The Battle of Bear Valley was a small engagement fought in 1918 between a band of Yaquis and a detachment of United States Army soldiers. On January 9, 1918, elements of the American 10th Cavalry Regiment detected about thirty armed Yaquis in Bear Valley, Arizona, a large area that was commonly used as a passage across the international border with Mexico. A short firefight ensued, which resulted in the death of the Yaqui commander and the capture of nine others. Though the conflict was merely a skirmish, it was the last time the United States Army engaged hostile native Americans in combat and thus has been seen as one of the final battles of the American Indian Wars.
By 1918 the Yaqui people had been at war with Mexico for several years, the former hoping to establish an independent state in Sonora, centered around the Rio Yaqui and its confluence with the Gulf of California. Many Yaquis were driven north by the war and some crossed the Arizona border to work in Tucson's citrus groves. After receiving pay, the Yaquis would spend their money on weapons and ammunition and then return to Mexico to continue fighting. The fact that Yaquis were buying arms in Arizona and smuggling them across the border became so well known that the military governor of Sonora, General Plutarco Elías Calles, informally requested help from the United States government in dealing with the problem. Furthermore, Arizona ranchers began reporting in larger numbers their encounters with armed Yaquis on their ranch land or the finding of butchered livestock on the range. Since the United States Border Patrol did not yet exist, the task of protecting the border was that of the army, which operated out of Fort Huachuca. The Nogales, Arizona subdistrict commander, Colonel J.C. Friers, 35th Infantry, responded to the reports by issuing orders to increase patrolling in the area. American forces in the area included the 35th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Camp Stephen D. Little in Nogales, and the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, who were spread out to protect the various towns near the international border. A squadron size force from the 10th Cavalry was encamped about a half mile from the 35th Infantry at Nogales and a second squadron split up to occupy Lochiel and Campini. Smaller posts were also established at Arivaca and Oro Blanco and, finally, a troop of about thirty men maintained a camp at Atascosa Canyon, a "strategic natural crossing" within Bear Valley.
According to Colonel Harold B. Wharfield, who interviewed some of the participants in the Bear Valley fight and published his story in the book Tenth Cavalry and Border Fights, wrote that the camp was located in a dangerous "uninhabited region" where "unconfirmed mysterious disappearances" often occurred and people were advised to travel in groups. The camp was built next to an old homestead and a high ridge to the east, which provided an excellent view of the surrounding flatlands. After the January 1918 New Years Day celebration, Captain Frederick H.L. "Blondy" Ryder and his Troop E, 10th Cavalry, were ordered to occupy the Bear Valley camp for border patrol duty. A signalman was posted on top of the ridge who could communicate via hand signals with one of the sentries placed around the camp's perimeter. The rest of the soldiers patrolled the trails leading in and out of the valley, watching for people wandering through the desert.
On January 8, a local cattleman and owner of the Ruby Mercantile, Philip C. Clarke, rode into camp and told Captain Ryder that his neighbor found the body of a cow in the mountains to the north and that a piece of its hide had been removed for making sandals. It was assumed that Yaquis killed the cow so Ryder strengthened the observation post on top of the ridge by sending up First Lieutenant William Scott and a detail of men equipped with field glasses to watch the trails from a distance. According to Colonel Wharfield's book; "About the middle of the afternoon Lieutenant Scott signaled 'attention.' Upon acknowledgement from the camp sentry he gave the message 'enemy in sight,' and pointed toward a low ridge west of camp a quarter of a mile or more distant. The sentry hollered to First Sgt. Samuel H. Alexander, who was sitting under a nearby mesquite with several other noncommissioned officers. The shout brought everyone to their feet. On the skyline of the ridge could be seen a long column of Indians [Yaquis] crossing to the other side. The horses had been under saddle with loose cinches all day tied up in the corral; so within a few minutes the troop was mounted." By the time the soldiers left camp the Yaquis were no longer in sight but Lieutenant Scott kept pointing so the troop kept moving due south, towards the border fence. When the Americans were finally in position, they dismounted in a "shallow brushy draw," left a guard to watch the horses, and then continued advancing on foot in a skirmish line. Moving forward, the soldiers were nearing the top of a canyon side when Captain Ryder decided to return to the horses, using a different path. On the way down, the soldiers came across "hastily abandoned packs" which suggested that the Yaquis were very close and knew they were being pursued. Ryder then continued up the canyon, in a southeastern direction, when suddenly the Yaquis opened fire from concealed positions.
The Americans returned fire and a typical Indian war skirmish began. Wharfield wrote that "the fighting developed into an old kind of Indian engagement with both sides using all the natural cover of boulders and brush to full advantage. The Yaquis kept falling back, dodging from boulder to boulder and firing rapidly. They offered only a fleeting target, seemingly just a disappearing shadow. The officer saw one of them running for another cover, then stumble and thereby expose himself. A corporal alongside of the captain had a good chance for an open shot. At the report of the Springfield, a flash of fire enveloped the Indian's body for an instant, but he kept on to the rock."
Captain Ryder wrote Colonel Wharfield the following for his book:
About a week after the engagement, Captain Ryder was ordered to proceed to Arivaca, where the Yaqui prisoners would be held until the army figured out what to do with them. According to Wharfield, the Yaquis proved to be reliable workers and adjusted well to life in the army. Even though they were prisoners, each one received three meals a day, a straw mattress for a bed and a G.I. blanket. Wharfield wrote that the Yaquis; "kept the campsite immaculately clean. At the corral nearly any droppings were allowed to hit the ground. During the day the Indians would stand around watching the horses. Whenever a tail was lifted, out they rushed with their scoop shovels and caught it before the manure could contaminate the ground. It certainly helped in the decline of the fly population." It was sometime during the stay at Arivaca when one of the Yaquis revealed that they had only opened fire because they thought the Buffalo Soldiers coming at them were Mexicans. All ten of the Yaquis, including the boy, volunteered to enlist in the United States Army but the government had other plans and the prisoners were later sent to Tucson for trial in federal court. Charged with "wrongfully, unlawfully, and feloniously exporting to Mexico certain arms and ammunition, to wit: 300 rifle cartridges and about 9 rifles without first procuring a export license issued by the War Trade Board of the United States," the Yaquis plead guilty and were sentenced by Judge William Henry Sawtelle to a mere thirty days in jail, excluding the boy whose charges were dismissed. Colonel Wharfield wrote that "the sentence was preferable to the Yaquis who otherwise would be deported to Mexico and face possible execution as rebels."