May 28, 2017

Spencer Repeating Rifle Rules the Battle of the Black Mountains

It was April of 1867 and ranchers in the area were both highly anxious and on alert. "Information of the presence of a large body of hostile Indians in Hell Canyon" prompted General Gregg to send two companies "to examine and explore that locality, and if possible to break up this band." However, by the time the army arrived, the Indians had left and were heading southeast towards the Black Mountains, several miles south of Woodchute and Mingus. (*1)

It would take several days for the Army to catch up, but such a large party of Indians and their animals left a trail even anglos could follow. But this time, for the first time in Arizona, the troops were armed with the lethal and already legendary Spencer Repeating Rifle. It had already been used, with devastating effectiveness, against Confederate soldiers.

The Gun:
The Spencer carried seven bullets in a spring-loaded tube that was inserted into the butt of the rifle. Preloaded tubes could quickly replace the spent ones allowing a rate of fire 7 times faster than older, muzzle-loaded rifles. They were the machine guns of their day.

The Chase:
"Capt. Williams' command marched from Camp Whipple about seven o'clock (in the) evening. Thirty miles were accomplished with ease before daylight." (*2)

A few small parties of a handful of men each were then sent ahead to scout the whereabouts of the Apaches.

"On the 10th (of April)...a small detached party from this command surprised and attacked a large party of Indians, killing 3 and wounding several." The troops were outnumbered at least 10 to 1, however, and withdrew "joining the main command about 15 miles to the south" to report that the Indians had been found. The rest of the troops would follow immediately. (*1)

As the troops entered the mountains at night, tension began to rise. One soldier related: "Points of rocks and isolated crags...sometimes present(ed) an absolute startling resemblance to a crouching Indian in the very act of springing upon his unwary victim." (*2)

By daylight they were "surprised to be in view of the Indians" about 40 miles southeast of Prescott. "The Captain and Lieutenant contrived to keep the Indians in sight for the greater part of the day," but decided to keep shy of fighting distance while the Lieutenant's reserve troops moved into position. (*2)

The reserve arrived around 4pm with the commanders arriving late in the evening, "both men and horses (were) thoroughly tired out," however, having been in the saddle for at least 20 hours. (*2)

All rested and went back in pursuit before dawn the following day.

The Battle of Turret Peak, which Bloody Basin, AZ is named after, was not a victory over hostile Apaches; it was a massacre of friendly Yavapais.

The last seven miles of the chase was over an old Indian trail on which "the rugged character of the mountain...compelled (them) to abandon (their) horses to the care of a guard," and they continued on foot. (*2)

One soldier recalled: "After a hard scramble we gained a considerable elevation and discovered 3 Indian rancherias, two excellent springs of water, and a large quantity of mescal." (*2)

After the soldiers feasted on the roasted mescal for lunch, they destroyed everything Native American they could find. Then they continued their hunt.

"After following the ridge for some distance, a recently travelled Indian trail was discovered leading down the mountain in the direction of the (Verde River). The trail was thickly covered with moccasin and mule tracks, apparently but a few hours old." As they followed the trail, they sighted a small party of troops about two miles ahead of them. Soon they were able to identify them as the guard that was left to watch over the horses. (*2)

The First Fight (April 16th):
That guard had "observed some Indians endeavoring to cross a ravine a few hundred yards to (their) left. A charge was instantly made and the Spencer rifle (was) brought to bear upon the redskins for the first time in Arizona," it was reported. "Twenty Indian warriors lay dead or dying in less time than it takes to relate the fact." (*2)

"The Indians fought well and obstinately," a soldier remembered, "and even after they were wounded endeavored to shoot arrows into the mules they had stolen. Four mules and three horses were recovered, and one old fashioned rifle, some bows and arrows and lots of other things too numerous to mention," he said. (*2)

The story of the founding and the surprising early history of Arizona's first Boy Scouts in Prescott.

The Second Fight (April 18th):
"The following day the battle ground was visited, and a great quantity of provisions and other stuff destroyed, that had escaped observation on the previous night." The Army's forces regrouped and rested then continued upstream several miles until they turned around a bend and "came suddenly in sight of several Indians. They had been encamped on a rocky ridge, having deep ravines on either side of it (and) a high bluff of rocks at the back; the whole sloping towards the river." (*2)

Captain Williams acted quickly. He ordered part of his sixty men to ascend the slope to the right while other men charged up the bank, "thereby bringing the Indians between two fires, with a bluff rock in the background." (*2)

"A better manuever could not have been conceived," it was reported. "The (rapid) firing commenced instantly and was kept up...about half an hour and may be said to have been short, sharp and decisive," a soldier recalled. "Thirty-one Indians were killed, two small children captured, and a large quantity of mescal, with all their camp utensils...trinkets and a quantity of buckskin. These provisions were immediately destroyed." (*2)

In total 54 Indians were killed while the army suffered only one dead and one wounded throughout the entire battle. (*1)

The troops then "encamped on the ground previously held by the Indians and a small party was sent out to find straggling or wounded Indians." The Indian that caused the one army fatality was found "still alive, though literally riddled with bullet holes." (*2)

The Spencer Rifle became an immediate hit with the troops. "I cannot help thinking the Spencer is the rifle par excel-lance for Indian warfare," a soldier wrote, "as I am convinced the extraordinarily rapid fire caused the Indians to imagine they were attacked by a much larger force...or they would have made a much more determined resistance than they did. As it was, they fought well." (*2)

Once again the Spencer's repeating-fire technology proved decisive.

Feeling a bit safer, the people of Prescott "rejoiced over 'the new order of things.'" (*1)


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(*1) Arizona Miner 4/20/1867; Pg. 2, Col. 5.
(*2) Arizona Miner 8/10/1867; Pg. 1, Col. 5-6.

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