Fort Sill or moving in with the Mescalero and Lipan Apaches on the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico.  The majority, 181 of them, chose Mescalero, an area almost directly east of the mountain ranges in eastern Arizona that had been their homeland.

Kanseah, 59, was born on the Mescalero Reservation.  What he knew about his ancestral past in Sonora and Arizona came from his grandparents and other relatives who still had relatively fresh memories.  Anthropologists refer to many contemporary Indian groups as memory cultures, meaning that while they may not live like their ancestors or practice esoteric rituals, they share common memories and stories they’ve all heard at family gatherings.  For the most part, the stories are the strongest link to their past and distinguish them from other ethnic groups who, of course, have their own memories and stories.

As a child, the stories Kanseah heard were about southern Arizona and northern Sonora. What he knew of his ancestors came from the stories of his grandparents who had warm memories of the terrain that had been home to them and their ancestors.

“For years, our grandparents indicated they wanted to go back to Mexico and eastern Arizona,” he said over dinner one night in Benson. “They mentioned the country was so beautiful, and it had everything.  They also missed relatives.  As we grew up, going back to Mexico was a foreign idea. It wasn’t do-able. We wouldn’t know how to administrate the trip.” Kanseah  paused and smiled, adding: “We needed someone who could say, ‘It can be done, Mr. Indian, and this is how we’ll do it.’ ”

Over the last 20 years or so, two people have filled that role to one degree or another.  One was Neil Goodwin, of Massachusetts, son of the famous anthropologist Grenville Goodwin, who took some Chiricahua Apaches to Mexico for a documentary film he was making in 1988; and the other was Alicia Delgadillo, who lived four years near a national forest recreation area called Cochise Stronghold, on the eastern slope of the Dragoon Mountains, and who now lives in Tucson.

Delgadillo said she first met Kanseah and other Chiricahua Apaches at a ceremony at Fort Bowie, in 1986, marking the centennial of Geronimo’s surrender, the capitulation that ended the Indian wars of the last century. **

“After that,” she said, referring to the Chiricahuas, “it just happed to us; we became interconnected, for whatever reason. I always accepted what came my way insofar as being linked to them and did not question why our paths seemed to keep crossing.”

One of the reasons that relationship thrived, she speculated, is that she is “not an anthropologist and they know I have no personal agenda, such as publish or perish. All I can say is that we just seemed to click.  In the beginning I was involved in just the nuts-and-bolts logistics, but over the years our relationship became increasingly personal.  I think I have a good understanding of their goals and objectives about re-establishing their presence here in Arizona.  I believe the Chiricahua who participate in these on-going public programs gain information to add to their oral tradition. Also they are reaching out to the non-Indian community to educate them about Chiricahua philosophy.”

The excursion to Arizona, which a dozen Chiricahua Apaches made in October, was the kind of program to which she referred.  It began with a small gathering at the University of Arizona and led, over a two-day period, to sites in the Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains where their ancestors had lived and fought, and had the effect of converting stories and memories to palpable experiences.

There is, perhaps, some irony in the fact that non-Indians were there to flesh out the picture for the visiting Apaches. History, as it has often been noted, is written by the victors, and many of the troopers who fought the Apaches kept journals which historians and anthropologists have been sorting through for many years. Over time, much of what was written by the troopers and their officers has been scrutinized by scholars and writers less emotionally involved in the actual events.

One of those is Edwin Sweeney, an amicable accountant who grew up near Boston and now works as the comptroller of a company in St. Louis. In recent years, following an interest he developed as a child watching western movies, Sweeney wrote an award-winning biography of Cochise, and most recently edited Making Peace With Cochise, the 1872 Journal of Capt. Joseph Alton Sladen. Sladen was one of the army officers present when Cochise agreed to stop fighting.

ON a Sunday afternoon in October, Sweeney stood before the small contingent of Apaches who had come to Arizona from the Mescalero Reservation. Among the Indians was a gracious old man-Frank Sladen, Lt. Sladen’s grandson, who had come all the way from Michigan. The scene was Rucker

Canyon on the west side of the Chiricahua Mountains, a place which neither the modern Chiricahua Apaches nor the elderly Frank Sladen had ever seen. Cedar-covered hills rose up to a rocky promontory behind them as Sweeney and others vividly unraveled a tale about how it happened that Apaches and white men had gone at each others throats with a vengeance.

In a distinct Boston accent, Sweeney explained that the battle that occurred in the hills behind him marked the beginning of the end for Cochise. The old warrior had been fighting white men for nine years. He was tired, outnumbered, out-gunned. He could see that this was not going to end for his people, but he was not yet ready to give up. The date was Oct. 20, 1869. There was a battle in those hills behind him, Sweeney said, that had its roots some 50 miles to the west, near Dragoon Springs, at the north end of the Dragoon Mountains.

On Oct. 5, 1869, a Col. John Finkle Stone, the 33-year-old president of Apache Pass Mine, near Ft. Bowie, headed back to his home in Tucson aboard a mail coach. He had an escort of four. When they approached an abandoned stagecoach station at the north end of the Dragoon Mountains, a bunch of Apaches camouflaged with weeds jumped out of a gully and hit them fast and hard. Stone, the coach driver, and all of the soldiers were killed. The news stunned Tucson, where Stone-for whom Stone Avenue was later named-was well-known and admired.

Within hours of this attack, Cochise and his band encountered a group of cowboys in the Sulphur Springs Valley. The men were moving a herd of cattle from Texas to California when Cochise and his band came upon them. The Apaches attacked, killing one of the men and stealing the cattle.

One member of that group, named Scott, managed to escape and fled to Ft. Bowie to ask for help.

Lt. William H. Winters and some 26 troopers left Bowie in pursuit of the Apaches, but before they reached the site they encountered another rider who told them of the attach on Stone and the mail coach. Winters had to decide which way to head. Finally, he declared, “I can’t do anything for the dead, “but I sure can do something for the living,” and turned towards Dragoon Springs.

Horrified by the carnage he found there, Winters took off after Cochise who, he knew, was driving his stolen cattle toward Mexico. When Cochise saw Winters and his troopers in the distance, he realized he’d never outrun them and make it across the border, so he changed course and headed into Rucker Canyon……

IT IS 129 years later and the Apaches with their small children are bunched together in rapt attention. “In the 1860’s,” said Sweeney, motioning to the pastoral wonderland at his back, “this was Cochise’s principal Stronghold.” This hideaway is not the same as today’s Cochise Stronghold Campground. That’s many miles to the west, in the Dragoon Mountains, and was where Cochise lived in old age.

In 1869, Sweeney said, Cochise fled into this earlier stronghold between Red Rock and Turtle Mountain, above Rucker Canyon, and the army followed. Lt. Winters was quickly joined by another contingent from Ft. Bowie, led by Capt. Reuben Bernard, but the whole battle was essentially a storm in a glass of water, doing very little to advance the cause of peace or understanding.

Among the guests present to flesh out this picture for the Apaches in 1998 was a tall and articulate man from Tucson named Sandy Vandenberg. Sandy is more formally known as Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Jr., a major general in the Air Force before his retirement. Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is named for his father, who was also a general and had been Air Force Chief of Staff. Sandy, a West Point graduate, has a special interest in U.S. military history, and specifically in military strategy.

The Apaches formed a caravan with their trucks and vans, following Vandenberg up a torturous road to where the fighting had taken place on a cold and rainy afternoon more than a hundred year earlier.

The Apaches stood quietly, their faces concealing whatever they might have been feeling. “I’ve been to this site at least 85 times, Vandenberg told them, “trying to recreate a map of precisely what had happened in 1869.” He said he found shell casings which told him the Indians were much better armed than anyone would have expected at the time. The soldiers had Spencer carbines and revolvers. Under normal circumstances, most Apaches carried bows and arrows and spears, but in this case some also carried weapons stolen from the victims in the mail coach massacre. These included single-shot Springfield rifles as well as 7-shot Spencer repeating carbines and at least one Henry 16-shot rifle. Vandenberg had found the evidence by walking the terrain where the battle occurred.

The battle in Rucker was called The Campaign of the Rocky Mesa. Two soldiers who tried to ascend the mesa in pursuit of the Apaches were killed immediately. Various attempts to ford the hill-even placing sharpshooters on a nearby hill and trying to lob shells on the Apaches-were fruitless. The Apaches suffered 18 casualties, according to Bernard’s account, but Bernard’s credibility (as we shall see) was questionable.

Brief though the battle was it was a miserable confrontation for all involved. It was cold, rainy, and the light was fading fast. In the skirmishes that followed over the next week or so, Apache scouts assisting the Army and various Apache warriors were shouting to each other in their native language, the Indians inquiring about the possibility of coming to some kind of peaceful settlement, the Army officers responding through the scouts that the Apaches had to put down their arms and come in before any talks could begin.

Nothing was accomplished. Bernard, who, according to Vandenberg, clearly stayed with the horses while ordering his men to  the dangerous battle on the hill above him, later recommended that 31 me be awarded the Medal of Honor. “These are the men,” Bernard wrote, “who went up the rocky mesa with me.”

“Hell,” Vandenberg declared, “he never went up the mesa.” But, Washington was a long way off, so who would know the difference? The medals were awarded. They constituted, said Bill Gillespie, an archaeologist with the Coronado National Forest, “the most medals awarded at any single battle during the Indian wars.”

As Vandenberg held forth, creating a vivid picture of the battle, Chiricahua Apache toddlers-no doubt distant descendants of some of the Indians who fought 129 years ago-sat on the ground gathering twigs. they stuck them in the ground like candles, and sang “Happy Birthday”….

IT WAS a bright morning in West Stronghold Canyon in the Dragoon Mountains near St. David. Some 24 hours had passed since the Chiricahua Apache visitors had left the battlefield at Rucker. There was a hint of excitement in the air as the Apaches approached the jumble of huge granite boulders, perhaps because they knew that in the idyllic settling Cochise was not only a fighter but a leader of community, someone with a family. Kanseah said his grandfather remembered seeing Cochise when he was a child. Perhaps these modern Apaches remembered a description of Cochise left behind by an Army doctor, Anderson Nelson Ellis, who had been an eyewitness to a meeting in 1871 between Cochise and Gen. Gordon Granger.

“While he was talking,” Ellis wrote of the 56-year-old Apache chief, “we had a fine opportunity to study this most remarkable man…His height, five feet en inches; in person lithe and wiry, every muscle being well-rounded and firm. A silver thread was now and then visible in his otherwise black hair, which he wore cut straight around his head about on a level with his chin. His countenance displayed great force. Cochise spoke through an interpreter. He spoke in his language to one of his warriors who also spoke Spanish. The warrior repeated the words in Spanish to a Spanish speaker in Gen. Granger’s contingent, who then translated them into English for the general.

Cochise declared: “When I way young, I walked all over this country, east and west, and saw no other people than the Apaches. After many summers I walked again and found another race of people had come to take it.” “How is it? Why is it that the Apaches wait to die, that they carry their lives on their fingernails? They roam over the hills and the plains and want the heavens to fall on them. The Apaches were once a great nation. They are now but a few, and because of this they want to die, and so carry their lives on their fingernails.”

Nobody present among the modern Chiricahua Apaches had heard those sad and lyrical words, and yet still there was a sense of wonder and wistfulness as they meandered into the thick tangle of boulders where Cochise had lived with his family and the warriors he commanded.

At noon, Sweeney and Gillespie again faced the dozen Chiricahua Apaches in a clearing near the mouth of the canyon. It was on this spot, they said, that Cochise me with Gen. Oliver Otis Howard and agreed to make peace. Not only was it the same spot, it was the same day, October 12, only 126 years later.

About a half hour earlier, as Kanseah stood in a shallow cave that was covered with petroglyphs, he had paused in his speculations to remark, “I wonder what it all means. If only the rocks could talk!”

Now we are in the middle of other rocks where lions and snakes lie hidden and-for all we know, because no on knows-Cochise may lie buried, and the air is pregnant with possibilities. Standing in the group are a handful of Chiricahua Apaches who have heard stories about this place from their grandparents. Sitting next to one of the Apaches is 78-year-old Frank Sladen, who had grown up hearing another version of the same stories (During final peace negotiations, his grandfather had been kept as a sort of hostage by Cochise for 13 days, an incident which increased his respect and admiration for the Apache leader he’d originally regarded as “a bloodthristy chief.”)

Time may not heal all wounds, but it seems sometimes to have an uneasy leveling effect. In that particular spot on Oct. 12, 1998, the progeny of the Indian wars emerged from an abstraction as a handful of aging people looking for connections that might link the past with the present in some meaningful way. Kanseah’s words came to mind one again, resonant and full of wonder: “If only the rocks could talk.”