The Apache Confronts the American

The first Americans who encountered the Apaches were soldiers and trappers. These first contacts were casual or accidental and happened in Mexican territory. The earliest report concerning this tribe from an American pen is that of Zebulon M. Pike, written in 1807, during his extended explorations in the unknown Southwest. Either purposely or “through an unintentional aberration from his prescribed route” he found himself (and was found by the Government of New Mexico) in Spanish territory. From Santa Fe he was sent under military escort to Chihuahua, Mexico, there to give an account of himself to the Commandant-General. It was during his long march from Santa Fe to Chihuahua that Pike got his first glimpse of the Apaches and made comments on the condition and habits of the Apaches as he saw them at that time. What Pike writes pertains to the relationship between these Indians and the Spanish; for as yet they knew nothing of the Americans, nor the Americans of them.

The earliest account we have of a clash between Apaches and citizens of the United States is to be found in The Personal Narrative of James O. Pattie of Kentucky, published in 1831. Late in February, 1825, a party of American trappers led by Pattie’s father suddenly came upon a band of Apaches on the Gila River not far from the modern site of Fort Thomas. Surprised and alarmed, the Indians fled into the mountains. The trappers took pains to show themselves friendly, so no evil consequences resulted at that time. The party proceeded down the river, trapping along the way. The natives were occasionally seen skulking about, but not until several weeks later did they show an ugly temper. The Americans exerted themselves to get on good terms with a large band who made their appearance in the mountains above the river; but the Indians either could not, or would not, understand the friendly overtures of the intruders. Later it became evident that they mistook this party of white men for Spaniards.

A few days later this same band attacked the trappers on the San Pedro about six miles above its junction with the Gila. The Americans lost their horses and barely escaped with their lives; but the enemy suffered still more severely, ten of their braves being killed. The Indians found to their surprise that they were dealing with a type of white men they had never come in contact with before. When, months afterwards, young Pattie returned to the scene of the battle to recover the beaver skins that he had cached on the San Pedro, the band of Indians were again encountered. They had unearthed the beaver skins and made robes of them which they were then wearing. One of them was riding on the horse that Pattie’s father had ridden. Pattie compelled the Indian to dismount and surrender the animal. The leader of the band then came forward and asked:

“Do you know this horse?’

“I do,’ Pattie replied; ‘it is mine.’

“Was it your party we took the horse and furs from a year ago?’ the chief inquired.

“Yes, I was one of them; and if you do not give me back my horse and furs, we will kill your whole party here and now.’ ”

“He immediately brought me one hundred and fifty skins, and the horses,” Pattie writes, “observing that they had been famished and had eaten the rest, and that he hoped this would satisfy me, for that in the battle they had suffered more than we, he having lost ten men, and we having taken from them four horses with their saddles and bridles. I observed to him that he must remember that they were the aggressors and had provoked the quarrel, in having robbed us of our horses and attempting to kill us. He admitted that they were the aggressors in beginning the quarrel, but added, by way of apology, that they had thought us Spaniards, not knowing that we were Americans; but that now, when he knew us, he was willing to make peace and be in perpetual friendship. On this we lit the pipe of peace, and smoked friends. I gave him some red cloth, with which he was delighted.”

In 1828 a band of trappers in the employ of Ewing Young, a famous pioneer trapper, while on their way from Taos to the Colorado River for the purpose of hunting and trapping, were attacked by Apache Indians somewhere near the headwaters of the Salt River in Arizona. After a long, fierce fight the trappers were beaten and were compelled to return to Taos. Young was not an easy foe to deal with. His ire was aroused and his determination to carry out his enterprise stiffened. Enlisting a company of forty of the most daring and experienced mountain men, he led them in person. He set out with the purpose, first, of visiting vengeance upon the Apaches who had broken up the previous undertaking, and second, of carrying on a profitable trapping expedition. Kit Carson, though not yet twenty years of age, was accepted as a member of this veteran band; and it was during the next few months that he received his real baptism of fire.

It was April when Young and his men set out. In order to deceive the Mexican Government with respect to his destination he first marched a considerable distance northward; but when sufficiently remote from the settlements, he directed his course southwestward through the Navajo country and in due time, in the White Mountain region, came upon the Indians whom he desired to chastise.

The savages were no less eager for the fray than were the Americans; but they were not a match for these cool, hardened mountain men, either in strategy or desperate courage. To the jubilant Indians, Young, when he had shown himself in the open with what they judged to be a mere handful of followers, seemed to halt in fear. In reality, this experienced fighter was making use of his time to place the main body of the trappers in ambush. Seeing such a small company of Americans and mistaking the brief pauses of the leader for cowardice, as Young anticipated, the Indians swarmed over the hills and moved en masse against the few white men in sight. They paid dearly for their haste and indiscretion. When they had advanced to a position where the ambushed riflemen could subject them to a cross fire, the command was given to shoot.

Bullets were too scarce to waste; so the result of the accurate cross fire was withering. Fifteen Apaches were killed at the first volley, and many were sorely wounded. The Apache was never ashamed to run when he was getting the worst of it; and so it was in this case. When the trappers advanced into the open, the enemy scattered like autumn leaves in a gale.

Young and his party now busied themselves with their trapping along the Arizona mountain streams. The skulking Indians continued to harass them, stealing their traps and occasionally killing a horse or a mule. But never again did they dare to attack in the open.

About 1835, as the result of a most despicable act of treachery on the part of James Johnson, an American trader, and one Gleason, his accomplice, the friendly understanding that had hitherto existed between the Apaches and the Americans came to a sudden end. The leading Apache chief south of the Gila at that time, was Juan José, between whom and the Mexicans there was the most deadly enmity. Juan José was fairly well educated; had, indeed, been partly prepared for the priesthood in the Catholic Church, and was a very able chieftain–for strategic gifts and wisdom in council, however, more than for prowess in arms. His small but very aggressive force of staunch young warriors were more willing to risk death in executing his orders than they were to permit their leader to expose himself unduly to extreme danger.

So successfully had Juan waged warfare upon the Mexicans in Sonora that the Government was seeking at any cost some means of destroying him. Though it was against the law for American traders and trappers to operate in Mexico, Johnson, because he had married a Mexican wife, was allowed to come and go freely between the United States and Sonora. Juan José never lost an opportunity to do a good turn for American hunters, trappers, and traders; and, as Johnson often passed through his territory, a warm friendship existed between the two men; several times the chief had visited Johnson in camp near the frontier. Aware of the fact that Johnson enjoyed Juan José’s confidence, the Government of Sonora offered the trader a large bribe if he would kill José.

Johnson soon found a chance to carry out his evil design. A party of ten or twelve Missourians, headed by a man named Eames, went into Sonora to purchase mules; but, as the Apaches had recently stripped the country, he was unable to secure the desired stock. Eames and his men when on the point of leaving Mexico fell in with Johnson and Gleason, and these villains, seeing, as they believed, just the opportunity they were seeking to betray the Apache chief and claim their reward, joined the Missourians on their return journey. As Johnson was very familiar with the region to be traversed, he assured Eames that the shortest and best route back to the United States was through the territory controlled by Juan José. Accordingly the whole party set out under Johnson’s guidance. Through his alert intelligence service Juan had heard of the approach of the Americans and also of the plot between the Mexican Government and the trader; so he met them on or near the Gila River several days after they left Oposura. Be it said to his credit that he refused to give credence to the report that Johnson was in complicity with the Sonoran Government. It was impossible for him to believe that Johnson, with whom he had long been on terms of intimate friendship, could consent to harm him. He met the Americans one evening as they were about to make camp and made known to Johnson the report that had been brought to him by his scouts. Johnson, of course, at once denied any connection with Juan’s Mexican foes. The Apache chief then said:

“Don Santiago, you have never deceived me; and if you give me your word of honor that the report is false, I invite you to come to my camp with your men and pass the night with us.”

Nothing could fit in better with Johnson’s purpose, so the whole company went with the chieftain to his encampment. Upon their arrival the trader told Juan José that he had brought along a sack of pinole as a present for the women and children. The sack was taken from the back of the pack animal and a man was designated by the chief to take charge of the distribution. At once all the Indians–men, women, and children–gathered about the sack. That was what Johnson desired and expected. Concealed under an aparejo on the back of one of the trader’s mules was a blunderbuss that had been brought for just this opportunity. It was loaded with balls, slugs, and bits of chain, not quite so serviceable as the machine gun of the modern American racketeer, but well adapted to its fiendish purpose. Meantime Gleason, under the pretext that he wanted to buy a fine saddle mule of Juan José’s, had drawn the chief a little distance aside where the mule was standing. The plan was for Gleason to shoot the unsuspecting chief with his pistol at the same time that Johnson fired the blunderbuss into the crowd assembled about the bag of pinole. The scheme was instantly executed. The blunderbuss wrought cruel havoc among the crowd and Gleason shot Juan at the same moment. Wounded, but not unto death, the chief cried out:

“Don Santiago, come to my rescue!”

At the same time he clinched with Gleason and threw him to the ground, and now with drawn knife he was poised ready to stab him. Johnson came over, and Juan José said:

“For God’s sake, save my life! I can kill your friend, but I don’t want to do it.”

In reply, Johnson shot him. He sank down dead on top of his prostrate foe.

“Thus perished that fine specimen of a man. I knew the man well, and I can vouch for the fact that he was a perfect gentleman, as well as a kind-hearted one.” This quotation, and the whole account of the tragedy as related above, I have drawn from Benjamin D. Wilson unpublished diary, Observations on Early Days in California and New Mexico. Wilson was a trapper in New Mexico at the time of the betrayal and murder of Juan José. He was near the scene of the tragedy at the time and met members of the Eames party who escaped. Wilson later moved to California, became the first American mayor of Los Angeles, was elected to the State Senate, and became so prominent in California that Mount Wilson was named for him, as were, also, civic objects in Pasadena. We must, therefore, accept his account of this terrible early outrage upon Apaches by Americans as authentic and trustworthy.

On August 14, 1846, with as little forethought as the dissolute father gives to his chance-begotten offspring, the United States Government assumed the wardship of the Apache. On that day, from the flat roof of a one-story house in the village of Las Vegas, New Mexico, General Stephen W. Kearny made the following proclamation:

“Mr. Alcalde and people of New Mexico: I have come amongst you by the orders of my Government to take possession of your country and extend over it the laws of the United States. We come among you for your benefit–not for your injury.

“Henceforth I absolve you from all allegiance to the Mexican Government. . . . I am your Governor. I shall not expect you to take up arms and follow me, to fight your own people who may oppose me; but I now tell you that those who remain peaceably at home, attending to their crops and their herds, shall be protected by me in their property, their persons, and their religion; and not a pepper, nor an onion, shall be disturbed or taken by my troops without pay or by the consent of their owner. . . .

“From the Mexican Government you have never received protection. The Apaches and Navajos come down from the mountains and carry off your sheep, and even your women, whenever they please. My Government will correct all this. It will keep off the Indians, protect you in your persons and property; and, I repeat again, will protect you in your religion.” 1

Never before nor since did Uncle Sam take into his strong awkward arms such a turbulent infant as this Apache nation. It was one thing for Kearny to declare himself military governor and that, if the people would go quietly on with their affairs and not oppose the new Government, they would be secure in all their civic rights and would be protected from the nomadic Indians; but it was a very different thing for the United States to make good these promises. Here, too, it should be stated that, in the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty, signed by the representative of the United States, February 2, 1848, and ratified by the Senate March 10, our Government formally and solemnly agreed to prevent Indians living in the United States from making raids into Mexico and from carrying Mexicans away into captivity.

These obligations were hard, indeed, to fulfill, were often impossible of fulfillment. For forty years the Apache problem was a festering thorn in the flesh of the American Republic and a source of desolation and death to thousands of individual citizens, both Mexican and American.

The following affecting account written by John T. Hughes, a soldier in the Doniphan Expedition, gives a good idea of the responsibilities and difficulties inherited by the Americans from the moment that Kearny raised the Stars and Stripes in Santa Fe. It is dated September 23, 1846.

“The chief of one branch of the Apaches, with about thirty of his tribe, came to hold a grand council with the Governor General. The general made a long speech to him through an interpreter encouraging them to industry and peaceful pursuits, and particularly to the cultivation of the soil, as the surest and best mode of procuring an honorable subsistence; that they must desist from all robberies and the committing of all crimes against the laws of the territory; that if they did not, he would send his soldiers amongst them and destroy them from the earth; but if they would be peaceable towards their white brethren, he would protect and defend them as he would the New Mexicans and make them all brothers to the white people and citizens of the same republic and children of the same father, the President, at Washington City.

“To all these things the venerable Sachem replied in a spirit worthy of his tribe. He said, ‘Father, you give good advice for me and my people; but I am now old and unable to work, and my tribe are unaccustomed to cultivating the soil for subsistence. The Apaches are poor; they have no clothes to protect them from the cold, and the game is fast disappearing from their hunting grounds. You must, therefore, if you wish us to be peaceable, speak a good word to the Comanches, the Yutes, the Navajos, and the Arapahoes, our enemies, that they will allow us to kill buffalo on the great plains. You are rich-you have a great nation to feed and clothe you–I am poor, and have to crawl on my belly, like a cat, to shoot deer and buffalo for my people. I am not a bad man; I do not rob and steal; I speak truth. The Great Spirit gave me an honest heart and a straight tongue. I have not two tongues that I should speak forked.

“‘My skin is red, my head sun-burnt, my eyes are dim with age, and I am a poor Indian, a dog; yet I am not guilty. There is no guilt there (putting his hand on his breast), no! I can look you in the face like a man. In the morning of my days, my muscles were strong; my arm was stout; my eyes were bright; my mind was clear; but now I am weak, shrivelled up with age; yet my heart is big, my tongue is straight. I will take your counsel because I am weak and you are strong.'” 2

During the autumn of 1846, Lieutenant W. H. Emory, with the advance guard of the “Army of the West,” passed through the Apache country from the Rio Grande westward along the Gila River. In his Notes of a Military Reconnaissance and in the Journal of Captain A. R. Johnston, First Dragoons, incidents are related that deal with the earliest contacts of soldiers of the American Army with the wild Apaches. Emory got his first view of the Apaches October 6 on the Rio Grande near Valverde. As he sighted some of them in the hills a considerable distance to the west, he thought they were trees or shrubs, but the trained eyes of Chaboneau, one of the guides, instantly made them out for what they were. He cried, “Indians! There are the Apaches.” They came down to the American camp in a very friendly spirit, and after a council with the officers, “swore eternal friendship, as usual, no doubt, with the mental reservation to rob the first American or Mexican they should meet unprotected.” They supplied the expedition with four young warriors as guides. Emory describes them as “smirking and deceitful looking.” Even at this early period, some of them had firearms.

Kearny had made an appointment for a meeting with some of the leading Apaches farther west, near the Copper Mines; and there the great chief Red Sleeves (Mangas Coloradas) met him on October 20, with about a score of his people, both men and women. They were well mounted on small but active horses. Red Sleeves showed an eager desire to be on friendly terms with the Americans. One of the chiefs, struck with admiration at the soldierly bearing and peremptoriness of General Kearny, as the order was sounded for “boots and saddles” and the column moved out with promptness and precision, said with passionate vehemence: “You have taken New Mexico and will soon take California; go, then, and take Chihuahua, Durango, and Sonora. We will help you. You fight for the land; we fight for the laws of Montezuma and for food. The Mexicans are rascals; we hate and will kill them all.” 1 They assured the General that “one, or two or three white men might now pass in safety through their country; that if they were hungry, they would feed them; or, if on foot, they would mount them. The road was open to the Americans, now and forever. Carson, with a twinkle of his keen hazel eye, observed, ‘I would not trust one of them.'” 1

November 2, not far from the junction of the San Pedro with the Gila, some Apaches made signals from the hills indicating that they wanted to talk with the strangers. However, they were so very timid that it was almost impossible to persuade them to come into camp. Finally, one by one, and warily, they risked it; and, finding that no harm was intended them, they promised to bring mules next day to a point six miles farther on, where they told the officers water was to be found. The high peaks above the river afforded fine lookout posts, and one of their number was “always seated, like a sentinel crow on the highest limb of the adjacent tree, watching over the safety of his thieving fraternity.” 1 The Army was in desperate need of mules, for their animals were constantly breaking down; and they had high hopes that they could barter with the Apaches for fresh ones. Very few, though, were they able to get.

Major Swords had charge of the trading, and his lot was a hard one, though his discomfiture added greatly to the merriment of his fellow officers and the soldiers. One buxom Apache woman, somewhat advanced in years, was very talkative and took an active part in every bargain the major tried to strike.

“She had on a gauze-like dress, trimmed with the richest and most costly Brussels lace, pillaged no doubt from some fandango-going belle of Sonora; she straddled a fine grey horse, and whenever her blanket dropped from her shoulders, her tawny form could be seen through the transparent gauze. After she had sold her mule, she was anxious to sell her horse, and careered about to show his qualities. At one time she charged at full speed up a steep hill. In this, the fastenings of her dress broke, and her bare back was exposed to the crowd, who ungallantly raised a shout of laughter. Nothing daunted, she wheeled short round with surprising dexterity, and seeing the mischief done, coolly slipped the dress from her arms and tucked it between her seat and the saddle. In this state of nudity she rode through camp, from fire to fire, until, at last, attaining the object of her ambition, a soldier’s red flannel shirt, she made her adieu in that new costume.” 1 The Apaches had with them a beautiful and intelligent Mexican boy about twelve years of age of whom they were very proud and to whom they were altogether devoted. Before closing a trade they would always consult him. He was very cheerful and contented; and when General Kearny offered to purchase him from his captor he said that the attempt would be useless. He was sure his master would not part with him, and he added that it had been so long since he had been taken from his home that he really had no desire to leave the Apaches. He was, nevertheless, much pleased, both by Kearny’s offer to secure his freedom and the desire of his captors to keep him.Citations:

  1. Emory W. H. Notes of a Military Reconnaissance. Executive Document No. 41. Washington, 1848.[][][][][]
  2. The Hughes Reprint of Doniphan’s Expedition. Topeka, Kansas, William E. Connelley, 1907.[]

Apache, History,


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