Apache Wars 1861-1886

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APACHE WARS. When Spaniards entered New Mexico in 1598 they unwittingly claimed a region in flux. The mysterious disappearance of the Anasazi culture in the twelfth century (see Ancestral Pueblo) had left communities of pueblo-dwellers scattered across the Rio Grande Valley and northern Arizona. The vanished Hohokams had disbanded by 1500 a.d., survived only by the agricultural Piman-speaking peoples in scattered rancherias. The Athapascan-speaking Apaches had only recently emerged from the Rocky Mountains, pushed from behind by the numerous Comanches.

Forced by the Comanches into present-day Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the Apaches alternately attacked and traded with the Pueblos. By the mid-seventeenth century Apaches had successfully raided the Spaniards' jealously guarded horse herds. When the Pueblos revolted from the Spaniards in 1680, Apaches aided them from horseback. When Spain reconquered New Mexico in 1692, Apache warriors controlled the region from the Gulf of California to west Texas, where they battled the powerful Comanches.

Faced with the fierce Comanches in Coahuilla and Texas, the Spaniards attempted to make peace with the Jicarilla Apaches, founding a short-lived mission for them near the Taos pueblo in 1733. The Spanish built a line of presidios to protect colonists from Apache and Comanche raiders, but as late as 1786 Apaches still raided deep into Mexico.

When Mexicans began their war for independence from Spain in 1811, they signed a peace treaty with the marauding Lipans, whose numbers had been devastated by smallpox in 1764. But even as Mexico negotiated with the Indians who prevented their northward expansion, American hunters and trappers invaded the southwest out of Santa Fe, crowding the Jicarillas' land. The invasion of Apacheria had begun.

In 1833 Charles Bent was issued a license to trade with several tribes on the Arkansas River. When these tribes, including the Kiowa Apaches, made peace among themselves in 1840, American troops were dispatched to the west to protect the Santa Fe wagon trail, which cut through Jicarilla territory. In Texas, now in the hands of Americans, peaceful relations with Apaches fell apart. In 1842 bands of Lipans and Mescaleros immigrated to Mexico, free to raid on Texas settlements. Although the Comanches and remaining Mescaleros and Lipans signed a treaty with Texas in 1851, by 1855 Americans had erected a line of forts across the southern frontier for protection from Lipan raiders.

After the Mexican-American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo forfeited much of the southwest to the Americans. In 1854–1855 General George Carlton, led by Kit Carson, waged war on the Jicarillas. Overwhelmed by the American presence, the Mescaleros signed a treaty in 1855, but the Jicarillas refused to surrender. The acquisition of the southwest territory in 1848 had placed the Chiricahuas and Western Apaches within the domain of the United States. By 1858 stage lines traversed Chiricahua territory in southern Arizona. Chokonen headman Cochise maintained peaceful relations with Americans until falsely accused of taking a young boy into captivity in 1861.

In the notorious Bascom Affair at Apache Pass in the Chiricahua mountains, an inexperienced lieutenant hanged several of Cochise's family members, leading the head-man no choice but to seek revenge, as dictated by Apache custom. The merciless Chiricahuas attacked southern Arizona, emptying the region of American settlers.

Meanwhile, in 1864 the peaceful Mescaleros had been forced to move to the barren Bosque Redondo with the defeated Navajos. Unable to survive on meager rations, the Mescaleros slipped back to their mountain homes, hiding from American soldiers until finally they were issued a reservation on their own land in southern New Mexico in 1872. The starving Jicarillas refused to relocate to Mescalero, and continued raiding American settlements.

While war raged with the Chiricahuas in southern Arizona, the U.S. cavalry penetrated Western Apache territory further north where they found the White Mountain headmen eager to establish friendly relations. After the construction of Fort Apache, General George Crook used it in 1872 to stage a retaliatory expedition on the Tonto Apaches, who had been raiding the mineral-rich settlements around Prescott, Arizona. Accompanied by White Mountain and Cibecue scouts, Crook carried out the bloody defeat of the Tontos, the westernmost branch of the Western Apaches.

By 1872 Cochise had come to terms with the Americans, who granted the Chokonens a reservation on their homeland in southeastern Arizona. Following Cochise's death in 1874, the Chiricahuas were removed to the newly established San Carlos reservation east of Fort Apache. There they were joined by the White Mountain Apaches, who had been forced off their lands near Fort Apache following the Tonto campaign.

Although related culturally and linguistically, the Chiricahuas and White Mountain Apaches had never been friendly. Close confinement on the reservation aggravated their differences. In 1875 tensions grew more intense when the Chihenne band of Chiricahuas, led by Victorio, was forcibly removed from New Mexico to San Carlos. Finally, in 1880 the Chiricahuas fled the reservation to join the Nednai deep in Mexico. However, Mexicans annihilated Victorio and most of his band at Tres Castillos.

While Crook and the Apache scouts waged war in Arizona, American troops invaded Mexico in 1873 to punish the Lipan raiders. The survivors were deported to the Mescalero reservation. In 1875 the Kiowa Apaches agreed to a reservation in Oklahoma, ending the Apache menace on the southern Plains. In 1881 the U.S. government finally agreed to settle the Jicarillas on their homeland, but Anglo protests prevented them from settling there until 1888.

In 1883 Crook convinced the Chiricahuas, now led by Geronimo, to return to San Carlos, but in 1885 the disgruntled warriors fled the reservation again. Crook failed to remove them from Mexico, and in early 1886, frustrated by his failure, he resigned his command. His replacement, General Nelson Miles, fortified the region with 4,000 troops and in September 1886 finally convinced Geronimo to surrender.

The Chiricahua prisoners of war were exiled to Florida and Alabama, where they languished until the Comanches invited them to live at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1894. Following the death of Geronimo in 1909, many Chiricahuas elected to move to the Mescalero reservation, while the remainder stayed at Fort Sill, where they still lived in the early 2000s. Some scholars believe descendants of the undefeated Nednai survive in Mexico today.


Davis, Britton. The Truth about Geronimo. Foreword by Robert M. Utley. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1929; Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.

Debo, Angie. Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.

Sweeney, Edwin. Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Thrapp, Dan L. The Conquest of Apacheria. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

Victoria A. O.Smith

See alsoWarfare, Indian ; Wars with Indian Nations .

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Apache Wars Series of battles in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma between the Apache and white settlers. One Apache chief, Cochise, made peace in 1872, but Geronimo fought on until 1886. Atrocities occurred on both sides.