By David Higgs
The story has been retold many times. It has been depicted in books and motion pictures to reveal the events that led to the end of the Apache Wars. They tell of the surrender of Geronimo’s band of Chiricahua Apaches to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, September 4, 1886, and the deportation of all Apaches associated with Geronimo to imprisonment in Florida, Alabama, and eventually Oklahoma. However, the story does not end there. For these Apache Prisoners of War, it meant a new life of constant change and acculturation as many of these people lived well into the twentieth century. The world they knew ceased to exist. As parents, Apache families tried to pass along wisdom and life-skills to their children, only to be contradicted by modern education. Concepts of legal structure, religion, even the measurement of time proved to be obstacles for the next generation of Apaches. Their children developed into people alien to the original life-ways of Apache culture.
The story of their trials is best revealed through the life of George Medhurst Wratten. Wratten served as the interpreter and supervisor for the Apache Prisoners of War during their incarceration. He guided them as they traversed the road of acculturation and he spoke in their behalf before committees, courts, and in the press, attempting to inform the public and governing authorities of the obstacles faced by these imprisoned people and to explain the accomplishments they had made toward the goal of civilization. It is in this capacity that Wratten can be called “the Voice of Geronimo.”
Wratten lived most of his life in their service. Wratten served as their interpreter from the age of 21 and remained with them as supervisor during their incarceration as prisoners of war until his death in 1912, one year before the Apaches began to regain their freedom. These people were held prisoner for 27 years, longer than any other native people.
Wratten arrived on the San Carlos Reservation at the age of fourteen. Family recollection maintains that George left his home in Florence, AZ, and traveled to San Carlos. It took him several days and he arrived there riding a broken-down burro and possessing nothing more than a bridle, a rope, and the clothes on his back. He worked at various jobs in the trading post, as a mule packer, a scout, and interpreter. On April 15, 1955, Jason Betzinez stated in an interview with Albert Wratten:
“I have known George Wratten ever since he was 16 years old. He ran away from his home in Florence, Arizona, and came to San Carlos with a party of people who built a general store and young Wratten was one of the clerks in the store, where he was in daily contact with the Indians constantly, and soon learned their language. The Apache Indian language is the hardest to learn but young Wratten exceptionally learned and understood the language in such a short time and as far as we know there isn’t another white man who can speak the Apache language as freely as George M. Wratten.”
Wratten was selected by Lt. Charles B. Gatewood to be a part of the expedition that went into Mexico to find Geronimo and his band. He was present during Gatewood’s conference with Geronimo and assisted Gatewood and Captain Henry Lawton in escorting the Apaches back across the border to Skeleton Canyon. Wratten accompanied the Prisoners of War to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to Fort Pickens, Florida, to Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama, and to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He was in constant contact with these people up until the point of his death.
The investigation of George Wratten serves as a wonderful means by which to learn the history of the Apache prisoners-of-war from their point of view, and to learn of Apache culture. George Wratten was the “fly on the wall,” so to speak, for the Apache Prisoners of War. By following the course of his life, the struggle of the Apache Prisoners of War and their families is best revealed in a casual but personal viewpoint. It is from this vantage point the he can be referred to as “the Voice of Geronimo.
George M. Wratten and Ahnandia. Photo courtesy of the author.
David Higgs is a professor of history at Copiah-Lincoln College, Wesson, Mississippi. This article is a preview of a presentation he will make at the Fourteenth Annual Western History Symposium that will be held at the Prescott Centennial Center on August 5th. The Symposium is co-sponsored by the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral and is open to the public free of charge. For more details, call the museum at 445-3122 or visit the sponsors’ websites at www.sharlothallmuseum.org and www.prescottcorral.org.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlothallmuseum.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to email@example.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.