American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Victorio

Considered by historians to be one of the greatest guerilla fighters and military strategists (Keenan, 1998, 16), Mimbres Apache Chief Victorio was born about 1825 in southwestern New Mexico (Thrapp, 1988, 1483–1485). Legends about his origins persist, most stating that he was a captured Mexican boy raised among the Apaches, but proof is lacking. Biduyé, as he was called by tribal members, was renamed by his enemies when he became a respected war leader, even though he tried very hard to find a course other than war. Victorio kept on the path of peace until the American government, in the form of the Indian Bureau and the military, demanded too much and war ensued. Through it all, he had an unyielding desire to live at Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, Victorio's ancestral home.

Mimbres Apaches actually lived near what is today known as Monticello, New Mexico. They called themselves the Chihenne, the Red Paint people. Their early leader was Mangas Coloradas, a notable chief. Following their customs, the boy Victorio undoubtedly participated in long established ceremonies beginning when he received his first moccasins and his first haircut. Later, he competed with other boys in footraces, took baths in ice-cold water all year to "harden" his body, imitated in play the elders' decision-making process, and learned the names and characteristics of animals, birds, plants, and the elements.

At about age sixteen, as an apprentice, Victorio rode along on the first of four raids, on which the older warriors acted as his teachers and tested his skills in the many aspects of warfare, a necessary exercise before a young man made the transition to a fighter for his people. By 1850 Victorio started to be noticed by the American military as a skilled warrior; in 1853 he affixed an "X" as his signature to a formal agreement with the American government. Although the document was never ratified by the U.S. Senate and thus became invalid, Victorio's signature was a sign of his growing leadership status.

Victorio conducted a successful raid in 1855, taking his accomplices into the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua to bring back large numbers of captives and livestock. In July 1862, he took part in the significant Apache Pass battle and continued to participate in numerous skirmishes and depredations with white settlers and the American military. In 1863, after the death of Mangas Coloradas, Victorio assumed leadership of the group. In September 1879 he and sixty warriors raided a cavalry unit camped near a small Hispanic settlement in southwestern New Mexico. The Apaches killed five soldiers and three civilians, galloping off with sixty-eight horses and mules. The attack signaled the start of the Victorio War.

By January of 1880, Victorio had led his people in battles across three states, leaving the pursuing U.S. Army baffled at every turn. He fought Mexicans, settlers, Texas Rangers, and the Ninth Cavalry in New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, winning engagements at almost every contact. The Ninth Cavalry, known as Buffalo Soldiers, was one of six black regiments formed after the Civil War to help keep peace on the Western frontier. On April 6, 1880, seventy-one members of the Ninth Cavalry, led by Captain Henry Carroll, cautiously approached Victorio's camp in the Hembrillo Basin, a natural stronghold, in south central New Mexico. They were immediately surrounded by a larger force of about 150 Apaches under Victorio's leadership, firing volley after volley from behind stacked breastworks erected on the surrounding ridgetops. Despite all efforts, Victorio's warriors were ultimately driven from their positions (Laumbach, 2000, 248).

Victorio's son Washington was killed in a battle on June 5, 1880 (Thrapp, 1974, 282), after which the weary chief divided his forces and moved with about 200 followers toward Mexico. Victorio took his people to an unmistakable site on the plains, three rocky peaks called Tres Castillos, where they were eventually attacked by an irregular group of Mexicans and Tarahumara Indians. Fighting continued for hours until the dawn of October 15, 1880, when Victorio was dead, either by his own hand or from a bullet fired by one of the Indians, as were sixty warriors and eighteen women and children. Sixty-eight women and children were taken captive, along with 180 animals. Prisoners were gathered, the adolescent boys were taken to a nearby arroyo and shot, while the remaining women and children were enslaved.

H. Henrietta Stockel


Further Reading
Ball, Eve. 1970. In the Days of Victorio. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.; Keenan, Jerry. 1988. "Mimbres Apache War Chief Victorio May Have Been America's Greatest Guerilla Fighter." Wild West Magazine, June: 16–18, 75.; Laumbach, Karl W. 2000. Hembrillo: An Apache Battlefield of the Victorio War. White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Archaeological Research Report No. 00-06, Human Systems Research, Inc.; Thrapp, Dan L. 1974. Victorio and the Mimbres Apaches. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Thrapp, Dan L. 1988. Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography. Vol. 3. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Utley, Robert M. March. 1984. "The Buffalo Soldiers and Victorio." New Mexico Magazine, 47–50, 53–54.
 

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