John Gregory Bourke: Part 2 - Warrior, Author, Humanitarian

(Above: Lt. Bourke saving bugler Elmer Snow in "Battle of the Rosebud" by Andy Thomas)

On June 17th, on the Rosebud Creek, Crook ran into the same huge band of Sioux and Cheyenne that would slaughter Custer eight days later. Crook had made Bourke chief of his Indian scouts. He was with the Crow and Shoshone scouts (Crook had been unable to convince any Sioux or Cheyenne to help him) that first encountered the enemy led by Crazy Horse. All the previous day, with signs of the enemy becoming more evident, the scouts had ridden along chanting war cries “of the most lugubrious tone,” according to Bourke. The laments proved prophetic.

Read Part 1: Warrior Anthropologist

(Right: The position of the opposing forces at the end of the Battle of the Rosebud from The Atlas of the Sioux Wars, 2nd Edition by Combat Studies Institute Press. Click on the map for a larger view.)

Crook had a force of about twelve hundred, counting the scouts and teamsters. On this campaign, Bourke became acquainted with one of those teamsters, “Calamity” Jane, whom he found “eccentric.” How many Sioux and Cheyenne opposed them is hard to say, but it may have been close to 2,000, one of the largest forces of Native American warriors ever assembled.

Their village was miles away. Aware that the column was approaching, Crazy Horse had convinced the leaders of both tribes that they needed to change their tactics and move to the soldiers and attack them to protect their village. Bourke and the Indian scouts, being in advance of the main body, took the brunt of the first attack, and Crook credited the stubborn resistance by Bourke and the scouts with giving him time to organize his defense. This possibly saved them from the sort of disaster these same Indians would inflict on Custer barely over a week later. Here, pressed in the middle of a melee of hundreds of Sioux, Cheyenne, Shoshone and Crow, fighting with lances, tomahawks, knifes and guns, Bourke’s ethnological curiosity about how Native Americans fought each other, “according to their own notions,” was fully satisfied.

In his writing about this battle near the Rosebud Creek, Bourke said that bugler Elmer Snow “made a remarkable escape” after being unhorsed. This was an indication of his modesty, as others reported that Bourke rode into the midst of dozens of hostile Indians to get him back up on a horse and save him. The fact that Snow, who was wounded in both arms and awarded the Medal of Honor for this actions that day, later named a son John Gregory Bourke Snow, lends credence to their reports. This battle went on for about five hours, far longer than most battles of the Indian Wars. It was likely the closest Bourke came to dying in action during his career.

(Left: Bourke with a long beard, as he looked during the Sioux Campaign, probably taken after the "Horse Meat March.")

The hostile Indians eventually retreated, allowing Crook to claim the fight was a victory, but he was battered and low on ammunition and supplies and retreated southward. As a consequence, some have blamed him for the disastrous end awaiting Custer, but in this time before communication between widely separated forces was feasible, it’s impossible to say if he could have prevented it.

The Horse Meat March

Crook resupplied his force and received reinforcements, including the 5th Cavalry and their scout “Buffalo” Bill Cody, whom Bourke thought had “good pluck,” though he didn’t like his long hair. Crook then, in early August, embarked on an arduous campaign. It would come to be known as “The Horse Meat March." Some consider it one of the most grueling campaigns in U.S. military history. The scattering Sioux and Cheyenne burned much of the grassland in the area as they moved, leaving little forage for the cavalry's horses, and continuous heavy rains slowed the column to a crawl in thick mud as supplies ran out. Eventually their supplies ran out and the troopers were eating their horses.

(Right: The post-Little Bighorn campaign, including Crook's "Horse Meat March," from The Atlas of the Sioux Wars, 2nd Edition by Combat Studies Institute Press. Click n the map for a larger view.)

When they finally reached civilization in Deadwood (if one would call it that at the time, picture here), after a battle with a Cheyenne village at Slim Buttes on September 9th and 10th, Crook’s men were totally used up. But they did succeed in destroying the village and supplies, making it hard for the hostile tribes to continue to survive off the reservation. Several items from Custer's 7th Cavalry, including a guidon flag, were found in the village.

Bourke was on several of these campaigns in Arizona and the Plains. These, along with  his numerous taxing treks around Arizona studying the tribes there, likely shortened his life, driving himself to the edge of total exhaustion. His personal drive allowed him to accomplish much in his life, but it came at a price.

(Left: Crazy Horse and his band of Oglala on their way from Camp Sheridan to surrender to General Crook at Red Cloud Agency, Sunday, May 6, 1877.)

By the late spring of 1877, most of the hostile bands of Sioux and Cheyenne had surrendered. Over the next few years, Bourke would now be able to study these tribes at peace, and his attitude toward them  -- and all Native Americans -- would slowly evolve. He was impressed on meeting Crazy Horse (pictured, a disputed photo which may or may not be him). Bourke said Crazy Horse “behaved stolidly, like a man who knew he had to give in to fate,” and was saddened by his death shortly afterwards at the hands of soldiers trying to arrest him. His death, said Bourke, “marked the ebb” of the Sioux nation. The tribes themselves, he now said, “appear to much better advantage than when we study them as enemies.”

Soldier Scientist

Bourke’s continuing collection of stories from various tribe members, study of their rituals, and gathering of artifacts from them garnered his superior's attention. In late 1880, on a temporary assignment to Washington, Bourke first came in contact with the scientific community whose members would later welcome him to their ranks. In 1881, he was designated an ethnographer for the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution and got an official assignment to study the western tribes from General Sheridan, commander of the Military Division of the Missouri. Sheridan hoped that learning to better understand them might aid the Army’s pacification efforts.

(The "Scalp Shirt" of Crazy Horse, which Bourke obtained from Sioux warrior Little Big Man. Now held by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.)

Much of that study would be back in Arizona, Bourke's old stomping grounds. This study, his writing about it and about his experiences in the Indians Wars, would occupy nearly every free moment for the rest of his life. His last service in those wars would come in two more stints on Crook's staff. The first was a successful campaign in 1882-83, in which Crook's use of Chiricahua and other Apache scouts again allowed him to bring in more than 400 Chiricahua Apaches who were off the reservation.

It’s hard to figure out how he ever found time to fit a personal life into his frenetic army career and Native American cultural research, but on July 25, 1883, Bourke married Mary Horbach of Omaha, Nebraska, who was 15 years his junior. They traveled to Europe on their honeymoon, including a stop in Ireland, his parents' native land, but unfortunately the man who had chronicled most of his adult life until then left no record of his impressions of Ireland. John and Mary would have three daughters: Sara, Anna, and Pauline. Sara and Pauline would both marry army officers.

The second Arizona campaign was a famous effort to bring in Geronimo and his band of Chiricahua from northern Mexico in March 1886 and though it was very nearly successful, ended in failure. Bourke took notes as Crook and Geronimo met in Cañon De Los Embudos, just over the border in Sonora, Mexico. The meeting was famously photographed by Tombstone photographer C.S. Fly.

It appeared Crook had another great success, as Geronimo agreed to the terms that included him serving two years in prison. But as they moved north an American with the group provided whiskey to Geronimo and several other Apaches.

( Left: Geronimo, facing the camera, 3rd from the left and Crook, in the pith helmet seated 2nd from the right, during their ill-fated negotiations. This is among the few photos ever taken of hostile Indians in the field.)

After a hug from the drunken Geronimo, Bourke sensed impending disaster and tried to warn Crook. He was proven correct the following morning, when Geronimo and a portion of his band were gone. It was the end for Crook in Arizona. He resigned and was replaced by General Miles. Bourke's service in Arizona ended with Crook's.

Miles rejected Crook's use of Apache scouts and tried to catch Geronimo by setting 5,000 troopers on his trail. They failed miserably. Finally in September 1886, Geronimo surrendered and came back to the reservation, agreeing to the same two-year prison term in Florida previously offered. But this only came about because Lt. Charles Gatewood and the Chiricahua Apache scouts Martine and Kayitah tracked down his group and convinced him to do it. Gatewood would receive no credit from Miles for this heroic service, no doubt because it had been achieved using Crook's scouts, whom Miles had discredited. Gatewood was transferred to the Dakota territory, keeping him away from any inquisitive reporters.

The government would never honor Geronimo's deal. What was worse, Miles also disarmed and arrested those Chiricahua scouts who had served the army so well, and shipped them off to prison with Geronimo’s men. Crook said of these scouts who had played such a key role in helping him Arizona, “I assert … without reserve or qualification of any nature, that these Chiricahua scouts … did most excellent service, and were of more value in hunting down and compelling the surrender of the renegades than all other troops engaged in operations against them combined.”

(Right: Apache prisoners during a rest stop on their way to prison in Fort Marion, Florida. Geronimo is 3rd from the right in the front.)

Miles tried to justify this by stating he had to "teach them all (the Chiricahua) a lesson." Martine and Kayitah traveled to prison in Florida on the same train with Geronimo, whom they had helped bring in. All the Chiricahua, including men, women and children who had never left the reservation, were sent to the prison on train cars with no windows and deplorable sanitary conditions. One could only guess at what “lesson” Miles thought was being taught by such a disgusting travesty of not only justice, but morality.

Love your enemies; for they shall tell
you all your faults. -- Benjamin Franklin

As one might expect, the Apaches arrived in Florida in appalling condition. But even that was held against them. The Florida Times-Union reported:

Dirty, ragged, half-clad, with long, unkempt locks of coarse black hair flying loose about their heads and in their eyes, they were typical savages, and justified by their appearance alone almost any degree of harshness in treatment which they may have received.

(A forlorn group of Chiricahua Apache families in Fort Marion.)

In the long list of dishonorable acts of the U.S. government to Native Americans, this betrayal must rank near the top. It would be 27 years before any of the Chiricahua would see Arizona again. Many of them, including Geronimo in 1909, would be dead before then, as would Bourke. He worked tirelessly to get the government to honor their agreement the rest of his life, but this hate-filled Florida newspaper comment illustrates the public attitude he faced.

When Bourke discovered what had been done to the scouts, with whom he had faced extreme danger in so many hard campaigns, he minced no words. "There is no more disgraceful page in our history of our relations with the American Indians than that which conceals the treachery visited upon the Chiricahuas who remained faithful in their allegiance to our people. An examination of the documents cited will show that I have used extremely mild language in alluding to this affair,” he said. A man interested only in his own self interest would have said nothing.

(Left: A group of Chiricahua Apaches at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1914, still 'prisoners of war' more than 27 years after Geronimo surrendered.)

Crook's star was descending in the Army now, and Bourke, as the ultimate “Crook man,” suffered for it. That combined with his tireless championing of the cause of justice for the Chiricahua, a group with few friends in or out of the Army, destroyed his chances for promotion. It was an indication of the integrity he showed his entire adult life that he never wavered in his loyalty to Crook or the Apache prisoners in spite of the damage it caused him. Bourke's head may have told him that he should abandon the luckless Chiricahua families in Florida, and surely his plate was full with researching and writing in the coming years, but his heart would never allow it.

The army transferred him to Washington from 1886 to 1891 to allow him to turn his copious notes and personal experiences into both ethnological and historical books and articles. He would eventually write some 50-odd articles and monographs and several books. His ethnological studies included “The Snake Dance of the Moguis (Hopi) of Arizona,” “Scatalogic Rites of All Nations,” and “Medicine Men of the Apaches. He also penned three military histories: “An Apache Campaign in the Sierra Madre,” “Mackenzie's Last Fight with the Cheyennes,” and “On the Border with Crook.”

“On the Border with Crook” covers his entire Indian War career and is considered one of the classic books on the Indian Wars. It’s this book that has kept his name known more than any of the others. Bourke’s writing was highly descriptive and allowed the reader to paint a mental picture of the deserts and mountains of Arizona and the northern plains in Wyoming and Montana, and of the various people with whom he came in contact.

Bourke drove himself as relentlessly in his research and writing as he had while soldiering, studying Indian tribes and assisting Indian Rights Association in the attempts to help improve conditions for the Chiricahua. His body, which had suffered so much during his incredibly arduous active service, began to break down. In 1891, still just a captain, he was sent to command a company of the 3rd Cavalry in Texas and his last army assignment was at Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont. No doubt the death of his long-time commander, General Crook, in March 1890 was another blow.

He’d given up on ever being promoted and decided to retire, but the Army gave him one more slap in the face. In 1892 he had his 30 years in service, since he’d been in the Army nearly continuously since 1862, but he was informed that his Civil War service didn’t count. He’d been involved in 150 battles or skirmishes in defense of his country, and now he was told the first three of those years didn’t “count.” In 1894 he was on a list to get a brevet promotion to major, but he was disgusted with the Army by then. He felt so many of his deserving comrades, whose service in the Indian Wars warranted promotion, were being passed over. He refused the brevet.

Through this later part of his life, Bourke was greatly admired by the scientific community in Washington, and indeed the rest of the world, for his research and writing about various Native American tribes. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Victoria Institute of Great Britain, the Anthropological Society of Washington, and he was president of the American Folklore Society. But he was frustrated with his lack of promotion and in despair at the treatment of his former comrades, be they soldiers or Apache scouts. As well, the failure of his efforts to help the Indian Rights Association alleviate the suffering of the Chiricahuas, was impairing his mental health all while years of grueling campaigning were destroying his physical health. It would prove a fatal combination.

Bourke 'Fades Away'

Bourke had a career as a soldier, as a historian, and in the field of ethnology that one can’t help but admire today, but he looked at the end result of the Indian wars that had been such a focus of his adult life and felt, with good reason, that his country had acted in a dishonorable fashion. And worse, he felt complicit in that dishonor, and in 1895 the officer who had deceived Geronimo and betrayed the Chiricahua scouts, Nelson Miles, had risen to the post of commanding general of the Army.

Nearing the premature end of his life, Bourke wrote, ". . . the legend 'it is finished' was written at the end of the unbroken series of plunder and exaction marking the progress westward of Caucasion civilization; the last feeble remnant of savagery, fighting with the courage of despair to defend its barren, mountain birthright had been ground into powder beneath the heel of a nation whose proud boast had been 'Liberty to all the land and to all the inhabitants thereof."

Those who showed the least honor in our dealings with Native American tribes seldom seemed to anguish over their actions. Men like Bourke and Crook, who fought so hard, and sacrificed so much, to defeat them, but never dishonored themselves in their dealing with them, were the ones who felt a shared misery at the fate of their former foes.

(Left: The prematurely aged Bourke in 1896, shortly before his death.)

In late spring of 1896, Bourke's candle, after so many years burning at both ends, went out. Not yet 50 years old, Bourke now looked at least 10 years older. He died in the Polyclinic Hospital in Philadelphia on June 8, 1896, of an aneurysm. As a priest administered to him the Last Rites, the battered warrior showed his spirit was still strong as he joked that the priest was "a mighty poor recruiting officer for God's army" if the broken-down warrior in that bed was the best he could do.

If Bourke had lived another 10 years or so the last part of his life could have been much different. William McKinley, who had been on Crook's staff during the Civil War, was elected president later that year, and Teddy Roosevelt, with whom Bourke had become great friends in Washington the last years of his life, would follow him in in the White House. He could have had a strong ally in the most powerful office in the land if he had lived longer. Bourke was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. No soldier of the era was more deserving of that honor. It is heartbreaking to think that this noble man went to his grave feeling his life had been a failure.

Surely, if his Irish parents had been at his bedside, they would have been proud that he had become the man they had hoped he would be. In his life he had made his mark as a soldier, as a historian, as an ethnologist, and as a humanitarian, any of which, taken separately, could have been looked on as a fine, productive life. The old soldier had "faded away," as Douglas MacArthur would say years later, but he has left behind an amazing written record of achievement as an ethnologist and historian. Bourke did not fail his country in anything he did. He had given the last full measure of devotion to it, and that service put him in an early grave. The government of his country, however, surely failed him. He deserved better in life, and he deserves to be far more well-known than he is.


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

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Tags: America's Civil War, Army, Frontier Wars, Military History, War

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 24, 2016 at 10:06am

A very fine man indeed Joe is a very sad fact however that people in general have very short memories... they forget very easily what was done for their good... ....

If e take a look at our Irish History , it is only a very small handful of people [ men in particular]  who ever get their ' just rewards' ... 

Is their another article to follow??

Comment by Joe Gannon on January 24, 2016 at 12:20pm

You mean about Bourke? I followed him up to his death, Mary. He didn't do much after that. ;-)

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 27, 2016 at 8:24am

Thanks for that Joe 

Comment by Claire Fullerton on February 2, 2016 at 7:11pm

Loved this, Joe. It's beautifully and poignantly told. To think here you are now sharing this story tells me that he may have not experienced his just due whilst alive, but he has it here posthumously. And with regard to your comment to "That's Just How It Was" above, I'm laughing out loud at how Irish it sounds!

Comment by Joe Gannon on February 2, 2016 at 7:53pm

Thanks, Claire. When I read his biography it really seemed so unfair that he had gone to his grave feeling his life had been a failure. Here was a man who had accomplished so much in his life, and suffered so much for his country, and worked so hard for justice for people who had once tried their best to kill him, simply because it was morally right, and in spite of the personal cost to him; he deserved so much more. I wrote this slowly and rewrote and edited it many more times than I do with most articles before I posted it. I felt like he was owed that.

Comment by Claire Fullerton on February 2, 2016 at 8:04pm

Your editing prowess shows! This is a fine, fine piece and you came to it with heart-warming sincerity. I've always thought that if a writer can make a reader feel, then they've done their job; you've done so here.


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