Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Apaches, along with Navajos, are the southernmost extension of Athapaskan-language speakers. Scholars disagree on which Apaches first lived in the Great Plains. Specialists traditionally argued for a sixteenth-century Apache entry into the region, in part because early Spanish accounts described them in the Plains of Texas and eastern New Mexico. Scholars assumed they were recent arrivals. Archeological work in the 1970s, however, a.rmed an Apachean presence in the Central Plains in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Moreover, the Apaches' own stories place them in the Plains as early as the ninth century.

On the basis of archeological evidence, Karl Schlesier postulated four waves of Apachean migration into the Plains between 50 and 1550 A.D. The first of these is associated with a proto-Athapaskan movement into Saskatchewan and the Northern Great Plains by 50 A.D. Their descendants are the Sarcees (Sarsis). A second movement of people, destined to be known as southern Athapaskans, arrived in Montana around 200 A.D. Schlesier believes that this wave split into three parts, one of which remained in place, while the other two parts continued south into Wyoming and the Black Hills, respectively. From there they moved to the Southern Plains, where Spanish explorers encountered their descendants. A third wave entered the Plains between 950 and 1225 A.D. These people became the Navajos (Déné) and Chiricahua Apaches (N'de). This migration is described in traditional stories of Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache peoples. Navajo accounts place their arrival in Colorado and northern New Mexico at about 1100.

A fourth and final wave of Apachean migration, from 1450 to 1650, brought the ancestors of the Jicarillas, Lipans, and lastly, the distantly related Kiowa Apaches (also called Plains Apaches). These Apaches subsisted by food gathering, hunting, and horticulture, augmented by trade with settled farming communities. Autonomous Apache bands collected near the Pueblos, where they traded or raided as conditions warranted.

Spanish entrance into the Southern Plains in the sixteenth century brought profound changes to Apache ways of life. Colonization and forced conversion of Pueblo trading partners created increased hostility between the mobile and settled peoples. Acquisition of European horses and metal weapons presented new opportunities to raid for additional goods.

Spanish o.cials in New Mexico and Texas had difficulty identifying Apache tribes by name and location. Frequent changes in designation were required to correct mistakes. By 1700 Apaches in the Plains were identified as follows: Lipans, occupying central Texas; Faroans, in the Texas Panhandle; Mescaleros, in eastern New Mexico; Jicarillas, north and east of the Mescaleros; Carlanas, located along the present Colorado–New Mexico border; and Cuartelejos, in eastern Colorado and adjacent western Kansas. Palomas occupied central Nebraska along the Platte River. Plains (later also known as Kiowa Apaches) Apaches were in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota.

By the mid–seventeenth century Apaches had acquired enough horses that their raids became a major concern for Spanish authorities in New Mexico. Colonial governors tried various policies to subjugate them. Military expeditions against scattered autonomous bands produced limited results. Spanish alliances with Pueblos and Comanches were more productive. After 1700 the Comanches swept the Apaches off the plains of Texas and eastern New Mexico. Spanish territorial governors at times attempted to concentrate Apaches near Pueblo communities through dispersal of trade goods, including guns and alcohol. Some bands accepted Spanish annuities and settled under Spanish rule. Most did not. Spain failed to bring Apache bands in the Plains under control. Mexico fared no better. Apache raids, along with Comanche inroads, became the bane of existence in newly independent Mexico between 1821 and 1846.

In independent Texas (1836–45), policy was hostile to Indian populations, Apaches included. Texas, however, focused on war against Comanches, being less interested in Lipans and Mescaleros, who were generally far enough west to be beyond reach. The United States' annexation of Texas in 1845, and occupation and acquisition of much of northern Mexico in 1848, brought immense changes to the Apaches. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny pronounced the United States' policy at Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1846, which called for disarming and forcible settlement of all nomadic raiders. That policy was pursued for more than thirty years to an eventual successful conclusion.

From 1849 to 1851 a severe cholera epidemic along overland trails struck the Apaches. Most Lipans perished. Survivors, harried by Comanches and Kiowas, eventually took refuge with the Mescaleros, who absorbed them.

The United States negotiated treaties with the Apaches in the 1850s, but most were not ratified. The U.S. Army carried on a series of campaigns against specific Apache bands in the 1850s. By 1861 war with Apaches had become general. The Jicarillas were fortunate to find refuge on the immense Maxwell Land Grant in northern New Mexico. In 1863 the army was authorized to carry out a war of extermination against the Apaches. Kit Carson directed a campaign against the Mescaleros that resulted in their surrender. They and other Apache bands were gradually placed, by force or agreement, on reservations in New Mexico and Arizona. Apache resistance ended by 1887.

Mescaleros, with surviving Lipans, were established on a reservation in south-central New Mexico, where they still remain, numbering 3,511 in 1992. Jicarillas finally were granted a reservation of their own in northern New Mexico in 1887, to the west of the Great Plains. The reservation was increased in size in 1907 and again in 1908. Their population in 1992 was 3,100. Chiricahua Apaches were held as prisoners of war in Florida and Alabama until 1893. They were then moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and placed as prisoners on land donated by Comanches and Kiowas. In 1913 most of their lands were annexed to Fort Sill. About two-thirds moved to Mescalero; the rest stayed at Fort Sill. They are the Fort Sill Apaches, numbering just over 100. The Plains Apaches were placed at Fort Sill with Kiowas and Comanches at the conclusion of hostilities with those peoples in the 1870s. Most descendants of the Plains Apaches remain in that area, where they are officially recognized as the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma. They have about 1,600 enrolled tribal members.

Donald C. Cole Bethany College

Basso, Keith H., and Morris E. Opler, eds. Apachean Culture History and Ethnology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1971.

Hyde, George E. Indians of the High Plains: From the Prehistoric Period to the Coming of Europeans. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.

Schlesier, Karl H., ed. Plains Indians,A.D.500–1500: The Archaeological Past of Historic Groups. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

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