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Charlie McComas

A Little Boy Lost in the Apache Wars

 

 

 

 

By Lori Davis

On Tuesday, March 27, 1883, Judge H.C. McComas rented a wagon to take his wife Juanita and six‑year-old son Charlie from Silver City down to Pyramid City.  It was initially a business trip, but it seemed a good opportunity for a pleasure trip as well.  The family spent a pleasant night at a roadside inn and continued the next morning, stopping beside a large walnut tree for a picnic lunch. 

According to the judge’s gold watch, it was a few minutes before noon when disaster struck.  A Chiricahua Apache war party under a warrior named Chato galloped in from the north.  In terror, the McComases jumped in the wagon and fled, but they had barely started away when H.C. received his first shot.  Hurt, but still active, he leaped to the ground and fired his rifle seven times, while Juanita took the reins.  But H.C. also received seven shots and died in the bushes, not far from where his family had picnicked.  Meanwhile, Juanita made it three hundred yards up the road before the Apaches shot one of the horses.  She jumped out and reached for her son, but a blow to the head crushed her skull, and she fell dead as well. 

By 6 a.m. the next morning two rescue parties had arrived to recover the bodies.  Notably missing, however, was the body or footprints of Charlie.  The men combed a one mile radius and failed to find any sign of the boy.  Concluding that Charlie must still be alive, two of the men set out to follow the Indian trail.  By this point, they were already 18 hours behind.[1]

Since 1876, the Chiricahua Apaches theoretically lived at the San Carlos Reservation in southeastern Arizona.  But rounding them all up proved impossible, and even the Apaches who came to the Reservation could not be held there.  The San Carlos Reservation was known by army officers as “Hell’s Forty Acres.”  It was dry, hot, dusty, and swarming with flies and gnats.  It also had more severe problems: supplies were inadequate, diseases rife, and politics corrupt.[2]

Small wonder that many Apaches tried to avoid the reservation.  Several large groups escaped to the Sierra Madre Mountains of northern Mexico, where they supported themselves by raiding and plundering on both sides of the border.  It was on just such a raid that Chato’s party swooped down on the McComas family.

Following the massacre, the Chiricahuas headed south to Mexico at a hectic pace. They were pursued by Lt. Col. George Alexander Forsyth, but he moved far too slowly to catch them. On April 2, he abandoned the chase altogether after receiving a conflicting order from his superiors in Santa Fe. Meanwhile, Captain James F. Black led a local militia out to rescue Charlie.  He also returned having accomplished nothing. 

Deaths due to Indians, while frequently exaggerated, were nonetheless all too real.  Many people had perished in that way and merited only a brief news blurb or less.  The McComas tragedy, however, blew up into a national affair, reported and followed in papers published thousands of miles away from Silver City, including the New York Times, the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, and the San Francisco Chronicle.  The nation was outraged that Indians were still wreaking havoc at such a late date and against such distinguished citizens.  They demanded Charlie’s rescue and retribution for his parents’ deaths. 

The man in charge of that retribution and rescue was General George Crook, but he was hampered by the fact that Apaches did not see the national border as an obstacle.  First, he had to telegram Washington for authorization to pursue them into Mexican territory.  Then he had to visit the governors of Sonora and Chihuahua. Thus, he could not even begin the chase until the end of April.  Led by hired Apache scouts, who claimed not to have been involved in the tragedy, Crook staged a highly successful attack on the Chiricahua camp in the Sierra Madres.  Most of the warriors were away on raids, and Crook’s men conquered the women and children quickly.  In the process, however, quite a few Apaches scattered into the mountains, leaving behind a McComas family album and several other valuables that had probably belonged to the McComas family.  Charlie was not found in the camp.

So what had happened to Charlie? The reports conflicted at every possible point. The early accounts reported variously that all three McComas had perished together; that both Charlie and his mother had been taken captive; that Charlie’s body had been found; or that each account was false.  Later versions only added to the confusion. One said that Charlie had been killed soon after the Apaches rode away because he had caused so much trouble.  Lt. Col. George Alexander Forsyth concluded that Charlie had died soon after his parents because there were no small footprints at the campsites he examined. He did not find Charlie’s body either, however, leading others to hope that the boy still lived.

While the military search for Charlie was stalled because of the political maneuverings, the McComas family and friends refused to give up hope.  They printed and distributed a photograph card, hoping that someone would see the boy and provide information of his whereabouts.  John Wright, executor of the McComas estate, posted a $1,000 reward for the boy which prompted several less than savory characters to go on private rescue missions.  They all returned empty handed with no news of Charlie. 

At the time there were no first hand testimonies available since the only living eyewitnesses were on the run: When other Apaches were questioned, they were not very helpful.  Two Apache warriors named Dutchy and Gooday came into army headquarters to discuss surrender terms while General George Crook was away.  At first they said nothing about Charlie but after Lieutenant Britton Davis put them in irons, they admitted that the boy was alive and well treated and that Chato would return him unhurt.

When General Crook finally overtook the Chiricahua camp, he was able to finally question someone who had actually seen the boy since the massacre of the McComas family. Captain John G. Bourke recorded in his diary that one of the captured Apache women claimed there was a white boy about eight years old in one of the camps.[3]  Crook sent the woman out with a horse to gather her scattered people and more particularly to find Charlie and bring him back.

By late May the remainder of the Chiricahua leaders, including Geronimo and Chato, had turned up to begin peace talks.  All of them promised to find Charlie and bring him in.  Crook wanted to wait for Charlie’s arrival before beginning the negotiations, but his supplies were dwindling and the agreement that allowed him to enter Mexico with armed troops also required him to withdraw immediately. Finally, he agreed to leave Geronimo and some other warriors behind to continue rounding up their people. Crook gathered his troops, packed up and left, taking Geronimo’s family with him as security that the warrior would keep his side of the agreement. 

Slowly, the Chiricahua people trickled into the San Carlos Reservation but by December their number still did not include the Apache leaders Geronimo and Chato, or Charlie McComas.  Bonito, who had been Chato’s second-in-command, did come into the reservation.  He assured the officers that several Apaches had looked for Charlie according to their promise to Crook but so far they had found nothing.

Chato and Geronimo did not arrive at the reservation until February and March of 1884 and they came without Charlie McComas.  Most of the officers at San Carlos concluded that Charlie had been in the camp but had either died of exposure afterwards or had been killed by the fleeing women[4] or that Charlie had lived with those women until dying of exposure during the winter.[5] When Geronimo returned to the reservation without the boy, the McComas family regretfully ended their search and accepted the fact that the boy had died and his body would never be found.

Decades later Chiricahua people offered another story. Jason Betzinez, a cousin to Geronimo, claimed in his autobiography that during Crook’s attack an old Apache woman was killed.  Her son Speedy was so angry that he killed Charlie in retribution: “At that time the Indians were protecting one of their own band from possible punishment, so they lied about what had happened to the poor little boy even though they disapproved of the murder.”[6]  Betzinez freely admits that he was not an eyewitness.  Other sources, also not eyewitnesses, claimed that while Speedy hit Charlie, the blow did not kill him.  He was injured, and the women left him in the bushes for fear of being blamed for his condition.[7]   

Another story said that Charlie was found by two Apache women as they fled the camp with their children: “He had been struck, possibly by a stray bullet, and was obviously dying. . . . Between them they tried to carry the wounded child until they heard, crashing through the brush, soldiers coming very close.  Further attempts to save the dying boy could result only in their being killed and also the [Apache] children they protected.”[8]  None of these possible eyewitnesses reported this to anyone outside their families during their lifetimes.  Apparently, they were still worried about reprisals even decades after the event.[9]

The idea that Charlie had been intentionally killed was flatly denied by several Apache people.  A warrior named Daklugie said that Charlie “was brought back to the rest of the raiders by Chato. . .I was not present when the Mexicans attacked that camp, but in the escape Charlie was killed.  Of this I can be sure.  When an Apache family adopted a child, it gave it the same care and protection it did its own. Nobody among them would have killed that child.  During that attack Apache children, too, lost their lives.”[10]

There is a more romantic scenario to Charlie McComas’ fate.  A small group of Chiricahua continued to live and raid in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico and over the next decades, sightings of this band claimed that the chief was a “white man.”  Some in the popular press claimed that this man was Charlie McComas.  While it is possible, there is no particular reason to assume that this “white man” was Charlie and not one of many other “white” boys captured by the Apache during this time.

In the end historians cannot say with certainty what happened to Charlie McComas.  It seems most likely that he did not survive his parents by more than a month or two, but whether he was deliberately murdered, accidentally killed, or died of exposure in the mountains cannot be resolved now any more than it could be then.  The fate of his captors is also tragic: Living conditions at the San Carlos Reservation were bad and after several more Apache breakouts the U.S. Army treated the entire group of Chiricahua people as prisoners of war and shipped them to Florida including those who had faithfully served in the U.S. Army.  After 28 years of exile, they were they allowed to return to live with the Mescalero people in New Mexico.  By then, the McComas family had long since closed the search for six-year-old Charlie.

  

Sources Used:

Betzinez, Jason, with Wilbur Sturtevant Nye. I Fought With Geronimo. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The Stackpole Company, 1959.

Ball, Eve. Indeh, An Apache Odyssey. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Cole, D.C. The Chiricahua Apache: 1846-1876, From War to Reservation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

Cozzens, Peter. Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars, 1865-1890. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2001.

Davis, Britton. Truth about Geronimo. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1929.

Debo, Angie. Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.

Ringgold, Jennie Parks. Frontier Days in the Southwest. San Antonio, Texas: The Naylor Company, 1952.

Simmons, Marc. Massacre on the Lordsburg Road: A Tragedy of the Apache Wars. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1997)



[1] Marc Simmons, Massacre on the Lordsburg Road: A Tragedy of the Apache Wars (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1997), 101-119.

[2] D.C. Cole, The Chiricahua Apache: 1846-1876, From War to Reservation (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988), 157-163.

[3] Peter Cozzens, Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars, 1865-1890 (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2001), 371.

[4] Britton Davis, Truth about Geronimo (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1929), 68.

[5] Simmons, 176.

[6] Jason Betzinez with Wilbur Sturtevant Nye, I Fought With Geronimo (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The Stackpole Company, 1959),  118-120.

[7] Angie Debo, Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 190.

[8] Eve Ball, Indeh, an Apache Odyssey (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 51.

[9] Simmons, 203.

[10] Ball, 51.