Although he has long been interested in the Indian wars, Paul Magid doesn’t have the typical background of a Western historian. The retired attorney from Vineyard Haven, Mass., first served with the Peace Corps and then worked a stint as general counsel for the African Development Foundation. Magid left that U.S. government position in 1999. Somewhere along the way he became fascinated with George Crook, did some research and then began writing a biography of the famous Civil War and Indian wars military officer—an effort that has spanned more than a decade. Magid has split the biography into two volumes. The first, George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox (see review), focuses on Crook’s early life and his military service out West and in the Civil War. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, it won a 2012 Spur Award for best Western nonfiction biography from Western Writers of America. Magid paused from work on his second volume to discuss Crook with Wild West.
‘I was fascinated by his combination of military skills, humanitarian instincts and interest in Indian culture and society’
What made you want to tackle a biography of George Crook?
I have had a long-standing interest in the Indian wars.…After seeing the movie Geronimo: An American Legend, loosely based on Britton Davis’ book [The Truth About Geronimo], I was inspired by Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Crook to do some research on the general and found that little had been written on him (this was in 1999), and that he was an interesting and complex character. I was fascinated by his combination of military skills, humanitarian instincts and interest in Indian culture and society. Having served in the frontier army from 1852 to his death in 1890, the year of Wounded Knee, he seemed to admirably fit all of my requirements. After reading his autobiography, I was hooked.
How difficult was the research?
As you might imagine, the major difficulty was finding the time away from family obligations and the funds to travel in the West and to spend time doing the research once there. As a first-time author my chances of getting an advance were nil, and my desire not to be rushed precluded my seeking a publisher until the work was completed to my satisfaction. As a result, I have experienced the frustration of discovering treasure troves of information at libraries and historical societies only to have to rush through their collections in order to make my return flight home. Fortunately, I lived in D.C. for the first several years of the project and had invaluable access to the National Archives and the Library of Congress, as well as some of the local libraries, battlefields and historical societies in the area.
What surprising things did you learn?
It was a revelation to learn how much Crook valued his honor and reputation for honesty and fair dealing with the Indians. He may have lied to them on rare occasions, but I doubt that it was without a great deal of angst. I was also surprised to discover that his relationship with his wife and family had deep roots, though he was careful not to reveal his emotions to the outside world. I believe that he probably had deep regrets that he and his wife could not have children. I think that some of his aides and Webb Hayes were to him surrogates for the sons he never had. However, I have never been able to document this, other than by the tone of his correspondence with them. First and foremost, he was a private person.
How challenging is it to write the biography of such a private man?
Fortunately, while Crook himself was not particularly forthcoming, aides like Azor Nickerson and John Bourke and a number of journalists were ardent admirers, meticulous recorders of fact and competent writers. Bourke’s diaries and letters provide a font of information, as do works by [Robert] Strahorn (unpublished) and [John F.] Finerty and news articles on his various campaigns. Crook’s after-action reports and official letters and telegrams also provide detailed information but require some reading between the lines to ferret out intentions and motivations. Even with these sources you still have to cross-check the facts to detect instances of exaggeration or deliberate omission. Many of those who wrote about Crook were prone to hero worship, which makes such cross-checking essential.
If you read Bourke’s On the Border With Crook, you understand that Crook was a tremendous outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing. How did that come about?
Again, there is little documentation, though I deal with what there is in my book. He grew up on a farm carved out of virgin frontier wilderness. Hunting was a means of putting food on the table and of keeping the fields clear of crop and livestock predators. It was also one of the few types of recreation available on a frontier farm. Crook took to hunting at an extremely early age. Given his love of solitude and reticent nature, it was probably also a way for him to get away from his numerous siblings and enjoy the quiet of the forest. His enjoyment of hunting did not come from a mere desire to kill animals. It was a natural (to the 19th-century woodsman) expression of his love of nature. He was an expert taxidermist and a collector of eggs and other products of the wilderness, and he was known to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the wilderness, both its flora and fauna.
Did Crook’s early service presage his post–Civil War leadership out West?
During his years on the Pacific Coast, Crook evidenced a deep interest in Indian culture and folkways and used this knowledge in his work. He also began leading small bodies of men on patrols that usually produced good results, demonstrating personal courage, building his self-confidence and inspiring his men to follow his lead. During this period he also demonstrated a preference for operating independently and a proclivity for sharing his thoughts with no one. His self-confidence [and] ability to command respect and act independently would later stand him in good stead.
What was his Civil War career like compared to other contemporaries who found fame in the West?
This is a difficult question, since many of those who served in the Civil War and survived ended up serving on the frontier. They comprised a number of former generals with disparate career. These included [George] Custer, [Phil] Sheridan, [Ranald] Mackenzie, [John] Gibbon, [Samuel] Sturgis, [Alfred] Terry and [Winfield] Hancock, to name a few. These men all had different experiences during the War and different approaches to fighting on the frontier. However, there a few things that stand out. First, during the Civil War, Crook fought under a variety of different commanders on a number of different fronts, from West Virginia to the Shenandoah, from Tennessee to Appomattox. Here, perhaps, he learned different command techniques from men as different in fighting style as Sheridan, [William] Rosecrans and [George] McClellan. He used his prior Indian fighting experience to develop an expertise in guerrilla warfare. Because of his small commands during the war, he never had a chance to prove his strategic ability but became well known as a tactician with a keen sense for ground in planning battles.
Unlike Elizabeth Bacon Custer, we know little about Crook’s wife, Mary. What was she like?
Mary is rather an opaque character, probably much like her husband in terms of her sense of privacy. Other officers’ wives wrote of her warmth and friendliness. I unearthed a series of letters from Mary to John Bourke, Crook’s aide, written after George’s death. Quoted in my book, they reveal a deep emotional attachment to her husband that resulted in her grieving for a prolonged period after his death. Their love seemed to have transcended their frequent and prolonged separations. Mary seems to have derived strength during these periods from her family, with whom she often visited, unwilling to endure the harsh summers in Arizona and the equally unpleasant Nebraska winters. I would guess that she, like many Army wives, was a strong and independent person, proud of her husband but forced to make a life of her own outside the marriage. I don’t think George could have married a weak and dependent woman. He just didn’t seem to have the patience or insight to deal with someone like that.
Did Crook show pro-Indian leanings in his early tours?
The Army was far less punitive and more protective in its policy toward the Indians vs. the whites during the pre–Civil War period, at least in the Pacific Northwest. Crook, like several of his contemporaries, was riled by the mistreatment accorded the Indians by settlers and miners. The removal of tribes to reservations [and] their mistreatment at the hands of the militia and Indian agents also drew his ire, foreshadowing his later wrangles with his superiors in the military and the Interior Department over Indian rights.
You open with Crook’s funeral in 1890. Compare with how Crook was remembered then, and how he is remembered today.
When George Crook died in 1890, he was popularly regarded as a national hero, well regarded for his role as an Indian fighter, though within the military he was viewed as a more divisive figure. Today it is rare I find anyone who has heard of him outside the circle of folks that maintain an active interest in Western frontier history. Some claim his name is familiar but are fuzzy about where they heard it, probably in connection with the Little Bighorn fight. One of my motives in writing about him is to restore him to his proper niche in history.
How goes work on the second volume?
I am laboring away, but my working habits and lifestyle are too laid back to set a deadline for myself. I also have the unfortunate habit of rewriting more than I write. The first book took 10 years. Hopefully, this one will get done quicker.
Where will your research take you next?
I might tackle someone closer to home. There was a whaling captain who lived in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, my home, who had an exciting career.