Once upon a time, there were millions of Amerindians in North America of diverse cultures speaking a wide variety of languages and belonging to hundreds of different tribes and countless more clans. European pandemics decimated these populations at contact, and disease continued to take a toll centuries later, while the introduction of horses, firearms and alcohol irrevocably altered traditional lifeways for a continent-wide distribution of native peoples that pursued vastly different strategies in diverse environments. They had little in common except in the eyes of the white invaders who viewed them as an impediment to expansion, colonization and domination, so that by 1800 it is estimated there were only 600,000 Native Americans left. By the 1890s this number was a mere 250,000, and none of them lived free in their traditional societies. Today, most Americans only know of these largely extinct peoples from their caricatures as noble savages or bloodthirsty villains in the almost entirely mythical universe of the classic Hollywood western. Still, these films were so effective that many of the characters they popularized – Apaches like Cochise, Geronimo, and The Apache Kid, and whites in their orbit such as Kit Carson, Tom Horn and General George Crook – even if thoroughly fictionalized for the big screen, became nevertheless indelibly etched in our cultural memory. Thus, it is especially welcome to come to Paul Andrew Hutton’s stirring historical narrative, The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History, which resurrects the actual people and events, and way of life, so long buried in fanciful myth.
Population pressures had once driven a loose coalition of peoples known as Apaches into the Southwest. Like many native peoples, they operated without central authority, and despite relationships that implied far more significance to European observers than it did to them, tribes and clans occupied different geographies with diverse lifeways and were frequently hostile to one another with deeply embedded blood feuds. There were six major Apache-speaking groups: Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan, Mescalero, Plains Apache, and Western Apache, with many sub-groups and clans within these, all politically autonomous. Some of them made their way by raiding the settled agricultural peoples on both sides of the border between Mexico and the territories belonging to the United States that later would become Arizona and New Mexico, stealing cattle, horses and even people to be sold into slavery. For the Apache, Hutton underscores, raiding was distinct from warfare; there were sometimes casualties as a by-product of raids, but killing was not the intention.
Yet, Hutton, professor of history at the University of New Mexico and the executive director of Western History Association, does not romanticize his subjects. The Apache were fearsome and often brutal warriors, who frequently tortured their prisoners to death in horrific ways, such as staking them to anthills with their mouths propped open, flaying them alive, suspending them upside down with hot coals beneath their heads [p12], and tying them to burning wagons [p47]. Apaches were also sometimes known for murdering women and children, even in one report shooting down a pregnant woman with a baby in her arms and then bashing the infant’s head against a wall [p374]. But they had no monopoly on barbarism, as the deeds of a single clan or even a lone Apache were commonly taken as license by Mexicans and Americans alike to slaughter unrelated bands of men, women and children in retaliation. Scalping was initially not common among the Apache, who considered contact with the dead taboo, but Europeans turned scalps into currency for bounties, sometimes with the ears attached [p12-16]. General George Crook, who was actually a less barbarous adversary than many in the long war chronicled in this volume, leaned to the medieval by collecting entire heads and mounting them on posts for prominent display in camp.
The Apache Wars is a long, complicated yet generally fast-moving narrative of how random clashes between Apaches and American settlers in the Southwest ignited a lengthy, vicious conflict and ultimately ended up with the virtual annihilation of the Apache and the deportation of pockets of survivors. It began with the unlikely spark of the kidnapping of a red-haired one-eyed boy, Felix Ward, child of a Mexican woman and adopted son of a white settler whose ranch was preyed upon by Apache raiders (“the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History” in the subtitle). Felix, raised by Indians, grows up to be an amoral Apache scout in service of the U.S. Cavalry named Mickey Free, who as the book’s protagonist is emblematic of the phantom potential for assimilation among hostile forces that never really could be. Because all Indians were viewed through a single lens by their white adversaries, Apaches that settled into peaceful lifeways were randomly punished as severely as those who continued to raid. Likewise, to those who refused to capitulate, the “White Eyes” were reviled as one indistinguishable force, although this hatred was rightly fueled by the almost unimaginable lengths of treachery those whites were willing to stoop to in order to prevail. The legendary Cochise was invited to a parlay where he barely escaped assassination. The great chief Mangas Coloradas was taken prisoner, then taunted and executed. He was scalped, and then his head was boiled so the skull could be taken as trophy, later gifted to a famed phrenologist [p101-02]. A famous mystic, Nock-ay-det-klinne, known as “the Dreamer,” who preached peace between the Apache and the whites, was held in great suspicion and eventually executed without cause by soldiers [p280]. Every agreement made with the Apaches was violated, and as elsewhere in the expanding United States, Native Americans humbled and forced into reservations fared no better than those who would fight to the last warrior.
There were some whites who were sympathetic to the Apache cause, including the famous scout Kit Carson, frontiersman Tom “Taglito” Jeffords and famed Civil War General O.O. Howard. There was often paternalism, but there was too an attempt at fairness and a sense of justice. These men were a distinct minority. Some, like Indian agent John Clum, began with humanitarian ideals that sought to improve the often deplorable conditions in reservations, but ego and ambition got the better of him as he failed to recognize the inherent inhumanity of reservations as essentially concentration camps that were breeding grounds for disease and drunkenness. Nor did he account for the explosive nature of settling hostile tribes juggling long-simmering blood feuds within the same geography. His intentions hardly averted the disaster that his efforts were to spawn. Others, like Crook, took a more brutal approach but yet did not do so out of unclean motives; the Apache scouts that Mickey Free joined as a wing of the cavalry was a Crook innovation. But most whites, soldiers and settlers alike, simply sought the extermination of the Apache and showed little reluctance in their single-minded pursuit of that goal.
What brings great beauty to the narrative of The Apache Wars is the tapestry of anecdotal tales that serve the study of history so much more admirably than the tedious concatenation of names and dates that often bog down other works. There are two that are highly symbolic. In the first, we learn that Agent Clum had created a tribal police force at his San Carlos reservation, and that a Tonto chief named Des-a-lin, angry at a public rebuke from Clum for beating his wives, seeks revenge. Des-a-lin “. . . found Clum in his office and attempted to shoot him but was instead shot dead by his own brother – the police officer Tauelclyee. As the two men looked down at Des-a-lin’s body, Tauelclyee absentmindedly stroked his smoking rifle and said: ‘I have killed my own chief and my own brother. But he was trying to kill you, and l am a policeman. It was my duty.’ Clum warmly clasped his hand and assured the distraught man that what he had done was right, and that they would remain forever brothers and friends.” [p196] In the second, we follow the tragic attempts of Aravaipa chief Eskiminzin to cement peace with the whites, as he is twice betrayed and his people massacred. “Eskiminzin rode to a nearby ranch owned by Charles McKinney, a thirty-five-year-old Irish immigrant . . . McKinney had long been a friend to Eskiminzin . . . The Irishman invited his old friend in to supper, and after dinner they sat together on the porch to smoke and talk of the troubling times. When the last smoke was put out, Eskiminzin rose, thanked his friend for his hospitality, pulled his revolver, and shot him dead at point-blank range. He then rode off into the mountains. “I did it to teach my people that there must be no friendship between them and the white man,” Eskiminzin sadly explained. ‘Anyone can kill an enemy, but it takes a strong man to kill a friend.’” [p140-41]
There is little tedium in Hutton’s exciting narrative, punctuated with much color and a plethora of blood and tears on both sides. The Bedonkohe called Goyahkla that the Mexicans dubbed Geronimo deservedly has a central role in the story, and tragically all Apaches were afforded disproportionate punishment in retaliation for his depredations, both real and imagined, although he was an especially cruel and brutal fellow. In the end too, all Apaches paid the price of being indigenous Native Americans in the way of white colonizers, first forced into reservations in often dehumanizing conditions and then deported vast distances from their homeland in order to make way for more white settlements. Apache scouts assisting the cavalry, tribal police forces, peaceful reservation Indians – none fared any better and most fared far worse than the murderous Geronimo, who was to unpredictably ride in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade and to die an old man in his bed.
No review could properly cover all of the ground in this fine history. I received an uncorrected proof of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program, with blank pages reserved for maps that I much yearned to peruse. I also would have appreciated a biographical index of key individuals, since there are so many characters that populate the narrative over the decades. There are a few things I would take issue with: it is possible but probably unlikely that all of the key female characters were in fact “beautiful” as Hutton reports. And there may have been some exaggeration in his effort to tie a number of well-known key events to his narrative, as he does in his attempt to link hostilities here with the birth of the Pony Express, which I judge to be stretching it a bit [p58-59]. But these are no more than quibbles in what otherwise deserves large measures of praise.
As Americans of the twenty-first century try to come to grips with the mass extermination of the aboriginal peoples that were the original occupants of these lands, it is most instructive to look to the existential sentiment attributed to General Phillip Sheridan – who makes an appearance in The Apache Wars – that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” that some maintain is a corruption of “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” but which hardly alters the principle. And it was a surprisingly common one among Americans of that era, even by allegedly more enlightened thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt, who despite later including Geronimo in that inaugural parade nevertheless plucked that theme with great vigor in an 1886 speech when he said that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are . . . And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” The Apache Wars is a blueprint for how this conviction effected an obliteration of an entire people in just one corner of the United States.