Life among the Apaches/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV.


Apache Signals.—Mode of Marching through Arizona and New Mexico.—Apache Watchfulness and Caution.—The Gila Country.—Grama Grass.—The Information Indispensable for a Successful Campaign against Apaches.—The Smoke Columns.—Pressed Grass.—Bent and Broken Twigs.—Blazed Trees.—Mounted Parties.—The Stone Signals.—Kit Carson.—Comparison between White Men's and Apache Philosophy.—The Present Condition of Apache Armament.—Their Knowledge of Colors, and the Use they make of It.—Their Hatred of all Other Races.—Proofs of their Good Breeding.—Our Indian Policy Discussed.—Apache Want of Sympathy.—How they Obtain their Guns and Ammunition—Extent of their Ravages in Northern Mexico.—Monuments of Apache Massacres in Arizona.—Mines of Arizona.


The experiences of several years had not been ignored. The time which had elapsed between my first and second appearance upon the stage of Indian action had given me opportunity to reflect upon many events, and study their causes, characters, and mechanism of production. Reposing in the midst of civilized security, and altogether freed from the excitement of unseen, deadly perils to which life in the Apache countries is invariably subject, I was enabled to draw more correct conclusions than could have been arrived at on the ground, while compelled to regard personal safety as the first necessity. In this calm and undisturbed survey of the field many circumstances were accounted for which at the time appeared more the result of untoward accident than of well laid schemes founded upon a shrewd knowledge of natural instincts. The pyramidal columns of smoke, so often seen to ascend from mountain heights, had appeared to me as merely warnings of our presence in the country; the apparently casual turning over of a stone, close to the highway, never attracted attention; the breaking of a few insignificant branches in a forest did not seem to be more than accidental occurrences; but closer investigation led me to believe that all these things, and many more, had their peculiar significance; that they were neither more nor less than lithographic notices by which one party could know the force of another—the direction taken—the extent and nature of the danger which threatened, and impart the summons for a gathering. That these surmises were correct every old Indian fighter knows; but the responsibilities of my position determined me to make a study of points so essential to a successful campaign, and the safety of my command. Nevertheless, it will be found that a party, even though it be a small one, which is well armed; which never relaxes its vigilance; which selects clear, open ground for camping; which invariably throws out an advanced guard, and keeps its weapons always ready for use at a moment's warning, can move with safety through all portions of Arizona and New Mexico; while ten times their number, disregarding these precautions, are sure to be attacked, and if attacked about as certain to be defeated with loss. Let it be again distinctly impressed upon my readers, that the Apache never attacks unless fully convinced of an easy victory. They will watch for days, scanning your every movement, observing your every act; taking exact note of your party and all its belongings. Let no one suppose that these assaults are made upon the spur of the moment by bands accidentally encountered. Far from it; they are almost invariably the results of long watching—patient waiting—careful and rigorous observation, and anxious counsel.

Throughout nearly the whole of Arizona the traveler encounters a succession of high mountain ridges, running northwest and southeast, overlooking intermediate, unwooded and unconcealed plains, which are from fifteen to forty miles from ridge to ridge. The sierras are not continuous or united, but occur in isolated ranges of from twenty to fifty miles in extent, with smooth and clear prairie lands between them. These intervals extend from one to five miles; but as they afford neither wood nor water, are never traveled except by very small parties, which can move quickly and are too weak to risk the dangerous mountain passes and cañons. But even this cannot be effected in some places without making a detour of many miles from the direct road, and it is often indispensable to run all risks rather than lose time, or suffer the inconveniences of such a round-about and wretchedly provided march, where one is likely to perish from the want of water.

The land along the Gila is excessively alkaline and unproductive in its present condition, although in many places the willow, cotton-wood and mesquit flourish luxuriantly. In wet weather the soil becomes a soft, deep and tenacious muck, which almost wholly impedes wagon travel, and during the dry season the roads are so deeply covered with a fine, almost impassable and light dust, that every footfall throws up clouds of it yards above the traveler's head, completely shutting out from sight all objects more than three yards distant. To such an extent does this prevail in some localities, that I have been unable to distinguish the man or his horse at my side, and within reach of my arm, on a fine moonlight night.

In the immediate neighborhood of Tucson, on the table land outside of its cultivated fields, the traveler, for the first time, meets with the far-famed grama grass, but on descending from this mesa does not again come in contact with it until he reaches Dragoon Springs. This grama grass is beyond all comparison the most nutricious herbage ever cropped by quadrupeds. It is much heavier, contains more saccharine in connection with more farinaceous and strength-giving aliment than any other grass known. At least such is my experience, and that of all other men who have had occasion to test its virtues and time to pronounce upon its merits. I give it the very first rank among all sorts of hay, believing it to be superior to clover, timothy, alfalfa, or all three together. Although I have never been able to observe any seed upon this grass, it seems to combine the qualities of grain and hay in the greatest perfection. Horses will live and do well upon it, provided they can obtain it regularly, while doing active cavalry duty, without other feed; but they must have it, as stated, regularly in abundance, and be permitted to crop it from native pastures. It bears no flower, exhibits no seed, but seems to reproduce itself from the roots by the shooting up of young, green and vigorous spires, which are at first inclosed within the sheaths of their old and dried-up predecessors, and by their growth split and cast them to earth, and occupy their places.

I am not sufficiently versed in botany to give my readers a more elaborate and scientific account of this superb grass, and if I were, it would not be my desire in a work of this character to inflict upon the general reader a series of double-barreled Greek terms which not one in a thousand could understand, and, understanding, would care about. The object is to convey some tolerable idea of that great aliment for herbivorous animals upon which the Apache races rely for the support of their horses, and which, by its singularly strength-giving properties, is capable of enabling their ponies to perform extraordinary feats of endurance.

From Dragoon Pass eastward the whole of the vast region inhabited by the Apaches is covered with this species of grass, which is more or less thick and nourishing, according to circumstances, but always in sufficient abundance to afford all the nutriment required. It is this plentiful distribution of the most strengthening grass in the world which enables the Apache to maintain his herds, make his extraordinary marches, and inflict wide-spread depredations.

A knowledge of signals, whether smokes or fires, or bent twigs and pressed grass, or of turned stones, together with the localities of water sources, the different passes through the sierras, the nature and quantity of the fodder to be had in certain districts, the capacity to distinguish tracks and state with certainty by whom made, and how long before, are absolutely indispensable to a successful campaign among those savages. To the acquirement of all these points I devoted much attention, and, without egotism, can claim such success as to privilege me in giving the result of my researches as worthy of confidence.

Smokes are of various kinds, each one significant of a particular object. A sudden puff, rising into a graceful column from the mountain heights, and almost as suddenly losing its identity by dissolving into the rarified atmosphere of those heights, simply indicates the presence of a strange party upon the plains below; but if those columns are rapidly multiplied and repeated, they serve as a warning to show that the travelers are well armed and numerous. If a steady smoke is maintained for some time, the object is to collect the scattered bands of savages at some designated point, with hostile intention, should it be practicable. These signals are made at night, in the same order, by the use of fires, which being kindled, are either alternately exposed and shrouded from view, or suffered to burn steadily, as occasion may require. All travelers in Arizona and New Mexico are acquainted with the fact that if the grass be pressed down in a certain direction during the dry season, it will retain the impress and grow daily more and more yellow until the rainy season imparts new life and restores it to pristine vigor and greenness. The Apaches are so well versed in this style of signalizing that they can tell you, by the appearance of the grass, how many days have elapsed since it was trodden upon, whether the party consisted of Indians or whites, about how many there were, and, if Indians, to what particular tribe they belonged. In order to define these points, they select some well marked footstep, for which they hunt with avidity, and gently pressing down the trodden grass so as not to disturb surrounding herbage, they very carefully examine the print. The difference between the crushing heel of a white man's boot or shoe, and the light imprint left by an Indian's moccasin, is too striking to admit of doubt, while the different styles of moccasin used by the several divisions of the Apache tribes are well known among them. The time which has elapsed since the passage of the party is determined by discoloration of the herbage and breaking off a few spires to ascertain the approximate amount of natural juice still left in the crushed grass. Numbers are arrived at by the multiplicity of tracks. Signalizing by bent twigs, broken branches and blazed trees, is too well known to deserve special mention here. In these respects the Apaches do not differ from other Indian tribes of this continent.

If a mounted party has been on the road, their numbers, quality and time of passage are determined with exactitude, as well as the precise sex and species of the animals ridden. The moment such a trail is fallen in with, they follow it eagerly, having nothing else to do, until they find some of the dung, which is immediately broken open, and from its moisture and other properties, the date of travel is arrived at nearly to a certainty, while the constituents almost invariably declare the region from which the party came. This last point depends upon whether the dung is composed of grama grass, barley and grass, corn, bunch grass, buffalo grass, sacaton, or any of the well known grasses of the country, for as they are chiefly produced in different districts, the fact of their presence in the dung shows precisely from what district the animal last came. When barley is discovered the Apaches have reason to believe that Americans have been over the route, and when maize is found they feel confident that the travelers were either Mexicans or people from that country. These remarks apply only to unshod horses, for iron prints speak for themselves. The difference in sexes is easily told by the attitude each assumes while urinating—the male stretching himself and ejecting his urine forward of his hind feet, while the female ejects to the rear of the hind prints.

Signalizing by stones is much more difficult to comprehend, and very few have ever arrived at even a distant knowledge of this art. Perhaps the most skillful detecter of such notices was "Kit Carson," as he was generally termed, and it would be very strange if he were not. No man in the United States has had greater experience, and no man possessed a keener natural instinct to detect Indian signs. I must confess my inability to do this part of the subject full justice, but will give the result of my observations. The traveler is often surprised to notice a number of stones on one side the road, lying apparently without any set arrangement, when he can observe no others within reach of his eye. A careful observation will convince him that they never grew in that region, but were brought from some considerable distance. This translation was certainly neither the work of Americans nor Mexicans, but of Indians, and evidently for some fixed purpose. A closer examination will show that these stones are regularly arranged, and that the majority point to some special point of the compass, while the number of those who planted them is designated by some concerted placement of each stone. For instance, no one need be told that in wild countries like Arizona, where deluges of rain pour down during the rainy season, the heaviest side of a stone will, in course of time, find itself underneath, and when this order is reversed, especially under the circumstances above cited, there is good reason to believe that it has been purposely done. This belief becomes certainty on seeing that each one of the group, or parcel, is precisely the same way. Besides, a stone which has been long lying on one particular side, soon contracts a quantity of clay or soil on its nether surface, while its upper one has been washed clean. If it be turned over, or partly over, the difference becomes easily discoverable. If one stone be placed on end so as to rest against another, it means that the party so placing it require aid and assistance. If turned completely over, it indicates disaster during some raid; and if only partly turned, that the expedition has been a failure. Success is noted by the stones being left in a natural position, heaviest side down, but so arranged as to be nearly in line. I am not sufficiently expert in this style of signalizing to give any further explanations, and I doubt if any one but "Kit Carson" was capable of fully decyphering this kind of Apache warnings.

These remarks have seemed necessary to the full development of the Apache character, as they, in some sort, serve to account for the clear and explicit understanding which undoubtedly exists among the many detached fragments of that race. Without some such codes of signals, they would be comparatively incapable of the terrible devastations and outrages they have perpetrated. Neither could they collect their scattered bands for any occasion requiring numbers without great loss of time and trouble. Having no reliable means for subsistence beyond what they obtain by marauding excursions, they are wholly incapable of maintaining any considerable number for more than a few days at a time, and they, therefore, depend upon their signals as the means of warning each other, and consolidating whenever the "game is worth the candle." The Apaches brought their system to wonderful perfection, and from this arises their capacity to act conjointly with celerity, vigor and effect, although the operating bodies may not actually meet until just before the time for action arrives. It is to this system that the Apache bands of fives, tens and twenties, separated from each other by twenty, thirty and forty miles, feel that they are operating always in concert, and manage to maintain a rigid police espionage over the vast region they inhabit.

When will the white man ever become wise, and, instead of treating the Indian with scornful indifference, give him credit for his intelligence, his quick and remarkable instincts, his powers of reflection and organization, and his inveterate opposition to all innovation? We have been too much in the habit of treating them with contempt, and underrating our savage enemies. This has been a serious blunder, the rock upon which so many millions of money and so many precious lives have been wrecked. Is it not time to accept a new policy in their regard? Will civilized people never learn that they are quite as obtuse to comprehend real Indian nature as the Indians to understand their civilization? Can they not see that their hauteur, self-sufficiency and overbearing conceit, are quite as reprehensible as the Indian's ignorance, distrust and superstition? The savage is pardonable in his mental darkness, but the white man is inexcusable in his light. Semi-idiotic people believe that the Apache of to-day is like his ancestor of half a century ago; that he fights with bow and stone-headed arrows; that he has learned nothing from experience; that he is a biped brute who is as easily killed as a wolf; that he possesses no power of organization, combination, judgment, skill, strategy or reflection; but the truth is, that he possesses them all in an eminent degree. When the popular mind shall have been disabused of such heresy, it will have accomplished the first step toward that long-wanted result, the domination and consequent pacification of the Indian tribes of the North American continent.

Let it be well understood that the Apache of to-day is armed with the best kind of rifle, with Colt's six-shooters and with knives, and that, in addition to these, he is never without his silent, death-dealing bow and quiver full of iron-headed arrows. While adopting our improved weapons, whenever occasion offers, they never abandon those of their sires. The reasons for this are fourfold: First, the bow and arrow in the hands of skillful warriors proves very deadly; it makes no noise, and for night attacks or the taking off of sentinels, is far superior to the gun. Secondly, it is the best weapon that can be used in the chase, or, more properly, on the hunt, as half a dozen animals may be slain in a herd before their comrades are made aware of the fact. Thirdly, they are so light that they can be worn without the slightest sense of encumbrance. Fourthly, they can always be relied on, at close quarters, when other weapons fail, or ammunition, of which they possess limited supplies, gives out. It is, therefore, not strange that the Apache will invariably add his bow and arrows to his personal armament, although he may be the owner of a Spencer rifle and a couple of Colt's revolvers, with ammunition to suit. Whenever they design entering one of our military camps they invariably conceal, at some distance, firearms; so that they may appear innocent of designed enmity or their possession, but should occasion serve, they quickly manage to re-possess themselves of all their weapons.

Let it also be understood that the Apache has as perfect a knowledge of the assimilation of colors as the most experienced Paris modiste. By means of his acumen in this respect, he can conceal his swart body amidst the green grass, behind brown shrubs, or gray rocks, with so much address and judgment that any but the experienced would pass him by without detection at the distance of three or four yards. Sometimes they will envelop themselves in a gray blanket, and by an artistic sprinkling of earth, will so resemble a granite boulder as to be passed within near range without suspicion. At others, they will cover their persons with freshly gathered grass, and lying prostrate, appear as a natural portion of the field. Again, they will plant themselves among the yuccas, and so closely imitate the appearance of that tree as to pass for one of its species. These exact imitations of natural objects which are continually present to the traveler, tend to disarm suspicion; yet, I would not advise the wayfarer to examine each suspected bush, tree or rock, but simply to maintain a cautious system of marching—never, for a moment, relaxing his watchfulness, and invariably keeping his weapons ready for immediate use. Whenever these precautions are observed, the Apache is slow to attack, even at monstrous odds in his favor.

The selfishness inherent in the human race crops out with intensity among these Indians; yet their hatred and animosity toward all other races is even stronger, and is the matrix of the cohesive principle by which they have been kept together, and which has proved their safe guard against all outside corrupting influences. Under no circumstances will one Apache risk anything for another, unless it is manifestly to his interest. The most refined civilization could not advance him in this respect. He appreciates self just as well as those who have been the habitués of Wall street, the Stock Exchange, or the Parisian Boulevards. If the height of good breeding consists in being perfectly impassive, and disregardful of the events which attend on fellow men, then the Apache has arrived at the apex of good breeding, and lordlings may take lessons from his school of manners. Their great natural intelligence makes them comprehend that "in union is strength," and their desire to exhibit that strength is ever prevalent. They delight to manifest their numerical power, for the reason that opportunities for such exhibition are very rare, and whatever is of common occurrence ceases to interest; and also because such combinations tend to inflict additional dread upon their enemies, and the inculcation of this sentiment is a chief cause of security to each Apache.

In all our dealings with Indian tribes we have quite underrated their abilities, and in this we have demonstrated our own stupidity. The vanity and self-conceit of civilized and educated men are never more stilted than when brought in contact with savage races. Such persons are prone to address the Indian with a smirk or patronizing air which is very offensive, and would never be used toward an equal. No allowance is made for the fact that the proud savage does consider himself not only the equal, but the superior of his white brother. It seems never to have been understood that considerable deference should be paid to his very ignorance, because that ignorance is his sufficient excuse for crediting himself with superior intelligence. The conceit of the educated white man is fully equaled by that of the savage, and the lower he is in the scale of mental ability the greater will be his pretension to superiority. The fact that a wise man knows himself to be ignorant, while an ignorant man believes himself to be wise, is fully exemplified in our intercourse with the Apaches, but it is a question in my mind whether the Apaches have not had the best end of the argument, when the character and acts of their agents, and others, who have been appointed to treat with them, are known and considered.

To arrive at a successful arrangement with these Indians they must be approached in the first place as equals. This will flatter their inordinate vanity, and minister to their excessive selfishness. After a few interviews for the purpose of establishing amicable understanding, the agent, or treating party, or traveler, should carefully introduce some cheap natural effects, the employment of which would be ridiculed in ordinary civilized life, but present astounding revelations to the wild Indian. The use of a double convexed lens, as a magnifier, or as a burning-glass; the employment of a strong field glass; exhibiting the powers and qualities of a strong magnet; showing the wonders of the magic lantern, and other like simple demonstrations, will invariably impress them with something of respect and regard toward the operator, provided he is exceedingly careful in his first attempts not to alarm their pride and suspicion by any boastful or vain expression or demeanor. These things should be done as if with the intention of asking from them an exhibition of their skill in return for your efforts to please. They should never be permitted to infer that they are the results of boastful superiority. In this manner a feeling of mutual regard can be engendered which is the first step toward the establishment of durable amity. They should be asked to exhibit their address in shooting, riding, hunting and other pursuits of like character, in which they are expert. The white man should evince a desire to learn as well as teach; but so long as we continue to approach them with hauteur and with patronizing airs, they will resist our efforts and employ all their cunning to overreach and leave us worse off than ever. As they cannot rise to our level we must descend to theirs to understand and appreciate their true character.

But even under the most favorable circumstances, and with the employment of every resource within our power, only very meagre and unsatisfactory results can be obtained. The labors and experiences of two hundred and fifty years have failed utterly to create any favorable impression upon our Indian races, with the exception of the Choctaws and Cherokees, who were actually hemmed in by intelligent people, and had civilization forced upon them to some extent, and scarcely one of whom is to-day of pure Indian blood. I consider the idea of emancipating our savage tribes from the thraldom of their ignorance and perverse traditional hatred of the whites as wholly utopian. Of all the tribes on our continent the Apache is the most impracticable. Their enmity toward mankind, and distrust of every word and act are ineradicable. As their whole system of life and training is to plunder, murder and deceive, they cannot comprehend opposite attributes in others. He whom we would denounce as the greatest scoundrel they regard with special esteem and honor. With no people are they on amicable terms, and never hesitate to rob from each other when it can be done with impunity. There is no sympathy among them; the quality is unknown. Should an Apache's horse escape and run past another of the tribe, close enough to catch the animal by simply reaching forth his hand, that hand will never be stretched for the purpose; but the owner must do the business for himself, if his squaw is not at hand to do it for him. Nevertheless, after a successful raid, in which they have captured many animals, and having selected the best for riding, retire to some remote fastness to feed upon the remainder so long as they last, they will freely share to the very last bit with any and all comers of their race. This seeming hospitality is, however, not the result of kindliness, but the prompting of a selfish policy, for they are aware it assists to unite them in one common band of plundering brotherhood, and to preserve those relations toward each other without which they cannot operate advantageously. Frequently when one has received a small present of tobacco, or some such article, he will divide it among all on the spot, simply because he knows that the same thing will be done to him by the others whenever occasion serves, and not from any sense of generosity, as may be seen from the fact that, if one only be present to receive a gift, he immediately hides it on some part of his person and complacently ignores its existence to all who may arrive after the event.

There is nothing of which they are so careful as ammunition. Always difficult to obtain, and indispensable in their engagements at the present day, every grain of powder is preserved with extraordinary solicitude. In their hunting excursions they never fire a gun or pistol if it can possibly be avoided, but depend entirely upon their skill in approaching the game near enough to use the bow and arrow. At an early period they understood fully the value of double sights on any weapon carrying a ball, and the old-fashioned single-barreled shot guns, a few of them possessed at that time, were invariably sawed into with a knife to the depth of one-eighth of an inch, a few inches from the breech, when the thin sliver was raised above the barrel and carefully notched to form the rear sight.

At the present writing they have a considerable number of Henry's, Spencer's and Sharp's rifles, with some of the fixed ammunition required by the two first mentioned. Every cartridge they get hold of is preserved with solicitude until it can be expended with decided advantage. These weapons have been obtained gradually by the robbery and murder of their former owners, and not a few have been bought in the frontier Mexican towns, where they were sold by immigrants to obtain food and other supplies while crossing the continent. The hostilities which raged along the northern portion of Mexico for four years also contributed to place within their reach many weapons of fair quality. That they know how to handle these arms with deadly skill has been attested on too many occasions to need particular mention in these pages. From Gila Bend to Paso del Norte is little better than a continuous grave-yard, grizzly with the rude monuments of Apache bloodthirstiness. Town after town, once containing several thousand inhabitants and even now showing the remains of fine brick churches; rancho after rancho, formerly stocked with hundreds of thousands of cattle and horses, and teeming with wealth; village after village all through the northern parts of Sonora and Chihuahua, the whole embraced in a belt five hundred miles long and from thirty to eighty wide, now exhibit one wide-spread and tenantless desolation, the work of the Apache Indians. For ninety consecutive years this ruthless warfare has been, carried on against a timid, nearly unarmed and demoralized people. Thousands of lives have been destroyed, and thousands of women and children carried into a captivity worse than death, during that period; and yet the deadly, destructive and unholy work goes on with unrelaxed vigor. It is both sickening and maddening to ride through that region and witness the far-reaching ruin, to listen to the dreadful tales of unequaled atrocities, and note the despairing terror which the bare mention of the Apaches conjures up to their diseased and horrified imaginations.

Coming to the American side, we enter upon another field of destruction, but in nowise comparable to that which Mexico exhibits. The great majority of our sacrifices of life and property have been the results of want of caution, of fool-hardiness and too great self-reliance. As already stated, we are too prone to underrate the Apache in all respects, and by so doing set a trap for our own feet. But even on our side the border the traveler will encounter many fine farms abandoned, their buildings in ruins, and the products of years of industry wrested from their grasp. On every road little mounds of stones by the way-side, some with a rude cross, and others with a modest head-board, speak in silent but terribly suggestive language of the Apaches' bloody work. Scattered all over Arizona are mines of wondrous wealth utterly inapplicable to the uses of mankind so long as that tribe remains unsubdued and unconquered. Communication between any two places, if not more than a mile apart, cannot be ventured upon without absolute danger. No man can trust his animals to graze three hundred yards from the town walls without incurring the risk of losing them at high noon. Mexican women and children have been carried off during the day time, while washing in the stream, within four hundred yards of their own doors and in plain sight of their townspeople. These atrocities, and others unnecessary to mention, go on year after year; and thus far no successful result has been obtained, as might have been expected, from the puerile and ill-directed efforts made to suppress them. Wherever an intelligent and well conceived movement has been concerted within the power of the limited force in Arizona, official stupidity has invariably disconcerted and paralyzed its efficiency. This is no vague and untenable charge, as will be seen in succeeding pages. There is but one opinion on the subject throughout all Arizona. The correspondence between Gov. McCormick and Gen. McDowell, some of which has been made public through the daily papers, is in itself sufficient to establish the assertion, and no doubt led to the removal of Gen. McDowell from the field of his operations. Personally, my regard for that officer as a gentleman is very sincere; but it may be doubted if the army register contains the name of another so wholly, so utterly incapable of comprehending Indian nature and the requirements of Indian warfare. As a cabinet officer he may have few equals in the service; but for Indian campaigning, it would be difficult to select another so little fitted.