Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Accidental Peacemaker: The Life of Tom Jeffords in the Frontier


Thomas Jonathan Jeffords played a key role in the historic truce between the Apaches and US Government in 1872. His life inspired the novel, Blood Brother, and hollywood movie, Broken Arrow. A tribute to the man on his 100th death anniversary.


The General, as usual, was in high spirits--he was a veteran of many battles, and had lost his right arm in one of those. He was a man with a flowing dark and silver beard, his eyes piercing into your depths. His assistant,  the lieutenant, was tall and soft spoken and he had served the General for years as aide-de-camp. He too would lose a limb--his leg amputated when an unruly horse threw him off, crushing it. He was silent and observant; he often kept writing in the notebook hidden in his breast-pocket.

The General kept talking about this mission, a mission of peace from the President, and also from God. General Oliver Howard was like that --he was known the Christian General in the Army and every time he spoke, he loved to quote scriptures.

Tom remembered his first meeting with the General. He was just back from Apache lands, serving as guide to a military patrol for 27 days. They often asked him to help, as he knew the place like the back of his palm, doing business in those parts. It was no easy business, the Government troops had been locked in fierce battles with Apaches in that vast and wild zone for a decade. White men were legitimate target for rebels and he had lost men in the days he ran the stagecoach service from Fort Bowrie to Tucson, the line going through rebel lands. He never really wanted to spend his life running stagecoaches through those inhospitable hills and valleys where death lurked, but then the  Butterfield company people came with offers that were irresistible and he had nothing particular to do either. So he took it and in the next 16 months counted 14 bodies of his people. And on his body, a few arrows.   

That was when he decided to take the bull by the horns. Thomas Jeffords was a man of action, and never afraid of anyone; not even the fierce leader of Chiricahua  Apaches, the six-foot warrior chief Cochise, who moved like a bullet on a swift horse --his gun blazing. Tom jumped onto his horse, slung his rifle across the shoulders and galloped on--he knew where to find chief Cochise after his raids, enjoying Apache dances and feasts in the company of his wives and fighters, and approached the camp in full view of everyone, his progress deliberately slow and steady.

That was how he became friends with the rebel chief. Cochise was a brave man, a great leader of his people. He liked  the ones he thought brave and straightforward. There were none among  the whites he had known, and he believed treachery was their way of life. He had lost his father to their scalp-hunters, his brother and father-in-law taken prisoners and killed, hundreds of his people murdered and his followers driven from place to place in the lands where they had lived in peace for centuries until the white men came with their guns and greed.

It was Tom’s personal peace mission. He only wanted to be left alone, riding his horses with the stagecoaches in tow through these lands. He was doing no harm to anyone, he was only carrying letters and food and other things to those people going west-- in search of gold and silver and a new life in those frontiers, opening up. Cochise listened to him and his pleas, as the Apaches in their war paint and their women listened, wondering what their chief was waiting for, why not finish him off without wasting time?

But Cochise wanted to talk, and he was looking for a man to talk to--somebody from the whites who could understand him, his people, their life. They had lived there all their lives, they had no quarrels with these men who came to rule the country, but they cheated him and treated his people badly, and he remembered the treachery they played on him, when he went to Fort Bowrie with his family to help the Army find a boy on the ranch, who had been missing. They suspected he had taken him hostage. But he had never taken the boy, he had no quarrels with the Americans, his troubles were with Mexicans. He thought he was going to the fort as a friend, as chief of the great Chiricahua Apaches, but once inside, he saw he was a prisoner.

But they had underestimated him. He was chief Cochise and their forts and guns would not stop him. As he jumped from his seat and rushed out tearing the canvass sheets with his knife, and disappeared, their bullets failed to touch him. He was the son of those woods and hills and canyons and unbeatable in his elements. The Army hanged his brother, killed his followers, tricked Mangas Coloradas, his father-in-law, into their camp and took his life...How could he, Cochise, accept all this and not hit back, take his revenge? How could he spare anyone?

Tom could see the point. He had seen how the newcomers treated the natives, from the days he was running steamboats in the Great Lakes up north soon after he left his parents’ home in Chautauqua in New York. They were nice people, his parents, very religious and some of them Quakers and preachers who faced difficulties for their beliefs, but he left home early as a boy. He was a man of the wild and tried his luck far away in the west. He tried running boats up and down the Mississippi where they called him Captain Jeffords, and sold wares in Apache lands. He was Army courier during the Civil War in those deserts of the west. He loved to be left alone, do what he liked to do and thought the Indians too had the same rights as he had. And the white people never liked it and most of them thought he was queer and some called him the dirty Indian lover. So he sat there enjoying the mules meat and the Indian drinks Cochise offered,and by the third day they were two great friends, never to be separated.Some said they had become blood brothers, their friendship consecrated in a rite of mixing blood.But Tom never spoke about it, nor did he try to dispel rumours.

The General had come from the Capital, as envoy of the great father in the White House to the rebels, to offer them the olive branch. He had spent many weeks travelling from fort to fort in the deserts, looking for a way to meet the elusive Indian chief. He had sent word through emissaries, expressed his readiness to negotiate a new era of peace.  

Lieutenant Joseph Sladen, his aide-de-camp, told him about the “mysterious white man” who was blood brother of Cochise, who could make the General’s wish come true. General Howard lost no time and there he was face to face with Tom, the man in his early forties with a long red beard and a carefree look.

Sladen’s notebook and General Howard’s letters home to his wife have left details of everything that happened in that historic trip. Tom himself later described his meeting with the General at Fort Tularosa in New Mexico on the evening of September 7, 1872. The General was in earnest, he held his spectators in awe with his aura of greatness and bravery at places like Gettysburg.  But Tom was tired, keen on the whiskey that flowed in the dining hall. He knew what the General wanted, and he had run similar errands for the army -- two years earlier General George Crook and Indian affairs chief Nathaniel Pope had asked him to persuade Cochise to come to the camp for talks, and he had been offered 2000 dollars for his efforts. He spent weeks looking for Cochise and caught up with him in Canada Alamosa. But Cochise refused to come -- he did not trust them. Tom returned with his message but some people said he was lying, he had never met the Indian chief. Tom did not get his full pay.

So he thought it was better to keep out of this trouble, again. He told the General he could never persuade Cochise to come, but then, added, “I can take you to him if you so wished...”

He never expected the General would accept it; not many would. It was madness going into the wild, into the rebel lands. And most did not even see the need for talks. Finish them off, bring in more Howitzers, they said marvelling at the way the Indians fled when the big guns were first brought in. But General Howard was a different kind of man. He said, ”Yes, we will go to him” and without an escort, as Tom suggested.  

Both knew it was a gamble, fraught with huge risks. Both sides also had misgivings about each other. General Howard had been warned about Tom. "We were warned that he was a suspicious character,” Sladen wrote. Some senior officers said his dealings with Cochise were suspicious, that he was believed to have furnished Cochise with arms and ammunition...

Tom too had his misgivings."I was prejudiced against him on account of his well known humanitarian ideas, and, to my mind,  posing as a Christian soldier,” he told a historian years later.

But both changed their views of each other. Tom said he held General Howard “above all other men for honor and bravery.” And the General, on his part, recorded that “I did not reject the services of a brave man like Jeffords who periled his life to make peace because of slanders not proved...”

The General and Lt.Sladen had started their journey from the Capital on July 10, reaching Pueblo in Colorado by train and from there they had reached Santa Fe by stage-coach and then Fort Wingate and Fort Apache on horseback, finally arriving at Fort Tularosa on the desert outskirts on September 4. They had crossed “hills, valleys, crags and canyons.” At Tularosa, the General’s horse stepped into the quicksands as they crossed the river and he jumped into the water to save himself.

Now it was time for the final journey, into the mountains where Cochise and his bands lived. They set out on Friday, September 13. Towards the end of the journey, a team of five -- the General, Sladen, Tom and two Apache guides, Chie and Ponce, both closely related to Cochise.

The General was in high spirits, but Sladen recorded what was uppermost in everyone’s minds-- the dangers they were exposed to. The Apaches with their  poisoned arrows were watching them from every hill, every rock, every canyon on the way. They were moving, unarmed, in the realm of a person who had killed more than 5000 Americans --almost half of Arizona’s entire white population -- in his dreadful decade-long campaign of retribution. Even Cochise recognised this when, later on, he commended the General for the bravery shown in this journey which would have cost him his life.

They travelled for 16 days and on 29 September reached the eastern flanks of the Dragoon Mountains, a vast and arid region full of rocks, where Cochise and his Chokonen band were stationed then. Ponce and Chie communicated with their brothers through smoke signals and they were allowed to move in, crossing the Middlemarch Pass the next morning.

They moved into the interior of the mysterious mountains and  then Chie said he would go alone and announce their arrival. The team waited for a long time until they saw Chie return with two boys on a single pony who bade them follow in their trail. They reached a camp where they saw many men, women and children, but  no Cochise. He would meet them the next day, it was announced. The next morning, October 1, they were taken to another spot in the rancheria, a natural fortification protected by huge rocks, where they met the chief, “a six foot-man as straight as an arrow.”

That evening, the General returned to the Fort Bowrie to instruct the forces not to harm any of the Chokonen bands returning to join the peace talks. Sladen and Jeffords stayed back in the camp. The chief offered them dinner, which Sladen happily enjoyed, realising hunger gave real taste to food.

After dinner, as they were smoking, Tom asked Sladen: “How did you like the meat?”   
“Well enough,” Sladen said, ”though it seemed rather coarse and tough for antelope, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was rather coarse for antelope,” said Jeffords,”but it was good enough for old dead horse, and that is just what it was...!”

The old chief, however, wanted to offer antelope meat to his guests. For lunch, he sent one of his men to hunt down an antelope and he took off with his gun, but returned empty handed, driving the old man into a rage. “His face flushed in anger, his keen black eyes flashed,        
and his voice rose to a high key, and the returned hunter arose and slunk away like a whipped cur.”

They spent the nights under the sky. “Spreading out my blanket,” Sladen wrote, “I lay down upon the steep hillside, moving here and there a stone a little larger than the rest, as it made its projections uncomfortably manifest in my back...I lighted a pipe, and wrapped myself in my blanket against the piercing cold of the mountain.”

The negotiations continued for two weeks, and finally the declaration of peace was made at a huge rock called the Council Rock, in the presence of military officers from Fort Bowrie as well as the chiefs of various Chokonen bands under Cochise. It was an oral treaty between two honorable men, nothing written down, as “the Indians had a singular dislike to seeing any writing done.They thought there was bad medicine in it for them and did not conceal their objections to it.”

Thus the peace treaty was born, a decade long hostilities came to an end, and the Chiricahua reservation was created for the Apaches, and Jeffords appointed as the agent to take care of their affairs and report back to the government.

Then the General and his loyal lieutenant left, promising to send up provisions for the people in the reservation so they will no longer have to go on raids-- Jeffords was left behind to take care of the implementation of the terms of the treaty. The General was home in November after six months in the deserts and mountains.  

It was the turn of Tom to hold onto the tenuous strings of peace. He was made agent, as Cochise insisted. He trusted no one but Tom among the whites. And the whites hated him for that very reason--he was an Indian lover, a traitor. The military disliked him, they thought it was easier and better to wipe these people off the face of earth than to feed them.  

The Apaches had called in all their roaming bands to the reservation, to live in peace as their chief ordered. Tom was to supply their weekly rations, but stocks were running low. He tried to get supplies on credit; when shoppers asked for payment he rummaged his own pocket or funds. He wrote to the General in desperation who took steps to get things moving.

Keeping the Apaches in peace was not easy. They sneaked out south, into Mexico for plunder, and bought contraband liquors with the money thus gained. They were unruly, and some of them were not happy with the terms of the truce. Only the iron will of Cochise held them in check.

And Cochise was a dying man. He was now old, his body weak and feeble, the discomfort in his intestines was growing. He knew his time was short. Tom went to meet him, and the old man asked as he took leave, ”Do you think we will meet again?”
“Unlikely,” Tom said, “you may not survive another day...”
‘Yes, tomorrow morning it will be,” the chief said, “but we will meet again...”He said, his finger pointing to the skies. “Good friends never really part...”

And the next day, June 8, 1874, he was dead. The wailing of his people was heard all over the mountains. He had chosen his successor before his departure, his son Natchie, and told them to stick to peace and go by the advice of “Red beard”, as Tom was known among his people.
The funeral was a private affair, Tom the only outsider to witness it. It was their custom to burn  clothes in honor of the departed soul, and many burnt their best clothes as they bid farewell to their chief. His body was taken in a procession to the deep canyon in the mountains, his belongings thrown into the deep, then his hunting dog and his horse, followed by the chief himself. Where did they bury him remained a secret --Tom took it to his own grave.

With Cochise gone and tensions mounting, the tide was turning against Tom: The Apaches continued their raids to the south and Tom was accused of encouraging their depredations, and Tom knew it was not in his powers to stop them, even Cochise had been evasive on these raids, he said he never had a truce with Mexicans. The government officials were never friendly, his supplies delayed and in deficit, and in 1876 the beef ration was cut. The Indians became restive and two of them got killed in a fight and then came an attack on a ranch and murder of two others and all hell broke loose. Two Indians had got drunk from a bottle of bad whiskey they got from a man called Nicholas Rogers who ran a stagecoach station, on the edge of the reservation. Tom had warned him against selling liquor to Indians, but he continued his lucrative trade. Late that night the Apaches went back to Rogers, demanding more liquor. He refused and they killed him and his cook on the spot.  

The frontier press had never been friendly to Tom. They thought him a renegade, an Indian stooge. The most virulent attack came from John Wasson, editor of Tucson Weekly Citizen, who wrote an editorial titled Thomas J Jeffords, a piece so poisonous and one-sided that it later gave rise to a big fight between Wasson and a fellow editor in the town. The Citizen called Tom an “incarnate demon”, whose crimes they reeled out on the basis on the testimony of an unnamed gentleman. Jeffords was accused of being drunk most of the time, of giving arms and ammunition to Apaches on their raids and receiving the spoils, of hiding gold plundered from  Mexicans, of having welcomed with an embrace the murderers of the rancher on their return to the reservation, of refusing to arrest them for their crime, of allowing to keep a girl in the reservation taken hostage by the Indians...

The editor said they had hoped he would gather his filthy blood money and creep off to some forgotten corner and lie down to die preparatory to his transfer to an inevitable hell. “If he had killed himself or slunk away to some hidden corner of the earth, we might have passed over this frightful revelation...” he assures his readers. Calling upon the authorities to “arrest him and bring him to speedy trial,” editor Wasson concluded, ominously: “It is possible that he has lived among the savages and their worse allies so long as to have forgotten the temper of the American people.”

Tom was away in the reservation, trying to bring order in an increasingly difficult situation. He was left  with few friends, and even those who had supported him earlier were shifting their position as they saw which way the wind was blowing. The General was far away and even the state’s governor, who stood for peace in the past, had now turned a hawk. The truce had become an orphan, and Tom was left alone, holding it. In the midst of all his troubles, he wrote a reply to the Citizen's tirade, and sent it to a friend in Tucson. It was an excellent piece of writing, a balanced and yet firm rejoinder based on facts, supported by written testimony from Capt. C B Mc Clellan, commanding officer of Fort Bowrie, refuting some charges raised by the Citizen alleging the Army had serious problems with Tom.

Editor Wasson, however, refused to publish it. For him, his opinions were the gospel. However,  
Charles O Brown, to whom Tom had sent his response, approached other editors in the town and finally, T J Butler of Prescott Weekly Miner, agreed to publish it. He gave an announcement a week in advance, asserting “we know nothing of the controversy” and were not pronouncing a judgement either. He said they decided to publish the letter to “give a fair hearing to an accused man,” as justice demanded.
Wasson was enraged, and he pounced upon Butler calling him a brainless and marrowless hermaphrodite. “We will have nothing to do with him [Tom Jeffords] except to drive him to a court of justice,” he asserted defending his decision not to to publish Jeffords’ letter. He described Tom the great criminal who has been a deadly incubus on the society.

Butler responded in kind calling Wasson a person beneath the recognition of gentlemen and a blackguard with a self-conceited head. Tom’s reply along with the letter from Capt. Mc Clellan  was published on the front page of Miner on June 9.

Tom, in his letter, asserted the editorial was untrue from commencement to the end. “There is not an assertion in the article but what I can prove to be so in every particular.” Then he dealt with every single charge in the Citizen editorial, demolishing them one by one. As for the charge of his taking blood money, he said, “I wish to state that and can prove that instead of my having made money since I have been Agent for these Indians, I am poorer now than when I was first appointed”. He said he had warned Rogers against keeping whiskey in the ranch as he could be killed for it, and also had sent a written notice to him that anyone disposing of whiskey to Indians would be prosecuted. He said he could prove all his claims, but “if the Arizona Citizen would take the pains to get its information from some reliable source, I do not believe that any vindication would be necessary, so far as I am concerned.”

The accompanying letter from Capt. Mc Clellan, dated May 20, 1876, gave the lie to the Citizen’s charge that Tom had welcomed the murderers of the rancher calling them friends and had refused to take steps to get them arrested. The statement is false, Capt. Mc Clellan said. “You never in my hearing styled the murderers ‘good Indians’ or ‘friends’, but you stated to me that ‘they were bad Indians and that they ought to be cleaned out’.” He also gave him permission to publish the letter, noting “you may use this in any manner you see proper.”
But Tom’s fate had been sealed, and the four years of tenuous peace was about to go up in smoke, with another decade of bloody encounters soon to erupt. The hawks had won out, and the federal authorities had decided to exile Chiricahua Indians from their traditional grounds further away, to San Carlos, using force if necessary. San Carlos agent John P Clum had already raised a militia of ranchers to complete the task and he marched in, with his troops, and Tom Jeffords was removed as US Federal Agent on June 8.  

Tom had assured he would assist the authorities if they wished to exile the Indians away from the agency. He did everything he could, calling all the 900 families of Indians under his charge together to ensure they had moved out. But the move was a disaster. Most of the able-bodied men and their families slipped away --some crossed the borders to the south and went back to their old ways. Only 90 families reached San Carlos. Soon violence erupted again, under new leaders like Juh and Geronimo.
Geronimo soon became the most feared rebel leader after Cochise--until his surrender a decade later. Sladen recalls seeing him at the peace talks: His crafty, cruel, vindictive looks and his disinclination to deal with us made him an object of extreme dislike and suspicion, he wrote. Among the new rebel leaders were Chie, their affable young guide at Dragoon Mountains, and Natchie, youngest son of Cochise who, as a kid, used to crawl himself into Sladen’s blanket in the camp on cold nights.

General Howard was unhappy with the unravelling of all his exertions. But he was far removed from the scene and powerless to influence the course of events. He expressed his feelings in a private letter to Sladen: “Every promise you and I made those Apaches, through Jeffords, was afterwards broken by the agents of our Government. The Indians were bad enough, but I think we have been worse...”

For the Apaches, certain and irreversible doom was written into their destiny. The war continued for ten years until the final surrender of Geronimo and Natchie in September 1886. For the next quarter century, the Apaches were driven from one colony to the other, never allowed to their original homelands. From San Carlos, they were sent to Florida, from there to Alabama and then to Oklahoma, a life of misery and wretchedness, separated from their children forcibly taken away to a school in Pennsylvania. Finally, in 1914, 28 years after their surrender, the Apaches were allowed to return to New Mexico if they so wished, and most of those who survived chose to go back home, to the Mescalero reservation; among them Natchie, one of the last rebels to survive.

Tom also returned, to his lonely and nomadic sort of life, trying many things to make a living -- like running a copper mine, working as a guide, an army scout and a merchant... He was never married, though some say he had fallen in love with an Apache girl--may be one of those gazelle-eyed girls even Lt. Sladen describes admiringly: I have seldom seen a prettier picture than that of one of these young women sitting astride a horse and riding like the wind, with her colored garments and long braids streaming in the breeze behind her.

But he never said anything about it.

Nor did he care what others said. He had made many enemies, and some of the people whom he had known said bitter things about him. William Ohnesorgen was one among them. The man had bought a herd of sheep from Mexico in November 1875 and drove them home through the Chiricahua reservation, in violation of the rules. The sheep muddied water in a pool the Apaches had set up for their use,  and after a heated dispute they stoned the sheep, killing a few of them. This led to a legal wrangle between Jeffords as the Apache agent, and Ohnesorgen.  

Years later, Ohnesorgen said: I knew Captain Jeffords. He was a no good, filthy fellow...lived among those damn things [Apaches] and once in a while he would go down and haul one with him...

By 1892, Tom had moved to a barren and broken place 35 miles north of Tucson, called Owls Head. It was a mining district and he spent the next 22 years there, until his death, only rarely making an appearance in the  town. Once he was sighted on the town’s streets after a gap of four years--an event noted in a report in a local newspaper. At Owls Head he lived alone with his dogs and the mines’ workmen, in a frame house with a well, a mill site, a fine grove of saguaro cactus in the front yard and a fence around. His possessions were few and when he died, they found that he had only the barest necessities at home, besides his fine collection of minerals and a shotgun.

In those final years, he became very close to a woman named Alice Rollins Crane, a writer and adventurer, who had arrived in the place in 1887. She wanted to write a book on Cochise and made him agree to take her to the Dragoon Mountains, where the peace talks had been held. Then when she  heard gold had been struck in Alaska, she rushed there and met a Polish nobleman Count Morajeski, who had fallen on bad days. They married and soon went back to Tucson, to the evident pleasure of Tom who had been taking care of her mining properties. When news reached the town of the passing of Tom Jeffords on February 21, 1914, it was Morajeski who first reached the distant and lonely place Tom had made his home. A week earlier, on February 14, Tom had hurriedly prepared his will, leaving all his properties to John, his brother, who had accompanied him to the west.

The funeral took place the next day, a memorable farewell to a great pioneer. Most of the old timers were there and Tom's body was placed in the coffin in an excellent suit, his whiskers trimmed neatly. The ceremony was organised by the Pioneers Historical Society, where Tom was a founder member.

The town's newspapers which once bayed for the man's blood, wrote enthusiastic obituaries on the old man describing him the blood brother of Chief Cochise.  And soon, the descendants of the Apache chief were to return to their home grounds after almost three decades as prisoners and refugees in many distant lands.

And Tom went on his final journey and into an enigmatic legend. He was buried at Tucson's Evergreen cemetery and the grave remained unmarked for half a century. In 1964, Daughters of the American Colonists made him a headstone that reads:

THOMAS J. JEFFORDS
1832-1914
Friend and blood brother of Cochise
Peace-maker with hostile Apaches 1872
Erected in 1964 by Daughters of American Colonists.


(My thanks to Elizabeth John Dobson Jeffords, Bangalore & Denver, for comments and valuable insight into the family's life and history.)


5 comments:

SATCHIDANANDAN said...

Enjoyed it. Timely

SATCHIDANANDAN said...

Enjoyed it. Timely

Chekkutty N.P said...

Thanks, Satchi daa, for reading this rather long piece.

Chekkutty

Chekkutty N.P said...

A friend from ITALY writes:

Dear Che,

As always, you have produced a fascinating story, beautifully written and superbly researched. I have no particular interest in American history, but I found the article engrossing, but also incredibly depressing.

The older I get the more I despair of the human race. The awful inevitability of how the saga of Tom was going to unfold almost made me stop reading at times. The arrogance and inhumanity of the so-called white race both in the past and the present makes me despair.
I hope you get the wide readership you deserve, but it is so rare for the people who OUGHT to read something like that to actually do it and learn something from it.

Elizabeth Wilde

Unknown said...

Thank you for this very interesting article and the time and effort you took to write it. B.Thomas

 
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