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The Apaches: Eagles of the Southwest

The Apaches: Eagles of the Southwest

by Donald E. Worcester

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Until now Apache history has been fragmented, offered in books dealing with specific bands or groups-the Mescaleros, Mimbreños, Chiricahuas, and the more distant Kiowa Apaches, Lipans, and Jicarillas. In this book, Donald E. Worcester synthesizes the total historical experience of the Apaches, from the post-Conquest Spanish era to the late twentieth century.


Until now Apache history has been fragmented, offered in books dealing with specific bands or groups-the Mescaleros, Mimbreños, Chiricahuas, and the more distant Kiowa Apaches, Lipans, and Jicarillas. In this book, Donald E. Worcester synthesizes the total historical experience of the Apaches, from the post-Conquest Spanish era to the late twentieth century. In clear, fluent prose he focuses primarily on the nineteenth century, the era of the Apaches' sometimes splintered but always determined resistance to the white intruders. They were never a numerous tribe, but, in their daring and skill as commando-like raiders, they well deserved the name "Eagles of the Southwest."

The book highlights the many defensive stands and the brilliant assaults the Apaches made on their enemies. The only effective strategy against them was to divide and conquer, and the Spaniards (and after them the Anglo-Americans) employed it extensively, using renegade Indians as scouts, feeding traveling bands, and trading with them at their presidios and missions. When the Mexican Revolution disrupted this pattern in 1810, the Apaches again turned to raiding, and the Apache wars that erupted with the arrival of the Anglo-Americans constitute some of the most sensational chapters in America's military annals.

The author describes the Apaches' life today on the Arizona and New Mexico reservations, where they manage to preserve some of the traditional ceremonies, while trying to provide livelihoods for all their people. The Apaches still have a proud history in their struggles against overwhelming odds of numbers and weaponry. Worcester here re-creates that history in all its color and drama.

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University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Civilization of the American Indian Series , #149
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Barnes & Noble
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The Apaches

Eagles of the Southwest

By Donald E. Worcester


Copyright © 1979 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8734-1


The Apaches and Their Neighbors

Harsh was the land called Apachería, home of the Apache Indians, where every insect had its sting, every bush its thorns, every snake its fangs. Life was a daily battle for survival, a grim contest with a hostile environment and savage predators both animal and human. Rugged mountain and endless desert, this was Apacheland, and the Apaches were truly the products of their brutal environment. Although they preferred the mountains they were completely at home in any part of that tortured land: they suffered hunger and thirst and extremes of heat and cold without complaint. They saw an enemy in every stranger; they trusted no one outside the band; and there was occasionally bitter hostility between bands or even within them.

By hunting and gathering wild seeds and roots, Apaches could always find something edible; in time of need even lizards and pack rats were acceptable, but the Apaches shunned the flesh of bears, fish, and turkeys, This hand-to-mouth existence in a begrudging land forced them to separate into small, closely knit groups of a few families who were always on the move. The land could not support many of them in one place, and so they developed only the most rudimentary tribal organization. There were chiefs, but their authority stemmed largely from persuasion and personal prestige, for they had no sanctions over others. Apaches lived in absolute independence and were jealous of their freedom.

A warrior people, Apaches were born and reared for combat. From boyhood, a young man's training and games were designed to sharpen his senses, make him adept in the use of weapons, and develop to the maximum his physical stamina and fortitude. When an Apache youth was considered ready, he was allowed to serve his apprenticeship on raids. In these he was expected to fulfill a warrior's role, do all of the work at each camp, and learn from veterans. If he conducted himself properly, after four raids he was accepted as a warrior. Many youths refused to go on raids, and others were rejected as unfit. Those who failed to qualify as warriors were treated with contempt. The hardy warrior produced by this exacting process was a relentless and pitiless foe, a master at stealth, surprise, and flight. His endurance was incredible; a warrior on foot could cover seventy miles in a day. Apaches scorned heroics: if they could not gain overwhelming advantage over an enemy by stealth, it was foolish to risk battle. There were too few men—none of the Apache divisions numbered more than a few thousand, including women and children—and Apache warriors could not afford to be cavalier with their lives. When cornered or protecting their women and children, however, they fought with reckless abandon, and it was a frontier adage that an Apache became more dangerous when he was wounded. Once out of range of enemy weapons, Apaches often slapped their buttocks and made other derisive gestures at their foes.

Both the Apaches and their kinsmen, the Navajos, belonged to the widespread Athapascan linguistic family, apparently the last migratory wave from Asia before the Eskimos reached this continent. Despite their late arrival in North America Athapascans were soon scattered from northwestern Canada to northern Mexico. It is not certain just when the ancestral groups of Apaches reached the Southwest, but they were well entrenched in some of their favorite ranges when Spaniards first visited their lands during the sixteenth century. Although anthropologists disagree on the approximate arrival time, many are convinced that the Athapascans were relative latecomers to the region. The Apaches were thoroughly at home, however, in the Southwest, and it seems unlikely that they could have become so acclimated to the rigorous desert and mountain environment in a short time. Apaches found life-sustaining food and water where others would have perished, and their intimate knowledge of a vast and uninviting terrain indicates that they had lived in the region long enough to become completely at home in it.

This study is concerned with the Apaches of New Mexico, Arizona, and northwestern Mexico. Over this vast desert and mountainous region roamed the Jicarillas, Mescaleros, Mimbreños, Mogollones, Chiricahuas, and Western Apaches—Tontos, Coyoteros, and Pinaleños. The names by which we know these bands were ones the Spaniards had applied to them by the late eighteenth century. Although the Navajos could be included and considered as Apaches along with the other southern Athapascans, they are customarily treated separately and will, therefore, be omitted here. The Kiowa Apaches and Lipans of the Southern Plains will also be excluded.

Jicarilla means "little basket" in Spanish and was the name given the Apache band skilled in making vessels of basketry. The Jicarillas, who roamed over northeastern New Mexico and southern Colorado, were never numerous, numbering less than one thousand. For much of the period since 1600 they were on friendly terms with the Mescaleros but not with the Navajos, though all spoke the same Athapascan language. The Jicarillas had periods of both hostility and friendship with the Spaniards, often joining them on expeditions against other tribes.

The Mescaleros (literally, "mescal-makers") of central and southeastern New Mexico and western Texas were so called because of their custom of using mescal for food. Although the name was applied only to this group, most Apache bands used mescal. At one time the Mescaleros roamed on both sides of the Río Grande and eastward onto the plains, but their recognized hunting grounds came to be the Sierra Blanca, Sacramento, and Guadalupe Mountains east of that river and south into the Big Bend country and northern Chihuahua.

From at least 1630 on, near the headwaters of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico were Indians called Gila Apaches or Gileños. The Mimbreños, Chihinne (or Red-Paint People), one of the Gila Apache divisions, lived in the Mimbres (Willow) Mountains and along the river of that name. Closely associated with them were the Bedonkohes or Mogollón Apaches, who lived in the Mogollón Mountains near the present Arizona–New Mexico border. Both were closely related to the Chiricahuas of southern Arizona—so closely, in fact, that they are frequently designated as Eastern Chiricahuas. But since each of these bands was known by the mountains it ranged, it seems more appropriate and less confusing to call them Mimbreños and Mogollónes. Culturally the Gileños and Chiricahuas were closer to the Mescaleros than to any other Apache band.

West of the Mimbreños were the Chiricahuas, who roamed the Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains of southern Arizona. This was Cochise's band. South of them were the Nednhi (or Enemy People), frequently called the Southern Chiricahuas, who ranged the Sierra Madre and Hatchet Mountains of northern Mexico. Because all of these bands lived in rough, arid country, they did not attempt to plant crops but obtained food exclusively by hunting and gathering. Although all Apaches were nomads, each group had a favorite base, a refuge in which to store food for winter and from which to set out on raids.

Westernmost of the Apaches were the Tontos, Coyoteros, and Pinaleños, who lived in the Tonto Basin and around modern-day Flagstaff and the Little Colorado River, in the White Mountains around present-day Fort Apache, and in the Pinal Mountains. Because of their remoteness from Spanish settlements, these peoples and the regions they occupied were little known to the Spaniards before Jesuit missionaries moved north from Sonora late in the seventeenth century. The Western Apaches, as they are collectively called, raised some corn and other crops, and they were about twice as numerous as the Chiricahuas, Mogollones, and Mimbreños.

The various Apache divisions (they were not tribes in the usual sense) were known to Spaniards by a multitude of descriptive names before their modern designations were adopted. Because of this, and because some Apache bands changed locations, it is not always clear from Spanish accounts which band was involved in any particular incident.

In addition to the divisions and bands listed above, there were other warlike peoples who may also have been members of the Athapascan linguistic family, who were nearly always mentioned in conjunction with Apaches, and who were occasionally given that designation. These were the Janos, Jocomes, Mansos, and Sumas. The Janos and Jocomes were linked to the Chiricahuas and apparently had merged with them by 1700, for their names rarely appear after that date. The Mansos and Sumas ranged farther east; they also disappeared as an independent people. The Tobosos of Nuevo León apparently were another Athapascan group with raiding practices similar to the Apaches, and eighteenth-century Spaniards regarded them as Apaches.

Like many American Indian tribes the Apache bands and divisions became known by names others called them, for the Athapascans' term for themselves was Diné, meaning "The People." "Apache" is believed to be a corruption of the Zuñi apachú or "enemy," their name for their Athapascan neighbors, the Navajos. Because of their legendary fierceness, Apaches became known in Europe as well as America—in fact, a violent French dance was named after them. Their reputation for ferocity, earned in encounters with the Spanish, was still well deserved when Anglo-Americans clashed with them during the nineteenth century.

Apaches lived in go-tahs or camps, in groups of several families, and these were their primary political units. Young married men went to live with their wives' families, whom they served thereafter. In the early days raiding parties were usually formed from the members of a single camp, but on occasion men from several go-tahs might join for a raid. They left the women and children in a safe refuge with a supply of food and a few men to guard them, then set off.

Some Apaches, probably Jicarillas and Mescaleros, traded annually with the Río Grande Pueblos, exchanging hides, skins, tallow, and captives for Pueblo foodstuffs, tobacco, and cotton cloth. There is some evidence that Apaches camped in the vicinity of certain Pueblos during the winters. Relations between the two may have been generally peaceful, but had there not been interludes of warfare the Zuñis would likely have given the Navajos a friendlier designation than "enemy."

After Spaniards came permanently to New Mexico in the 1590s, the Apaches substantially increased their food supply by raiding the livestock herds kept at Spanish and Pueblo settlements. Since they knew nothing about raising cattle or horses and soon consumed those they stole, they came to depend more and more on raiding for food. Because they could rarely assemble a large number of warriors, raiding parties were small—usually four to twelve men. Raiders traveled on foot, concealing themselves for days if necessary, watching their intended victims until the opportune moment. Then they stealthily drove off the animals so that the loss might not be discovered for hours or days. They avoided fighting if possible, for it would jeopardize the purpose of the raid. If overtaken, they killed some of the animals in order to return and eat them later; then the Apaches scattered in all directions. If pursuit was prompt and determined, some animals might be recovered, but the raiders usually escaped. When the stolen animals had been consumed, the Apaches set out to raid once more. Groups of raiders might set out independently from camps hundreds of miles apart to raid ranches or settlements in New Mexico, Chihuahua, or Sonora, making it extremely difficult to organize an effective defense against them.

Apaches distinguished between raiding—for plunder—and warfare, which was primarily for revenge. Raids were organized when the meat supply was nearly exhausted. Usually an older woman of the group would call attention to the fact and suggest a plan for seizing enemy livestock. An experienced raider would shortly announce a raid and call for volunteers; any man who had served his apprenticeship with other raiding parties was eligible.

After selecting the enemy herd to be taken, a few raiders approached it in the early morning and shifted it quietly toward the others. These men surrounded the herd and drove it rapidly toward their country. On the return journey men and animals kept moving, often going without sleep for five days. Raiders had the right to give away the animals they had stolen—usually to maternal kinsmen, but also to women not related to them. According to custom, the stolen livestock was evenly distributed among the members of the camp, so that no family was excluded.

Although raiding parties usually drew all their members from a local group, war parties called on clan members over a wider area. If a warrior had been killed, it was up to his maternal kinsmen to avenge his death. The chief of the slain warrior's local group sent messages to clan chiefs of other groups, announcing a meeting. All who planned to take part assembled and joined in a "going-to-war" ceremony of dances and speeches designed to get them in the mood for combat. War parties, which might include as many as two hundred men, always included at least one medicine man, whose responsibility it was to encourage proper behavior and to predict the outcome. Captured children were usually adopted, but if adult enemies were taken alive, they were handed over to the slain warrior's female relatives to be tortured and killed.

Apaches apparently first clashed with Spaniards in 1599, when they helped defend Acoma Pueblo against Juan de Oñate, the first Spanish governor of New Mexico, who had brought a colony of settlers to the Río Grande valley the previous year. Whether these defenders were Chiricahuas, Western Apaches, or "Apaches de Navajó" is impossible to determine. In any event, Oñate's first settlement was soon the target of Apache and Navajo raids, although their object was Spanish livestock rather than destruction. Horses, mules, and cattle greatly enriched the Apaches' Spartan diet, and these Indians soon acquired a lingering taste for horse and mule meat, preferring it to beef or mutton. Apache raids became so costly that within a decade the New Mexico colonists petitioned the viceroy to allow them to abandon the colony. One of the Spanish priests, however, urged that New Mexico not be abandoned, for, he said, the Pueblo converts had lost the friendship of the Apaches. In 1609 the viceroy ordered the colonists to remain.

After the coming of the Spaniards, Apaches continued trading with the Pueblos, as had been their custom. But Spanish governors, beginning with Oñate, aware of the steady market for labor in the mining camps to the south, began seizing Apaches and selling them as slaves. On occasion they even sold peaceful Apaches who had agreed to accept conversion, as well as others who came for friendly trade. It is not surprising that, as the sale of captives continued, Apaches developed an undying hatred for Spaniards. Apache families were close-knit, held together by powerful bonds of affection, and the loss of any close relative was the cause of genuine sorrow. Slave-raiding and the later practice of sending captives to Mexico City for disposition so intensified the Apaches' hatred of Spaniards and Mexicans that it never died.

By the 1620s Spaniards were well acquainted with the Apaches of New Mexico. Writing in 1630, Fray Alonso de Benavides was so impressed by them that he wildly estimated their numbers as greater than those of all the tribes of New Spain (Mexico). He made several observations about them, however, that were verified again and again during the centuries that followed. Apaches were, he wrote, "A people very fiery and bellicose, and very crafty in war." They valued chastity and punished a woman caught in adultery by cutting off the fleshy part of her nose. "They pride themselves much in speaking the truth," he added.

When Apaches learned to use horses for something other than "belly-timber," both their mobility and their military power were greatly enhanced. There are no eyewitness accounts to tell us how or when Apaches first learned to ride horses, but a few documents do provide clues. Spanish authorities ordinarily prohibited Indians from owning or riding horses, but in 1621 the ranchers and missionaries of New Mexico were given special permission to employ Pueblo converts as herders. During the 1630s there were frequent complaints that these converts, presumably disenchanted with their treatment by Spanish masters, had fled to seek asylum with Apaches or Navajos. It seems clear that Apaches were taught to ride horses by these Pueblo converts during the 1630s and 1640s. From about 1640 on there were many reports of conspiracies between Pueblo Indians and Apaches or Navajos against the Spaniards. In 1650, for example, some Pueblo herders turned over to Apache allies herds of Spanish horses.


Excerpted from The Apaches by Donald E. Worcester. Copyright © 1979 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Donald E. Worcester, (1915-2003) was a native of Tempe, Arizona and Professor of History in Texas Christian University. He received the Ph.D. degree from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a student of Herbert E. Bolton. He wrote extensively on the Spaniards of the New World, as well as Latin American and North American civilization.

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