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Tucson Weekly Cibecue Redux

A Second Look At The Tragic Events Of The Apache Outbreak Of 1881.

By Johnny D. Boggs

AUGUST 2, 1999: 

Apache Nightmare: The Battle at Cibecue Creek by Charles Collins (University of Oklahoma Press) cloth, $27.95

THE CIBECUE APACHE outbreak of 1881 never should have happened. Miscommunication and unfounded fears led to the avoidable conflict between Apaches and U.S. soldiers at Cibecue Creek, on the White Mountain Apache Reservation; the tragic battle helped fuel hostilities that would last until Geronimo surrendered in 1886.

Charles Collins, an electronics engineer employed by the U.S. Army at Fort Huachuca, recreates the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself and its aftermath in Apache Nightmare: The Battle at Cibecue Creek.

On August 28, 1881, Colonel Eugene Carr, along with two troops of cavalry and a company of Indian scouts, left Fort Apache to arrest a Cibecue Apache medicine man named Nock-ay-det-klinne. White officials were concerned with the medicine man's testimony that he would raise dead Indians -- friendly and hostile to the Apaches -- once the whites had left the country. During these ceremonies, his followers would drink a weak Apache beer called tizwin, beat drums and dance until they dropped from exhaustion.

If this sounds familiar, you're probably thinking of the Ghost Dance religion that led to the battle at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1890. Much has been written about Wounded Knee, and rightfully so; Cibecue Creek, however, is too often overlooked.

Nock-ay-det-klinne was arrested peacefully, but as the soldiers moved away, they were trailed by an estimate of 60 Apache followers, who soon attacked. Nock-ay-det-klinne tried to crawl to cover, but a single shot by a wounded soldier pierced both of his thighs. When another soldier saw the medicine man was still alive, he drew his revolver and shot Nock-ay-det-klinne in the neck, killing him.

All of the Apache scouts except one mutinied during the fight, firing on the soldiers before retreating. When the battle was over, seven soldiers were dead and several animals killed, wounded or missing. The only known Apache casualty was the dead medicine man.

Fear reigned in Arizona Territory as rumors of the fight started drifting in. In fact, The New York Times reported that Carr's command had been wiped out, à la George Armstrong Custer: "Shot Down By Indians!" read the headline of its September 4 edition. "Gen. Carr and His Command Murdered."

Cibecue Creek is familiar fodder for Collins. He's the author of The Great Escape: The Apache Outbreak of 1881 (published by Westernlore Press of Tucson, 1994), which concentrates on the Chiricahua Apache outbreak after the Cibecue affair. In Apache Nightmare, Collins relies almost exclusively on primary sources, including letters, post returns, archival records and maps. To avoid a one-sided account, he also uses Indian testimony, most of which comes from the court-martial of four Apache scouts and General George Crook's interviews with Apaches after he took command of the Department of Arizona in September 1882.

Collins follows the Army campaign after the battle in detail. Jealousy and petty arguments were common among officers -- especially between Carr and General Orlando Bolivar Willcox -- as soldiers searched for Indians while the outbreak intensified with the murder of several white settlers by Apaches. As a result of the tensions between commanding officers, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie, brought in from New Mexico, had trouble getting clear orders.

Yet one of the most interesting aspects of the whole Cibecue affair -- the trial of four mutinous scouts -- is brushed off. Despite relying heavily on testimony to fill holes in the historic register elsewhere in the narrative, Collins barely mentions the actual court-martial of scouts Dandy Jim, Dead Shot, Skippy and Mucheco. The latter received a life sentence at Alcatraz, while the other three were hanged. The execution of the three scouts is also given inadequate attention.

Perhaps readers can hope Collins is planning another book specifically on the trial.

Also, although Apache Nightmare is an excellent, scholarly history, it probably won't appeal to the casual reader. Whereas David Roberts' Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo and the Apache Wars (Simon & Schuster, 1993) provides a lively, thoughtful look at Cibecue, Collins takes the academic approach.

That's not to say that Apache Nightmare is boring, but it's doubtful its less colorful style will find the crossover readership of Roberts' book.

Still, Collins' research would seem impeccable, and his arguments and conclusion sound. He blames the battle and its aftermath on poor communication among both whites and Apaches, citing evidence that the Army, for example, could have found a more qualified interpreter at Fort Apache than Charles Hurrle; that Willcox's order to arrest Nock-ay-det-klinne may have been illegal; and that chances were slim that Nock-ay-det-klinne's preachings alone would have led to a massacre of whites in Arizona.

At 280 pages, Apache Nightmare (which includes 27 illustrations and nine maps) is slim enough to draw the attention of casual students of Cibecue as well as academic and Western historians. The writing itself might not be as lively as some accounts, but the work as a whole remains a fine, insightful look at a tragic and often overshadowed piece of Arizona history.


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