Apache Wars

The incursion of white settlers into the Southwest led to armed conflicts between the settlers and the indigenous Chiricahua Apaches.

Summary of Event

After the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, large portions of northern Mexico were ceded to the United States. As a result of the acquisition of these new lands, numerous white settlers began moving into the newly formed Arizona and New Mexico territories. Much of this region was the traditional range of various Apache groups, particularly numerous bands of Chiricahua, Coyotero, and Mimbreño Apaches. Many of these groups practiced raiding, taking goods from others as an extension of their traditional methods of subsistence. Raiding increased in frequency as more white settlers moved into Apache territory. Apache Wars (1861-1864)
Native American wars;Apaches
Crook, George
Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars]
[kw]Apache Wars (Feb. 6, 1861-Sept. 4, 1886)
[kw]Wars, Apache (Feb. 6, 1861-Sept. 4, 1886)
Apache Wars (1861-1864)
Native American wars;Apaches
Crook, George
Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars]
[g]United States;Feb. 6, 1861-Sept. 4, 1886: Apache Wars[3430]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 6, 1861-Sept. 4, 1886: Apache Wars[3430]
[c]Indigenous people’s rights;Feb. 6, 1861-Sept. 4, 1886: Apache Wars[3430]
Mangas Coloradas
Bascom, George Nicholas
Gatewood, Charles
Miles, Nelson A.
Shirland, Edmond

In 1861, an Apache raiding party (thought to have been Coyotero Apache, not Chiricahua) kidnapped a boy who had been a member of a group of white settlers. The U.S. military reacted quickly by ordering Lieutenant George Nicholas Bascom to investigate the incident and, if necessary, to take action against the “hostiles” that were thought to have committed the raid. On February 6, 1861, Bascom, possibly as a result of an invitation to the Chiricahua, persuaded Cochise, the principal chief of the eastern Chiricahua, and some of his family and followers, to come in for a peace parley. During the early stages of what has been termed the Bascom affair, Cochise, speaking on behalf of the eastern Chiricahua, tried to convince Bascom that it was not Chiricahua Apaches who had conducted the raid. Bascom had Cochise and several of the chief’s relatives arrested. Cochise later escaped. Bascom, Bascom, George Nicholas as an act of reprisal for the kidnapping and Cochise’s escape, ordered the execution of the chief’s relatives.

Although conflicts between white settlers and Apache groups had occurred before 1861, this incident is generally viewed by historians as the starting point of what has come to be called the Apache Wars. Numerous armed conflicts involving various Apache groups occurred from 1861 to 1886 on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. For example, in retaliation for the execution of his relatives, Cochise organized a surprise attack on the Gidding party at Stein’s Peak near Doubtful Canyon. Cochise killed nine of the settlers but lost sixty of his warriors in the attack. Numerous battles ensued in the years that followed.

In July of 1862, Cochise and his father-in-law Mangas Coloradas and other Chiricahuas were attacked by infantry under the command of “Star Chief Carleton.” During the battle, Mangas Coloradas Mangas Coloradas was wounded, but, in January of 1863, he was covertly executed and beheaded after he had attempted to surrender and sue for peace with captain Edmond Shirland Shirland, Edmond of the California Volunteers. This sentence was delivered without any official record of a fair trial.

Geronimo (center) and other Apaches at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

(Library of Congress)

In the year 1865 the Apache Wars reached a pinnacle. With the end of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) the attention of the U.S. military, along with the bulk of its forces, shifted west to land traditionally occupied by Native American tribal groups. Action taken against the Apaches by the Mexican military was also increasing. In late winter of 1865, for example, Mexican federales from Sonora attacked and killed thirty-nine Apaches. Mexican forces, combined with pressure exerted by U.S. military forces in the American Southwest, caused Cochise and other Apache leaders to remain constantly on the run.

In 1866, Cochise was driven by U.S. forces into hiding in Mexico, where he continued to harass white settlers by periodically crossing the border to conduct surprise attacks. These skirmishes continued until October 10, 1872, when Cochise finally signed a truce with the Americans at Cochise’s camp in the Dragoon mountains in southern Arizona. Cochise died two years later.

Other Apache leaders, however, refused to abide by the truce of 1872 and continued their attacks on settler groups. Further west Geronimo, a Bedonkohe/Chiricahua shaman from northern Mexico, was fighting his own wars against both Mexican and U.S. forces. By 1861 the U.S. Army was firmly established in southern Arizona. Forts Bowie and Apache had been built to assist the army in protecting the increasing numbers of settlers who continued to enter the Arizona territory. In 1871 the Camp Grant Massacre Camp Grant Massacre (1871) destroyed an entire Apache camp.

In 1872, General George Crook, who had a reputation among Washington politicians for decisiveness in his dealings with Indian groups, took command of the Southwest operation. From 1872 until 1886 and his dismissal, Crook’s career was dominated by attempts to keep Geronimo in check. In 1877, Geronimo, along with family members and other Chiricahuas, was arrested by Crook’s men and subsequently resettled on the reservation at San Carlos. Sometimes referred to as Hell’s Forty Acres, San Carlos proved to be an inhospitable environment lacking sufficient water and game for Apache survival. The army, in an attempt to conciliate the Apaches, introduced corn agriculture to the reservation. The Chiricahuas were traditional hunters and gatherers, and attempts at agriculture, especially on arid reservation land, soon failed. Four years later, many Apaches—including Geronimo—fled the reservation.

From 1881 until his surrender to Lieutenant Charles Gatewood Gatewood, Charles at Skeleton Canyon in 1886, Geronimo fought numerous battles with both U.S. and Mexican forces. He also continued raiding white settlements. During this period of time Geronimo surrendered several times to the U.S. military. Late in 1881, for example, Geronimo was recaptured by General Crook and taken to Fort Apache. Geronimo and his followers were again taken to the reservation. Nothing had changed; the Apaches could not make a sufficient living on the reservation, so they eventually fled to Mexico.

In April of 1882, Geronimo returned to San Carlos and conducted a raid. There he killed the chief of police and captured several Mimbreño Apaches (former followers of the Apache leader Victorio), whom Geronimo forced to go back to Mexico with him. In May of 1883, Crook decided to pursue Geronimo by taking several units of infantry and cavalry into Mexico. On May 15, after several days of strenuous marching through Mexico’s Sierra Madre, Crook attacked the camp of a group of Mimbreño Apaches headed by Chato. Although the battle itself was indecisive, it had become evident that the military was not going to give up its pursuit of Geronimo. In the days that followed the battle several chiefs of the Mimbreño Apaches, including Chato, Loco, and Nana, surrendered to Crook. In March of 1884, Geronimo, by now a revered Apache leader, surrendered to Crook. This surrender and the subsequent confinement on the reservation, like the others, did not last. Geronimo fled and surrendered two more times.

Historians generally agree that Crook’s goal was to secure a lasting peace with Geronimo and other Apaches. Crook’s inability to keep Geronimo under the purview of the U.S. government, however, forced military and political leaders in Washington, D.C., to remove Crook from his command. General Nelson A. Miles Miles, Nelson A. was sent to replace Crook.

General Miles, who was not as sympathetic to the plight of the Apaches as had been General Crook, immediately sent out a force of approximately five thousand soldiers to seek out and capture Geronimo and his small band (estimated to be about twenty-four in number). On September 4, 1886, Geronimo, along with twenty-three members of his band of Chiricahuas (mostly women and children), surrendered for the final time at Skeleton Canyon—about sixty-five miles from Apache Pass, where the first skirmish of the Apache Wars had been fought.


After Geronimo’s surrender, General Miles Miles, Nelson A. had all Chiricahuas in the immediate vicinity arrested, including the scouts who had been used by the army to track down Geronimo. Geronimo, his followers, and the former Apache scouts were placed in rail cars and transported east to a reservation in St. Augustine, Florida. With Geronimo’s surrender and his removal to Florida, the Apache Wars ended.

Further Reading

  • Aleshire, Peter. Reaping the Whirlwind: The Apache Wars. New York: Facts On File, 1998. A study of the mutual hatred, violence, and injustices of the Apache Wars. Part of the Library of American Indian History series and written for younger readers.
  • Cole, D. C. The Chiricahua Apache, 1846-1876: From War to Reservation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. A general history of the Chiricahuas with special attention to cultural conflicts with Euro-Americans.
  • Cozzens, Peter, ed. Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars, 1865-1890: The Struggle for Apacheria. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001-    . This book is the first in a five-volume series containing army reports, diaries, news articles, and other contemporaneous accounts of Indian wars. This volume focuses on military campaigns against the Apaches, with part 5,“Chasing Geronimo, 1885-1886,” containing accounts of Geronimo’s escape and eventual surrender.
  • Griffen, William B. Apaches at War and Peace: The Janos Presidio, 1750-1858. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988. Details the emergence of the Mexican presidio system and the subsequent relocation and resettlement of various Apache groups in southern New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico.
  • ________. Utmost Good Faith: Patterns of Apache-Mexican Hostilities in Northern Chihuahua Border Warfare, 1821-1848. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989. Summarizes historical accounts of hostilities between the Chiricahua Apaches and Mexican military forces in northern Mexico.
  • Kraft, Louis. Gatewood and Geronimo. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. A biography of Geronimo and Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, who was criticized by the military and civilians for his equitable treatment of Apaches.
  • Skimin, Robert. Apache Autumn. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A historical novel that describes the Apache Wars.
  • Stockel, H. Henrietta. Survival of the Spirit: Chiricahua Apaches in Captivity. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1993. Describes the history of Chiricahua captivity, specifically during the period of the Apache Wars.

Seminole Wars

Congress Passes Indian Removal Act

Apache and Navajo War

Great Sioux War

Long Walk of the Navajos

Sand Creek Massacre

Washita River Massacre

Grant Signs Indian Appropriation Act

Red River War

Sioux War

U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Kit Carson; Crazy Horse; George A. Custer; Geronimo; Sitting Bull. Apache Wars (1861-1864)
Native American wars;Apaches
Crook, George
Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars]