John Gregory Bourke served under General George Crook as his aide-de-camp for thirteen years (1871-1883) during which time he kept a diary documenting his observations of everything from the general’s character, temperament and achievements, to descriptions of topography and wildlife, to living conditions in the frontier forts and settlements of Arizona, the Dakotas, and Montana, to detailed accounts of the Apache, Sioux, and Cheyenne. Published in 1892, On the Border with Crook: General George Crook, the American Indian Wars, and Life on the American Frontier, is a firsthand account of the general and the Indian campaigns and has been recognized as “one of the ten best western books of all time.”
Having said that, readers will encounter extended passages listing the names of soldiers and Indian scouts involved in the various campaigns; not just those whom history has identified as important, but every single individual involved. Additionally, the first quarter of the book discusses life in the Arizona territory prior to General Crook’s arrival with whimsical descriptions of Western characters many of whom have no relationship to the remainder of the book.
These are minor quibbles. Bourke brings to life the hardships endured with insights into specific engagements between the Indians and the military that could only be gained from eyewitness accounts. His narrative doesn’t gloss over the brutality of battle nor the savagery of outrages perpetrated by Native Americans, but it also highlights General Crook’s faith in the American Indian and his advocacy for their full rights as U.S. citizens. Following their subjugation and placement on reservations he gives full shrift to their grievances against the actions of unscrupulous Indian agents, and he decries the imprisonment of Indian scouts who faithfully served the military.
The numbers of Native Americans who actually took up arms against their own people came as a revelation. I was aware of their involvement in tracking down hostile Indians attempting to elude pursuit by the U.S. Army, but I hadn’t realized the extent to which they fought alongside. Their participation proved to be a deciding factor in ending the Indian Wars. Many of the tribes gave voice to the conviction that they might have held out against white encroachment onto their lands, but the combined strength of Indian and white forces was too much to overcome.
Bourke ends his book with the death of General Crook, March 21, 1890 at age sixty-one. He laments his passing with this comment:
“Crook’s modesty was so great, and his aversion to pomp and circumstance so painfully prominent a feature of his character and disposition, that much which has been here related would never be known from other sources.”