Murder Near Border with Mexico
They all agreed that the Colonel was a man of good character and was highly respected by his troops, but he surely made a big mistake in judgment. A mistake that cost him his life and that brought injury to his sergeant. The story goes something like this.
As I’m sure you know from your history book, folks from all reaches of the country flowed into California after the discovery of gold. Many of them came by way of the southern wagon road that was opened during the war with Mexico. In 1850, in support of this sizable migration, the army established a camp near the junction of the Gila and Colorado rivers. Its purpose was to protect Americans from Indian attack and to help those who found themselves in difficulty along the road. The stories of hardships suffered along this stretch of “miserable” desert country are told by many and will not be labored here. Our interest is centered on two young soldiers -- Corporal William Hayes and Private John Condon -- who deserted from Camp Yuma on May 31, 1852, and became the subject of a wide ranging man hunt.
Lt. Thomas W. Sweeny, a high spirited graduate of West Point, had delivered the two along with other replacements a few days before the escape. These particular soldiers had been troublemakers on the voyage to California and Sweeny, a tough officer who had a reputation for harsh treatment of enlisted men, was put in charge of marching them from San Diego to Camp Yuma I suspect that in order to get them all to the camp with out incident require exceptional effort on his part. Upon learning of their disappearance, he saddled up and headed west in pursuit.
Sweeny arrived at Sacketts Well on June 5, a few hours after the arrival of the U.S. Boundary Commission Survey Party. Sacketts Well was an important camp site and waterhole, used by travelers in the early days. It was located in Imperial County near Plaster City.
The U.S. Boundary Commission was established in 1852 and charged with running a survey line and placing monuments along the boundary between Mexico and the United States. President Polk appointed John R. Bartlett, a New England book publisher, as Commissioner. A detachment of fifteen soldiers commanded by Lt. Colonel Louis G. Craig accompanied the party to provide protection against possible Indian attacks. Other members of the Commission included five civilians, six army surveyors and an assortment of 25 others including teamsters, cooks, scribes and laborers. On his arrival, Lt. Sweeny met with Colonel Craig and warned him to be on the lookout for the two deserters both armed and dangerous who he believed were heading west along the road. Sweeny guessed that he had passed by them on the way here and that they, being on foot, were still some distance to the east.
The survey party left Sacketts Well on the evening of the 5th and after traveling 45 miles, the party leaders arrived at their next camp site (Alamo Mucho) at 7 a.m. the next morning. Two hours later, the rest of the party arrived and reported that, early that morning they had fallen in with the two deserters. Two hours later sergeant Quin rode into camp with out his hat and greatly excited. He told Commissioner Bartlett that the Colonel and Sergeant Bale had been shot and that it had taken place at first light back about 20 miles from Alamo Mucho. Commissioner Bartlett immediately organized a party to go back and find the two in hopes that they would still be alive. On the afternoon of the 7th the rescue party retuned with Colonel Craig’s body and the wounded Sergeant Bale.
Sergeant Bale said, “I told the Colonel that I was confident that the deserters would not be taken without bloodshed. The Colonel’s feelings of kindness outweighed all apprehensions of danger, if he entertained any… Having completely disarmed himself, and lessened his security still further by sending his sergeant for his mule that had strayed, Corporal Hays said to the other deserter, ‘now is our chance as there is only a man apiece’ whereupon they leveled their muskets, took deliberate aim, and fired. Hays’ who shot the Colonel was within five feet of him.
“The buck-shot from Condon’s musket passed through the calf of Sergeant Bale’s lag, the ball at the same time piercing the body of the horse which he [Bale] was riding”. He fell to the ground and was disarmed by the two men and allowed to place a blanket over the Colonel and to escape without further injury. He was able to get off a few shots before his horse fell but the shots went wild.” It was agreed that by giving his pistol and sword to Sergeant Bale and attempting to reason with Condon and Hays to surrender the Colonel had not acted unwisely and as a result the two now posed even greater danger to those with whom they might encounter along the way. The Colonel was buried at Alamo Mucho which is located near the border in Mexico.
Unaware of events of that morning, Lt Sweeney rode on in pursuit of the two deserters. Later that day he met up with a rider who was on his way to San Diego. Sweeney was told about the killing and warned that the two had stated that they intended to kill the Lieutenant if they met up.
The word soon went out and a reward of $1.000 was offered for their apprehension. The few roads that existed at that time were cordoned-off, and in a few days a group of Indians found the two and forced their surrender. They were tried in San Diego and a year after being found guilty, hanged in the city square, witnessed and celebrated by a large crowed.
Lt. Sweeney returned to duty in the East, later served in an expeditionary force against the Sioux. Before his retirement, he attained the rank of Brigadier General.
As best I can figure, the shooting took place a few miles north of the boundary with Mexico. Old maps show that the road generally followed a straight course in a southeasterly direction from Sacketts Well to Alamo Mucho. And, according to witnesses, the crime took place 20 miles from Alamo Mucho back toward Sacketts Well. If this distance is correct then the killing occurred near the New River about six miles due west of the small community of Heber in Imperial County