Thursday, November 09, 2006 Al Sieber: Chief of Scouts - Dan L. Thrapp - Deuce of Clubs Book Club
Deuce of Clubs Book Club: Books of the Weak


Al Sieber: Chief of Scouts

Dan L. Thrapp (1964)

 

I do not seek to glorify Al Sieber unduly, for to do so would be unhistorical. Sieber was a rough man, one who could be callous, although he was never cruel as that word is generally understood. (viii)

The frontier was "just over yonder" in geography, but Albert Sieber would find that it was also a state of mind. There wasn't a fence or a trace beyond which you could say the wilderness began. From the heart of the village, on a still night, while the snow lay firm and luminous under a star-powdered sky, one could hear the rising, dismal wail of a timber wolf. It was no uncommon thing to jump a white-tailed deer, or even an elk, within hiking distance of Minneapolis. There was still plenty of wilderness for those who could see it. (13)

No matter how you reached it, Prescott was a pretty sight. It was as different from the adobe communities of southern Arizona as Minneapolis from Mexico City. Situated in a pine forest at an elevation of 5,355 feet, it was built almost entirely of wood; there was scarcely an adobe brick in town. It never had the "man for breakfast" gunfighting bad temper of many southwestern cities, but that is not to say it wasn't tough, well blooded by Indians, and full of weird characters. (49)

[John Marion] urged his readers to "keep your powder dry and whenever you see an Indian that says, `Americano mucho bueno . . . ' kill him; he don't mean it." (54)

Both Genung and Townsend had inflicted mortal wounds on the first Indian; there was doubt as to who should count him. "Townsend said to me, `How many have you killed?'" Genung wrote. "I said, `Two yesterday and two this morning.' `Well,' he replied, `you count this one.' `How many have you got?' I asked. `Eight,' was the answer, `and one gone with his right arm all shot to pieces. We will track him up in hte morning and that will be nine for me.'" But the wounded Indian was never scored. (75)

The party that returned to Tucson lost two men, one killed accidentally and the other slain by Indians, and had two horses killed by the Apaches. The Indians also heckled the Prescott men, emboldened by what they no doubt considered a retreat. A mule was killed, one man had his hat shot off, and another got a bullet through his whiskers. (85)

Nobody could predict, then or now, when a western horse would buck. They could all do it. On sufficient provocation, with some horses more, with others none at all, they would buck, some with more skill and violence than others. Any westerner could ride a bucker; it was one of the trades that had to be learned if one didn't care to walk, and in the Arizona of vast distances and few settlements, no one really desired to walk. (104-5)

About four o'clock the Lieutenant sent Al and ten men to scout the head of Wet Beaver Creek. (127)

You never could tell about an Apache camp. There would be nothing there one day, but the next there might be a lively rancheria with a dozen brush wickiups thrown together by the indefatigable squaws. The Indians might live in it for a few days or weeks, then move sixty or one hundred miles—no one knew in what direction—where they would establish a new camp. (129)

But the Apaches had learned to like the black, high-crowned, stiff-brimmed hat, and to this day it is a favorite item of clothing among the men, although without the holes through which their forebears' hair protruded in 1874. (141)

Sieber sometimes led his scouts in side expeditions, which might last a few hours, a day, a week, or several weeks, and on one of these an Apache was captured, even though the order had been to take no prisoners. Sieber wanted to get information out of this Indian, however, and kept him around for several days, despite the hole which his insatiable appetite made in the party's short rations. At length they turned back toward the main column. As Al told a friend, he realized that he couldn't bring in a prisoner after he had been ordered not to do so. Morning came, and the Indian scouts, the prisoner, a packer, and Sieber were sitting in a circle eating their sparse breakfast. Al figured there was no time like the present. "I motioned to some of my scouts," he said, "and they did not seem to understand—or didn't want to understand—so I took my rifle, laid it back of the packer's head and shot the Indian behind the ear just as he was biting into a piece of bread. He fell over backwards; his feet went up into the air. The packer turned to me and said: `Al, if I had knowed you was going to do that to him, I would not have let him eat so much.'" (142)

Even beyond the fringe of civilization, Sunday is a day of rest, or, at least, for not pursuing one's normal labors. Prospectors and hunters, if they could remember which day Sunday was, used it for washing clothes, repairing tools, lolling around camp, hunting, or some other pursuit less backbreaking than working a rocker, although from sheer boredom they usually ended up with it by midafternoon. (148)

Sergeant Taylor set out to climb East Sunset Mountain, somewhat more than half a mile from camp, and ran into an ambush as a result of which the officer was brutally wounded by a rifle bullet through the arm and shoulder. He was recovered by Eaton, who tried hard to make his Indians scout for hostiles, but they wouldn't do it. "A more abject set of cowards it has never been my fortune to witness," he grumbled in his report. "They admitted it, and said, `Tonto kill me.'" (151)

Now the situation [at Camp Verde] had been stirred up by persistent rumors, which had even reached the Indians, that this reservation, which the government had promised them forever, would be nothing of the sort. Pressure for white ownership of the lands allotted to the Indians was increasing. It was a frontier truism that white pressure, once generated, would always be eased at the expense of the Indians. So it was to prove again. (155)

The Indians herded onto Verde Reservation were assured, as the government always told its wards, that this was to be their home as long as the rivers ran, the grass grew, and the hills endured. However, as often happened with federal promises, the streams soon dried up, the grass withered, and the rocks of the enduring hills melted away. After a short time, during which they had become attached to their new home, the Indians were informed that they would be moved once more. To a less desirable place, naturally—one the white man could find fewer economic reasons to covet, yet within the clutches of such grasping contractors as had political friends in Washington. (156)

[General George] Crook, who vainly hoped in the summer of 1874 "that the interests now at work to deprive these Indians of this reservation will be defeated," warned, correctly, of the dire consequences which would result, but he was not heeded. (158)

No one knew better than the Indians the hazards awaiting them on this long, painful journey. The mountains they had to cross were high. Rivers were numerous and at this season might rise many feet overnight, making a crossing impossible sometimes. They had to carry all of their belongings on their own backs; even the very old and the very young were under heavy loads. One ancient Indian placed his aged and decrepit wife in a basket, through the bottom of which he had cut holes so that her feet could stick out, then slung her on his bent back, support the cargo by a tumpline across his forehead, and carried her the full 180 miles—and there were those who said an Indian was incapable of such fine emotions as love! (162)

Al was a practical joker at a time when that was looked upon by most men as the highest form of humor. . . . Al's sprees were merely interludes in a life of almost constant danger, a life full of the perils he loved, which gave him his real zest for living. (173)

[Sieber and Alex Graydon] found a drunk and a spare coffin adjacent to each other, loaded the drunk into the coffin and fastened down the lid, then stood it on end against the porch railing of the commanding officer's cottage. Only just in time was it learned that they had made one little mistake: they had stood the unfortunate inebriate on his head, and by the time he was released, he was purple faced and almost dead. (200)

Sieber himself attributed his weird hold on the Apaches to his habit of never lying to them under any provocation, thus winning their complete confidence. "I do not deceive them but always tell them the truth," he told an interviewer. "When I tell them I am going to kill them, I do it, and when I tell them I am their friend, they know it." (174)

In a battle on the Verde, Sieber salvaged a youngster three or four years old and boosted him up behind him on his white mule. For a little while the child sat quietly, clutching the tail of Sieber's shirt so that he wouldn't fall. Suddenly Al felt a sharp sting in his side, grabbed at it, and caught the hand of the boy, who had silently drawn Sieber's bowie knife and was digging it into his side. A scout rode up and grimly snatched the boy off to no one ever told what fate. (175)

The party camped that night at Beaverhead, on Dry Beaver Creek. (192)

[News item:] The troops under Major Chaffee and a company of scouts under Al Sieber arrived at the valley and encamped at Sigsby's. The bodies of the murdered men were found, horribly mutilated by the Indians, and were decently interred.
It was an all too common incident in the long decades of Indian war in Arizona. Men had become hardened to such scenes and no one thought much about it. There was no particular desire for revenge, a luxury emotion for noncombatants in faraway Tucson and other safe places. (248)

They marched through country that "looks as though during the Creation it had been God's workshop, and the scraps had never been swept." (249)

Tom Horn, who probably was not in the battle but who often passed along interesting gossip, reported that Chaffee urged his men on at every phase of the rim action. "Chaffee, in a fight, can beat any man swearing I ever heard," Horn wrote. "He swears by ear, and by note in a common way, and by everything else in a general way. He would swear when his men would miss a good shot, and he would swear when they made a good shot. He swore at himself for not bringing more ammunition, and he would swear at his men for wasting their ammunition or shooting too often. Then an Indian would expose himself, and he would swear and yell: "Shoot, you damned idiots! What do you suppose I gave you ammunition for—to eat?'" And his men swore, too—they swore by Chaffee and loved him. (251-2)

Far down the canyon, Sieber and the other flankers had gained its floor. Bright sunlight had been on them when they started down, but so narrow was the defile at the bottom that someone gasped, pointed upward, and all peered at the unrivaled spectacle of stars shining in broad daylight.* (252)

* Update, 07nov2006 — Professor Cardyhouse: is there a name for this? how long do the walls have to be?

DoC: I actually would suspect that to be: bullshit. If it's a real phenomenon, I would love to experience it.

Professor C.: Answer: no.

(See also)

Early in the battle a scout, Private Pete, was killed. One account says that one of Sieber's scouts, during the thickest part of the fight, "saw two of his brothers and his father with the Indians. He threw his gun down and started to run to his folks. Sieber told him to halt. He did not heed him. Sieber raised his rifle and fired, shooting him in the back of the head. (253)

The rain soon turned to hail, covering the ground four or five inches deep, almost burying the dead in an icy shroud. In the words of Lieutenant West, it was so paralyzing that "Major Chaffee got so cold and wet he had to stop swearing." (256)

Lieutenant Hodgson had been left all night with a patrol on the north side of the chasm, and during the darkness he had heard groans. At daylight he set out to investigate when his men suddenly were fired upon—three times. Then there were no more shots. The men found a young Apache woman shielding her baby with her body; in her hands was a rifle and beside her lay three spent cartridges, all she had. She was desperately wounded yet endured without a murmur the amputation of her shattered leg and moved, aboard a mule, with the command back to Fort Apache, where she recovered. (256-7)

Litle of note occurred immediately after the fight, save that some "self-styled local cowboys," as Cruse put it, shoed up to claim the pony herd Al and his Indians had captured. They were driven off under a cloud of Chaffee profanity. A few white ghouls showed up to scalp the dead warriors, but Sieber was used to this and contemptuous of those who sought profit from his victories.
The Big Dry Wash affair was not without lasting significance, however. For one thing it marked the final major battle between Apaches and troops on Arizona soil. Of all the Apaches, only the Chiricahuas would henceforth challenge government control with violence. (257)

Before leaving Apache, Crook had counciled with such of the Apaches as could be induced to come in, men like Alchise, Cut-Mouth Moses, Mosby, and half a hundred others. He heard them complain that the army men in whom they had confidence had been removed from positions over them, leaving the Indians prey to the ring of crooked agents and contractors, and that they were being literally starved as well as otherwise abused in other ways. They had had no remedy but war for this sad state of affairs. In a letter to a United States district attorney, Crook said . . . . "Bad as Indians often are, I have never yet seen one so demoralized that he was not an example of honor and nobility compared to the wretches who enrich themselves by plundering him of the little our Government appropriates for him." (259-60)

The Lieutenant [Britton Davis] soon discovered that the agent had been up to his old tricks. The weights had been doctored so that the Indians received about fifteen hundred pounds less meat than was to be issued. In addition, the herd was kept south of the river, while the agency was north of it. The cattle were kept without water all the day before issue; naturally, when they came to the river, they drank heavily and "came on the scales looking like miniature Zeppelins. The Government was paying a pretty stiff price for half a barrel of Gila River water delivered with each beef." (264)

On June 20 they were camped near Bavispe. Some Mexicans visited the bivouac, were overjoyed to see los americanos once more in their country to punish los indios, and invited the whites to their camp for un traguito de vino, which turned out to be vino del pais, or mescal. It was Davis' introduction to the stuff. When the gourd was passed, he took a healthy swallow of the fiery liquid, then, with his throat aflame, his eyes watering, and his lungs bursting for air, groped blindly for water to chase the potent liquor. Sieber, all sympathy, handed him a canteen, which Davis gratefully clutched, put to his mouth, and upended—only to find that it was full of mescal, too. "I got two big gulps of the liquor down before I realized what he had done," chuckled Davis years later. "Subsequent proceedings interested me no more and I made a bee-line for camp and my roll of bedding." (298)

[Davis:] At one place [Possibly Willcox Playa — DoC] it became necessary to cross a shallow alkali pond, some four or five miles in width, and as we could not ride through the mud we were obliged to wade, leading the mules. The alkali was so strong in the water that it blistered our feet and legs, some of the Indians becoming so footsore that it was only with great pain that they could travel at all. The hostiles had crossed this flat before the rain. (312]

Charley [Meadows] once roped against Tom Horn in a speed contest at Phoenix, in 1891, and lost. Charley organized a wild West show and took it to many places, including Australia. En route he was exercising a bucking horse on deck and the mount plunged into the Pacific—with Charley. Both were rescued by lariat. (315n]

In 1878, Al had made a location there with some old-time packers: Long Jim Cook, Sam Hill, Charley Dupont, and Frank Story. A lot of work was done on the mine and it looked good for a time, but you never could tell about gold properties. Anyway, it was something to occupy a man's time. (319)

[The Apache Kid's] "eyesight is amazingly keen," wrote one newspaperman who had a personal acquaintanceship with many who later chased the Indian. "An Army officer once commanding Kid as a scout tells [this] correspondent that one day, while attended by Kid on a bluff overlooking a vast plain, the scout reported a band of mounted men fully fifteen miles distant. With the aid of powerful field glasses the officer could barely discern moving specks on the plain. With the naked eye the Kid discerned not only the number of mounted men in the distant party, but could also tell the number of white men, the number of Indians, and the number of horses and mules in the outfit. The officer met the party later and found that Kid's report was exactly correct. Such keenness of vision seems almost phenomenal." Phenomenal it was indeed! Allowing for a bit of exaggeration, the incident still reveals a remarkable quality, not only of vision, but of intelligence. At that distance the Indian could not actually see the difference between white and Indian, and how many of each were in the party, but he could deduce it from his experience and from the dust raised and other signs. An experienced stockman can differentiate between a horse and a mule almost as far as he can see anything. A pack mule and a saddle animal move differently and can readily be distinguished by the seasoned eye. White men and red men do not sit in their mounts in an identical way, so that distinguishing the elements of a party at that distance in the luminous clarity of the southwestern deserts becomes a matter of observation plus deduction plus what might be called intuition. The Kid's feat on this occasion was a tribute not only to his phenomenal eyesight, but to his imagination and intelligence as well. (323-4)

Glenn Reynolds now had the problem of transporting the prisoners from Globe to Casa Grande, en route to Yuma. Sieber offered him an escort of Indian scouts but Glenn shrugged. "I don't need your scouts. I can take those Indians alone with a corn-cob and a lightning-bug." He selected a single deputy, W. A. "Hunkydory" Holmes, as guard. (337)

As the column approached the rock point, the foremost Indians got as close as they could to Reynolds and the others dropped back toward Holmes. The latter seized Holmes with their shackled hands while Pas-lau-tau snatched the guard's rifle away. At the same instant, the forward Indians seized the sheriff and in a furious struggle took his shotgun away, he being unable to get at the revolver, under his overcoat. Pas-lau-tau ran up with the rifle and shot Reynolds, killing him instantly. . . . Holmes's body showed no wounds, he having died of fright. The Mexican was unharmed.
The outlaws swiftly stripped Reynolds' body of weapons and the keys to their manacles and hurried to catch up to the stage. The Mexican, however, was ahead of them and warned Middleton, who pulled his pistol and forced the Kid, about to leap from the vehicle, back inside. Then, hearing the click of a weapon being cocked on the other side of the stage, Gene turned. A bullet from Holmes's rifle ripped through his mouth and neck, missing his teeth and spinal cord but toppling him from his high seat onto the ground, where he crumpled and lay still, although not quite unconscious. Into the coach leaped the Apaches to free the Kid and Say-es, who sprawled to safety just as the restless horses ran away with the empty vehicle.
Middleton lay in a widening pool of his own blood, sure, as he later put it, that "his last moments had come." His eyes were open a bit, and he could not close them. The Kid may have noticed, but the other Indians did not. El-cahn stood over him a moment, then raised a jagged rock high above him, prepared to hurl it at the wounded man's head. The Kid spoke to El-cahn, grabbed his arm, and caused him to cast it aside. The Indians then ripped off Gene's overcoat, emptied the pockets, and disappeared in the brush. (338-9)

"For weeks no human being ever saw Massai," [Jason] Betzinez [a cousin of Geronimo] reported. "Traveling on foot at night, stealing food and water, and hiding by day, he succeeded in getting back to his native country in the Black Mountains of western New Mexico. . . . To appreciate this amazing feat you should remember that this Indian could not read printed road signs, did not dare ask questions, had no map, and had never been in this country before except while on the train. Like a coyote or a wolf he lived off the country, remaining completely out of sight even while passing through a thickly settled part of the country in Missouri and Kansas." He had demonstrated, as Jason pointed out, "the almost superhuman power of the Apache to find his way through unknown country and to survive great hardships." Yet, he added, "we never considered him to be outstanding as a fighter. He was just an average Apache." (345-6)

Not far from Willcox, three cowboys approached a dead cow in a field; two Indians rose from behind it, fired twice, killed two of the cowboys, and chased the other away. (348)

One of [Sieber's] particular pets was a white or gray jennet, which had the disconcerting habit of bucking viciously if mounted before being led about one hundred yards. Al once lent her to Charles M. Clark, president of the Arizona Pioneers' Historical Society, who wanted to ride from Del Shay to Payson, but, by whimsical design or otherwise, neglected to tell Clark about this peculiar trait of the animal. Clark later confessed: "I positively did not ride that jennet to Payson." Al's favorite horse was big Sancho, born the day Sieber was shot in the Apache Kid imbroglio. (376-7)

W. C. "Pecos" McFadden, as a boy of ten or twelve, used to go camping with Sieber in the Sierra Ancha on occasion. McFadden's father ranched over much of the range, and Al would come around every couple of months or so and talk Pecos' parents into letting him take the boy out prospecting or hunting. "He was a great meat eater," McFadden recalled. "When he'd cook a steak he would pull out a bottle of vinegar and pour it over the meat, then hand the bottle to me and say, `Use lots of it, and you'll be as healthy and live as long as I have.' To please him I'd take a little but never liked the taste of it." (380)

[Robert Riell:] We had some dogs with us, and instead of running the cattle, they treed a little old bear. I fired two shots at him, but seemed to miss, and went to get Al. When we returned, we saw where the bear had toppled out of the tree, and we decided to eat bear meat, instead of beef. We took the hide with us, and when we got to the ranch, threw it across a fence.
The next morning Al came limping up and said, "You kids got a bear story?" We both shook our heads. "Well," said Al, "I got one. You tell it this way. . . ." He gave us a long winded story about how the bear came down the tree and chased me up another one, and Ed had to rope him, and how he got tangled up with the rope, and finally how the bear was killed. "Anyone questions your story," said Sieber, "don't say nothing—just point to the bear hide. The bear must have been killed, and that's your evidence. Just say, `Well, there's his hide, ain't it?'" (380-1)

Al's attention continued to wander from the Del Shay property, and he turned to some copper claims that he had on Pinto Creek, sixteen miles west of Globe, named the Hal and Al, Lost Coon, Dan and Mack, Monroe Doctrine, and so on. (385-6)

Hill, in turn, went to Sieber, and Al called in a pair of dark-faced Apaches, one named "Rabbit" and the other "Yesterday." "They understand a little English," Sieber explained. "Just tell them what you want and let them do the rest."
Thad Frazier watched the pair work when they reached the glade:
We'd had lots of rain and the ground was soft. All the ravines were running water. They tracked the killer easily through mud, and with more difficulty over the rocks, and came at last to a pool where he'd knelt to wash his hands. A little way beyond the Indians stopped and said he'd thrown the knife away.
You know, if you're a right-handed man, you drag your right foot just a little when you throw something. The Indians showed us a track where the right foot had dragged a little. They said the man there had thrown something. So the one Indian picked up a rock and threw it, followed to its landing, went all over and found nothing. Then the other Indian threw a rock, a couple of rocks, from that place. Again they went to where the rocks lit. They hunted for about a minute and goddam if they didn't come up with the knife! (394)

Sieber didn't like to leave a job unfinished. Once more his Indians pried at it from above, but the rock wouldn't budge. "Wait a minute," Al told his crew. "I'll see what's the trouble." The old scout painfully hobbled down the slope, peering into the excavation, probing it with a stick, and then crawled out of sight under the great monolith. Suddenly it seemed to shudder, eased forward almost imperceptibly, then, with irresistible momentum, crashed down the slope, flattening everything in its path. The thirty Indians on the upper edge stared, horror stricken. The rock had apparently rolled of its own volition. They rushed forward to cluster about the body of the old man, setting up a moan that carried to Frazier's gang up the slope. (400-1)

There is some scattered dissent to this picture of the scout's last moments. I have been told, by a border adventurer, that the Apaches pushed the rock down on Sieber. The informant said he was told this by the Indians themselves during a drinking bout at a later date. "Indians will tell you things when they are drunk that they wouldn't say otherwise," he said. In view of the general lack of supporting evidence, I have not used this in my textual account, however, but include it here for what it may be worth. (401n)

To perpetuate [Sieber's] name further, Will Barnes suggested to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names that some promontory in Grand Canyon be named for Al, and in 1932 this was done. Unfortunately, the name for the point was spelled "Seiber," and the paragraph of explanation in the record notes that it was "named for Al. Seiber, noted chief of scouts under General Crook for many years during the Apache Indian wars, 1868-1873," which is about as fat a collection of missatements as can be readily compressed into a single official sentence. The errors were pointed out to Frank Bond, who served as chairman of the Board from 1926 to 1934, but with no discernible result. . . . Southwest of Seiber Point, also a mile and one-fourth from it, is another promontory, this one named for King Woolsey, misspelled "Woosley" on the Geological Survey's 1:48,000 map of the park. (406-7)


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