John Gregory Bourke: Part 1 - Warrior Anthropologist

Not many people in the United States or the world today know who Irish-American John Gregory Bourke was, and that is unfortunate. Few historical figures have ever had his rare combination of heroism in a major war; chronicling and participating in two decades of conflict with a fierce indigenous foe; world renowned scientific study of a primitive culture that was rapidly disappearing; and selfless humanitarianism.

The foundation of the life Bourke (left) would live began with his parents. Edward and Anna were born somewhere in western Ireland and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1840s. His father claimed that pirate queen Grace O’Malley was an ancestor and that politician Edmund Burke was a relative. John was born in Philadelphia on June 23, 1846. His parents were better educated than most Irish Catholic immigrants and they instilled in him an intellectual curiosity, and a strength of character, that would be the hallmarks of his life. John had six siblings, and his parents made sure all were given the best education possible. John’s education would be interrupted by the Civil War, however.

In August 1862, having just turned 16 two months earlier, John lied about his age and enlisted in the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry. In 1887 Bourke was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Stones River, Tennessee, in December 1862, but he is one of the few soldiers ever awarded that medal for whom you could say that seems rather unimportant in the full scope of his life. His citation has no details beyond “extraordinary heroism” and “gallantry in action” and Bourke never wrote of it, but characterized his Civil War service as “fearful days of carnage.” Nor did he ever extoll his own heroism writing of later fights with various Indian tribes, though others did. His military service to our country alone would have made him an estimable historical figure, but he was so much more than that.

From the time of the Civil War through the great Western expansion and the Indian wars that expansion brought on, to the end of the 19th century, Bourke’s life weaved in and out of many of the great events of American history. Few U.S. Army junior officers could have possibly been present at more momentous events in the later half of the 19th century than John Bourke.

Although he never rose above the rank of captain, in his life he was acquainted with presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, and future presidents William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. He knew most of the famous generals of the time, and met legendary Native American Indian leaders, from Cochise and Geronimo to Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud. He worked with legends of the west like John Wesley Powell, first man to explore the Colorado River. He met Tom Jeffords, Indian agent and friend of Cochise, and Mormon leader Brigham Young. He served with celebrated army scouts Al Sieber, Tom Horn, and Mickey Free in Arizona and even Deadwood icons “Buffalo” Bill Cody and “Calamity” Jane during the Sioux Wars.

(Right: A painting claimed to be of Cochise by William S. Sutton, 1872.)

When the Civil War ended, he got an appointment to West Point on a recommendation from Major General George Thomas, the famous “Rock of Chickamauga.” The dark haired, 5’ 10”, 165 pound Bourke graduated in 1869, at the age of 23, and was assigned to the 3rd Cavalry in the Southwest. At Fort Craig, New Mexico, and Fort Grant, Arizona, the 3rd faced the unenviable job of trying to control the various Apache tribes in the times when, as Geronimo would later say, they “moved like the wind.”

This duty involved much down time for the soldiers in these remote outposts, and many soldiers filled their free time with drinking and gambling. Bourke was a not the average cavalry soldier, however. That intellectual curiosity from his upbringing gave him a fascination with this new environment and the others he would later come in contact with, and those who had lived there for centuries, both Spanish and Native American. That was combined with a work ethic that didn’t seem to allow him to waste a minute of his time and a great eye for detail.

In his free time, he studied the local Spanish culture and their language. He would eventually become fluent in Spanish. He also began what would be a lifelong study of the culture of the numerous Native American tribes with which he eventually had contact. Knowing that he was probably seeing the end of this culture, and the historical significance of the war against the Indians, he kept a diary that would be the basis for his later extensive ethnological and historical writing. His diaries, now held at West Point, are some of the best first-person records of the Indian Wars and the Indian culture of the late 19th century.

The Crook Connection

In 1871, General George Crook was sent to take command of the Arizona department. Crook’s first act was an expedition all around southern and central Arizona to evaluate his men. Bourke must have impressed him, because Crook then put Bourke on his staff and would keep him on it most of the next 15 years. Most of Crook's reports and press releases for many years after that would be written by the highly literate Bourke. The rest of Bourke’s army career, for better, at first, and later for worse, was tied to the fortunes of Crook, an officer that many historians consider the best Indian fighter the U.S. Army produced.

(Left: Gen. Crook and one of his Apache scouts, Alchise. Crook always rode a mule in Arizona rather than a horse.)

Bourke may have been more literate than Crook, but the eclectic Crook would have Bourke’s respect and admiration until his dying day. Crook had three guiding principles for conducting warfare against the various Indian tribes he would fight for the next decade and a half. The first was to perfect the heretofore haphazard pack-mule system for carrying supplies efficiently so they could stay in the field longer and travel faster than columns encumbered with wagons.

The second was to use Indian scouts extensively to fight, and more importantly to track, other Indians and keep them on the run.

The third, and most important of all, was to never lie to them to get them onto the reservations. As Bourke’s appreciation of Native American culture and peoples increased, the fact that Crook, unlike many other army commanders, and so many Indian agents and politicians, never lied to any tribal leaders or intentionally misled them, increased Bourke’s veneration of the man. Unfortunately, of course, the government often did not long honor the agreements Crook negotiated. After Crook's death in 1890, Sioux Chief Red Cloud (left) said, “He, at least, never lied to us. His words gave the people hope.”

When Crook was done fighting Native Americans, he had no doubt where the lion’s share of the blame for the much of the death and destruction lay. “If you will investigate all the Indian troubles, you will find that there is something wrong of this nature at the bottom of all of them, something relating to the supplies, or else a tardy and broken faith on the part of the general government,” he would one day say.

When Crook unleashed his new style offensive against the Apaches, the results were everything he could have hoped for. Bourke was involved in one of the bigger fights of that period at Salt River Canyon (See it here). A group of Yavapais were surrounded in a cave there, but refused to give up. Estimates vary on how many Yavapai were killed, it was likely somewhere between 50 and 100, many of them women and children who were hiding there. Their bodies were left where they fell in that remote cliffside cave, and more than 20 years later the bleaching of bones of the ill-fated group were found there untouched by a local rancher (right). It's now called "Skeleton Cave." Bourke was greatly impressed by how courageously the Yavapai had fought and died in their hopeless position.

Crook’s use of Apache scouts in late 1872 and early 1873, which allowed him to find and defeat the Yavapai at Salt River Canyon cave and a group of Yavapai and Tonto Apaches at Turret Peak, and to keep other bands always on the run, proved highly effective. The various bands were eventually exhausted and starving even though Crook never managed to engage many of them. They gave up and came into the reservations. Bourke traveled with a group, including Indian Agent Tom Jeffords, to talk with Cochise after his band of Chiricahuas came in off the warpath, and was very impressed by the aging chief. The last of the Apaches surrendered in April 1873.

(Above: "Apache Ambush" by Frederick Remington)

One of the chiefs said, "You see, we are nearly dead from want of food and exposure,” confirming Crook’s strategy was successful. Crook was magnanimous in victory, telling one of the chiefs, “It is no use to talk about who began this war; there were bad men among all peoples; there were bad Mexicans, as there were bad Americans and bad Apaches; our duty is to end wars and establish peace, and not to talk about what is past and gone. The Apaches must make this peace not for a day or a week, but for all time.” The Apache bestowed the name Nantan Lupan (Grey Wolf) on Crook as a sign of their respect. They also had a name for Bourke: Nantan Hosh Dijoolé (Captain Cactus).

With the end of the hostilities, Bourke traveled widely in Arizona studying the Hopi (Moqui) tribe as well as the various Apache tribes as Crook traveled around his command area. In 1874, he had his first ethnographic article published in a San Francisco newspaper, "The Moquis of Arizona: A Brief Description of Their Towns, Their Manners and Customs,” which he would expand into a book a decade later. Crook now found him indispensable and blocked his return to the 3rd Cavalry and a possible transfer to teach at West Point.

Off to the Northern Plains

In April 1875 Crook, with his reputation as a highly proficient Indian fighter now rising, was sent north to help with unrest among the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes as miners streamed into the Black Hills, and Bourke came with him. They had a stopover in Salt Lake City, where they had dinner at Brigham Young’s home. The tribes they left behind in Arizona were content and doing well on their reservations, but with Crook gone the unscrupulous Indian Agency and their contractor allies would soon undo all that by selling off much of what was supposed to go to the reservations. Crook and Bourke would be back trying to undo their damage several years later.

(Left: “The Medicine Man” by Charles Marion Russell - 1908)

Having been raised in Pennsylvania, Bourke did not come West with opinions about the Western Indian tribes that differed much from most other Americans at the time. Nor had they changed much by the time he arrived in the northern plains with Crook. “The sooner the manifest destiny of the (white) race shall be accomplished and the Indian as an Indian cease to exist, the better,” he said shortly after he got there. Like most Americans at the time, he was still not averse to killing most Native Americans to get them out of the way of "progress" but his attitude would begin to slowly evolve during the next few years.

The Great Sioux-Cheyenne War that Crook and Bourke took part in over the next two years was arguably the most famous Army campaign of the Indian Wars. When the January 31, 1876, deadline the government had set for the hostile bands to return to the reservation passed with no sign of them, the war was on. Crook intended to use the same strategy that had worked for him against the Apaches, and marched north from Wyoming on March 1st, before the end of winter, to keep them on the run. While heat and lack of water had made Arizona campaigns challenging, here they would run into the opposite, but no less demanding, problem. Bourke would take part in the grueling campaign through snow and ice that culminated in a fight with a mainly Cheyenne village on the Powder River on St. Patrick’s Day. (Campaign map here from The Atlas of the Sioux Wars, 2nd Edition by Combat Studies Institute Press..)

(Below: Crook's column returns to Fort Fetterman after Powder River campaign.
riginally published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1876)

Casualties were light on both sides. The village, however, with all its food and equipment, was destroyed. As Crook’s force limped home, he had 66 soldiers suffering from frostbite, including Bourke.

In the late spring, the full campaign began with Crook advancing from the south, General John Gibbon from the west and General Alfred Terry from the east. It would be one of the most famous campaigns of the Indian Wars. It included the most well-known defeat of the Army during the Indian Wars, the slaughter of Custer and most of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, and one of the most punishing marches in U.S. military history.

Read Part 2: "Warrior, Author, Humanitarian"


Arlington Cemetery: John Gregory Bourke (Incorrectly calls him a Colonel)

"Paper Medicine Man: John Gregory Bourke and His American West" by Joseph C. Porter

"On the Border with Crook" by John Gregory Bourke

"The medicine-men of the Apache" by John Gregory Bourke

"An Apache Campaign in the Sierra Madre" by John Gregory Bourke

"MacKenzie's Last Fight with the Cheyennes" by John Gregory Bourke

Chiricahua Apache POW History

Find a Grave: John Gregory Bourke

Captain John G. Bourke's Influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs

John Gregory Bourke and the Apaches

The Skeleton Cave Massacre

General George Crook

Great Sioux War of 1876


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Views: 3600

Tags: America's Civil War, Anthropology, Military History, War

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 20, 2016 at 12:06pm

Hello Joe Gannon ... lovely to read about our Irish ancestors helping America build his future... Like all the Irish around the world who helped build the infrastructure and its Army's  of the varying Countries around the globe in which they settled.  

John Gregory Bourke  is another example of how we, as the Irish diaspora , had all of these skills and abilities to conquer   other countries, and if the life chances had only been available in Ireland, we would not have had all the misery of emigration over many centuries... !! 

And he is said to be related to Grace O'Mally..... 

There were a few Bourkes living in the Town where I grew up.............  

Comment by Joe Gannon on January 20, 2016 at 8:02pm

I was browsing a list of Irish born Medal of Honor awardees when I saw Bourke's name. I started to research him online and was amazed at all he had accomplished in his life in addition to having been awarded the medal. No doubt he's well known to historians who specialize in the history of the Indian war period in the American west, because of his writing about some of the most famous campaigns of those wars, and to anthropologists who study Native American cultures of the west, because of his extensive collecting of information and artifacts from the various tribes, but the vast majority of Americans, even Irish-Americans who have read a lot about the Irish in US history like myself (until now), have never heard of him.

That led me to read Porters biography of Bourke, "Paper Medicine Man: John Gregory Bourke and His American West" and Bourke's own "On the Border with Crook". This later work is the most well known of all his writings today, and should be read by anyone who has any interest in the Indians Wars of the late 19th century in the US. 

To me the most amazing part of Bourke's life story was his ability to put aside any resentment he had toward the people he had been engaged in fighting for most of his adult life and try to help them. Today it's a nearly universal judgment of historians that the US government treatment of the western tribes was one of the most dishonorable acts our government ever under took. But in late 19th century working for justice for them was a highly unpopular course of action to take. If the only sacrifice Bourke had to make to do that had been expending time and effort in the attempt, that still would have reflected well on the man. It cost him far more than that, however. It most likely destroyed any chance he had for advancement in the US Army, and he must have known that it would. The one and only thing that could have compelled him to do it, was the simple moral imperative of doing what one knows it right and just, no matter the personal cost. We all like to think we'd do that when confronted with that sort of moral dilemma, but history gives few examples of people doing it. 

I have seldom come away from researching anyone’s life with more admiration than I did Bourke. He had the physical courage to risk death in battle for his country time after time, and the integrity to oppose that government when he believed what it was doing was immoral even when nearly all his countrymen supported what was being done and that opposition would almost certainly harm his career. That is truly the definition of a hero.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 21, 2016 at 6:31am

I have just finished an article for The Wild Geese on Michael Collin's.... For me, he has to be one of the most iconic figures that emerged out of the ashes of the 1916 Easter Rising..... Bourke and Collin's would appear to be similar , in the fact that all they wanted  was - what was morally and justifiably right for their country..... Colins knew that when he signed the Treaty of Ireland ... that his political life may be over .. and indeed his actual life ... still he persisted ... and his actual life came to a brutal end 

Comment by David Lawlor on February 17, 2016 at 7:18pm

Great piece Joe, thanks

Comment by Edward Francis Jr on June 23, 2016 at 6:26am

Thanks Joe. well done.


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