Pioneers Seldom Died Of Old Age, Chapter 6

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Pvt. Joseph McLernon was the only white soldier killed at the famous 1882 Battle of Big Dry Wash, north of Payson on East Clear Creek. He was 28 years old when he died, with gray eyes, fair complexion, 5-feet, 7-inches tall. One cannot help but think of a mother and father who never knew what happened to their boy after he immigrated to America. He was wrapped in a blanket and the soldiers dug a shallow grave using their mess kits.

The gravesite was visited in subsequent years by local pioneers, hunting or herding cattle, and by soldiers returning to the site of their famous battle. One of these was C.P. Wingfield, a local man who had been a packer for the Army, and during the battle he was one-half mile behind the line of fighting. In a 1929 letter, he wrote that they took the wounded to Camp Verde and then on to Fort Whipple, but "the troop that was killed on the battlefield was buried there, the grave was marked with stones. I was there the summer of 1886, four years after; saw the grave. Also found the skeleton of an Indian in a cave..." (Letter in archives of the Coconino National Forest archaeologist, Flagstaff, Arizona, dated August 18, 1929).

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Author Stan Brown reclines on the supposed grave of Joseph McLernon. Is the soldier's body really here?

That year, 1929, brought a new flurry of interest in the battleground. With urging from participants like Lt. George Morgan and Will C. Barnes, the National Forest Service obtained an appropriation to build a monument to the battle. However, by this time, 47 years after the fact, the location of the battleground had been obscured. Two local ranchers, William Wingfield Jr. and Charles Callaway, made a 10-day search of the area, and by finding shell casings, the stones of McLernon's grave, and using their recollections of local lore, they identified the battle scene.

Wingfield and Callaway reported the rediscovered battleground location to the Coconino National Forest ranger's office, and they checked the findings to verify the site. Plans proceeded for the monument, which was soon placed and can be seen today. It is an imposing structure of stone and brass near the edge of the East Clear Creek canyon. On one side the brass plates name each company of cavalry and the men who were engaged in the battle, as well as the Indian scouts. The other side of the monument tells the story of the battle. Not far away, back from the edge of the canyon in a slight depression where, presumably, the battle weary units camped the night of July 17, 1882, is the marked grave of Private Joseph McLernon. However, that grave had remained unmarked for 94 years after the battle.

Then another flurry of interest brought attention to the site.

A retired forest ranger, 88-year-old Fred W. Croxen and his friend Harry H. Martin were sharing stories of the old days as they hiked along the Mogollon Rim. They reviewed their knowledge of the Battle of Big Dry Wash, and there conceived the idea of a military marker for the McLernon grave. Croxen had been stationed by the Forest Service in the Coconino National Forest from 1911 to 1921, and in the Tonto National Forest at Payson until 1930. During these years he had collected oral history accounts from eyewitnesses of the previous century who were left to tell the tale. He wrote a number of papers, informally circulated in mimeograph form, about people and events, including one on the Battle of Big Dry Wash and the circumstances leading to it.

Croxen remembered how Payson pioneer William Craig had spoken of the McLernon grave near the rim of the Clear Creek canyon. When he and Harry Martin revisited the battlefield in the autumn of 1975, they found the semblance of a grave outlined in stones. It was 100 yards southwest of the monument, in an open grassy space. Similar stones were scattered about the site. Passing back and forth over the grave with a metal detector they traced what they believed to be the outline of the buttons on a uniform and the nails in the boots. They felt convinced that this was the grave of Private Joseph McLernon, and proceeded to gather the scattered stones. They mounded them over the long neglected grave, and took a picture of it.

The following January, 1976, Fred Croxen Sr. mounted a campaign from his Tucson home to secure a military marker for the isolated McLernon grave. He wrote a letter to Senator Barry Goldwater, with copies to other persons in positions of influence.[1]

In response to appeals from Rep. Sam Steiger and Senator Paul Fannin, the director of Monument Service, National Cemetery System of the Veterans Administration, sent the proper forms to be filled out, and by March 10, 1976, the upright marble headstone had been ordered.[2] It would read, Joseph McLernon, Pvt TRP E, 6 REGT US CAV, Indian Wars, July 17, 1882.

The 230-pound stone was shipped to Fred Croxen in Tucson early in May, and he began making plans to have it placed 94 years to the day of McLernon's death, July 17, 1976. He invited those he knew would be interested and who could give it publicity. Mr. and Mrs. Jess Goddard of Camp Verde would write up the event for The Independent of Cottonwood.[3] Don Schellie was present and would write an article, which appeared in the Tucson Daily Citizen.[4]

A group of 28 solicitous people gathered at the remote location, around noon on the clear day. They had come from Camp Verde, Phoenix, Flagstaff, Winslow, Sedona, Lake Montezuma and Tucson. A hole had been dug at the head of the grave in which the marble stone was planted. Two bags of premixed concrete were poured around the base of the marker and in among the mound of stones by Fred Croxen III, the old ranger's grandson from Flagstaff. Water was added to set the cement, hoping this would discourage potential vandals. While this was going on, others pulled the grass that had grown up among the rocks.

Then a worn copy of the book "Al Sieber, Chief of Scouts," by Dan L. Thrapp, was produced, and a history professor, Andrew Wallace, read aloud the author's chapter on the Battle of Big Dry Wash. It included quotes from Thomas Cruse's firsthand experience, along with the mistaken reference to McLernon being from Scotland.

After the reading Fred Croxen stepped forward to fill in a few details, and then he said, "Well, I suppose that's it."

The loose circle of history buffs informally mingled, and went for the picnic lunches they had brought to this isolated place. Fred Croxen and Harry Martin lingered long enough to gather several bunches of summer wildflowers and lay them on the mound of rocks. After living so many months with this project, the long dead soldier had become very much part of their lives.

As so often happens with history, the matter of McLernon's grave was not allowed to remain in peace. In spite of Croxen's benediction, "Well, I suppose that's it," it was not to be.

Next: Is This Really McLernon's Resting Place?

[1] Senator Paul Fannin, U.S. Representative Sam Steiger, the historical societies of Prescott and Camp Verde, Sidney Brinkerhoff of the Arizona Historical Society, the Arizona Pioneers Museum in Tucson and the Supervisor of the Coconino National Forest.

[2] All the correspondence referred to regarding the securing of the headstone is in the personal file of the late Fred W. Croxen Sr.

[3] Wednesday, July 21, 1976, page 17.

[4] Tuesday, July 20, 1976, page 17. Coincidentally the same page number as the Cottonwood Independent.

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