The Noose Tightens



Chapter 13: The history of the Tonto Apaches

By August of 1846, Col. Stephen Watts Kearny and his army had conquered Santa Fe, N.M., and marched westward. On Oct. 6, 1846, Kit Carson arrived at Kearny's camp, 150 miles from Santa Fe, with the news that California had fallen to the Americans without a fight.


Bent's Fort on the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico was the staging area for Col. Stephen Watts Kearny's "Army of the West" as it headed for Tonto Territory.

Carson was attached to an exploratory party headed by John C. Fremont.

The other news he brought was not as encouraging. The most direct route for the Army of the West was through steep mountains with deadly drop-offs along narrow trails. It was impassible for wagons. The trail lacked the forage, water and game necessary to sustain Kearny's large force. However, a small party might cross, and so Kearny sent most of his troops back to Santa Fe. Reducing his army to 110 men, and retaining Kit Carson as guide, he determined to make a scientific study of the Gila River route. They proceeded to provide the first map and trail description leading directly toward Tonto Apache territory.

Kearny's troops marched into the Gila River valley, past Mount Graham, a holy mountain to all Apaches, and then into what 24 years later would be the location of Fort Apache and the San Carlos Indian Reservation. This was Western Apache country, and a jumping-off place to the Tonto Apache homeland. Sometime between Oct. 26 and Nov. 7, the Kearny party encountered and dealt with a band of Indians, who could have been Tonto, Cibecue, Pinal, or White Mountain Apaches. Probably eager to have the detachment continue on their way, and desiring some of the trade items offered, the Indians supplied the mules needed sorely by Kearny.

These Apaches were "decked-out in garb plundered from Mexicans." One of the Apache women who came in to trade "had on a gauze-like dress, trimmed with the richest and most costly Brussels lace, pillaged no doubt from some fandango-going belle of Sonora." (Reported by cartographer W. H. Emory (Notes of a Military Reconnaissance: A Survey of Arizona Gila River, 1846, Bob Cunningham, The Westerners "Smoke Signal" Tucson, Fall 1996). They also met a 12-year-old Mexican boy who had been raised a slave by the Apaches, probably from babyhood, and who did not want to leave his Apache family. The Indians were mounted on stolen horses, and these along with the mules bore witness to intensive raids on Mexicans by the Western Apaches.

Kearny proceeded down the Gila, and observed the trail was well-beaten and showed fresh signs of rustled cattle. The area where the San Pedro River enters the Gila was obviously a major raiding trail used by Western Apaches between Mexico and their strongholds.

Further along, the Army of the West was among the friendly Maricopa and Pima Indians, and on to celebrations in California. White men had once again skirted the heartland of the Tonto.

In 1848, the war between the United States and Mexico ended with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, creating a new border between the two nations. That border was the Gila River from its headwaters in the mountains to the river's mouth near Yuma. Mexican and American authorities might have understood this imaginary borderline, but for the Apaches such an unseen border cutting through the heart of their traditional territory hardly made any sense.

To complicate matters, the provisions of the treaty required the United States Army to prevent Apaches from raiding south of the Gila into Mexico. To make sure this provision was observed the United States was required to pay Mexican citizens for losses from raiders who invaded Mexico from the north.

The United States attempted to negotiate treaties with Apache groups who lived along the border, but to no avail. Raids continued, especially near Tucson and Tubac, which were still below that international border.

During the next few years there was much activity along the east-west trails. Americans began a steady trek to California because of the gold rush. The United States Boundary Commission was surveying the new border with Mexico, and over two-thirds of the U.S. Army was assigned to patrol that new border. Yet Indian raids increased, including those by Tonto Apaches. The road to California was littered with burned-out wagons, the bones of slaughtered livestock, and the wayside graves of pioneers.

For Tonto Apaches, the growing traffic seemed like a noose around their necks, closing in on the fringes of their lands.

Tonto raids now were far-ranging, showing their desperation over incursions of the white men. In 1853 the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico was negotiated by the U. S. government, and ratified in 1854, extending the southern border of the United States well below the Gila River. Such international politics were of little concern to the Tontos. All they knew was that the white men were tightening their grip on the areas they liked to raid in the south.

Next: Prelude to Apache Wars

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