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Before his famous 1886 assignment to track down Geronimo, Lieutenant Charles Gatewood served as military commandant and ‘judge’ at the White Mountain Apache Reservation.

Lieutenant Charles Gatewood has forever been linked with the Chiricahua Apache war leader and medicine man Geronimo. During the summer of 1886, against all odds and with failing health, Gatewood of the 6th Cavalry tracked the old warrior and the remnants of his warring Bedonkohe band in the wilds of Mexico’s Sierra Madre. It was a long and hard trail, one in which the 33-year-old lieutenant had to keep not only his courage but also his wits, for he met opposition every step of the way.

Before finding the Apaches, Gatewood had to dupe Jesus Aguirre, the prefecto of the Sonoran district of Arispe, into believing he would abandon the hunt. Aguirre wanted to lure the Indians into the pueblo of Fronteras and kill them. After finding the Apaches in the Teres Mountains, Gatewood then had to convince them that the only way to survive was to return to the United States and surrender. And that was just the beginning. Next, he had to get the Apaches safely across the international border—no easy task. Aguirre and many U.S. officers wanted Geronimo dead. On September 3, 1886, Geronimo surrendered to Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon, 35 miles north of Mexico on the New Mexico– Arizona border. Gatewood had completed an extraordinary feat, but only at a heavy personal cost. His health never fully recovered, and he became an outsider in the U.S. Army.

Gatewood, who was born in Woodstock, Va., on April 6, 1853, had drawn the assignment to find Geronimo for one reason: He was the only officer the military then had on active duty who the Apache people respected and who personally knew every adult warrior still riding the warpath. Gatewood had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1877, and the very next year had commanded his first company of Apache scouts in the Southwest. Able to suppress whatever feelings of racial superiority he held, the young lieutenant had strived to understand the Apaches and to gain their acceptance.

Four years later, in April 1882, Geronimo and Naiche, the last hereditary Chokonen (another Chiricahua band) chieftain, raided the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona Territory. That July, Brig. Gen. George Crook received orders to command the Department of Arizona. Crook, who did not report until September 4, chose with care his key subalterns to bring peace to the Southwest. He named Gatewood military commandant of the White Mountain Reservation, headquartered at Fort Apache. By that time, Gatewood’s record with the Apaches was sparkling. He had commanded Indian scouts for 31⁄2 years, he knew the Apache people, and he understood their grasp of the reservation system. More important, the Apaches already knew and liked him.

For the most part, Gatewood’s wards included the White Mountain Apaches, whom he called the Coyoteros. Along with administering a judicial system (the “judge” was how he referred to himself), he made an effort to “check the consumption of tiswin [a beer-like alcohol the Apaches brewed from corn or fermented mescal], preserve the peace among [the natives], & see that they went to work with a view to making them self-supporting.”

Crook assigned Captain Emmet Crawford, 3rd Cavalry, to manage the San Carlos Reservation, with Lieutenant Britton Davis, also of the 3rd, to assist him. For all intents and purposes, the two reservations were one. Crawford would have overall command, but Gatewood reported directly to Crook.

As soon as he assumed command, Crook toured the reservation. He knew that he had to end the mismanagement of the Apaches. His goal was to reassure them that they would be treated fairly. He found the situation worse than he anticipated and issued General Orders No. 43, which read in part: “The commanding general…regrets to say that he finds among [the Apaches] a general feeling of distrust and want of confidence in the whites, especially the soldiery.”

The general also wanted to inform the natives of the new order. All males capable of bearing arms were ordered to assemble at San Carlos. About 800 initially responded. Gatewood remembered, “They presented a picturesque sight, clad as they were in all the colors of the rainbow & in all imaginable costumes from a breechclout to a stovepipe hat.” Each was given a brass tag with a stamped letter and number for identity purposes. Their names, ages and descriptions were then entered into a log. Crawford did not waste time taking count of his wards.

One September morning during roll call, dust billowed ominously up the valley of the San Carlos. White Mountain warriors—Gatewood’s new wards— appeared on the mesa above the gathering and formed a skirmish line on their ponies. All 60 of the warriors were heavily armed, the barrels of their rifles glistening in the sun. The mounted warriors advanced slowly. Gatewood knew that they viewed the assembled Indians with “scorn & contempt.” The lieutenant had no doubt that they would have attacked if provoked. Gatewood looked about; the natives at the counting looked nervous, ready to run. Although Gatewood doesn’t say so, the assembled Indians must have been mostly Apaches (possibly some Yavapai Indians, too) but probably no Chiricahua warriors (who didn’t get along with the White Mountains but were unlikely to run from them). Only two things held them: the presence of Crook and a troop of cavalry.

The White Mountain Indians halted a quarter mile from the gathering. Since they were his responsibility, Gatewood rode forward to meet them. Alchesay, a war leader of the largest band, shook hands and said, “An-zhoo” (“Good”). “All of them had served as scouts at one time or another under my command,” Gatewood later wrote, “& Alchessay had been first sergeant of my company.”

When Alchesay moved off to meet Crook, the rest of the warriors dismounted and lined up to be counted. What happened next demonstrated why Crook’s selection of Gatewood as military agent could not have been better. The warriors surrounded Gatewood, whom they called Bay-chen-daysen (“Long Nose”), and there was a good deal of hand shaking and joking. “Hello, Bay-chen-daysen,” said one of the warriors. “Your nose has grown since we saw you last.” Another commented: “Ah! The billy-goat has kept himself thin so that he can run fast & far when the wolves get after his sheep.” The White Mountains considered themselves “wolves.” “Billy goat” and “sheep” referred to Gatewood’s status falling from nantan, or chief, of White Mountain scouts to the lowest form of white man— commander of Yumas and Mojaves. Gatewood had recently commanded a company of Yumas and Mojaves during the White Mountain outbreak after the scouts revolted at Cibecue earlier that year. Other humorous digs followed: “Say, old goat, did you wear a bell so that your sheep could follow you?”; “Ba-a-a,”; and “Hold your head up, now that you are among men once more.” Everyone, including Gatewood, had a good time and laughed.

The fun and games, with just a hint of real disdain, continued after Gatewood returned to Fort Apache to assume his new position. As he remembered, the White Mountain women and children pointed “ ‘the finger of scorn’ [at me] & call[ed] out, ‘Yu-u-ma!’ [and] ‘Moja-a-ve!’”

Gatewood created a police force of warriors from each village. He also selected a few trusted people who would act as spies, informing him under the cover of darkness of any goings-on that might lead to trouble on the reservation. However, before he set up his judicial system, he introduced a new law—women were no longer just beasts of burden to be raped, mutilated or beaten at will. As may be surmised, this garnered two extreme opinions—the women were thrilled, the men outraged. And Gatewood had not finished: The women could now report any misconduct by the males and expect justice.

The White Mountain Apache Sanchez, a firebrand since the 1870s, confronted Gatewood in his office. “Nantan Bay-chendaysen,” Sanchez said, “in seeking for the cause of the many rows you will have to settle, remember what I say. Go to the bottom & you’ll find a woman.” He held up his index finger, pointed dramatically, crouched low, touched the floor, then stood and left the room. Later, at another confrontation, an unnamed warrior stated that women could never inform on the men, “for they never told the truth anyhow.”

Early during Gatewood’s tenure as military agent, a White Mountain named Dave raped his sister’s daughter. The native jury in Gatewood’s court decided that Dave should hang by his wrists from dawn until dusk. Gatewood viewed this as a death sentence and negotiated a five-minute break every hour. Surprisingly, Dave survived his punishment. But this did not mark the end of his problems. Six months later, he brewed a kettle of tiswin and got drunk. He grabbed his Winchester and revolver, mounted his horse and, as Gatewood remembered, “proceeded to ‘whoop up’ the village in approved cowboy fashion.” When two young scouts attempted to arrest him, Dave sent them packing. Gatewood ordered one of his sergeants, a White Mountain named Juan, to make the arrest. “Nantan,” Juan said, “there’s an old feud between his family & mine, & this is the chance I’ve been waiting for. I’ll take one man. Usual orders in case of resisting arrest?”

“Yes,” replied Gatewood.

When Dave heard that Juan was gunning for him, he sobered up, mounted and raced for Fort Apache—exiting the valley where he lived just as Juan charged into it from a gulch on the opposite side. After arriving at Dave’s wickiup, Juan spotted the fresh tracks and quickly followed them.

Gatewood happened to look out of his office window when Dave appeared in the distance “apparently bent on testing the speed of his steed.” The lieutenant then saw the other two riders a few hundred yards behind him. Because the White Mountains loved horse racing, Gatewood assumed that a race was in progress. When the horsemen reached Fort Apache, though, he recognized Dave and knew what was happening. The riders galloped through the post. Minutes later, Dave jerked his mount to a halt in front of Gatewood’s office, yanked the door open, stumbled inside and flopped into a chair. Moments later, a furious Juan charged into the room.

Dave again went on trial and again was convicted, this time spending time in jail and performing hard labor. Malingering was not acceptable, and those serving terms had to quarry rocks and then move them from one pile to another pile. Gatewood often appeared unannounced to ensure there were no deadbeats. That practice kept the prisoners on their toes, and most of them proved to be exemplary guests.

In February 1884, Gatewood heard that the Apaches known as the Chiricahuas (Chokonens, Bedonkohes and Chi- hennes) living near the subagency at San Carlos wanted to move to high country, specifically to Turkey Creek, a mountainous area on the White Mountain Reservation. This bothered him, as he knew his White Mountain police force feared them and would want them to keep their distance, which in turn meant that he would have no control over preventing an outbreak. He told Crook that he did not believe the Chiricahuas, including Geronimo, would “stay one year, & I do not desire to have charge of them & be held responsible for their conduct….Please give this your attention.”

The Chokonen, Bedonkohe and Chihenne Apaches had returned to the reservation after Crook invaded the Sierra Madre in Mexico in 1883. After returning, they found themselves split into subgroups and spread over an area that proved almost impossible to till and provided little game. Since they did not get along with the other Indians living at San Carlos, this made for an unhappy mix of people.

Gatewood’s concern fell on deaf ears. Wanting to avoid trouble before it happened at San Carlos, Crook OK’d the move. In May more than 500 Apaches migrated to Turkey Creek— including Geronimo and Naiche. Roughly 17 miles southeast of Fort Apache, the area offered a mild summer climate, pine trees, clear water and game. Britton Davis, who served as the Chiricahuas’ military agent, also made the move.

Gatewood’s fear soon began to ferment and gather steam; an explosion seemed inevitable. For Geronimo’s part, he feared being handed over to the U.S. court system and tried for his past actions. As he later said to Crook, “They wanted to seize me.”

But there was another event that put much more stress on the Gatewood-Crook relationship. In August 1884, F. M. Zuck, a territorial judge who also had a contract to deliver mail between Holbrook and Fort Apache, approached Gatewood to build a stage station and eating house on the reservation. Gatewood denied the request, only to be overruled by Crook. Next Zuck wanted permission to harvest native grass to feed his livestock. In September Gatewood observed money negotiations between Alchesay, whom he had named chieftain of all White Mountains earlier that year, and Zuck’s agent, Joseph Kay, and warned that failure of payment would be dealt with harshly.

Actually, Kay resold the hay to Zuck at a profit, and then Zuck refused to make full restitution to the White Mountains. Alchesay threatened war if not paid. Gatewood rode to Zuck’s mail station and told Zuck to pay up or be arrested. “Arrest! Arrest me?” Zuck said. “I will not pay and no one dares to arrest me.”

“Jug him,” Gatewood ordered. When Crook heard what happened, he demanded that Gatewood drop the charges. Gatewood refused. Zuck’s trial took place in Prescott (Third Judicial District of Arizona Territory) in October 1884. After Gatewood testified for two days, Judge William McGrew dismissed the case on a technicality. Judge Zuck might just as well have been in his own district, presiding over his own court. So much for Indian rights.

Gatewood’s job got tougher. The constant struggle to keep peace between the sexes, to limit the consumption of tiswin, and to secure the necessities his wards needed continued, but now he had to deal with a commanding officer that wanted nothing to do with him. After the trial, Zuck lost an election and blamed Gatewood. It did not take long before Gatewood felt Zuck’s wrath. Territorial newspapers went after him, printing that he had falsely imprisoned Zuck “in the Black Hole of Calcutta, or what may be worse, the filthy Indian den at Apache.” Gatewood found himself compared to Henry Wirz, a Confederate captain convicted and executed for war crimes he committed at Andersonville Prison during the Civil War.

Zuck would have his revenge. In February 1885, Gatewood appeared before a grand jury in St. Johns to answer charges of “felonious false arrest.” Crook washed his hands of the affair and absolutely refused to support his subaltern.

Almost a year to the day, Gatewood’s prediction about the Chiricahuas at Turkey Creek came true. Geronimo bolted the reservation for the last time on May 17, 1885.

The rift between Gatewood and Crook grew to the point that Gatewood knew he had to get away. Gatewood decided to go above Crook. On August 5 he wrote the adjutant general in Washington, D.C., requesting “to be relieved from my present duties in connection with the management of Indian affairs.” Nine days later, Crook endorsed the request, then changed his mind, saying, “Gatewood has been indicted for a matter in connection with his administration of his duties.” The trial was set for December 7, and Crook reasoned, “It will prejudice his case if he is obliged to leave before trial. I therefore request that I may retain him until his matter is decided.”

Gatewood continued as agent through September and October. He concentrated on working for his wards, making it clear that decent treatment of the White Mountain Apaches would greatly enhance their chances of becoming self-sufficient while warning that “they would be equally quick to resent anything savoring of imposition of what they know to be their rights.” Captain F.E. Pierce, who replaced Crawford as commandant of San Carlos after Crawford’s untimely death, appreciated the lieutenant’s efforts. He reported, “Lieutenant Gatewood has labored hard with these people, has mantained [sic] their rights, and done [everything] in his power to assist and encourage them.”

Finally, on November 14, Crook ordered Gatewood to hand over management of the reservation to Lieutenant James Lockett of the 4th Cavalry. But this did not relinquish Gatewood’s responsibilities. On the 23rd, Chokonen Apache war leader Josanie (also known as Ulzana) raided the White Mountain settlements. He struck isolated camps, attacking them as they gathered food. “[He] killed & carried away some twenty odd of that tribe,” Gatewood noted. “Great consternation seized the Coyoteros. They gathered their families into larger villages, hundreds of them moving to the vicinity of the post.”

Many of the younger White Mountain men were serving as scouts south of the border, so they could not protect their families. “At one place,” recalled Gatewood, “fifteen women & children were looked after by one old buck.” One day when he returned to his ranchero at sundown after unsuccessfully hunting for game, this old warrior (Gatewood did not give his name) saw an Apache raider club his grandson and then toss the lifeless body into a fire. The old warrior cocked and fired his Sharps rifle twice before running and hiding. The raiders did not chase him, and he reached Fort Apache safely the next morning. He found Bay-chen-daysen and a few White Mountains in Gatewood’s office and described the slaughter. He claimed he had killed one man and wounded another. Clenching his fist, he added: “I am an old man, alone in the world, not a drop of the blood in my veins runs in those of a human being….May the great spirits protect me till I have my revenge.”

The other White Mountains doubted the old man’s story and decided to investigate. Following the raiders’ trail, they found a grave. Bloody rags and other evidence convinced them another wounded raider had been carried along by his comrades. The White Mountains returned to Bay-chen-daysen’s office and set a bundle on the floor. Gatewood had been writing at his desk; he glanced at them but continued writing. A warrior untied the package and set a bloody head on the desk. Gatewood pushed himself out of his chair and stumbled across the room as he struggled to control his “nerves & stomach.” After his system settled down, he issued an order: “In [the] future heads [will] not…be set up on writing desks in that fashion.” Looking back, Gatewood wrote, “It gives me cold shivers to think of it.” He claimed that the cabeza, or head, belonged to one of the sons of Nednhi Apache chieftain Juh, who had died when he fell from his horse in Chihuahua, Mexico, in November 1883. The name of his dead son is unknown.

Apaches always right a wrong. Josanie’s violence had to be avenged, and Sanchez and Alchesay would play leading roles in the coming events. They began hanging around Bay-chen-daysen’s office, “begging cartridges for their men on the plea of being ready for self-defense.” This made Gatewood think that something might happen, but no matter whom he asked, everyone said the same thing—nothing was wrong. When he pressed Sanchez and Alchesay, they “looked surprised & said that their hearts were made sore to have it thought that they were capable of doing anything not authorized & approved by the nantan.” Gatewood was not fooled and felt uneasy, knowing if there was trouble, Crook would blame him.

A few days later, Chihenne chieftain Loco secretly approached Bay-chen-daysen; he feared there would be trouble, and he wanted nothing to do with it. Loco and his band had refused to break out from the reservation with Geronimo in May. He asked Bay-chen-daysen if he could move his people close to Fort Apache, and Gatewood said yes. Then, realizing what might happen, Gatewood invited all the Bedonkohes, Chokonens and Chihennes then living on the reservation to move closer to the fort.

Almost immediately Sanchez stormed his office with a delegation of White Mountains. His people received no special treatment and defended themselves without military protection. It should be the same for everyone; he demanded that Loco’s people be sent back to their camps. “[W]ho was there to hurt them?” he asked. “They need not fear the hostiles, for they [a]re kith & kin to them. To take such good care of them [i]s a piece of uncalled-for favoritism.”

Gatewood must have smirked, for he now knew exactly what was up. He told Sanchez to send his warriors back to their villages, that there would be no “massacre of innocent people,“ and that he would use force if necessary to protect Loco’s people. “Our homes have been invaded, & our women & children outraged & massacred,” Sanchez said. After pointing out that his warriors could not attack the raiders as they had returned to Mexico, he stated that Loco would make a good substitute. He then accused Gatewood of becoming the White Mountains’ enemy, concluding, “The mournful cries of our [women] over the bodies of their dead seem to make sweet music to your ears.”

Gatewood told the gathering that he’d gladly strip down to a breechclout and paint his face, but Crook had forbidden any such action. He could not join his Coyotero brothers seeking vengeance without being punished. This calmed the warriors somewhat. They sat on the floor and smoked. Finally, Gatewood worked out a compromise—the White Mountains could kill any enemy they caught outside set limits.

Three days later, Sanchez and others again stormed into Gatewood’s office, sat on the floor and silently puffed their cigarettes. Gatewood could see they were in a foul mood. An hour passed. Finally Sanchez said they had watched the enemy camp, but “not even a child has left it.” He accused Bay-chen-daysen of “notifying [Loco] of our agreement,” and Gatewood said that was true. “Now we are convinced that you are a Chiricahua,” Sanchez said. “Our hearts are bleeding.”

Screams interrupted the confrontation. Suddenly a young Chiricahua plunged into the room. White Mountains followed with guns and knives, their intent clear. The boy cowered in fear. Outside, White Mountains began chanting “Kill him.” Luckily for Gatewood, about a half dozen of his scouts heard the din and came running. With their aid, he quickly cleared his office and held the mob off. Angry White Mountains circled the building, demanding he give them the boy to kill.

Eventually, Gatewood restored order, but at great cost—his relationship with the White Mountains never recovered. At the same time, his pending trial still hovered on the horizon. For the first time since beginning his military career, Gatewood had nothing to do. In December, even though his civil problem had not been resolved, Crook released him and he rejoined his regiment at Fort Stanton, New Mexico Territory. The December court appearance resulted in a postponement. Finally, Gatewood’s trial began on March 24, 1886, and on the second day, Judge John C. Shields dismissed it, ruling that the court had no jurisdiction over what happened on an Indian reservation.

That same day, Crook began surrender negotiations with Geronimo and Naiche at Canyon de los Embudos, Mexico. Gatewood, now a free man, thought he had seen the last of the Apaches. He could not have been more mistaken. Frightened of the future, Geronimo and Naiche ran one last time. Crook resigned, General Miles replaced him, and in July 1886 Miles ordered Gatewood to find Geronimo and the remnants of the warring Apaches in Mexico.


Frequent Wild West Magazine contributor Louis Kraft edited and provided additional text for Lt. Charles Gatewood & His Apache Wars Memoir (see “Reviews” in this issue). That book is recommended for further reading, as is an earlier Kraft book, Gatewood & Geronimo.

Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here