Long before the famed Code Talkers, American Indians from today’s Arizona and New Mexico played important roles in the U.S. military. As early as the 1850s, some Navajos were paid for various temporary duties.
It soon became evident to certain officers on the frontier that conventional tactics from the recently ended Civil War were insufficient when it came to the guerilla warfare the Army faced when fighting the Western tribes. The enlistment of Indians as scouts was one solution to this challenge. For this reason, when federal legislators passed a reorganization bill for the Army, a special provision was included and set into motion by General Orders No. 56, Office of the Adjutant General, August 1, 1866.
For nearly three decades, Indian scout enlistments ranged from three months to six or 12 months. Some men signed up time after time. Some spent as much as 30 or more years of total service; in some instances more than one generation enlisted.
George Crook was one of the greatest proponents of deploying Indian scouts. When he had assumed command in the Department of Arizona, this astute officer first employed Mexican or Mexican-American scouts. Crook changed his approach, encouraging groups now referred to as Hualpais, Maricopas, Pimas, Navajos, Yavapais, Coyoteros and White Mountain Apaches to join and be led by Army officers and civilians under the designation of “chief of scouts” who could serve as trackers and interpreters.
Ultimately Crook came to rely most heavily on the people we now refer to as Apaches. He believed: “To polish a diamond there is nothing like its own dust.”
In other words: It took an Apache to track and bring an Apache to bay.
This is not to say that Crook and others recruited only among the various Apache bands. As indicated, he also sought out Yavapais as scouts, including one of the most interesting members of this group named Hoomothya by his people, but known as Mike Burns by the whites. Moreover, Navajos remained a fixture of life at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, until being disbanded in 1895.
The worth of the scouts was recognized in military reports and by the fact that a number of them received the Medal of Honor (see p. 33). Another acknowledgment of their worth came on August 11, 1890, when a U.S. Army directive called for standardization in the outfitting of scouts as this pronouncement seldom, if ever, was followed to the letter.
By the time the last four scouts retired at a formal ceremony held at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, in 1947, photographs indicate that the men finally had adopted regulation uniforms. That event also marked the end of an era when scouts proudly donned the uniform of their nation.
What prompted these men and many of their predecessors to take up arms against other Indians and sometimes against their own people? Motives varied and often were complex, but Professor Victoria Smith of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln provided one powerful answer to the complex question. She succinctly concluded: “I do believe that these Apaches saw the institution of scouting as simply an extension of their apprenticeship for warfare. Apaches considered any warrior work honorable. It only matters that you are a man and that you are fighting for what you believe in.”
Regardless of their motives, the Indian scouts helped transform Arizona and New Mexico from territories into states in 1912.
John Langellier received his PhD in history from Kansas State University. He is the author of dozens of publications focusing on military subjects, and he has also served as a motion pictures and TV consultant.
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John Langellier received his PhD in military history from Kansas State University. After a 45-year career in public history, he retired in Tucson, Arizona, in 2015. He is the author of dozens of books, including Fighting for Uncle Sam: Blacks in the Frontier Army, due out in early 2016.