Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

General Crook and the Western Frontier

General Crook and the Western Frontier

by Charles M. Robinson III

General George Crook was one of the most prominent soldiers in the frontier West. General William T. Sherman called him the greatest Indian fighter and manager the army ever had. And yet, on hearing of Crook’s death, the Sioux chief Red Cloud lamented, "He, at least, never lied to us." As a young officer in the Pacific Northwest, Crook emphasized training and


General George Crook was one of the most prominent soldiers in the frontier West. General William T. Sherman called him the greatest Indian fighter and manager the army ever had. And yet, on hearing of Crook’s death, the Sioux chief Red Cloud lamented, "He, at least, never lied to us." As a young officer in the Pacific Northwest, Crook emphasized training and marksmanship--innovative ideas in the antebellum army.

Crook’s career in the West began with successful campaigns against the Apaches that resulted in his promotion to brigadier general. His campaign against the Lakota and Cheyennes was less successful, however, as he alternately displayed deep insight, egotism, indecision, and fear.

Charles M. Robinson pieces together the contradictions of Crook’s career to reveal that although the general sometimes micromanaged his campaigns to the point that his officers had virtually no flexibility, he gave his officers so much freedom on other occasions that they did not fully understand his expectations or objectives. Crook resented any criticism and was quick to blame both subordinates and superiors, yet Robinson shows that much of Crook’s success in the Indian wars can be attributed to the efforts of subordinate officers. He also details Crook’s later efforts to provide equal rights and opportunities for American Indians. General Crook and the Western Frontier, the first full-scale biography of Crook, uses contemporary manuscripts and primary sources to illuminate the general’s personal life and military career.

Product Details

University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.13(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


George Crook was born on September 8, 1828, on a farm near Taylorsville, Ohio, which, at that time, was the American West. The United States extended to an ill-defined line somewhere in Utah; the regions of California, Nevada, Texas, and what became the American Southwest still belonged to Mexico. In the Pacific Northwest, the area that is now Washington and Oregon was disputed with Great Britain and, to a lesser degree, with Russia. It was appropriate that Crook would spend the bulk of his life on the frontier because he was, by birth and contemporary definition, a frontiersman.

    Aside from his diaries, most of Crook's writings are service-oriented and contain little information about his early life. In preparing his autobiography for publication, however, historian Martin F. Schmitt learned that the family originated in Scotland, where the name is still common, and immigrated to the American colonies in the late seventeenth century. The name appears frequently in military records and other public and church documents of the Revolutionary War era. George Crook's father, Thomas Crook, born in Baltimore County, Maryland, is believed to have served in a local militia company defending Fort McHenry in 1813.

    Thomas Crook married Elizabeth Matthews, also of Maryland, on February 4, 1812. The first of their ten children, Elizabeth, was born February 18, 1813. The following year, the Crooks moved to Ohio, where Thomas became a prosperous farmer and civic leader. A contemporary account called him "a good manager, practical, industrious and well-informed. He accumulated 340 acres of excellent land, most of which he improved. He was justice of the peace for many years, and was otherwise prominent in the affairs of the township. In politics he was a Whig, and afterwards a Republican." The farm was situated on particularly fertile land and the construction of the Miami and Erie Canal through Crook property substantially increased its value.

    Here the other nine children, two girls and seven boys, were born. George Crook was the ninth child and sixth son, followed by a brother in 1830. In an age when large families were the norm because parents accepted that some of the children would die young, all ten Crook children survived to adulthood. The girls made good marriages, and the boys were successful in their various endeavors. The Crooks lived near Dayton, where good educational facilities were available, and three of the older brothers, Oliver, James and Thomas Crook, Jr., became business and professional men. George, however, was less of a scholar. Described as a typical farm boy, he learned slowly, but retained what he did learn. Older and larger than many of his schoolmates, he tended to protect some of the smaller boys from bullying.

    Living in one of the newer areas of a nation that was itself young, the people of Ohio were imbued with patriotism that was heightened by their insularity. Few people traveled. Each community was essentially self-sustaining. Social activities centered around the local churches, and patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July were community-wide celebrations where orators reminded the people of how much they had achieved in how little time.

    Ohio itself was only barely tamed. Indian fights were a part of living memory, and trouble with various local tribes still occasionally flared up in nearby territories. The frontier atmosphere created a certain militancy among the settlers that found its expression in war. Although Ohio was not necessarily, as one historian has suggested, an American Prussia (that distinction belonged to the South), it nevertheless gave the Union Army sixty-four generals during the Civil War, including such notables as U. S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan—and George Crook.

    As Crook progressed through his teens, the militarism of the frontier was heightened by the Mexican War. Some of the older boys enlisted in local volunteer units bound for the Rio Grande and beyond, and younger ones dreamed of becoming soldiers. In that respect, Ohio was an anomaly. The war was becoming unpopular elsewhere in the North, and the soldier's profession likewise suffered in public esteem. Congressional appointments to West Point often went begging. Consequently, the Buckeye State proved fertile ground for congressmen with vacancies to fill.

    It is not known whether young Crook's decision to enter the army was influenced by the Mexican War. More than thirty years later, after he had become a general and a national hero, his seeming reluctance to apply to West Point was revealed by Robert C. Schenck, a former Whig congressman who sponsored his appointment. In an interview with a reporter for the Washington Chronicle, Schenck recalled:

I had looked over the district to find a bright lad to nominate to West Point to fill an existing vacancy. I was unsuccessful. I finally remembered that old Squire Crook, a fine old Whig farmer, and a friend of mine, had some boys, and I sent word for him to come to town. He came in, and I enquired if he had a spare boy he'd like to send off to West Point. After studying awhile he said he didn't know but what he had. I suggested that he send him in. He did so.

The boy was exceedingly non-communicative. He hadn't a stupid look, but was quiet to reticence. He didn't seem to have the slightest interest or anxiety about my proposal. I explained to him the requirements and labors of the military school, and finally asked him, "Do you think you can conquer all that?" His monosyllabic reply was, "I'll try." and so I sent him, and he came through fairly.

    Academically, Crook was deficient in the subjects that he needed to enter West Point, so he studied at Dayton Academy where the curriculum emphasized mathematics, natural sciences, and natural philosophy. In December 1847, the academy's superintendent, Milo G. Williams, advised Congressman Schenck that Crook had progressed enough to do well at West Point, and in March 1848, Schenck formally nominated him as a cadet from the Third Congressional District of Ohio. On June 1, Crook paid $115 on account against his expenses at West Point, and a month later officially entered the academy. He enrolled as George W. Crook, the middle initial added at the suggestion of a relative who apparently believed it might add a little extra dignity to his name. He kept the "W" during his period at West Point and during his early years as an army officer, although he had dropped it by the outbreak of the Civil War.

    West Point primarily was an engineering school. Strategy and tactics were taught on the lines of a conventional, European-style war. And while this curriculum served the army in good stead during the Mexican War, it did not prepare the officers for the hit-and-run warfare of the Indians in the western territories acquired during that period. Throughout the remainder of the century, soldiers would learn Indian fighting through hard, often bitter experience.

    Appointments to the academy were—and to a great extent still are—political. But while politics facilitated an application to the academy, the student was on his own once he arrived. No amount of patronage could help the cadet through the entrance examinations and, once admitted, the undesirables were eliminated by the high academic standards and rigid discipline.

    In most of his endeavors at the academy, Crook's performance was, at best, average. Academically, he remained in the bottom half of his class throughout his entire four years, and much of that was spent at the lower end of the bottom. The one area in which he excelled was in conduct, most likely because his class work required so much effort that he did not have time to get into trouble. Only twice does he appear to have committed any serious breaches of discipline, once on May 17, 1849, when he and another cadet were under arrest in quarters "for offering compositions to their instructors as their own which were not original," and on September 7, 1849, when he was assigned two hours of extra guard duty for being absent from drill. He remained in the ranks, generally attracting neither positive nor negative notice. Of the many notable officers who were cadets at the same time as Crook, none mentioned him in their memoirs except for fellow Ohioan Philip Henry Sheridan.

    The son of working-class, Irish Catholic immigrants, Sheridan was oddman-out at the patrician, largely Episcopalian academy, where even frontier cadets like Crook often came from more prosperous families. In fact, Phil Sheridan was not even certain when or where he was born. In his memoirs, and for official purposes, he stated that he was born in Albany, New York, on March 6, 1831, although at least once, early in his career, he informed the adjutant general of the army that he was "born in Ohio." Some historians believe that he might even have been born in County Cavan, Ireland, shortly before his parents emigrated. Whatever the case, he was touchy and combative, and a quarrel with a cadet sergeant over an imagined insult led to a one-year suspension so that he graduated in the class behind Crook. Nevertheless, the careers of the two men became intertwined almost from the beginning, initiating a relationship that descended over the years from friendship to hatred.

    Crook's cadet expense book shows him to be frugal, spending his money only on what was necessary or what was "expected" from a person in his position. In the spring of 1850, he contributed one dollar to the Washington Monument fund, and subscribed to pay the academy organist. In his third year, he allowed himself $3.50 for a subscription to the New York Herald. That year he also began participating financially in academy social life, contributing toward "cotillion, parties and bails." No fines or serious penalties are listed, although several times he was docked minuscule amounts for "damages to public property," specifically the mess commons, most likely for broken plates, cups or saucers.

    He did, however, record several visits to the dentist, one of which cost $15, a very large sum that indicates a major procedure. From this, as well as from diary entries as he grew older, it may be surmised that he suffered from chronic dental problems.

    Crook's personnel file maintained by the Adjutant General's Office contains virtually nothing on these formative years as a soldier. In fact, the earliest records in the file are from 1862, when he already was a lieutenant colonel of the volunteers. Consequently, the record of his advancement must be gathered from other sources, such as his autobiography, recollections of those who served with him, and the records of the various jurisdictions to which he was assigned.

    Graduating thirty-eighth in a class of forty-three in 1852, Crook was promoted to brevet second lieutenant of the Fourth Infantry, and temporarily attached to garrison duty at Fort Columbus, New York. In November, he was assigned to Benicia Barracks, California, sailing from New York with three classmates, John Mullan, August V. "Dutch" Kautz, and John Nugen. Kautz was a fellow Ohioan and lifelong friend whose career as an officer on the western frontier often paralleled Crook's. Even before entering West Point, he had gained some military experience, having served as an Ohio volunteer during the Mexican War. Like Crook, he had been posted to the Fourth Infantry.

    The journey to California would take the young officers from New York to Nicaragua, which they would cross by using the local rivers and the country's great inland lake. Crook recalled that he was so seasick during the voyage that he did not care whether his ship sank. Upon arriving on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, they transferred to steamers that took them up the San Juan River while they marveled at the great rain forest and the diversity of tropical wildlife. One night, a storm struck, and in the flashes of lightning they could see the rainwater pouring down from the canopy of the jungle. Years later, Crook wrote, "It presented one of the wildest and most weird scenes I have ever witnessed before or since."

    At Castilla Rapids, they paid a dollar to throw their blankets on the floor of a hotel barroom for the night, and the next day boarded steamers above the rapids and traveled on to Lake Nicaragua. From there to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific, they traveled overland and were so covered with mud that they waded into the ocean to wash it off their clothes. That night, they set sail for San Francisco and, although the Pacific was smoother than the Atlantic, Crook once again was seasick.

    San Francisco was then in the throes of the Gold Rush. Crook remembered the city of that period was

a conglomeration of frame buildings, streets deep in sand; wharf facilities were very limited.... there was mud and marsh which was overflowed by the tides. Everything was excitement and bustle, prices were exorbitant, common laborers received much higher wages than officers of the Army, although at that time, by special act of Congress, we were allowed extra pay [an additional two dollars a day for officers in California and Oregon].

    Nor was he happy with army life on the West Coast. The isolation of the military posts—far removed from regular association with other soldiers and the supervision of the army command—frequently created an unpleasant atmosphere that undermined the morale even among the officers, particularly those freshly arrived from the East. Here the post commander reigned supreme, with little restraint on either his official or private doings. Low pay (a second lieutenant like Crook received $25 a month) and a hopelessly slow promotion system frequently drove the most competent officers to resign, leaving the army with aging mediocrities who often descended into alcoholism from the sheer monotony of their duties. In fact, Crook's first duty upon arrival was to serve as file closer supervising the enlisted escort for the funeral of Maj. Albert S. Miller, Second Infantry, who had died of excessive drinking.

    Describing West Coast service during the 1850s in his autobiography, Crook wrote:

Most of the customs and habits that I witnessed were not calculated to impress one's morals or usefulness. Most of the commanding officers were petty tyrants, styled by some Martinets. They lost no opportunities to snub those under them, and prided themselves in saying disagreeable things. Most of them had been in command of small posts so long that their habits and minds had narrowed down to their surroundings, and woe be unto the young officers if his ideas should get above their level and wish to expand. Generally they were the quintessence of selfishness. Everything within their reach was made subservient to their comforts, and should there be more of anything than they wanted, then the rest might have it.

    On January 20, 1853, Crook's unit, Company F of the Fourth Infantry, together with Company B, was ordered north to Humboldt Bay, to establish a post that ultimately would become Fort Humboldt. The detachment departed San Francisco on the steamer Goliah [sic], on January 27, and arrived at Humboldt Bay three days later. The change did nothing to enhance Crook's opinion of the local military. The commanding officer, Bvt. Lt. Col. R. C. Buchanan, selected a site for the post near the little town of Bucksport, where he not only tyrannized his own officers but alienated the local civilian population as well. To avoid dealing with him, Crook began spending as much time as possible hunting the myriad of game in the surrounding countryside. Although he later said he had always been interested in hunting, this appears to have been his first serious effort, and he confessed his excitement and inexperience.

    He also saw his first Indians, the Wiyots, who eked out a meager existence along the bay. "They were poor, harmless, scrofuletic, and miserable creatures who lived principally on fish," he wrote. "Many of them were deformed, and the most loathsome looking human beings that I have ever seen." On the other hand, he seemed to respect the Athapaskans who lived in the surrounding hills, and who were not adverse to killing whites and committing other depredations.

    In the spring of 1853, Crook took a squad of infantry to hunt down and arrest a lone Indian for raids on the stock of local ranches. The suspect was brought in and placed in the guardhouse at Fort Humboldt, as much for his own safety against the vengeance of the stockmen as for any other reason. The prisoner, however, escaped, and Buchanan organized the first full field expedition from Fort Humboldt. The detachment, under command of Lt. John C. Bonnycastle, Fourth Infantry, included Crook and fourteen infantrymen. They were to contact the Indians along the Trinity River and impress on them the reprisals they could expect if depredations continued. Although the attacks were largely nuisance raids by only a handful of Indians, Buchanan was concerned that local citizen-volunteers would retaliate against any Indians they encountered, guilty or not.

    The expedition left Fort Humboldt in May. Unfamiliar with the country, the troops were slowed by rough terrain and exhausted their rations before they were even close to their goal. The few Indians they saw were wary, apparently believing the soldiers would shoot them on sight. Although Crook later noted the expedition was "without result," innocent Indians were, in fact, massacred in "one of the most fiendish acts that has ever disgraced civilization."

    The following October, Crook was promoted to active second lieutenant of Company E, Fourth Infantry, and ordered to join the company at the recently established post of Fort Jones. This fort was located on Scotts River fifteen miles from Yreka, and some 224 miles north of San Francisco via wagon road. During Crook's tenure, the post was visited by Col. J. K. F. Mansfield, inspector general of the army, who reported, "This is an important post from its vicinity to the Trinity and Klamath rivers, and the number of Indians on and about them, and should be maintained till the population becomes sufficient to protect themselves beyond doubt and be secure against massacre. The Indians within 30 miles number about 100 warriors, and are armed with good rifles and guns; and this post, in conjunction with Fort Lane [84 miles away] on the Rogue River, exercises a constraining influence over say 1,000 warriors within 250 miles." The white population within a thirty-mile radius was estimated at two thousand, primarily miners, traders, and farmers, and widely scattered. On the other hand, the report stated the valley in which the fort was situated was "fast filling up" with farmers.

    Despite its importance, Fort Jones was all too typical of western posts in the under-strength army. The garrison of Company E was authorized three officers, eight non-commissioned officers, and seventy-four privates. In reality, the company rolls listed only thirty-four officers and men, and often many of these were unavailable for duty because of detached service elsewhere, illness, or various other reasons.

    Concerning his inspection, Col. Mansfield noted:

The quartermaster's duty is performed by Lieutenant Crook. There are no citizens in his employ. His expenditures for the quarter ending 30h June [1854] were 1,346 97/100 dollars, and he had on hand at date 886 81/100 dollars, kept in his quarters. Barley is had here at 6 1/2 cents, and hay at 20 dollars the ton, and grazing and wood abundant....

The commissary duty is also performed by Lieutenant Crook. Beef costs here, as required daily, 17 cents the pound; other supplies are brought from San Francisco via Fort Reading and are all good. But a good flouring mill is now probably in operation in this valley, and undoubtedly flour will be had here soon and at a much less cost. The transportation, now being on pack mules and over mountains, is expensive—12 cents the pound from this [post] to Fort Lane. Lieutenant Crook expended in the second quarter of 1854, 553 33/100 dollars and had on hand at date 2,364 33/100 dollars which is kept in his quarters.

    Once again, Crook passed his free time in his newly discovered fondness for hunting. "I soon became familiar with all the country within reach of the post. I also used to go hunting with the Indians, and in this way learned something of their habits, as well as those of game." His passion for the outdoors remained with him for the rest of his life, and as he rose in rank, it almost seemed as though he used his army assignments as a means of having free time to hunt or fish.

    At this time, he probably either had already developed, or was beginning to develop, other personality traits that would distinguish him. He had no particular aversion to alcohol and enjoyed a drink now and then, but was not known to drink regularly or excessively. He did not use tobacco in any form. He did, however, have a lifelong fascination with card games and played whenever he could, although he was vehemently opposed to any form of gambling. Whenever possible, he rode a mule in preference to a horse, another lifelong trait that perhaps stemmed from his childhood on a farm. His demeanor seemed to reflect his surroundings. When the atmosphere was depressing, he became somber and almost sullen. But in a relaxed situation, he enjoyed laughing and joking.

    In January 1854, Capt. Henry M. Judah, Fourth Infantry, arrived to assume command of both Company E and Fort Jones. A West Point graduate with a distinguished record in the Mexican War, Judah nevertheless suffered from severe alcoholism. Almost immediately after his arrival, miners and Indians exchanged gunfire on the upper Klamath. A courier from Yreka appeared at the fort with a petition from the mining camp at Cottonwood, calling for military protection. According to the courier, a hundred Indians hidden in a cave overlooking the river had surrounded and killed some settlers who were trying to recover stolen livestock.

    Judah left Fort Jones under command of a noncommissioned officer and, on January 16, took Lieutenants Bonnycastle and Crook, Assistant Surgeon Francis Sorrel, and about twenty soldiers to investigate. At Yreka and at Cottonwood, they were joined by a ragtag group of volunteers, about twenty in all. Judah organized the command into an advance guard, commanded by Crook, the main body under Bonnycastle, and the volunteers in the rear.

Excerpted from General Crook and the Western Frontier by Charles M. Robinson III. Copyright © 2001 by University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Charles M. Robinson III authored A Good Year to Die: The Story of the Great Sioux War and General Crook and the Western Frontier, both published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews