The Battle of Cibecue Creek & the Tragedy of Nockaydelklinne
Flamed by rising tensions on Apache reservations, the Battle of Cibecue Creek was the U.S. Army’s worst military loss in the infamous Apache Wars of Arizona.
The Apache are one of the most famous tribes of the American Southwest and best known for their struggle to retain independence under the leadership of Geronimo. Yet Geronimo’s struggle, from 1876 to 1886, would probably have been far shorter were it not for the murder of a famous medicine man at Cibecue Creek on April 30, 1881.
The engagement, usually called the Battle of Cibecue Creek, is one of the sparks that escalated the Apache Wars and gave new strength to Apache resistance, and was eventually followed by the Battle of Big Dry Wash.
The Battle of Cibecue Creek had been coming for a long time. By the 1880s, the Apache had been steadily falling under the yoke of white settlers who had, as detailed by the author John R. Welch in the journal Kiva, been pushing into the Southwest.
The Apaches had been remarkably resilient in the face of European imperialism. For two and half centuries they successfully resisted colonization efforts by Spain and Mexico. However, American settlers proved a different matter and various Apache bands soon fell under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army.
While some Apaches, notably the Chiricahua under Geronimo, resisted white encroachment, many did not. Over the years, various Apache bands maintained friendly alliances with the Americans and many enlisted into the army as scouts.
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Federal heavy-handedness led to Apache unrest
The Apache are not a homogenous group, being a collection of various bands that have shared language and culture. Ironically, the name Apache comes from the Pueblo who called them Apachu, meaning “enemy.”
The Apache call themselves a variety of terms which mean the “People.” Ethnographers have difficulty in classifying the various Apache groups since there is much overlap in their historic movements.
Regardless, aside from a shared identity all the Apache were subject to the same heavy-handed policies from Washington, D.C. Families along the Cibecue Creek of the White Mountain Apache were forcibly relocated in 1877 to San Carlos to live in squalid conditions under a concentration policy. They were allowed to return to Cibecue in a few years, but the aftertaste must have been bitter, indeed.
To make matters worse, the Federal government was increasingly reducing the size of Apache reservations. This, coupled with corruption among federal agents, made the situation highly volatile. More Apache warriors began to turn to raiding in order to provide for their families. Still others turned to spiritual solace.
The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History
“Without a doubt, Paul Hutton has written the most comprehensive, definitive book ever regarding the Apache’s struggle and loss of their homeland to the dominant white culture. Leaving no stone unturned, Hutton fleshes out the personalities of this period in enthralling and minute detail.”
– Frances Andrusyk, Amazon review
The Preaching of Nockaydelklinne
Among the White Mountain Apache was a medicine man and chief called Nockaydelklinne (there are also a variety of other spellings to the name), who lived along the Cibecue.
The journal Kiva traces his history: he studied at the Santa Fe Indian School, where he was probably influenced by Christian religious ideas of resurrection. He also visited President Ulysses S. Grant probably in 1872 or 1873 on a peace mission.
According to author Lori Davisson in the Journal of Arizona History, when the U.S. Army started recruiting Apache scouts in 1872, he enlisted under the presumed name of Bobby, and was described as mild-tempered.
He was also slightly built, standing at 5’6″ and 125 pounds. As a chief, he was reported as being open-handed and offered friendship toward the Americans. However, he had witnessed his people being forced off their lands, killed, and degraded. The Apaches were descending into a violent culture.
Nockaydelklinne became a spiritualist and spirit singer. He began to teach a new religion called na’ilde‘, which literally means “return from the dead.” The new type of religion unified traditional Apache healing practices with resurrection beliefs.
His growing following would sing, dance, and pray for the resurrection of dead chiefs. As described by The American Museum of Natural History, the dance was a kind of “Wheel Dance:”
The performers were arranged like the spokes of a wheel, all facing inward, Nakai’doklin’ni occupying the center or hub portion around which the whirling backward-and-forward, fanatical participants danced, as he sprinkled them with cattail-flag pollen and prayed over them to his gods.”
The medicine man claimed to have resurrected two chiefs and said that a divine miracle would destroy the white man. In fact, when other tribes came to have him use his divine powers to resurrect lost chiefs, he claimed that he could not do so until the white man was removed.
The medicine man was sometimes referred to as the Prophet.
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The Medicine Man is Arrested
Some version of this story came to the ears of Indian Agent Joseph C. Tiffany and Colonel Eugene Asa Carr at Fort Apache.
This may have been triggered by numerous Apache scouts taking leave to attend Nockaydelklinne’s ceremonies. Perhaps to placate the whites, Nockaydelklinne performed the dance in front of them in July 1881. If anything, Tiffany must have grown more alarmed since on August 15, he telegraphed Carr telling him that the medicine man should be “arrested or killed or both.”
Shortly after, Carr received orders from his commander, General Wilcox, to arrest the medicine man. The U.S. Army tried to get the spirit singer to come in of his own accord, but he resisted claiming that he was not a leader and simply teaching what others wanted to learn.
He refused to go.
On the morning of August 29, Carr prepared to leave Fort Apache and journey the 40 miles to the medicine man’s encampment to arrest him. He went with 117 men, including 23 Apache scouts.
There was debate between Carr and his officers: could the Apache scouts be trusted? Carr decided that they should go. He later reported, as quoted in Apache Nightmare:
I had to take my chances. They were enlisted men of my command, for duty; and I could not have found the medicine man without them. I deemed it better also if they should prove unfaithful it should not occur at the post.”
Carr arrived at the medicine man’s camp that same afternoon.
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The Arrest of Nockaydelklinne
After Carr’s arrival on August 30, 1881, he entered Nockaydelklinne’s wickiup and told the medicine man he needed to stop the dances and come to Fort Apache. Then accounts of what happened diverge.
Most early histories of Cibecue Creek used the perspectives and accounts of the U.S. Army and American citizens. However, since these early 20th century accounts, Apache narratives have been captured and published, which provide stark perspectives.
Army accounts state that at first Nockaydelklinne was reluctant to leave and said that he would come if Carr withdrew. Carr refused but the medicine man was placated by the chief Apache scout named Mose.
Carr also reported that he told Nockaydelklinne that no harm would come to him if he did not resist. Carr also reported warning him that if anybody attempted to rescue him, he would be killed. Nockaydelklinne smiled and said nobody would try to rescue him.
This account is at odds with the account of Tom Friday, who was the son of the Apache scout Dead Shot. In Friday’s account, taken years later, it was Dead Shot, not Mose, who was sent to the medicine man’s encampment and it was Captain Edmund Hentig, not Carr who spoke with Nockaydelklinne. He also detailed how Hentig had barged into the lodging uninvited and dragged off the medicine man by the hair.
Regardless of the means by which the medicine man was arrested, the Apache scouts with the army were indeed conflicted. Many of them were followers of the Prophet and thought he was being arrested for no reason.
The Battle of Cibecue Creek
The medicine man, some of his family, and the soldiers began to head toward Fort Apache following the Cibecue Creek downstream. Apaches followed.
One American soldier wrote:
There was a rustling among the crowd of watching Indians that reminded me of the buzzing of a rattlesnake aroused. The Medicine Man’s wife ran ahead of him. She moved with a queer dance step and as she swayed she scattered the sacred meal about her.”
Due to the late hour, Carr ordered a halt to encamp for the night near a low hill by Cibecue Creek. Meanwhile, their encampment became ringed by Apache warriors. At this point, Captain Edmund Hentig shouted at the Apaches in their own language to go away.
The Apache scout Dead Shot complained that the scouts were encamped in a place with too many anthills. Permission was then given for the scouts to move closer to the other Apaches. This was done and according to the army’s account, Dead Shot gave a war-whup and the Apache scouts starting firing into the soldiers.
In army accounts it seemed to be a prearranged signal to start a treasonous mutiny.
In Tom Friday’s account, however, the fight started when Nockaydelklinne’s brother tried to retrieve the medicine man. The commanding army officer — presumably Carr or Hentig — called him a “very bad name” and ordered him to be shot.
This was done and the Battle of Cibecue Creek commenced. In the initial volley, Captain Hentig was killed.
The full truth of the matter may never be known. Tom Friday’s account, taken decades after the fight, may be questionable not only for its age, but also from Friday’s desire to protect the reputation of his father.
It seems that the army account is more likely to be correct on details, though that too may be questionable because of its natural bias toward the whites.
Good Will Toward Men
The Battle of Cibecue Creek was chaotic, with Apaches fortified on the low hill on the west side of the creek shooting at the army encampment on the east side. In the first few minutes of the fight, the handcuffed Nockaydelklinne fell to the ground and while attempting to crawl away from battle, a sergeant shot him in the legs before a trumpeter named William O. Benites fired a round through the medicine man’s neck with his revolver.
When the medicine man’s son saw this, he rushed in on a horse but was killed. Nockaydelklinne’s wife then grabbed a revolver and tried to exact revenge on her husband’s murderers. She was also quickly slain.
As the fight wore down that afternoon, a sergeant named John A. Smith saw that Nockaydelklinne was still alive. According to Apache accounts, he hewed the medicine man’s head off with a hatchet.
Smith then examined a medal that belonged to the medicine man. It was from President Grant. On one side it read “Let us have peace.” On the other it read, “On earth peace, good will toward men.”
Fighting stopped in the evening and the army buried its dead.
In the end, six privates and Captain Hentig were killed, as were 18 Apache. Around midnight, Carr withdrew the army to Fort Apache, where they arrived on August 31.
Aftermath of the Battle of Cibecue Creek
In the aftermath of the battle, fighting continued.
On September 1, Apaches attacked Fort Apache with scattered gunfire, and nine soldiers were killed along Turkey Creek. Meanwhile, Apache families fled the area, sensing that violence was going to escalate.
Other Apache warriors and families who had been loyal to the army abandoned the fort and fled. It would be months before the Apache refugees would return to the reservation.
As for the Apache scouts who turned on the army at Cibecue Creek, five were arrested and brought before a military tribunal. Two were sentenced to Alcatraz but were paroled in 1884.
It was thought that many of the Apache scouts had just been swept up in the mutiny. The other three, which included Dead Shot, were executed by hanging on March 3, 1882. Before their deaths, all three proclaimed innocence and Dead Shot tried to escape.
Cibecue Creek is remarkable in being the worst military loss of the U.S. Army in Arizona’s history. It is also the only time that Apache scouts mutinied in their service to the army. The fight marks an escalation in the Apache Wars which led to a lingering insurgency that didn’t end until the capture of Geronimo in 1886.
Discover more people, places and stories of frontier Arizona:
- 10 Fascinating Facts About Jack Swilling, the Founder of Phoenix
- Blood Brothers: The Unlikely Friendship of Tom Jeffords and Cochise
- 15 Native American Ruins in Arizona that Offer a Historic Glimpse into the Past
- 8 Facts About the Pleasant Valley War (That Aren’t So Pleasant)
- Apache Nightmare: The Battle at Cibecue Creek, Charles Collins
- The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History, Paul Andrew Hutton
- Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars, David Roberts
- The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, Peter Cozzens
- From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886, Edwin R. Sweeney
- Indeh: An Apache Odyssey, Eve Ball
Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.