The Apache Wars

My novella, Dead Man’s Trail, takes place against a backdrop of the Apache Wars.

To those unfamiliar with the history of the conflicts between Native Americans and the United States Cavalry, the sheer number of historic figures, the varied locations and diverse bands can seem daunting and confusing. Hollywood has added to this confusion, often combining the clothes and traditions of various tribes to create a generic “Indian.” Although the following is brief and simplified, it is presented to provide an introduction to one of the most fascinating of the conflicts: the Apache Wars. Along with the history, the geography is simplified. Before reservations, there were no facile boundaries to draw around the native peoples.

Three broadly-related groups of Native Americans inhabited the areas which became Arizona and New Mexico Territories: the Navajo and Pueblo to the north and the Apache in the south. Like the names given to many groups of Native Americans, “Apache” describes a collection of tribes loosely associated by a common culture and language. They were not a single political entity and they ranged over a vast area of land. Some of the individual bands campaigned in battles, others didn’t. Often that did not matter to the army, they were lumped together.

  • Common name: Apache
  • Name they used to describe themselves: Dine, pronounced “Din-eh,” meaning “the people.”
  • Bands (tribes): Arivaipa, Chiricahua, Coyotero, Faraone Gileno, Llanero, Mescalero, Mimbreno, Mogollon, Naisha, Tchikun and Tchishi.
  • Famous leaders and warriors: Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, Victorio, Nana, Lozen and Geronimo.

For the first part of the 19th century, the Apache territory was part of northern Mexico. In 1835, Mexico set a bounty of $100 per male Apache scalp and $50 per female initiating a wave of massacres. Others were captured as slaves. One of those who was killed was the father-in-law of the Chiricahuan Apache leader, Mangas Coloradas (Red Sleeves). He initiated a series of retaliatory raids.

Mangas Coloradas, Apache Wars
Mangas Coloradas

The Apaches cooperated with the United States in the Mexican-American War and, when it ended in 1848, a brief period of peace followed. This soon ended as the gold rush that began in California in 1849 spilled over into other territories. Miners began to crowd Native American land in Arizona. In one incident they attacked and whipped the nearly sixty-year-old Mangas Coloradas. In 1860, miners raided an encampment and killed four Apaches and took captive thirteen women and children. Mangas Coloradas responded with a series of raids along with his nephew, Cochise.

The breaking point came in the Bascom Affair. In 1860, an Apache tribe captured Mickey Free, the stepson of a rancher, along with twenty head of cattle. Although it was an entirely different band of Apaches who committed the crime, the newly arrived West Point officer, Lt. George Bascom sent for Cochise to demand the return of the kidnapped child. Cochise responded to the summons bringing his family along, his wife, two children, his brother and two nephews.

Cochise denied the charges made against him, saying he knew nothing of the kidnapped boy. The entire group was arrested. Cochise escaped and quickly abducted three locals to exchange for his family. Bascom refused to accept anything but the abducted child, whom Cochise did not have. Cochise killed his hostages and fled. Bascom responded by killing Cochise’s brother and nephews. This incident initiated a quarter-century long war.

Mickey Free, the captive boy, emerged years later. Raised by another band of Apaches, he used his knowledge of the native language to exact his vengeance, becoming an interpreter for the army or, rather, a misinterpreter, sowing discord and initiating battles.

In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, the United States Cavalry was recalled back east. For a brief period, Arizona and New Mexico were left on their own. Soon, the Confederacy claimed the territories as theirs and set up a provisional government and sent in troops. The Union fought back. Both sides set up official policies of subjugation and extermination of the native peoples.

John Robert Baylor, the appointed Confederate governor of the New Mexico and Arizona territories, issued a decree:

“…use all means to persuade the Apaches or any tribe to come in for the purpose of making peace, and when you get them together kill all grown Indians and take the children prisoners and sell them to defray the expense of killing the Indians.” (as quoted in Once They Moved Like The Wind, David Roberts, Touchstone Book Publishing, Simon and Schuster, copyright 1993, 1994)

Not surprisingly, in later years when representatives of The United States made genuine offers of peace, they were rebuffed.

In 1863, the band led by Mangas Coloradas was surrounded by General James Carleton and three thousand troops. The Apache leader was killed.

In 1864, the notion of reservations was introduced and to the north, the Navajos were herded on to a piece of land where many died of disease. The Apaches took note.

In 1872, General Stoneman, head of the Department of Arizona, employed a policy which permitted the local citizens to take the law into their own hands. The vigilante groups preyed on the weakest, slaughtering peaceful tribes and those who surrendered. One raid, led by Tucson mayor William Oury, killed over a hundred, raping the women and mutilating the bodies of the victims.

Washington was appalled and Stoneman was replaced by General George Crook. Crook was able to win the confidence of the then-warring Apaches. The tribe was placed on a reservation at Rio Verde, one of their traditional homes.

By the winter of 1874, Stoneman was gone and the Apaches were marched to the San Carlos reservation. The soil was poor and the land unfamiliar; disease was rampant. Cochise died.

Geronimo, a medicine man, led a band of hundreds, fleeing the reservation. Embittered by the slaughter of his wife and two children, he initiated a series of raids, followed by capture and repatriation to San Carlos—followed by further escapes.

Victorio Chiricahua, Apache Chief
Victorio Chiricahua, Apache Chief

Other bands of Apaches were led by Chief Victorio, son-in-law of Mangas Coloradas, and Nana, brother-in-law of Geronimo, who continued raiding settlements for years. Lozen, a prominent female warrior, was the sister of Victorio.

Victorio was killed in 1880 by Mexican soldiers while Nana continued his raids into his mid-eighties. Some prominent sources say he survived the Apache Wars, living ten more years.

In 1882, Geronimo and sixty warriors raided the San Carlos Reservation and left with hundreds of his people.

In 1883, General Crook was brought back to fight Geronimo. He employed a policy of using Native Americans from one tribe of Apaches to fight another tribe. After Geronimo eluded Crook once more, Brigadier General Nelson Miles took over to finish the job. In April of 1886, Geronimo surrendered, claiming he could hold off forever against the cavalry, but not the native brigades.

Geronimo Anagoria, 1890, Apache Wars
Geronimo Anagoria, 1890

Although told he could return to his home, Geronimo was shipped to Florida and then Alabama where he would stay until 1894, when he was moved to Oklahoma. He lived on to write his memoirs and became the most famous of the Native American warriors. He participated in the St. Louis’ World Fair of 1904 and Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1905. He died in 1909 of pneumonia at age seventy-nine.