The 1882 Battle of Big Dry Wash was the last major engagement between the U. S. Army and the Apaches in the Arizona Territory. In early July, Na-tio-tish and a group of approximately 60 Hostiles bolted the reservation at San Carlos and began a series of raids on the ranches and settlements within Pleasant Valley and the Tonto Basin. Army troops from most of the camps and forts in central Arizona were mobilized and commenced pursuit of the hostiles under the over-all command of Major Andrew Evans, the commander at Fort Apache. Apache scouts under the leadership of Al Seiber, the Army’s Chief of Scouts, accompanied the troops.
Northeast of Payson the hostiles killed Charles Sigsbee and Louie Houdon. Charles’ brother, although wounded, escaped and alerted Captain Adna Chaffee, who was commanding one of the pursuing cavalry troops from Fort McDowell. The hostiles, with Chaffee in hot pursuit, climbed the rim to General Springs, a well-known watering hole on the Crook Trail. There, they spotted Chaffee’s troops, 55 in number, riding below the rim on white horses that stood out in the green forest like a line of geese against a blue sky. What Na-tio-tish did not see, however, was an additional 150 or so cavalrymen on darker mounts that did not stand out against the forest backdrop.
On a cliff north of the rim, the hostiles set an ambush for the pursuing soldiers, positioning themselves on both sides of the slope of a narrow ravine through which they expected the soldiers to pass in a single file. However, about 3:00 pm on the 17th Seiber’s scouts discovered the trap. The element of surprise was eliminated and the fight was on. Chaffee reported the situation to Major Evans who responded, “It’s your fight do with them as you wish”.
Chaffee took charge and an active part in the battle. On the west side of the ravine unmounted cavalry ran headlong into a group of hostiles attempting to flank the troopers. As the skirmish to the west heated up, Sieber and troopers led by Lt. Thomas Cruse captured the hostiles’ pony herd and assaulted the hostiles’ camp. Lt. George Morgan, an expert marksman, brought down one of the hostiles after several misses, but in his excitement he exposed himself to the enemy, and a hostile’s bullet ripped through his arm and lodged in his back.
The battle raged on as the shadows in the forest lengthened. Slowly the troops drew the noose tighter around the heavily outnumbered hostiles. Hoping to bring the battle to an end, Cruse ordered his men to fill their pockets with cartridges and prepare to charge into the hostile position. Despite Seiber’s warning that that there was “still plenty of action to come,” Cruse led an advance into the camp. Suddenly, a hostile sprang up not two yards from him. The hostile, having poor trigger control, jerked as he fired. His shot missed the Lieutenant and struck Pvt. Joseph McLernon. Cruse recovered from the shock of the near miss and dragged McLernon back to cover, where he died within the hour. Cruse later noted that he had braced himself to take the shot.
The hostiles’ last-gasp attempt to break out was repulsed by troopers under the command of Lieutenant Frank West. As darkness fell, a strong hailstorm swept across the rim country, soaking everybody and everything to the bone. The surviving hostiles faded into the darkness. The Battle of Big Dry Wash was over.
The next day as the troopers surveyed the battlefield, they discovered a young squaw with a baby, and an older squaw. The younger squaw had been shot in the leg. The Army surgeons later amputated her leg at the field hospital in Crackerbox Canyon.
The battle was decidedly one-sided. Na-tio-tish and as many as 26 other hostiles were killed, while the Army lost only one soldier––Pvt. McLernon––and an Apache scout, Pvt. Pete. Ten years later, Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to Lieutenants Thomas Cruse, George Morgan, and Frank West, and to First Sergeant Charles Taylor for their actions in the battle, which foreshadowed the end of an era in Apache hostilities.
*this story was written and told by Sam Palmer
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