The Apache leader Victorio may not be as well-known as his contemporaries Cochise and Geronimo, largely because when he was conducting his most famous campaigns against the U.S. and Mexican Armies in sparsely populated and inhospitable regions on both sides of the border the attention of the nation was riveted on the larger wars with the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes on the northern plains. But he was a wily and dangerous warrior who ran circles around the troops that pursued him for years. Until fate caught up with him.
Victorio’s origins are murky, and what we know or think we know is based on sometimes conflicting oral accounts from various Apache bands. His tribal name was Bidu-ya or Beduiat. Victorio was a name given him by his hated Mexican enemies. Most sources say he was born around 1825 in the rugged mountains of what was then the Mexican state of Nuevo Mexico. Other sources claim he was born as early as 1809.
Even his tribal affiliations, which shifted with kinship relations and various bands merging and diverging over time, are confused. He was most likely born a member of the Chihenne or called Mimbreño division of the central Apaches, which had kinship relations with the Navaho who gave him yet another name which translates as Man Who Checks His Horses. He had a sister or half-sister named Lozen or Dexterous Horse Thief who was born about 1840 and became a female warrior, seer and sorceress, and advisor to Vittorio who called her the “shield of the people.”
Some sources identified him as a Chiricahua, a division of the Apaches with which he was often allied and sometimes rode with. This is probably due to ignorance of the complex clan, band, and tribal relations among the Apache.
By the early 1850’s Victorio was known to be traveling and fighting with the great Apache chief Mangus Coloradas in his wars against the old pueblos and new American settlements of what was by then American New Mexico, Territory. Kit Carson was one of the New Mexico militia leaders who did battle with the hostile Apache. Among the other younger leaders in this war were Geronimo, Cochise, and Nana. Victorio was one of Mangus Coloradas’s favorites and, apparently his son in law.
What Victorio’s exact role was during this time is also unclear. The U.S. Army identified him as a chief in 1853 and Victorio put his mark on at least one official document with that designation. But the army was unclear on the differences between war band leaders and tribal chiefs with broader authority and responsibilities with the various bands and clans. Victorio may or may not have been both at this time.
We do know that he became, probably by assignment from Mangus Coloradas, the leader of a large war band of mixed Chihenne and Mescaleros whose civil chief was his brother-in-law known as Caballero.
After Mangus Coloradas was captured under a flag of truce at an 1863 parlay with the Army and subsequently murdered, Victorio became acknowledged leader of the Chihenne and acted as a sub-chief to Cochise in a long guerrilla war that lasted until 1872, when Cochise surrendered and agreed to let his people be put on reservations.
Victorio followed his leader’s example. But over the next few years he and his band were put on least three different reservations, some more than once, despite his band’s request to live on traditional lands. He found himself for the second time on the desolate San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, a barren desert where summer temperatures were regularly above 110̊, where there was no game, and farming was impossible. His people were starving. In 1879 he led his people off the reservation and headed back to his traditional territory. He and his band were now official renegades.
|U.S. Army Apache Scouts who chased Victorio.|
Victorio’s War was on. He and his 170 followers, later modestly reinforced by volunteers from other bands fed up with reservation life, were pursued by the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry across broad swaths of the border lands from New Mexico to west Texas. Victorio raided isolated ranches, attacked wagon and baggage trains and skirmished with the Army while trying to avoid big engagements. As the war went on Victorio’s fury grew and he took to torturing and mutilating prisoners creating a fearsome reputation and spreading panic.
On September 16 at Las Animas Canyon in the Black Range Mountains of two companies of the 9th were ambushed and trapped by Victorio's warriors. They were rescued by the arrival of two additional companies and after a day of fighting, the soldiers broke off the engagement. Five soldiers, three scouts and thirty-two horses lay dead.
Victorio would slip across the Rio Grande to elude troops and raid his traditional enemies, the Mexicans. His band ambushed and killed 15 vaqueros looking for cattle thieves and a second party of equal size sent to look for the first near the village of Carrizal, Chihuahua. The Mexican Army joined in the pursuit and chased Victorio back to the river. In the beginning of rare cooperation, the Mexicans telegraphed American headquarters that they were chasing Victorio and he was expected to cross the border into Texas.
From January to May 1880 troopers from the 9th engaged in numerous skirmishes with members of Victorio’s band. Many engagements were no more than a quick exchange of gunfire between scouts and hit-and-run ambushes. But sometimes Victorio would pin down an isolated patrol and a fight could last hours or days until the troopers were rescued.
In April, 1880, Victorio was credited with leading the Alma Massacre, a raid settler homesteads around Alma, New Mexico. The warriors were finally driven off with the arrival of American soldiers from Fort Bayard. Victorio continued his campaign with a rare attack on Fort Tularosa.
|Members of the 10th Cavalry.|
In May the Texas based 10th Cavalry assumed the main task of battling Victorio. Colonel Grierson devised a new strategy—instead of fruitlessly chasing the hostiles, he positioned troops at mountain passes and river fords likely to be used by Victorio in hopes of ambushing him.
On September 6 the trap almost worked at Rattlesnake Springs, Texas where troopers hid and surrounded a fresh water spring desperately needed by Victorio’s parched band. Although he detected a trap, Victorio was so desperate for water that he made several attempts to reach the springs and also attacked an Army baggage train on the way to supply the troops. Each time he was beaten back and finally had to give up the effort, retreating without water and the troops in pursuit.
Three days later troopers stumbled on Victorio’s main camp. After a skirmish with guards, the troopers captured 25 head of cattle, other supplies. On September 11 two companies made contact with Victorio’s main band and went in hard pursuit. But the Apaches were able to get across the Rio Grande before they could be captured.
At the rare invitation of the Mexican government, 10 companies of the 10th were allowed to enter Mexico and were stationed along the south bank of the River to keep Victorio from crossing back into Texas. Scouts from the 10th and Mexican forces located him on October 4, but kept their distance, monitoring his movements.
On October 9, the Mexican government told the US Army that their presence was no longer necessary. The 10th re-crossed the Rio Grande under protest. Colonel Grierson appealed to Army Commander General Phil Sheridan in Washington for permission to return over the objection of Mexico. Sheridan refused.
The Mexicans, knowing that the US Army orders were to “capture if possible”, wanted a free hand in eradicating their enemy. On October 15, 1880 Colonel Jaoquin Terraza and his troops surrounded Victorio’s camp and attacked. In what became known as the Tres Castillos Massacre Victorio lay dead, with sixty warriors, and eighteen women and children. Sixty-eight women and children including were taken prisoner.
As with so much else, exactly how Victorio died is in dispute. Some claim an Indio scout shot him. Others believe that the old warrior committed suicide rather than be killed by the Mexicans.
The survivors were rounded up, driven to the border, and dumped on the US Army. They were exiled to distant reservations in Alabama, in Florida where they were joined by Geronimo and his followers in 1888, and eventually to Oklahoma.