Al Sieber, Chief of Scouts
One of the greatest (though usually unsung) heroes of the West, the man who, more than any other except perhaps General Crook was responsible for the pacification of the Apaches in the Southwest in the 1870s and 1880s, was Albert Sieber (1844 – 1907).
Al Sieber took part in more Indian fights than Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson put together, and shot more Indians than all of them combined. But that didn’t make him hated by the Apaches: most of them respected him enormously. Sieber was one of the greatest scouts in American history and stands in the great tradition of Boone, Bridger and Carson. His fascinating story is in many ways a classic example of the American West.
The definitive text on Al Sieber is Al Sieber, Chief of Scouts by Dan L Thrapp (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1964). It is a reliable, thoroughly researched work which gives an accurate and complete picture of Al’s life. It actually does more than that because the style is discursive and relaxed and Mr. Thrapp wanders off on side-trails, often telling us stories not directly related to Al but interesting nevertheless. It is an excellent complement to the book Apaches by James L Haley, which I reviewed recently, and Thrapp gives us an enjoyable and informative narrative of the Apaches wars.
The definitive Al
I heartily recommend both books.
Al was born in February 1844 in the Rhineland in Germany. His family were poor and his father died when Al was young. His mother emigrated with her children, first to New York, then in a village near Philadelphia (Al himself said he was raised in Pennsylvania; he was there between the ages of 5 and 12) and finally they moved to Minnesota in 1856.
His first proper job was as a teamster, hauling logs to the sawmills, and he worked with timber on and off for much of his life. He was a superb axeman and it gave him great strength. When the Civil War broke out Al was eager to go and he signed up on his eighteenth birthday in 1862.
He was by now about five feet ten, broad-shouldered, with dark eyes and sandy hair. With the addition of the traditional Western handlebar mustache, this was to be his appearance for most of his life.
Al had a tough war. First he was set to building corduroy roads before Yorktown in the rain, then landing under artillery fire at West Point, building a bridge over the Chickahominy and seeing action at Courtney House. He then became a sharpshooter.
He fought against Lee’s great assault to lift the siege of Richmond and skirmishing continued throughout the year after that. His regiment of Minnesotans gave a good account of itself at Antietam and Fredericksburg and the following spring at Chancellorsville.
His war came to an end at Gettysburg when a shell fragment fractured his skull and a rifle bullet struck his right ankle and ploughed up his leg, exiting at the knee. He was lucky to survive, and with both legs, but he was five months in the hospital. He was not to see combat again. He served the rest of the war as a prison guard at Elmira, New York.
The way West
He returned home with three hundred dollars bounty but like so many veterans was restless and footloose. In early 1866 he followed (unbeknownst to him) in Mark Twain’s footsteps (see Roughing It) by making the trip West by stage to Sacramento, then by river boat to San Francisco.
The end of the year saw him cutting ties – more timber work – in northern California for the eastward building Central Pacific. But as for Twain and so many others, the lure of silver was too strong and he made his way into Nevada. All the rest of his life Al dabbled in mining, seeking that one elusive big strike of silver, gold or copper. He came close to wealth from these efforts but never struck it rich.
Nevada in the 1860s was a lawless place. Thrapp quotes some illuminating figures: There were 402 known killings in Nevada between 1846 and 1881. As a result, however, only 19% of these were followed by any kind of judicial or extra-judicial consequences. Only 8 men were tried and hanged and 23 sent to prison. Vigilantes eliminated 13. Most just got away with it. Al himself was held up and robbed, and poured scorn on the bandit for taking the pittance that a poor working man had. He taunted the thief so much, according to his own account, that he risked being shot.
While working at the White Pine silver strike, Al met the great irrepressible red-headed Irishman Dan O’Leary (1834 - 1900) who would become one of the great scouts too and Al’s lifelong friend.
Back in California, broke, Al turned to driving much-needed horses along the tough trail into Arizona (Thrapp has pages and pages on all the different possible trails, which Al didn’t take) and landed in the burgeoning town of Prescott in 1868, aged 24.
At that time, Prescott, founded in 1864, was a rough wood-built town with a population of around five hundred, and perhaps two thousand placer miners round about. There were ten saloons but no school, church or bank.
Al drove a team and acted as shotgun guard. It was necessary: coaches carrying bullion were held up at a rate of two a week. Indians were also an ever-present danger.
It was at this time that Al came under the influence of another character, who, like Dan O’Leary, was to become a lifelong friend and mentor, Ed Peck. Handsome Canadian-born Peck (1834 – 1910) was chief scout at nearby Fort Whipple, and an expert tracker and marksman. He was as tough as nails but quiet and modest too and Al certainly learned much from him. Peck and O’Leary, opposites in many ways, taught Al the almost Sherlockian skills of observation, analysis and deduction which were required to be a superlative tracker.
Al was next hired as foreman on a ranch near Prescott, right in the heart of hostile Indian country. In April 1870 Indians, probably Navajos, launched a raid up the valley where the ranch lay, and Al had his first experience of Indian fighting. Al and his ranch hands had a sharp engagement and drove the attackers off. In August there was another raid when Indians stole ranch mules. Al and Dan O’Leary hastily organized a party to chase the rustlers but lost them.
In 1870, Al, Ed, Dan and many others joined the famed Miner expedition. They had no luck again but Al remained a part-time prospector for the rest of his life.
General George Crook, the greatest Army Indian fighter of them all, arrived in June 1871 to take up his new post of Commander of the Department of Arizona. He was accompanied by his Chief of Scouts Archie McIntosh, a half-blood Indian with whom he had worked in the north and in whom he had boundless trust (a trust that turned out to be worthless when later McIntosh had to be dismissed for corruption). Sieber and McIntosh took an almost instant dislike to each other, though managed to work together on and off for many years.
General Crook on his favorite mule
In November 1871 the stage with eight people aboard was attacked near Wickenburg, with six dying outright and another dying of wounds. One of the slain was the young and promising writer Frederick W Loring of Massachusetts. The Apaches were blamed for the massacre even though horses, blankets and the curtains of the stage were left behind. But the incident inspired Crook to act on his carefully-laid plans.
Crook was insistent that the Apaches were never going to be defeated by troops alone. They would only be beaten by their own people. He recruited Indians, especially Apaches, in considerable numbers both as scouts and fighters and he needed extraordinary white men to lead them and control them - men like McIntosh, Dan O’Leary and Al Sieber. This was the real start of Al’s career and fame. 'Al Seavers' – this was later ‘corrected’ to ‘Al Seiber’ - was hired at $125 a month and based at Camp Verde in the Tonto Basin.
In September 1872 a large force was sent out, commanded by Capt. Julius Mason. With the command were 86 Walapai scouts under Al Sieber. They attacked four Apache rancherias and Al’s section killed 40 Indians, capturing many more. Mason wrote to Crook, “I cannot speak too highly of our Walapais scouts … Guide Seaber did excellent service.”
Winter became Crook’s favorite season, a time when it was hard for the ‘hostiles’ to replenish their food supplies and they could be driven into high-altitude, difficult country. The campaign of 1872/3 was hard fought but ultimately successful with several Tonto chiefs and about 2300 Indians surrendering to Crook. Even the great leader Delshay finally surrendered, though he was a serial surrenderer who habitually broke out again when his people had fattened on rations, and he was not trusted by Sieber or the others.
From 1873 to 79 (in other words between the ages of 29 and 35) Al was Chief of Scouts at Camp Verde. He was almost continually in the field. Al developed his skills still further and became a scout of extraordinary ability. He could track like an Apache and endure like one and run like one. He was a remarkable shot and always kept his men supplied with game.
What was he like?
What kind of man was he? Well, he was not flamboyant, loud or a show-off. Contemporaries considered him quiet, modest and determined. He wore standard range clothes and no fancy buckskins. His language was salty and he drank. He used a little tobacco now and then, chewed or smoked in a pipe. He loved whiskey, a poker game, billiards, a dance and a night of carousing. He loved practical jokes.
Al put on buckskins for the occasional photograph but did not wear them as a normal thing
He always spoke with a German accent, even though he was only 5 when he left Germany. We know this because he never mastered English spelling and wrote phonetically. If you put on a German accent and read what Al wrote, it sounds perfect!
Johny I cant tell you when I will be able to cum home. I have not quite god over my shatt yet … So I cant traval so far but as soon as my leg hels up I will cum home. But I dond think it will be this winter for I could not stant the cold wether in Minnesota in the winter time. So Il hafto [wait] till spring. A nather thing I have a grade dele of work to do here. (Letter of October 1888)
He also applied German syntax to English, inverting his sentences, according to one William Corbusier. “His English was atrocious.” Sieber himself said that all he knew was “Injun, Mexican and hoss talk.”
He was tough, hardy and, if necessary, ruthless. For example, when in April 1874 he was ordered out on a scout but not to take prisoners, they attacked some hostiles, killing a dozen and capturing two. Sieber wanted information from one of the captives and kept him around for several days. Thrapp tells us that, as Al told a friend,
He realized he couldn’t bring in a prisoner after he had been ordered not to do so. Morning came, and the Indian scouts, the prisoner, a packer and Sieber were sitting in a circle eating their sparse breakfast. Al figured there was no time like the present. “I motioned to some of my scouts,” he said, “and they did not seem to understand – so I took my rifle, laid it back of the packer’s had and shot the Indian behind the ear just as he was biting into a piece of bread. He fell over backwards; his feet went up in the air. The packer turned to me and said, “Al, if I had knowed you was going to that to him, I would not have let him eat so much.”
This is hard to square with heroic visions of Al Sieber but in the context of the time and place, it was considered perfectly acceptable. Certainly none of his fellow scouts or Army men thought the worse of him for such a deed.
One of Al’s acquaintances reported that he would fearlessly enter a camp of tizwin-crazed Apaches and kick and slap them as if they were children. Not one resisted or showed anger. Sieber himself attributed his hold over the Apaches to his habit of never lying to them.
I do not deceive them but always tell them the truth. When I tell them I am going to kill them, I do it, and when I tell them I am their friend, they know it.
Thrapp tells us that Army men liked Al not only for his exceptional skills and knowledge but also because he never pushed himself to the fore. He as always respectful of officers and would often let green ones take the credit for successful actions. Although he preferred Crook, and admired him, he did his best to get on well with his replacements, Colonel August Krautz in 1875 and General Orlando Willcox in 1878. He even did his best with the smarmy politician General Nelson A Miles, who in 1886 succeeded Crook’s second command in the department (1882 – 86).
Al Sieber at the height of his career
There seem to have been no women in his life as far as we can tell. He never married and lived exclusively in a male world.
One of the best sources for a commentary on what sort of man Sieber was comes from Tom Horn. Horn, born in 1860 so sixteen years younger than Sieber, came to the Southwest around Christmas 1874 and was ‘adopted’ by Sieber in July ’76. Al became his tutor and mentor.
Horn learned Spanish and Apache rapidly – spoke them much better than Sieber – and soon became known as ‘Sieber’s boy’. While awaiting execution of a death sentence on him in Cheyenne in 1903, Horn wrote a memoir of his life, which was polished by his friend, the rancher John C Coble and published in 1904 under the title Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter. This book makes fascinating reading. It deals very little with the time in Wyoming that led up to his conviction but concentrates largely on Horn’s time with Sieber in Arizona. Horn was clearly in awe of Al and a huge admirer.
Sieber was one of the grandest men in the world in my eyes, and although old and white-headed and a cripple for life now , he is still a nobleman … He was always, during our many years of association, as kind as a school ma’am to me, but oh, what a terror he when he arose in his wrath! You bet there were things doin’ then.
Later, Horn says:
Sieber himself was a tireless worker, and anyone to hold a job under him, when there was work to do, had to go day and night; for in a case of emergency Sieber would entirely forget to sleep, and he could live on what a hungry wolf would leave.
Or again, in 1880:
I was tired and sleepy but here was this old, gray-headed, iron-hearted man who had been at work while I was asleep; for, during the time that we drew away and made camp and got something to eat he had gone on foot and noted which way the Indians went … Sieber at this time was fifty-five years old; but, as I said once before, in case of this kind he never seemed to want to sleep, and he did not get a chance to eat afterward.
Like many young men, Horn had a rather exaggerated idea of Al’s great age. In 1880 Sieber was 36!
Geronimo too had a respectful opinion of Al Sieber. Tom Horn tells us that Geronimo said
’Sibi’ [as the Indians called Sieber] was not a good man to be with as he was a man of iron and nothing would turn him and that he did not care to talk, but that his words were all from his heart; that there was no room in his heart for anything that he did not think was right, that his words were as wise as those of any chief, white or red; that he was respected by the Indians, though as iron he was, and that [Horn’s] being raised by him was of itself a guarantee of faithfulness in war or in council.
During a period of relative calm in the Indian wars, in May 1878 Al ran for county sheriff. He was the favorite, being widely respected and liked, but he did no campaigning and in July he suddenly withdrew from the contest. No one knows why. He was later briefly deputized by the new sheriff following a stage hold-up near Prescott. He also joined a posse near Gillett with Bob Paul and Johnny Behan after another stage robbery.
He did some occasional scouting work after that but in April 1879 definitively quit as Chief of Scouts. He took up prospecting and mining again. He made the town of Globe his headquarters, whose most important building, according to Al, was the Champion Billiard Hall and Saloon, whose owner, Bill McNelly, was probably Al’s closest friend.
There is a story that Al and his friends were responsible for the naming of Tombstone. This is possible but unlikely. However, he and his fellows certainly did prospect all over that area and know it very well.
In 1880, more Apache troubles led Al back to his old profession, probably with a mixture of resignation and delight.
Chief of Scouts again
Al was great friends with the great Thomas Jeffords, played by James Stewart in Broken Arrow and a great figure of the Apacheria. Spring 1880 finds Sieber and Jeffords (the latter had just sold a mine in Tombstone for sixty thousand dollars) in a great binge “with champagne and ice from Tucson by special wagon.” Al then participated in the unsuccessful pursuit of Victorio, until the chief was killed in Mexico. He did not take part in the hunt for Nana in ’81 but did participate in the hunt for fat old Juh and Nachez, son of Cochise.
In 1882 Al was, illegally, deep in Mexico with Lt. George Forsyth chasing Loco. Sieber had a pretty low opinion of Forsyth and was annoyed that he did not engage, allowing Mexican forces to attack the Apaches, but they let Loco, Juh, Nana and other chiefs escape. Al took a leading part in the Battle of Big Dry Wash in July 1882, the final major battle between Apaches and troops on US soil. Only the Chiricahuas would henceforth challenge government control and they would eventually be defeated in Mexico. I won't go into that fight in detail here but there's an excellent account on the Frontier Partisans blog here which I can recommend, if you want to know more.
Once Crook was back, in September 1882, Sieber was once again in a trusted and powerful position.
Crook selected talented officers and Sieber worked very well with them, men like Capt. Emmet Crawford of the Third Cavalry, Lt. Charles Gatewood of the Sixth Cavalry and Lt. Britton Davis of the Third. Sieber and Davis ran San Carlos together, backed by Emmet Crawford’s troops. They brought, after years of corruption and mistreatment, a degree of probity, fairness and firmness that the Apaches responded well to. Good beef was bought from Col. Henry Hooker (the man who received Wyatt Earp so hospitably when he was on his vendetta and was so scathing of Behan and his thugs) and distributed without dishonesty.
In March ’83 a raiding party under the brilliant Chato struck without warning, murdering and pillaging, and escaped over the border into Mexico. Crook had negotiated a deal with the Mexican government allowing ‘hot pursuit’ and the chase was on. Crook’s campaign was brilliantly successful. It resulted in the surrender of all the main chiefs, including Geronimo, only excepting Juh (who died later from a drunken fall).
Al was re-assigned to San Carlos but an Apache scout had less and less to do as the 80s progressed. He often accompanied soldiers on ethnological or other expeditions. He spent time at the sutler’s, drinking, yarning, playing poker.
But in May 1885 Geronimo broke out again. Crawford, Davis and Sieber rushed after him, across the line into Mexico. A long, dispiriting and fruitless chase ensued. Al was sent back to San Carlos and in September 1885 his great scouting career was to all intents and purposes over. Tom Horn was named Chief of Scouts by Crawford on Al’s recommendation. So Al was not present in the sensational moments of the late campaign, when Crawford was slain by a Mexican irregular unit or when the three-day conference between Crook and Geronimo took place at Cañon de Los Embudos. He was not in Mexico for General Miles’s long-winded campaign, nor for Gatewood’s historic exploit and Geronimo’s final surrender.
Al spent more and more time working on his mine properties.
The Apache Kid
The beginnings and end of the Apache Kid are shrouded in mystery. He was, though, Al Sieber’s creation. The boy was born around 1860 and grew up around Globe where Al made him a kind of orderly, teaching the boy much. He was tall, dark-complexioned and had remarkable eyesight. The Kid enlisted in the scouts and rose to the rank of sergeant (he was at the Big Dry Wash fight). He went to Mexico with Crook in ’83 under Sieber as Chief of Scouts. He accompanied Al on his return from Mexico to San Carlos where he married. When in June 1887 Al had to go up to Fort Apache he left Kid in charge of the scouts. The Indians took advantage of Sieber’s absence for a tiswin drunk during which Kid’s father was killed. Kid slew the assassin’s brother in revenge. Kid then left the reservation but came back in to meet Al and face the music. No one knows who started shooting but a firefight ensued during which a .45-70 slug ripped into Al’s foot, felling him and leaving him semi-crippled for the rest of his life. Kid almost certainly took no part in the shooting but fled.
On crutches after the Apache Kid affair
General Miles was angry and delivered himself of the considered opinion that “The Indians have been well treated and the affair is the result of the innate deviltry of the Indian character.” He sent troops in pursuit. The Kid sent word to Miles that he wanted to come in and surrendered on 25 June. Miles called a court martial. Its verdict was a foregone conclusion even though no witness saw the Kid shoot at anyone or even stand armed. The Kid and four others were sentenced to death by shooting. The sentence was later commuted to life and the Indians were sent to Alcatraz.
Not until spring 1888 did Sieber manage to get around, on crutches. Al seems to have borne no grudge against Kid.
Lawyers for Indian-hating local population argued that the military had no jurisdiction and in October 1889 Kid and his co-prisoners were brought back to San Carlos for a second trial. Sieber testified against the Apaches. Of course they were all promptly found guilty. One was sentenced to be hanged and the others were sent to the Territorial Prison at Yuma. Sieber offered help in transporting the prisoners to Yuma but Sheriff Glenn Reynolds shrugged: “I don’t need your scouts. I can take those Indians alone with a corn cob and a lightning-bug." Reynolds took a single deputy and, the 3:10 presumably not being available, left in a stagecoach to catch the 4 pm train to Yuma at Casa Grande.
There followed a dramatic escape of the convicted Apaches. Sheriff and deputy were killed, the convicted prisoners disappeared, snow covered their tracks and the Kid was never heard from again. All sorts of crimes were assigned to him but no one know for sure what he did and did not do. Al did not pursue him. There are various theories as to his final fate. The most probable is that he died of TB some time after 1894.
A Warm Springs Apache, Massai, had enlisted as a scout for the 1880 Victorio campaign. Nevertheless in 1882 he was sent with other Apaches by train to Florida. He jumped from the moving train in Texas and made his way to the Sierra Madre. Restless, he then stole a horse and returned to San Carlos. He broke out with Geronimo in 1885 but left him and went to Fort Apache. He may have enlisted with the scouts again because he was said to have been with Crawford when that officer was killed in Mexico. He was in any case rounded up in Fort Apache and again entrained for Florida. This time he escaped in Missouri, traveling on foot at night in an epic trek. He managed to return to his home country of western New Mexico.
In July 1890 a murder was ascribed to Massai and Sieber was with Lt. Watson sent out in pursuit. They didn’t find him. The Apache Kid and Massai were now growing legends and all sorts of feats and crimes were laid at their door. There were certainly many individual killings of whites but whether Massai or Kid or someone else entirely did them, no one can know. Neither was ever caught.
In spring 1889 Al went to Minneapolis, his first return visit since he left in 1866. There he met his niece. He also visited hot springs to help his wounded foot.
Back at San Carlos, tensions grew between Al and the new agent, John Bullis. Bullis was a return to the bad old days of Indian agent. He used Indian prisoners without pay to build roads to enrich himself and often sentenced Indians without the formality of a trial. He also arbitrarily closed the store on a pretext that liquor was being held there (but in reality so that he could take over this franchise himself). In the end, in November 1890 Sieber told him what he thought of him and was fired for his pains. There was no ceremony, no farewell. Al just climbed stiffly aboard his saddle horse and pulled out for Globe.
Seventeen years’ life remained to Al. At first he loafed a bit, did some odd jobs, had various ideas that came to nothing such as running a livery stable, and then, despite his bad foot, went back to mining. He teamed up with some friends but seems to have taken charge of the camp, the horses, the cooking and shooting game rather than actual digging. Occasionally he would come back into Globe to see friends or relax in the saloons. He would go to camp meetings run by some itinerant preacher, though there is no evidence that he was religious at all. With reduced mobility due to his wound, he started to put on some weight, which he never had before. His nephew John came to visit; he had been a lawman up in Grand Forks. Newspapermen sought him out for his reminiscences but he discouraged them, saying that if he were to be interviewed he would end up saying things that were true but which would be better left unsaid.
Then he started working with engineers laying out roads and railroads. In 1903 the great Roosevelt Dam was authorized and it required a good number of access roads. Al seems to have run a commissary and provided large quantities of cordwood. He also ran a corral. An increasing number of Apaches from San Carlos worked on the dam and Al’s experience was in demand.
In early 1907 Al was recruited to guard a prisoner accused of murder – and to guard him as much against a lynch mob as against escape. An ugly crowd gathered outside the next morning but the sheriff laughed them to scorn, saying, “Why, you couldn’t take this prisoner from poor, crippled old Al Sieber when he didn’t even have a gun! How in hell you think you’re going to take him from me?” And he pushed through the throng.
On February 19, 1907 Al was in charge of a road gang which was working on a great rock blocking the way. The whole day the Apaches had been undercutting it but it would not budge. As it got late Al crawled in a cavity under the boulder to see what the problem was. Suddenly it shuddered and then shifted, crushing Al Sieber to death.
Plaque near the spot where Al died
There is a story that one or more of the Apaches deliberately pushed the rock onto Sieber but there is no evidence for this and it seems unlikely.
Such was the end of Albert Sieber, immigrant, soldier, logger, scout, Indian fighter, and one of the great characters of the Old West.
A fine picture by the great Western artist William Matthews
To read the second part of this post, about how Al was portrayed on the page of the novel and on the screen, click here.