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George Crook: Indian Fighter

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Colonel George Crook was on the stagecoach that approached Tucson from the west. The old walled city was a welcome sight for the colonel and the other passengers who looked forward to relief from the stifling heat, the bouncing and jolting, the enveloping dust and the constant tension of traveling through the hostile deserts of Apachería.

For many days Crook had endured the rigors of the 1,000-mile journey from San Francisco, but none of the passengers knew who he was. At the stage stations they had not seen him drink tea, coffee or any alcoholic beverage. He had not smoked, uttered any profanity or chewed tobacco. Despite the absence of those male habits common in that era, there was no doubt he was a man's man, and he sat with a shotgun across his knees. He was not wearing his uniform. He never wore it when he did not have to.

Although more than 6 feet tall, Crook was not big, but rather spare, athletic and sinewy. He wore his fair hair close-cropped. His beard parted at the point of his chin and his blue-grey eyes were always alert.

He had orders to assume command of the U.S. Army's Arizona Department. His mission was to end the fighting between the Apaches and the whites–peacefully if possible. The 'dark and bloody ground' of Kentucky in Daniel Boone's time had never even begun to approach the blood and terror of Apachería for the past 10 years. Crook's job was to round up the Indians and put them on reservations.

Others had tried. All had failed. But the man who arrived in Tucson in early July 1871, so unassuming that even the stage driver did not know who he was, had different ideas about how to deal with Indians. As a young lieutenant in California in the early 1850s, he had been dismayed at how the Indians were treated when the U.S. Senate rejected the 18 treaties negotiated with 139 bands and tribes, leaving them with no rights. He stated, 'When they were pushed beyond endurance and would go on the warpath we had to fight when our sympathies were with the Indians.' Nevertheless, he led successful campaigns against them in Washington, Oregon and California, and proved to be very effective in dealing with the Shoshones and the Nez Perce Indians. He believed that Indians were human beings and deserved to be treated as such. That was a very unpopular idea among the whites in Arizona in the 1870s, and he would find his philosophy nearly impossible to implement.

After serving the Union well during the Civil War, Crook had been awarded the regular rank of lieutenant colonel and sent to the Northwest again. He was assigned the tough task of subduing the ferocious Shoshones, who possessed some of the finest light cavalry units the world has ever seen. He conducted a tough, successful campaign and then tried to obtain a fair deal for them. They were grateful and respected him for his honesty.

Ten years later, Shoshone warriors would help him in his battles with Cheyenne and Sioux hostiles. But first, Crook had to confront the Apaches. When ordered to Arizona Territory, he went down to San Francisco and left from there to tackle what he knew would be a major undertaking.

The colonel may have arrived in Tucson in anonymity, but he was immediately the man in charge. Before the end of his first day there, he had sent orders to all of his unit commanders in forts and camps to report without delay to Tucson. As each man reported to him, Crook learned everything that man knew about the territory–the rivers, the fords, the trails, the soil and the climate. He found out about the troopers each commanded, the state of their morale and their experience.

Crook stressed the importance of having healthy pack mules and horses, and he asked detailed questions about the animals. He had a passionate interest in the mules because he knew the success of any campaign, to a large extent, depended on them. He made it a point to know about the mules on every expedition, about their health and their eccentricities. The best men available were assigned to them.

George Crook's pack mules easily carried twice the load the army manual stipulated because he allowed only the best equipment to be used, and each pack saddle was tailored to fit each mule. He often spent an hour a day with the men and the mules, demonstrating scientific packing and how to check on the physical health of the mules. Therefore, Crook's troopers always had the ammunition they needed and his mule trains never failed in an emergency.

When the colonel's officers had completed their conferences with Crook, they had told him everything they knew that was pertinent, but had been told nothing. He did not reveal his plans, and they could sense that they should not ask about them. It was not that he had a formidable personality, for he was genial, but he maintained a certain reserve that was not to be breached. Nevertheless, his officers felt he had a genuine interest in them and their careers.

Within a few days the new commandant had decided to have a 'practice' expedition with five full companies of cavalry and some experienced scouts. At 6 a.m. on July 11, the expedition headed for Camp Bowie, 100 miles south and east, in the very heart of Chiricahua country. Then it was north to Camp Apache, back west to Camp Verde and the town of Prescott and south to Tucson. It amounted to a 675-mile expedition, all in enemy territory.

George Crook set the example, often the first up in the morning and the first in the saddle. He wore an old canvas hunting outfit and a pith helmet. He rode a good, strong mule named Apache and carried a rifle across the pommel of his saddle. On the trail he brought into play his frontier experience. He was always alert to indications of the enemy–an unusual depression in the sand, cleverly concealed directions left by one Apache for another, an odor on the breeze or a sound that should not be there.

When the expedition arrived at only half-completed Camp Bowie, Crook held a council with the chiefs in the area. He talked to the famous and powerful ones like Miguel, Pedro, Cochise, Pitone and Eskititsla. They told him they were at peace and wanted to remain at peace. Crook told them what he told all Indians. He said it did not matter who had started the trouble between the whites and Indians, but it was important for them to know that it could not continue. More whites were coming, and the Indians could no longer live on wild game, which was already beginning to disappear. The Indians would have to learn other ways, and they and the whites would have to learn to live together peacefully.

He told them he would protect them from the bad whites, but the chiefs would have to protect the whites from the bad Indians. If they let the bad Indians raid and steal and kill, it would be impossible to protect the Indians who obeyed the law. Crook promised he would try to find work for those who wanted it, and the Indian workers would be paid the same wages as the whites.

The colonel said he would always tell them the truth and never make promises he could not keep. He expected the chiefs to do the same. The chiefs had heard other white men talk about truth and honesty and were naturally skeptical, until Crook said all promises he made would be written down and copies would be given to the chiefs. Crook sincerely believed that until the Indians learned the ways of the whites they would be safe only on reservations. And he believed that as soon as the two races stopped fighting and came to trust each other, the Indians would be able to go anywhere to live and work.

President Ulysses S. Grant dispatched Oliver O. Howard, the one-armed general, to make peace with Cochise and the Chiricahuas, but Crook had to militarily subdue the rest of the warring Apaches. The colonel waited until November 1872 to start his campaign. His plan was to make life miserable for those Indians who still chose to fight. He knew they would retreat up into the mountains and try to survive the snow and low temperatures. He hoped that when the women and children began to suffer, the men would surrender without fighting.

Crook believed it would take Apaches to find Apaches, so he hired those who wanted peace to find those who wanted war. He paid them the same wages he paid the whites and sent word around to explain what he was doing. Many whites opposed his policy, including some of his own superiors, but it was a master stroke.

Crook's plan was to hit hard, saturating the area with columns of troops. Each column was self-sufficient, with its own scouts and its own pack train, and with a highly capable officer in command. The colonel gave few orders, but he let his officers know what was expected of them. They were to use their initiative to carry out his policy. They were to fight until every hostile male Indian had either surrendered or been killed. If the Indians retreated, the troops must pursue relentlessly. If the horses gave out, the pursuit must be continued on foot. His orders included the stipulation that no woman or child was ever to be harmed and no prisoner was to be mistreated.

The target area was the Tonto Basin. Some Western Apache bands–as well asYavapais, who mingled with the Tonto Apaches–in that mountainous area had been raiding and eluding troops for several years. Crook dispatched his columns so that there was no place the bands could go to escape the relentless pressure. His Apache scouts always found them. Crook was right–it took an Apache to find an Apache. Within weeks, bands began to come in to surrender. Those that did not surrender were hunted and found. They either gave up or were killed.

Chief Chalipan (often called Charlie Pan) came to make peace for 2,300 Western Apaches. He said they were sick of war. They could not cook because the Apache scouts saw the smoke, and they could not sleep because they feared surprise attacks. The chief said the Indians could not fight the soldiers and their own people at the same time.

If Chalipan kept the peace, Crook said he would be the best friend the chief ever had. The Indian must work like the white man worked and he would be treated exactly like the white man. The work would start right away on an irrigation project for the farms. The colonel would find markets for their crops, and they would be paid directly. No middleman would siphon off profits. The Apaches would have their own police force, paid for by the Army. Thieves and drunkards would be jailed if found guilty by Apache juries.

Crook knew he could not wait for Washington to send tools, so he collected every old shovel, spade and pick from all the camps and forts. Work began immediately. The men did the digging, and the women carried the dirt in their handwoven baskets. They had soon dug a ditch 4 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 5 miles long. They planted 57 acres of melons and other truck garden produce they liked.

Crook emphasized the individual, not the traditional communal philosophy of tribes and bands. An individual cut hay, sold it himself and collected the money. An individual was paid to cut wood. An individual was responsible for his own actions and was rewarded or punished. Apache juries were respected, and if they had a fault, it was in being too severe.

Crook tried hard but was not successful in establishing schools on all the reservations. He believed the Indians could only be assimilated into white society if they had an education. He believed it was wrong to send children off to boarding schools in the East, then have them return to a society that resented their superior knowledge and skills. They would be accepted in neither the white nor the Indian culture.

In most of his efforts, Colonel Crook was opposed by many ordinary citizens who hated the Apaches for the burning and killing of the past 10 years and wanted them all exterminated. His greatest problem, however, was the infamous, corrupt Tucson Ring–a group of Arizona businessmen who wanted Indians on the warpath. War in the territory meant these wheeler-dealers could sell supplies to the Army and guns and ammunition to the Indians. If the Ring members could not have war, they wanted the Indians to be on reservations, where the Ring could sell supplies to the often corrupt Indian agents. Putting rocks in bags of flour and sugar and selling cattle that were meant for the reservations were just two of the ways the Ring men cheated the Indians. The Ring knew that self-sufficient Indians would bring an end to swollen profits from government contracts.

Despite the many obstacles, by the fall of 1872, Crook and General O.O. Howard had brought peace to Arizona Territory. Howard worked out a treaty with Cochise, which the chief kept until his death two years later. President Ulysses S. Grant promoted Crook to brigadier general. Crook was in Arizona two more years, fighting for the humane, wise treatment of Indians, building roads, repairing and upgrading forts, and relocating forts to more healthful surroundings.

In 1875 the War Department had a new challenge for the brigadier general. Arizona was under control, but serious Indian trouble was about to erupt on the northern Plains. The Sioux and the Cheyenne were especially restive and dangerous. Crook's new orders sent him to take command of the Department of the Platte, headquartered in Omaha. His district included Nebraska and the territories of Wyoming, Utah and part of Idaho.

There were good reasons why the Indians were ready to take to the warpath. The government was not honoring the provisions of the 1867 treaty, which granted them a huge tract of land that included the beautiful Black Hills and extended all the way west to the Bighorn Mountains. There were supposed to be schools, but after eight years, none had been constructed.

More and more whites were arriving and staying. Gold had been discovered in the sacred Black Hills, so even more whites were certain to come, and there was going to be fighting. There had been too many broken treaties, and Little Big Man, for one, argued that the only way to save their hunting grounds was to make war.

Crook tried in 1876 to prevent the trouble that was brewing. He ordered all whites out of the Black Hills. That helped for a while, but the Indians still prepared for the war they were sure was coming. Although they were buying guns and ammunition, the situation remained fairly stable until whites began sneaking into the Black Hills again. The last straw came when the government demanded that the Indians present themselves to be enrolled on reservations. Some came in, some ignored the demand and some sent word they would not do it. Sitting Bull wanted to know: 'Are you the great God who made me?' He said if the whites wanted to talk, they would have to come to Sitting Bull.

There were probably 50,000 Indians on the wide-open northern seas of grass. The warriors were great horse soldiers, and the Indians apparently had strong alliances; they seemed to believe they could defeat the white troopers whenever they chose. The situation was far different from Crook's earlier problems in Arizona.

He decided on another winter campaign. He would have to find a large village and destroy it, in order to prove that the Army was formidable. He hired all the Indian scouts he could find and made his usual thorough preparations. On March 1, 1876, the troops left Fort Fetterman to travel 150 miles to the Powder River and the Bighorn Mountains. Crook had 10 full companies of cavalry and four companies of infantry. The men wore fur coats, fur-lined hats and fur overboots. They were a trained and well-disciplined force.

On March 5, Crook gave orders for a two-week intensive search for hostiles. There would be no wagon trains, just mules, and the men would be on half-rations. A blizzard swept in, and the thermometer plummeted to 40 degrees below zero. When the men ate, they drew their forks through hot ashes so the metal would not strip their tongues.

On March 12, the column of Colonel (brevet Maj. Gen.) Joseph Reynolds came upon a large occupied village. Reynolds moved his troops into position for a surprise attack at dawn, but a young boy watering his horse saw the soldiers and gave the alarm. The Indians had time to run to a bluff, which gave them an excellent position for shooting. They aimed at the horses and mules. More troops came up and began firing into the tepees, which contained caches of gunpowder in kegs, metallic cartridges, bullet molds and lead. The tepees did not burn–they exploded, and lodge poles flew through the air like sticks.

Some troops began to collect the great wealth that was in many of the tepees–prime pelts of beaver, deer and elk, great buffalo robes and huge quantities of food, all of which were to have been traded by the Indians for guns and ammunition. Reynolds found out he was fighting Crazy Horse's Sioux band of 100 lodges, and that 40 lodges of Cheyenne had escaped from the Red Cloud Agency to join Crazy Horse. The colonel may have decided he could not defeat the combined forces. At any rate, he suddenly ordered a retreat, even though the troops had only begun collecting the riches in the tepees. When Crook came up to help finish the job, he could not hide his bitter disappointment. His column could have destroyed or at least seriously crippled the ability of this strong combination of Sioux and Cheyennes to make war. Reynolds' order to retreat destroyed that opportunity.

Reynolds was court-martialed and suspended from command for a year. The Army had not achieved a complete victory at the Battle of Powder River. In fact, the Sioux and Cheyenne decided they had won a very important victory, and it gave them great confidence for the future.

General Crook knew he had to mount another large campaign. On May 29, 1876, he was ready again. Bands of Crows and Shoshones joined him, and Crook's column started up the Rosebud River as part of a three-column push into Wyoming and Montana territories. Crook was worried because he had not heard from the columns under General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbons, and he needed their support.

On June 17, Crazy Horse attacked with 1,500 men. 'The broken terrain fragmented the fighting and made central command almost impossible,' historian Robert Utley noted. It was basically every man for himself, with the troops spread along a thin line three miles long. Never before had Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fought so boldly. They raced their horses toward the troops at a dead run, often breaking through the soldiers' line. Crook and his Indian allies finally managed to stop the attacks, and Crook counterattacked when he could. When Crazy Horse's assaults failed repeatedly, the warriors halted their efforts. Years later, a Cheyenne warrior said they quit the fight because they were tired and hungry. At the time, Crook's contemporaries agreed that he had defeated the Indians, and the Army called it a victory. Some writers today say it was a defeat because it allowed the huge Indian force to go on to the Greasy Grass area, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer unfortunately found them on June 25. In fairness it should be said that no one knew where the Indians would go after the Rosebud fight. The Indians could not easily maintain large forces. The Battle of the Rosebud was probably the only time Crook was not a definite victor in his many Indian battles.

Washakie, the greatest Shoshone chief, joined Crook with more warriors, but he advised Crook to wait for more soldiers. He said that Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull would soon have to break up their great force to obtain food, and that many of the warriors would want to go to their families. Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan agreed, and he sent word of the terrible fate of one of Terry's columns, the one under Custer, at the Little Bighorn.

In September, Crook found and destroyed the camp of American Horse, Roman Nose and Iron Shield. Crazy Horse arrived and attacked but soon gave up the fight and left the area. That winter, Crook defeated Dull Knife, the great Cheyenne, and destroyed his essential war supplies. Soon Arapahos, Utes, Bannocks, Shoshones, Crows and Winnebagos wanted to fight their old enemies, the Sioux. The hostiles began returning to the reservations in great numbers. Even Crazy Horse came in and surrendered with 1,100 people on May 6, 1877.

The last great battles on the Plains were finished. When Crazy Horse later left the reservation, trying to take his band north to live the old wild, free life, his own people stopped him. In a guardhouse fight, Crazy Horse was killed, probably by a soldier's bayonet. Chief Touch The Clouds said, 'It is good; he has looked for death and it has come.'

In 1882, Crook was ordered back to Arizona Territory. The businessmen in the Tucson Ring had achieved enormous success during his absence. So dishonestly and shamelessly had they dealt with the Apaches that some chiefs had been fighting for years. Victorio, Nana, Loco and Nan-tia-tish had killed many whites and destroyed thousands of dollars worth of property while making fools of the civilian posses and the military.

The aged Alchise told Crook, 'When you left there were no bad Indians out. We were content; everything was peace.' Old Pedro said, 'When you were here, whenever you said a thing we knew it was true….I used to be happy….Where are those good officers? Why don't they come back?'

Crook instituted all the policies that had been so successful before, and most of the Chiricahuas came back to the reservations. He went after those who did not return, chasing some far into Mexico, and brought them all back and put them on the reservations.

Unfortunately, Geronimo and Natchez went on a long tiswin (a fermented beverage made from corn) drunk and created havoc. The general and his Apache allies chased them for months, finally caught them and brought them back. Sheridan did not understand Chiricahuas and criticized Crook's methods. Crook tried to explain, but finally just asked for a transfer.

He was ordered to the Department of the Platte again, where he continued to fight against the shameful treatment of Geronimo and his band after their 1886 surrender. The government even imprisoned most of the Apaches who had been loyal, trusted scouts for years.

Crook kept the peace with the Plains Indians, and in 1888 President Grover Cleveland promoted him to major general and placed him in charge of the huge Department of the Missouri. On March 21, 1890, Crook suffered a heart attack and died. Captain John G. Bourke, his aide for many years, reported that at the Camp Apache reservation, his scouts formed a large circle, bent their heads and cried. Red Cloud said, 'His words gave the people hope. He died. Their hope died again.'

Crook had fought well against hostile Indians. Historian Robert Utley wrote, 'General George Crook [was] considered by many of his contemporaries to be the army's most skilled Indian fighter….' Whether Crook was the greatest Indian fighter can be argued, but he was never an Indian hater. He must be regarded as one of the Army's greatest Indian friends. He respected the Plains warriors as vanquished, valiant foes who deserved to be treated as human beings.



This article was written by J. Jay Myers and originally appeared in the December 1998 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!


One Response to “George Crook: Indian Fighter”


  1. 1
    john harper says:

    crook was a good man which other US army men respected the indian like crook did but still fought them



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