John Clum became one of those legendary characters from Tombstone’s infamous past. His life before Tombstone is just as interesting, but that story is known only to a few.
He was born in upstate New York in 1851 and attended a military academy before enrolling at Rutgers College where he began a classical education: Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Natural History, and Rhetoric.
Lacking sufficient funds to continue his formal education, he dropped out of college in his second year, and, in 1871, signed up for the U.S. Army Signal Corps that had just established a weather station in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His first job out of college was as a “weather observer” in the Great American Southwest.
The Tombstone Years
Nine years later, he established a newspaper that would become famous throughout much of the world: The Tombstone Epitaph. He helped organize the Tombstone Vigilance Committee to fight the prevailing lawlessness of the early 1880’s. He became Tombstone’s first mayor elected under the new city charter of 1881. There he became a lifelong friend of Wyatt Earp. When Wyatt, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Wyatt’s close friend Doc Holliday, shot and killed 3 “cowboys” on Fremont Street near the OK Corral, he was one of their staunchest supporters.
While Clum is mostly remembered today for publishing accounts of the most famous gunfight in Old West history and its bloody aftermath, he was equally proud of another accomplishment before his Tombstone days.
San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation
In 1877, John Clum, Agent for the San Carlos Apache Reservation, became the only man to ever capture Geronimo. But if he did in fact capture Geronimo in 1877, why was the Bedonkohe warrior free to raid for another nine years. Let’s find out.
Our story begins in 1875. At the age of 22, a cocky, ambitious John Clum was appointed to the post of Agent for the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Why? He met the only 3 qualifications. He was breathing. He was willing. And he was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Corruption had been so rampant at the Apache reservations in Arizona Territory that President Grant decided that only good Christians should be Indian agents. By executive order, the President gave jurisdiction over Fort Apache Indian Reservation in the White Mountains and its impoverished twin to the south, the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, to the Dutch Reformed Church.
Clum arrived at San Carlos in the spring of 1875. His description of the reservation was not complimentary. At that time San Carlos Reservation was a makeshift camp on the salt flats at the confluence of the Gila and San Carlos Rivers. Clum wrote of his first impression:
“Of all the desolate, isolated, human habitations! Wickiups, covered with brush and grass, old blankets, or deerskins, smoky, smelly. Lean dogs, mangy, inert.”
Indeed, San Carlos was given to the Apaches because the U.S. government knew that no White man would ever want it.
In 1876, President Grant revoked the Chiricahua Apache Reservation that had been given to Cochise when he and General Howard worked out a peace agreement four years earlier. But now Cochise was dead and his eldest son, Taza, was chief.
Clum was ordered to round up all the Chiricahuas and take them to San Carlos. Clum convinced Taza to lead the Chiricahuas, some one thousand Chokonen, Nednhi, and Bedonkohe. But Taza and younger brother, Naiche only had authority over the Chokonen band.
Neither Chief Juh (pronounced Ho) of the Nednhi group nor Geronimo of the Bedonkohi band seemed to be happy to leave the Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountain and take their people to San Carlos. Some days later, at Fort Bowie, Clum had a chat with them. According to Clum, Geronimo and Chief Juh agreed to take their people to San Carlos.
But that night, about 700 Chiricahua Apaches of the Bedonkohi and Nednhi bands slipped away and headed straight for Mexico. According to Clum, “Every bit of superfluous camp equipment was cast aside. Feeble and disabled horses were killed. Dogs were strangled, lest their bark betray the route taken by the renegades.”
Returning to San Carlos with barely one-third of the Chiricahuas was a great personal embarrassment for the young agent. He blamed Geronimo. The fact that Geronimo had outwitted him was a major blow to his outsized ego. Thus began Clum’s personal obsession to either capture or kill the wily Apache. To do so would not only be sweet revenge. It would also bring Clum the glory and monetary rewards he craved.
To his credit, Clum was an honest agent. Moreover, he made improvements to San Carlos for the benefit of his wards. By 1977, San Carlos had been transformed, at least in Clum’s fantasy world, into “… that wonderful reservation where all is peace, plenty, and happiness.”
Decades later, Asa Daklugie, son of Chief Juh and nephew of Geronimo, described San Carlos from the Chiricahua Apache perspective.
“San Carlos! That was the worst place in all the great territory stolen from the Apaches. If anyone ever lived there permanently, no Apache knew of it. Where there is no grass there is no game. Nearly all of the vegetation was cacti; and though in season a little cactus fruit was produced, the rest of the year the food was lacking. The heat was terrible. The water was terrible. What there was in the sluggish river was brackish and warm.”
The Shaking Disease
The brackish, warm water Daklugie referred to was just right for breeding millions of mosquitos. The mosquitos in turn delivered the protozoan parasite that invades red blood cells and causes the intermittent and remittent fever we know as malaria. Here, according to Daklugie, the Apaches experienced the “shaking disease”. While the death rate was high among adults, malaria was virtually an automatic death sentence for their infants.
Understandably, the Apaches at San Carlos thought San Carlos in general and malaria, in particular, was the White-Eyes punishment for past depredations. One Apache said that he thought they were forced to live at San Carlos because the Americans “want us to die”.
An Opportunity To Capture Geronimo
John Clum’s opportunity to capture or kill Geronimo came in March 1877. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs telegraphed Clum:
IF PRACTICAL, TAKE YOUR INDIAN POLICE AND ARREST RENEGADE INDIANS AT OJO CALIENTE, NEW MEXICO. SEIZE STOLEN HORSES IN THEIR POSSESSION; RESTORE PROPERTY TO RIGHTFUL OWNERS, REMOVE RENEGADES TO SAN CARLOS AND HOLD THEM IN CONFINEMENT FOR MURDER AND ROBBERY.
The Mescalero Apache Reservation at Ojo Caliente is about 400 miles east of San Carlos. Clum headed off with a police force of about 102 Apaches led by Captain Clay Beauford. The journey would take three weeks. Clum had been informed that Geronimo was camped near Ojo Caliente with about 100 well-armed warriors.
On April 21, Clum and his policemen arrived at the rendezvous place where they were to meet 8 companies of the 9th Cavalry to assist in forcing perhaps 500 Apaches from their homeland. But the soldiers had not yet shown up.
Clum, not wishing to lose the opportunity to capture his nemesis, decided to go on ahead without the cavalry. He advanced with 22 Apache policemen, having ordered Beauford to bring his 80 the next day.
Once Clum had arrived at the Ojo Caliente agency he took stock of his assets and planned his trap for Geronimo. That night, Clum sent a messenger to Beauford to get his men to the agency ASAP under cover of darkness and hide them in the commissary before they could be discovered by the Indians.
Geronimo Comes To The Agency To Talk
The next morning, Clum sent word to Geronimo to come to the agency with his principle leaders for a talk. Geronimo and 16 warriors complied.
In his memoirs, Clum wrote that he told the renegades if they listened “with good ears” no harm would come to them. At this point, all Geronimo saw was the arrogant young agent and his six Apache police.
Being the surly bastard that he was, Geronimo responded: “ that if I (Clum) spoke with discretion no serious harm would be done to us.” This indicated to Clum that his trap had not been discovered. With a discrete signal, Capt. Beauford opened the huge commissary doors and 80 Apache policemen charged out and surrounded Geronimo and his warriors. Six started to run but Beauford was already in position to level his rifle at them and they stopped in their tracks.
Again, according to Clum, when he ordered Geronimo to the guardhouse, the Apache did not move. Clum then added, “You must go, now,” Geronimo sprang to his feet.
“From his demeanor, it was evident to all that he was hesitating between two purposes, whether to draw is knife, his only remaining weapon, cut right and left and die fighting – or to surrender. Instantly, Sgt. Rip sprang forward and snatched the knife from Geronimo’s belt, while the muzzles of a half-dozen needle guns … pressed toward him – their locks clicking almost in unison as their hammers were drawn back.”
Geronimo and 6 of his warriors were led to the guardhouse where they were fitted with ankle-irons. Thus shackled, they were taken by wagon to San Carlos. Hundreds of their people followed in hopeless despair.
For decades after, Clum would crow that he was the only man to ever capture Geronimo. And so he was.
Sending Geronimo To Tucson For Trial
Arriving at San Carlos, Clum telegraphed the civil authorities in Tucson, the Territorial Capitol, that he would furnish evidence “to convict each of the seven chiefs on many counts of murder, “ and offered to deliver them to Tucson.
Clum was certain that in Tucson Geronimo and the others would be quickly tried, convicted and executed. It wasn’t to be, but now the story gets really interesting.
Who Freed Geronimo?
According to Clum, the civil authorities in Tucson did not respond. After two months languishing in the guardhouse at San Carlos, somehow Geronimo and the others were freed.
According to Clum, he had no idea who turned these murderers loose. By this time he had resigned in a huff, having earned the wrath of both his superiors in the Department of Interior and the U.S. military for his demanding and arrogant ways.
Clum resigned as Agent for San Carlos Apache Reservation on July 1, 1877. H. L. Hart succeeded him. Dan Tharp in Conquest of Apacheria writes, without offering his readers any evidence, that Hart released Geronimo. Angie Debo, Geronimo’s biographer, says the same and with the same lack of evidence.
Fifty years later, Clum wrote: “Who cut the rivets that held his shackles and released him from the guard-house at San Carlos I do not know.”
Showing some regret over his rash decision to resign his post as Agent for San Carlos, Clum wrote in 1928:
Had I remained in authority at San Carlos there is not the least doubt in my mind that [Geronimo] would have been speedily brought to trial… and his career would have ended abruptly then and there. What a vast amount of expense, tribulation, distress, and bloodshed would have been avoided if this arrest had been followed swiftly by prosecution, conviction, and execution – thus dropping the name GERONIMO into oblivion before it had become generally notorious outside of territorial frontier limits.”
But is that what really happened? Was it Clum’s successor, H.L. Hart, who freed Geronimo? And if so, why? What possible motive would he have had?
The Apache Story Of Geronimo’s Release
It would be more than 50 years before the White-Eyes would hear the story from the Apache perspective. Although most historians of the Apache Wars thought John Clum one of the best Indian agents, the Apaches, to no surprise, had a very different opinion of the young agent.
Asa Daklugie, son of Chief Juh and nephew of Geronimo collaborated with Eve Ball on her brilliant book, Indeh: An Apache Odyssey. Chief Daklugie told Ms. Ball what really happened.
For his air of superiority, his strutting around San Carlos agency like a feudal lord surveying the lives of his peasants, behind his back they called John Clum “turkey gobbler”.
Knowing his shackled brother-in-law was headed to San Carlos, Chief Juh rode ahead. Once at the agency, Juh met with Eskiminzin, chief of the Aravaipa Apaches who had almost been annihilated by a Tucson mob in April, 1871.
Clum called him “Skimmy” and thought Eskiminzin was a loyal follower. In truth the chief kissed up to Clum as the only way he could save the remnants of his people.
While Geronimo and the six others were shackled in the guardhouse, Chiefs Juh and Eskiminzin confronted Clum at his headquarters. Juh was a stutterer, so Eskiminzin spoke for both of them.
“We have come to demand that you turn the prisoners loose. We won’t stand for this any longer.” According to the Apache version, Clum sputtered and strutted about, dragging his wings while attempting to put them off.”
Eskiminzin said, “You will do it, and you will do it right now or we’ll have every Apache on the reservation on your back.” Clum led the way to the guardhouse and ordered the prisoners released.
So, Who Captured Geronimo?
John Clum was the only man to capture Geronimo. Who was the only man to release Geronimo from captivity? John Clum. Oh, the irony!