The Apache Nation has their roots buried deep in the dry, red soil of the southwestern United States. Their roots flourished and grew, even though the land was a desert. They knew their land, loved their land, and protected their land when their enemies came to take it from them. Let me teach you about this nation and the lessons of bravery and endurance we can learn from them.
“Apache” is not the name this tribe gave themselves. It is a Spanish version of the Zuñi word for enemy. In their Athabaskan-rooted languages, the Apache called themselves the simple name of people.
Around 1100, it is believed that the Apache Nation moved from the region we know as British Columbia, a Canadian Province, to the lands we know as Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, and sections of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. Even though they were not originally from that land, it became the Apache’s homeland. The land became known as Apacheira.
There were many tribes within the Apache Nation. Apache tribes include the Mescalero, the Lipan, the Chiricahua, the Jicarilla, the Mimbreño (also called Chinnchene, meaning red paint people), the Cibecue, the Coyotero, the Northern Tonto, and the Southern Tonto. Some Apache joined the Kiowa tribe. They were called the Kiowa Apache. The tribes claimed locations around Apacheira to dwell in. (Later, in the eighteenth century, the Apache that lived in Kansas decided to move further southwest to live closer to the other Apache tribes after white men came to take their land.) The Jicarilla, Lipan, and Kiowa Apache (or Plains Apache) tribes dwelt in Texas, and most of the other tribes lived in the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona.
The Apache lived a simple life in their homes made of sticks. They ate whatever they could hunt or gather, including venison, rabbit, antelope, buffalo, elk, turkey, beans, nuts, herbs, melons, corn, berries, and even the mescal cactus and the saguaro cactus. There were some things Apache would not eat though, including pig and fish. Such things were considered unclean.
Apache families worked together as a unit, living with their relatives. Apache men provided and protected their families. Apache women busied themselves with cooking and sewing for their families. Apache children helped their parents with planting and gathering, but they also had time for war games and contests. Even babies were expected to learn lessons of quietness and self-control. When the boys were old enough, they hunted with their fathers. Twice a year Apache men would ride to the plains on buffalo hunts, since there were no buffalo in the Southwest.
As soon as they were able, Apache boys would start training to become braves. They would swim in freezing water, run with water in their mouths, roll in snow, stay up and guard for two days and two nights straight, learn how to make weapons and how to dodge them very skillfully, learn how to be silent, learn how to handle heat, cold, and thirst, and learn how to run very long distances without a single stop. Then the Apache boys would each take a two-week trip to the desert and would live off whatever they could find. After all of that training, they went to war to run errands for the fighting men. Then the boys were finally braves; they were finally men.
The Apache tribes had particular customs that they lived by. Important warriors often took more than one wife. When a man took a wife, he left his own tribe and joined his wife’s tribe. Although he was among his wife’s people, a man was supposed to avoid his mother-in-law forever. Sometimes he even avoided his wife’s father and grandmother! The Apache also practiced the custom of burning dead people’s things, including their homes. There in the Southwest the Apache practiced their customs and religion undisturbed for centuries.
In the late 1500’s, the Spaniards came into Mexico and claimed it as their own. The Apache who lived in parts of Mexico were chased northward as hostility between the Apache Nation and the Spaniards began. Raiding between the two nations became quite common. Soon it was more than just stealing cattle and horses during the raids; many Apache and Spaniards were captured or killed.
As the centuries passed, the enmity between the Apache and the Spaniards continued. A Mexican civil war added to the terrible toll on the Spaniards. Between 1820 and 1835, five thousand Spanish lives were lost in war. The Spaniards learned the results of war and cruelty the hard way, as did the Apache. In 1835, an Apache scalp was worth one hundred pesos in Sonora. Soon, Chihuahua was offering pesos too.
In the mid-nineteenth century, some of the greatest, most powerful Apache braves came to leadership in Apacheira. One such brave was Mangas Coloradas (Spanish for “Red Sleeves”), a headman of the Mimres band of the Ahaia, or Chiricahua, tribe. Though he was over fifty years old, he was still a brave and fierce fighter, like nearly every Apache man. There was also bold Victorio, chief of the Mimbreño tribe. The most prominent of all the Apache chiefs was Cochise, Mangas Coloradas’s son-in-law. He was the chief of the Chokonen band of the Chiricahuas, and later became chief of the entire Chiricahua Apache tribe. He was always honest, and he punished those who were not. It was these brave leaders who were there to lead when another enemy entered Apacheira: the white men.
The white men had already encroached on Apache land in Kansas one hundred years earlier. Now they wanted all of Apacheira, and were first seen at the Santa Rita Copper Mines in 1846. Mangas Coloradas and his warriors met up with the white men and their general, Stephen Kearny. The white men had come from capturing Santa Fe from the Spaniards. The Apache agreed to peaceful relations, but the white men were hesitant to make peace. Kearny’s scout, Christopher “Kit” Carson, told Kearney that he would not trust the Apache at all.
After the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States was in charge of much of Apacheira. In 1851, the U.S. boundary commission, headed by John Russell Bartlett, came to Apacheira to create a definite border between Mexico and the U.S. The Apache men watched, not knowing what the white men might be doing. The interpreter for the boundary commission, John Cremany, had this to say about the Apache people:
No amount of cold, hunger or thirst seems to have any appreciable affect upon an Apache. Whatever his sufferings, not complaint or murmur is ever heard to escape his lips.1
Soon after that, miners started arriving in Apacheira. They panned for gold, which was sacred to the Apache. The Apache braves started attacking these new enemies. Then settlers from the East arrived and started farming in Apacheira. Land that the Apache people once farmed was slowly being taken over by others. The Apache attacked the settlers too. But the takeover of Apache land did not end there. Soon the white men were setting up telegram wires. Then a stage coach ran through Apache Pass carrying mail and passengers. White man inventions filled the land.
The Apache did not take kindly to these encroachers and their inventions. The Apache rose up to defend their land, the land they had lived on for centuries. U.S. soldiers were sent to Apacheira. They came in like a rush of wind, more than the Apache could ever count. They settled themselves in forts such as Fort Bowie and Fort Buchanan. They fought with the Apache as unrest and violence continued.
The Apache always fought in secret. Hardly ever did they let their whereabouts be known to the U.S. Army. The U.S. soldiers, on the other hand, were quite noisy, but Apache scouts (traitors) helped them track other Apache down.
In 1852, Mangas Coloradas and some other brave warriors signed a treaty protecting traveling Americans. It was heeded by most Apache men. Cochise, the chief of the smallest but strongest Apache tribe, the Chiricahuas, saw no way his tribe could stand up to the swarms of U.S. soldiers. He met with a soldier named Colonel Steen and made peace in 1858. It was around this time that a superintendent named Dr. Michael Steck promised homelands, also known as reservations, for the Apache.
Cochise’s Chiricahua tribe stayed peaceful until 1860 when a child named Micky Free was kidnapped by the Pinal band of the Coyotero Apache. The Pinals framed the Chiricahua tribe. The soldier put in charge of the case, Lieutenant Bascom, refused to believe that Cochise had been framed. He insisted that Cochise was responsible for the kidnapping. Violence escalated when U.S. soldiers attacked, killed, and captured some of Cochise’s family during a peace meeting. In retaliation, Cochise captured some white men, wanting to trade them for his family. Bascom refused the trade again and again, saying he would only trade the Apache for Micky Free, the boy Cochise did not have. In the end, both sides killed their captives, excluding Cochise’s wife and son who were released. Cochise called for war. His first attack was an ambush on Stein’s peak.
The Apache Wars were in full force. Years of fighting, attacking, raiding, and killing continued as the Apache stood up to defend their land and people. Many brave battles were fought, including the Battle of Apache Pass in 1862 where Mangas Coloradas and his warriors attacked a group of soldiers riding through the pass.
During the 1860’s, the busiest time of the Apache Wars, the U.S. Army’s attention turned from the bloodshed of the Southwest to the horror of the Southeast, as the Civil War raged. But after the war was over, the U.S. Army’s attention returned to the Southwest.
In 1863, while Mangas Coloradas was waiting to begin a peace conference, he was murdered by U.S. soldiers. Geronimo, his most prominent warrior, took his place. David Roberts had this to say about Geronimo, the new leader:
We know that Geronimo may have helped torture to death the hostages Cochise hoped to trade for his relatives in 1861; we know with reasonable certainty that Geronimo fought in the crucial battle of Apache Pass in 1862, that he was part of the council that begged Mangas not to go to his doom in Pinos Altos in 1863.2
By 1866, two thousand Apache women and children were held captive by the U.S. Army. One county in Arizona offered two hundred and fifty dollars for every Apache scalp they received.The Apache warriors sometimes numbered less than two hundred people. Apache moved their homes often, feeling like no place was safe.
The white men were unable to get mail through Apache Pass. Rider after rider had been killed. In 1866, a bold man named Thomas Jonathan Jeffords went to visit Cochise. Jeffords traveled carefully and openly, not wanting Cochise to think he was his enemy. (No white man had lived to tell of seeing Cochise since the kidnapping of Micky Free.) Jeffords’s plan worked. He and Cochise became fast friends, and Jeffords’s riders were safe.
In 1871, while a large group of Arivapia Apache were sleeping in huts outside Fort Grant, waiting to make a peace treaty, Apache enemies came and clubbed them to death. President Grant called for a trial. One hundred and four Mexicans, Americans, and Papago natives were declared innocent. Americans were appalled by the situation, and started to realize how cruelly the Apache and other natives were treated by all those around them. President Grant was more than eager to stop the Apache Wars because of the toll the Americans had paid. Forty million dollars had been sent to Arizona already, and one thousand lives had been lost.
Victorio agreed to live on a reservation called Warm Springs. The reservations, which sprouted up all over the Southwest, were run by white men called Indian agents, most of whom were not experienced with Native Americans. Cochise soon agreed to live on a reservation too, thanks to the help of Tom Jeffords and “The Christian General” Oliver Otis Howard, who made peace with Cochise in 1872. Jeffords became the agent for Cochise’s reservation, the San Carlos Reservation. In 1877, Victorio managed to escape from his reservation with twenty people, but was soon sent back.
The years dragged on and by 1881, Cochise and Victorio had died. Almost every tribe was on a reservation except for one–Geronimo and his band of Chiricahua Apache who had refused to be subdued. Geronimo had agreed to be on a reservation for several months, but in 1881 he escaped and ran to Mexico where many Apache had hidden in the past. He was full of determination, skill, and strength; fighting his enemies constantly. But Geronimo and his people were rounded up once more by the U.S. Army and Apache scouts. Things were not looking good for the Apache.
In 1886, Geronimo and Naiche (the chief of the Chiricahua Apache and Cochise’s son) had a conference with the U.S. Army about surrender. General George Crook wanted the Apache to go to prisons in the East for two years, but the Apache wanted to be in the Southwest. Both parties agreed to two years of prison, then a return to the Southwest. The officials in Washington, however, did not agree to this deal. President Cleveland said that he did not want the Apache to ever return to their homeland. After hearing that the deal was rejected, Geronimo, Naiche, and their band ran away to Mexico under the false impression that someone wanted to kill Geronimo.
On September 4, 1886, the Apache met with General Nelson Miles, a new superintendent, and surrendered. Geronimo was tired of war. Plans were promptly made to send the Apache to prison in the East. General Miles assured Geronimo that the Apache could return to Arizona in two years.
At Holbrook, Arizona, the trip began. Ten old coach cars were filled with 383 Apache. It was said that the Apache were filthy and had very little clothing. There was no clean water and no toilets. Their food was not fit to be eaten. Geronimo and his tribe all became sick. Because there was so much vomiting, the coaches were hosed out in the middle of the trip. Knowing that Geronimo’s tribe would be a big attraction, two Florida cities, Pensacola and Saint Augustine, argued over who would get to have that tribe in their prison. Pensacola won. Once the long ride was over, the 383 Apache were loaded into Fort Pickens on Pensacola’s Santa Rosa Island. The Apache became extremely popular. On one day, 459 tourists came to see them.
Castillo de San Marcos, also called Fort Marion, in Saint Augustine was given occupancy of 502 obedient Apache who had stayed on reservations and served as Apache scouts. The fort had been made to hold only 150 soldiers. Sickness was rampant in Fort Marion because of the crowded conditions, the visiting public, and the humid climate that the Apache were not used to. By September, 152 Apache were treated for malarial fever. Since the conditions were so terrible at Fort Marion, many Apache were sent to the already crowded Fort Pickens. Deathly sickness continued strong among the diseased Apache at both forts as neither fort had proper food and water.
Around this time, the Americans sent Apache children to the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Highly contagious diseases such as pneumonia, malaria, and tuberculosis spread among the children at the school. By 1888, twenty-seven Apache children had died from these diseases.
As children were being shipped to the north, the adults moved slightly northward as well, to Mount Vernon, Alabama, rather than being shipped back to the Southwest as General Miles had claimed. Sadly, sickness followed them. Conditions at Mount Vernon were even more terrible than those in the Florida forts. Disease spread like wildfire among the Apache. No one knew what they should do with all of the sick Apache. One Apache stated:
We had thought anything would be better than Fort Marion with its rain, mosquitos, and malaria, but we were to find out that it was good in comparison with Mt. Vernon…we didn’t know what misery was till they dumped us in those swamps.3
Twelve years had passed and the Apache were grieved that they were not allowed to return to their home in the Southwest. Geronimo confronted General Miles about his lie. Miles said, “I did lie to you…but I learned to lie from you, Geronimo…”4
Then, finally, the Apache found a way to escape the swampy Southeast. The Kiowa Apache, who had received an Oklahoma Reservation in 1867, and the Comanches, who shared the reservation with the Kiowa Apache, agreed to give up some of their reservation land to the other Apache. The Apache were promptly sent to the Fort Sill Reservation in Oklahoma. The conditions in Oklahoma were much better for the Apache because Oklahoma was drier than the swamps of the Southeast. The Apache farmed and made money. They even had some time for pleasure in Oklahoma–gambling, games, races, and contests. The Apache had become extremely famous by the time they moved to Oklahoma. Although it angered some people, Geronimo was even allowed travel to Washington D.C. to ride in Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential parade. The Apache lived in Oklahoma into the twentieth century. Unable to return to Arizona, his beloved homeland, Geronimo died in Oklahoma in 1909, but his nation lived on.
Apache began to thrive on their reservations. Some reservations had natural resources which were used as moneymakers for the tribes. In 1913, the Apache living on the Fort Sill Reservation were given the choice of moving to the Mescalero Apache’s reservation in New Mexico or staying in Oklahoma. One third of the Apache chose Oklahoma and two thirds chose New Mexico. In the 1980’s, the Kiowa Apache were given the more proper title of “Apache Tribe of Oklahoma.” In 1990 a census showed that there were 50,000 Apache. That number soared and in the beginning of the twenty-first century, 100,000 people were recognized as Apache. The Apache are finally recovering and thriving after the years of unrelenting war. They proudly remember their ancestors, and continue in their footsteps, working to make a better future for their tribe.
~Faith Williams, March 5, 2019
1. John C. Cremony Life Among the Apaches. Tucson, AZ: Arizona Silhouettes, 1915 reprint of 1868 edition, p. 33.
2. David Roberts. Once They Moved Like the Wind: Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster Touchstone, 1993, p. 120.
3. Eve Ball. Indeh: An Apache Odyssey (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), pp. 138-139.
4. Roberts, p. 307.
American Indians, 1995. Volume I
“Apache,” Patricia Masserman, pg. 38-41
“Apache Tribe of Oklahoma,” Michael G. Davis, pg. 41-42
“Apache Wars,” pg. 42-43
“Cochise,” pg. 181-182
“Geronimo,” Kimberly Manning, pg. 300-30
American Indians, 1995. Volume II
“Naiche,” pg. 51
American Indians, 1995. Volume III
“Victorio,” pg. 82
Apache. https://school.eb.com/levels/high/article/Apache/7968 (accessed 2018).
Hermann, Spring. Geronimo. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997
MacDowell, Susan. Traditional Foods of the Apache People. https://www.ehow.com/info_8171670_traditional-foods-apache-people.html (accessed 2018)
McGovern, Ann. The Defenders. New York: Scholastic Inc. 1970