Tragedy, courage hang over grounds of Fort Verde

[Source: Pete AleshireThe Payson Roundup]

The tale of two Medal of Honor recipients and the complex history of Apache scouts threaded through exhibits at historic state park

I stood in the drizzle on the porch of the headquarters of Fort Verde, peering at the bronze plaque honoring the Medal of Honor recipients once based here, thinking of a cheerfully loyal warrior and a fearlessly selfless sergeant.

Closing my eyes, I half waited for the sound of their boot heels on the worn planks of the headquarters porch where I stood — a century from their hardship and heroism.

Embedded in the 3,600-pound boulder of quartz and lava, the plaque honors the two soldiers who received the nation’s highest medal and the 17 Indian scouts who served at the best-preserved fort used in the tragic struggle between the Apaches and the U.S. Cavalry.

“Rowdy,” an Apache scout, earned his medal in 1890 for leading a cavalry troop on the trail of a band of raiders and then slipping in close enough to dispatch the rival chief. Sgt. Bernard Taylor earned his medal in 1874 for carrying his wounded commander through 300 yards of enemy fire. Ironically, Rowdy and Taylor came from bitterly opposed warrior cultures, but their stories span the whole history of Fort Verde between its establishment in 1873 and its abandonment in 1899.

Perched inconspicuously on a mesa alongside the Verde River almost in the center of the present-day town of Camp Verde, Fort Verde lay on the supply line between Fort Whipple in Prescott and Fort Apache in the White Mountains and served as the chief staging ground for General George Crook’s relentless war of attrition against the Yavapai and Tonto Apache in the early 1870s. Snatched from the jaws of deterioration and ruin by Arizona State Parks, the meticulously restored, re-roofed and furnished adobe headquarters and officers’ quarters provide the state’s most intimate glimpse of the conflict that has helped spawn and shape the myth of the West.

The exhibits and loquacious, low-key rangers and volunteers in the main building offer an absorbing jump-off for a tour of the fort that can easily soak up several hours for a $4 entrance fee. A bookstore library, filing cabinets in the back full of primary documents and exhibits featuring guns, uniforms, artifacts and explanations of life at the frontier post crowd the main building. That includes a room devoted to the tragic history of the Apache scouts, warriors recruited by General Crook to lead soldiers against rival bands. In the end, the scouts did much of the real fighting — hoping to safeguard their own bands and families by cooperating with the whites against other bands.

Long before the state rescued the fort, settlers had dismantled the enlisted men’s barracks — where the immigrants, drifting Civil War veterans, failed prospectors and adventurous farm boys who constituted the frontier army slept four to a bunk and endured the unthinkable hardships of Indian fighting with a combination of gossip, whiskey, bawdy humor, rank bigotry, physical hardiness and routine courage. But locals converted the thick-walled, adobe officers’ quarters into private homes, which the state then bought and restored to their original condition.

The cavalry first arrived in 1865 in the Verde Valley, rich with the 1,000-year-old ruins of the Sinagua and dominated by the warlike, raiding-based cultures of the Tonto Apache and Yavapai. The settlers took over the best farmland and drove off the game — prompting the Apache to raid their livestock.

Volunteer Army units established Camp Lincoln on the malarial Verde River near the fork with West Clear Creek in 1865, but the volunteers deserted wholesale after more than a year without pay or supplies. A regular army detachment arrived 1866 and moved the camp to the present location in 1870.

In the early 1870s, General Crook directed arduous winter campaigns against the Tonto Apache and Yavapai, relying heavily on Apache scouts from other bands. The scouts led the soldiers in an unrelenting pursuit of the Tonto resisters, who had to provide for their wives and children in the harsh, winter landscape.

Defeated by starvation as much as bullets, the Tonto Apache and Yavapai finally surrendered in large numbers.

Although Crook initially settled the Tonto and Yavapai on a reservation near the fort, the government soon drove them into a winter march across 200 miles of rough country to the San Carlos Reservation and forced them to settle among rival bands.

All that painful, tragic, thrilling history haunts the adobe stillness of Fort Verde, swirling like dust devils across the sweep of the parade ground, lurking in the rusted guns and objects of everyday life displayed on display — ghosts with breaths held.

A procession of vivid characters galloped, slouched, staggered, blustered and blasted their way across that parade ground and into the contradictory chronicles of history.

Fort Surgeon Dr. Edgar Mearns collected the eggs of hundreds of new bird species and once crawled into the open under enemy fire to collect a new flower.

Chief of Scouts Al Seiber led Apache scouts into battle, administering lethal discipline and earning the respect of his rough, warrior followers. Col. John Coppinger, once an Irish terrorist, joined the U.S. Army and became a Civil War hero and then an Indian fighter — drawing covert, soldiers’ laughter on account of the dressing case he insisted on bringing into the field for his clothes and toothbrushes and his inability to pronounce “r’s” or “th.”

And here also, Rowdy and Taylor earned the nation’s highest medal.

Taylor earned his medal in October of 1874 in a battle at nearby Sunset Pass. First Lieutenant Charles King led the 40-man detail in pursuit of a band of Tonto Apache who had run off a herd of cattle and killed a cowboy.

King and Taylor were ahead of the rest of the troops with the Apache scouts when the hostiles opened fire, hitting King in the face and shoulder and scattering the scouts. King retreated dazed and bleeding, but fell from the top of a rock and lay helpless. Taylor charged forward.

Although King fiercely ordered Taylor to leave him and seek safety, Taylor slung King across his back, and carried him through heavy fire for 300 yards back to the main body of troops — pausing repeatedly to hold off the Apaches with his pistol. King suffered from his unhealed wound for the rest of his life, but became one of the most vivid and important of western writers of his time.

Rowdy earned his medal through less selfless, but no less daring actions. A fierce, good-natured warrior, he led a detachment of soldiers and scouts on the trail of a small band of raiders who had killed a Mormon freighter and taken his horses.

Rowdy trailed the renegades to a canyon near Cherry Creek. Once the soldiers caught up, they surrounded the hostiles and opened fire. The Apaches dug in behind good cover, so Rowdy led the scouts from cover to cover to close the distance.

Finally within 40 feet of the enemy, Rowdy took a position on top of a rock as bullets spattered all around him and hit the leader of the band twice — prompting the mortally wounded chief to surrender.

The officer in charge initially wanted to carry the wounded man back to the distant fort, although Rowdy observed “I don’t think we’ll ever get that feller up that hill: I think we better kill him.” Finally, moved by the prisoner’s own entreaties — between snatches of his death song — Rowdy dispatched him.

As one officer later recalled of him, “Rowdy was an original and interesting character. He had some virtues of a high order and many vices. He was unswervingly faithful to his friends and terribly faithless to all others. He would kill a wounded prisoner to save the trouble of getting him to camp but would cry like a child on saying good-bye to a friend.”

So I thought of Rowdy — and of Taylor — standing there in the drizzle on the porch where they had once awaited their orders. Faintly, I heard the clomp of boots on boards. I turned — but saw only the empty parade ground and heard only the echoes of silence.

Overhead, a vulture wheeled, heavy on the sodden air — still on patrol after all this time.