Apache Wars

c. 1837–c. 1924

The Apache Wars were a series of raids, skirmishes, and battles fought between the United States and various Apache tribes in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The wars helped shape America’s Manifest Destiny and led to the rise of important Apache leaders, including Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, and Geronimo.

Renegade Apaches by Henry Farny, 1892. Image Source: Cincinnati Art Museum.

Apache Wars Summary

The Apache Wars were a series of conflicts that took place in the American Southwest, primarily during the latter half of the 19th Century. The Apache fought with the Spanish, Mexicans, and finally the United States. Prominent Apache leaders, such as Cochise and Geronimo, led the fierce resistance against American expansion. Tensions escalated due to the passage of a Scalp Bounty Law (1835) in Sonora, Mexico, ongoing Apache raids, and westward expansion of the United States. Despite various treaties, hostilities persisted due to United States policies, which created mistrust with the Apache. Following Geronimo’s surrender in 1886, the Apache Wars virtually ended, but some sporadic fighting continued into the early 1900s, making it America’s longest war.

A Dash for the Timber, Remington, 1889
A Dash for the Timber by Frederic Remington, 1889. This painting depicts eight men being chased by a group of Native American Indians. Image Source: Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Apache Wars Facts

  • The Apache Wars were fought by various Apache tribes against New Spain, Mexico, and the United States.
  • They started in the 17th Century and continued into the early 20th Century.
  • The most prominent Apache leaders were Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, and Geronimo.
  • Prominent U.S. Army officers who were involved included Kit Carson, George Crook, Philip Sheridan, Nelson A. Miles, and Henry Lawton.
  • The Apache Wars are viewed as the longest war in United States History.

Phases of the Apache Wars

The Apache Wars started can be divided into two phases:

  1. The first phase involved conflict with the Spanish, starting in the 17th Century and continuing with the Mexicans after Spanish control ended.
  2. The second phase involved hostilities with the United States.

Key Events

  • 1835 — Scalp Bounty Laws were passed in Sonora, Mexico. 
  • 1837 — The Johnson Massacre took place when a group of Americans attacked an Apache camp.
  • 1860 — U.S. military forces engaged Cochise and Apache forces during the Bascom Affair.
  • 1862 — Union forces defeated Mangas Coloradas and Cochise at the Battle of Apache Pass.
  • 1863 — Mangas Coloradas was murdered at Fort McClane.
  • 1872 — Chiricahua Reservation established.
  • 1886 — Geronimo led Apaches in a breakout from the San Carlos Reservation. Geronimo eventually surrendered on September 4, 1886.
Apache Wars, An Apache Ambush, Farny, 1894
An Apache Ambush by Henry Farny, 1894. Image Source: Cincinnati Art Museum.

Apache Wars Significance

The Apache Wars are important to United States History because they played an important role in the Westward Expansion of the United States. Although the wars eventually led to the subjugation of the Apaches, they also showed the Apaches were cunning, resourceful, and determined. Both the United States and the Apaches were guilty of atrocities that fueled hostilities for nearly 90 years in the American Southwest.

New Spain, Mexico, and the Apache Wars

The conflict between Spanish and Mexican officials and various Apache tribes, known as the Apache-Mexico Wars, started in the 17th Century when colonists from New Spain established settlements in New Mexico. In 1821, Mexico achieved independence from Spain.

Spanish Officials Provide for the Apache

The longstanding conflict between the Apaches and the Spanish was the result of continuous raids carried out by the Apache in Mexico. However, the Apaches made peace with the Spanish in New Mexico and settled in the region, where the Spanish provided them with food and shelter. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 Apaches were settled in the region by the end of the 18th Century.

Tension Resumes Between the Apache and Spanish

In 1830, Jose Isidro Madero, the Governor of Chihuahua. stopped providing food for the Apaches. The Apaches were forced to return to their nomadic lifestyle, hunting for food. They also carried out raids on Mexican settlements.

In 1831, Chihuahua responded by declaring war on the Apaches living in the state. This started roughly a century of violent conflict between Mexico and the Apaches, and later the United States and the Apaches.

Scalp Bounty Law (1835)

Apache forces carried out raids in the Mexican state of Sonora, which was south of south of present-day Arizona and west of Chihuahua.

In 1835, Sonora passed a Scalp Bounty Law in retaliation for the Apache raids. Mexican officials offered a bounty of 100 pesos for the scalp of an Apache male who was 14 years of age or older.

Soon after, Chihuahua offered the same bounty for males. It also offered a bounty of 50 pesos for the capture of an adult female and 25 pesos for a child under 14.

In both states, bounty hunters were also allowed to keep any Apache property they seized. It is estimated that the bounty for one Apache male was more than Mexican and American workers could earn working for a full year.

Johnson Massacre (1837)

In 1837, The Apache carried out a raid near Moctezuma and took a herd of cattle.

James Johnson, a U.S. citizen living in Sonora, organized a military expedition with about 20 men and a small artillery piece. Johnson led the expedition to an Apache camp near Santa Rita del Cobre, New Mexico

There were roughly 80 Apache in the camp, led by Chief Juan Jose Compa, including women and children. Johnson attacked the camp and inflicted heavy casualties on the Apache, including Compa, who was killed.

Mangas Coloradas, also known as Red Sleeves, replaced Compa as the leader of the Apache.

Apache Wars, Apache Camp in New Mexico, Sharp, 1920
Apache Camp in Hondo Cañon, New Mexico by Joseph Henry Sharp, c. 1920. Image Source: Cincinnati Art Museum.

Manifest Destiny and the Apache Wars

For the next 25 years, intermittent hostilities continued between Apaches and Americans and increased as America expanded westward in the name of “Manifest Destiny” — a slogan used to legitimize America’s Westward Expansion.

The Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, and other Overland Trails were used by Americans and other immigrants to move into the Southwest in increasing numbers.

The eastern Apaches moved into the high deserts and mountainous regions of the Southwest.

Apaches continued their raids into Mexico and the American Southwest and also attacked immigrant wagon trains.

The Annexation of Texas (1845), the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), and the Gadsden Treaty (1854) resulted in the United States acquiring California and the American Southwest.

Apaches did not recognize the boundaries set by treaties between the United States and other nations and continued to conduct raids in the Southwest on both Mexican and American settlements.

These raids created a political problem for the United States, which was obligated to defend Americans against Apache attacks. Despite the hostilities, there was no formal declaration by the United States.

The United States and the Apache Wars

Rise of Magnas Coloradas

In May 1860, gold was discovered along in Mimbres Apache territory, attracting prospectors.

The Mimbres Apache lived in southern New Mexico, with their homelands extending from the Gila River’s forested mountains into Mexico.

Mangas Coloradas was the Chief of the Mimbres Apache. He visited a mining camp in friendship but was captured, bound, and whipped. When Mangas Coloradas returned to his village, he organized and led raids against American settlements.

Apache Military Tactics

The Apaches operated in small, independent bands, contrary to standard American military practices, which were formally organized. The Apaches relied on Guerilla Warfare, often traveling at night and hiding during the day in rocky points and high places.

Each warrior was acclimated to the harsh terrain and arid climate, able to travel 40 to 60 miles a day on foot with a limited amount of food or water.

The Apache relied on the element of surprise and often ambushed enemy forces. They used hit-and-run tactics that included attacking, murdering, plundering, and burning. After attacks, they would regroup at predetermined sites.

They carried rifles, shotguns, pistols, and ammunition, which were often taken from their enemies.

The Bascom Affair (1860)

On January 27, 1860, a group of Arivaipa Apaches raided a farm belonging to an American settler John Ward, near Fort Buchanan. The Apaches stole livestock, captured Ward’s stepson, 12-year-old Felix, and rode toward the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona.

Ward reported the attack to Lieutenant Colonel Pitcairn Morrison at Fort Buchanan and accused the Chiricahua Apaches — specifically the Chokenen Band — of the attack, theft, and kidnapping. Morrison responded by sending Lieutenant George N. Bascom and a small contingent of men to investigate. On the morning of January 29, Bascom headed toward Apache Pass with troops from the 7th Infantry. Ward, who spoke fluent Spanish, went with Bascom, serving as an interpreter.

Upon arrival at the Butterfield Station, Bascom sent a message to Cochise, asking him to for a meeting. Cochise agreed and arrived late in the afternoon of February 4. He brought his wife, two of their children, and three warriors with him, including his brother, Coyuntura.

Bascom invited Cochise and his party into a tent to talk and told them about the kidnapping of Felix Ward. Meanwhile, Bascom’s men surrounded the tent and prepared to take the Apaches as prisoners. Cochise denied the accusations that his people had anything to do with the kidnapping and was outraged over the accusations. Using his knife, he cut through the tent and escaped. As he ran, the U.S. troops fired at him, and he was struck in the leg. Bascom held the other Apaches as prisoners.

Cochise and Bascom met the next day, under a flag of truce. While they were meeting, a small group of Apaches attacked men working for the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. Negotiations broke down, and hostilities escalated.

On February 6 when Cochise and his men attacked a wagon train, killing nine Mexicans and taking three Americans as prisoners. One of the men with Cochise was Geronimo. 

Cochise offered a prisoner exchange, but Bascom ignored the request. Meanwhile, Cochise received reinforcements from other Chiricahua Apache bands. Snow fell on the night of February 7, and Cochise prepared to launch another attack on Bascom and his men at the Bufferfield Station.

On February 8, the Apaches attacked a group of Bascom’s men who were watering their mules at Apache Springs. They overwhelmed the soldiers and then moved to attack Butterfield Station. Although the Apaches took some horses and mules, they failed to free the Apache prisoners. Upon learning U.S. reinforcements were on the way, Cochise and his men withdrew, but he executed his American prisoners.

Bascom responded by executing his Apache prisoners and leaving the bodies where Cochise would see them. Cochise responded by unleashing his warriors on American settlements and wagon trains. He was joined by Mangas Coloradas and his warriors. They drove off livestock and killed approximately 150 people over the next two months. 

These hostilities led Americans to abandon a significant portion of Arizona by Agust 1861.

Battle of Apache Pass (1862)

Despite the advantages of guerilla warfare and competent leadership, the Apaches were vulnerable to American firepower. This weakness came to the forefront during the Battle of Apache Pass on July 15, 1862.

Apache Pass is a narrow defile in southeast Arizona between the Chiricahua Mountains and the Dos Cabezas Range. The area contained a spring, the only reliable source of water for miles on the Butterfield Stage Line.

Brigadier General James Henry Carleton led a regiment of California volunteers through Apache Pass. Carleton intended to cross into New Mexico to pursue Confederate forces. Carleton sent Captain Thomas Roberts ahead with an advance force, and they stopped at the spring for water.

Apache warriors, led by Mangas Coloradas and Cochise, were positioned on cliffs above the spring and attacked Roberts and his men, killing two soldiers and wounding two more. Despite being outnumbered, Roberts responded with howitzers, firing twelve-pound shells and canisters of shot, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing the Apaches to withdraw. Cochise tried to attack again the next day but was repelled again by howitzer fire.

As a result of the battle, General Carleton recommended establishing a fort in the area, which was built and designated Fort Bowie. Mangas Coloradas and Cochise never fought together again after this battle.

Murder of Mangas Coloradas (1863)

In early 1863, Mangas Coloradas met with U.S. officials at Fort McLane in southwestern New Mexico.

Although Mangas arrived under a flag of truce, General Joseph R. West had him seized and ordered his men to execute him. Some guards tortured Mangas with red hot bayonets before killing him. His death was staged to make it look as if he had tried to escape.

Afterward, the body was mutilated and the skull was sent to Orson Squire Fowler, a scientist living in New York City. 

The various Apache tribes were outraged over the torture and murder of Mangas Coloradas and some tribes united in their war against the United States. Hostilities over the next 12 years contributed to at least 5,000 deaths.

Establishment of the Chiricahua Reservation

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant sent General Oliver O. Howard to the Arizona Territory. Grant instructed Oliver to meet with Cochise and discuss the possibility of a peace treaty to end the Apache Wars. They agreed to three key provisions:

  1. The site of a reservation in southeastern Arizona for the Chiricahua Apaches, with food and clothing to be furnished by the United States government.
  2. The appointment of Tom Jeffords, a close friend of Cochise, as the Indian Agent for the reservation. 
  3. The Apaches agreed to keep the roads open and safe, so settlers, miners, and merchants could move into and pass through southern Arizona.

The treaty was signed, ending hostilities between the Chiricahua Apaches and the United States. The Chiricahua Reservation was formally established on December 4, 1872, when President Grant signed an Executive Order.

Two years later, on June 8, 1874, Cochise died from illness. With his death, Agent Jeffords came under increased criticism and was eventually removed in 1875. 

Afterward, the Chiricahua Apaches were relocated to the San Carlos Reservation. This contributed to more hostilities between the United States and Apaches led by the warrior Geronimo, who was joined by Cochise’s son, Naiche.

Geronimo, Apache Warrior, 1887
Geronimo in 1887. Image Source: National Archives.

Geronimo Leads Apache Breakouts

In 1878, 1881, and 1885, Geronimo led Apache forces in breakouts from the reservation. Each time they carried out raids on Mexican and American settlements in Mexico and New Mexico. 

Following the 1885 breakout, General George Crook of the Department of Arizona send U.S. forces in pursuit of Geronimo. The troops were accompanied by Apache scouts, which outraged Geronimo, who continued to cross back and forth over the border to carry out raids in Mexico and the U.S. 

Both Mexican and U.S. forces pursued Geronimo, and the Mexican government placed a bounty on him. On January 9, 1886, American forces attacked Geronimo’s camp. In the aftermath, Geronimo agreed to meet with General Crook for negotiations.

Geronimo’s Surrender and the End of the Apache Wars

On March 29, 1886, Geronimo surrendered to General George Crook at Cañon de los Embudos, Mexico. However, Geronimo was told by one of the U.S. soldiers that as soon as he returned to the United States, there were plans to execute him and his men. Geronimo and his party escaped in the night.

General Philip Sheridan was outraged that General Crook and his men had allowed Cochise to escape. Crook, who supported Cochise, resigned and was replaced by General Nelson A. Miles.

Miles organized a military expedition to track down Geronimo. It was led by Captain Henry Lawton and Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood. Lawton was ordered to return Geronimo to the U.S., dead or alive. Gatewood, who spoke some of the Apache language, knew Geronimo.

Lawton and Gatewood were able to track Geronimo down at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, and convinced him to surrender on September 4, 1886. 

Geronimo, Naiche, and their men were taken to Fort Bowie. From there, they were sent east and eventually imprisoned at Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, Florida.

By 1894, many of the surviving Apaches, including Geronimo, had been relocated to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where they were officially held as prisoners of war. In 1905, Geronimo rode a horse in President Theodore Roosevelt’s Inaugural Parade. Afterward, he tried to convince Roosevelt to pardon the Apaches but Roosevelt refused

Geronimo died in February 1909, after he was thrown from his horse and contracted pneumonia. According to his nephew, his last words were, “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”

The last documented incident in the Apache Wars with the United States took place in 1924 when Apaches stole horses from Arizona settlers. The Apaches were captured and arrested.