Apache Indians

By: Jeffrey D. Carlisle

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: September 29, 2020

The Apache Indians belong to the southern branch of the Athabascan group, whose languages constitute a large family, with speakers in Alaska, western Canada, and the American Southwest. The several branches of Apache tribes occupied an area extending from the Arkansas River to Northern Mexico and from Central Texas to Central Arizona. Generally, the Apaches are divided into Eastern and Western, with the Rio Grande serving as the dividing line. Two groups, the Lipans and the Mescaleros, lived partially or entirely within the confines of Texas. The Apaches went by numerous names. Because of their nomadic nature, it seems probable that several names were used to identify the same band or tribe. Some names of Apache bands in Texas were Limita, Conejero, and Trementina (perhaps the same as Limita). But only the names Lipan and Mescalero survived into the nineteenth century. The name Apache most probably came from the Zuñi word apachu, meaning "enemy," or possibly Awa'tehe, the Ute name for Apaches. The Apaches referred to themselves as Inde or Diné, meaning "the people." The Apaches arrived in the Southwest between A.D. 1000 and 1400. After somehow being separated from their northern kinsmen, they carved out a home in the Southwest-apparently migrating south along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, then spreading westward into New Mexico and Arizona. In time, pressure from the Comanches and other tribes pushed the Apaches farther south and west.

The social unit of the Lipan and Mescalero Apaches was the extended family. Several extended families generally stayed together and were led by their most prominent member, who acted as chief advisor and director of group affairs. A number of the groups lived in close proximity and could unite for defensive or offensive purposes, or for social or ceremonial occasions. The leader of the combined groups was the band leader. The Lipans had no formal organization larger than the band. This loose organization caused problems in relations with the Spanish, and later with the Mexicans, Texans, and Americans. One Apache band, for instance, might make peace with its enemies, while another would remain at war. Likewise, when the Apaches made peace with one enemy Indian settlement, it did not mean that they made peace with other affiliated settlements. Band leaders were always males, but females held a central place within the tribe. Upon marriage, the groom moved in with his wife's family and had to hunt and work with his in-laws. If the wife should die, the husband was required to stay with her family, who would usually supply him with a new bride. The wife had little obligation to the husband's family, but if he died, his family could provide a cousin or brother for her to marry. Men were allowed to marry more than one woman, but few besides wealthy or prestigious leaders did so. On those rare occasions, they were required to marry sisters or cousins of their wives.

The Apaches were nomadic and lived almost completely off the buffalo. They dressed in buffalo skins and lived in tents made of tanned and greased hides, which they loaded onto dogs when they moved with the herds. They were among the first Indians, after the Pueblos, to learn to ride horses. Learning from runaway or captured Pueblos, the Apaches quickly adapted to their use of horses. Formerly peaceful trade relationships with the Pueblos deteriorated, however, as the Spanish discouraged trade with the Apaches and forced the Pueblos to work their farms. When the Pueblos became unwilling or unable to trade with the Apaches, the nomadic Indians turned their new equestrian skills to raiding for horses and supplies. The Spanish first contacted the Apaches in 1541, when Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his men encountered a band of "Querechos" on the journey to Quivira. From 1656 to 1675, the Spanish settlers and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico suffered heavily from almost continuous Apache raids. These raids, in conjunction with drought, harsh Spanish rule, and missionary activities, led the Pueblo Indians to revolt and to drive the Spaniards out of New Mexico in 1680 (the "Pueblo Revolt). When the Spaniards reconquered New Mexico in 1692, the Apaches were a powerful nation of mounted Indians who raided with impunity wherever they desired. But the Apaches' dominance was short-lived. Their aggressive behavior turned their neighbors into enemies, and a new, potentially powerful tribe, the Comanches, began pressuring the Apaches from the north. By 1700 the Apaches began migrating southwest as the Comanche, Wichita, and Tejas Indians, better armed through trade with the French, began to occupy the dominant position on the South Plains. In addition, the Apaches had never adapted completely to a Plains culture. They continued to establish rancherías, where they built huts and tended fields of maize, beans, pumpkins, and watermelons. This attempt to improve their source of food was a major cause of their defeat by the Comanches. Twice a year, during planting and again during harvesting, the Apaches were tied to their fields. As a result, the Comanches knew where to find their enemies and could launch devastating raids upon the Apache settlements. With each successful raid the Comanches grew stronger and the Apaches weaker.

As the Apaches fled before the Comanche onslaught, many groups moved westward into New Mexico and Arizona. Others, mainly the Lipans and Mescaleros, fled southward into Central Texas as well as into northern Mexico. There, they collided with the Spanish, who were advancing northward. The Spanish had earlier aided the Tejas Indians of East Texas in their raids against the Apaches. When the Spanish founded San Antonio in 1718, the Apaches discovered a convenient, accessible location at which to stage raids against their European enemies. The Spanish at San Antonio attempted to make peace with the Apaches but had little success. After a series of clashes, the viceroy ordered the governor of Texas, Fernando Pérez de Almazán, to secure peace with the Apaches through gentle means. Noting that the Jicarilla Apaches had made peace with the Spanish in New Mexico, the viceroy saw hope for similar conciliation with the Texas Apaches. The viceroy therefore forbade any further campaigns against the Apaches in 1725, and his decision appeared to be justified by a substantial drop in Apache raiding over the next six years. During this lull in activity, Pedro de Rivera y Villalón made a general inspection of the entire Spanish frontier and recommended, among other things, a reduction in the size of the garrison at San Antonio. Influenced no doubt by the relative quiet around San Antonio, Rivera suggested that the garrison be reduced. This action raised a storm of protest from the missionaries and settlers at Bexar. They feared renewed raids once the Apaches learned of the smaller force at San Antonio. The Regulation of 1729, based largely on Rivera's recommendations, forbade governors and commanders from waging war on friendly or indifferent Indians, discouraged campaigns against hostile Indians by friendly tribes, and encouraged granting peace to any enemy tribes who sought it. During the 1730s and 1740s, the Apaches and Spaniards continued to wage war on each other. In 1743 Fray Benito Fernández de Santa Ana urged the establishment of missions for the Apaches in their own lands, arguing that this was the best solution to the most serious Indian problems in Texas. On August 19, 1749, four Apache chiefs with numerous followers buried a hatchet along with other instruments of war in a peace ceremony at San Antonio. For the first time both sides appeared genuinely to desire peace, and the Apaches, decimated by Comanche raids, appeared willing to accept Christian conversion in exchange for protection by the Spaniards.

The missionaries at San Antonio proposed several plans to set up missions for the Apaches, but competition among proposals delayed their implementation. The first formal mission for the Texas Apaches was established not at San Antonio but in the jurisdiction of San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande. On December 21, 1754, Alonso Giraldo de Terreros established the mission of San Lorenzo, situated in Mexico eighteen leagues west of the presidio at San Juan Bautista. San Lorenzo had a degree of success until Father Terreros retired from the management of that mission to promote a larger project intended for the San Saba River in Texas. Less than a year after San Lorenzo was established, its neophytes became discontented, revolted, burned the mission buildings, and deserted. The missionaries blamed the failure of that first Apache mission on the natural inconstancy of the tribe, as well as on their reluctance to live away from their homelands. The latter reason helped bolster the argument for placing a mission closer to Apache territory. Revived prospects for mining in the region of San Saba, which was located in the heart of Apachería, also boosted the argument for that location. In addition, Terreros's cousin offered generous monetary support for the mission. The plan for a mission-presidio-colony project was soon under way. When Terreros, the presidio commander Col. Diego Ortiz Parrilla, and their entourage arrived at the San Saba River in April 1757, they found no Indians to greet them. Still, despite Ortiz's objections, the missionaries demanded that construction begin, and Ortiz yielded to their entreaties. In June 1757 the first Indians began to arrive at the site, and within days 3,000 Apaches encamped around the mission. The missionaries were extremely pleased until they learned that the Indians were not willing to enter the mission. Instead, they had gathered for their annual buffalo hunt and for a campaign against their enemies, the northern tribes. The Indians soon departed, promising to return to settle at the missions upon completion of their quest. During the autumn and winter of 1757, small groups of Apaches would appear at the mission; but after partaking of the priests' kindness, they continued their migration to the south. On March 16, 1758, a party of 2,000 Comanche, Tejas, Bidai, Tonkawa, and other Indians swooped down upon Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission, killed eight of the inhabitants, pillaged the supplies, and burned the buildings.

Despite the disaster at San Saba and the apparent untrustworthiness of the Apaches, the Spanish continued in their efforts to keep the peace. The Apaches for their part did just enough to keep the Spanish interested. They even joined Colonel Ortiz on his campaign in 1759 to punish the northern tribes. Although some of the Lipans retreated before the final battle, most of them apparently served Ortiz well during the campaign. The Lipans continued to ask for a mission but refused to settle in the region of San Saba after the massacre that had occurred there. They desired a location more remote from their Comanche and northern enemies. In January 1762 the new Apache mission, San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz, was established on the upper Nueces River halfway between San Saba and the Rio Grande. Once the mission was established, several Apache bands visited it, but only one band of more than 300 actually settled at the mission. Within a month, however, an Apache chief requested the establishment of a second mission at a site several miles downstream from San Lorenzo. In February 1762 Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria Mission was established. Life at the missions progressed relatively smoothly until a smallpox epidemic hit the neophytes in 1764. In addition, the missions were too poor to feed the Indians regularly, and the missionaries demanded too much labor from them. Slowly, the Lipans became discouraged with mission life. In 1766 they abandoned Candelaria; and when the Comanches and other northern tribes began raiding San Lorenzo, the Apaches deserted in droves. By the summer of 1767, both missions were devoid of Lipan Apaches.

At approximately this time, the Marqués de Rubí completed his inspection of the frontier, and upon his return to Mexico set forth his recommendations. He believed that the Comanches and other northern tribes attacked the Spanish only because of the latter's connection with the Lipan Apaches. Rubí felt sure that friendship could be cultivated with the northern tribes and that with their help the Apaches could be exterminated, or at least sufficiently reduced. By the 1790s the Apaches had become relatively quiet, although they continued to raid sporadically. The Spanish made peace treaties with them in 1790 and again in 1793. When the Mexican War of Independence began in 1811, the decreased attention that the Spanish paid to Indians caused them to become bolder, and they again staged raids. These attacks continued until the end of Spanish rule in Texas and Mexico. Antonio María Martínez, the last Spanish governor of Texas, reported raids by Lipan and Comanche Indians, even on the capital of Texas, San Antonio (see CAPITALS).

The Mexican government quickly signed two treaties with the Lipans. In each, the Mexicans promised to supply the Apaches with annual gifts of gunpowder and corn in exchange for peace. As Anglo-Americans began moving into Central Texas, the Apaches cultivated a friendship with them, each side hoping that the other would help defend them against hostile tribes in the area. The Lipans often raided into Mexico and sold their stolen horses and goods to the Anglos. The Mexican government generally overlooked these depredations, because of the usefulness of the Apaches against the formidable Comanches.

When Texas gained its independence, the relatively cordial relations between Whites and Apaches continued. The Texans drew up their own treaty with the Lipans in 1838. The alliance broke down in 1842, and 250 of approximately 400 Lipans left Texas for Mexico, where they joined the Mescaleros on destructive raids across the border for several decades. In 1865–67 alone, Uvalde County reported the theft of more than $30,000 worth of livestock and the deaths of eighteen people. The Mexican government was reluctant to act, because several Mexican border towns profited handsomely from the purchase of plundered goods from the Apaches. Finally, in 1873, Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie led a force of 400 soldiers into Mexico to destroy the Lipan villages. His army killed or captured virtually all of the surviving Lipans, and they were deported to the Mescalero Reservation in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico, which had been assigned to the Mescaleros in 1855 but not officially established until 1873. In 1905 the remainder of the Lipans in Mexico drifted onto the Mescalero Reservation. In 1970 about 1,660 Indians were enrolled there-not only Mescaleros, but Chiricahuas, Lipans, Kiowas, and a few Comanches as well. Thirty-five Lipans were living in Oklahoma in 1940 but were not officially listed among the tribes of the state.

John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513–1821 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). William E. Dunn, "The Apache Mission on the San Saba River: Its Founding and Failure," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 17 (April 1914). William E. Dunn, "Apache Relations in Texas, 1718–1750," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 14 (January 1911). Odie B. Faulk, The Last Years of Spanish Texas, 1778–1821 (The Hague: Mouton, 1964). George E. Hyde, Indians of the High Plains: From the Prehistoric Period to the Coming of Europeans (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959). Elizabeth A. H. John, Storms Brewed in Other Men's Worlds: The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the Southwest, 1540–1795 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1975). Thomas E. Mails, The People Called Apache (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1974). Paul D. Nathan, trans., and Lesley Byrd Simpson, ed., The San Sabá Papers (San Francisco: Howell, 1959). Thomas H. Naylor and Charles W. Polzer, comps. and eds., Pedro de Rivera and the Military Regulations for Northern New Spain, 1724–1729 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988). William W. Newcomb, The Indians of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961). Frank D. Reeve, "The Apache Indians in Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 50 (October 1946). Thomas F. Schilz, Lipan Apaches in Texas (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1987). Virginia H. Taylor, trans. and ed., The Letters of Antonio Martínez, Last Spanish Governor of Texas, 1817–1822 (Austin: Texas State Library, 1957). John Upton Terrell, The Plains Apache (New York: Crowell, 1975). Ernest Wallace and David M. Vigness, eds., Documents of Texas History (Austin: Steck, 1963). Robert S. Weddle, The San Sabá Mission (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964).

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Tribes (Major)
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jeffrey D. Carlisle, “Apache Indians,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 02, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/apache-indians.

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September 29, 2020