It is really a very non-descript grave. If not for the area where Pvt. Joseph McLernon has laid quietly these past 128 years, few would even bother to visit the site. But Big Dry Wash has meaning to both Apache and ancestors of settlers who reside in the upper elevations of the Mogollon Rim.
Not far from McLernon's resting place, one can look down on the distant towns of Strawberry and Pine, a sea of green trees and blue haze greeting those seeking peaceful solitude, a spiritual renewal or just resting during a long hike. It just doesn't seem possible a three-hour battle raged in the area between Apache and The Blue Coats in the heat of summer in 1882, but it did.
It is a very convoluted history of rage and retribution, some Apache merely looking for a fight, others seeking revenge for a disappearing way of life and settlers caught in the middle as the United States Army is forced to put down these marauding renegades.
It started a year earlier, on a creek called Cibecue, where seven members of Troop D, Sixth Cavalry were killed, including Captain E.C. Hentig and an Apache medicine man named Nockaydelklinne. Though not a major battle, it left both sides bitter and the psychological wounds raw, deep and festering.
The complaints of the natives were not without some justification, settlers and scam artists encroaching on the San Carlos reservation, corrupt government officials making profits on the backs of a people who sought to create a new life, and the hotheads within the Apache bands convincing some of those who would listen that they could have it all again, just as it was earlier in the century.
Though the renegades would use the death of the Apache medicine man as a rally cry to raid and plunder the countryside in the spring and summer of 1882, it turned out to be a terribly violent and seriously flawed attempt to rid the territory of white settlers and reclaim the land as their own. It would take decades after for both sides to finally make a true peace.
The first place hit was the ranch of George Stevens, where 12 people were killed in a matter of minutes, followed up with a run against San Carlos where an agency trader was killed along with the chief of the reservation police. This small band of revenge seekers soon swelled as nearly 300 Apache caught the war spirit and joined up. These Apache, however, opted to head south into Mexico for safety and await developments.
Natiotish, the leader of the small band, stayed behind and later stirred up trouble by spreading rumors the San Carlos Indians were to be disarmed or even sent away. The rumors never took, thus forcing Natiotish and his cohorts to start a new uprising by killing some Indian police. Had some of the San Carlos Apache not warned two carriages filled with visitors from Globe, they too would have probably met up with Natiotish's angry band and been violently dispatched from the planet. However, their quick return to Globe with news of the uprising, as well as word of one ranch being sacked after another, soon made the whole situation look very ominous.
Though major towns were left alone, the growing uprising was leaving one ranch after another scorched and many dead, as well as cutting telegraph lines which caused added confusion. The small mining town of McMillenville was attacked, as was as a cattle camp. The Indians were now moving through an area of lush grasses and trees known as Pleasant Valley, where the promise of a good living was certainly possible, at least up until the summer of 1882. Now terror was gripping the locals and a growing realization, even on the part of those perpetrating this carnage, that it would likely take an interception and battle to end it.
With nearly 80 Apache and a hundred captured horses and cattle, Natiotish's band were leaving the valley behind and heading up into the rough but safe country of the Mogollon. But at the same time soldiers were pouring out of Forts Whipple, Apache, Thomas, McDowell and Verde, faster than even their supplies. And by the middle of July the converging point for these men in blue was the East Verde River and Tonto Creek and the hideout of Natiotish in the Upper Tonto Basin. The trail was easy to follow, thanks to captured animals and the unfortunates left behind in the destroyed ranches and small villages.
Though the renegades had plenty of time to prepare their defenses, it would prove fruitless in the end as soldiers and firepower overwhelmed them. More than 20 Apache died, as did Pvt. Joseph McLernon, a bullet meant for one Lt. Cruse passing through the 24-year-old's lungs and killing him within an hour. The lieutenant attempted to save McLernon's life by dragging him to safety while under constant fire. Cruse would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for showing such courage.
It was a massive thunderstorm that saved what was left of the Natiotish's band. They escaped under cover of heavy rain, washing away the remnants of the Indians and the three-hour battle in a matter of minutes.
The area is pretty much the same today as it was nearly 130 years ago, except for the lone grave of Pvt. Joseph McLernon of Antrim County, Ireland.