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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The Lost Epic
Henry O. Flipper, 10th US Cavalry

by C. F. Eckhardt
Perhaps 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.
2LT Henry O. Flipper, 10th US Cavalry
Henry O. Flipper

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.

10th Cavalry Insignia
10th Cavalry Insignia
Once 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.

Henry 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 Company Fund.

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.

2LT 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?

Those questions 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 Paso.
Details 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.

Flipper 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 the border.

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.

Into 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.’

It would 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.

Henry 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.

If Flipper 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.

We 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 a treasure.

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.

The 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?

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
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May 14, 2007 column

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