The US Forest Service has now replaced the marker near where Pvt. Joseph McLernon was buried in 1882 after the tragic, fascinating, complicated battle of Big Dry Wash in a deep canyon in the face the Mogollon Rim.
So far, the possibly 60 Apache warriors who died in one of the few pitched battles of the fraught Apache Wars in Rim Country and the White Mountains remain unmemorialized.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs first put up the headstone in 1976. But someone vandalized the memorial a year ago just off Forest Road 300 near the Blue Ridge Reservoir. The VA and the Forest Service recently placed a new granite memorial at the site, this one designed to minimize the chance of further vandalization. The Forest Service is still seeking help from the public to find the vandals (call 928-527-3511). The Forest Service is also working with the Yavapai-Apache Nation’s cultural heritage representatives “to develop a balanced narrative of the site and present interpretation from both parties, while accurately reflecting documented history.”
Perhaps the best-known account of the battle comes from Apache Days and After, written by Lt. Thomas Cruse, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on that day — including rescuing a wounded soldier while under fire.
The battle stood as a singular exception to the endless succession of hit-and-run raids and brief, violent clashes that typified the decades-long effort by the United States Army to crush the outgunned, outnumbered, but rarely outfought Apaches — among the most skilled guerrilla warriors in history.
The battle was triggered by the Army’s bungled attempt to arrest an Apache religious leader named Nocadelklinny at Cibecue in the White Mountains. An Apache effort to rescue the Nocadelklinney prompted the soldiers to execute the medicine man — which in turn triggered a revolt by some of the White Mountain warriors who had served effectively as scouts for the Army against other Apache groups. Indian agents and Army officers ordered the arrest of Nocadelklinny for fear he would unite the previously hostile bands with an Apache version of the ghost dance. Ironically, Nocadelklinny actually urged warriors to not fight the Whites, who he said would ultimately leave on their own accord when the great Apache leaders of the past returned from the dead.
Many warriors fled the White Mountain Apache reservation after the death of the shaman, including a war leader named Na-ti-o-tish and perhaps 75 followers, including several scouts who had served under Cruse. Geronimo also fled the reservation, but Geronimo wasn’t at the battle of Big Dry Wash.
Na-ti-o-tish’s band stole horses and ammunition as they fled, killing several settlers along the way. Army units from three different forts chased the fleeing Apache, converging from several directions.
Unfortunately for Na-ti-o-tish, two of the Army units had white horses, which caused a fatal miscalculation. Na-ti-o-tish’s scouts confused the two units mounted on white horses and so badly underestimated their numbers. As a result, Na-ti-o-tish decided to make a stand on the rim of a deep a canyon, reasoning he could ambush the soldiers as they struggled out of the canyon. However, the Army’s remaining Apache scouts led by Al Sieber spotted the ambush, and the Army commanders laid a trap of their own.
One force held the Indians in place by feigning a frontal assault, while two other columns flanked the Apache position after crossing the deep gash of a canyon.
“As our line pinched the renegades, they fired furiously and with effect,” wrote Cruse.
Cruse closed in with Sieber and soon found himself exchanging fire with some of the Apache scouts who had served the Army loyally until the tragic attempt to arrest the Medicine Man.
“Sergeant Conn of Troop E, the Sixth, was a wisp of a Boston Irishman, twenty years in the regiment,” wrote Cruse. As the ration sergeant, the scouts had tagged him with the derisive name “Coche Sergeant” or “Hog Sergeant.” Now, hearing his unmistakable Irish brogue, they shouted out the nickname he detested.
“Aaaiiah! Coche Sergeant! Come here and I will kill you!”
“Conn screamed something in reply, and the Indian fired at the sound of his voice. The big bullet struck Conn in the throat, fairly pushed aside the jugular vein, then grazed the vertebrae and emerged, making a hole the size of a silver dollar. All this in a wizened neck that was loose in size thirteen collar!” wrote Cruse.
“Captain Kramer, standing a yard or so away, remarked to First Sergeant: ‘Well, I’m afraid they got poor Conn.’
“Afterward, Conn said that he was conscious when he fell. ‘Sure I heard the Capt’n say I was kilt. But I knew I was not. I was only spa-a-achless!”
Cruse, Sieber and the other soldiers then closed in on the trapped warriors, hoping to finish them off before darkness fell and they made their escape. Seeing a gully 75 yards away from which a group of soldiers could cut off the Indians’ retreat, Cruse resolved to make a dash across open ground.
“No! Don’t you do it, Lieutenant! Don’t you do it,” objected Sieber. “There’s lots of Indians over there and they’ll get you for sure!”
Nonetheless, Cruse charged the gully with seven or eight soldiers. “They were not worried in the least by a hot fight, and we were going slap-bang when a hostile appeared not two yards away, leveling his gun directly at me. It seemed impossible for him to miss at that point-blank range, so I raised my own gun and stiffened to take the shock of his bullet. But he was nervous and jerked just enough as he pulled the trigger to send the bullet past me. A young Scotchman named McLellan was just to my left and slightly in the rear. The bullet hit him, and he dropped. I shot the Indian and threw myself to the ground ... McLellan was sprawled beside me and I asked if he was hurt.
“Yes sir,” he answered. “Through the arm. I think it’s broken.”
When the firing slackened, Cruse rose and began dragging the dying McLellan toward cover. Warriors rose to fire, which prompted the soldiers some 200 yards away to begin firing also — catching Cruse in a crossfire.
Remarkably, he made it back to cover.
By the time the battled concluded, Na-ti-o-tish lay dead on the field along with 60 of his 75 warriors. It represented one of the only effective concentrations of force against the elusive Apache, and the last major open battle of the Apache wars that raged off and on for 20 years before ending with Geronimo’s surrender in 1886.
It was a tragic, avoidable struggle. The inrushing American settlers had pushed the Apache out of prime hunting grounds, and the increasingly desperate Apache had responded with raiding, murder and theft. The blundering, corruption-prone U.S. government had responded with a vacillating combination of force and promises, which they repeatedly broke.
Seiber fought through the end of the Apache Wars and continued working closely with the Apache in peacetime. He was leading an Apache Work crew building the road to the new Roosevelt Dam in 1907 when a boulder loosened by construction rolled down the hill and killed him. He’s buried in a cemetery in Globe.
Cruse spent his whole life in the Army, but the battle of Big Dry Wash remained the most vivid day of his military career. Cruse languished in the lower ranks of a peacetime Army that numbered only 25,000, commenting gloomily on the discovery that political connections seemed to have more to do with promotion than merit or seniority. Nonetheless, he was ultimately promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
Peter Aleshire has written nine books including four books on the Apache wars: The Fox and the Whirlwind, Cochise, Warrior Woman and Reaping the Whirlwind. Some of the material for this story came from Apache Days and After.