The Indian Scouts, With Special Attention to the:
Evolution, Use, and Effectiveness of the Apache Indian Scouts
by Dan L. Thrapp
Since War began, which means while man has been on earth, scouts, guides and spies have been gainfully employed, for information or intelligence about the enemy is a key to battle and conquest. No combat officer can neglect their employment and survive for very long. But in the southwestern part of the United States, under the genius of a most extraordinary commander, scouts came to be used in an extended way, fulfilling a function even more significant than elsewhere;' thus they had a unique even pivotal role in the strife between red and white people, and in pacifying the region. It is with that development, and the uses made of it, that this paper is concerned.
In 1886 a Congressional Act empowered the President "to enlist and employ in the Territories and Indian country a force of Indians, not to exceed 1,000, to act as scouts, who shall receive the pay and allowances of cavalry soldiers, and be discharged whenever the necessity for their further employment is abated, or at the discretion of the department commander." This sought not only to put a floor under, but a ceiling over the number of scouts who could be enlisted, and they were considered part of the overall 25,000-man military establishment.
Army authorities initially limited the number to 300, believing that the seven hundred openings remaining could be more usefully filled by white or black enlisted men than by Indian scouts. Of the low number enlisted, Arizona sometimes had as many as 250. But the congressional limitation, and the incorporation of the scouts into the Army structure meant that even where a need appeared--as it sometimes did--for additional scouts for some special purpose, they could not be enrolled unless an equivalent number of soldiers could be deleted. Thus in April 1880, Colonel Edward Hatch, commanding the District of New Mexico, urgently requested permission to enlist two additional companies of Apache scouts. This, he said, was "absolutely necessary", and if he had them he could end Apache troubles " forever." His department commander, John Pope, agreed with him, but Sheridan at Chicago pointed out that New Mexico already had 50 of the 200 scouts the Department of Missouri was authorized, and the others were needed elsewhere; Sherman, commanding the Army, agreed that it was "simply impossible" to approve the request. Not willing to take Sherman's decision as total defeat, Hatch then pointed out that "Casualties in my command should give fifty Indian scouts, more valuable now than four times the number of recruits," and when this idea was turned down, asked permission "to hire fifty as guides and trailers", instead of enlisted as scouts; this third suggestion was also rejected.
Frontiersmen generally approved the idea of using scouts, as the Arizona Miner of Prescott put it, "on the principle of putting a rogue to catch a rogue".
Although signed up for periods of three, six or twelve months, many Indian scouts were kept on the rolls for repeated hitches, the service of some extending 30 or more years. With other enlisted men, they were entitled to pensions and certain other fringe benefits. Their functions, in whatever theater, were technically identical, although in practice these varied with the nature, traditions, training and viewpoint of the tribe, with needs of the service, and with the originality, or lack of it, of the officers over them. Thus, they were guides and superlative trackers, served occasionally as spies or couriers, and sometimes engaged in combat with troops against hostiles. In Apacheria, these functions were expanded. In periods of peace scouts helped keep order on the reservations, reinforced the military government and, being subject to army discipline, they often constituted pools of stability in a sometimes turbulent sea of excitable tribesmen. Colonel August V. Kautz noted that they "are a great terror to the runaway from the Reservations, and for (running them down) are much more efficient than double the number of soldiers". Wise commanders, following the precedent of George Crook, sought to enlist the worst of the aloof or near-hostile elements as scouts, in order to bring them under military discipline and put a lid over prospective trouble.
Nominally uniformed as enlisted men, the scouts' garb often reflected notions of the individual Indian as to what was appropriate and what set him off to best advantage, although one mark of the Apache scouts after 1883, the red band about the head, was always worn to distinguish them from hostiles. This alone on occasion saved them from becoming victims of white confusion. Scouts often ran the risk of being mistaken for hostiles, hence the importance of having a white officer or chief of scouts accompany them.
Only toward the end of their service were the scouts authorized a uniform of their own: a black fatigue hat, a hat cord of white and scarlet, dark blue shirt, overcoat "of some dark color", white-and-red chevrons, and a dress uniform like that of cavalrymen (except that the facings, instead of yellow, were of white piped with scarlet), and helmet and plume. As crossed rifles formed the insignia of the Infantry and crossed sabers the Cavalry, so crossed arrows were the basic insignia of the Scouts, worn on collar and hat and emblazoned upon the guidon. The scouts weapons were those of mounted men for the most part, although their sidearm was to be a Colt single action .45 caliber revolver nickel-plated "because the Indians often neglected their arms", and the nickel was believed a rust deterrent. In fact, according to one student, such a weapon was rarely, or never issued, and the scouts' neglect of their arms was considered exaggerated.
The scouts rarely received much drill or military "training," although their whole way of life and cultural background provided them with superb preparation for the manner of combat at which they were specialists. While regarded as enlisted personnel, it was difficult and admittedly inappropriate to attempt to make disciplined soldiers of them. However, in 1891 the Army did authorize enlistment of Indians as soldiers in formerly organized troops and companies. Troop L of each Cavalry regiment except the 9th and 10th, which were black, and Company I of each Infantry regiment except the 6th, 1lth, 15th, 19th, 24th and 25th, which included the black organizations and some eastern regiments, were to be of Indians. In some ways this experiment was a success, but "native troops gradually lost interest in a program which demanded that they sever ties with their ancestral ways," and it was discontinued finally in 1897.
In Apacheria the Indian scouts were found to be wholly necessary, and in Apacheria they attained their highest development and performed their ultimate service. This was a difficult theater and the foe a resourceful and persistent enemy. Geographical obstacles matched the hostility whereby a dozen free-roving Apaches could prove as destructive as a thousand warriors elsewhere, while the nature of their communal organization added to the difficulties, the Apache living in small, isolated rancherias, easily removed upon the slightest pretext, hidden, virtually independent one from another.
Apaches, including Chiricahuas and Mimbres, had been enlisted as scouts and auxiliaries by the Spanish at least by 1786, perhaps earlier. In that year, however, under the inspiration of Jacobo Ugarte y Loyola, commandant-general of the Provincias Internas, and most often commanded by Ensign Domingo Vergara, Chiricahuas began to be used systematically for operations against their hostile kinsmen. Had the Spanish remained in control in Mexico, the Chiricahua problem might have been solved permanently, but this was not to be. With the independence of Mexico, the northern frontier's system of military protection fell into shambles though the use of friendly Apaches against the hostile continued, if sporadically. In 1843 "there were still rancherias of friendly Apaches at Tucson and Tubac who even served as allies of the Mexicans in various campaigns", according to Bancroft. However, it was left to the Anglo-Americans after the war with Mexico to recreate and redefine the role of the Apache scouts, and fashion of them the great military element they became.
This was attempted haphazardly, at first. At an early date one-time Apache captives or associates, such as Manuel Duran, Oscar Hutton, Severiano and others were used as scouts something on the pattern of the northeastern frontier. Later mixed aggregations of Mexicans, Anglos and Indians were used as irregulars, or in ranger companies under such leaders as Primitivo Cervantes. Though they sometimes scored striking successes, their overall impact was sporadic and not lasting.
When George Crook assumed command of forces in Arizona he appears to have had no very clear concept of what sort of scouts he would need, but to have recognized the necessity for specialists of some kind. He may have attempted to enroll Navahos for that purpose, and Governor Anson P. K. Safford, he recalled, told him that " Mexicans were the solution to the 'Apache Problem,' that they knew the country, that with a little pinole and dried beef they could travel all over the country without pack mules at the rate of thirty to fifty miles per day, that they could go inside an Apache and turn him wrong side out in no time at all (and so) I hired fifty of their people for scouts."
The experiment proved unsatisfactory, and Crook never again employed Mexicans as his principal scouts. He turned, rather, to Apaches.
This was a singular thing. While Indian scouts often had been used elsewhere, almost always they were of people alien to the hostiles they must fight, as with the Seminole Scouts, or traditional enemies of the hostiles, as the Crows of the Sioux, and the Pawnees of practically everyone. But now Crook intended to enlist Apaches to fight Apaches, and not those of one band to fight people of another, but Apaches of a particular grouping to fight their own people because, in Crooks's view, they could do it better and more effectively than anyone else.
On his initial tour of his new command, Crook reached Camp Apache August 12, 1871, and met numbers of people from the White Mountain and other bands.
"I had many long talks with them", he reported, "and finally got them to join in my plans for subduing the hostiles, which was for them to enlist as scouts and act in conjunction with our troops". This, he continued, was "really the entering wedge in solution of this Apache question." And so it proved.
Apache scouts were organized initially in companies of 26 men (the unit size later increased), with a first and second sergeant and two corporals. A white officer usually was in command, but the actual management of the Indians often was exercised by some chief of scouts, usually a white man, and such chiefs of scouts as Al Sieber and Dan O'Leary became justly famous. Often these civilians led the scouts on independent expeditions, as the Chronological list makes clear.
Major General John M. Schofield, commander of the Military Division of the Pacific, in 1871 authorized Crook to utilize "friendly scouts" as he thought advisable, Sherman endorsed the directive, and Crook ordered that Indian scouts accompany each of the small commands he sent to scout hostile areas. He wrote Schofield that "nothing makes these 'bucks' feel so good as the idea of their being part of our soldiers, and nothing will demoralize the hostiles so much as to know their own people are fighting in the opposition ranks". However, he was extraordinarily cautious lest the Apaches become disillusioned at the outset with their new service. He urged his officers at first to make such dispositions that "under no circumstances would any of the scouts be injured", thus insuring against the notion by the Indians that they were to be used for fighting instead of the whites, rather than as auxiliaries. Yet they gradually came to assume a more active role, since no one else could do the work better, and their effectiveness can be seen in the fact that during the 1872-74 period of the cleanup of central Arizona, of the 283 hostiles killed, 272 were accounted for by Indian scouts, while they captured 213. Commands without scouts captured and killed (together) fewer than 20. By 1874 Crook, as a result of growing confidence in them, used scouts sometimes on independent missions. Thus, he directed Lieutenant Walter S. Schuyler to "send out your killers as soon as possible" independently after Delshay, a notorious hostile; these scouts appeared to operate without even a chief of scouts accompanying them. On other occasions Crook sometimes sent scouts on missions deep into Old Mexico to locate bands of hostiles, trusting them completely, depending upon their reports, and by this evolution the Apaches edged into their unique role as trusted auxiliaries, as much as scouts.
"The great difficulty in the solution of the Apache problem is in catching the Indians which, if done at all, must be mainly through their own people", Crook once explained. The Apache scouts, as they developed under his leadership, were as much a reflection of Crook as of the necessity for them. Crook was unusual in the Army of his time, for his appreciation of the Indian as an individual; he endeavored to go beyond subjugation to bring them into the mainstream of frontier life. "Give the Apache stock, or some worthwhile possessions, and you will begin to civilize him", he argued, from time to time. "Leave them their arms to protect themselves from disreputable whites whom the government will not or can not control" and "let them govern themselves and they stand by themselves ". This respect for the Apaches as individuals bolstered his confidence in their loyalty; his trust in them added to the responsibilities he gave them.
"The first principle is to show them that we trust them", he once said. "We have to depend upon their fidelity, and they are quick to note any lack of confidence. They appreciate the situation and understand thoroughly what is expected of them, and know best how to do their work… Their best quality is their individuality, and as soon as this is destroyed or impaired their efficiency goes with it."
As their fame grew, the Apache scouts were used on the Crook pattern beyond the borders of Arizona in New Mexico, where the problems posed by Victorio and others became equally acute.
All of this is not to argue that the Apache scouts were more important than soldiers in this theater, but under Crook's genius they became an indispensable element of the Army that was charged with pacifying the region. Without them the Army's task would have proven far more difficult, at least until an inevitable population influx squeezed down the hostiles, making their warlike operations ultimately impossible. That would have taken a great deal of time, and would have been done at very high human cost.
It is fair to ask, why were the Apaches willing to serve as they did? Partly the answer may lie in enmities, jealousies and inter-band rivalries, but it was more than that. The pay and status they gained also were minor factors. The fact that the scouts flourished under Crook's leadership, and reached the apex of their effectiveness under his command, suggest that Crook himself was largely responsible. He was uniquely able, in his own words, to go inside an Apache and turn him inside out, understood their psychology, had empathy with them and, more than that, valued them as human beings as much as allies, and was most effective at persuasion. Somehow the Apaches came to understand Crook, and responded to him, and forged an instrument that in this particular theater, proved decisive, if not unbeatable.
It will suffice to point out two occasions when the scouts performed pivotal functions--incidents in major campaigns where the Apaches proved indispensable and without whom success could not have been had, and through whose efforts peace in the Southwest became more probable and the Indian problem was moved far toward solution.
The first illustration of the unique capacities and value of the Apache scouts involves George Crook's very great expedition into the Sierra Madre in 1883, and its pivotal role in the solution of the Indian problem that for generations had plagued white occupation and development of the Southwest.
In a book on this subject, I described the expedition as "the most important and dangerous United States Army operation against hostile Indians in the history of the American frontier," a view not lightly arrived at. It was an opinion some reviewers took issue with, as was to be expected, one even remarking that Fetterman and Custer might disagree with my opinion, which is like mixing apples and oranges. The expedition resulted in a single minor skirmish, no battle, and in that sense could in no way be compared with Custer's disaster.
But here was a case where a ranking army officer disappeared for a month and one-half into a virtually unexplored mountain massif of a foreign country with his expedition which had no explicit legal right to be there, and embarked upon with only the verbal, easily revoked, and tacit permission of the foreign commanders most involved. Thus, this officer placed not only his own personal safety, but his career, his reputation, and his professional future in monumental jeopardy because he was convinced in his soul that the enormous risk was proper and necessary for defusing a highly dangerous and explosive situation that seemed otherwise insoluble.
Not only did he assume this grave risk, but he set out with only a token force of 42 white soldiers, and 193 scouts drawn from the most turbulent, volatile and hitherto hostile people on the continent--Indians he judged loyal and trustworthy, even if his well-informed peers inclined to disagree. Crook was completely at the mercy of his scouts by the reckoning of many who shuddered at the risk he took, but the General himself knew better. Crook embarked upon this singular operation convinced in his own mind--the view reinforced by many years experience with his individualistic and original methods of Indian management--that only by this means, and taking the patent risk involved, was the Indian problem going to he resolved.
The problem, of course, was posed by a pool of several hundreds of hostiles or potentially hostile Apaches in the Mexican mountains. Their capacity for generating frontier havoc had been demonstrated by the thunder bolt raids of Nana, Chatto, Chihuahua and others, always undertaken by a mere handful of fighting men whose impact was far in excess of their numerical strength.
Therefore, with scouts as the backbone of his command, Crook attempted the never hitherto paralleled feat of locating and contacting these bitter foes of white
settlement and persuading them to come in. That he succeeded despite all obstacles is a very thrilling page of history. In his own rationale Crook wrote:
"The Indian in his mode of warfare is more than the equal of the white man, and it would be practically impossible with white soldiers to subdue the Chiricahuas in their own haunts… In fighting them we must of necessity be the pursuers, and unless surprised by sudden and unexpected attack, the advantages are all in their favor… The first great difficulty to be met is to locate them, and this must be done by Indian scouts…"
Even with the scouts, the expedition had its share of very real perils for its commander and white nucleus. There is not space here to go into them, but Crook placed his life literally on the line in his initial discussions with the wild Apaches. Again disaster to the expedition was averted by the narrowest of margins through loyalty of the scouts and the resourcefulness of Al Sieber. Despite such hazards, the operation was a success. And the point is that the Mexican expedition, which essentially solved the Indian problem in the Southwest, succeeded entirely through the use of the Apache scouts, superbly managed by Crook, Emmett Crawford and others, and with virtually no assistance from formal military units, except in a token way.
For a second illustration there was the role of the Apache scouts in terminating the Geronimo outbreak in 1886.
Although a minor guerilla leader as compared with Mangas Colorado, Victorio, Cochise and Juh, Geronimo did generate the largest military operation against Indians in the history of the southwestern frontier, but formalized military operations alone could not settle the dust he raised. This campaign, however, afforded the Indian scouts the opportunity to fulfill their final important function, although they continued to enlist and serve for many years thereafter.
When Geronimo broke out May 15, 1885, and fled into Mexico, the pursuit of his band of hostiles as directed by Crook devolved upon mixed white and scout units,
with heavy dependence upon the Apaches. This was understandable, given the ferocious geographical problems involved, the scouts' general familiarity with terrain
below the border, and the flea-hopping nature of the war. Worth restating however, is Crook's summary of the scout accomplishments until the initial surrender of
"June 23, 1885: One woman killed and 15 women and children captured in an engagement in the Bavispe Mountains northeast of Oputo by Apache scouts under Crawford; June 29: two hostile warriors ambushed by a detachment of Apache scouts under Captain Wirt Davis and killed in the Hoya (Jolla) Mountains of Mexico; August 7: five hostiles killed… and fifteen women and children captured in an engagement in the Sierra Madre, northeast of Nacori by Apache scouts under Davis; November 25: one hostile killed near Fort Apache by friendly White Mountain Apaches". Crook added: "The above list contains all that are positively known to have been killed…"
The soldiers proved ineffective in Mexico. It was the four companies of scouts under the command of Crawford who located and defeated the hostiles in the Sierra Madre on January 10, 1886. Crawford was mortally wounded immediately afterward by Mexican scouts and irregulars, but Lieutenant Maus, who assumed command, subsequently accepted the surrender of Nana and some others, and brought them north, along with a pledge by the other Apaches to come talk with Crook. These conversations were held just south of the border in late March. They story of the conference, of the agreement by Geronimo and his people to come in, and their subsequent bolt engineered by a very suspicious bootlegger-agent, has often been told. Crook, conceding that perhaps he was "too much wedded to my own views" on how best to conduct operations against the enemy, asked reassignment. He was succeeded by Nelson A. Miles.
General Miles distrusted the Chiricahuas and Warm Springs Apaches. He suspected they had more loyalty to relatives among the hostiles than to the army. Thus, for them as scouts he casually substituted Pimas, Yumas, Mohaves and even White Mountain Apaches. But he swept into Arizona imbued with Sheridan's notion that the proper way to fight the Apaches was with white troops, and he labored assiduously to prove his point. Miles formed select troop units under officers especially chosen, sending them southward and running them literally ragged in the mountains and burning heat of Mexico. They achieved no success whatever, except to prove how much able, brave and dedicated men could endure in the face of natural obstacles as monumental as any on the continent. But durability and doggedness were not the only prerequisites to destroying hostile Apaches, and Miles' men eventually found this to be true.
While Henry Lawton and Leonard Wood were floundering about in the rugged country near the Aros River, in the depths of the Sierra Madre, having not the slightest notion where the hostiles lurked, Geronimo and his band had reached the middle Bavispe River and opened communications with Mexican authorities at Fronteras, ostensibly with a view to surrender but actually, as Geronimo later confided, as a means to facilitate trade for whiskey and other necessities. Taking the Apaches at their words, however, the Mexicans had prepared an ambush for them, if they could be lured into the community.
Whispers of the Mexican-Apache "negotiations" inevitably reached Miles. The prospects of success by his tattered Army elements in Mexico had come to appear dim even to the General, and he had finally sent Second Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood into Mexico with two expert scouts, Martine and Kieta, the latter one of Geronimo's people who had come in. Kieta was well acquainted with the hostile band. It was through the work of these two Apaches that the Geronimo campaign was to come to a conclusion; without them it might have ground on for some time to come.
Being advised by Miles of rumors of Geronimo's negotiations at Fronteras, Gatewood hurried to that place. His scouts picked up the trail of the enemy's emissaries and guided the officer and his party to the Bavispe River. The scouts then went ahead, and, at the very risk of their lives, contacted Geronimo and secured from him permission for Gatewood to come up for a talk. One student has commented that "the entrance of the Indian scouts into Geronimo's camp was the significant factor in bringing about their surrender. Only Apache Indian scouts could have located the camp and been allowed to enter it."
Gatewood's talk was held, Geronimo as a result came in and was escorted to Skeleton Canyon where his surrender was finalized by Miles. But if it had not been for Martine and Kieta, the Apache scouts, none of this would have transpired--or at least not then. In this case, unlike the Crook expedition into the Sierra Madre, it must be stressed that the scouts operated alone, with no white supervision at all. Thus, the scouts' work had evolved through three stages: Firstly, as adjuncts to Regular Army Units; secondly, as auxiliaries, operating independently at times, though still under white supervision; to this instance, the third phase, where they were trusted to work wholly independently--and fulfilled that trust, being initially responsible for bringing to a conclusion this most troublesome of Apache outbreaks.
As a reward for their faithful service,. Martine and Kieta were sent as prisoners to Florida, along with 13 other scouts still in service who were not discharged until October 9, 1886, after they had reached Fort Marion. All were kept under at least nominal arrest for 27 years, although eventually Martine and Kieta were given a small pension.
With conclusion of the Geronimo campaign, the need for Indian scouts was greatly reduced. In 1891 their overall number was limited to 150, of whom Arizona retained 50, many used for border patrol work, and by official nomenclature the classification of their units was changed from "company" to "detachment".
About 20 of 39 enlisted Apache scouts in service in 1916 saw field duty in the Pershing campaign after Villa in Mexico, arriving too late for active operations, but performing useful services in other respects as their forebears had done for generations. By 1922 the Detachment of Indian Scouts was transferred from Fort Apache, abandoned in that year, to Fort Huachuca. The detachment, as an army unit, was disbanded in 1943. The Arizona Historical Society holds a photograph of the "last parade of the Indian Scouts" at Fort Huachuca, December 16, 1941. On November 30, 1948, the last three sergeants: Joe Kessay, Joe Quintero, and William Major, were retired. The crossed arrow insignia of the scouts was adopted in 1942 by the Special Service Force which was disbanded in 1944. The Special Forces (the so-called Green Berets) adopted it in 1962 and wore it in Vietnam until instructed by the Department of the Army in 1964 not to wear it. Alaskan Indians and Eskimos serve the Army as scouts today in the 50th state.
In the years from 1873 to 1886, the Chronological List shows that in skirmishes in which the Apache scouts figured, 572 hostiles were killed and 637 captured, while Regular Army Units in the theater, during that period when operating alone, killed 122 Indians and captured 132. Commenting on these statistics one researcher pointed out that "as all good frontiersmen knew, it took an Apache to catch an Apache."
Crook wrote: "I cannot too strongly assert, that there has never been any success in operations against these Indians, unless Indian scouts were used either as auxiliaries or independent of other support… I assert, moreover, without reserve or qualification of any nature, that these Chiricahua scouts…were of more value in hunting down and compelling the surrender of the renegades than all other troops…combined… The use of Indian scouts was dictated by the soundest of military policy."
If I were responsible for planning the capitol lawns at Phoenix, I would commission a work of sculpture to be placed in prominent view at this focal point of southwestern life and history. It would consist of two principal figures: one a Papago-Pima-Maricopa Indian, symbolically represented, with a basket of grain to suggest the succor they generously (and sometimes profitably) provided emigrant, soldier, traveler or wanderer, which made viable the trail across southern Arizona between the contiguous states and California. The second figure would be of an Apache scout who, more than any other class of individual, secured and assured peace in the Southwest. Without these two generic figures, who knows when security and prosperity would have settled at last upon the region?