Life Among The Apache

Remarkable memoir captures drama, racism, ironies and tragedy of the conflict that defined the West

The volcanic stone pillars of the Chiricahua National Monument provided the Apache with a reliable refuge in their long conflict with the Americans, portrayed vividly in John Cremony’s first-person account of that conflict.

The volcanic stone pillars of the Chiricahua National Monument provided the Apache with a reliable refuge in their long conflict with the Americans, portrayed vividly in John Cremony’s first-person account of that conflict. Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

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Standing amidst the tumbled ruins of the stage stop, I studied the bruised and sullen thunderheads on the horizon. Closing my eyes, I could almost hear the rattle of the mule harnesses, the clank of sabers, the low, heartfelt curses of the soldiers and teamsters threaded through the distant rumbles of thunder. Some 130 years ago, a small detachment of soldiers under the command of a remarkable adventurer, soldier, translator, and student of the Apache Indians waited for news of their fate at this spot at the foot of the forbidding Dragoon Mountains. Captain John Cremony and his men waited through the interminable night in the midst of a violent thunderstorm for news from the column of troops that had earlier marched off across the desert, and into one of the great battles of the decades long war of attrition between the Apaches and the Americans.

I’d come to this weary pile of boulders and collapsed walls searching for some trace of Cremony, whose absorbing “Life Among the Apaches” has become an essential source book for anyone studying the violent, wrenching, tragic history of that confrontation between irreconcilable worlds.

A man brimming with contradictions

The stage stop provided one of the places I knew I could stand in the same place as my quarry of imagination. He was a man brimming with contradictions — exuberant, vain, insightful, untrustworthy, courageous, observant, narrow-minded, racist and tolerant. His remarkable first hand look at the Apaches and key historical events reveals the cultural arrogance which made that genocidal war possible.

Cremony shuttles between contempt and admiration for his “savage” adversaries. He first encountered the Apaches as a translator for the soldiers and surveyors sent out to draw the international boundary after the Mexican-American war in 1851, then again a decade later as part of the California Column. He also assumed charge of thousands of Apaches and Navajos forcibly removed from their lands and confined to the barren, disease-ridden flats of Bosque Redondo.

“No amount of cold, hunger, or thirst seems to have any appreciable effect upon an Apache,” he wrote. “Whatever his sufferings, no complaint or murmur is ever heard to escape his lips, and he is always ready to engage in any enterprise which promises a commensurate reward.”

Born sometime between 1815 and 1833 in Portland, Maine, Cremony served as a second lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Infantry for the Mexican War. There, he acquired the working knowledge of Spanish that made him a valuable translator during the Apache wars. He then wrote for the Boston Herald until 1849, when he joined the Bartlett Boundary Commission.

This service resulted in his first contact with the Apache Indians. Riding ahead of the main body of soldiers and civilians, Cremony was alone when he encountered a hunting party led by the noted chief Cuchillo Negro. Cremony left a suspenseful, somewhat self-important, account of that encounter during which he made it clear that he would kill the chief should any of his warriors approach too closely.

Cremony ordered Cuchillo Negro to sit and wait until the rest of the American troops arrived.

So they sat facing one another for 15 minutes. “I am incapable of doing justice to the occasion,” wrote Cremony in recalling his emotions.

Then, abruptly, the mounted columns of soldiers appeared over the hill.

“At this unexpected sight, Cuchillo Negro gazed for a moment like one in a dream, but quickly collecting himself, he advanced directly toward me, extending his right hand and saying, “Jeunie, jeunie!”

The arrival of the boundary commission signaled the end to the Apache’s long domination of the Southwest. The Apaches and the Americans initially got along well, as notable Apache leaders like Mangas Coloradas came into the camp and sought a peaceful relationship.

But the friendly relations could not last. One turning point came when two young Mexican boys who’d been held captive by the Apaches sought sanctuary in Cremony’s tent. Cremony and another man drew their guns, placed the children between them, and made their way back to the main body of soldiers through a crowd of angry Indians. The Apache leaders arrived a short time thereafter to protest vehemently. The Americans refused to surrender the captives.

A second incident forced an open breach between the Americans and the Apaches. In this case, one of the Americans’ teamsters killed an Apache in camp. The Americans refused to surrender the murderer to Apache justice, so Apaches began stealing the commission’s horses and ambushing parties of miners. This eventually forced the commission to decamp, setting the pattern for conflicts that would last until the last Apache bands surrendered some 35 years later.

Vivid brush with death

Cremony recounted one remarkable brush with death on a 96-mile journey between military posts. He was crossing a broad, barren plain on a treasured horse, when he saw a band of approaching Apaches. He calmly tightened his saddle, loaded his guns, then tied a thick, Mexican serape over his shoulders, secured under his chin with a thick, buckskin thong. He let the warriors draw to within 300 yards before he remounted his now rested horse and fled.

He conserved his horse as much as possible, letting the Indians draw as close as he dared before putting on speed. Fortunately, the flapping serape caught several arrows aimed in his direction. The chase continued mile after mile. One arrow grazed his right arm, and one sliced across his left thigh. But he seemed safe enough, until he noted that they seemed to have abandoned the pursuit as the trail swept into a long curve.

“Suddenly, it flashed upon my mind that they might have some short cut-off, and had pursued it with the intention of heading me. For the first time I struck my rowels into the reeking flanks of my poor steed, and most gallantly did he respond to this last call.”

The burst of speed put him about 80 yards ahead of where the Apaches re-entered the trail.

One bloody encounter convinced Cremony to seek a safer occupation.

Guiding a party of prospectors through Arizona, he stumbled into an Apache ambush in a blinding sandstorm. The battle quickly degenerated into fierce, hand-to-hand fighting.

“I was just reloading a six-shooter, when a robust and athletic Apache, much heavier than myself, stood before me. The instant we met, he advanced upon me with a long and keen knife.”

They grappled, straining for advantage. They fell and the Apache wound up on top, holding Cremony’s knife hand, pinning the other arm beneath a knee, and prepared to plunge his own knife in the the helpless Cremony’s throat.

“Holding me down with a grasp of a giant against which all my struggles were wholly vain, he raised aloft his long, sharp knife, and said, ‘The white-eyed man, you will soon be dead.’ I thought as he did, and in a frightful moment made a hasty commendation of my soul to the Benevolent.”

The warrior plunged his knife down toward his throat, but Cremony twisted aside a moment and the knife penetrated only the earth. Desperately, Cremony sank his teeth into the Apache’s hand. Unable to free his hand, the Indian released his grip on Cremony’s pinioned knife hand in an effort to transfer his own knife to his free hand. Seizing the momentary opportunity, Cremony thrust his own dagger into his enemy’s side.

Cremony decided to return to a safer occupation. He spent the next 10 years in California, until the outbreak of the Civil War lured him back into the military. He enlisted in the California Column in 1861, and set out to drive the Confederates out of Arizona. The union forces avoided battles with the Apaches until they stumbled into the celebrated battled of Apache Pass in July of 1862. The combined forces of Cochise and Mangas Coloradas had assembled several hundred warriors to ambush the soldiers at the strategic spring in the heart of Apache Pass. They opened fire, but the soldiers brought up artillery and drove the Apaches off the heights. Cremony missed the main battle, since he remained in command of the supply train camped at Dragoon Springs.

‘I do not believe a thing he says’

However, he did recount one dramatic incident in the struggle. The ambushed soldiers sent three messengers back to warn Cremony, but the Apaches cut off one of those messengers — John Teal. Taking cover before his downed horse, Teal held off the Indians until a lucky shot brought down their leader — Mangas Coloradas himself. The Indians broke off the attack and Teal shouldered his saddle and walked more than 10 miles back to Cremony’s encampment.

“It is needless to add how gratified I was to receive this brave and loyal soldier again, and find him free from wound or scar,” wrote Cremony.

Teal was considerably less generous in his recollections. Writing of Cremony, he noted: “I do not believe any thing he says except when he says he wants more whisky.”

That neatly captures historians’ ambiguity about the value of Cremony’s remarkable memoir. It remains an invaluable source of primary information about a poorly documented, but pivotal period of history. But the narrative is sprinkled with glaring errors of fact, white arrogance, and perhaps too-colorful incidents.

“This is a colorful and entertaining volume of frontier reminiscences, illuminating in its reflection of contemporary attitudes and quotable for some of its opinions, or descriptions of people and places. As a source for matters of fact it is only to be used with the greatest caution and for want of any more reliable alternative,” noted Allan Radbourne, in English Westerners’ Tally Sheet.

Battle of Apache Pass

Cremony remained in the Southwest for only a few years after the Battle of Apache Pass. He became the Indians’ champion and arbiter when more than 8,000 feuding Navajos and Apaches found themselves forcibly confined to Bosque Redondo, and left an alternately condescending and sympathetic account of their struggle to survive that cultural calamity. Eventually, he returned to San Francisco where he wrote his book and resumed his newspaper career.

The Arizona Weekly Star, for one, mourned his passage:

“Whoever remembers Cremony with his Spanish mantle, his Mexican sombrero and the manners of a hidalgo grafted upon a yankee, remembers a picture of the past which is a pleasant memory. Cremony was greater than Baron Munchausen when he was alive; but he is dead now.”

In the end, many of his observations proved prescient: He blasted the corruption and arrogance of the Indian Bureau, which historians blame for the persistence of problems with many Indian tribes. He also insisted that the only way to break the Apache resistance would be to mobilize thousands of U.S. troops into small detachments of 50 men or so who could tenaciously pursue their foes. That’s more or less the strategy that finally proved successful, augmented by Apache scouts to guide the troops.

Blind to the ironies

But Cremony remained strangely blind to the ironies and the contradictions of his stubborn insistence that the Apaches were “savages” blind to the benefits of the white man’s civilization.

“The Red Man...disdains to take my hand; he flouts my offered sympathy, and feels indigent at my presumption in proffering him my aid to improve his condition. He conceives himself not only my equal, but decidedly my superior. He desires only to be let alone. With calm and unruffled dignity he listens to all you say, and with unconcealed dislike he makes it a point to remember nothing he has heard. You are understood to be his natural enemy. While he frankly admits that you are better clothed, better fed, and better conditioned in all respects than he is, he as frankly and persistently refuses all overtures and invitations to adopt your style of life.”

I pondered Cremony’s words, which ring hollowly to a modern ear, as I watched the thunderheads mass behind the Dragoons. Cremony could never quite unlock the shackles of his cultural perspective, never really wondering why the Apaches clung so stubbornly to their own. But for all his arrogance and racism, he did preserve a filtered image of a fascinating time and a now-vanished culture.

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