George Medhurst Wratten — Apache interpreter and friend, Part 1 | Vision

When you read about the history of the Chiricahua Apache in the late 19th century, did you ever come across the name George Medhurst Wratten? To be honest, I’ve never heard of him, respectively read his name, until I stumbled over a passage in the famous book “Indeh: An Apache Odyssey” by Eve Ball, with Lynda Sánchez and Nora Henn as contributors. (Vision Editor: The book is famous among historians because the book features accounts of Apache elders who had survived the Army’s campaigns against them in the last century. Featured are Ball’s interviews, written down in shorthand, in the 1940s and 1950s with Warm Springs, Chiricahua, Mescalero and Lipan Apache elders.) Events described were previously told only through the eyes of non-Native Americans. I read the book because I was researching stories of friendship between Apaches and Americans, and was looking for information about the relationship between Eve Ball and her informants.

Kanseah, who had been the youngest warrior, was with Geronimo when he surrendered in 1886. He told the story of how Geronimo, Naiche, and all their warriors, women and children were put on the train at Bowie after the surrender. But because the government was unsure about the treatment of the prisoners of war, the train was stopped at San Antonio and the Apaches camped five weeks at Fort Sam Houston. They all had been disarmed and, not knowing what to expect, they feared that they all would be killed.

George M. Wratten, a young Army packer and scout, was fluent in several of the Apache dialects. He had been the interpreter during the talks that lead to the surrender and was known as an honest friend of the Apaches. Now he was accompanying them into exile. If the Apaches would get attacked by the Army, as they feared, they knew Wratten would have to join the soldiers. Trying to assure the Apaches, Wratten told Geronimo, he could not imagine an attack on unarmed men, and that there were guns and ammunition in his tent. Geronimo should reveal this to his warriors, so they knew that they could get them, just in case. Finally, the prisoners were taken to Florida, with Wratten accompanying them — there was no fighting necessary. This story was exciting, and I started doing research on Wratten.

One thing I discovered was that there were a few articles, but there was no biography of the man who contributed to end the Apache wars and had such a large part in it. One of his sons, Albert Wratten, wrote an extensive manuscript about his father’s accomplishments, but it was never published. He only managed to publish a condensed story of his father’s life in an essay collection. Some books about the Geronimo campaign mentioned George Wratten, but information about his early or private life were hard to obtain.

Wratten accompanied Gatewood (Lt. Charles B. Gatewood was known as a leader of a Native American scout platoon during the Apache Wars) and the Apache scouts into Mexico as a young man. After he arrived in Florida with the Apache prisoners, he then went to Alabama and lived his final years in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Starting in 2017, I tried to retrace some stations of Wratten’s life. I visited St. Augustine and Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida; Mount Vernon in Alabama; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I strolled around San Carlos, Fort Bowie, Fort Apache and a year later, for the first time, I was able to get a copy of the manuscript by Albert Wratten. Ever since, my material has accumulated. Together with archives, internet and book research, I was finally able to write a 100-page chapter about George Wratten’s life that would be featured in my book about Apache/American friendships.

I finishing the friendship book in 2022 — which is expected to be published in summer 2023 in German.

I learned that there is still no book dealing exclusively with Wratten. Thanks to Lynda Sánchez, who keeps on encouraging me, I decided to work on a book about this man. This will be my first publication in English.

George Wratten’s life story is colorful and not all information was easy to access.

He was born in Sonoma, California, Jan. 31, 1865. His parents, George Lemmon Wratten and Emilie Malvina Drummond were both of English descent. George Lemmon practiced law in New York but gave up on it to try his luck in the goldfields of California in 1850, soon after the gold rush started. Failing at this, he went back to practice law. He was the city attorney in 1855-56 and 1859-60 in Sonoma and attorney for General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in 1858 and 1859. George Wratten married Emilie Malvina Drummond on May 31, 1859, in San Rafael County, California. The couple settled in a homestead and 80 acres.

Sonoma played a vital role in the Californian struggle to become a part of the United States. The Sonoma Barracks became the headquarters of the group of Americans who started the rebellion against the Mexican government in 1846, declaring California an independent republic. This lasted 25 days. They designed the Bear Flag, but soon after the Bear Flag was raised, the U.S. military began occupying California. On July 9, Lt. Joseph Warren Revere of the U.S. Navy raised the United States flag in front of the Sonoma Barracks. Wratten family lore says that George L. Wratten had been one of the first white men to raise the flag with the “bear insignia” over the State of California. When the U.S. military occupation of California ended in 1850 as California was admitted as a state, Sonoma was named the county seat for Sonoma County. The Bear Flag became the official state flag only in 1911.

Following the American Conquest of California and the advent of the California Gold Rush, local businesses prospered because of the soldiers stationed there as well as miners traveling to and from the gold fields. The resulting prosperity and optimism about Sonoma’s future promoted land speculation, which was particularly problematic because of the poor record keeping regarding land ownership. This made it very obvious that there was more than enough work for a lawyer like George L. Wratten.

According to Albert Wratten’s manuscript, George L. Wratten was a busy attorney and a well-liked man in the community. He still found time to venture into the wine manufacturing business. He planted a vineyard within his 30-acre property, grew grapes and his vineyard became quite successful in the 1860s.

After having two girls, Edith Malvina and Carrie Augusta, the Wratten’s first boy, George Medhurst was born Jan. 31, 1865. He had two younger brothers, Frank Lawrence and Albert Drummond. The Wratten’s last child, Florence Laurina, died of diphtheria at the age of two weeks. All children were born in Sonoma.

George L. Wratten started suffering from severe health problems due to bronchial and heart troubles, and his business became less and less successful. While details are unclear, Albert Wratten writes in his manuscript that an unnamed business partner of the vineyard enterprise had defrauded his grandfather and embezzled money. Due to this embezzlement, he was unable to pay his debts. Even his homestead was insufficient to settle his liabilities. So, he left for Florence, Arizona and here he started practicing law again. The Arizona climate was beneficial to his poor health as well. The plan was for his wife and children to stay behind until he got well-established.

Official documents show that George M. Wratten’s mother applied successfully for a permit as “sole trader” to be able to sell agricultural produce, which included fruit, chicken and eggs. Ultimately, Emilie M. Wratten could not make a living but was forced to give it all up and move to Florence, Arizona in late 1879. She and her children traveled from Sonoma by stagecoach five days from San Diego to Tucson – the railroad ended in Yuma — to be reunited with her husband.

The small frontier town Florence in southern Arizona was one of the oldest white settlements in the territory. At the time the Wratten family arrived in Florence the population must have been around 900 people. (Vision Editor: The census of Florence town in 1880 recorded 902 people.) Life in Florence was turbulent and all three sons of George L. Wratten took jobs as deputy sheriffs. The cause may have been that the father didn’t earn enough money with his law practice to support his family.

Somewhere around 1879 or 1880 the young George M. Wratten must already have begun to grow restless. He was 14 or 15 years of age, adventurous and had no interest in being a lawyer like his father. Family lore says that one day George L. Wratten sat down with his eldest son, suggesting that he should move to Globe, Arizona where his older sister Edith had moved to with her husband and was working as a dancehall girl in a saloon. George should stay with her until he could find work or decide to move somewhere else. He gave his oldest son five dollars and George M. Wratten started his trip to Globe on foot.

Veronika Ederer received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt along the River Main, Germany. Originally from Germany, she has worked for several years in Switzerland in museums such as the North American Native Museum in Zurich and with the gifted program “Universikum” in Zurich. She has visited Roswell, NM and has traveled throughout the U.S. for research purposes. The published author is working right now on a new book based on her research on Apache tribes in the Southwest, which she is sharing here in her column in a condensed form for the first time.

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