Chapter 5: Pioneers Seldom Died Of Old Age

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In this series we are exploring the stories behind isolated graves that can be found along roads and trails in the Rim Country.

We are on Forest Road 300 crossing the edge of the Rim.

This well-maintained gravel road plays tag with the original Crook Military road connecting Fort Whipple, Camp Verde and Fort Apache.

Having explored Barker's Butte, we now continue east a little over nine miles to Forest Road 123.

This is known as "Battle Ground Ridge Road" because it takes us north to the site of Arizona's last pitched Indian battle, the Battle of Big Dry Wash.

In a little over five miles, we are careful to spot a primitive side road, #123E, that takes us shortly to the battle site.

Here a giant memorial marker lists the soldiers and Apache Scouts who fought there. Although many, if not most, of the renegade Apaches from the San Carlos and White Mountain Reservation were killed, only one Indian scout and one white soldier were killed at this place.

It was this same group of escaping Apaches who raided the Meadows Ranch and killed John and Henry Meadows.

A short hike to the monument and beyond will take you to the edge of the deep canyon on East Clear Creek, where the Apaches waited to ambush the soldiers.

Returning to the parking area, we walk southwest through the trees to an open hillside, and find the grave of the only white soldier killed here, Pvt. Joseph McLernon. He was with Company E, 6th Cavalry, from Fort Apache, fighting the battle right next to Lt. Thomas Cruse, who later wrote about it in his book "Apache Days and After." (University of Nebraska Press, 1941, page 168.) In his book, Cruse mistakenly gives the private the name McClellan and says he was Scottish, but we ascribe that to the erosion of memory over the years. I update those references in the following quote:

Here is how he described McLernon's demise:

"A hostile appeared not two yards away, leveling his gun directly at me. It seemed impossible for him to miss at that point-blank range, so I raised my own gun and stiffened to take the shock of his bullet. But he was nervous and jerked just enough as he pulled the trigger to send the bullet past me. A young Irishman named McLernon was just to my left and slightly in the rear. The bullet hit him, and he dropped. I shot the Indian and threw myself to the ground, which caused Captain Kramer and (Al) Seiber to believe that I had been struck. McLernon was sprawling beside me and I asked if he were hurt.

"‘Yes sir,' he answered. ‘Through the arm. I think it's broken.'

"‘Lie quietly for a little while,' I said, ‘then we'll get back to that ravine.'

"The firing slackened, and I got up. McLernon was unconscious, and I had to drag him back about twenty feet to where the slope was some protection. When I stood to help McLernon some of the hostiles... got up from their cover to shoot at me. But Abbot's men saw them and turned loose. They did not realize that I was in their direct line of fire, two hundred yards away. The air around McLernon and me was fairly burned with bullets. I was facing the line, and bits of gravel and shreds of bullets stung my face and set it bleeding... When I rested a minute or so, I got McLernon farther and Sgt. Horan joined me. We managed to lower McLernon to the bottom of the little arroyo as Kramer's men swarmed into the (Indian's) camp and overran it. I found one of the Indian blankets and made McLernon comfortable, but the bullet had broken a rib and passed through both lungs..."

The battle was over soon after that because a summer monsoon swept in with a hail storm, and those Indians who were still alive or not mortally wounded crept off in the darkness. For years afterward, the skeletons of the Indians were seen throughout the area.

The wounded soldiers were carefully taken back across the deep ravine of East Clear Creek to the army camp. Capt. Adna Chaffee's handwritten report says, "The wounded suffered severely while being carried across the canyon but the men conveyed them with all possible care. They often fell and let the wounded fall. The task was the most difficult kind, but was accomplished by 10:30 p.m.. Private McLernon died forty minutes after we reached camp..."

Joseph McLernon would have turned twenty-four years old in October, three months after he was killed. He had been born in Antrim, Ireland, and immigrated to the east coast of America with dreams of a better life than his family had.

He considered himself a laborer, though signed his name with a clear script and so was probably literate. He enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry, at Baltimore, Maryland, on November 23, 1880, for a five-year hitch. He had no other family in America, though other lads from his hometown enlisted at the same time he did. Several of them must have come over together.

The Army was replete with immigrants from Ireland, young men who hoped thereby to become established as citizens of the United States of America.

These facts, and those to follow, are gathered from McLernon's enlistment papers and record of service, from the National Archives and Records Administration, General Reference Branch, 7th and Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C.

McLernon was 5 feet, seven inches tall, of fair complexion with brown hair and grey eyes.

A marginal note on his enlistment paper states that he had "hairy moles on throat." He was soon assigned to the 6th Cavalry, Company E, which had been at Fort Apache since June, 1877.

McLernon did not have opportunity to accumulate much information on his service record.

It was less than twenty months after his enlistment that he lost his life in the Battle of Big Dry Wash.

The record simply states, "Killed July 17, 1882 in actions with Indians at N. Fork of Chevelon's Fork A.T. a Pvt. ..." One cannot help but think of a mother and dad who never knew what happened to their boy after he immigrated to America.

Cruse wrote the next morning, "We cleaned up the battleground, burying the dead and tending the wounded."

The wounded were sent to Ft. Verde, the closest location for them to receive medical attention. For all those troops in the field, there was, apparently, no surgeon with them.

Joseph McLernon was wrapped in a blanket and placed in a shallow grave, underneath a tall ponderosa pine tree.

The men used their mess kits and knives to dig the earth away, but the bedrock was so close to the surface, they could not go very deep.

They covered the grave with a mound of stones to keep the animals from getting at his body.

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