The Path to Hembrillo

Victorio and the Warm Springs People

Portrait of Victorio (Bidu-ya), Warm Springs Apache Chief and Diplomat. Photo from HistoryNet.

The old chief [Victorio] was probably the best general ever produced by the Apache tribe. He was a far better captain than Geronimo ever was, and capable of commanding a much larger force of men. His second in command was Nana, also a very capable officer. While on scouts after Victorio’s band I met many United States officers, and often around the camp-fire we discussed the old chief. The soldiers all agreed that for an ignorant Indian, Victorio displayed great military genius, and Major McGonnigal declared that, with the single exception of Chief Crazy Horse of the Sioux, he considered Victorio the greatest Indian general who had ever appeared on the American continent.      

Thus wrote Texas Ranger James Gillett, and many others felt likewise. Victorio was arguably one of the best diplomats in Apache history. Ninth Cavalry Commander Colonel Edward Hatch described him – as well as Nana [/nah-NAY/] – as a good friend and supported Victorio’s desire to keep his people at Ojo Caliente. Jason Betzinez, a Warm Springs contemporary of Victorio who was with Geronimo’s group at his surrender, writes about Victorio and Nana:

I had known both these chiefs since my earliest childhood. They had fought under Chief Roan Shirt (Mangas Colorado). Victorio, together with Loco, had succeeded to the chieftainship of the Warm Springs Band. In our opinion he stood head and shoulders above the several war chiefs such as Mangas, Cochise, and Geronimo who have bigger names with the white people.

Loco, Warm Springs Apache Chief, published 1884. Photo from the Library of Congress.
Mangas Colorado, Warm Springs Apache Chief, published 1884. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Victorio was one of two main leaders of the Warm Springs people during the period when they were being relocated to Arizona – Loco was the other – and while this article focuses on the experiences of Victorio and his band, Loco played an integral role in the events leading to the battle in the San Andres mountains at Hembrillo. Loco and his band moved to Arizona and largely remained at San Carlos, however, so were not pursued during those violent years of 1879-1880. Both men came to lead their bands through strength of character and their ability to make decisions beneficial to all, not through any hereditary means common to the European immigrants to North America who would later come into conflict with them. As such, there was no central “chief” through which negotiations and treaties could be signed and which would be binding to all, another aspect of Native culture confusing to the new immigrants moving onto their lands.

Range of Chiricahua Apache Territory in the Mid-19th Century. Map created using the USGS National Map.

The Apache people had a long history of conflict in the American southwest, with short periods of relative peace. Dan Thrapp writes:

Teodoro de Croix, commander general of the interior provinces of New Spain from 1776 to 1783, all but brought peace to that troubled frontier, although weighted with problems, a shortage of manpower, and chronic lack of funds. He reported that the war with the Apaches generally began in 1748 in Nueva Vizcaya, the territory that included modern Chihuahua and some bordering lands, and continued intermittently from that time forward. Even earlier it had become endemic to Sonora, although a troubled peace was established now and then at Janos, in western Chihuahua, and other centers; such intervals were never of long duration. In 1777 Croix reported that the Apaches were over-running Sonora “with impunity,” horse herds were swept off regularly, and presidio garrisons hard put to defend their posts and herds, let along engage in punitive expeditions. All of the road from Fronteras to Janos, crossing a principal Apache raiding route, was “exposed to the most serious blows of the Gila Apaches.”

Commandant General Jacobo Ugarte followed De Croix from 1786 to 1791 and had limited success, being the first to use “friendly” Chiricahua as scouts to locate those who raided and fought. In 1787, up to 800 Warm Springs Apache were living in western Nueva Vizcaya, but eventually fled. However, within a decade many groups were living in northern Chihuahua in what could be called a reservation system, trading with local inhabitants – up to 2,000 Apache lived near the Janos Presidio until around 1821 and Mexican independence. Independence changed everything, however, as presidios were closed and their garrisons moved south to the interior of the country. The result was a reduction in provisioning and rations for those Apache who had maintained peace and become comfortable with the acquisition of horses and goods from the Spanish. Once this disappeared, raiding – and conflict – began again, with the frontier in chaos by Mexico’s independence in 1821. This was the world Victorio was born into, around the year 1825.

Little is known about Victorio’s youth, but an event on April 22, 1837 probably affected him greatly, as he possibly witnessed it or heard it discussed many times. American John Johnson, who was on friendly terms with Nednhi Apache Chief Juan Jose Compa, entered Compa’s camp in New Mexico’s Animas Mountains. Detonating a sealed cannon hidden under blankets, he killed over 20 Apache men, women and children. Johnson was one of the first of several Americans who went south to work for the government of Mexico as bounty-hunters. The government of Sonora had enacted an extermination policy against the Apache, paying 100 pesos per scalp for men. The state of Chihuahua soon enacted the same policy, adding an additional 50 pesos for women and 25 for children. Johnson and his men took the scalps to the city of Janos, Mexico where they presented them to the military commander. One of the survivors of the massacre was a man named Fuerte, later known as Mangas Coloradas (or Colorado).

The year 1846 saw the slaughter of over 130 Chiricahua Apache in Galeana, Chihuahua, Mexico, led by American James Kirker. A celebration of “eternal peace” was held with much drinking on all sides. With the Apache inebriated, Kirker and his men attacked their encampment outside town – slaughtering all they could find. Kirker and his men then marched their “grand procession” of scalps to Chihuahua City where a celebration was held. A visitor from England who witnessed the event wrote:

The enraged Chiricahua held a council to plan retribution. Among those attending was Mangas Coloradas’ son-in-law, Cochise. They then attacked throughout northern Mexico. In 1849 the government of Chihuahua enacted the “Fifth Law,” which upped the reward to “200 pesos for each warrior killed, 250 for each taken prisoner, and 150 for a female captive or Indian child.” The proof was a scalp, and even Mexicans were being killed for their hair by bounty hunters. In 1851, Sonoran militiamen again attacked an encampment outside Janos, Chihuahua, killing all who were there—men, women, and children. A survivor, who returned to find his family slaughtered, was a young Chiricahua named Goyahkla, or Geronimo.

Contact between the Warm Springs people and American traders had been sporadic from Mexican independence until the outbreak of the US war with Mexico; the first contact with American troops in 1846 changed the dynamic of Apache life in the borderlands. This occurred near present-day Silver City where Mangas Coloradas and some of his band met with Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearney, Topographical Surveyor Lieutenant William Emory and one of Kearney’s scouts, Kit Carson.  The period immediately after that first encounter until about 1860 was one of relative peace – at least regarding the Warm Springs people. Other Apache bands continued to regularly raid into Mexico, but the attempted establishment of a temporary reservation and placement of Indian Agents in the area allowed for at least some sense of trust to develop among the Apache and the Americans.

A group of Coyotero Apache with an agent (back row, third from the right) dispatched by the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Camp Apache, Arizona, 1873. Photo from the National Archives.

John Coffee “Jack” Hays was named the sub-agent for the Gila area but was unsuccessful in his attempts to contact the Apache living in the region due to wariness caused by increased Mexican raiding. John Russell Bartlett met with Mangas in 1852, while his United States Boundary Commission was in the area, and found him “a man of strong common sense, and discriminate judgement,” and wrote, suggesting:

The establishment of an Indian Agent at the Copper Mines…; also the assembling of the chiefs, at once, and the distribution among the tribes of presents to the value of $4,000 to $5,000 with a promise that if they continued faithful, to make them yearly presents of clothing and corn, until they were able to sustain themselves…to carry out the object proposed, there would be required an appropriation of about $25,000…

The monies recommended were to pay the cost of an Agent, as well as all stock and materials required for the establishment of an Agency on the Mimbres River. Bartlett’s recommendation was adopted and by 1853 the best agent the Warm Springs people ever had arrived – Dr. Michael Steck. Steck arrived just after a “provisional compact” had been agreed to, with twelve chiefs and sub-chiefs of the Apache – including Victorio – placing their “X” on the document and the Treaty of Santa Fe, ratified by the US Senate on 23 March 1853, took effect and was later delivered to the Apache in southern New Mexico.

Ratified Indian Treaty 261: Apache – Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, July 1, 1852. Images from the National Archives Catalog.

Treaty With the Apache, 1852

July 1, 1852. | 10 Stat., 979. | Ratified Mar. 23, 1853. | Proclaimed Mar. 25, 1853.

Articles of a treaty made and entered into at Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the first day of July in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty-two, by and between Col. E. V. Sumner, U. S. A., commanding the 9th Department and in charge of the executive office of New Mexico, and John Greiner, Indian agent in and for the Territory of New Mexico, and acting superintendent of Indian affairs of said Territory, representing the United States, and Cuentas, Azules, Blancito, Negrito, Capitan Simon, Captain Vuelta, and Mangus Colorado, chiefs, acting on the part of the Apache Nation of Indians, situate and living within the limits of the United States.

Said nation or tribe of Indians through their authorized Chiefs aforesaid do hereby acknowledge and declare that they are lawfully and exclusively under the laws, jurisdiction, and government of the United States of America, and to its power and authority they do hereby submit.

From and after the signing of this Treaty hostilities between the contracting parties shall forever cease, and perpetual peace and amity shall forever exist between said Indians and the Government and people of the United States; the said nation, or tribe of Indians, hereby binding themselves most solemnly never to associate with or give countenance or aid to any tribe or band of Indians, or other persons or powers, who  may be at any time at war or enmity with the government or people of said United States.

Said nation, or tribe of Indians, do hereby bind themselves for all future time to treat honestly and humanely all citizens of the United States, with whom they have intercourse, as well as all persons and powers, at peace with the said United States, who may be lawfully among them, or with whom they may have any lawful intercourse.

All said nation, or tribe of Indians, hereby bind themselves to refer all cases of aggression against themselves or their property and territory, to the government of the United States for adjustment, and to conform in all things to the laws, rules, and regulations of said government in regard to the Indian tribes.

Said nation, or tribe of Indians, do hereby bind themselves for all future time to desist and refrain from making any “incursions within the Territory of Mexico” of a hostile or predatory character; and that they will for the future refrain from taking and conveying into captivity any of the people or citizens of Mexico, or the animals or property of the people or government of Mexico; and that they will, as soon as possible after the signing of this treaty, surrender to their agent all captives now in their possession.

Should any citizen of the United States, or other person or persons subject to the laws of the United States, murder, rob, or otherwise maltreat any Apache Indian or Indians, he or they shall be arrested and tried, and upon conviction, shall be subject to all the penalties provided by law for the protection of the persons and property of the people of the said States.

The people of the United States of America shall have free and safe passage through the territory of the aforesaid Indians, under such rules and regulations as may be adopted by authority of the said States.

In order to preserve tranquility and to afford protection to all the people and interests of the contracting parties, the government of the United States of America will establish such military posts and agencies, and authorize such trading houses at such times and places as the said government may designate.

Relying confidently upon the justice and the liberality of the aforesaid government, and anxious to remove every possible cause that might disturb their peace and quiet, it is agreed by the aforesaid Apache’s that the government of the United States shall at its earliest convenience designate, settle, and adjust their territorial boundaries, and pass and execute in their territory such laws as may be deemed conducive to the prosperity and happiness of said Indians.

For and in consideration of the faithful performance of all the stipulations herein contained, by the said Apache’s Indians, the government of the United States will grant to said Indians such donations, presents, and implements, and adopt such other liberal and humane measures as said government may deem meet and proper.

This Treaty shall be binding upon the contracting parties from and after the signing of the same, subject only to such modifications and amendments as may be adopted by the government of the United States; and, finally, this treaty is to receive a liberal construction, at all times and in all places, to the end that the said Apache Indians shall not be held responsible for the conduct of others, and that the government of the United States shall so legislate and act as to secure the permanent prosperity and happiness of said Indians.

In faith whereof we the undersigned have signed this Treaty, and affixed thereunto our seals, at the City of Santa Fé, this the first day of July in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty-two.

E. V. Sumner, [SEAL.]
Bvt. Col. U. S. A. commanding Ninth Department
In charge of Executive Office of New Mexico.

John Greiner, [SEAL.]
Act. Supt. Indian Affairs, New Mexico.

Capitan Vuelta, his x mark [SEAL.]
Cuentas Azules, his x mark [SEAL.]
Blancito ——, his x mark [SEAL.]
Negrito ——, his x mark [SEAL.]
Capitan Simon, his x mark [SEAL.]
Mangus Colorado, his x mark [SEAL.]


F. A. Cunningham, Paymaster, U. S. A.
J. C. McFerran, 1st Lt. 3d Inf. Act. Ast. Adj. Gen.
Caleb Sherman.
Fred. Saynton.
Chas. McDougall, Surgeon, U. S. A.
S. M. Baird.

Witness to the signing of Mangus Colorado:

John Pope, Bvt. Capt. T. E.

The compact with the Warm Springs Apache the previous year, with the government providing supplies and land for farming if they ceased their raiding and fighting, and the Treaty of Santa Fe were important agreements. Historian Dan Thrapp writes, “The chronic state of hostility improved dramatically with the 1852 Treaty, which the Apaches obviously took seriously and whose terms they meant to keep.” Regardless, the 1852 compact was the first mention of Victorio in an official capacity. In mid-1853, Agent Steck wrote a letter to Territorial Governor William Clark Lane, stating:

The feeding of the Gila Apaches is the only means of preserving peace. Their immense numbers, the scarcity of Game, and the great disproportion between the number of men and that of women and children renders it entirely out of their power to support themselves from hunting.

The issue of food was to come up again the following year, when Steck again described the conditions the Apache faced:

Dr. Steck outlines the Indians food cycle: the game was scant and during summer and early fall they resorted to mescal, acorns, juniper berries and, when these were exhausted, devoured their horses and mules. When the animals were consumed, they must steal or starve until the following summer – and they would not willingly starve. “If we wish to maintain peace with those Indians we must feed them a portion of the year. I look upon that as the only means of preventing depredations. Reverse our positions, place the white man in a starving condition, and I doubt whether he would consult the right to property more than the Indian.

A group of Apache at Camp Apache, Arizona, preparing to receive the provisions promised by various treaties with the US government, 1871. Photograph by Timothy H. O’Sullivan. National Archives photo.

In 1855, New Mexico Territorial Governor David Meriwether attempted to negotiate another treaty, this time specifically with the Warm Springs and Mescalero peoples in which they would give up a large portion of their lands. The treaty failed to be ratified by the Senate, in large part due to suspicions that immense mineral resources existed on the lands designated as reservations for the tribes. The period from 1855 to 1860 saw an increase in hostility as more settlers moved into traditional Apache lands; the number of attacks on peaceful Apache parties grew, as depredations by white and Mexican settlers in the areas were usually blamed on Apache raiders.

An unprovoked attack on a peaceful village greatly angered many Apache, and the discovery of gold at Pinos Altos brought a rush of settlers – including many Texans – into the area. These new arrivals from Texas had no tolerance for the Apache and believed they should be exterminated. Warm Springs Chief Mangas Coloradas desperately attempted diplomacy throughout this time — trying to ensure the treaty conditions were fulfilled by his people — but was lured into Pinos Alto by miners under the pretense of a friendship agreement, tied to a tree and flogged, then released. This act inflamed not only the Warm Springs people but also Apache throughout the southwest.

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