Arizona: San Carlos Apache


The Apache are descendents of the Athabascan who migrated to the Southwest in the 10th century. Today most of the Apache live on five reservations, including three in Arizona (the Fort Apache, the San Carlos Apache, and the Tonto Apache reservations); and two in New Mexico (the Mescalero and the Jicarilla Apache reservations).  

The San Carlos Apache Reservation spans 1.8 million acres in eastern Arizona, with one-third of the land covered in forests and wooded areas.  


The Apache dominated much of northern Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas for hundreds of years. Some Apache lived in the mountains, while others lived on the plains. Some hunted big game, while others existed by farming or gathering wild plants. Their main shelter, a circular brush lodge with a fire at the center, fit their nomadic lifestyle. 

The Apache got their name from the Zuni word for “enemy.” They were in frequent conflict with the Pima, Papago and the Pueblo Indians as well as the Plains peoples. 

Clans, social units based on female-inherited leadership, were at the center of the Apache political and economic structure. The Apache had a series of great leaders who resisted colonial intrusion into their traditional territories far better than any other group of Native people in the Southwest. Examples include: 

COCHISE — 1812-1874

Born in Arizona in 1812, the son of a Chiricahua Apache chief, Cochise inherited the leadership of the Chiricahuas about 1850. The same year, by the Treaty of Guadalupe the United States took control over the territory that is present-day New Mexico and Arizona.

During the first years of American control all was quiet, but in 1858 the route of a transcontinental stage line was laid out across the Chiricahua territory. Cochise allowed the Butterfield Overland stage line to build a station at Apache Pass. He even agreed that his people could cut firewood for the station.

Fighting broke out in 1861 when a white rancher’s child was taken from a ranch near Ft. Buchanan. Cochise met with Lieutenant George Bascom at the Apache Pass station. Bascom surrounded the tent where they were meeting and accused the Apache chief of abducting the boy. Told that his family and he would be held prisoner until the child was freed, Cochise slashed through the tent and escaped. However, members of his family were held as prisoners. The Apache Wars began.

Cochise joined with Mangas Coloradas and led a guerilla campaign against U.S. and Mexican forces. After a major defeat where soldiers ripped through the Indians with shrapnel-loaded Howitzers, Cochise never again attempted a mass attack of the soldiers. He preferred to attack travelers, prospectors and settlers. No Apache band was ever conquered and the wars lasted ten long years.

Finally in 1872 Cochise concluded a peace treaty with General Oliver O. Howard. Cochise agreed to abstain from attacks in exchange for reservation land in eastern Arizona. For Cochise the peace did not last long. In 1874 he became ill and died within hours. Put to rest with full honors by his people, his burial spot has remained a secret.

MANGAS COLORADAS — (1791-1797?)-1863

Considered by many to be the most important Apache leader of the 19th century, Mangas Coloradas, which in Spanish means Red Sleeves, was a striking figure physically. Over 6 feet tall with a hulking body and disproportionately large head, Mangas Coloradas united the Apache nation against the United States.

During his lifetime he fought two great enemies, Mexico and the United States. He fought the Mexicans in the 1820s and 1830s. After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico was at war with the Apaches and by 1835 they put a bounty on Apache scalps. When the leader of the Mimbreno Apaches, Juan Jose Compas was killed for the bounty money in 1837, Mangas became leader and began a series of retaliatory raids against the Mexicans.

Mangas did seek peace. When the United States took over Apache territory in 1846, he signed a peace treaty with the U.S. and provided safe passage through his lands. Peace ended in the 1850s when gold miners arrived in the Santa Rita Mountains. In 1851 Mangas personally approached a group of miners and offered to lead them to another area. They tied him to a tree and severely beat him as a sign to other Indians to stay away. He survived the beating and the raids continued.

Developing an alliance with his son-in-law, Cochise, in 1861, the two tried to drive all of the Anglo Americans out of Apache territory. They did not succeed, but the Anglo American population was greatly reduced for a few years during the Civil War.

In the summer of 1862 Mangas Coloradas sought peace once more. He was only in middle age, but old physically, so he met with an intermediary to call for peace with the Americans. He decided to risk going in person to meet with military leaders to seek a peaceful solution. In January of 1863 he went to Pinos Altos to a council of peace. When Mangas arrived under a white flag of truce, armed soldiers came out from hiding and took the old warrior hostage. That night they shot and killed him, saying he had been "trying to escape." Adding to the treachery, the next day the soldiers cut off his head, boiled it and sent the skull to the Smithsonian. The Apaches would continue their fight against the United States for almost another quarter century.

VICTORIO — 1825-1880

Although he was considered one of the fiercest Apaches, Victorio desired to live in peace with the white settlers. As a young man he fought by the side of Mangas Coloradas and when Mangas was killed he became the leader of the Mimbreno Apaches who lived at Ojo Caliente (Warm Springs). In 1870 he agreed to live on a permanent reservation in Southwest New Mexico. When ordered to move to the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona in 1877, Victorio and his band submitted, but left behind a cache of hidden weapons. That fall he left that reservation, but agreed to go to the Mescalero Reservation.

In 1879 he fled once again, deciding a new judge and district attorney would try him for past crimes of killing and horse stealing. Additionally, promised food allotments from the U.S. government for his people were not forthcoming. At one time the Apaches had been allowed to hunt off the reservation, but settlers were afraid of the armed Indians and the practice was stopped.

For over a year Victorio and his band moved back and forth between the United States and Mexico conducting raids on settlers to stay alive. He eluded the armies of both countries so many times that one army official called him the "greatest Indian general who had ever appeared on the American continent." In 1880 the Mexican army trapped Victorio in the Tres Castillos Mountains. Two days of fighting ensued. When it was over Victorio lay dead along with 60 warriors and eighteen women and children. Sixty-eight women and children were taken prisoner.

GERONIMO - 1829-1909

Born Goyathlay (One Who Yawns) in present day Clifton, Arizona, Geronimo’s name has become synonymous with a battle charge cry. His childhood with the Apache tribe was peaceful and isolated from white settlers, but during his teenage years he joined Mangas Coloradas and Cochise in battles against the Mexicans.

In 1858 while trading in Mexico, his wife and three children and his mother were killed by Mexicans. To revenge his family he raided the Mexicans responsible for the murders. Some historians say that the raids are how he received the name by which history has come to know him. During the raids Mexican soldiers would call on St Jerome (Jeronimo or Geronimo in Spanish) to protect them.

In 1876 the U.S. government attempted to move the Chiricahua Apaches from their homeland to the San Carlos Reservation, but the Indians refused to relocate and many fled into Mexico. Over the next ten years Geronimo would go to the San Carlos Reservation several times. In 1886, General George Cook captured Geronimo in Mexico, but he fled with a small band of followers before their captors reached the Untied States border.

General Nelson Miles took over the pursuit of Geronimo and using 5000 white soldiers and 500 Indian auxiliaries would finally track down Geronimo in the Sonoran Mountains of Mexico. It took the army five months traveling 1645 miles before General Miles convinced Geronimo to surrender one last time. Miles promised the Apache warrior that he would spend only a short time in Florida and then be returned to Arizona, Geronimo agreed.

The promise was never kept. The Apaches were sent to Florida and then to Alabama where almost one quarter of their population died. Geronimo would never see Arizona again. He was finally sent to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma where he settled as a farmer. He took part in the inaugural procession of Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. He dictated his memoirs, Geronimo: His Own Story, published in 1906. He died of pneumonia in 1909.