Local History of the Apache – 1841-1886
Cochise County in Southeast Arizona is where many major 19th century battles took place between the Apaches and the United States Army. Today, you can visit the historical sites made famous by the great chiefs, such as Cochise, Mangas Coloradas (Red Sleeves), and Victorio; and the fearless, ruthless shaman Goyathlay, better known today by his Spanish name … Geronimo.
Taking side trips and back roads through the beautiful countryside of Southeastern Arizona, you can stand in their shadow and begin to understand what it was like to live here on the frontier during The Apache Wars.
A series of forts were built to house the United States Army whose presence was needed by Anglo Americans to protect them from the dreaded Apaches. No such forts were built to protect the Apaches from the dreaded Anglos.
On the east side of Tucson is the restored Fort Lowell’s officers quarters and military museum. (See our Arizona Historical Society Ft. Lowell video)
Within a two-hour drive east from Tucson, you can visit the ruins of Fort Bowie; once a frontier outpost that guarded Apache Springs for the stagecoaches of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. Near Fort Bowie ruins are Chiricahua National Monument with its magnificent “Standing Up Rocks” and well-preserved Faraway Ranch; and Cochise Stronghold which served as a high, rocky fortification and lookout station for the Chiricahua Apaches.
North of Tucson, there are other forts built to subdue the Apaches, including Fort Apache on the Fort Apache Reservation; and the nearby the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation that the Apaches feared most because of deplorable conditions there, including killer diseases, such as malaria. On the way is the site of Camp Grant where a mob of Tucson Anglo and Mexican men and Papago (now Tohono O’odham) Indians massacred over a hundred Apaches, almost all women and young children, and took the few surviving children as slaves.
From 1840’s until the final surrender of Geronimo in late 1886, farmers, ranchers, miners, & merchants attempting to settle the American Southwest and Northern Mexico lived in terror of the Apaches.
For centuries prior to the coming of the Europeans, the Apache had it pretty good. Theirs were small hunter-gatherer, kin-related bands that moved frequently according to the seasons and other factors, such as the availability of game and fresh water. Sometimes they traded peaceably with neighboring Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Papago, Pima, Yavapai, and other tribes. But often these encounters were hostile. Perhaps it was the Yavapai, or was it the Zuni, who were the first to call them ‘apache’, which means ‘enemy’?
They were frequent and feared raiders, which is a polite way of saying the Apaches were marauding thieves and murderers when they wanted food, horses, guns, ammunition, and captives for slaves and ransom.
Usually they killed for what they considered necessity or self-defense. As the wars of the 1870’s and ‘80’s wore on, as often as not they killed for revenge, as did the Americans, who tried to herd them into concentration camps called reservations, and Mexicans who tried to exterminate them.
If the Apaches could not intimidate other tribes into turning over the fruits of their hard labor, their food stores and herds, the Apaches typically killed the males and older females, plundered whatever they could carry, and then sold the young women and children into slavery in Mexico. The Mexicans frequently forced the young Indian slave women into prostitution. They suffered greatly and eventually died from disease, abuse, and despair. From the Apache perspective, and for centuries, it was good to be the alpha predators of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico.
However, by the 1850’s, the table was turning. With the arrival of significant numbers of Anglos into what became New Mexico and Arizona, and ever-greater numbers of Mexican settlers arriving in Chihuahua and Sonora, the Apaches were beginning to realize that they were being supplanted by other, more powerful super-predators. It took most of them years to realize that their continued efforts to repel the avaricious, heavily armed invaders, remain free to live on their ancestral lands and pursue their predatory way of life, were utterly hopeless. By 1886, even the recalcitrant Chiricahua under Geronimo realized that their only options were (a) the dreaded San Carlos Reservation, (b) confinement as prisoners of war in a faraway place, or (c) annihilation.
Compared to the Mexicans, the American’s ‘Indian Removal Policy’ was generous, at least officially. On the one hand, the Apaches were offered reservation lands (think concentration camps) on which they could receive rations, learn farming, get an Anglo education, and become ‘civilized’.
On the other hand, any Apaches found off the reservation were fair game. Whether man, woman, or child, Anglos would seldom be questioned for killing free-roaming Apaches like vermin.
The official Mexican policy was somewhat different. No reservations. Assimilation or death. The Mexicans hated the Apaches. The Apaches hated the Mexicans. And for decades, they slaughtered each other whenever possible.
Mexican civilians near the U.S. border would sometimes lure Apache men with their families into town to talk trade and peace, get the Indians drunk, then kill them all. Conversely, Apaches were known to kill and mutilate Mexican men, women, and children and not always in that order.
A never-ending cycle of vengeance was the way of the border from roughly 1847 through 1886 when Geronimo surrendered for the last time. Even then, some renegade Apaches continued to raid, kill, and be killed in Northern Mexico until around 1915. Both Apaches and Mexicans adhered to the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye.” Such is the way of most primitive people everywhere in every time, including the present.
For the American’s part in this violent collision of cultures, they felt that Native Americans in general and the Apaches in particular had no rights any White man was bound to respect. As General Sheridan famously said, “A good Indian is a dead Indian.” The United States government, through its military and Bureau of Indian Affairs, broke treaties as if they were dry twigs.
The America government directed its army to herd the Apaches onto reservations far from their homeland, where they would suffer tremendously and die from exposure, contaminated food, lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, and disease, primarily small pox and malaria. Once on the reservations, corrupt Indian agents stole their government-issued food and blankets, which they sold for personal profit. The Apaches were to be subdued or eliminated by any means necessary.
To be fair, it wasn’t so much that the American Anglos treated the Apaches with intentional cruelty. Certainly acts of extreme cruelty occurred – on both sides. But such was not the general rule. Rather most Anglos were simply indifferent to the needs and suffering of their charges. If the Indians died en mass on reservations, such as the dreaded San Carlos, very few Americans really cared and even fewer acted to prevent it.
Apache leaders, such as Cochise, Victorio, Juh (pronounced ‘Whoo’), Nana, Chihuahua, and Geronimo, often led their people off their reservation in order to survive. Once off their reservation, the U.S. Army considered the Apaches ‘hostiles’ and pursued them, with the invaluable assistance of Apache scouts, otherwise known as mercenaries, intending to either return them to their reservation or exterminate them.
Skirmishes, ambushes, full-blown battles, and bloody massacres ensued.
- Map of important Apache War sites in Southeastern Arizona.
- Key people & places involved in the Apache Wars.
- Timeline of key events.
- Why the Apache were eventually defeated.
- How the Apache Wars could have been shortened, with far less loss of life.
Recommended places to dine and lodge in Apache Country:
(see Lodging|Lodging Map)