Pioneers Seldom Died Of Old Age, Chapter 7

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On the Mogollon Rim at East Clear Creek, the 1882 battlefield known at "Big Dry Wash" contains the grave of Private Joseph McLernon, the only white solider killed during the conflict. At its head is an official military marker. But is his body really under this mound of stones?

Two years after the headstone was put in place, there was an effort to debunk the authenticity of the grave. Columnist Paul Dean published an interview in The Arizona Republic with someone he allowed to remain anonymous. [1] The secret informer said the identification of the McLernon grave fit a "pattern of sketchy chronicling at the time, guesswork after the fact, misinterpretation of accounts, outright lies by eyewitnesses who weren't there, and that human tendency to color and diminish circumstances to fit personal beliefs..."

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Two of the author's grandsons peer around the Monument for the Battle of Big Dry Wash, near the grave of Pvt. Joseph McLernon.

After these scathing comments, the history buff produced, as proof, a 1931 article by Will C. Barnes, claiming the body of McLernon had been exhumed and reburied at Fort Apache. Barnes commented, "The soldier and Indian scout killed and buried on the Dry Wash battlefield were taken up by the military authorities a few years later and moved to Fort Apache, where they were laid away with a full military funeral in the post cemetery." [2]

Columnist Paul Dean accepted this quote from his secret informer at face value. The informer continued, making a startling statement. He had taken 2,000 Sharpe's rifle cartridges from the battlefield, and in the summer of 1978, he and a friend dug into the grave. "We approached the grave from both sides of the marker and went down four feet, a lot deeper than McLernon would have been buried, when you consider that his buddies dug the hole with mess kits and knives. We found nothing but dirt and rocks. And no professional historian disputes that McLernon was exhumed and reburied at Fort Apache. It was standard military procedure at the time..." (3)

He went on to admit they dug up an unopened can of beer, but buried it again "in case old soldiers never die."

The identification of the "secret informer" was revealed when I obtained a memo from the archives of the archaeology division of the Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, Arizona. The memo is very similar to remarks in the Arizona Republic article. It is "from the desk of James W. Walker," and it reads, "Too often it seems, people with historical inclinations get caught up with emotionalism - case in point: several years ago two individuals from Tucson [One being retired Ranger Fred Croxen] visited BDW (Big Dry Wash) and convinced themselves, and subsequently Barry Goldwater that a random pile of rocks on the north side of the road represented the grave of Pvt. Joseph McLernon, who was killed in the battle. Some months after this would-be important discovery, the Army Memorial Affairs Division had a G.I. type headstone made up and sent to Croxen et al. Towards the end of 1976, Croxen and an ad hoc group of historians from Tucson drove to BDW and put the headstone in place at McLernon's supposed grave. To discourage vandals they also poured a layer of ready-mix concrete over the rocks."

The memo continues, "This would seem a fitting footnote to the BDW fight except that Pri. McLernon was recovered from the temporary battlefield grave (location unknown) and his body successively was interred first at Ft. Apache and ultimately the military cemetery at Santa Fe. This is confirmed by Will Barnes who was contemporary with and familiar with many of the cavalry participants in the battle... To my knowledge there was never any effort to even verify the validity of the ‘pile of rocks' as a grave. One would expect a more thorough check by the Army Military Affairs people. About all that can be said for the now authentic appearing ‘grave' is that it is a symbolic memorial to the battle."

In spite of Mr. Walker's emotionally charged comments, the issue is far from settled.

This author insists the body is somewhere on that battlefield, if not under the military marker. It is true that the practice was to bury fallen soldiers on the spot, as the records confirm did happen in this case. In the July heat, it would have been impractical to try and return McLernon's body to Fort Apache, several day's journey away. We are told that the wounded were conveyed to Fort Verde, the closer post, and then on to Fort Whipple. If, on an outside chance, McLernon's body had been removed to Verde, it then would have been exhumed and re-interred at the National Cemetery in San Francisco. When Fort Verde was decommissioned, the remains of all military personnel were taken to San Francisco. A letter to this author from the director of the National Cemetery office in Denver, Colo., June 30, 1994, confirms, "after searching the permanent burial records at both San Francisco National Cemetery and Golden Gate National Cemetery, we have determined Private McLernon is not buried in either national cemetery."

What if the body was later exhumed and taken to Fort Apache, as Will Barnes claimed? When Fort Apache was decommissioned in 1922, the remains of all military personnel from that cemetery were re-interred in the National Cemetery at Santa Fe, N.M. Today the Fort Apache cemetery contains the remains of Indian Scouts, and white civilian scouts like Corydon Cooley, but no Army personnel. In 1993, I visited the National Cemetery at Santa Fe, N.M. The archivist there, Richard Salazar, brought out an old record book with the original entries regarding those whose remains came from Fort Apache. It includes familiar names, such as Edmund C. Hentig, the captain in McLernon's 6th Cavalry, who was killed at the Cibicu fight a year before the Battle of Dig Dry Wash. In all the old burial records there is no reference to McLernon!

There is one "wild card" here. Among the graves of those soldiers brought from Fort Apache, there is one unknown grave. It is the ninth grave from the north end of Section 2, #126, re-interred on March 15, 1932. However, this section contains the bodies of children and family members. The Fort Apache Post Returns for the summer of 1882 and afterward do not refer to any detachment returning to the site of the battle to recover the bodies of fallen comrades. Within months after the battle, McLernon's own company E of the 6th Cavalry was transferred to Fort Lowell, and would not have been there to recover their buddy's body "several years later," as Will Barnes suggests.

From the National Archives, I obtained copies of the muster rolls for his company during the years 1882-1885, hoping to find some reference to the recovery of McLernon's body. He appears in his place on the quarterly muster roll up through May of 1882, and does not reappear on the quarterly roll in October. The quarterly record for his company in June, July and August of 1882 is mysteriously missing from the records. It could possibly hold the clue we seek, but is simply not there. Was Company E so occupied with the Battle and its aftermath that they skipped that muster roll, with its list of soldiers and record of company activities?

Perhaps someone can add to the story later with some elusive record, some diary, some letter written home that holds an answer. Until then, we await the answer to "the missing body of Joseph McLernon." Incidentally, I have tried without success to locate McLernon's descendants in Ireland. His family must have wondered about their boy who came to America seeking a better life.

Next: Trapper and Herder Buried Along Crook Trail


(1) Phoenix Arizona, Sunday November 5, 1978; page B-22.

(2) "The Apaches' Last Stand," by Will Barnes, Arizona Historical Review, Vol. 3, #4, January 1931, page 59.

(3) This raised the ire of the National Forest Service, as such actions were clearly against the law.

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