The Night They Shot Mangas Coloradas

Chiricahua Apache Chief

by Jay Sharp

"Men, that old murderer has got away from every soldier command and has left a trail of blood for 500 miles on the old stage line. I want him dead or alive tomorrow morning, do you understand? I want him dead."

These were the words of Joseph Rodman West, Brigadier General of the Union Army and future senator from Louisiana, as he addressed the sentries he had assigned to guard the Chiricahua Apache chief Mangas Coloradas through a dreary wintry night in a makeshift adobe prison cell at Fort McLane, southwestern New Mexico.

His sentries understood -- January 18, 1863.

Mangas Coloradas
Mangas Coloradas - US Public Domain Photo


"...the single greatest leader the Apaches had was a physical giant as well as a domineering personality: Mangas Coloradas..." said James L. Haley, in Apaches: A History and Culture Portrait. "He was a truly striking figure with a hulking body and disproportionately large head. Born sometime in the early 1790's, Mangas was fast becoming an old man, but still he possessed cunning as impenetrable as the thick mat of hair that hung down to his waist. His lips were thin and tightly drawn, his nose aquiline... Mangas Coloradas' following was large and exceptionally cohesive, and he commanded great respect [among the Chiricahuas]."

Frustrated Search for Peace

In the summer of 1860, Mangas Coloradas (Red Sleeves, for the color of a shirt he wore), the principal chief of the Bedonkohe branch of the Chiricahua Apaches, had sought peace, not war, with the whites. With wisdom burnished by advancing years, he could see the American invasion surging relentlessly, like a tidal wave, threatening to engulf the Apache people. Facing the inevitable, Mangas had searched for ways to protect his band's desert basin and mountain forest country in southwestern New Mexico; insure the safety of the Bedonkohes and his family; and forge an American/Apache relationship based on trust and honor.

Unfortunately, American ranchers, farmers, stagecoach employees and miners – often protected by U. S. soldiers – had already begun carving up the Bedonkohe range. They staked homesteads in the wilderness, grazed livestock on desert and forest grasslands, broke the rich soils of river bottoms, opened mines into hillsides, and hunted the mountain slopes for game. They antagonized the Apaches by employing the mistrusted and hated Mexicans. The settlers – in effect, invaders – howled when Bedonkohes as well as other Apache bands struck back by raiding settlements and stealing livestock. Some Americans – who regarded the extermination of the Indians essentially as part of the process of clearing and developing the land – killed Apaches whenever and wherever they got a chance, often with government endorsement and support.

The climate of tension and conflict in southwestern New Mexico would only intensify after prospectors discovered what Mangas Coloradas called "yellow iron" near Pinos Altos – in a region once mined by the Spanish – on May 18, 1860. The strike set off a gold rush. Miners – a raw breed of frontiersmen – accelerated the assault on the Bedonkohes' lands, cutting down timber, driving out game, gouging up mountains. Determined to force the Apaches from their homeland, 30 miners launched a surprise attack on an encampment of Bedonkohes on the west bank of the Mimbres River at sunrise on December 4, 1860, supposedly in retaliation for the theft of miners' livestock. The miners "killed four Indians...wounded others, and captured thirteen women and children," according to Edwin R. Sweeney in his book Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches.

The military itself undermined any opportunity for trust and hope between the Americans and the Apaches, in large part because a green second lieutenant, George N. Bascom, and his troopers deceived another renowned Chiricahua Apache chief, Cochise, and lured him, his family and several warriors into a trap at Apache Pass, in southeastern Arizona in early February, 1861. Cochise, the son-in-law of Mangas Coloradas and principal chief of the Chokonen branch of the Chiricahuas, managed to escape, but Bascom held Cochise's family and warriors captive. Bascom torpedoed negotiations. Fighting erupted. Blood flowed on both sides. Known as the "Bascom Affair," it ended with six warriors, including Cochise's brother, hanging by ropes from the branches of trees. Like the visions in the witches' caldron in Macbeth, the swinging corpses foretold the coming nightmare of a long and brutal struggle between the Apaches and the Americans.

A Call to War

With his land besieged, his people threatened, and American trustworthiness shattered, Mangas Coloradas joined forces with Cochise, and they called the Chiricahuas – the Bedonkohes, the Chokonens, and other branches – to war. It would be remorseless and savage.

As an aging man and an old campaigner, Mangas knew well the price of war: the demand for constant vigilance, the continual poise for sudden flight, the trial of gnawing hunger, the hardships for the women and children, and the anguish of death.

He also knew the art and the peril of leadership. He knew he would lead the dance of war, the Apache dramatization of a coming battle. He would move around the fire in the night to the beat of the drums, summoning his warriors by name, one by one, to join him, and they would come, firing their weapons into the dark sky while the shaman chanted prayers for power and success. "...there is no backing out," a Chiricahua informant told Morris Edward Opler in an interview for the book An Apache Life-way: The Economic, Social, & Religious Institutions of the Chiricahua Indians, "I don't care if the odds are against him, a man goes out if he is called upon. He is frenzied, beside himself. It is the power, the prayers, and not just the man." Mangas Coloradas knew, too, that, even with his physical abilities diminished by his advancing years, he would put his life on the line every time as he led his warriors into battles. A leader, said an Opler informant, "would go before [his warriors] in battle and perform great feats to spur them on."

Even in his early 70's, Mangas Coloradas bore the mantle of Apache leadership with a will and force honored and respected by his people and feared by the Americans and Mexicans alike.

"Uniquely in the known history of the Apaches," said David Roberts in Once They Moved Like the Wind, "Mangas had sought to confederate the separate tribes... As well as being a master of intertribal diplomacy, Mangas was a military tactician of genius. He was also – as an Apache chief had to be to retain the following of his warriors – a champion in one-to-one combat. His relentless torment of white settlers enhanced his reputation for ruthlessness."

General John R. Bartlett, charged with surveying the boundary line between the U. S. and Mexico in 1851 said that Mangas Coloradas commanded "great influence among the several Apaches tribes..." He was "...a man of strong common sense, and discriminate judgment..."

In Apache Mothers and Daughters, by Ruth McDonald Boyer and Narcissus Duffy Gayton, Dilth-cleyhen, daughter of Victorio, another famous Apache chief, reported the she could only stare the first time she saw Mangas Coloradas, who stood well over six feet in height. It was his eyes, however, that attracted her the most. They were not large eyes, Dilth-cleyhen told Boyer and Gayton, but they shone brightly, and when he lifted her in play, she felt that he could see right through her. She said that they were kind eyes, laughing, but penetrating. Dilth-cleyhen also knew that those eyes could turn ferocious.

The Battle Joined

While Cochise rampaged across southeastern Arizona, Mangas Coloradas either led or inspired increased raiding in southwestern New Mexico, especially in the gold mining region around Pinos Altos. With the Civil War erupting, the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach service abandoned its route and the trail and way stations across Oklahoma, Texas, southern New Mexico and southern Arizona into southern California. Butterfield employees, settlers, tradesmen and even some miners quit their homes and businesses to head for the east and safety. Union forces withdrew from the region, heading east to battle Confederate forces advancing up the Rio Grande. "There came a great war when white men fought white," Apache informant James Kaywaykla told Eve Ball, who interviewed him for her book In the Days of Victorio, "and their troops were withdrawn from our territory. Mangas Coloradas and Cochise thought that at last the invaders were giving up the attempt at conquest, and they rejoiced."

The two chiefs now combined their warriors into a single unified force, aiming to drive out the last remnants of Americans and Mexicans. Beginning a litany of violence – which is detailed by Sweeney – Mangas Coloradas and Cochise first blockaded the principal route between Mesilla, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona, taking command of the trail where it passed through the narrow Cooke's Canyon. They knew that the canyon, which passed immediately south of Cooke's Peak, a landmark in southwestern New Mexico, would draw travelers to its dependable spring water, funnel them through the rocky corridor, and serve as a perfect ambush site.

During the summer of 1861, the Apache warriors of Mangas Coloradas and Cochise massacred and mutilated a party of seven near the east end of the canyon. Near the same location, they massacred and mutilated a party of eight or nine Mexican herdsmen and stole their 40 head of cattle. Again, near the same location, they attacked a wagon train of east-bound refugees, killing four, wounding eight, and stealing as many as 400 cattle and 900 sheep. Over the months, the forces of Mangas Coloradas and Cochise left what one chronicler called "many bones, skulls, & graves" in Cooke's Canyon. Eventually, the Apaches killed as many as 100 Americans and Mexicans in Cooke's Canyon, making it the most feared passage on the trail from Mesilla to Tucson.

As the summer of 1861 drew to a close, Mangas and Cochise grew more bold, leading a large force of warriors against the mining communities near Pinos Altos. The Apaches killed five and wounded seven. Later, they attacked two wagon trains, killing several more. They tortured two captives to death.

Mangas and Cochise cast a web of blood and terror across southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona in 1861 and 1862, but they also paid a heavy price. Both chiefs suffered wounds in the fighting. They lost dozens of top warriors, including relatives, good friends and close allies. Mangas, burdened by his advancing age, evidently felt his appetite for war begin to wane. Moreover, he heard a drumbeat of bad news. A Mexican force had killed seven Chiricahuas, including his brother, in northern Chihuahua. A Confederate force captured and executed several more Chiricahuas. Smallpox ravaged Chiricahua bands near the Mexican villages of Janos and Fronteras.

Perhaps even more menacingly, a volunteer column of more than 2,000 Union troops, under the command of Brigadier General James Henry Carleton – a man who would develop a rabid hatred for Mangas and Cochise – had begun a march from California eastward across the Apache lands to reassert American control in the Southwest.

Mangas Coloradas
James Henry Carleton
- US Public Domain Photo

In answer, on July 15, 1862, Mangas and Cochise, with some 200 warriors, ambushed a detachment of about 100 of the California volunteers at Apache Springs, at Apache Pass, in southeastern Arizona. "Every tree concealed an armed warrior," said John C. Cremony in his classic Life Among the Apaches, "and each warrior boasted his rifle, six-shooter and knife. A better armed host could scarcely be imagined." After a hard fight, however, the Chiricahuas withdrew, outgunned by the detachment's two mountain howitzers. In a skirmish near the end of the fight, Mangas suffered a terrible gunshot wound.

"The Apaches carried Mangas all the way to the town of Janos, in Mexico—a distance of 120 miles in a straight line," said David Roberts. "At Janos resided an Anglo doctor in whose talents, uncharacteristically, the Apaches had great faith. They handed Mangas, who was near death, over to the doctor, and told him that if he failed to save the chief, they would kill everyone in the village. Mangas recovered."

The Last Reach for Peace

In the late summer of 1862, Mangas Coloradas, now an old man physically scarred and emotionally wounded by war, reached once more for peace. He met with an intermediary to issue a call to the Americans for peace. He summoned his Bedonkohe band into council and proposed peace with the Americans. Against the advice of other leaders, he decided that he would take the risk of going in person to meet with the military officials to explore the possibility for peace. "Mangas Coloradas knew the danger well but wanted peace so badly that he risked his life," said Ace Daklugie, the son of a contemporary Chiricahua chief, in Eve Ball's book An Apache Odyssey: Indeh.

Unknown to Mangas, General Carleton, with a contempt born of sanctimony, had said, "Mangas Coloradas sends me word he wants peace, but I have no faith in him." He then issued General Order No. 1, directing Joseph Rodman West – another officer with a rabid hatred of Apaches – to undertake a campaign to "chastise" Mangas' people, "that band of murderers and robbers..."

On January 17, 1863, several of West's troopers and a party of miners raised a white flag at Pinos Altos in a symbolic invitation to a council for peace. Mangas responded. He came in good faith, escorted by 12 Chiricahuas, expecting, Sweeney said, "...that the whites would embrace his offers for peace...," especially after "...a war that the Apaches felt had been forced upon them by the whites." As Mangas and his escort arrived, under the white flag of truce, armed soldiers burst from hiding, and "...our squad suddenly leveled our guns upon the [Indians]...," a miner reported later. In an act of treachery, the Americans had taken the old warrior hostage. They released his 12 escorts, sending them back to their people to deliver the news of Mangas' capture.

The troopers took their lone prisoner about 15 miles south to Fort McLane, which had been abandoned and burned in 1861 but pressed back into service for West's campaign. One soldier commented that "Mangas was the most magnificent specimen of savage manhood that I have ever seen." General West, a pygmy by comparison, looked up at his tall prisoner, snidely calling him "an old scoundrel" and saying that he had murdered his "last white victim." In what would prove to be another act of deception, West told Mangas that he and his family would be imprisoned together but would be "well treated."

Meanwhile, West told his sentries, "I want him dead."

West had Mangas thrown into the makeshift adobe cell, where the old chief covered himself with a blanket against the cold and lay down to try to sleep when darkness fell. About midnight, his guards began to torment him, heating their bayonets in a campfire and burning Mangas' feet and legs with the hot metal. They watched him flinch at the searing pain, then they shot the old man to death, answering West's order to kill him. Mangas Coloradas had been "trying to escape," they said, giving West a cover.

"The soldiers who murdered him treacherously buried his body in a shallow grave," Daklugie told Eve Ball. "The next day they dug it up, cut his head off, and boiled it to remove the flesh. Then they sent the skull to the Smithsonian Institution."

In another interview, Daklugie had told Ball that Mangas' "...death was bad, but to the Apaches the troops' cutting his head off and boiling it to get his skull were much worse. That meant that their great chief must go through the Happy Place forever headless."

"The killing of an unarmed man who has gone to an enemy under truce was an incomprehensible act," James Kaywaykla told Eve Ball during an interview for In the Days of Victorio, "but infinitely worse was the mutilation of his body... Little did the White Eyes know how they would pay when they defiled the body of our great chief!"

General Carleton felt proud of the brave guards who shot Mangas Coloradas to death that night. He thought he had broken the back of Chiricahua resistance in southwestern New Mexico. He was wrong. Cochise and other Apache chiefs followed in the footsteps of Mangas Coloradas. The clash of cultures would continue for almost another quarter of a century.

Edwin R. Sweeney's Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, the definitive work on the chief, has been my paramount source for this article. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in Mangas Coloradas, the Chiricahuas or the Apache wars.


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