The Apache in Mexican Times

November 6, 1813, a Congress that had been called together by José Maria Morelos y Pavon declared the Independence of Mexico from Spain; but it was not until February 19, 1823, that the patriots were able to make good their freedom. During these ten years there was trouble and confusion throughout Mexico. Nothing could have been more pleasing to the amiable Apache. It was his gentle task to compound trouble and make “confusion worse confounded.”

During this turbulent transition period from Spanish Royal Dominion to Mexican Independence, the frontier military defenses were sadly weakened. The garrisons were neglected and the whole military organization was disintegrating. There were continual changes of military as well as civil officers, and the result was hopeless confusion and inefficiency. Some of the presidios were depleted in numbers; the soldiers were unpaid and most of them had lost all hope of receiving the back pay due them. This neglect was chiefly chargeable, of course, to lack of funds; though it was not so much lack of money as misappropriation of the money supplied for military purposes that did the mischief. The shell of the presidio system was kept intact, however, and as an offset to the diminishing number of troops, local guards were enlisted. But these men were not supplied with firearms and were little skilled in the use of bow and arrow. The Indians were quick to see the crumbling of all effective military resistance and their attacks grew bolder and more frequent.

Sonora suffered severely from Apache raids in 1813. Troops under Captain Narvona made retaliatory campaigns and claimed to have meted out severe punishment, but results were anything but convincing. The fact is, the Mexicans were in such mortal fear of their tormentors and so desirous of getting rid of them that they showed undue eagerness to make terms with them. Nothing could have been more injurious to the ultimate peace and welfare of the country than this spirit of abject weakness on the part of both military and civil officers; for, in proportion as the astute foe saw that he was dreaded, he grew bolder and more insolent. For example, in 1817, a famous chief, Chiquito, was taken captive. The governor of the province treated him with great deference; and when other chiefs came seeking terms of peace, he freed Chiquito. Thereupon, Chiquito and the other chiefs repaid this courtesy by murdering the guard and running away with some good Spanish weapons.

The Apache strategy was incomparably effective. When a raid was to be made, a few warriors would be left behind to guard the camp and the women and children, while a large force, consisting sometimes of several hundred, would approach within striking distance of the community they intended to raid. They would then divide up into bands, having first agreed upon a place where they would all come together again upon the completion of their devilish work. By scattering out thus in small parties, they were able to keep the whole region distracted, the soldiers and settlers not knowing where to attack or whom to pursue, the various bands meanwhile picking up booty and driving off animals everywhere. When the stock was once on the run, the Indians would break up into still smaller parties, so that if some were followed so hotly that they had to abandon their herds, others would be sure to get away with the stock. In case the Spanish attacked in force, a swift-riding rear guard would be left to hold off the enemy or to mislead them in their pursuit. Sometimes a number of the bands would reunite, make a stubborn stand, and hold off the pursuers until their comrades had a safe lead with their stampeded cattle. After the raid, all the bands and detachments would meet at the preappointed rendezvous, divide the booty, and hold high carnival, feasting, dancing, and rejoicing. Mexican women and children were often captured and adopted into the tribe. The boys as they grew up were trained in the arts of Apache warfare.

It was a rare thing for the Apaches to engage in open battle, though they did sometimes risk it; and it must be said that on such occasions they were able to give as good an account of themselves as did either American or Mexican troops, and they always won the respect, if not the approval, of their foes. Captain Zebulon Pike reports the conversation of a brave New Mexican officer, Malgares, who escorted him from Santa Fe to Chihuahua. He had had many encounters with the Apaches and was well able to discuss their methods of warfare. On one occasion when he was on a march with a hundred and forty men, he was attacked by a band of Apaches, both horse and foot, and a battle of four hours ensued. Whenever the dragoons would make a general charge, the Apache cavalry would retire behind the infantry, while the infantry would send a shower of arrows against the Spaniards, and then retreat. Malgares dedared that “it was not to be thought of that the Spanish cavalry could break the Apache infantry.”

Gálvez had initiated a policy warmly approved by both settlers and soldiers, of sending out reconnoitering parties once a month and of habitual readiness for instant attack, but in Mexican times both of these vital precautions had been abandoned. Discipline in the presidios, too, had almost to exist. Then, too, long before the American war with Mexico, the Apaches had been able to arm themselves with modern weapons purchased from American traders and taken from victims slain in battle. Indeed, they were better marksmen with firearms than were the Mexicans. Taking into account all the points of superiority on the part of the Apache warriors, it is easy to understand the pitiful state of suffering, terror, and desolation that hung like a nightmare over the Mexican population of the northern frontier.

In Chihuahua in 1831 them was a renewed and violent Apache outbreak. The immediate cause was the failure on the part of the Mexicans to provide the Indians with the accustomed allowances and rations. Prompt efforts were made to repress and punish the savages and troops were sent out against them. But, as usual, the military demonstrations were weak, and when the shrewd troublemakers, in 1832, again offered to come to terms, the overture was acceded to with unseemly haste and timidity. The malefactors were able to dictate, practically, the terms of surrender. Then, almost at once, they continued their raids, and with such vigor and daring that the capital of the province was in danger of being captured and destroyed.

The renewed hostilities soon extended into Sonora. The Apaches along the Gila River and in the mountains to the southward took advantage of the revolt among the Yaquis, Opatas, and Seris to descend upon Sonora. The northern part of the province was laid waste and almost depopulated. Mines, missions, and ranchos were abandoned. The raids extended as far south as Hermosillo and Arispe. At least one hundred ranchos and towns were deserted by the Mexicans, and it was not until Arispe was threatened that the general populace and the sluggish government at last rallied in an effort to check and drive out the invaders. Special rewards were offered for volunteers; the border provinces formed an alliance; and in 1834 some encouraging victories were won and a famous Apache chief was caught and executed. But this spasm of valor soon spent itself, so far as the military was concerned, and the Commandante now made the usual futile attempt to make terms with the savages. The civilians, however, repudiated such a proposal. The Governor declared that the military might again make peace treaties if they saw fit; but that as for the citizens, they proposed to carry on a war of extermination against every Apache in arms. This was all in the spirit of noble and righteous indignation. The legislature approved the Governor’s stand, and voted to carry on the campaign to the bitter end. The war went on, therefore, for a year longer to the advantage of the aroused citizens. But, alas, in the summer of 1836, the fever of rage and determination again died out, peace terms were again agreed upon, and the savages had a welcome breathing spell before renewing their ravages all along the line, for it never entered into the minds of the Apaches to keep a truce longer than was “necessary for the disposal of their plunder. As soon as more mules were needed for service or for traffic-more cattle for beef–more scalps for the war-dance–they would invariably return to their deeds of ravage and murder.”

The blame for this ever-continuing orgy of murder and destruction must, of course, be laid at the door of the Mexican Government, both local and central. Foresight, and determined cooperation on the part of the exposed provinces and the central government, might at any time have proved successful in holding the savages in check, if not in their complete suppression; but the ruling powers never actively bestirred themselves until some supreme emergency arose; and, always, as soon as the urgent danger was abated, they relapsed into neglect and inactivity. Not only was the central government weak and careless as to the havoc wrought on its frontiers; the frontier provinces themselves failed to cooperate in a sensible and honorable way. One province would shamelessly secure peace by some bargain with the enemy, and immediately the wily beneficiaries would transfer their operations to another province. Says Josiah Gregg in Commerce of the Prairies: “Such is the imbecility of the local governments that the savages, in order to dispose of their stolen property without even a shadow of molestation, frequently enter into partial treaties of peace with a department, while they continue to wage a war of extermination against the neighboring states. This arrangement supplies them with an ever-ready market for the disposal of their booty and the purchase of munitions wherewith to prosecute their work of destruction.”

Such a truce was made at Janos, in Chihuahua, in 1842. J ohn C. Cremony, in Life among the Apaches, shows the concrete effects of such dealings in a quotation from General Carasco, Military Governor of Sonora, with whom Cremony conversed at Frontéras in 1850.

“There is a small town named Janos, in Chihuahua, near the eastern boundary of Sonora, where the Apaches have for several years been received and provided with rations by the Government of that State, although the same Indians were at the time in open war with the Mexicans of Sonora. Not being able to comprehend the virtue of a policy which feeds Indians in one State that they might prey upon and destroy the citizens of another, I concluded that my duty was to destroy the enemy wherever I could find him. Acting upon this decision, I waited until the allotted time for the Apaches to visit Janos to obtain their regular quarterly rations, and, by forced marches at night, succeeded in reaching the place just as the carnival was at its height. We killed a hundred and thirty and took about ninety prisoners, principally women and children. Col. Medina, commanding the State of Chihuahua, was so enraged at my action that he made formal complaint to the Supreme Government, which, however, after some unnecessary delay approved of my course.”

Indeed, according to Josiah Gregg, still deeper iniquities may be laid at the door of Mexican civil authorities of the forties. He says that he himself saw a large party of traders leave Santa Fe in 1840, provided with implements of war and abundant supplies of whisky to be traded to the Apaches for mules and other plunder that they had stolen from the settlers in the southern provinces. “This traffic was not only tolerated but openly encouraged by the civil authorities, as the highest public functionaries were interested in its success–the governor himself not excepted.”

Perhaps no border province suffered more bitterly from Apache depredations than Chihuahua. The whole country became almost depopulated; the people took refuge in the towns and cities. The savages became so daring that they would appear in bands of only three or four on the very outskirts of the City of Chihuahua in open day, kill the herders and field laborers, and drive off herds of horses and mules unmolested. To be sure, detachment of soldiers might later give pursuit; but they were careful not to begin the chase too soon or approach the enemy too close. As a final and desperate resort, the various states began to offer bounties for the scalps of Apaches, both male and female, young and old. The price paid for a scalp was large–one hundred dollars for the scalp of a male and fifty dollars for that of a woman–so both settled Indians and foreigners took up the gainful occupation. One enterprising fellow named James Kirker organized a company of two hundred, made up of Americans, Shawnee Indians, and Mexicans, to go out after scalps. Kirker was a Scotchman–a trapper who had been captured by the Apaches at one time, and then had risen to a place of leadership among them. When the Apaches entrusted him with some booty that he was to sell for them, he ran away and entered upon the more agreeable employment of scalping his former associates. Kirker was very enterprising, and he brought in so many heads that the government refused to pay the full amount promised. The grisly business had tended to check the raids, but when it was abandoned the Apache onslaught was more fierce than before. It must be said to the credit of the Mexican Republic that the scalp-hunting project was only in operation a few weeks and that it never had the official approval of the central government. It was, however, strongly endorsed by many of the leading citizens of Chihuahua.

Threat of American invasion from the north in 1843 brought about almost instant organized resistance on the part of the Mexican people, such as generations of bloody Apache incursions had never been able to accomplish–the prompt strengthening of frontier defenses, the enlistment of new regiments, and the calling to arms of thousands of volunteers. These attempts proved to be as futile against the Americans as former attempts against the Apaches–and for a time as bloody. The presence of two armies in northern Mexico did, it is true, for a time relieve the citizens from the marauding expeditions of their ancient foe. However, by 1848, renewed irruptions on the part of the Apaches became so fierce that the central government felt obliged to initiate some effective policy of resistance. In July, 1848, a law was passed providing for the establishment of eighteen military colonies along the northern border. It was hoped that these settlements would both take the place of the old presidio system and at the same time encourage the growth of civilian communities on the frontier. No great enthusiasm was shown for this project and little came of it, for funds were lacking to put it into successful execution. And so three more years passed with only slight beginnings in the work of frontier settlement and defense. At about the same time the central government also named a committee of congressmen from the region most afflicted by Apache hostilities, and requested that they make recommendations looking toward a more effective joint policy for the protection of the frontier. No concrete benefits seem to have resulted from the deliberations of this committee.

As for Chihuahua and Durango, there was no time for deliberation. They were being robbed, murdered, and tortured once more by their fiendish foes from the north. The country was devastated and all but depopulated. So, again, in desperation, they turned to the policy of scalp hunting. American hunters got two hundred dollars for every scalp brought in. A live warrior brought two hundred and fifty dollars. To say nothing about the wisdom and humanity of this practice, it failed to work out successfully. Men who would hire themselves out to decapitate Indians and bring in their heads were not the sort of men it was a pleasure to do business with. Though they were sometimes paid in advance and provided with arms, they were too often inactive just at the time their services were most needed; and, besides, it was safer and easier to take the scalp of a tame Indian (or a Mexican, even) than it was to capture or scalp a wild warrior–and what officer was wise enough to know in every case just what sort of scalp it was that was turned in? There was something to be said on the other side, too; for the hunters were not always sure of their pay.

During the closing months of the war between Mexico and the United States, Sonora suffered almost as much from Apache raids as did Chihuahua. So distressing was the situation by 1848 that the presidio of Tubac had to be abandoned. The depopulation of Sonora went on apace. In addition to the hundreds of citizens who were killed or driven off, Sonora lost heavily as a result of the gold rush to California. She lost many of her strongest and ablest citizens in this way. Great caravans left Hermosillo for the California gold fields in 1849 and 1850, aggregating five or six thousand people.

A good illustration of the feeble and dilatory manner in which the scheme for military colonies along the border worked out may be found in Sonora, which had been granted five military colonies. The designated locations were Tucson, Altar, Frontéras, Santa Cruz, Bavispe. Frontéras was the only one of these five settlements to be fully established by 1850. Some beginnings had been made at Santa Cruz–how pitifully inadequate we may learn from the reports of travelers such as Benjamin Hayes and John R. Bartlett, who visited and described Santa Cruz during the years 1849, 1850, and 1851. Nothing had been done at Bavispe, Altar, and Tucson. The total armed force in these towns amounted to only three hundred and thirteen men. The state was instructed to enlist and equip four companies of mounted troops at federal expense with fifty men and four officers in each company. All told, there were in 1850 only about five hundred armed men and a majority of this number were simply colonists supplied with arms. The Apaches of the Gila, with grim jocularity, viewed Sonora “as their rancho and depot of supplies.”

In 1851 the enemy penetrated even as far south as Mazatlan and devastated it. That year in Sonora they killed two hundred citizens and stole two thousand head of stock, to say nothing of a wealth of other plunder with which they enriched themselves. Little damage was inflicted upon them by the troops. In 1853 one hundred and seventy settlers were killed. There was a slight revival of effort on the part of the people to protect themselves, but it was too weak and unorganized to be of much use, and–as always–temporary. The Apache death toll in 1860 was fifty, and in 1863 the invaders almost reached the ancient and important city of Ures in the central part of Sonora. So alarming and desperate had the situation now grown that the Government offered one hundred dollars for every Apache scalp turned in. As usual, money was a potent incentive, and so great was the stimulus of this cash offer that two hundred Apaches were killed or captured. But the energy and vindictiveness of the savages only grew more terrible, and as their bloodthirstiness increased, the price of a scalp went up to three hundred dollars. Indian heads were rarely brought in, but the slaughter of whites by Indians went on steadily up to 1872. After the Mexican War and the Gadsden Purchase, the Mexicans claimed that their woes were due, not only to the slackness of the United States in controlling their Apache wards, but also to the work of criminal Americans. Diaz in his day strengthened the border defenses; Arizona gradually became well populated; and at last comparative safety came to the distressed border people after their centuries of suffering.

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3 thoughts on “The Apache in Mexican Times”

  1. This article is full of racism and bigotry, typical of the white race. It calls the Native Americans invaders. But who really invaded this continent and deprive the inhabitants of their culture, religion and way of life. The article does not take into account the slave trade that was taking place throughout northern Mexico as labor was needed in all the mines Mexican mines, and well as being sold to plantations in the Caribbean islands. And what about the rewards the Mexican government paid to anyone that would bring an Apache scalp. Who taught the Native Americans how to scalp if it was not the white man. Who do you call savage.
    The Apache had every right, as anyone would, to defend their land, their families, and their way of life.

    1. I tested 49% native Americandna, from my mothers side. I’ve always heard, we had Apach blood.After reading this article, it just confirmed it.My great grandfather was born in Hermosillo Sonora Mexico, and my grandfather was born in Tucson Arizona. I’m now, trying to be documented as Native American. I don’t know where to start. I live in San Diego Calif.

  2. Yolanda Flanagan

    A good historical article, however, content is too one-sided. There’s no mention that the lands included here were once Apache land. There is also no mention of the sufferings of Native Americans.

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