Then soldiers chased the raiders to Mexico.
Hamilton C. McComas believed New Mexico Territory was a land of opportunity. Born in Parkersburg, Virginia, in 1831, he became a lawyer at age 21. Following his Western dream, he moved to Illinois and married Louisa K. Pratt. They had two children, but divorced during the Civil War. Hamilton joined the Union Army and became lieutenant colonel of the 107th Illinois. In 1868 he moved to Fort Scott, Kansas, and practiced law. The next year, Hamilton married Juniata M. Ware.
Juniata had two daughters, and in November 1876, a son, Charles Ware McComas. Little Charlie went almost everywhere with his father, but when Hamilton went to New Mexico Territory in 1880, his family remained behind until he got established. McComas was successful with his law practice and various mining and business operations. In March 1882, he figured it was safe enough to bring his family out to the wild Southwest. That December Hamilton purchased a substantial brick home for them in Silver City.
On March 7, 1883, Juniata turned 37 years old, and the contented couple looked forward to a happy and prosperous life. On March 26, Hamilton received a telegram from Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory, saying that the Pyramid Mining and Milling Company needed his services. Juniata had been in Silver City for one year and had never been to Lordsburg, and all agreed it would be fine for her and Charlie to come along, especially since there had been no major Indian trouble reported since the previous summer.
They rented and loaded a buckboard on the 27th, for what should have been a safe journey. But Hamilton took along his Winchester and Colt revolver, just in case. They stayed the night at a hostelry called Mountain Home, about 17 miles southwest of Silver City. The next morning, the 28th, the family crossed the Continental Divide and rode down Thompson Canyon, a sandy, twisting trail through the Burro Mountains. If there was any chance of an ambush, it would be in the narrowest part of the canyon, just as the road exited the western edge, but the McComases passed safely through. They continued one mile into the flat Animas Valley. It was about noon when they saw a large walnut tree and decided to stop to have a picnic lunch.
The timing of their journey was unfortunate. On March 21, a 26-person Apache raiding party swept out of Mexico’s Sierra Madre and into Arizona Territory, seeking guns and ammunition. Chatto (sometimes spelled Chato) led the raiders, who included Naiche, Mangus, Bonito, Dutchy, Tzoe, Beneactiney and Kautli. They attacked a charcoal camp in the Canelo Hills near Fort Huachuca and killed four white men, but Beneactiney also fell. Furious, his friends continued northeast, stealing, cutting telegraph lines and killing 22 more whites.
Whenever an Apache was harmed, it was customary that all members of the “guilty” group were held responsible and could be indiscriminately killed. No one in the West had a monopoly on brutality, but some Apaches were proud of it. Asa Daklugie, the son of the Nednhi Apache Juh, boasted, “We had the Sioux beat [for cruelty], especially the Nednhi and Chiricahua.”
In this frame of mind and in the mood for revenge, Chatto’s raiders entered New Mexico Territory in the area of present-day Virden, and rode southeast toward the southern end of the Burro Mountains. Near the mouth of Thompson Canyon they ran right into a white family having a picnic.
The McComases saw the Apaches coming and ran for the buckboard. Hamilton tried to turn the horses around and run back up the canyon, but a bullet hit him. He jumped from the seat with his Winchester while Juniata tried to take the reins and continue. Hamilton ran to the walnut tree to try to hold off the Indians. He got off three shots while running and four more at the tree before about five more bullets ended his life.
Other Apaches chased the buckboard about 300 yards when one horse was hit and fell. Juniata jumped out, ran around the back and tried to pull Charlie out. A mounted warrior smashed her head with his rifle butt, and then dismounted and hit her two more times with his pistol to make sure she was dead. Often raiders would murder children without a second thought, but this time they decided to keep the blond 6-year-old.
Two Indians quarreled over who had a right to the prisoner, but Bonito rode up and claimed the boy for himself. He tied Charlie with a rope to his own waist and put him on his horse. The Indians plundered the buckboard and stripped the dead couple. Hamilton’s Winchester and Colt were the prized findings.
The Apaches headed back to Mexico. Within the hour, two whites, John Moore and Julius C. Brock, discovered the bodies and sped away to spread the alarm. Conflicting reports indicated that either the McComases were not maimed or Juniata had been mutilated in shocking fashion.
Lieutenant Colonel George A. Forsyth led companies of his 4th Cavalry from Fort Cummings toward Arizona Territory in the hope of catching Chatto’s raiders. When he received word of the McComas killings, instead of heading south toward the border to cut off the Indians, he went to the attack site to personally find the trail. While he did, Chatto headed east of Lordsburg and south across the line.
The raid sent shockwaves through the nation. Brigadier General George Crook sent his men to scour the ground, but no one spotted a single hostile Chiricahua. What the raid did, however, was give Crook an excuse to chase the raiders down into Mexico.
While campaign preparations were made, Eugene Ware, Juniata’s brother, went to Silver City to arrange sending the two bodies back to Kansas, and he remained in New Mexico Territory to try to find and ransom Charlie. The McComases were buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Scott, Kan., on April 8.
After checking with Mexican authorities, Crook got the go-ahead for pursuit across the border. Traveling light and fast, his force included 42 men of Company I, 6th Cavalry, under Major Adna R. Chaffee, and 193 Apache scouts under Captain Emmet Crawford and Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood. They took rations for 60 days, 150 rounds of ammunition per man and 350 packhorses. Among the scouts were Al Sieber and Archie McIntosh. The Apache Tsoe, who had been on part of Chatto’s raid but dropped out before the McComas killings, was one of the guides. Mickey Free, who had been an Apache captive as a youth, served as an interpreter. They crossed into Mexico on May 1.
The command went up the Bavispe River in Sonora, following the river into the mountains and just across the border into Chihuahua. On May 15, Crawford’s Apache scouts found Bonito and Chatto’s village and attacked. Although Crook ordered women and children be spared, the scouts charged in firing indiscriminately. They killed nine and captured four children and one young woman. It was later said that the mother of an Apache named Speedy was killed during the fight. The enraged warrior found Charlie being led into the canyon, ran up to him, “and using rocks, brutally killed the small white captive.” Ramona Chihuahua, daughter of the chief and one of those captured, saw the incident and later told another young Apache, Jason Betzinez, what had happened. The Apaches later told the soldiers that the white boy was with them, but at first attack, he ran away and was never found. Chatto and Bonito were going to keep the boy and use him as a bargaining chip whenever they might have to surrender, but now that possibility was gone.
The Army and Apache victory over the hostiles deep in territory once considered impregnable convinced many hostiles to surrender. Chiefs Nana, Loco, Ka-ya-ten-nae, Geronimo and Naiche turned themselves in over the following months. Crook marched 123 warriors and 251 women and children back to reservations in the United States, but many would not stay, and the breakouts and fighting continued for three more years.
Charlie McComas had disappeared. The Apaches kept up the fiction that a few people had escaped and taken the little boy with them, and over the years stories circulated of a wild white renegade who ran with the last Apache holdouts well into the 20th century. Charlie was dead, however, as were his parents, and their tragic story is now just another dusty chapter of the danger inherent while pioneering in the Wild West.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.