Having grown up on the Jicarilla Apache Nation Reservation in New Mexico, Doug Hocking writes histories and historical fiction rooted in Apache culture. His nonfiction works include Tom Jeffords: Friend of Cochise (2017), The Black Legend: George Bascom, Cochise and the Start of the Apache Wars (2018), and Terror on the Santa Fe Trail: Kit Carson and the Jicarilla Apache (2019). With a background in archaeology and military intelligence, he regards his subjects with the eyes and mind of an analyst. Western Writers of America has recognized Hocking as a Spur Award finalist, and he received the 2020 Will Rogers Medallion for best Western fiction for Terror on the Santa Fe Trail. The author lives in Tucson, where he delves into the state and local archives and visits the sites where his subjects once lived and fought. Hocking recently took time from his busy writing and speaking schedule to speak with Wild West about his life and work.
What drew you to write about the Apache people?
I grew up on the Jicarilla reservation in New Mexico. My parents were missionaries. I’ve known people since they were children and were still open about their beliefs and feelings. My first turn in graduate school was in social anthropology, and that deeply affected the organization of my thinking.
What distinguishes your approach when writing either fiction or nonfiction?
History takes more work, especially when you’re bucking popular notions of what happened—as I often am—and have to document every word. Novels have a wider potential audience and are much easier to write. Writing novels has affected how I write history. I do my best to bring events to life where I can justify it.
How did you research the myth-enshrouded Tom Jeffords?
I got very lucky. In the Arizona Historical Society archives I found the work of four scholars who had started work on a biography of Jeffords but never quite finished. It helps to have the courage, or lack of common sense, to commit to writing knowing that some bits are missing. Starting with the leads I mentioned, I was able to dig out a lot of material. Folks at the Arizona State Library and New Mexico State Library were also very helpful. Living where he lived has been wonderful, as I was able to visit the sites of his life and dig into the Pima County archives, where I found the records of his mining claims. Understanding how the government, the Army, the courts and businesses keep records and where they keep them is crucial. When I was 19, I was put in charge of a classified records library. Terrified of losing anything or misplacing it, I read the whole manual on how the Army keeps records. It has stood me in good stead.
Your books on Jeffords and Carson came two years apart, yet the Apache history overlaps. Did you research them simultaneously?
I’ve been researching Cochise, Jeffords and the Jicarillas since I was a child. I’ve been reading about them and exploring their haunts and reading about the cavalry—the background of everything I write. Terror on the Santa Fe Trail was the book I always wanted to see published. I had questions about the Jicarillas. Here was large tribe that very few people have heard of. I wondered why. The [March 30, 1854] Battle of Cieneguilla was for its time as major a victory for them as the Little Bighorn was for the Sioux. Records for the Jicarillas are in Santa Fe and Las Vegas, while those for Jeffords are in Cochise County and Tucson, so research excursions were discrete.
How does your background in archaeology inform your research?
I’ve been making things from leather, beads and wood, much of it Indian paraphernalia, all my life. My father had been a contractor, and from him I got a fascination with how things worked. That carries over into trying to understand how systems of commerce, transportation and war work. Picking up broken bits of broken things at a site, I can often see when, where and how they were made and how they were used and when a site was occupied and by whom.
‘As an old cavalry soldier I tend to see heroes on both sides, brave men fighting for their families on both sides’
How did you sort out fact from legend?
While I begin research with a secondary source, raiding the bibliography, I try to rely on primary sources. If I can’t find it there, I recognize it as something a later writer invented to fill in a gap in the story. I apply my own version of the scientific method by asking, If this is true, what else has to be true and what would make this false? I’ve found vast differences between journals and autobiographies and memoires written for publication. Ned Buntline led the public to have certain expectations, and early works written to sell didn’t disappoint. When two writers are fighting Indians with muzzleloaders, the one working with an infinite-repeater soon stands out, and his work becomes suspect. I look for corroboration of details, that what-else-has-to-be-true.
Tom Jeffords may have been given to stretching a yarn, especially when dealing with a gullible greenhorn, but you’d think he’d stick to facts when being interviewed by the governor. Nonetheless, Arizona Territory Governor Anson P.K. Safford attributed some serious windies to Tom. My conclusion was that the governor probably misinterpreted what was said. Safford said Tom told him that 22 mail riders had been killed by Apaches while Tom was in charge. In the record I could only find two that had ever been attacked, and the mail line was very successful, which it wouldn’t have been if all the mail riders were getting killed. I think Tom probably said, “While I was in charge of the mail riders, 22 folks were killed by Apaches.” But that’s a conclusion. The fact is as stated—only two were attacked.
What aspects of research do you find the most fascinating—following the trail of an elusive character like Cochise, or seeking out details of an icon like Kit Carson?
One chases down a lot of rabbit holes in research. There are fascinating things that draw attention away from the line of research, things you might not think are related, and then at the bottom of the hole you find treasure. I was researching Col. Sandy Forsyth’s battle with Geronimo at Horseshoe Canyon, N.M., where 500 cavalry went up against 100 Apache, and yet Forsyth withdrew. Alongside a newspaper account—first-person from one of the officers—I found a paragraph about how the president’s cabinet was discussing what to do about the Cowboys (Cochise County Sheriff John Behan’s posse) then chasing Wyatt Earp’s federal posse. Next to that was an article about how the Apaches, departing from Forsyth, had wiped out the whole town of Galeyville, where the Cowboys hung out. Two days later there was story about how Captain Tupper, with G Troop of the Sixth Cavalry (a unit I once served with), had handed Geronimo a defeat. And then came the realization, this was all happening in Cochise County’s San Simon Valley at the same time.
How do you incorporate Apache oral history/tradition?
Oral history has to be checked against other sources. It’s more often than not like playing a game of telephone, in which the message is totally garbled at the end. Oral history in my family has me descended from Francis Drake. Problem is, he didn’t have any children. However, other evidence points to us being related through his brother.
As an old cavalry soldier I tend to see heroes on both sides, brave men fighting for their families on both sides. There were Indian victories, and I’m happy to praise them as such. There are some things I won’t write out of being a gentleman and out of keeping promises, but don’t try to tell me what I can’t write or how I have to tell the story. I recall one person saying we have to be cognizant that Indian culture is different from our own, and they have knowledge restricted by sex and membership in special groups, and we don’t have an equivalent. I guess he’s never heard of the Freemasons.
What stories have you had difficulty confirming?
I just spent a week trying to track down an 1897 story of the death of “Shoot ’em up Dick” that I “remember” reading in a Santa Fe newspaper. I still can’t find it! But the rabbit holes were productive. I thought the name too over the top, but there really was a fellow called that in 1882, probably in ridicule. The fellow killed was neither Dick nor a member of “Black Jack” Ketchum’s gang; he was a Cochise County cowboy. And then, on the same day Dick died, one of Black Jack’s gang was killed in a skirmish with Mexican border guards 100 miles away in Cochise County. But there was no record in Arizona, only in New Mexico. Then came the speculation from a New Mexico newspaper that the reporter had been smoking opium when he wrote the story, because whiskey alone couldn’t have led to one that ridiculous. The pipe dream about Dick seems to have been spawned by another pipe dream and a desire to write an important story about two unimportant events. And I still can’t find that news article!
‘Learn where records are kept and keep asking where else and who else should have reported this’
Any stories you had to just set aside and leave behind?
So far I’ve left Tombstone alone. There is a daunting amount of material, most of it written by the literary descendants of Buntline. Someday, maybe, I’ll tackle the ladies of Tombstone. I’ve reviewed a few scholarly works on theater in the Old West, and they and the movies have the story so wrong. There were lots of different kinds of entertainers, and many were in it for the money and the glamor, and not out of desperation, and not working in their underwear.
What fact totally eluded you?
I wish I could have found more of Jeffords’ record as a civilian scout during the Civil War. Too often the record says they paid “a scout,” without giving his name or telling what he did. I think the record may be there somewhere, maybe some letter will give a name and quartermaster accounts, or post returns will corroborate the story.
Can you share tips with other researchers on how to avoid some of the pitfalls you negotiated?
Learn where records are kept and keep asking where else and who else should have reported this. I know of one famous historian, a great guy, who concluded the records had been burned with a particular fort, not realizing that reports had all been forwarded to headquarters in Santa Fe.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book of railroad robberies along the southern (I-10) corridor from El Paso to Yuma. Most come back to Cochise County, one way or another, and most have aspects that are sublimely ridiculous. I’m researching the mountain men and fur trade with focus on Bridger, Sublette and Carson. I think I can contribute some insights from how things worked and what they were used for that will give us a better perspective than “men’s hat style changed.”
What about your work haven’t I asked you that you’d like people to know?
My undergraduate degree is in business administration and graduate degree in American history with extensive (five years) graduate study in social anthropology and historical archaeology. I served in military intelligence and retired as an armored cavalry officer teaching tactics to military intelligence officers. I spent 10 years abroad in Taiwan, Germany and Thailand, four of those years as a civilian.
I’ve had difficulty understanding how Colonel Forsyth could withdraw at Horseshoe Canyon, fighting Geronimo, when he outnumbered the Apache 5-to-1 and had only lost a few scouts and had one man wounded. That is, until I walked the ground and saw it as a soldier. I could picture exactly how the Apache used the ground, brilliantly, and how they placed Sandy in a position where he had little choice but to withdraw. Maybe someday I’ll write about it. WW
This article was published in the December 2021 Wild West.