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It took five thousand American troopers a year and a half to run down the great Apache raider and his lethal band. They did it by tough persistence and skill—or was it guile?
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
Physically, the Apaches had become a specialized type. Implacable natural selection, helped along by infanticide when a child seemed to be feeble, had produced over the course of a few centuries a formidably rugged breed. Not tall—the typical Apache warrior was perhaps five foot seven—they were lean and muscular, broad of shoulder, deep of chest, and with legs that seemed thewed with spring steel. Their women, though they aged fast, were lithe and tough: childbirth, for instance, was but an hour’s interruption to whatever other labor a wife happened to be occupied with at the time. It was no news to hear that a band of these Indians, including women and children, had travelled forty miles a day on foot, across precipitous mountain canyons or the most arid stretches of desert. The Apache’s resistance to heat and his water metabolism almost rivalled that of the camel: he could be “hilarious and jovial” (observed an army officer who knew the tribe well) “when the civilized man is about to die of thirst.”
But the most important fact about the Apaches was simply this: they were marauders by profession. As far back as the oldest of them could remember, plunder had been their regular way of life. Above a bare susbsistence level they depended on their victims for nearly everything: horses, cattle, weapons, ammunition, domestic utensils, clothing, tobacco, liquor—and amusement. Apaches hunted Mexicans almost as the Plains Indians hunted buffalo: they seemed to be natural prey, and there was a sporting aspect to a raid on a Mexican settlement that overlaid the practical matter of replenishing supplies. An Indian camp high in the Sierras would become wildly excited when plans for a big sortie were afoot.
Yet once a raid was actually in progress, a sinister efficiency took over. Masters of stealth, the Apaches would meticulously survey the scene so as to anticipate just what resistance they might encounter; then they would pounce out of the night upon their quarry, killing all males over ten or twelve, and capturing women and little children for use as slaves or hostages. It is significant that scalping was not a common Apache practice: loot, not trophies, was what they were after, and honor was to be measured as much by material gain as by valor. Their ferocity was, so to speak, of a professional variety.
The history of American-Apache relations, starting with America’s acquisition of much of the Apache homeland after the Mexican War, was a bloody one, relieved only by scattered attempts at peaceful coexistence. Both Confederate and Union troops in the Southwest fought Apaches during the Civil War, and grew grimly accustomed to their maddening guerrilla tactics. The Confederate governor of Arizona, Colonel John R. Baylor, declared to Jefferson Davis that “extermination of the grown Indians and making slaves of the children is the only remedy.” Davis, shocked by the harshness of the prescription, indignantly vetoed it. But General J. H. Carleton, Union commander in the Southwest, instituted a scarcely gentler policy by ordering that all Apache men “are to be slain wherever and whenever they can be found”; the women and children were to be taken prisoner. Meanwhile, in 1863, Mangas Coloradas, the greatest of Apache chiefs, was “captured” by Federal soldiers while discussing a possible peace treaty; then he was provoked into “trying to escape” and was shot to death.
But by the 1870’s, the most sanguine and sanguinary hopes for wiping out Apache manhood were foundering. The ravished towns and haciendas of northern Mexico lay more helpless than ever under the strokes of the marauders, and across the border in Arizona and New Mexico settlers were endlessly haunted by the Apache spectre. An investigator appointed by President U. S. Grant reported in 1871 that the “extermination” policy “has resulted in a war which, in the last ten years, has cost us a thousand lives and over forty millions of dollars, and the country is no quieter nor the Indians any nearer extermination than they were at the time of the Gadsden purchase.” It was decided to combine the stick with the carrot: as many Apaches as possible would be lured onto reservations, while the adamant hostiles would be hunted to earth bv new and more vigorous methods.
It was to effect this approach that General William T. Sherman, the Army chief of staff, sent to Arizona an officer who, when his long career was over, would often be called the greatest Indian fighter the West ever knew. General George Crook, however, was more than a successful subduer of the red man: he was at the same time a sympathetic friend. He was free of the ethnic bias that made most Americans regard Indians as possibly higher animals but decidedly lower humans: “With all his faults,” Crook once declared to a graduating class at West Point, ”… the American Indian is not half as black as he has been painted. He is cruel in war, treacherous at times, and not over cleanly. But so were our forefathers.” Along with such blunt views as these, Crook had a personal demeanor that was disconcerting to some but impressive to all. He disliked official uniform, usually dressing in comfortable hunting clothes; he had a great, forked beard which he sometimes braided for convenience; he was taciturn and often moody—and he attracted to his staff some of the most intelligent and devoted young officers in the frontier army.