The Apache Yellowboy Story

                                                The Apache Yellowboy

The "Apache Yellowboy" is an 1866 Winchester "Yellowboy" rifle that was found at the entrance of an Arizona desert canyon, at the base of the Dragoon mountains, in the Sulphur Springs Valley. The rifle had been hidden in a small crevice at the top edge of a winding wash that led into a deeper canyon.

One day a local cowboy, by the name of Joe Rice, had been rounding up some strays, at the base of the Dragoon mountains, in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Some of the cattle had wandered from the herd and headed into a canyon at the base of the Dragoons. At the entrance of the canyon, Joe noticed there was something on the ground in front of him. He dismounted his horse and discovered an old weathered 1866 Winchester "Yellowboy" rifle, laying on the ground. It had fallen from a crevice in the side of the canyon, just above his head. Looking further into the crevice, Joe observed that there were even more things deeper back into the clef of the rock, where the rifle had fallen from. Further back into the opening he found a couple of Apache arrows and other Apache things, hidden for future use. The small fissure, directly under a large rock, yielding to the gentle touch of weather and time, had slowly eroded the soil beneath it's foundation, allowing the Winchester to leave it's dark hiding place, it's unique "yellow" alloy, reflecting the sunlight of the desert, as it quietly spoke it's name once again, "Yellowboy".

The 1866 Winchester "Yellowboy" was the first Winchester repeating rifle ever made. It revolutionized rifles, because prior to the "repeating rifle," bullets were fired one at a time. Amazingly enough, cartridges from the 1866 Winchester, were found, that showed Native Americans fighting at the "Little Big Horn," had used some 1866's to help defeat General Custer. The Apache in Arizona had their share of the 1866's and prized them and their unique ability, as did all those whose lives were destined to "live by the gun".

How an old 1866 Winchester had come to be hidden there, is a mystery. Perhaps, before I continue, to explain more about this old Winchester rifle, a bit of it's local history will shed light, on this unique, once secret mystery of the desert.
The Apache had encountered the encroaching Spanish, as early as the 1600's, as the Spanish attempted to expand their conquest northward from what is now Mexico. In the early 1700's, in Southern Arizona, the Sulphur Springs Valley, had been the long time home to, as well as jealously protected by, the Apache that lived there. Besides defending their local territory, the Apache had been raiding across the southern Santa Rita Mountains along the north flowing San Pedro river and the south spreading Santa Cruz river, into Spanish Mexico and continued to do so, as well as later on into 1821, when Mexico became independent from Spain.

In 1884 the Gadsden Purchase gave the U.S. property rights to a large swath of land approximately 29,670 square miles, which extends from the western border of Arizona at Yuma, to the north almost as far as Phoenix, east into lower New Mexico and south along what is now the Arizona border with Mexico.

By the year 1869, Arizona cattlemen and settlers had laid claim to what for many years, had been the ancestral homes of indigenous Native American tribes. Among these tribes, were the nomadic, Apache. Unlike other southwestern tribes, the nomadic warrior type  Apache were more reluctant to be corralled and controlled by those intruders, that wanted their share of the land, that the Chiricahua Apache called home.
           Early Arizona settlers, to them, the land was for the taking.             

As more cattlemen, ranchers, and a slew of other opportunist flowed into this area, the Chiricahua Apache found themselves more and more, at opposition with, what they considered interlopers and competition for the land and resources, which they believed were rightfully theirs.

Between 1861 and 1885 there were a number of major Apache battles fought with numerous adversaries throughout southern Arizona. They were called the "Apache Wars". A number of these battles were in the area of the Sulphur Spring Valley, where the Chiricahua Mountains, as well as the Dragoon Mountains rise from the earth, "a formidable chain, and terribly rugged, abrupt ledges, cut up and twisted, pinnacles, crags and precipices". The mountains served as a natural sanctuary, offering protection and shelter to the native Chokonens Apache, led by the famous Apache Chief Cochise. The Apaches, made their homes in the majestic mountains where they also freely ranged in the surrounding area. In those days, the Sulphur Springs Valley, was like an oasis in the desert, the abundant range grass grew tall and the rivers flowed freely.

The Apache that roamed in the Sulphur Springs Valley, historically would raid other nearby tribes, including other Apache. These raids were a way of life for the Apache. They would capture goods, weapons, animals and even captives, all were fair riches to be had for the taking, thus perceived the Apache creed. Or as they called themselves, T'Inde, Inde, N'dee, N'ne, meaning the "people".

It was the right of adulthood, that taught every young Apache, boy or even girl, the arts to become a formidable warrior. Skills included rigorous trials into the harsh mountainous desert, where their athletic abilities to withstand days of hardship, hunger and thirst, were tested.
The Apache warrior was taught to be proficient with a bow and arrow, as well as a spear, a rifle, pistol and even a rock. An Apache could place a goodly number of arrows into the air, before the first arrow would hit the ground. Their ability to hit a target with an arrow was phenomenal, whether from a hiding place or on the back of a galloping horse. They learned to conceal themselves, from an enemy, as a rabbit would hide from a coyote. They quickly learned how to aim and determine the trajectory of the intruders "fire sticks". The desert with it's towering majestic mountains, long flowing rivers, and open lush savannas, were theirs and they were willing to fight for it.

On January 27, 1861 a band of Coyotero Apaches raided the ranch headquarters of John Ward, located southwest of the Chiricahua Mountains. The raiding Coyotero Apache (some say Pinal) absconded with about 20 head of cattle as well as Ward's Mexican mistress's 12 year old red headed boy named Felix, later to be known as "Mickey Free". In the "History of Arizona" by T. Farish, Ward was described as a "drunk" and "in all respects, a worthless character". Ward reported the raid to the proper authorities, Lt. Colonel Pitcain Morrison, at Ft. Buchanan. However, Ward incorrectly reported the attack was from Cochise's Chokonen Apaches, because the raiders tracks seemed to head toward the Chiricahua Mountains.

Said Colonel, then dispatched an inexperienced young second lieutenant named George Bascom to resolve the issue. With a small detachment of 54 troops, Bascom headed towards the Chiricahua Mountains, looking for justice. Charles D. Poston said of Bascom, "he was a fine looking young fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman, but he was unfortunately a fool".

Cochise's Chokonen Apache, were known for their prowess as warriors, naturalist, experts at ambushes, lightning raids, with a keen ability of endurance and vigilance. The journalist Charles Lummis called them, "The deadliest Fighting Handful in the calendar of man".

Cochise, unawares of the raid at Wards ranch, or the intent of the approaching Bascom, was at peace, resting at a winter camp near Apache Springs, in the Sulphur Springs Valley, the only year round water supply in the area. Cochise was a man, that was proud of his word, as it was their culture, that all Apache hated liars.

Bascom invited Cochise to meet with him under the neutral white flag of peace at the army campsite. Cochise arrived at the soldier camp with his brother Coyuntwa, two  nephews, his wife and his children. Bascom accused Cochise of the raid upon Wards ranch, as well as the abduction of the 12 year old boy Felix. Cochise naturally and honestly replied that it was not him, but he thought he knew who the raiders were and given 10 days or so, he would get the child back.
        Old stagecoach stop near field where Cochise and Bascom met.   

Bascom did not believe Cochise and under the flag of truce, attempted to imprison him. In true Apache form Cochise pulled his knife and slashed the meeting place tent and made his escape, with only a leg wound. Bascom then held Cochise's family prisoner, till "the boy was released". Cochise infuriated at this, captured a number of Americans and Mexicans and offered an exchange. Bascom refused. There is controversy as to who killed whom first, but it seems most probably Cochise killed the Mexicans, tried to make a trade for his relatives, without success, then Cochise killed the remainder of his hostages. Then Bascom's people killed the adult hostages they had captured. Cochise was devastated and angry at the betrayal, under the white flag of truce. Cochise then joined with Mangas Coloradas his father-in-law to seek revenge. And from that incident, thus began, what would become known as "The Apache Wars," which lasted about 24 years.

The first Battle of Dragoon Springs. On May 5, 1862, Cochise and his alley Francisco ambushed a party of Confederates soldiers, that were using Tucson as their garrison. The Confederates were camped out at the abandoned Butterfield stagecoach stop, near Dragoon Springs, in the Sulphur Springs Valley. The small skirmish resulted in the majority of the soldiers retreating back to the garrison, while leaving three Confederate and a  Mexican stock herder dead, their remains buried there to this day. The Apache gained 25 horses and 30 mules, some cattle and probably some weapons.

          Dragoon Springs stagecoach stop, with springs in background.           

The second Battle of Dragoon Springs was on May 9, 1862. In response to the above mentioned, recent May 05, 1862 attack on the Confederate soldiers, Captain Hunter led a foraging squad to take back the cattle that Cochise had captured in the May 5th. skirmish. During the conflict five Apache were killed and a number of cattle were captured by the Confederates. There were no Confederate losses.

The Battle of Apache Pass. On May 20, 1862, the outnumbered Confederate soldiers occupying Tucson, were driven out of Tucson and back to Texas with hardly a fight, by a part of a 2,500 man unit, a Column of Union Volunteers that had arrived from California.

After securing Tucson, Capt. Roberts was assigned to secure the Dragoon Springs water source east of Tucson, in the Dragoon mountains, as well as the water source further east at Apache Springs. After securing the Dragoon Springs, Capt. Roberts and his men headed for the Apache Springs, located at Apache Pass, sitting at the base of the Chiricahua mountains, which is in the Sulphur Springs Valley. As Roberts and his men entered the pass, on July 15th. 1862, they were ambushed by Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, from well fortified stone "breastworks," the Apache had made from surrounding rocks. (Later Geronimo said he had been and fought there also).
The Apaches were superior in number, they had the high ground above the soldiers, well armed and positioned in the rocks, they pinned the soldiers down with withering rifle fire. Unfortunately, for the Cochise and his men, the soldiers had something these Apache had never seen. The relentless fire of the two wheel, mounted Mountain Howitzer cannons, drove the Apache to retreat. It is said, that an Apache warrior later observed, " We would've won if you hadn't fired wagons at us."

It was noted by Lt. Colonel Edward Eyre upon an encounter with Cochise in Apache Pass, stated that the Apaches, "All of them have carbines, and some rifles, shot-guns, six-shooters and all other kinds of arms that we use. In fact they are as well armed as we are." It should also be noted that just fighting with the Butterfield Stage employees, miners, ranchers and travelers in the this area the Apache had acquired about, 17 Sharps rifles or carbines, 24 revolvers, 20 rifles, one shotgun and from conflicts with the Army, four Sharps carbines, eight 1851 Colt revolvers, nine M 1815 rifles and four mini musket conversions.

To acquire a firearm, an Apache would either trade to obtain it, or as it was frequently, to capture it in a fight. Ammunition was equally difficult to come by. The Apache were very clever when it came to ammunition. Archaeological finds at Apache Pass found bullets that were homemade by the Apache. If a certain caliber bullet was not available, the Apache learned to how to shave a piece of lead, then construct and design it, to make it fit into the proper size caliber weapon. A number of homemade Apache bullets were found at Apache Pass, that were made by cutting a piece of lead from a chunk, and shaping it with their teeth, into the size and shape of the projectile required.
A rifle or pistol was an extremely valuable weapon to an Apache warrior. It meant life or death, not just in battle, but as a  tool to acquire food and personal protection. When a rifle or pistol needed repair or parts, the Apache were as clever at obtaining them, as they were at making bullets. Scavenging parts was vital to maintaining workable guns. If a warrior's gun for some reason became unusable, it was not discarded, but was saved till repair parts could be found, or made. The Apaches were known to stash food, water and weapons in different locations, in the Dragoon and Chiricahua Mountains, to benefit them whenever they traveled from place to place, when they were on the warpath or not. The Dragoon Mountains were never entered in battle by the Cavalry or any white man during the Apache Wars, which made it an appealing, safe place to stash things to be retrieved at a later date.

Through the many years of conflict, the Apache warriors, managed to gather for themselves a variety of guns, which were often taken in battle from those that dared to enter their mountainous territorial hideouts. These guns gave the Apache, a more evenly balanced ability, whenever engaged in battle. The 1866 Winchester was the first repeating rifle ever made and would have been a splendid prize, for any warrior fortunate enough to obtain one.

In 1872 Cochise tired of fighting, agreed to settle on the Chiricahua reservation, which encompassed the Chiricahua Mountains. On this unique reservation, the Apache were free to roam, there was no roll call every day, and the Apache were even allowed to leave the reservation. Some of the young reservation braves however, hid rifles and pistols, in the mountains to be retrieved and used at a later date, while they occasionally continued their raids into Sonora, across into Mexico as young braves are apt to do.
As well, the famous Apache warrior Geronimo, a close friend of Cochise, fought many of his people's battles in the Sulphur Springs Valley and used the Dragoon and Chiricahua mountains as a sanctuary and fortress. It is said that in early battles, Geronimo would run toward an enemy in battle, zig-zagging as he shot his bow and arrows. Then when he closed quarters with the unnerved enemy, he would slay them with his knife and take their guns, then run back to his warriors and give them the guns. As it was, that in his early years of fighting, Geronimo did not know how to use a gun. It would be later that Geronimo often used the 1870 Springfield Rifle, which he became quite proficient with and was later known to also use his 1876 Winchester. When Geronimo surrendered at Ft. Bowie, Arizona in the Chiricahua Mountains, it was said one of the rifles he turned in was an 1866.    
In 1885 eight large Arizona ranchers consolidated into the Chiricahua Cattle Company (C.C.C.). It was a total of 1.6 million acres and extended north into Graham county and south through the Sulphur Springs Valley headed toward Bisbee. It was approximately 35 miles wide by 75 miles long. The headquarters of the C.C.C was located at the western base of the Chiricahua Mountains, where Turkey Creek lazily flows from the Chiricahua mountains into the rich, robust grasslands below.

It was near the C.C.C. headquarters, in the Sulphur Springs Valley, in 1882, that the infamous outlaw and gunfighter Johnny Ringo, was found dead, a bullet to the head, with his gun still in his hand. An Apache? A suicide, or as some say, a revengeful setup by Doc Holliday due to a recent confrontation? Wyatt Earp later suggested he had killed Ringo because he suspected Ringo had killed his brother Morgan Earp in an ambush, shooting through a window, as Morgan was playing billiards in a Tombstone saloon.

Who killed Johnny Ringo? The truth, known now, only to the ghost of dusty cowboys gone, nightly roaming the streets of Tombstone, from dusk till dawn, their lonely spirits, playing one last hand of poker, looking for that final jackpot, before heading to their last roundup in the sky.

Johnny Ringo's pistol, long silent, now resides peacefully in a private collection. No longer the strength of an outlaw, it has become a unique insight and reflection of times past.

But this story is not about Johnny Ringo's gun, being found in the desert, this tale is about the Apache Winchester "Yellowboy," that I mentioned at the beginning of this story, being found in the desert.

This is about an 1866 Winchester, that had been hidden in a safe spot, its owner for some reason never returning, then many years later, aided by the erosive wear and tear of the harsh desert environment, the wind and rain, natures fingers, slowly released the rifle to reveal itself to the world once again. The persistent weather slowly through time, removed bits of sand, grain by grain till the foundation above the crevice collapsed and eventually the rifle slid down the side of the canyon wall and unto the ground where it happen to be found by a passing cowboy.

From what was indicated by the Apache arrows and other Native American items found in the small crevice, it was determined that, the Winchester "Yellowboy" most probably belonged to an Apache warrior. Hidden for safe keeping at the entrance of the canyon, needing repair, the "Yellowboy" waited patiently for its owner to return. However, after many years, the wooden parts began to weather, the barrel began to rust, while only the bronze alloy "gunmetal" frame withstood the deterioration of the unrelenting desert environment.

Why would an Apache warrior never return to retrieve his rifle? To that question, there is no answer. That will always be an unsolved mystery. The life of an Apache warrior was as hard and arduous as the land they loved. Their destiny woven into the history of circumstances, that they could have never foreseen. Did he accept the reservation life, forgoing the path of a warrior? Or was the warpath, his final refusal to surrender that which was his nature, to be an Apache warrior?

His fate, will forever be known, only to him and the Dragoon Mountains, where perhaps he remains today, bound by the eternal embrace of mother earth, at last, that peaceful rest, that all warriors deserve.

The old weathered "Yellowboy" Winchester, that the cowboy Joe Rice had discovered in the desert, was eventually traded to a Mrs. C. Johnson, for some medicine that he required. Mrs. Johnson ran the Johnson Drugstore at the corner of Park and Speedway in early Tucson. It was later acquired from Mrs. Johnson, by Mr. Thomas Black, where it stayed in his Winchester collection in Tucson for almost 60 years. It was passed on to his heirs, and now resides in a private collection of Winchesters in Tucson.

Many years ago when Mr. Black first graciously allowed me to view, his most private collection of Winchesters and other rifles, I was intrigued by the conversation we had about the weathered 1866 Winchester "Yellowboy". He said, of all the rifles he possessed, that the "Yellowboy" had the most "character" because of it's historical background. We mused, that such an antique with it's compelling historical perspective, should be in a museum. Mr. Black, a good man, passed a few years ago.

It has been decided to honor Mr. Blacks insightful observation and place the weathered 1866 Winchester "Apache Yellowboy" rifle on display. Standing in the streets of Tombstone, Arizona as many a gunfighter had, looking northeast one can view the Dragoon Mountains, where this "Apache Yellowboy" was discovered. So befitting its history, the "Apache Yellowboy" is on display inside the historically famous/infamous Hotel Tombstone, in Tombstone, Arizona.

It is our desire to allow Arizonians as well as all visitors the opportunity to view and learn about this unique and interesting tangible relic of Arizonan and Apache history. 

So if you are going to Tombstone, be sure to stop by the Hotel Tombstone, on Allen Street and visit there a moment, and take a look at this most interesting insight of days gone by.





The two pictures above and those below are how the Model 1866 Winchester "Yellowboy" rifle was found. We contacted Cody Firearms Museum and they said the serial number 36637 was an early 1866 Model, that serial number paperwork was destroyed in an early fire in their facility in the late 1950's. The barrel is rusted to the point that the original Winchester production lettering cannot be seen. The bronze alloy receiver has oxidized with a dark patina. The wooden stock has disintegrated in places. This is attributed to exposure over time, to years of the intense desert heat, wind and water. It is believed the rifle was being repaired or had been used to repair another 1866. However, that information is known only to the Apache Warrior that hid the rifle in the canyon where it was found.