The Hidden Apaches: The Story of the Fimbres Tragedy

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(Apache Women, Photograph by Edward Curtis ca. 1906, Courtesy National Archives)

This post continues 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.

On 15 October 1927 Francisco Fimbres with his wife Maria Dolores, two year-old daughter Vicki, and three year-old son, Gerardo were riding horses on winding mountain trails from their home in Nácori Chico to Piños Altos, a settlement at the site of a gold mine twenty-five miles away. The Fimbres are a growing family. Maria was pregnant with their fourth child and they had left their infant, Soledad at home. Maria Dolores rode carrying Gerardo; Francisco rode with Vicki. Maria’s horse began to tire six miles from Nácori Chico. Francisco traded horses with her so she wouldn’t have to walk. Leading Maria’s horse, he carried Vicki in his arms. Francisco was armed with a rifle but it was in a scabbard on his horse being ridden by Maria Dolores who rode about a hundred feet ahead of Francisco. Not far from where the couple exchanged horses, the trail made a tight turn to the right around a sharp ridge. As Maria Dolores approached the turn Apache women suddenly appeared from hiding, grabbed the reins of her course, snatched Gerardo out of her arms, pulled her out of the saddle, repeatedly stabbed her, slit her throat, tossed her body into the ravine by the trail, and disappeared with Gerardo. It all happened fast with little sound. Francisco saw it all, but was helpless to prevent it. He was unarmed and had two year-old Vicki in his arms. He knew that if he had tried to help they all might have been killed. As soon as the Apaches were out of sight he hid Vicki in some bushes, mounted his horse and rode for help from some cowboys just below the road to get help. The cowboys and Francisco are fast to look everywhere near the murder and kidnapping but the boy and Apaches have vanished. After that Francisco Fimbres wore a black hatband and a black armband, and he was consumed with a need for revenge.

Friends and relatives accompanied Fimbres for the next two years on nine expeditions into the Sierra Madre to find Gerardo and avenge the murder of Maria Dolores. Combing the Sierra Madre they never saw any Apaches. Fimbres had numerous talks with Lupe, the young Apache woman he took in an attack on an Apache camp ten years earlier and raised from the age of about fifteen. She helped look after his children. Lupe begged Francisco to go slow and give the Apache women time to grow attached to Gerardo, but the fire of revenge burns too brightly in his mind for him to listen.

In a rugged Sierra Madre pass between Sonora and Chihuahua on a cold January day in 1929, Fimbres met Gilberto Valenzuela, candidate for President of Mexico and Ricardo Topete, senator from Sonora. They camped together that night and sitting by the fire with hot cups of coffee in their hands, Fimbres tells his story. The well-known and influential men were deeply moved by Francisco’s story and soon persuaded the governor of Sonora and the mayors of two border towns facing each other––Douglas, Arizona, and just across the border, Agua Prieta––to come to the aid of Fimbres. A grand plan for a large-scale punitive expedition into the Sierra Madre to exterminate the Apaches and recover Gerardo was developed. Newspapers, local, and nation wide from Los Angeles to New York scurried to cover a sensational story few would believe in a novel, much less as a true event. Soon international attention was focused on the manhunt and Fimbres desire for revenge.

Fimbres had scoured the mountains for two years and found cold trails and campfires, but he had never seen an Apache. The expeditionary force taking shape under the egis of officials on both sides of the border was likely to give his search a badly needed boost. Although under the nominal command of a Mexican military officer, Colonel Carillo, the force was mostly heavily armed, non-Mexican soldiers of fortune who wanted in on the last battle of the Apache wars, the last of the great manhunts.

A recruiting poster with invitations to enlist was printed and widely circulated by the Douglas town fathers. Almost everyday the Douglas Daily Dispatch ran an article about Fimbres or expedition plans. The wire services picked up the stories. Francisco Fimbres, who had become a media star, was portrayed as a hero and his many fruitless expeditions into the Sierra Madre were detailed. The appeal to be a hero and wipe out fierce hidden warriors in high mountain strongholds and rescue the little boy from their murderous clutches was as romantic as it was shameless. According to the newspapers, from hundreds of respondents, twenty-five heroes are chosen for combat against the savage Apaches.

However, running side-by-side with the rescue articles in the Douglas Dispatch were articles promoting everything from tourism to hunting, fishing, prospecting and development in the Douglas-Agua Prieta area. The punitive expedition was going to be good for business that had been hard hit by the stock market crash that killed the copper market, for which Douglas had a major smelter.

The expedition came to the attention of the U.S. Department of State and the Mexican federal government who saw a gang of trigger-happy, heavily armed adventurers going into Mexico. The U.S. Council in Douglas summoned the expedition organizers to a meeting. At the meeting there was an abrupt change in objectives from the organizers who claimed the expedition was purely a commercial venture to introduce American businessmen and sportsmen to Mexican opportunities. Neither government believed the explanation or the integrity of the organizers. The Douglas Dispatch soon told the world that the Fimbres Expedition had been called off at the request of the Mexican government, which believed its purposes were not entirely commercial.

Regardless of the expedition being called off, Fimbres was still bent on revenge. The governor of Sonora decided to support Fimbres and the people of Nácori Chico by putting up 300 pesos, thirty new Mauser bolt-action rifles, plenty of ammunition, and a license to kill. For about the tenth time, in April 1930, just days after the expedition was canceled on 5 April 1930, Francisco Fimbres and twelve mounted men from Nácori Chico head into the mountains looking for Apaches. They have had no contact with the Apaches since Gerardo was taken two and a half years earlier.

The Fimbres posse scoured a new quarter of the Sierra Madre for two days following word that a pack train had been ambushed between Nácori Chico and Casas Grandes. Fimbres’s luck changed. Forty miles northeast of Nácori Chico they saw smoke from a camp fire and rode for it. Cresting a low rise they came upon Apaches, two women leading a burro. The Mexicans open fire and kill one who was screaming, “Nakaiyé!” the Apache word for Mexicans. The other woman tried to shoot back, but her rifle jammed. She was killed trying to free the cartridge. During the attack the women called to Juan (presumably the son of Elias, Apache Juan) by name. He came to their aid, but there was nothing he could do by the time he got there. Both women were dead; others had escaped. A two-hour gun battle ensued between Juan hidden behind a tree and the Fimbres posse. Finally, Cayetano Fimbres, Francisco’s uncle, gets a clear line of sight, stuns Juan with one shot and then ran up to finish him off at point-blank range. Searching around the camp the men find numerous Apache artifacts––articles of dress, leather dolls stuffed with grass, and two old rifles. The posse leaves the dead Apaches in the camp without burying them, which they soon learn is a fatal mistake. The posse had been operating under the assumption that if they could wipe the Apaches out, Gerardo would be freed. When Gerardo was not found they, they realized their chances of finding him have gone down. They have done the very thing Lupe has advised against.

A few days later two Mexican men, Ysidro Morca and Cirilo Perez rode near the scene of the battle and the air was filled with the smell of death. They approached the killing ground and found the Apaches neatly buried. They also found the lifeless body Gerardo dressed like an Apache wearing leather moccasins, a little knife, and leather clothing. Seven and a half years old, Gerardo had been tied to a tied to a tree and the women had stoned him to death.

When the posse told Lupe about the Apaches they had killed, she wailed in inconsolable grief for several days. From posse descriptions of the women, she knows they were her mother and sister. The record shows that she harbored no sign of ill will to the men in the posse.

Next Week: The Hidden Apaches: Lupe’s Life As An Apache

Most of the information presented here is from Chronicles of War by Berndt Kühn; Western Apache Raiding and Warfare by Grenville Goodwin; “Has the Apache Kid’s Daughter Been Found? by Lynda A. Sánchez, True West Magazine, 20 July 2016; From Cochise to Geronimo by Edwin R. Sweeney; and The Apache Diaries by Grenville Goodwin and Neil Goodwin

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