By Marc Simmons
The heliograph was a small, round mirror mounted on a movable bracket and a tripod. By catching the sun, it could flash coded signals great distances.
The British had pioneered military use of heliographs in India during the 1860s. When Gen. Nelson A. Miles was chasing Montana Indians in 1878, he had six of the devices and found them very effective. Upon his transfer to Arizona, he decided to use them there.
By the time Geronimo and his handful of warriors made their final raid, the telegraph had been strung from Tucson to El Paso.
The trouble was, the Apaches had learned to cut the wire and then false-splice it with rawhide, so that repair crews could not see the break from the ground.
The heliograph, which flashed from mountaintop to mountaintop, was far more reliable. In a short time, Miles saw to the establishing of a series of signal stations from Robledo Peak above Fort Fillmore in the Mesilla Valley, westward to the main forts of Arizona.
Gen. Miles was convinced that it played a key role, and he stated that on more than one occasion. He may also have started a story saying that when the wily Geronimo came to understand how the white men were communicating his movements by the talking mirrors, he realized that his cause was hopeless and sent orders to his scattered warriors to give up.
Said one historian: “The heliograph was a decisive factor. Flashing all day from mountain summits, the mirrors kept the soldiers fully informed of Indian movements. The Apaches had not a moment’s rest.”
But other, skeptical writers declare that the case on behalf of the heliograph has been badly overstated. Geronimo, they say, grasped the nature of the signals right away—for after all, it was not unlike his own smoke signaling.
1) Cutting the telegraph wires and then false-splicing them with rawhide is a nice sabotage technique. I'm not sure I heard about the fake-wire twist before.
Regardless, it shows how clever and adaptable the Apache were. They weren't just circling the wagons and whooping--as every old Western showed them doing. They were using modern guerrilla warfare tactics.
2) The US Army relied on communications similar to the Indians' smoke signals. What about all the cartoons showing "primitive" Indians using smoke signals while "civilized" white men used the telegraph or, well, nothing?
In reality, the white man was hardly more advanced than the Indian. Take away his telegraph and he had few advantages other than numbers.
So much for the stereotypical cartoons that lampoon Indians as savages.
For more on Geronimo, see Code Name: Geronimo to Be Released and Beyond Geronimo at the Heard.