Lost Epic by
C. F. Eckhardt
Henry O. Flipper, 10th US Cavalry
the most enigmatic figure in Texas and the West is
not Johnny Ringo of maybe-suicide/maybe-not, nor the deliberately mysterious Mysterious
Dave Mather, but rather 2LT Henry O. Flipper, 10th US Cavalry. Flipper’s early
life is fairly well documented. Born a slave in Georgia, he was emancipated in
1865 while still a child. He had an apparently-impressive mentality and was well-educated.
He was appointed from Georgia to the US Military Academy at West Point, New York.|
Flipper was by
no means the first Black ever appointed to West Point, but he ws the first to
complete four years and graduate as a commissioned officer in the US Army. The
fact that he completed the course is a tribute to his tenacity, for his years
at West Point were not happy ones. The Corps of Cadets has a treatment known as
‘the silence’ for those who offend gravely against the cadets’ own unwritten code
of conduct. It consists of—silence. No cadet will speak to a cadet under ‘silence,’
nor even acknowledge his existence. No one will communicate with him in any way
other than through official orders, which may be given orally. He will be ignored—as
though he doesn’t exist.
Flipper was given ‘silence’ from the day he entered the academy. Cadets given
‘silence’ usually resign. Some have committed suicide. Flipper endured four full
years of ‘silence’ and graduated.
he graduated he found himself between the proverbial rock and hard place. As the
only Black officer in the 10th, he had no social life. Except for official functions
he was frozen out of the life and society of his fellow officers, all of whom
were white. As an officer, he was forbidden under the Army’s ‘no fraternization’
policy to socialize with enlisted men. At FT
Davis, 5,000 feet high in Texas’ Big
Bend country, nearly 300 miles southeast of El
Paso and over 300 miles northwest of San
Antonio, he was in an area where the only other Blacks were the enlisted men
and the prostitutes who gathered to accommodate them. |
In addition, he
had no future in the Army and he had to know it. In the 19th Century US Army it
was possible to make Captain—barely possible—on merit alone, but even that was
extremely difficult. Promotion beyond 1LT was the result of patronage or pull.
A young 2LT who attracted the favorable eye of his regimental commander or a General
officer—as 2LT George A. Custer attracted the attention of MG Phillip Sheridan—could
rise fairly quickly. Custer went from 2LT to Brevet MG in less than two years
during the War Between the States, was reduced to CPT in the 3rd Cav after the
War, transferred to the newly-formed 7th Cav in 1866, and rose from CPT to LTC
and effective command of the regiment in the next ten years. Most of that was
due to Sheridan’s influence.
Pull—family, military, or political connections--helped
assure promotion and other advantages. MAJ George Schofield of the 9th Cav became
a primary wholesaler for Smith & Wesson revolvers before he patented his improvements
on the S&W #3 that won S&W a major military contract largely because his older
brother was chairman of the Army’s Small Arms Selection Board.
Flipper had nothing going for him but brains, and the fact that he was Black caused
that to get far less consideration than it might have otherwise. While stationed
at FT Davis Flipper
was apprehened, detained, and tried by court-martial for misappropriation of the
The Company Fund, in the frontier Army, was what made life
bearable. The Army furnished a wooden cot with a cotton sack to be filled with
grass and two blankets for bedding. Rations consisted of coffee, salt beef, pork,
or mutton; hardtack biscuits, blackstrap molasses, dessicated potatoes (they looked
like brown sugar), and a ‘vegetable block’—a ghastly compressed block of dried
vegetables—two meals a day, not three. Everything that made life endurable—seeds
to plant a post garden for fresh vegetables, sports equipment, magazines and books
for the post library, games like checkers and dominoes for off-duty time—were
purchased from the Company Fund, which was collected from both officers and EM.
A Cavalry 2LT made $55 a month, base pay, and after 1869 a private’s base pay
was $13 per month. A contribution of from $2 to $5 to the Company Fund, required
of each officer and soldier each quarterly payday, was a substantial portion of
a soldier’s pay.
Several reams have been written—and no doubt more will
be written—purporting to ‘prove’ Flipper did or did not commit the offense with
which he was charged. All available historical record and evidence, however, indicates
he was guilty as charged. There was, though, a definite peculiarity involved.
Henry O. Flipper was tried by court-martial for the offense of theft—misappropriation
of Company Funds. Under the Articles of War he could be dishonorably discharged,
stripped not merely of his commission but of his Army-earned civil engineer’s
credentials, and sentenced to as much as ten years in a federal prison. He was
dishonorably discharged and stripped of his commission—but nothing else. Numerous
white officers, convicted of the same offense, had been stripped of their credentials
and sentenced to prison. Why not Flipper?
When Flipper walked out of FT
Davis amidst the turned backs of the troops, with ‘Rogue’s March’ playing
in the background, his next stop was El
Paso. There, waiting for him, was a fully-equipped civil engineer’s office.
On the desk were contracts for civil engineering work—most particularly surveying
across Western Texas, New Mexico,
and Arizona. Many of those contracts came directly from the War Department and
involved work to be done for the US Army. From those contracts—which could not
have been let without the consent and approval of some of the same officers who
approved the findings of his court-martial—Henry O. Flipper emerged with a comfortable
nest egg and a reputation as a competent civil engineer. Obviously, someone was
taking very good care of former 2LT Flipper. Who? And why?
remain unanswered to this day. There are indications, though, that Flipper, knowing
his future in the Army was 30 years with nothing higher than the single silver
bar of a 1LT on his shoulder straps and a $37.50 per month pension at the end,
voluntarily took a fall for a cabal of junior—and perhaps senior—officers in the
10th. The fall was greatly sweetened by the prospect of very light consequences—no
penal servitude, no fine, no restitution, no loss of civil engineering credentials—and
a ready-made cash cushion in the form of some very lucrative government surveying
contracts waiting for him in El
of Flipper’s life after the Army are sketchy. He was rumored dead long before
his actual death at the home of his Baptist-preacher brother in Atlanta in 1940.
J. Frank Dobie, writing in the mid-1930s in his classic APACHE GOLD AND YAQUI
SILVER, says that Flipper, “if he is still alive,” could probably shed much light
on the probable locations of the legendary lost mines and treasure troves of Tayopa
and El Naranjal. Likely he could have.||
seems to have been a born linguist—one of those fortunate people who can ‘pick
up’ a language easily. He spoke English, Spanish, French, and German fluently
by the time he was assigned to FT
Davis. He also ‘picked up’ quickly on several Indian languages, including
the almost-impossible Athabaskan language of the Apaches. By the time he was drummed
out of the Army he was fluent in the Apache tongue.
Flipper worked out
of El Paso for several
years after his discharge, then moved into northern Mexico to do survey work for
the Mexican government. Many of the surveys still used in northern Chihuahua and
Sonora were done by Henry O. Flipper and his oddly-assorted crews of Indians,
Mexicans, and Anglo-American expatriates. Not a few of the latter seem to have
been ‘expatriated’ by virtue of flyers reading WANTED on the American side of
It is known that Flipper kept his field notes in French. Neither
the native Mexicans—those who could read—nor the American expatriates could make
use of them, since they didn’t read French. There may have been a reason for that.
Flipper is the only non-Yaqui ever to view the Yaqui Easter ritual and survive.
The Yaqui are an Athabaskan-speaking tribe who live in the far western
reaches of northern and western Sonora, high in the Sierra Madre Occidental. They
are also quite possibly the most warlike and pitiless tribe in the Americas. Chiricahua
Apache (Geronimo was a Chiricahua) women frighten their noisy children into silence
with “The Yaqui will get you.” My friend Chico Dyke, who grew up on the Chiricahua
reservation in Arizona in the company of his father’s people, tells me his grandmother
and aunts effectively silenced him and his cousins with threats of the Yaqui.
About the only ‘yori’—the word can mean enemy, demon, or white man—ever
to penetrate Yaquiland without taking heavy casualties were Jesuit priests, and
they took casualties before they won the trust of the Yaqui. “Which goes to show
you,” says Chico, who doesn’t like Jesuits any more than he likes Yaquis, “just
how weird those people are.”
For about a century before their expulsion
from Mexico in the late 1700s Jesuits held total religious sway among the Yaqui.
When they were forced out they left a lot behind. Among them was a peculiarly
Christian-influenced, primarily Pagan worship that includes Christ and the Christian
saints, merged with much older native rituals, and rumors of rich mines of gold
and silver hidden and rich hoards of bullion buried. At least two of those mines—Tayopa
and El Naranjal—are documented as existing.
Yaquiland in the late 1880s and 1890s came surveyor/civil engineer Henry O. Flipper.
He already spoke the Apache dialect. Since the Yaqui dialect is also Athabaskan,
it was easy for him to make himself understood. He was not white and he had a
personal history of evil suffered at the hands of the ‘yori.’
be impossible to prove unless Flipper recorded it in his notes and they were preserved,
but rumor holds that he was adopted into the Yaqui tribe. It is known that he
is the only non-Yaqui ever to witness the Yaqui Easter ceremony and live to tell
about it. The ceremony is a bizarre ritual which, if practiced today, is practiced
entirely in secret. The centerpiece is a dead man. How the corpse is provided
is a Yaqui secret. The corpse represents Pontius Pilate. During the ceremony the
corpse is defiled—spat on, urinated on, defecated on, kicked, and pummeled. After
the ceremony it disappears—and where it goes is another Yaqui secret.
O. Flipper, sometime around 1900, both photographed and filmed the Yaqui Easter
ritual. The film was a staple in college-level American Indian anthropology courses
in the 1920s but seems to have vanished over the years, as have all but a few
muddy prints of Flipper’s
still photographs of the rite.
was trusted to view, photograph, and survive the Yaqui Easter ritual, what other
secrets might the Yaqui have trusted him with? The lost mining town of Tayopa,
object of extensive and enthusiastic horseback searches in the 19th and early
20th centuries, was eventually found via aerial search in the 1930s. El Naranjal,
both a hacienda and a gold-mining complex—famed both for gold with a peculiar
orange hue and for its groves of tiny, bitter Seville oranges—remains hidden even
today, somewhere in the vastness of Yaquiland. Yet occasionally, on the lower
end of the Yaqui River in Sonora, one
may find rotten Seville oranges that have obviously floated from a long way off.
know Flipper went often to Mexico City. Though his family, at his death, insisted
he lived and died a bachelor, there is—or there was, a generation or so ago—a
Flipper family in Mexico City that exhibited distinctive African-mixed facial
features and claimed to trace its descent from an Enrique Flipper. If the union
was a legal one he would have been required, at some point, to profess Catholicism.
Since the family in Georgia is staunchly Baptist it is very likely they would
have denied he had ever been married.
We also have reason to suspect that,
sometime in the 1920s, Flipper was in South America, specifically in Brazil. Rumor
holds that he was searching for João Aranzel’s fabled Lago del Oro—the lake with
the shores of gold dust in Brazil’s Sertão (back country) that was the legendary
source of Aranzel’s vast wealth. Although every indication of Flipper’s perspicasity
tells us he was far too canny to be taken in by the Lago del Oro yarn, Aranzel
did have a source of raw gold in the Sertão that has never been identified. Flipper’s
talent for acquiring fluency in Amerindian dialects in a few weeks, added to his
long experience in friendly dealing with tribes in the American Southwest and
Mexico, would certainly have given him an advantage over most searchers for such
We know Henry O. Flipper returned to the US sometime in the
late 1930s. We know he died in Atlanta, an old man, at the home of his Baptist
preacher brother. We know he was the first Black to graduate from West Point.
We know he was dishonorably discharged from the Army. What we don’t know for certain
about Henry O. Flipper—where he went and what he did from the time he was drummed
out of the Army in the 1880s until he turned up, an old man, in Atlanta in the
1930s—would make a fascinating book.
nucleus of that book may exist. Flipper kept copious field notes—that we know.
We know he kept them in French to keep others from reading them. What went into
those notes—and where are they now?