The Hidden Apaches
(Apache Indians in the Mountains by Henry Farny ca 1900, Courtesy National Archives)
This post begins a series of historical stories about the Apaches hidden in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, some say to this day, and provides some of the historical background for the novel Knight’s Odyssey and a novel to follow.
The Apaches called the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico the “Blue Mountains”. There were several bands of Apaches who called the Blue Mountains home and in the early 1880s the camp of the strongest chief belonged to Juh (pronounced Whoa), chief of the Nednhi Apaches. Juh’s impregnable flattop mountain stronghold was on the eastern side of the Blue Mountains at about the same latitude as Casas Grandes in Chihuahua. Other Apache inhabitants of the Blue Mountains included, surprisingly, Mescalero Apaches. In 1880 the army assumed the Mescaleros were supplying the Mimbreño Apache, Victorio, who was raiding and killing on both sides of the border, with arms, ammunition, and men. There was a kernel of truth to the supposition, but extent of support was much smaller than the army believed. As a result, the army decided on a date certain and time of that day to appear at Mescalero from all directions, disarm and unhorse all the Mescaleros and keep them in a camp under strict guard until Victorio was run to ground. Besides killing a number of Mescaleros who tried to run, the army tried keeping the entire reservation in a horse corral covered with manure and no sanitary facilities. Many of the Mescaleros became desperately sick before they were all released into a heavily guarded camp. To escape being trapped and guarded on their own reservation, a number of Mescalero families managed to get away and hid with their Chiricahua brothers in Mexico. After the army left Mescalero, some families returned to the reservation others stayed in Mexico. The number of Mescalero Apaches who hid and stayed in the Blue Mountains after the death of Victorio is unknown. At the end of the Victorio and Geronimo wars there was steady commerce and communication between the Apaches on reservations in the United States and the Apache camps in the Blue Mountains.
Prior to 1883 the Apaches believed they were safe from attack by the Blue Coats when they were camped in Mexico. They made a number of camps in the mountains above Huachinera on the Rio Bavispe and south of Juh’s stronghold. To the north of Juh’s camp but below the border were a number of small camps scattered in the deep Blue Mountain canyons where water flowed and some were even on island like ridges where, high up out of the dry heat and low water on the dry plains below, big trees flourished, and wild game was abundant.
Geronimo and Natchez left the San Carlos Reservation in Sept. 1881, taking about 80 warriors with them. They returned to San Carlos in April 1882 for Loco and his band and shepherded about 700 men, women, and children off the reservation down into Mexico. There, in the camps in the Blue Mountains, the warriors raided all over the states of Sonora and Chihuahua leaving the San Bernardino and Bavispe Valleys desolate and the Mexican people afraid to work their fields in the day or go out of their jacals at night. General Crook made arrangements with the Mexican government for treaties and diplomats to look the other way while he took take fighting men into the Sierra Madre to bring back the Apaches hiding there to San Carlos. In one of the most daring military operations in the last two hundred years, Crook led fifty mounted soldiers and two hundred Apache Scouts into Mexico around the first of May in 1883 to bring the Apaches back to San Carlos in a “good way”. The Apache Scouts were not mounted. They typically ran down the valleys and over the mountains tracking the runaways and easily covering forty miles in a day before waiting in camp for the mounted soldiers and mule pack trains carrying supplies to straggle in to catch up with them. During the campaign they “mistakenly” attacked one camp in the Blue Mountains but under Crook’s close eye left the others alone. The Apaches in the Blue Mountains were stunned and disheartened by the appearance of Crook and his Scouts. Their own people had turned against them and they concluded there was no place they could hide to get away from the Blue Coats. Without anymore fighting, the Apaches, including Geronimo, Chihuahua, Loco, Chatto, and many other legendary warriors returned to the misery of the San Carlos Reservation.
When Geronimo finally surrendered to General Miles, Sept 4, 1886, no one knows how many Apaches including those that had already been there for years stayed behind in hidden Blue Mountain camps. Adelnietze, a proud, strong warrior and six others, for example, followed Geronimo to Skeleton Canyon to surrender, changed their minds and returned to Mexico where they survived in hidden camps and by occasional raids on Mexicans. Adelnietzi’s camp survived ten years before he and his warriors were finally killed in a Blue Coat ambush. Other Apaches who survived well into the twentieth century and continued to raid across the border included Natculbay (aka Jose Maria Elias) and his son Indio Juan (aka Apache John).
As the years passed raids across the border diminished, but raids by Apaches in Mexico continued. Even as late as 1950, there were areas in the Blue Mountains where most Mexicans feared to tread because they believed they might be attacked by Apaches. In 1937 the famous Norwegian ethnologist Helge Ingstad led a small expedition guided by the Geronimo’s old warrior Yanozhah deep into the Blue Mountains to search for the hidden Apaches. Ingstad claimed that he saw some at a distance but feared his photographing them would make them run or attack the little party. Ten years earlier, in 1927, Francisco Fimbres, his wife, six-year-old son, and baby daughter were ambushed by Apaches near the small village of Nacori Chico. In front of Fimbres who was carrying the family baby and following his wife and son on a high mountain trail, the Apaches attacked Fimbres wife, cut her throat, threw her off the trail down a cliff and stole the boy. It was an ill-timed act of revenge. Years earlier, Fimbres had captured an Apache girl named Lupe the Mexicans adopted. For the next two years following the murder of his wife and kidnapping of his son Fimbres spent every possible moment roaming the mountains without success for looking for the boy. Then he got lucky. But that’s a story for a later post.
We know these phantom Apaches had a number of camps scattered across the mountains in northern Chihuahua and Sonora, although the camps were relatively small. We know the records that exist of their attacks on travelers across the high mountain trails well into the twentieth century. We know of Apache children being taken by Mexican families as late as 1930, and we know of the stone wall shelters still standing in abandoned Sierra Madre Apache camps that Grenville Goodwin in the 1930s and later his son Neil found in the mid 1990s found and recorded. The old Apache way of life didn’t end with Geronimo’s surrender, but in fact continued well into the twentieth century. There is evidence to suggest that great grandchildren of the Sierra Madre Apaches, may still live in the high Blue Mountains. This series of essays will give a broad brush picture of what’s known of the life and times of the Sierra Madre Apaches.
Next Week: The Story of the Geronimo warrior Adelnietze
Most of the information presented here is from Chronicles of War by Berndt Kuhn, The Apache Indians by Helge Ingstad, The Apache Diaries by Neal Goodwin, and Adelnietzi’s Hit and Run Race with Death in True West Magazine, 5 June 2017.