(Editor’s note: Some time ago, Tim Simmons, one of our readers wrote to ask if we would write about Mickey Free. Mr. Simmons explained that Mickey was a Mexican fighting alongside the White Mountain Apaches against other Apaches for the Americans. We thought that was certainly unusual and that it would make an interesting story.
In his own words, Mr. Simmons, he “is head of a family of four boys, tree cats, two dogs and a partridge in a pear tree. He is retired from the fire service. He lives in Glendale, AZ. He loves history and one area in particular is the American Indian and the Apache people. He would like to be a writer when he grows up.”)
We invited Mr. Simmons to write the story of Mickey Free. The story below is the result.
Mickey Free was born to a Mexican couple. He was captured by the Western Apache Indians and raised to fight Chiricahua Apaches. He had several names, in Spanish, English and Apache. Back in the late 1800’s Mickey Free was in quite a few old photographs of Apache scouts. Few people recognize him. He was just another fellow trying to survive the hardships of the rugged Southwest. Today, few know he was a central character in starting the Apache Wars (1861) or that he would fight in them until the end (1886).Read More
A Mexican boy was born in 1847 to Santiago Telles and Jesusa Maria Martinez in Santa Cruz, Sonora, Mexico, a town just south of the international border. The two never married however. The boy was named Felix Telles with the father’s permission showing that Santiago fully recognized him as his son. A few years later, Maria gave birth to a girl by another man whom she never married. Sometime around 1857, she then took up with an Irishman named John Ward and settled down with him on a farm in the Sonoita Valley near Fort Buchanan 3 miles southwest of present-day Sonoita. (On Hwy 82, a roadside plaque marks the location of the old fort.) Felix grew into a skinny teenager with reddish-brown hair, fair skin and a blind left eye from an infection when he was a baby.
At the time, there were seven farms in the Sonoita Valley. John Ward owned and worked one of them. It was 160 acres surrounded by oak, willow, and cottonwood trees. Felix helped his stepfather on the ranch. Jesus Maria had a few more children. Life seemed good.
On January 27, 1861, a band of Apache raiders, most likely returning from a foray into Sonora, raided the Ward farm. John Ward was away at the time, probably on a business trip in Mexico. A coach maker named John Cole was lying sick most likely in the blacksmith shop. He was the one who saw nine Apache warriors rush into the house intent on kidnapping the women and children. At the same time, another group of warriors went after the livestock on the other side of the creek. Much to the surprise of the Indians, they saw 12-year-old Felix up in a peach tree. They ordered him to come down, which he did. About that time, two Americans arrived on the scene and scared the Apaches away. They ran off with twenty head of cattle and the boy, who was known as Felix Ward. His mother and siblings were spared.
On the morning of January 29th, Second Lieutenant George Bascom of the 7th Infantry, along with John Ward, rode out of Fort Buchanan with 54 men to retrieve the “Ward boy”. Mr. Ward was certain that it was Cochise and his Chiricahua Apaches who had kidnapped his stepson. Lt. Bascom believed him.
What happened next was the huge blunder that resulted in 25 years of brutal warfare between the United States and the Chiricahua Apaches. The Bascom party followed the trail to Apache Pass and, on February 3rd, sent word for Cochise, the headman of the Chokonen Chiricahua Apaches, to meet with him. At that time, Cochise and his Apaches were at peace with the white men.
Clearly, Cochise was not expecting trouble because he brought with him his brother, two nephews, his wife, and their two children.
Bascom accused Cochise of kidnapping the Ward boy. Cochise denied it, Bascom was insistent, words were exchanged, shots were fired and the Apache Wars were on.
Most likely, it was the Aravaipa Apaches, a Western Apache group, who captured young Felix. But then he was traded several times among the Western Apaches and wound up with the White Mountain Apaches who lived 25 miles southwest of modern-day McNary, Arizona. There the boy spent the next ten years of his life and eventually became an Apache warrior. He was raised by an Apache named Nayundia and became the stepbrother of John Rope.
(Note: John Rope was the first Apache Scout to receive the Medal of Honor and was later interviewed by anthropologist Grenville Goodwin about the Western Apache lifeways. It was published as The Social Organization of the Western Apache (Century Collection).)
On December 2, 1872, Lieutenant John Bourke, General Crook’s aide, recruited 47 Western Apaches at Camp Apache to act as scouts against hostile Apaches. One of them was a young warrior in his early 20s who stood about 5’7″, slim, auburn hair, fair-skinned, one blue eye and blind in the other. According to author Paul Andrew Hutton, the young warrior was called Felix by the other warriors. The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History The white soldiers noticed his red hair and light skin and some said he looked like a character in Charles Lever’s book, Charles O’Malley, The Irish Dragoon, , called Mickey Free. Thus, Felix Ward became Mickey Free.
After serving as an Apache Scout with the U.S. Army for less than a year, Mickey Free was promoted to corporal on April 2, 1873. Soon thereafter, Corporal Free witnessed the surrender of notorious Tonto Apache leaders Cha-lipan and Delshay. Months later, Mickey was promoted to sergeant and made the “big money” of seventeen dollars a month. On December 4, 1874, he was put on the quartermaster roll at Camp Verde as an interpreter. He received a substantial pay increase to $125 a month.
While at Camp Verde, he met Al Sieber, who was Chief of Scouts for much of the Apache Wars. Sieber proved to be quite influential in Mickey’s life. Sieber was tall and tough with a large mustache. He was a skilled, strong campaigner who could stay on the trail of renegade Apaches until they were subdued. Sieber once said that Mickey Free was “half Irish, half Mexican and whole sonofabitch.”
Free continued his services to the United States Army by serving as scout against hostile Apaches for General George Crook. More than once he was involved in a heavy firefight as he helped bring in renegade Apaches. About this time, he met the legendary Tom Horn, the infamous Army scout, Apache interpreter, gunman and Pinkerton detective.
Horn said of Mickey, “He now spoke both Mexican and Apache like a professor. And was the wildest daredevil in the world at this time. He had long, fiery red hair and one blue eye…[He] was thoroughly qualified for a typical scout and guide in every sense, except the fact he never had any regard for his own life.”
Free went with Crook’s expedition south to the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico in 1883 and helped bring in many hostile Chiricahua Apaches, who were led by Geronimo, Naiche, Chihuahua, Chatto, Bonito, Nana, and Loco.
General Crook nearly lost his life during this expedition. The hostile Apaches had come to see who had “invaded” their mountains. At first, they stayed up on the mountains, looking down at Crook’s camp, perplexed, frantic about what to do. Some of them came down to talk. The leaders “hung like hawks or vultures to the protecting shadows of inaccessible pinnacles one thousand feet above or position,” Bourke later wrote.
Crook could see that something needed to be done in order to talk with the leaders. He nonchalantly picked up his gun and went for a stroll through the tall grass pretending to be hunting for birds. He had set himself out as bait to lure the Apaches leaders in to talk. Mickey Free and some other scouts watched tensely. Indeed, some of the hostile leaders approached Crook. Suddenly, they grabbed his gun and took the birds he had shot. They said that Crook had been shooting towards them. But before Crook could be harmed, Mickey Free and Severiano, another Apache scout, hurried in. They sat down with the Apaches and talked. Ultimately, Crook returned to his camp and most of the Apaches were escorted back to the United States.
On the Apache Reservation at Turkey Creek, Mickey was one of the spies for the white man. Many of the Chiricahua Indians wouldn’t trust Mickey.
In 1885, Mickey Free once again headed south into Mexico to try to capture Geronimo, Naiche and other hostiles who had bolted from the reservation. According to Geronimo, it was the fault of Mickey Free, Chatto and Lieutenant Britton Davis, that the band of hostiles broke away from the reservation. Of course, Geronimo conveniently forgot the illegal tizwin party that had taken place, challenging Davis’ authority, and Geronimo’s plot to murder Davis.
On June 11, 1885, Captain Emmet Crawford, Lieutenant Britton Davis and their force of soldiers and Apache scouts crossed the Mexican border to pursue Geronimo and Naiche. Eventually, Crawford and Davis split up as they searched for the hostiles. Davis and his men, including Mickey Free, lost contact for a while but eventually showed up in El Paso in September of 1885. Mickey, soon thereafter, returned home to the White Mountains.
In 1886, Free went with a delegation of Apaches, including Chatto, to visit Washington, D.C. Their purpose in going was to discuss with the U.S. Government what to do with the Chiricahuas once they had Geronimo and Naiche. Shortly before they left, Mickey’s son and another boy approached a group of White Mountain Apache men as they were involved in a drinking party. The Apache men were drunk and one of them shot and killed both boys with one bullet. Mickey, of course, was heartbroken. Some had speculated that Mickey went on the long trip to try to forget the tragedy at home.
While in Washington, Free met up with Captain John Bourke, the man who had originally hired Free as a scout. Bourke looked at his old friend and later wrote, “Mickey Free’s hair was in a fearful state of dilapidation; unkempt, frowsy and dirty. [There were] “the signs of his deep grief over the recent killing of his little boy, not 10 years old.”
While Free was in Washington, word came that Geronimo and Naiche had agreed to return to the United States in September of 1886.
Upon returning to Arizona, Mickey worked as a bounty hunter tracking renegade Apaches, such as the legendary Apache Kid. The Apache Kid had been an Army scout, but felt obligated to kill another Apache for killing his father. He was arrested and found guilty of mutiny and desertion. He was sentenced to prison for seven years. In route to the Yuma Territorial Prison, he and four other Apache prisoners overpowered their guards and escaped. The Apache Kid never was caught.
Apparently, Mickey had some problems getting used to a more peaceful life. He drank. Sometimes too much. And he was placed in the post guardhouse and, temporarily, lost his sergeant’s stripes. Lieutenant Carter Johnson, Mickey’s officer at the time, wrote, “Mickey Free, a half-breed” was “perhaps the worst man on the reservation…He is a villainous looking fellow, and when your correspondent saw him, his head was in bandages as he had been hurt a few days before while making a murderous assault upon the sergeant of the garrison. He and his squaw were drunk and made an unexpected attack upon the soldier, but he, being a powerful fellow, succeeded in throwing them off and saved himself by knocking them down with the butt of his gun.”
After he retired from the U.S. Army on July 16, 1893, Mickey Free settled down at Fort Apache Indian Reservation with the White Mountain Apaches and lived there until he passed away in 1914. In the spring of 1894, he had another son. He was delighted. But, unfortunately, by 1900, his son and the mother of the son, died. Mickey had now lost two sons and two wives. Over the years, he married four Western Apache women and had three sons and two daughters.
The Reverend Paul Mayerhoff, who came to Fort Apache in 1896, wrote about Mickey, “Mickey Free, as I knew him, was a good Indian, a good provider for his family, orderly, willing to have his children in school (not so with most other Indian parents), more industrious than the Apache bucks generally…In spite of growing up among the people of his adoption in their way and views…(Mickey was)…more ready to conform to white man’s standards in later years.”
Quite a few photographs were taken of Apache Scouts of the time. They stood in line or gathered as a group. If you look closely, you can see one of them is rather cock-eye. In other photos, his skin is somewhat lighter than the other warriors. That is Mickey Free, Apache captive, interpreter and scout for the U.S. Army.