The Life and Times of Tom Jeffords

Tom Jeffords was portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 classic film Broken Arrow. Although he did ride alone into Cochise’s Stronghold to make the peace, events were not quite as portrayed in film, legend and popular history. The real Tom Jeffords was equally brave and although often motivated by profit, he was still able to swiftly gain and maintain the respect and trust of a leader, Cochise, from a warrior nation. Tom left only a handful of letters, and these written by partners, clerks and attorneys, and a few hints as to his past from which we might gage the man and what elements of character made him the key to building peace with Cochise, then 11 years at war.

Thomas Jefferson Jeffords was born January 1, 1832, to Eber and Almira Jeffords, the third of an eventual 12 children. Eber had come from Massachusetts in the early 1820s to the furthest southwest corner of New York, Chautauqua, at that time a land of hardwood stumps. Pioneers had preceded him clearing and planting the land. There was no industry and no big towns. He came to find farmland but was too late. Instead in 1824, he met and married 16 year-old Almira Woods. In 1825, the Erie Canal opened and so did the asheries, which turned hardwood into pearl ash used in glass, ceramics and making saleratus, baking soda. The canal tied Chautauqua to New York City and the world and the lake tied the county to Chicago and New Orleans. It’s likely Eber worked in the asheries, but when Tom was seven, he concluded he’d never earn enough to raise a family and buy a farm. He took the family west to the nearest corner of Ohio, Ashtabula, in the Western Reserve of Connecticut.

Ashtabula was a lakeport and a town built by New England Yankees. Four of Eber’s sons sailed the lakes and two, Tom and James, rose to be captains while in their early twenties. It’s likely Eber worked the docks. Eventually, he bought his farm. All twelve children grew to adulthood suggesting that this was a loving and well-regulated family. The daughters all married and named their sons for father and brothers. One brother who went to sea spent his declining years with a nephew’s family. The family did not make a mark on Ashtabula society suggesting that they were poor and that the sons went to work early. This would also explain how Tom and James achieved captaincies so young. There wasn’t enough money for much schooling. In the guest book of a Tucson area ranch I found Tom Jeffords’s signature. In a book of poetry, fancy sentiments and drawings, one page contains a simple signature, that of a man uncomfortable writing cursive. Set aside the fine letters in the writing of others and see Tom as a rough and crude frontiersman with little education but still a leader. We get the feeling that Eber, who married young, told his sons to make their fortune before they married. Four, including Tom, never did marry. Tom and John went west to the gold rushes. That two of his sons were captains suggests that Eber taught discipline, self-respect and courage.

In 1856, the bark John Sweeney capsized. Her skipper was 24-year-old Captain Jeffords of Ashtabula. Sailing the Great Lakes wasn’t like sailing the salt seas. Ships didn’t make voyages, they made runs lasting a few days to a few weeks at most. The lakes were frozen in the winter and sailors stayed home or found other jobs, often as lumberjacks. On reaching port, the crew was paid-off and the captain remained with the ship while it was unloaded and he then hired a new crew. Land was near, food was fresh, the cook often a woman. Crews consisted of a captain, an officer, a cook, and two or three deck hands, just enough to raise the fore-and-aft sails. The crew dined with the captain in his cabin. If the water-butts ran dry, the crew could always dip a bucket over the side. The most exotic ports were in Canada. It was a bit like truck driving, repetitious, boring, familiar ports over and over again.

Sailing the lakes did require special qualities in the officers. Faced with constant crew changeover, they had to gain respect and obedience quickly and had to maintain it at close quarters, dining with the men and therefore being friendly and accessible while projecting an air of authority and personal discipline. Tom must also have learned to bury fear and remain calm so as to give orders effectively under trying conditions. Crews were drawn from a variety of backgrounds of social class and culture, Germans, Dutch, Swedes, French-Canadians, French-Indian Metis and backwoods Americans. The officer had to win respect from all and had to be able to live at close quarters with their varying habits. George Hand, who ran a saloon in Tucson during the 1870s, described Tom as a man who arrived in the company of friends and who was always welcome. He held posts of trust and leadership, as superintendent of the mail from Tucson to Socorro in the 1860s, and as head of the Tucson Artesian Water Company in the late 1870s. Lessons learned as a sea officer stood him in good stead when he met Cochise.

Tom Jeffords grew bored with the lakes and realized he would be slow in making his fortune sailing other men’s ships. In 1859, he laid out the road west to Denver and the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush but soon found he’d arrived too late to claim a good placer and headed south to the short-lived 1860 San Juan Gold Rush. He wrote that he arrived in Arizona in 1860, but didn’t see Tucson until 1862. Most roads led to Tucson which at that time with Tubac and Gila City was one of three towns in Arizona. Kearney’s Route along the Gila River, a trail for pack animals, was the exception. There was insufficient water to work the placers at Gila City. Tom found Sonorans winnowing gold by tossing blanket-loads of earth in the air and letting the wind blow away the lighter elements. Four men breaking their backs could earn $5 or 6 in a day. American prospectors packed up and left for a new gold strike at Pinos Altos near the headwaters of the Gila River, six miles north of where Silver City is today. It was in this vicinity that war found Jeffords in 1862.

He said he was a civilian courier at the Battle of Valverde near Fort Craig on the Rio Grande. Man for man, it was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War with 300 out of 3,000 lost on each side. The weakened Confederates pushed north and took Santa Fe while Colonel Edward Canby remained in control of Fort Craig and Union supplies. Confederates held Mesilla and the road to Tucson. Colonel James Carleton was at Fort Yuma coming with a brigade-sized unit, the California Column, but the two colonels were not in contact. Canby needed someone who knew Kearney’s route to carry dispatches. Jeffords made the ride of 500 miles through the Apache country of Cochise and Mangas Coloradas then hostile to the U.S. The dangers of such a journey are almost beyond belief. The country would weaken or kill a horse with poor water, rough ground and little grazing or the Apache might steal it and slay the rider. Without the horse, the rider stood little chance in the Gila deserts.

Tom Jeffords returned to the Rio Grande with the lead elements of the California Column and may have met Cochise when Major Eyre made contact in July 1862. The major provided the chief with enough information to set up the ambush that became the Battle of Apache Pass. Tom remained with the army through the war, scouting and serving as courier. We know little of his adventures. Mail to Tucson was cut off in March of 1861, when Congress moved the route north to the Oregon-California Trail out of Confederate control. Thereafter mail came by Army dispatch from Fort Yuma or, after 1863, from the new capitol, Prescott. This meant that mail had to go around the Horn or across the Panama isthmus to San Francisco and then by steamer to the mouth of the Colorado River, thence upriver by steamboat. It was slow and arduous. Mail is the lifeblood of commerce. It’s how merchants order and pay for shipments.

This changed when Tom Jeffords became superintendent of the mail from Tucson to Socorro. From whence the line ran on via Santa Fe to St. Louis. In 1867, the mail was started with two express riders per week. It was so successful that soon a once per week stagecoach (buckboard) was added. Legend and Robert Forbes have added confusion to the story. Tom may have driven the buckboard on the old Butterfield Road, but he did not drive for Butterfield whose Overland Mail relocated out of Arizona in 1861. He may have had scars, but they weren’t from Apache arrows. He may have known 22 men killed by Cochise’s band but they weren’t express riders. The pony riders had nothing Cochise wanted and their horses were fast. The stage was only attacked once in 1869 and that caused a stir that led to a month-long pursuit and the Battle of Turtle Mountain where 30 Medals of Honor were awarded.

In 1870, Tom Jeffords partnered with Elias Brevoort as Indian trader at Canada Alamosa. This Chiricahua reservation near modern Truth or Consequences was popular with the Apache many of whom came in voluntarily. The agent was Lieutenant Charles Drew who was liked by the Indians. Brevoort and Jeffords sent him a letter advising him that it was unwise to drink with Apaches. Drew took it to his commander accusing the traders of trying to intimidate him to cover for their own misdeeds. Drew was a known alcoholic and it seems likely the warning was sincere. Nonetheless, they lost their license to trade.

Jeffords returned to prospecting and scouting for the Army. While on a scout, his patrol passed through Cochise’s camp in the mountains west of Canada Alamosa. Cochise and his warriors were away raiding in Mexico. The people were rounded up and escorted to the reservation. The Army needed someone to go back and invite Cochise in for talks. The chief was wary of the Army. In 1861, Lieutenant George Bascom had attempted to take him hostage during talks leading to an open break in relations. The man who knew the way and the one willing to make the trip was Tom Jeffords. He returned alone to Cochise’s camp and billed the Army $300. Courage and Jeffords’s personality made an impression on the Apache. He came in and in subsequent talks called on Jeffords to advise him. While Jeffords did not speak Apache, both he and the chief spoke Spanish.

The Chiricahua War might have ended then and there but the Indian service decided that the Canada Alamosa Reservation was too close to whites and Mexicans who were corrupting the Indians. The Apache were moved to the Tularosa Valley in far western New Mexico. The elevation was high, the growing season short and the Apaches didn’t like it and began to leave. Meanwhile, General George Crook had begun a campaign near Prescott moving relentlessly toward the southeast, subjugating Apaches and forcing them onto reservations where various bands hostile to one another were made to live at close quarters. At this point, in 1872, General Oliver O. Howard, the one-armed, Christian general, arrived with a special commission from President Grant to make peace with the Chiricahua. Crook’s campaign was put on hold.

The general was told that Tom Jeffords was the only man who could take him to Cochise. He sought Tom out. Jeffords told the general that he could take the officer alone to Cochise’s camp but would not lead a column or patrol. In the end the party consisted of Tom, the general, his aide, Sladen, a cook and a packer, Streeter. Departing from Canada Alamosa they picked up two of Cochise’s relatives as guides and rode the breadth of Chiricahua country from the Rio Grande to the Dragoon Mountains. There they found Cochise’s people camped in a canyon whose description matches Slavin Gulch. The chief was found in a tiny mountain alcove seven miles to the north and there talks began with Cochise, Tom and the general sitting atop the flat rock that was Cochise’s roof.

The chief wanted reassurance from Tom Jeffords that he could trust the general to do as promised. The scout reassured him; he thought Howard could be trusted. Cochise asked for a reservation whose western boundary was the foot of the Mule and Dragoon Mountains running northeast from Dragoon Spring to Doubtful Canyon, then south through the Peloncillos to the Mexican border. He also demanded a reluctant Tom Jeffords as the Indian agent. The general granted all of this and peace was made.

From the start, there were problems. The Army and Cochise kept their word, but Jeffords soon found beef supplier Henry Hooker unwilling to deal with him. The Indian service wouldn’t pay for the beef. They claimed the Army had created the reservation and payment should come from the Army budget. This was straightened out. 350 of Cochise’s people came in followed by 250 more of the Juh-Geronimo band. Other smaller bands came in as well. They lived scattered about the reservation. The agency was moved to the San Simon Cienega, about 25 miles south of the San Simon on the today’s interstate. There they were supposed to farm. They soon began to die of fever and the agency was moved again. There were visitors on hunting passes from other reservations, some of who continued on to Mexico to hunt Mexicans claiming a ration going and coming. Eventually, Jeffords was calling for 900 rations. When the reservation was broken up, only 300 of Cochise’s band went to San Carlos. The Juh-Germonimo band went to Mexico and the others scattered like quail. Jeffords’s accounting was called into question but no evidence was ever obtained that he was profiteering, only that he kept the Apache well-fed and happy and spent money from his own pocket. Problems with travelers on the road through Apache Pass resulted in the agency being moved there so that Jeffords would be close at hand to settle disputes.

Cochise died in 1874 and Tom Jeffords was with him the night before he passed. He is said to have asked Tom, “Do you think we’ll meet in the afterlife?” To which the agent replied, “I don’t know.” Cochise said, “I think we will.” Cochise was buried in a blanket given to him by Henry Hooker. Thus ended a very special relationship between two men of very different backgrounds.

Taza, the chief’s son, kept the peace while he lived. In 1876, Apaches bought alcohol from Nicholas Rogers at Sulphur Springs Ranch. Becoming drunk they murdered two of their women and then in company with Geronimo returned to buy more liquor. Rogers refused them and he and his partner were slain. This band of Apaches then left the reservation and killed three settlers along the San Pedro River. Jeffords was fired as agent. The reservation was broken up and the Apaches escorted to the San Carlos Reservation.

Now in his late 40s, Tom returned to trying to make his fortune. He headed up the Tucson Artesian Water Company, an attempt to bring drinking water to Tucson homes. With Archie McIntosh he pursued Geronimo into Mexico and brought him in to the San Carlos Reservation. Even while he was agent, he had been prospecting and relocated the Brunckow Mine which he continued to own into the 1880s. Immediately after the reservation closed, he staked claims in Apache Pass, the Huachuca Mountains and the Dos Cabezas. He owned shares in mines in Tombstone and bought, for $5, George Warren’s 1/9th share in the Copper Queen Mine after Warren had lost in the famous footrace against a horse. Tom turned $500 profit reselling it a few years later. At various times the newspapers reported he’d made $20,000 on the sale of a mine. County records place the amount at closer to $2,000. Perhaps this was to fool the taxman. Jeffords seemed to have money and invested $8,000 in building a new sutler’s store for Fort Huachuca where he was sutler, post trader, and postmaster for a number of years.

In 1892, he moved to the Owl Head Buttes on the northwest slope of the Tortilita Mountains about 35 miles north of Tucson. Today the site seems remote and requires a lengthy, drive by a round-a-bout route. In those days, the road ran direct and there were neighbors, a stamp mill and small village nearby. In 1895, Alice Rollins Crane sought Tom out. She claimed to be a writer and ethnographer who had lived among the Apache for nine years. Later she added the Dakota Sioux. Little can be found to support her claims. She talked Tom into showing her where the peace had been made. In Slavin Gulch, she claimed to have induced Tom to make signal fires to call in the Bronco Apache. When she retold the story in 1914, the Broncos had become the Apache Kid. In 1898, she put together a consortium of Los Angeles women who would pay her way to the Yukon Gold Rush where she would buy mines in her name and pay them dividends. She bought mines, but no dividends were forthcoming. By the time she reached San Francisco on her way north she claimed her backers were a secret consortium of New York newspapers for which she would write articles. In Seattle, she had been dispatched by the Smithsonian as an ethnographer. In the Yukon, she published an anthology of other people’s short stories in her own name leaving out the name of her partner, Captain William Galpin, who tried to kill her. She ran to the protection of Russian Count Moraczewski, actually a Polish peasant.

Madam and the Count were associated with Jeffords throughout the rest of his life. They claimed that he was destitute and that they had supported him, but at the same time, they tried to profit from his estate. After Tom’s death, Moraczewski displayed a shotgun that he claimed had been given to the agent by Cochise. He said he would give it to the Arizona Pioneers Society, now the Arizona Historical Society. It isn’t there. George Oakes saw the weapon and noted that it was a modern breech loading shotgun while those in Cochise’s day had been muzzle loading and moreover, he knew where Tom had bought it.

Tom had neighbors and friends. He built a good-looking frame house with glass windows and a picket fence and continued to work his mines until he died on February 19, 1914. He was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Tucson. The list of his pallbearers reads like a who’s who of frontier Arizona. The entire Pioneers Society turned out in his honor. He was not a loner, but he was a very special man who had been able to win the trust and respect of an Apache chief suspicious of all white men.

About dhocking

Doug Hocking is an independent scholar who has completed advanced studies in American history, ethnology and historical archaeology. He grew up on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and attended school among the Indios and paisanos of the Rio Arriba (Northern New Mexico). He retired from the military as an armored cavalry (scout) officer. His novels immerse the reader in the times, terrain and cultures of 19th century New Mexico. Doug lives near Tombstone with his wife, dogs and a feral cat. He writes both fiction and history and is currently working on a biography of Tom Jeffords and has two historical novels in print: Massacre at Point of Rocks and Mystery of Chaco Canyon. His articles have appeared in True West, Wild West, Buckskin Bulletin and Roundup.
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