The Wild West In The Rim Country

Chapter 6: The missing body of Joseph McLernon

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This is the pathetic story of an immigrant Irish youth who joined the Cavalry and hoped to become a United States citizen. However, he died at the Battle of Big Dry Wash July 17, 1882.

Today the name of the area is East Clear Creek on the Mogollon Rim, just upstream from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. Until recently souvenir hunters were finding cartridges, brass buttons and human bones around the Rock Crossing where a band of one hundred renegade Apaches tried to ambush the pursuing army, but were defeated by several converging detachments of the Cavalry. Many natives died; the young Irishman was the only white man to fall in the firefight.

In one of the hand-to-hand skirmishes, an Indian stepped out from behind a tree, just six feet away from soldier Thomas Cruse and pointed a rifle directly at him. Cruse was certain he was going to die and braced himself as he raised his own gun to his shoulder. The Apache was also frightened, so that in pulling the trigger he jerked his gun to the side. The bullet missed Cruse and hit the Irish lad, Joseph McLernon, who was just to the left of Cruse.[1] In that moment Cruse shot and killed the Indian.

McLernon thought he had been hit in the arm, but in fact the bullet had smashed a rib and passed through both of his lungs. After a brave attempt by his fellow soldiers to drag him to safety while under fire and treat his wound, McLernon died at the Army camp on the south side of the canyon. He was three months short of his 20th birthday. Born in Antrim, Ireland, he had come to America with dreams of building a better life than his family had.

The dead Apaches were left to the weather and the predators where they fell, and the wounded soldiers were taken to Fort Verde. The men wrapped McLernon in a blanket, dug a shallow grave using their mess kits and knives and placed him underneath a tall ponderosa pine tree. They covered the grave with stones to protect it.

The gravesite was visited in subsequent years by pioneers hunting or herding cattle. In a 1929 letter, C. P. Wingfield, who had been an Army packer behind the line of fighting, reported visiting the area four years later, saw the grave and found the skeleton of an Indian in a near by cave.[2] One participant in the battle said, in the Cottonwood Independent, a 1930s article, that the grave site had been marked originally by a pattern of horseshoe nails driven into the large pine tree by the grave. He added that years later a cowboy camping at the site had pulled out the nails.

For more than 90 years the grave was unmarked and the stones scattered. Then, in 1975, retired forest ranger Fred Croxen, who during his years assigned to the Rim Country had collected the reminiscences of “old timers”, decided it was time to locate the site. With his friend Harry H. Martin they visited the battlefield and found the semblance of a grave. Stones outlined it, and similar stones were scattered about the area. Using a metal detector the two men traced what they believed to be the outline of the buttons of a uniform and nails in the boots. Convinced that this was the grave of Private Joseph McLernon they gathered the stones and mounded them over the assumed grave. The next year these two men waged a successful campaign to secure an official military marker. On July 17, 1976, 94 years after McLernon’s murder, a couple of dozen people gathered to plant the gravestone and formally dedicated the site.[3]

A few years after this several history buffs began questioning whether this was truly McLernon’s grave. The open grassy area did not match the Army’s campsite nor the proximity of a large pine tree reported by eye witnesses from 1882. In an article in The Arizona Republic, an anonymous critic claimed the location was “guesswork after the fact, misinterpretation of accounts, and outright lies by (persons) who were not there…” That article also quoted Will C. Barnes, that the body of McLernon had been exhumed and reburied at Fort Apache.[4]

photo

Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

Writer Stan Brown reposes on the well-marked grave of Private Joseph McLernon, a few hundred yards from the site of the Battle of Big Dry Wash.

The gentleman who questioned the grave’s authenticity went on to claim that in the summer of 1979 he had dug into the supposed grave and “found nothing but dirt and rocks and an unopened can of beer.”

This author continued the search for McLernon’s body, realizing that the practice of the Cavalry was to bury fallen soldiers on the spot, as eye witnesses claim was done. In the July heat it would have been impractical to return this single fallen soldier’s body to Fort Apache, several days journey away. The wounded had been conveyed to Fort Verde, and then on to Fort Whipple in Prescott. If in fact the body was taken to Fort Verde, when that post was decommissioned the remains of all military personnel were exhumed and reinterred at the National Cemetery in San Francisco. A letter to me from the director of National Cemeteries confirms that, “after searching the permanent burial records at both San Francisco National Cemetery and Golden Gate National Cemetery, we have determined that Private McLernon is not buried in either…”

A similar problem surfaces as to the claim McLernon was exhumed and reburied at Fort Apache. When that post was decommissioned in 1922, the military personnel buried there were removed to the National Cemetery in New Mexico.[5] In 1993 I visited the National Cemetery at Santa Fe, N.M., where archivist Richard Salazar enabled me to study an old record book with the original entries of those bodies that were brought from Fort Apache. In all the old burial records there is no reference to McLernon.

The Post Returns of Fort Apache from 1882 and following years do not refer to any detachment returning to the battle site to recover McLernon’s remains. In fact, the young soldier’s own company E, 6th Cavalry, was transferred to Fort Lowell in Tucson a few months after the battle, and would not have been there to recover the body “several years later” as Will Barnes suggests.

I obtained copies of the muster rolls for Company E from 1882 through 1885 hoping to find a reference to the recovery of his body. McLernon appears in his place up through May 1882, but does not appear after that. So the story of this violent episode in Rim Country history remains “an unsolved mystery.”

Perhaps some day an elusive record, a letter, or a diary will surface that holds an answer. Until then we can only wonder about the missing body of Joseph McLernon. During my research on this subject I attempted to locate his family members in Ireland, without success. One cannot help but think of a mother and father who never knew what happened to their boy

[1] Apache Days and After by Thomas Cruse. University of Nebraska Press, 1941. page 168

[2] Letter in archive of the Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, dated August 18, 1929.

[3] Concrete was poured among the stones to assure their permanence. Then Northern Arizona University professor Andrew Wallace read an account of the Battle of Big Dry Wash from a copy of Dan Thrapp’s book Al Sieber, Chief of Scout. The group visited informally, and departed.

[4] Sunday, Nov. 5, 1978, page B22, and The Apaches’ Last Stand”, Arizona Historical Review, Vol. 3, #4, January 1931, page 69.

[5] Today the Fort Apache Cemetery contains civilians and Army Scouts, like Corydon Cooley, but no military personnel.

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