A Forced Exodus in February 1875 Became the Apache Trail of Tears

By Kay Muther
5/9/2018 • Wild West Magazine

George Crook opposed the uprooting of Arizona Apaches.

Fresh off his “pacification” of the Paiutes and other tribes in the Pacific Northwest, Lieutenant Colonel George Crook took on a new challenge on June 4, 1871, when he became commander of the Department of Arizona. Now he had to operate in another hostile environment, the desert Southwest, against other hostile Indians, the Apaches. Wanting to study the territory, he organized an expedition that left Tucson on July 11. In time he would blaze several trails, one across the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona Territory; he envisioned a supply route. Little did he know that in a few short years, the Army would uproot hundreds of Apaches from their homes and drive them eastward along a path to a new, unwanted home at San Carlos. Some Apaches refer to this forced exodus as the March of Tears.

For his July exploratory trek, Lt. Col. Crook brought along five companies of cavalry and 50 Mexican scouts. At Camp Apache (it would become Fort Apache in 1879), though, he released the Mexican scouts, replacing them with friendly Apaches, Paiutes, Navajos and Pueblos who had been persuaded to help subdue their hostile cousins. Crook believed the only way to conquer the warring Apaches was to use peaceful Indians as scouts and advisers. It was late August before Crook again set out with his troops and new scouts. The party went first to Camp Verde, on the Verde River, then continued to Fort Whipple, near Prescott, traveling some 675 miles. Crook had created a military route and gained firsthand knowledge of the landscape in case a punitive campaign was needed.

Crook kept his troops primed and ready to protect settlers and miners, but he did not launch a major offensive campaign until the fall of 1872, when he was ordered to subdue the free-ranging Apaches and herd them onto reservations. Those who refused were to be treated as hostiles. Crook set out from Camp Hualpai on November 16, 1872, with three companies of cavalry, each supported by at least 30 Indian scouts. One column fought Apaches at Hell Canyon on November 25, another engaged an Apache band in Red Rock country on December 7, and the third fought hostiles at Bad Rock Mountain on December 11. Other bloody fights followed that winter, but Crook’s strategy of pursuing Apaches year-round—using his 180-mile “road” between Camp Verde and Camp Apache to good advantage—bore fruit.

Chief Cha-lipun (often called “Charley Pan” by the soldiers) surrendered with 2,300 men, women and children on April 6, 1873, and lesser chiefs followed his lead. Many of them feared and respected Colonel Crook, who assured Cha-lipun and the others that if they worked and lived peacefully, he would be their friend. He did not talk of blame or revenge. The Indian scouts served as examples of how well he treated his friends.

The Army constructed a 20- by-40-mile reservation near Camp Verde. Under the direction of Lieutenant Walter S. Schuyler, the Apaches dug an irrigation ditch—the men doing the digging, the women carrying off the dirt in baskets. Soon they planted crops on 60 acres of irrigated land; melons, corn and barley sprouted in the warm spring weather. Crook was convinced the Tonto Apaches, Yavapais (sometimes called Apache-Mojaves) and Yumas (or Apache-Yumas) at Camp Verde could become self-sustaining farmers.

Thanks to the successful campaign, Crook earned promotion to brigadier general in October 1873, but trouble was brewing. A movement was afoot to remove the Apaches from Camp Verde to the newly created San Carlos Reservation (some 70 miles south of Camp Apache), on the San Carlos River about a mile from its junction with the Gila River. John G. Bourke, aide-de-camp to General Crook, blamed a ring of federal officials, contractors and other influential white men who “succeeded in securing the issue of peremptory orders that the Apaches should leave at once for the mouth of the sickly San Carlos, there to be herded with other tribes. It was an outrageous proceeding, one for which I should still blush had I not long since gotten over blushing for anything that the United States Government did in Indian matters.” Crook also opposed the action, contending that putting together so many Indian bands hostile to each other was asking for big trouble. L. Edwin Dudley, U.S. special commissioner of Indian Affairs and former Indian superintendent of New Mexico, was placed in charge of the Apache move, and Crook was transferred out of Arizona Territory soon after the March 1875 resettlement.

Fanny Corbusier, wife of the post surgeon, said the Indians at Camp Verde “were very happy in their own country and did not wish to go where their enemies were numerous.” She was very disturbed by the wails of the women that went on all night. The Indians finally agreed to go peacefully in February 1875 if the surgeon, William Henry Corbusier, would accompany them. But they still dreaded the 200-mile journey, because there were mountains and ravines to cross, and rivers could rise suddenly during winter storms. Fanny Corbusier recalled the Indians gathering up all the possessions they could and adding them to the food supplies they were required to carry. She said young children, the sick and elderly were put into cone-shaped baskets to be carried on stronger backs. “One old man,” she continued, “carried his old sick wife on his back in one of these baskets.”

On February 27, 1875, 1,476 Indians began the march to an uncertain future. Fifth Cavalry Lieutenant George O. Eaton and 15 troopers escorted the group, which included 55 pack mules loaded with supplies. Al Sieber, chief of scouts, and his Tonto Apaches acted as policemen during the journey. Rations would be short, but more could be sent from Camp Apache to resupply the company. Dudley was confident the Indians would survive the march; after all, they were used to hunger.

The group snaked along the western edge of the Mogollon Rim and then headed southeast through remote country where the town of Payson would soon rise. Dudley had made a quick trip to Prescott but caught up with the procession on the second day. The company was already discouraged; a fierce snowstorm had blanketed them in the night. Dudley prodded and urged them forward—earning the nickname “Comealong”—but finally he consented to a march of only five miles. The tired, cold and muddy Indians divided themselves into rival camps, Tonto Apaches in one and Yavapais and Yumas in the other, a division that would persist and escalate throughout the exodus.

Sieber, concerned about the limited rations, ordered his men to supplement the food with fresh meat. Sieber himself felled a deer with one shot. Lieutenant Eaton and Dr. Corbusier hunted ahead of the caravan the next morning, and the surgeon shot a deer. The Tontos captured more than their share of the hanging carcass; others went hungry. The next night, what started out as a game between groups of boys escalated into a shouting match among adults. A Yavapai woman yelled, “Kill the Tontos!” and the factions exchanged shots. Sieber and his policemen stormed into the midst of the fight, and the chief of scouts raised his arms and demanded a cease-fire. Cowed by Sieber’s command and respecting his bravery, the Indians complied. At least five Indians were slain in the melee.

The cavalrymen began to walk rather than ride, allowing footsore children or sick adults to ride instead. However, food became more scarce. Women gathered Canadian thistles and what other greens survived the winter to boil for dinner. By mid-March the column staggered to the banks of the Salt River. Spring floods had not yet materialized, and although the river was wide and deep, the marchers forded it. Dudley, stirred to compassion by the sight of the exhausted men, women and children struggling through the cold water, wrote, “The crossing of the river reminded me of another exodus, and I wished that the waves might again be rolled back.”

Dudley’s compassion was too little, too late. Exhausted and “fighting hungry,” Mohaves and Yumas began painting their faces red and black— war colors. Dr. Corbusier was warning Dudley of the escalating unrest when a bullet zipped over their heads. Dudley quickly mounted his horse and rode toward San Carlos for help, while the surgeon calmed the Indians with promises of food and aid. Just a few miles away, Dudley encountered a wagon train carrying half a ton of flour and accompanied by a herd of 25 cows and mules. The Indians camped at a site with good water and ate the best meal they’d had in weeks. The remainder of the trail was an easy, downhill slope.

The exodus finally reached San Carlos on March 20, with 115 fewer souls than had started out. The Army had transported a few via wagon by a longer route, and some had run off to the mountains to remain free, but many had died on this Southwestern Trail of Tears. Some of the dead Apaches were old or sick adults, some were children. At least two babies were born on the trail. “A sadder pilgrimage was never seen under Arizona skies,” said the late historian Dan Thrapp.


Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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