The Southwestern road to Monument Valley became more familiar as the writer James Dannenberg retraced an ancestor's footsteps.

In Search
of Uncle Ben

A trip to the western site
of historical battles takes on
a deeper meaning upon
discovering an unlikely ancestor

It's easy to be fooled.

I had driven often through Arizona's vast, open spaces -- from Monument Valley in the northeast to the deserts of Apache country in the south -- and used to see them as empty, if starkly beautiful, landscapes. Of course, the desert invites this misconception. There aren't many people around, and, as befits this harsh and punishing environment, life in its various forms is discreet. It doesn't advertise itself.

Don't think I'm talking about some National Geographic microenvironment theme, however. Sure, there is lots more biological life out there than we can see, but what I'm talking about is history, and I recently found out how personal it can get.

My parents migrated from New York City to the Milwaukee suburbs after World War II. Dad's family were German Jews who arrived in New York a hundred years earlier, and my grandparents and great-grandparents -- all native-born, not an accent in the bunch -- never mentioned clan history. Nothing to be ashamed of; apparently just nothing from the past they felt was worth talking about, especially as it related to the old country.

I grew up an assimilated '50s and '60s suburban kid, oblivious to my own history and in thrall to the period's mass culture. We were, I assumed, plain vanilla Americans.

And some of my most indelible memories were the stunning westerns of John Ford -- "The Searchers," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Fort Apache," "My Darling Clementine" and others -- most of which shared the otherworldly vistas of Arizona's Monument Valley along with the hard-bitten virtue and dignity of western heroes like John Wayne, Henry Fonda and, not least, character actors like Chief John Big Tree. The West, or its mythological reconstruction, was a real enough part of the American experience, even if it seemed my heritage only by proxy.

So it came as no surprise to me that I would eventually tour the West, and especially the locations of those movies. There may have been a few geographical errors in the Ford films: Tombstone isn't anywhere near Monument Valley, and the cavalry didn't fight the Apaches there. But who cared? The valley, a Navajo Nation tribal park, has a magical, majestic stillness to it, and it is easy to see why Ford fell in love with it as a location. If the West wasn't "won" there, perhaps it should have been.

Nor was I much deterred by the thought -- the certainty -- that most of those films did scant justice to the point of view of American Indians. Nations and individuals alike cling to myth, so it would be hard to fault Ford too much for his own artistic license.

MY FIRST VISIT to Monument Valley and to Arizona was many years ago, and I was fortunate enough to approach it from the north, from the Utah side, on US 163, perhaps the most stunning stretch of highway in the world. Staying at Goulding's Trading Post, home on location to Ford, Wayne and the rest of the company, I was utterly seduced by the ochre-hued view of the valley. Geography meets myth at Gouldings. The visitor can explore a few familiar sets and locations from the Ford years and even rent the films themselves at the front desk. I've been there many times since.

The tidy history of the Dannenberg clan grew more colorful with the discovery of Benjamin Dannenberg, who joined the Fourth Cavalry to fight in the last Indian wars.

Over the years, I took a little time to learn about the Indian wars, including those with the Navajo Nation. (Caution: "Kit" Carson wasn't a western hero to everyone.) Of course, the Apache wars were the most celebrated in Arizona, in part because they lasted through the 1880s and in part because of media representations of charismatic leaders like Cochise, Victorio and Geronimo.

Nevertheless, for all my reading and road trips through the desert, I felt detached from the topography and the history, as much as I loved both. Except for the fact that the locals spoke English and could sell me a cheeseburger and fries, I might have been in Mongolia tracing Temujin's path of conquest.

And then I discovered Uncle Ben.

TURNS OUT the Dannenbergs weren't just New York urbanites. My great-grandfather's brother, Benjamin Dannenberg, was born in New York on July 4, 1863, and, after his mother's death from typhoid fever in 1883, enlisted in the U.S. Army. Training at Fort Jefferson, Mo., Uncle Ben was then assigned to "I" Troop of the Fourth U.S. Cavalry regiment, under the command of Capt. Abram Woods, and stationed at Forts Huachuca and Bowie in southern Arizona.

The Fourth Cavalry was among the units engaged in the Geronimo campaign waged in 1885 and 1886, the last major action of the Indian wars. While Ben wasn't wounded in action, he did manage to contract chronic pneumonia while sleeping outdoors in the desert for 17 straight months during the Geronimo pursuit.

Coincidentally, Ben was at Fort Huachuca at the same time that a young, then-unknown artist named Frederic Remington was beginning to make his reputation as a recorder of western lore, and he even appears -- albeit anonymously -- in an early Remington magazine illustration entitled "Captain Woods' Troop, Fourth Cavalry."

To say the least, the revelations about Uncle Ben jostled my world view.

Jewish Cavalry troopers? My own relative as a character in a John Ford movie? I hadn't noticed them in any of the films I loved, even as I recognized the Irish and German immigrant troopers that Ford was so fond of. But there you had it: Uncle Ben and other Jewish troopers he served with were there in the thick of it.

The Boot Hill Jewish memorial in Tombstone, Ariz., is a monument to early Jewish troopers and settlers.

NOT TOO LONG AGO, my son Alex and I took another of those long, lonely road trips through Monument Valley and south into Apache country. We stopped at Gouldings, and, after the sun set on the valley, watched "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" on the VCR. This time, however, I was able to tell Alex that the troopers depicted in the film might have been his own ancestors.

The Arizona highways eventually wind south by way of the Navajo and Zuni reservations and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, over the sparsely forested White Mountains and through the Fort Apache and San Carlos Apache reservations, all the while flanked by ever-changing salmon-hued rock formations and desert landscapes.

Just south of Interstate 10, not far from New Mexico and perhaps 80 miles north of the Mexican border, a gravel road enticed us to the ghostly adobe ruins of the Fort Bowie National Historical Site. Once the guardian of the famous Apache Pass and now abandoned, except for tourists, Fort Bowie was the railhead from where Geronimo and his band were banished to Florida in September 1886.

And Ben was there.

We drove another 80 miles or so southwest and found ourselves in historic Tombstone, home to Boot Hill, the OK Corral and the legend of Wyatt Earp. Whether Ben ever visited Tombstone I cannot say, but, interestingly enough, Boot Hill had a Jewish burial section. There was no hint of it in Ford's "My Darling Clementine," but Tombstone and nearby Tucson had Jewish mayors in the late 19th century, and, unlike Henry Fonda's character, Earp left Tombstone in 1882 with his Jewish lover -- and later wife -- Josephine Marcus.

Just 20 miles to the west sprawl Fort Huachuca and the neighboring town of Sierra Vista. No ruin, Fort Huachuca is an active center for communications and electronic warfare that is mostly off-limits to visitors. The Army does, however, maintain a small museum and library dedicated to memorializing the hard lives of the troopers who served there, which included Uncle Ben's Fourth Cavalry as well as the Tenth Cavalry, best known as a unit of the "Buffalo Soldiers," black troopers who fought with distinction in many of the Indian campaigns.

The original barracks, officers' quarters and parade ground from the Geronimo period are also preserved, sitting astride a parched pass running about 20 miles to the Mexican border.

Though it wasn't Monument Valley, it was a setting that could easily have appeared in a Ford film. It wasn't hard to imagine John Wayne and his troopers on parade, or joking or fighting or getting ready for patrol.

And it wasn't hard to see Uncle Ben on that parade ground -- just another trooper.

In fact, it was easy.

James Dannenberg is a retired District Court judge who lives in Kailua. His tales from the road have appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.


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