General Miles' Mirrors The Heliograph

in the Geromino Campaign of 1886


by Bruno J. Rolak

In his annual report for 1886, Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles commented with pride on the effectiveness of the heliograph, a device using mirrors and reflected sunlight to send messages during the Apache campaigns in the Southwest.

They [the Apaches] had found troops in every valley, and when they saw the heliographic communications flashing across every mountain range, Geronimo and others sent word to Natchez that he had better come in at once and surrender… The reports of Lieutenants Dravo and Fuller will show the workings of the most interesting and valuable Heliographic system that has ever been established.1

Was Miles exaggerating the importance of his mirrors? In recent years skepticism has been growing, but for half a century after Geronimo's surrender, historians, journalists and novelists believed every word he said and added a few embroideries of their own.

His view of the heliograph's importance was disseminated at first primarily in military circles and in military publications of that time, but in 1891 Major George W. Baird related the story for public consumption in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine:

The messages, flashed by mirrors from peak to peak of the mountains, disheartened the Indians as they crept stealthily or rode swiftly through the valleys, assuring them that all their arts and craft had not availed to conceal their trails, that troops were pursuing them and others awaiting them. The telescopes of the vigilant members of the Signal Corps, who garrisoned the rudely built but impregnable works on the mountains, permitted no movement by day, no cloud of dust even in the valleys below, to escape attention. Little wonder that the Indians thought that the powers of the unseen world were confederated against them.2

General Miles perpetuated this interpretation in his Personal Recollections, published in 1896. He described a demonstration of the heliograph for Geronimo's benefit which "struck the savage with awe, and evidently made a strong impression on him." According to an interpreter standing by, said Miles, Geronimo then told an Apache warrior "to go and tell Natchez that there was a power here which he could not understand; and to come in, and come quick." Natchez heeded this advice, led the remaining holdouts into the army camp, and surrendered. The Apache wars were over.3

Most writers and historians have accepted without question the word of Baird and Miles on the vital role of the heliograph in ending hostilities. Paul 1. Wellman, writing in 1947, was completely convinced: It was the heliograph system which really was the decisive factor. Flashing all day long from mountain top to mountain top, the mirrors kept Lawton and the other commanders continually informed of the progress of the Apaches. Geronimo had not a moment's rest. Ceaselessly he had to keep on the move. As he shook off one pursuing detachment of soldiers or scouts, another would cut his trail. Twist and dodge as he would, he was never free.4

Paul Horgan in his novel of the Apache wars, A Distant Trumpet (1951), goes along and adds some interesting variations. One of his leading characters is General Alexander Quait, who combines all the virtues of Generals Crook and Miles but exhibits none of their faults. On the eve of the great pursuit, Quait informs his officers: "It is my aim, gentlemen, to enclose the Indians in a constantly moving network of little mirrors". Here, Horgan is close to the truth, though once the mirrors were established, they were not moved. Later, however, Quait assembles his staff several times daily to evaluate the information reported by the mirrors. There is no evidence that even one such conference ever took place.5

Charles F. Parker, writing in 1967 in Arizona Highways, came to the old conclusions:

It was due to the effective use of a new technique of communication, the heliograph, that the campaign had been brought to a speedy and dramatic conclusion… The Apaches had been forced to unconditional surrender within a few short months under the continuous hammering of the forces under the command of General Miles and the Heliographic system was pronounced a determinative factor in vanquishing the Apache.6

General Miles' biographers Virginia M. Johnson (1962) and Newton F. Tolman (1968) naturally accept the general's claims.7 Stephen Longstreet in War Cries on Horseback (1970) repeats them: Without the heliograph tale-bearers reporting their tracks, the Indians could have holed up in concealed places, but no sooner were they in canip than some signal pinpointed out their stopping place and the chase would be on again.

Fairfax Downey in Indian Fighting Army (1971), is the latest to agree.8

After 1950, however, skeptics began to make themselves heard. Paul J. Scheips, a Department of the Army historian, thought it "strange" in 1954 that, since the Indians were familiar with mirror signaling, Geronimo should have been overcome with awe during Miles' demonstration of the instrument. Roger E. Kelley concluded in 1967 that Miles' story of the incident "seems somewhat exaggerated" since the Apaches had previous knowledge of the device and probably guessed its function.9 Dan L. Thrapp, in 1969, strongly disputed Miles' assertion that the heliograph had induced Geronimo to seek peace." Odic Faulk in the same year used stronger language:

Lies so abound in this passage that it can rightly be called little more than a product of Miles' imagination… Not a single battle resulted from its use, not a single shot was fired because of it, and Geronimo definitely understood both its function and its working long before the surrender occurred at Skeleton Canyon. In truth, the heliograph was an expensive toy whose only benefit was in reporting the movement, of troops.11

What is the truth behind these diametrically opposite opinions? Up to now no one has made the ultimate effort to come up with the basic facts. To understand what really happened, and evaluate the influence of the heliograph on the outcome of the Apache wars, one needs to go back to the 1870s.

In 1877 General Albert J. Myer, then U. S. Army Chief Signal Officer, received favorable reports on the heliograph from the British Army, which had pioneered it. That same year he sent several of the instruments to Western posts for study and experimentation. In 1878 he loaned six heliographs to Miles, who was commanding the District of the Yellowstone in Montana. Sergeant Alvarado M. Fuller of Miles' command helped establish a heliograph line connecting Fort Keogh and Fort Custer.

On April 12, 1886, Miles arrived at Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory, to replace Brigadier General George Crook, who had lost the confidence of his superiors by his failure to capture Geronimo.12 Shortly after assuming his new command, he notified Brigadier General William B. Hazen, Chief Signal Officer of the Army, that he "intended to make prominent use of the Signal Service" and requested the support of trained operators and a number of heliographs. General Hazen promised full cooperation and conducted a quick inventory. He found six heliographs at Fort Myer, Virginia, and others scattered at posts from Barrancas, Florida, to Vancouver Barracks on the Pacific. He immediately sent the six from Fort Myer to Fort Huachuca, which was to be the advance base for the campaign, and obtained an additional eighteen from Western posts. By the end of June, Hazen had provided all the men and equipment he could spare. He sent in all thirty-four heliographs, ten telescopes, thirty marine glasses and eleven trained operators.13

On April 2o Miles issued orders for the instruction of his troops:
To better facilitate this duty and afford as far as practicable protection to the scattered settlements, the territory is subdivided into Districts of Observation as shown upon maps furnished by the department engineer officer, and these will be placed under commanding officers to be hereafter designated.The signal detachments will be placed upon the highest peaks and prominent lookouts to discover any movements of Indians and to transmit messages between the different camps.14

Miles made former Sergeant Alvarado M. Fuller (now a second lieutenant in the Second Cavalry) responsible for establishing the network in Arizona. Lieutenant E. E. Dravo was given the same assignment for New Mexico. Fuller began his duties in April, and Dravo arrived in May.

As established, each station contained about eight men, including operators, guards and couriers. The stations closed at night, and at most places the men came down to a warmer level where they could obtain water and wood. After breakfast, about sunrise, they returned to the heights. With their telescopes and marine glasses, the observers could identify movements at a distance of twenty-five miles. With the advent of the rainy season in June, however, foul weather sometimes interrupted heliograph communication for days.

Fuller established the first station on April 26. The last, the twenty-seventh, became operational on July 14. The Arizona and New Mexico stations linked up at Stein's Pass, which was Fuller's responsibility though it was just across the line in New Mexico. Pending the arrival of Signal Corps heliographs, Fuller constructed four adequate instruments out of hand mirrors purchased for $1.10 apiece.

While Lieutenants Fuller and Dravo were establishing the heliograph network, a pursuit force was assembling at Fort Huachuca. On May 5, while the band played "The Girl I left Behind Me," Captain Henry W. Lawton led his command out of the fort on an expedition which was to make Western and military history and provide plots for a great many historically inaccurate movies. He carried a heliograph instrument in his pack trains.

Lawton entered Mexico on May 8 but returned to Arizona less than a month later when he learned that the hostiles were again north of the border. On June 5 the heliograph station at Antelope Springs observed a party of Indians heading south. The information was transmitted to Fort Bowie and Fort Huachuca by heliograph. The next morning, by heliograph and courier, the dispatch was relayed to Lawton, who was located near Calabasas on the Santa Cruz south of Tucson. He sent several detachments in pursuit and one of these, under Lieutenant Robert D. Walsh, surprised the raiders in the Patagonia Mountains, capturing their stock and equipment. The hostiles fled on foot."

This was the only time the heliograph played any part in locating a war party and sending a strike force against it. Thereafter, the Apaches remained south of the border until their surrender in September. Lawton crossed again into Mexico on June 11 and remained there until the end of August. Throughout the entire pursuit, he relied upon the Indian scouts and not on the heliograph operators to track down the hostiles. No heliograph stations were established south of the border. Lawton used couriers and the Mexican telegraph to keep Miles informed of his movements.

Through June, July and August Lawton pursued the Indians. He reached San Bernardino, Sonora, on August 29 and the next day went north to the San Bernardino Ranch, located on the border, to send his first message by heliograph.16

That was the end of Lawton's active campaigning and of the potential usefulness of the heliograph. The claim that it kept Lawton constantly informed of Geronimo's location is a myth. He did not receive any heliograph messages after crossing into Mexico on June 11. Lieutenant Fuller's report settles the matter: "From the time that the heliograph was put into a particular section of the country it was noticed as a fact that the Indians were never again seen in that vicinity during the campaign."17

After June 5, when the Antelope Springs station observed Indians moving south, the operators had nothing more to report. If Miles had asked the operators, "Where are the Apaches?" the answer would have been, "We do not know." It was also a fact that the chase occurred during the rainy season when cloud cover often made the heliographs inoperative. Lawton wrote: "The country was indescribably rough and the weather sweltering hot, with heavy rains, every day or night."18

Time and again these heavy rains washed out the trail and the pursuit force wandered astray in search of signs. For a period of about three weeks in July and August Lawton did not know the location of his quarry. "When we were about a hundred miles south of Fronteras," Leonard Wood wrote later, "we learned from some Mexicans whom we met that the Indians were in the vicinity of that place."19 I The scouts were searching along the Aros River at a time when the hostiles were about a hundred miles to the north.

In a situation like this, the heliograph was completely useless. When Lawton crossed the border on June 11, he was beyond range of the heliograph network. With each succeeding day, the distance separating him from the network increased. When he reached Sinoquipe on June 30, he was ninety-eight miles from the nearest station (Fort Huachuca). On July 20 he was at Sahuaripa, 170 miles from the nearest station (Bisbee Canyon). On August 17 he was at Oputo, 102 miles distant.

Considering that the average distance between stations in Arizona-New Mexico was twenty-five miles, Lawton would have required about seven heliograph teams of at least twenty-one trained men to maintain communications by this means from Sahuaripa. Such teams would have had to change location constantly as the pursuit column moved, for the heliograph could function only where there were no obstacles between sender and receiver. Lawton had only one heliograph in his pack train, and that was usually separated from the main body of troops.

In his final report Lawton praised the outstanding work of his officers, the cavalry, the infantry, the packers and the scouts. He made no mention of heliograph operators.20

Yet the heliograph was used, and accurate records kept by Fuller show that 2,264 messages originated in Arizona alone.21 What did they say? Each station reported in every morning. Then the operators sent information about weather conditions in their areas, including significant changes. They reported movements of troops and civilian groups, requisitioned supplies for their stations and reported any illness among the men. They relayed messages from commanders to troops guarding water holes along the border. Finally, at dusk, they reported the closing of their stations.

The military value of such activity was certainly minimal. Nevertheless, the heliograph was not just an "expensive toy." Lieutenant Fuller recognized its real contribution when he noted that the Apaches avoided areas where the heliographs had been installed. They knew very well what the instruments were for. Captain William P. Clark in a study prepared for the War Department in 1873 reported that they understood the use of mirrors for transmitting signals and information.22 Morris Opler says the same.23 Miles himself knew that the Apaches used bright pieces of metal to signal.24 Geronimo's party had field glasses, and since heliographs had been used in the Southwest since 1877, it seems certain that they understood the purpose and function of the flashing mirrors.25 The network established a protective barrier which the Indians knew they could not penetrate unobserved during daylight hours, and Apaches were reluctant to travel at night.

During all of Crook's border campaigns, bands of warriors had crossed the border at will, getting supplies, information and recruits from the reservations then returning to their hideouts in Mexico. The defensive screen which Crook established at the border water holes and trails proved ineffective. Likewise, neither General Orlando Willcox nor General August V. Kautz could prevent the infiltration of Indians across the border when it was their responsibility. Space and time were Geronimo's allies. Miles' efficient communications system, employing the telegraph, the heliograph, and couriers using horses and rails, served to reduce Geronimo's advantage. The line of flashing mirrors made the difference. The Apaches made no attempt to breach this line after the skirmish of June 6, brought on by the heliograph reports. By denying Geronimo's band access to the reservations, Miles provided security for the settlers north of the border. For this he deserves credit.

In addition, the heliographs prevented the troops from undertaking useless scouting missions to investigate mysterious dust clouds and parties of travelers which nervous settlers reported as Indian bands. From their mountain peaks the observant teams had already identified the movements and reported them to the commanders.

There can be no doubt that in this campaign Miles established the most elaborate and effective communications network in the history of the U. S. Army, superior to any system used by foreign armies with the exception of the British. With the heliograph he linked a vast territory, 200 miles wide by 300 miles long, over which a message had been sent 400 miles on a zig-zag course and the answer received four hours later. The heliograph, it should be added, was not his only means of rapid communication. This was probably the first American campaign in which the telephone was used. A telephone line joined Fort Huachuca to the New Mexico and Arizona rail terminal seven miles north of the post. Colonel William H. Royall, Commander of the Fourth Cavalry and of Fort Huachuca, stationed a soldier at the terminal to report the arrival of visitors and of sick and wounded soldiers, replacements and supplies.26

The cost of the heliograph system, contrary to some views, was low. Most of the equipment already existed in various Army supply rooms; additional instruments were fabricated by Fuller and Dravo. The greatest expense involved transportation of eleven trained operators and the equipment to Arizona, a sum of $5,663-53.27 Stations consisted of the signal equipment, tents, and the organic equipment of the troops. The men lived a Spartan existence on the mountaintops.

The prestige and importance of military signal communications increased considerably as a result of this campaign, thanks to the heliograph. The men who operated the network were assigned throughout the United States after September, i886. In their new units and headquarters they described and praised the system, thereby creating widespread interest. In his report for 1887 the Chief Signal Officer wrote that he could not provide the number of instruments requested, and that they had become necessary for field campaigning.

After 1886 the heliograph continued to be useful to the Army in the Southwest. It rapidly replaced flags as the preferred method for visual communication. In 1890 the Department of Arizona conducted the most extensive communications exercise undertaken by the U. S. Army up to that time. In all, fifty-one heliograph stations were established for this maneuver, and they functioned efficiently.

The most recent use of this communications device in the Southwest occurred at the dedication of Fort Bowie on July 29, 1972. A demonstration was arranged and the operators were to be instructed by means of modern radios to begin their operations. At the appointed hour the radios did not function, so one heliograph operator flashed a signal to the other and opened communications. The demonstration then continued without interruption.

It is clear that the heliograph played a significant part in the military history of the Southwest. It enabled Miles to accomplish one of his missions the protection of settlers in Arizona and New Mexico. His claim that it was a decisive factor in compelling Geronimo to surrender is without foundation.


1. Report of Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles in Annual Report of the Secretary of War for the Year 1886 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1886), Vol. 1, pp. 173-175.
2. George W. Baird, "General Miles's Indian Campaigns," The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 42 (July, 1891), p. 368.
3. Nelson A. Miles, Personal Recollections of General Nelson A. Miles (New York: Da Capo Press, 1969), pp. 523-525.
4. Paul 1. Wellman, The Indian Wars of the West (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1947), p. 445.
5. Paul Horgan, A Distant Trumpet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1951), p. 101.
6. Charles F. Parker, "Signals in the Sun," Arizona Highways, Vol. 43 (June, 1967), pp. 34-35.
7. Virginia W. Johnson, The Unregimented General: A Biography of Nelson A. Miles (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), p. 249; Newton F. Tolman, The Search for General Miles (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1968), pp. 134-135. Tolman here quotes Lt. Marion P. Maus, who participated in the campaign. Maus, however, was paraphrasing Miles'account.
8. Stephen Longstreet, War Cries on Horseback (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970), p. 101; Fairfax Downey, Indian Fighting Army (Fort Collins, Colorado: Old Army Press, 1971), pp. 287-289.
9. Roger E. Kelly, "Talking Mirrors at Fort Bowie: Military Heliograph Communication in the Southwest," Ms., U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
10. Dan L. Thrapp, "General Miles and the Heliograph," The Wrangler (publication of the San Diego Corral of the Westerners), Vol. 2 (September, 1969).
11. Odie B. Faulk, The Geronimo Campaign (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 190. It seems probable that Miles did demonstrate the workings of the instrument to Geronimo, who pretended amazement at the white man's power. Such subterfuge would be in character for Geronimo, who was now virtually a helpless prisoner. But the claim that Natchez surrendered as a consequence certainly lacks credibility. James Kaywaykia in Eve Ball's (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970), p. 13, says that General Miles "assumed that we knew nothing of the heliograph. He was mistaken. My people did not know the Morse code, but they had learned that mirror flashes warned soldiers and ranchers of our movements; and they too made use of the device."
12. Brief but judicious accounts of the Geronimo campaign are contained in Robert M. Utley's Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1890 (New York: Macmillan, 1973); Dan L. Thrapp, The Conquest of Apacheria (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967).
13. Report of Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, pp. 166-167; Annual Report of the Chief Signal Officer to the Secretary of War for the Year 1886 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1886), P. 32.
14. Miles, Personal Recollections, p. 485. The final report of Lieutenant Fuller for the month of September, 1886, shows the location of heliograph stations as follows:

1 Fort Bowie
2 Bowie Peak
3 White Ranch (Sulphur Springs Valley)
4 Swisshelm Mountains, extreme northern point
5 Antelope Springs, south end of Dragoon Mountains
6 Rucker Canyon (Camp Rucker)
7 Fort Huachuca
8 Little Baldy Peak, 11/2 miles south of Old Baldy, Santa Rita Mountains
9 Tubac
10 Bisbee Canyon (Forrest Ranch)
11 Stein's Pass Bluff, New Mexico, 1/2 mile north of railroad
12 Cochise Stronghold (Fourr Ranch), west side of Dragoon Mountains
13 Crittenden (Fort Crittenden)
14 Bowie Station
Lieutenant Dravo's final report, dated September 20,1886, gave the unnumbered locations as follows:
Alma (Camp Maddox); Deming; Siggen Ranch; Hachita Mining Camp; Lycia Springs (Mule Springs); Hillsboro; White House; Laice Valley; Pinos Altos; Fort Cummings; Fort Bayard; Lockhart's Well; Camp Henely (shown incorrectly on the operations map as Camp Hening).
Fuller's reports are filed in National Archives, Record Group 94, War Department, AGO 5056, ACP-1975; Record Group 98, Consolidated Report of Heliograph Line, Division of Arizona, from May Ist to September 30th, 1886; Record Group 393, Records of the U. S. Army Continental Command, 1821-1920, L. R. Department of Arizona, 3383, 1889.
15. Referring to this incident in a letter to Major Charles B. Gatewood, May 29, 1926
(Gatewood Collection, Arizona Historical Society), Dravo wrote: "I think that was the latter part of May 1886. Due to the Heliograph information our troops struck them in their second camp after crossing the border...." Lieutenant I Iohn Bigelow also came upon the tracks of these Indians (On the Bloody Trail of Geronimo, Los Angeles: Westerniore Press, 1958, pp. 205-209). Lawton mentioned the incident in his official report to the Secretary of the Army (Annual Report of the Secretary of War for the Year 1886, Vol. 1, P. 177).
16. Leonard Wood, Chasing Geronimo: The Journal of Leonard Wood, May-September 1886, ed. Jack C. Lane (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1970), P. 108; telegram, Lawton to Commanding Officer, District of Huachuca, dated August 28, copy in author's possession.
17. Alvarado M. Fuller, "The Heliograph in Miles' Campaign," The National Archives, Record Group 94, p. I 1.
18. Report of Captain Henry W. Lawton in Annual Report of the Secretary of War for
the Year 1886 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1886), Vol. 1, p. 179.
19. Report of Leonard Wood in Miles, Personal Recollections, p. 511. Lieutenant Thomas Cruse says in Apache Days and After (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1941), p. 227, that at the beginning of August "Nobody seemed to know where Geronimo might be."
20. Report of Captain Henry W. Lawton, pp. 180-181. In the book which claims to be Geronimo's own account of his life (S. M. Barrett, ed., Geronimo's Story of His Life, New York: Duffield, 1906) no mention is made of the heliograph.
21. Fuller, "The Heliograph in Miles'Campaign," p. 12.
22. William P. Clark, The Indian Sign Language (Philadelphia: L. R. Hamersly, 1885), pp. 414-415.
23. Morris E. Opler, An Apache Life Way (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), p. 348.
24. Miles, Personal Recollections, p. 481. 25 By 1882 Lieutenant Maus had established a heliograph line "from Forts Grant and Bowie to camps on the upper Gila." See Report of Brevet Major General Orlando B. Willcox in Annual Report of the Secretary of War, 1882 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1882), Vol. 1, p. 152. Apparently the line was not maintained under General Crook. Fuller found no heliograph at Bowie on his arrival in April, 1886. The Signal Corps used the term "flashes" in connection with artificial lights as well as with mirrors. References to "flashes" in Army records prior to 1877 apply to such lights and not to heliographs.
26. Fort Lowell in Tucson also had a telephone by this time; Fort Bowie did not. See Fuller, "The Heliograph in Miles'Campaign," p. 6.
27. Annual Report of the Chief Signal Officer of the Army to the Secretary of War for the year 1887 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887), Part 1, P. 7.

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