In 1942, Eve Ball, author and friend to many Mescalero Apaches (NM), convinced Asa (Ace) Daklugie, a Chiricahua Apache, to tell her the stories of his people’s war with the United States of America and the Republic of Mexico (1861-1886).
These stories had been told many times by White Eyes: historians, military officers, and ordinary pioneers who had the misfortune to encounter Apaches prior to Geronimo’s surrender in 1886. This would be the first time these stories from the Apaches’ perspective would be written down and published. It should come as no surprise that Daklugie’s and other Apaches’ accounts vary considerably from scholarly tomes, official (and largely self-serving) military reports, and hysterical newspaper accounts.
Asa Daklugie, who died in 1955, was the son of a Nednhi Chiricahua Apache chief named Juh. His name is a Spanish corruption of an Apache name that means “he sees ahead”. It is pronounced “Hó”. In 1871, the Americans had never heard of Juh, mostly because the ancestral homeland of the Nednhi was the high, incredibly rugged Sierra Madre in Northern Mexico.
By contrast, in 1871 just about every American knew the name “Cochise”, whose Chokonen Chiricahua Apache ancestral homeland was the Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains of Southern Arizona. And it was upon Cochise’s shoulders that the Americans placed the blame for almost all Apache depredations … even when Cochise and his band were hundreds of miles distant at the time.Read More
Lt. Cushing To The Rescue
In 1871, the Army’s premier Indian fighter in Arizona Territory was 33-year-old Lt. Howard Cushing. He was courageous, smart, and cocksure of his military abilities. He was also relentless in pursuit of hostile Apaches. He took pride in knowing that he had killed more Apaches, mostly Mescaleros and Pinals, than any other U.S. Army officer.
Years later, John G. Bourke, once aid to General George Crook, remembered Cushing as energetic, cool & determined … and “The bravest man I ever saw. He had made his name famous all over the southwestern border.”
At one point, Cushing led an attack on a village of peaceful Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico. His soldiers left all the Indians dead except for two women, both of whom had been shot in the leg. Soon, other Mescaleros discovered the massacre and started to bury their dead. As they did, Cushing’s troops stole their horses. Other Apache bands took notice, as we shall see.
Objective: Find & Crush Cochise
The U.S. Army was under great pressure by civilians in the Arizona & New Mexico Territories to wipe out any Apaches not on their respective reservation. The Army knew that to do this they had to capture or kill Cochise. Lt. Cushing became obsessed with finding, engaging, and destroying Cochise and his band of renegades. He could easily imagine the advancement in rank & glory that would come from such a monumental achievement.
On April 26, 1871, Lt. Cushing and his column of seasoned troops set off from Fort Lowell (just east of Tucson) to track down and crush Cochise. Five days out, near Camp Crittenton (formerly Fort Buccanan) on Sonoita Creek, they saw burning grass in the distance. Cushing assumed that some of Cochise’s band were signaling their relatives camped in the Whetstone Mountains. Knowing that the Indians were doing the burning, Cushing led his soldiers northeasterly in their direction.
Everywhere Cushing’s troops rode, the grass was either burnt to the ground or still on fire. As they crossed the scorched earth, the Army horses started to wear out for lack of water and grass to eat. It did not seem to occur to Cushing to ask himself why the Indians are burning miles and miles of grassland.
Two miles north of the Bobocomari River, Sargeant John Mott discovered the tracks of a lone Apache woman and her pony. Cushing ordered Mott and two privates to go ahead of the main body of soldiers and follow her trail that seemed to be leading to Bear Springs in the Whetstone Mountains. Cushing’s 20 soldiers would not be far behind the advance scouts.
We know from Mott’s report that he thought something was odd. This Apache woman was making no effort to cover her trail. Apaches are notorious for being extremely difficult to track. But when this woman could have easily walked on rocks, she instead left her footprints in the dirt or sand. They led up into a steep canyon. Mott and his soldiers followed warily.
Now Mott was beginning to put the pieces together. First the burning grass. Then the easily followed trail that led to a canyon well-suited for ambush. Suddenly, Mott veered off the trail and led his two privates up one side of the canyon. Too late.
The trap door slammed shut. From a hidden arroyo behind them sprang some 15 heavily armed Apaches. The soldiers turned and started to run the other way. Ahead of them, even more Apaches blocked their escape. The Indians opened fire killing one soldier’s horse and seriously wounding one of the privates.
Mott and his 2 men returned fire, but they were helpless to warn Cushing, whom they knew would now be galloping to their rescue only to be similarly trapped. Mott, thinking the 3 had no chance to survive, suddenly realized that the Apaches were toying with them. One warrior rode up to the able-bodied private and snatched his hat from his head. A virtuoso performance of horsemanship and bravery.
Counting coup was characteristic of the Plains Indians; not Apaches. Unlike the Plains Indians, if they could help it, the Apaches never engaged in battle with the Mexican or American armies in the open. Apaches, however, were highly effective ambush killers. In their day, in Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora & Chihuahua, Apaches were the Alpha predators. But while exceedingly brave, they didn't risk the lives of their very limited number of warriors needlessly.
Mott didn’t have time to contemplate this strange behavior. He and his 2 men were still sitting ducks; and now Cushing and all of his 20 soldiers were storming up the canyon. Mott signaled to Cushing to go back, but Cushing was sure he had Cochise right where he wanted him.
The Indians opened fire once more. Immediately, 3 army horses fell. Then the lieutenant right next to Cushing was shot in the face; the bullet and brains exiting from the back of his head.
Now the Apaches charged. Many years later, Mott wrote, “It seemed as if every rock and bush became an Indian.”
Mott turned to address the onslaught when he heard Cushing cry out. “Sergeant, I am killed. Take me out. Take me out.” Mott saw his lieutenant fall on his face. He and another soldier tried desperately to get their commanding officer to safety. They had gone but 10 or 12 paces when an Apache sharpshooter sent a bullet crashing through Cushing face, killing him instantly.
(With bow and arrows, most Apache warriors were proficient hunters of large mammals, including humans. With Winchester repeating rifles, most were deadly accurate sharpshooters, well known among both Americans & Mexicans for head-shots, which almost always resulted in instant death.)
Mott and the other soldier dropped Cushing’s lifeless body and “turned to sell our lives as dearly as possible.” They struggled down the canyon firing back at the attacking Apaches. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the fight was over. Clearly the Indians could have killed and seriously wounded many if not all of the surviving soldiers. Yet they let Cushing's soldiers escape. It was as if the Apaches had accomplished their goal. In the annals of the Apache Wars, nothing like this was ever reported.
To quote David Roberts, author of Once They Moved Like The Wind:
“Walking and riding through the night, abandoning exhausted pack mules, Mott’s men staggered westward to Camp Crittenton (present-day Sonoita). Besides the lieutenant, the patrol had lost only two men, with a third severely wounded. But the army’s finest Apache fighter had been coaxed into a trap, then slain with selective precision. The war in Arizona and New Mexico would continue for another fifteen years, but the Apaches would never again kill an officer of equal rank.”
Cochise Prevailed. Or Had He?
Cochise had once again prevailed. Or had he? For 90 years after this battle, historians assumed that Cochise had led the attack on Cushing. In the early 1960’s, historian Dan Thrapp, doing research for an upcoming book, discovered Mott’s "lost" report in the National Archives. In it, he described the Apache who led the attack.
“The Indians were well handled by their chief, a thick, heavy set man, who never dismounted from a small brown horse during the fight. They were not noisy or boisterous as Indians generally are, but paid great attention to their chief, whose designs I could guess as he delivered his instructions by gestures.”
Immediately, Thrapp knew the Apache leader who had targeted Cushing could not have been Cochise. No one who ever saw Cochise would have described him as “thick, heavy set”.
Thrapp, author of The Conquest of Apacheria, thought that the architect of the trap might have been Chief Juh (pronounced "Hó"). Thrapp knew from Juh's best friend and brother-in-law, Geronimo, that Juh stuttered. When he got excited he could not speak clearly, so Geronimo spoke for him. Without Geronimo by his side, Juh directed his warriors in battle with gestures.
This speculation was confirmed in 1980 with the publication of Eve Ball’s Indeh: An Apache Odyssey. Juh's son, Asa Daklugie, told the back story no White-Eyes knew. Many years earlier, he told Eve that his father had developed a personal obsession with Cushing, just as Cushing obsessed over Cochise. Juh had on many occasions sent scouts to spy on Cushing and report back the lieutenant’s strategies and tactics; his strengths and weaknesses. On occasion, Juh and his warriors engaged in skirmishes with Cushing and his troops to learn more about his target and develop a strategy to trap him. At this time, neither Cushing nor anyone else in the U.S. Army had ever heard of Juh.
Said Juh's son, “Other White-Eyes were killed too; I don’t know how many. We weren’t all the time counting the dead as soldiers did. Juh wasn’t much interested in the troops … just Cushing."
In death, Lieutenant Howard Cushing became “The Custer of Arizona”. In memorial, grateful Tucsonans named a street in his honor. Cushing Street is just south of the Tucson Convention Center. Today, the most important place on Cushing Street is the Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant, one of our favorites.
Our pioneer civic leaders honored a brave soldier. Such were the times however, they could never have recognized Cushing's racial bigotry, needless brutality, arrogance, and willful ignorance of Apache ways that jeopardized his soldiers' lives and led to his targeted death. Cushing fell for one of the oldest tricks in the Apache playbook ... executed flawlessly by a brilliant tactician no White-Eyes had ever heard of.
For his role in the Battle of Bear Springs, Sgt. Mott received the Congressional Metal of Honor.
Note: the 2 primary sources for this article were Once They Moved Like The Wind by David Roberts and Indeh: An Apache Odyssey by Eve Ball. You can find other references to Cushing and this battle on the Internet, but I found them questionable or inaccurate. Wikipedia's account is particularly flawed. jg