From early childhood, Apaches we were raised in a warrior culture that produced the greatest guerrilla fighters of all time. Their tactics defied the Spanish, Mexican and American armies for 300 years.
It was early November 1885 when settlers in southern Arizona and New Mexico territories learned of an unfolding nightmare. Since that summer, Captains Wirt Davis and Emmet Crawford, under Brigadier General George Crook, had doggedly pursued Apache war parties under Geronimo and Chief Chihuahua. Crook learned that 11 of these Apaches, led by Chihuahua’s brother Josanie (sometimes spelled Jolsanie; also known as Ulzana), had outpaced Crawford’s fruitless pursuit in Mexico. Josanie had split off from the larger group, eluded Crawford and then raced past the soldiers who had been placed along the U.S.-Mexico border to stop the Apaches from crossing back into American territory.
In less than eight weeks, this Apache band had traveled 1,200 miles, on two occasions without horses. The warriors had killed 38 people, captured and worn out 250 head of stock and lost only one member. As exhausted U.S. forces gave chase, Crook responded quickly, sending a detachment of 40 Navajo scouts backed up by a troop of cavalry under Lieutenant Albert Scott of the 13th Infantry. The Navajo scouts were to lead the troopers to this deadly band of 11 before they could raid area settlers for fresh horses and badly needed provisions. Crook was eager to strike a decisive blow—one that would convince his superiors that he was the right choice as commander of the Department of Arizona.
The Navajo scouts, seemingly bold in the saddle as they raced to face the outnumbered Apaches, lost all nerve as the trail of the hunted led them into the mountains. They refused direct orders to continue the pursuit. As U.S. Army enlistees, they faced serious punishment for such a mutiny, but ancient tradition and simple terror made their decision clear—they would rather accept any punishment the U.S. Army dished out than the punishment the Apaches would inflict in the mountainous terrain.
These wary scouts knew what they were doing. The Navajo people had long lived in a region ravaged by Apache raids and had seen European attempts at pacifying this frontier defeated for generations. For nearly two centuries before the Americans settled the Southwest, the Spanish had fought a losing battle against the Apaches, whose modus operandi was to quickly strike Spanish ranches and communities and then disappear into the hills. Extensive Spanish military campaigns prior to and including 1775 and 1776 failed to crush the Apaches, and by 1780, the situation had deteriorated to the point where the Apaches—who were better adapted to moving and fighting in the rugged terrain of the Southwest—were again raiding at will.
By 1821 Mexico had finally won its independence from Spain, but the cycle of attacks and retributions continued in the region, and bounties were put on Apache scalps. The 1830s and ’40s saw additional Apache attacks on Mexican settlers in the northern Mexican states, particularly Sonora and Chihuahua. If the Apaches thought of the United States as their ally during the Mexican War, that all soon changed when American miners, farmers and other settlers moved onto their home grounds. In the second half of the 19th century, raiding and guerrilla warfare continued, now to the detriment of the newly arriving Americans. Various Apache bands sought to protect their way of life, especially a warrior culture that had been developed, honed and refined through centuries of battle. The Apaches’ success, as the Navajos knew so well (see “Noo-tah-hah” sidebar, P. 31), had long depended on their superior physical stamina, their use of stealth and evasion and their fighting ability in high, rocky places.
Due to the frequency of warfare and loss of men in their prime, male children were of high value in Apache culture, females less so, and polygamy was a means to keep the Apache Nation thriving. Boys and girls were raised similarly, with differentiation in training beginning at about age 10 or 11, depending on the maturity of the child. For the boys, learning to hunt was part of the training, but only a part. “We played war games a good deal of the time too…we would make clay forts and soldiers, then throw mud balls at them or shoot arrows into them from a distance and make our final charge just as real warriors would do in battle,” wrote Jason Betzinez, author of I Fought With Geronimo.
Even though theirs was a warring culture engaged in frequent violence, Apaches were reticent to strike their children for the sake of discipline. Rather, a more pragmatic punishment was often chosen, such as telling a misbehaving boy to run to the top of a small mountain without stopping for breath, thus increasing his endurance, which might one day save his life. To show leadership and courage, a boy discovering a wasp’s nest might well gather a war council, telling the other boys: “We hear there are some mean things living over there. Let’s go to war with them!” The wasp’s nest would soon be torn apart by the invading and thoroughly stung young warriors.
Young children who had not witnessed an actual battle would surely see some of its brutal aftermath back at camp. Male prisoners were usually put to death quickly, as “a mature man is dangerous.” Mexican prisoners were handled, as the Apaches put it, “in a rough way.” They did so in part for revenge, as they believed Mexicans handled Apache captives badly. If a woman in camp learned that a relative of hers had been killed in the same raid where a Mexican was taken prisoner, the Apache men, according to Apache researcher Morris Opler, “[would turn] the women loose with axes and knives to kill the Mexican prisoner.” The prisoner, utterly defenseless with his hands bound behind his back, would have hardly any place to run, “and the women would chase him around until they killed him.” An Apache woman on horseback would sometimes wield a lance, lunging at a prisoner until she had successfully speared him to death. The effect on any child seeing his female cousin, aunt, sister or mother commit this ritualistic revenge would have to be long lasting.
When a war party returned flush with bounty and without Apache loss of life, the atmosphere was euphoric. Dancing, feasting and the highest of spirits would abound, and the young would see the tremendous value a successful raid could be to their tribe and their status within that tribe—especially if horses and guns were taken.
The results of warfare would always be around a young male Apache, but normally not the war itself, until he was about 16. By then he was usually ready for the first of four raids as an apprentice, having proved himself on a march alone in the wilderness. He would have learned to travel at night if necessary, to sleep by day in the shade (but not the deepest shade, as that could attract enemies or wild animals), to go to high vantages while looking below for grassy places to find water, to run with a small pebble in his closed mouth so that his mouth stayed moist, to swim in the coldest of water, and to attract strangers by extinguishing a fire he started in a location where he could observe them from a hidden position. He would also have learned about his religion, how Ussen, the Apache god, had made this land for the Apache people and how they would prosper as long as they dwelled there.
Most Apache boys would hope to emulate the best of warriors, those who could fire seven arrows into the air before the first one touched the ground. Before going on any raids, he would hear from his relatives about the dangers of war. Whether he continued on the warrior path was up to the young man. If he refused to become a warrior, he would suffer no penalty other than the scorn of his peers, but that was a stern penalty to bear. As an apprentice, he would keep the camps stocked with wood for fires, learn the language of raiding, tend to the horses, cook and make beds for the warriors and, most important, take turns with other novices keeping night watch. His every move was regulated, and by the fifth raid he would now be a warrior expected to participate in the front ranks. There would be few large, all-out battles as was the enemy’s way. But he would be part of one of the greatest light cavalry and guerrilla fighting forces in the world. The ground beneath his feet was a far greater weapon than any rifle in his hands. He was religiously, medicinally and militarily attuned to the environment, which he had mastered. “We have before us the tiger of the human species,” wrote General Crook. “To no tribe in America can these remarks apply with more force than to the Apaches of Arizona.”
AVOIDING WATER HOLES
On May 17, 1885, a group of 142 Chiricahua Apaches (34 men, 8 well-grown boys and 92 women and children) bolted from the San Carlos Reservation and cut telegraph lines as they headed to their familiar haunts in Mexico. General Crook quickly placed troops at every water hole from the Patagonia Mountains in Arizona Territory, across New Mexico Territory to the Rio Grande in Texas, only to find the Chiricahuas had thwarted that strategy. Years of training from childhood paid off for the fleeing Apaches. “The hostile Chiricahuas, knowing that these water holes were guarded, changed their tactics, to the extent of avoiding them and made a passage in the most difficult points of the mountains,” wrote Crook. “They are not dependent upon the water-holes for water, but can go one hundred miles without halting, carrying such water as they need for themselves in the entrails of cattle or horses killed by the way, and abandoning the animals they ride when these drop exhausted by thirst or fatigue.” In that way the Apaches on horseback could easily outrun their horse-mounted pursuers. At the base of their mountain destination, the Apaches would kill their exhausted mounts and eat them if hungry, and then cross the range rapidly on foot and run off to find other horses. Warriors were known to run as much as 70 miles a day and to go as many as 18 days between meals if necessary.
Apache warriors never chose to fight on disadvantaged ground. They brilliantly adapted the broken rocky landscape of Arizona Territory, New Mexico Territory and northern Mexico into war zones at the most opportune moments. When facing overwhelming firepower, they retreated, which was never seen as cowardly but simply as a means of survival. But their compartmentalized morality was such that when they captured an enemy who had fled because he didn’t like the odds, they tortured him as a coward when there was time to do so.
When pursued, the Apaches often led their pursuers into narrow canyons with high rocky ridges to the right and left. Once inside the killing site, unseen warriors flanked the enemy’s rear, blocking escape. As Apache gunfire erupted toward the front, the panicked enemy would flee to the rear, only to be fired upon again. Attempts by the trapped men to climb the canyon walls would be met by further fire or by boulders rolled down from the ridges— a tactic that not only could finish off an enemy but could also save precious Apache ammunition. Any enemy who survived this and continued to pursue would soon find that the Apaches would acquire fresh horses from unwilling donors and head to the next mountain range to prepare another ambush. Crook’s Navajo scouts knew all this, and that was why they refused to follow the Apaches into the mountains later that year.
THE MAY 1885 BREAKOUT
Geronimo and other Chiricahuas suffered through the bitter winter of 1884-85 on the reservation. They endured below-zero temperatures and lacked proper food and clothing, with some entire families having only one blanket among them. But the more immediate cause of the May 1885 breakout was an incident on the night of the 14th. Violating Army rules, Apaches had been drinking tiswin (Apache corn beer). Geronimo, Nana, Naiche and Mangus joined the revelry, hoping that the sheer numbers of offenders would make their arrests improbable. Lieutenant Britton Davis telegraphed General Crook for guidance, but Crook would not see the telegram for months due to a staffer’s mistake. On May 17, these Apaches, apprehensive because of Crook’s delayed response, left the reservation for the last time, giving rise to one of the greatest manhunts in history—the Geronimo campaign of 1885-86.
That long campaign was a clash between an industrial superpower and a native people employing tactics from the days of the Noo-tah-hah Nation. During the campaign, these small Apache groups would stand against the power of one-fifth of the entire U.S. Army and its Indian scouts, Mexican cavalrymen and civilian posses, who were devoted to their capture or killing. Despite its manpower and other resources, the U.S. Army could not catch the “hostiles”; it could only pursue and harass them. Geronimo and the others, despite the overwhelming odds, refused to be decisively beaten on any battlefield. “They,” wrote Crook, “push across the valleys by night and remain hidden by day in the rocky places and high points of the mountains from which they can watch the surrounding country, note the approach of pursuers, and lie in ambush for them, or scatter like coyotes to come together again at a place known only to themselves.” The pursuing soldiers never felt certain where the Apaches were or what would be the Indians’ next point of attack. “No human wisdom or foresight can predict exactly where that is to be; it may be in the original direction of their line of march, on one or both flanks, or, they may whip around and appear far in the rear of their pursuers…,” Crook continued. “The country contains many rough places where a dozen men, armed as the Chiricahuas are, with breechloading guns, could hold a brigade in check.” Crook had to strike a balance between the safety of his men and his mission to engage and defeat the elusive enemy. In the end, the Apaches would have to be talked into surrendering.
THE GREAT MANHUNT
After fleeing the reservation, Geronimo and Chief Chihuahua divided into separate groups and raced to the comparative safety of the Mexican wilds. When Crook heard of the May breakout, he organized two expeditions to head into Mexico’s interior— one led by Captain Wirt Davis and the other by Captain Emmet Crawford, his irreplaceable and best officer. That July, Davis set up camp on the Bavispe River, one mile below Oputo, Mexico; locals reported that hostile Apaches had fired on civilians nearby. Davis’ Apache scouts watched for areas where squaws might gather fruit, cactus and mescal. Soon an Apache trail was struck and the hostile camp surrounded, but to the soldiers’ surprise, their quarry had slipped away. “From the fragments of squaw’s dresses, which were recognized, the scouts pronounced the band of hostiles to be Geronimo’s,” wrote Captain Davis. It was the type of intelligence that only fellow Apaches could provide. It was little surprise to the Americans that Geronimo would now head for the safe haven of the Nacori area in Sonora. From his own spies, General Crook had learned that Nacori’s economy depended on Apache plunder. “In two years that the Indians were on the reservation this town [Nacori] was nearly deserted, while now [with the Apaches in the area] it is booming,” the general said.
On August 2, Davis risked his expedition by fragmenting his command and further extending his already overburdened supply line, in hopes of striking a decisive blow at Geronimo. They were to track, pursue and attack the hostiles. He sent Lieutenant Matthias Day and civilian chief of scouts Charlie Roberts, along with 78 handpicked Apache man hunters, on this critical mission. Supplies were low, as the Mexican government would not allow U.S. soldiers a supply base on its soil, though the Americans were allowed to fight the Apaches there. Davis gave the group “all the rations that could be spared.” The next day he sent Lieutenant James Erwin back to Lang’s Ranch in southwestern New Mexico Territory for another 40 days of badly needed rations.
After five days of arduously tracking the hostiles across the scorching Mexican landscape, Day was ready to unleash the only kind of fighting force an Apache like Geronimo truly feared—other Apaches. Using their finely tuned tracking skills, the scouts approached and surprised Geronimo’s camp on the afternoon of August 7, 1885, about 30 miles northeast of Nacori. In the melee of gunfire and confusion, the scouts killed a woman and a boy; they took 15 Apache women and children as prisoners, along with critical supplies. Though Army reports differ as to three killed or five, Davis soon learned of another Apache casualty that neither report acknowledged. “A small child was subsequently found dead among the rocks where the attack was made, and the scouts stated that they had made no report of it because it was too small to count.” Geronimo was further deprived of 13 horses and mules, several blankets and the camp equipage. The guerrilla leader had faced an enemy as fearless and as attuned to the environment as his own group. Geronimo and his followers remained on the run, but their will to continue had been shaken by the surprise attack.
That November saw the epic raid into New Mexico and Arizona territories by Josanie’s small force, the one that terrified the Navajo scouts. Two months later, Geronimo gained a brief reprieve as the tenuous alliance between the United States and Mexico disintegrated into disaster. Though the Mexican government authorized the United States to pursue and fight the Apaches in Mexico, there was by no means Mexican unanimity for this policy. American soldiers on Mexican soil were bad enough, but when escorted by their Apache scouts, ancestral enemies of the Mexicans, it was more than many Mexicans could bear. On January 11, 1886, 60 miles southeast of Nacori, Captain Crawford, who preferred Apache scouts to American soldiers, was assassinated by Mexican irregulars when Geronimo was on the verge of surrendering. “Geronimo watched it and laughed,” remembered Sam Haozous, an Apache witness. Geronimo continued to roam free until March 1886, when he finally surrendered to Crook in Cañon de los Embudos in northern Sonora, Mexico. Even then it was not over, because Geronimo would go back on the warpath until surrendering for the last time—not to Crook, but to his replacement Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles—in early September 1886 in Skeleton Canyon in southeastern Arizona Territory. Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, interpreter George Wratten and two Chiricahua Apache scouts, Martine and Kayitah, played a large role in the final act of the Geronimo campaign.
One of the enduring questions left by that campaign is why Geronimo’s own people betrayed him on behalf of the United States. The short answer is that Geronimo did not have universal Apache support, and General Crook was masterful at exploiting simmering disputes between differing Apache factions for recruitment purposes. Yet there remains a deeper reasoning that peers into the Apache soul. From the time they were young boys, running up and down the hills, attacking the wasp’s nest or serving their apprenticeships, male Apaches had a cultural opportunity most of them hoped to fulfill—that of a battle-tested warrior who is respected by his peers and admired by his wife (or wives), a protector and provider for his children. As the United States encroached rapidly with population and commerce, reservations were set aside to give the Apaches a home with rations and a life without war. Becoming Apaches scouts, even if it was for the U.S. government, allowed young men to prove themselves as warriors, as their fathers and grandfathers had done before them. The chase for Geronimo kept a centuries-old way of life going, but of course the chase could not go on forever. The tigers of the Southwest would forever pass into history.
John Rose, based in Sierra Vista, Ariz., is a consulting editor of Wild West Magazine. For further reading on Apaches, he suggests: Geronimo, by Angie Debo; Indeh,by Eve Ball; An Apache Life-Way, by Morris Edward Opler; and The Conquest of Apacheria, by Dan L. Thrapp.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.