Louis Kraft likes to write about 19th-century Army officers who accepted American Indians as human beings and tried to understand them; Lieutenant Charles Gatewood and Major Edward Wynkoop fill the bill. Indeed they are two of the more interesting characters of the Indian wars, and anything but “simple soldiers.” The California author’s most recent book, Lt. Charles Gatewood & His Apache Wars Memoir (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2005, $39.95), focuses on a member of the 6th U.S. Cavalry who first worked with Apache Scouts at Fort Wingate, New Mexico Territory, in 1878, later became military commandant of the White Mountain Reservation (headquartered at Fort Apache, Arizona Territory) and had a primary role in bringing about Geronimo’s surrender. Using Gatewood’s own manuscript as the base for the book, Kraft adds context, detail and interpretation in his editing to underscore the dichotomy of Gatewood’s service to his country and to the Apaches.
Earlier, in Gatewood & Geronimo, Kraft wrote about the lieutenant and his connection to the most infamous Apache guerrilla leader. Kraft is now completing the manuscript for a book about Wynkoop, commander at Fort Lyon (Colorado Territory) until being reassigned to Fort Riley (Kansas) just three days prior to the November 29, 1864, attack on Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek. Kraft said that book “deals with Wynkoop’s years walking between the races.”
Kraft has also shown an interest in another military person whom he found to be “racially tolerant,” that controversial Custer fellow. Kraft’s first nonfiction book was Custer and the Cheyenne: George Armstrong Custer’s Winter Campaign on the Southern Plains. Errol Flynn, who portrayed Custer in the classic movie They Died With Their Boots On, and actress Olivia de Havilland are the subjects of another book Kraft is writing. Long ago, Flynn’s Custer triggered Kraft’s interest in George and the Indian wars, and the author has corresponded with de Havilland for 10 years. Kraft recently took the time to answer questions for Wild West.
Wild West: Who do you find more intriguing, Custer, Wynkoop or Gatewood?
Kraft: Wynkoop by far. Certainly Custer was a man of contradictions, but for that matter, so was Wynkoop. Custer loved war; at the same time he loved negotiating with the Indians he fought. Gatewood had a strong sense of right and wrong. He wasn’t a “yes” man, and he dared to stand up to two commanding generals [George Crook and Nelson Miles] when he felt he was right. But Wynkoop, a rebel at every stage of his life, is the most intriguing of the three. He went from a popular celebrity in early Denver and Civil War hero to a white man hated by whites when he dared to speak out against an attack on a Cheyenne-Arapaho village on Sand Creek in November 1864. This attack, by the way, started a metamorphosis that saw him change from a biased person who considered Indians as little more than animals fit only to kill to someone who eventually considered them human beings. Like Gatewood, he dared to speak his mind regardless of the consequences. This didn’t make him popular with anyone— civilians, government officials, military personnel or Indians.
WW: How did you get interested in Wynkoop?
Kraft: A lifetime ago I considered a book about Indian agents on the take. Wynkoop, because of his involvement in the lead-up to the Sand Creek disaster, became the leading candidate, but research showed that he wasn’t an Indian agent getting rich by dealing with traders and robbing his wards. The book was never written; however, this research introduced me to Wynkoop, and I have now been writing about him for over 20 years.
WW: What role did Wynkoop play prior to Sand Creek?
Kraft: He attempted to bring peace to Colorado Territory, and in so doing acted without orders—which could have led to a court-martial. Wynkoop was a volunteer soldier, and his training was minimal, but he knew how to make decisions and act upon his decisions. Without a doubt he played a part in the attack on the Cheyenne-Arapaho village on Sand Creek. Without orders he negotiated with the Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders (at great risk to himself and his command), secured the release of several white children and brought seven native leaders to Denver to discuss ending the war. But here his involvement ends, for soon afterward he was relieved of command and ordered back to Kansas to answer charges of being absent from his post in time of war.
WW: Was Wynkoop culpable in the events that occurred at Sand Creek?
Kraft: Wynkoop didn’t order the attack on the village at Sand Creek, he didn’t participate in the attack at Sand Creek, and he didn’t know of the attack at Sand Creek until days after it happened. He did everything within his power to end a war. I don’t see how this makes him culpable. Women and children were butchered and hacked to pieces at Sand Creek. This made Wynkoop sick and changed him.
WW: What about Gatewood? Did he get the credit for the surrender of Geronimo?
Kraft: I’m chuckling. No, no, no, certainly not in 1886, and not in his lifetime. Gatewood, like Wynkoop, was an outsider. Gatewood didn’t get any credit for bringing Geronimo and the Apaches back to the United States to surrender. He was a member of the 6th Cavalry, a “Crook man.” Miles’ 4th Cavalry waged war against the Apaches—all 30-plus of them—and this man Gatewood was an outsider. The 4th Cavalry’s mission was to kill or capture; Gatewood’s was to negotiate. Gatewood pulled it off, and in so doing duped Mexican officials and stood up to U.S. officers who wanted to kill the Apaches. Gatewood won, and he lost, and that is the story— Gatewood became an outsider in 1886 and is still an outsider in 2006.
WW: His memoir is an inside look at managing reservation Indians, isn’t it?
Kraft: Yes. Although Gatewood never “went native,” he worked closely with his native wards, as both a commander of Apache scouts and as reservation administrator. During this time he became close to the people with whom he dealt. This gave him an inside view of the Apache people. Not being an ethnologist and not anticipating writing about his life, Gatewood didn’t take notes and didn’t study what others had written about the Apaches. This makes his observations and memories unique. He recorded what the Apaches told him and what he observed and remembered while working with them, and he doesn’t quite agree with the experts.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.