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Victorio Fought to the Death for Homeland
By Michelle Connell and Silvia Moreno
The Zuni called them "Apache," meaning "enemy." They called themselves "Nde" or "the people." The Chiricahuas, one of six regional groups of Apaches, were mainly hunters and supplemented their diet with cacti, fruits and other wild plants. They had battled the Spanish, the Mexicans and, finally, the white settlers who increasingly encroached upon their hunting grounds. They protected their mountain territories with their great warrior skills and the guidance of several brave leaders, among them Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo, Cochise and Victorio.
The origins of Victorio, like other legendary men, are controversial. Beduiat, his Apache name, was presumably born in the Black Range area of Southern New Mexico around 1825. However, Mexican legend says that he was born in Chihuahua, then kidnapped and raised by Apaches. His Apache family, along with prominent experts Eve Ball and Dan Thrapp, negate this theory, stating that Victorio was pure Apache.
In 1837, Mimbreño Apache leader Mangas Coloradas combined his band with the Warm Springs Apaches on the Gila River in Southwestern New Mexico in an attempt to gain a peaceful life for his people. After the death of Mangas Coloradas in 1863, Victorio echoed his cry for peace and humane treatment of the Apaches.
On Nov. 1865, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Lt. Col. N. H. Davis, held a conference in Piños Altos, N. M. with several tribal leaders, including Victorio. A war, led by Mangas Coloradas' nephew, Cochise, was well underway, and Davis intended to convince the Apaches to move calmly to Bosque Redondo in Southern New Mexico. Davis promised to supply them with enough food and clothing if they agreed to the relocation, or they would endure a continuing war.
In his book on the Apaches, Donald Worcester quotes Victorio as saying, "I and my people want peace … we have little for our families to eat and wear … we want a lasting peace, one that will keep. We would like to live in our country, and will go onto a reservation where the government may put us, and those who do not come, we will go and help fight them."
In 1870, after several requests by Victorio, President Ulysses S. Grant set aside a reservation for them at Ojo Caliente, or Warm Springs, their favorite area in Southern New Mexico, north of present-day Truth or Consequences. Ball tells us that it was a much smaller area than what Victorio considered Warm Spring territory, but he agreed peacefully, claiming it the ancestral homeland of the Warm Spring Apaches.
Ball wrote that with that agreement came a promise of the reservation belonging to the tribe "for as long as the mountains stand and the rivers exist" in the form of an Executive Order signed by Grant. However, in 1871, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Vincent Coyler ordered Victorio to take his people to the Tularosa River Valley instead. Coyler informed Victorio that a new Executive Order repossessed the land for public domain.
Throughout the 1870s, the Apaches were moved from place to place. One reservation in particular, San Carlos, located in Southern Arizona, proved unbearable for the Apaches. Miserable living conditions along with forced cohabitation with Indians from unfriendly tribes spelled trouble.
Victorio's people returned to Warm Springs under military command. Historians Ruth Boyer and Narcissus Gaytan explain that early in 1873, the Apaches planted corn, squash, beans and other crops, making an authentic effort to abide by the rules and suggestions of the white man. Men performed the manual labor in the fields, while women planted seeds and wove.
In 1874, J. P. Clum, ambitious and desirous of power, became Indian agent at San Carlos Reservation, determined to force the Apaches under his rule. In 1876, he began bringing all Apache bands to San Carlos and once again, Victorio and his band were ordered to return to Arizona.
In 1877, the government ordered the removal of Victorio's people from Warm Springs at a time when their crops were just beginning to ripen. Ball wrote that the government threatened the Apaches by telling them any male old enough to bear arms found off the reservation would be shot without being given a chance to surrender.
At San Carlos, Victorio's people were assigned to Old Camp Goodwin, near present day Fort Thomas, Ariz. Worcester describes Camp Goodwin as unhealthful area where the Apaches soon had to deal with malaria. Conditions were deplorable in San Carlos: there was no food, no grass, no game and no water. Insects and heat were terrible.
Making matters worse, the government did not supply the promised food allotments, bringing the Apaches to near starvation.
And finally, by 1877, Yavapai and Tonto, White Mountain and Cibique Apaches joined them, crowding the reservation now holding 5,000 people.
Unable to stand the subhuman conditions imposed upon them, Victorio and 300 followers slipped away on Sept. 2, 1877. For the next three years, Victorio rode in Mexico, Texas and New Mexico. While in Texas, his band stayed between Fort Davis and El Paso.
In February 1879, Victorio once more asked for permission to settle at Warm Springs; instead, the government sent his band to the Mescalero Reservation, where they lived peacefully for seven months. Hearing that authorities in Silver City had charged him with murder and horse theft, Victorio and his band fled to the Guadalupe Mountains where they joined other disgruntled Mescalero and Chiricahua raiders. The two members of tribe Victorio relied on most were his sister Lozen, whose hands would throb and her palms change color when they were pointed at the enemy, and Nana, his predecessor, who located and captured ammunition trains. He was the best strategist of the Warm Spring Apache warriors, according to Worcester.
In 1880, Victorio made his way to Mexico, crossing the border in June. His hope was that the wilderness of Chihuahua would offer refuge and nourishment for his tired band, consisting of only 100 men and 400 women and children. Riding up and down the Rio Grande Valley, Victorio appeared abruptly between Socorro, Silver City and El Paso, making these roads very unsafe for settlers.
Colonel Edward Hatch in New Mexico, Colonel Benjamin Henry Grierson in Texas and General Geronimo Treviño in Chihuahua mounted campaigns against Victorio, but he eluded them all. The war against Victorio was a challenging one; it was fought mostly by Buffalo Soldiers who lost many of their number to Victorio's hit-and-run tactics. His guerilla warriors ran the Army into the ground and won one battle after another. The American military never could capture him, but the Mexicans did.
On Oct. 15, 1880, the Mexican Army, commanded by Colonel Joaquin Terrazas, located and cornered Victorio and his band in the Tres Castillos Mountains, Chihuahua, about 70 miles south of El Paso. At the time, the band was scattered, with most of the men looking for ammunition and others hunting for food. In the ensuing two-day battle, about 80 Apaches died and 78 women and children taken prisoner. Victorio reportedly was among the dead.
Just as his birth is controversial, so is his death. Apache chronicler Eve Ball wrote that although a Tarahumara Indian named Mauricio Corredor claimed to be Victorio's killer, the Apaches maintained that their chief died by falling on his own knife. This theory is consistent with the kind of man Victorio was, according to Bill Boehm, a curator of the Rio Grande Historical Collections at the New Mexico State University Library. Victorio fought to the last for the preservation of his people because there was no other recourse.
Still another theory involves a miner in the Florida Mountains near Deming, New Mexico, who is said to have shot an Indian on a white horse during a battle. Historian Marc Simmons wrote that when this Indian fell, the others picked him up and threw him on his horse as they all departed, very strange behavior because Apaches never stopped fighting because of a wounded man. Some say this was Victorio, who indeed rode a white horse.
Although early pioneers in Texas and New Mexico saw Victorio as a marauding killer, he is remembered as a hero by his people for his unwavering stand against the government's broken promises and his fight to remain in his homeland.
Today, some 30,000 Apaches living in the United States are recognized and live on reservations in Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma, forming a closed society where ancestral life flourishes as does their native language. Education, pensions and health services are now available to them, and they support themselves by running cattle and lumber companies, resorts and casinos.
El Pasoans are familiar with the Mescalero Apaches who live south of Ruidoso and who have been successful for several decades with their ski and vacation resort and casino. They are in the process of building an even larger and more luxurious complex and now enjoy the peace for which their ancestors like Victorio fought.
- Eve Ball's Apache Voices