The Apache wars were a series of conflicts between the Apache tribes and American settlers and military forces that lasted for decades in the latter half of the 19th century. The wars began due to encroachment of Apache lands by American settlers following the Mexican-American War and gold rush. Tensions escalated into violent conflicts as Americans forcibly removed Apaches from their lands. The Apache wars ended after over 30 years of fighting when the last free Apache bands were defeated by the U.S. military in the 1880s.
When did the Apache wars take place?
The Apache wars took place from the 1850s to the 1880s across Arizona, New Mexico, and Northern Mexico. There were different phases of the conflict with varying levels of warfare throughout this extended period. Some key dates and events include:
- Early 1850s: Initial conflicts arise between Apaches and American settlers migrating west.
- 1861-1863: Mangas Coloradas and Cochise lead attacks on settlers and stagecoaches.
- 1863: Kit Carson leads campaign to force the Mescalero Apaches into reservations.
- 1871-1873: Cochise agrees to peace and moves his Chiricahua Apache to a reservation.
- 1876: Skirmishes arise with Victorio’s band of Apaches.
- 1877-1880s: Final campaigns against Geronimo and other holdout Apache bands.
While there were occasional periods of peace, raiding, ambushes, and retaliation continued from the early 1850s until the final Apache holdouts were captured in the mid-1880s.
What caused the Apache wars?
There were several factors that led to the outbreak of the Apache wars:
- Westward expansion – The Mexican-American War ended in 1848 with the US taking control of the Southwest. The 1849 California Gold Rush also brought thousands of settlers west through Apache lands.
- Land encroachment – Settlers increasingly moved into traditional Apache territory in Arizona and New Mexico, disrupting their hunting grounds and livelihood.
- Cultural clashes – The nomadic Apache culture was very different from the American settlers. This led to misunderstandings and conflict.
- Treaty violations – Americans signed treaties to designate Apache territories, but often broke treaty terms and allowed further encroachment.
- Raids and retribution – Apaches raided settlements for cattle, provisions, and horses. Americans responded with violent punitive campaigns.
As American settlers and soldiers increasingly entered the Southwest, clashes were inevitable. Raids by Apaches and retaliation by Americans sparked cycles of violence that spiraled into prolonged war.
What Apache tribes were involved?
The main Apache tribes involved in the wars were:
- Chiricahua – Based in Arizona and New Mexico. Leaders included Cochise and Geronimo.
- Mescalero – Mainly in New Mexico. Fiercely resisted American encroachment.
- Western Apache – Groups in Arizona like the Tonto, White Mountain and Cibecue Apaches.
- Lipan – Smaller band that operated in Texas before being forced into New Mexico.
- Bedonkohe – Small band led by Mangas Coloradas that merged into larger tribes.
These tribes all used raiding and warfare to resist American expansion into their traditional lands. They fought both Mexican and American forces at different points during the Apache wars before being forced onto reservations.
Who were the main Apache leaders?
Some of the most prominent Apache leaders and war chiefs were:
- Mangas Coloradas – Influential Bedonkohe chief who led early campaigns before being killed in 1863.
- Cochise – Legendary Chiricahua chief who conducted decades of raids before agreeing to peace in 1872.
- Victorio – Prominent war leader of the Chihenne band who launched major campaigns across New Mexico.
- Geronimo – Famed medicine man who led the final band of Chiricahua holdouts until surrendering in 1886.
- Juh – Skilled Mescalero Apache leader who later joined Geronimo for final campaigns in the 1880s.
These strategic and charismatic leaders rallied Apache resistance and evaded capture for many years, fighting guerrilla campaigns against larger American forces.
What were the major conflicts and campaigns?
Some notable campaigns and battles during the Apache wars include:
|Bascom Affair and Battle of Apache Pass
|Cochise attacked after failed peace talk attempts, leading to escalation of warfare.
|Pinos Altos Gold Mine and Battle of Glorieta Pass
|Mangas Coloradas raids on gold mines provoked American retaliation.
|First Battle of Adobe Walls
|Kit Carson defeated Kiowa and Comanche Indians allied with Apaches.
|Cochise’s Stronghold Campaign
|Failed attempts by Americans to force Cochise into surrender.
|Victorio led bloody raids across New Mexico before being killed in Mexico.
|Geronimo’s Final Surrender
|Ended the Apache wars after Geronimo’s small band evaded 5,000 American troops.
These major campaigns demonstrate how Apache leaders like Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, Victorio, and Geronimo used guerrilla tactics to great effect against American forces for decades.
What were conditions like for Apache prisoners of war?
Conditions for Apaches taken as prisoners of war were often harsh:
- Forced marches: Captives were force-marched hundreds of miles to prisoner camps or reservations.
- Disease: Crowded camps had poor sanitation leading to outbreaks of disease.
- Abuse: Accounts exist of Apaches being beaten, chained, executed, or sold into slavery while held captive.
- Deprivation: Prisoners had inadequate food, clothing, and shelter.
- Family separation: Women and children were sometimes held separately from men.
One notorious incident was the Camp Grant massacre in 1871, when 144 Apache women and children were brutally killed by American settlers despite living peacefully under army protection.
Such mistreatment fueled Apache hatred and resistance against American forces. Even after surrender, imprisoned Apaches still suffered from cultural isolation, illness, and poverty on reservations.
How did the Apache wars end?
The Apache wars ended due to a combination of factors that finally crushed all Apache resistance:
- Extermination campaigns – Harsh military campaigns relentlessly pursued and eliminated pockets of resistance.
- Deprivation of resources – Destroying food sources like cattle and crops denied Apaches the ability to fight.
- Surrender of leaders – When leaders like Cochise and Geronimo finally surrendered, resistance crumbled.
- Pressure from other tribes – Apaches were forced from traditional havens by tribes like the Utes and Arapahos.
- Reservation confinement – Forced settlement of Apaches onto reservations destroyed their nomadic lifestyle.
By 1886, all the remaining Apache holdouts had surrendered or been killed. Over 4,000 Apache prisoners were confined to reservations in Arizona and New Mexico under military supervision, finally ending their armed resistance after decades of warfare.
What was the impact and legacy of the Apache wars?
The Apache wars left profound impacts and legacies on both sides:
- Ended Apache autonomy and freedom – Apache culture and way of life was devastated after centuries of independence.
- Native American defeat – The Apache defeat marked the end of major Indian military resistance to US expansion.
- Federal control of the Southwest – Defeating the Apaches enabled American settlement and control of the region.
- Advancement of US Army – Fighting Apaches gave experience to generals like Crook, Miles, and Mackenzie.
- Native American stereotypes – Negative stereotypes of Apaches as hostile savages arose during the wars.
- Lasting Apache grievances – Harsh treatment left lasting trauma and deep distrust toward white Americans.
The long and brutal Apache wars ultimately achieved the goal of destroying Apache power and removing them as an obstacle to American expansion. But it came at a great cost in lives lost on both sides and suffering that has not been forgotten.
The Apache wars represent decades of bloody conflict as American settlement clashed with Native resistance across the Southwest. Various Apache bands united under skilled leaders like Cochise and Victorio to fight against the loss of their homelands. After years of guerrilla raids and retaliation, the final Apache holdouts under Geronimo were defeated by 1886. The Apache tribes were confined to reservations, ending their traditional nomadic way of life. This crushing military defeat marked the end of major armed Native American resistance and enabled the United States to fully control and settle the Southwest region. While a decisive victory for American expansion, the wars also left a traumatic legacy for generations of Apaches that has not been forgotten.