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July 10th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Texans and Mexicans cooperate to bring down Victorio

This Week in Texas History:
A column

Victorio was beaten in a Big Bend battle on Jul. 11, 1880, but the Chiricahua Apache still had plenty of fight left in him.

Three months later, several companies of West Texas cavalry from Fort Davis and Fort Concho reinforced the international expedition against the Apaches terrorizing both sides of the border.  In a rare display of U.S.-Mexico cooperation, the armies of the two nations and the Texas Rangers joined forces to hunt down the band led by chief Victorio. The elusive Chiricahua earned the grudging respect of hard-nosed Indian fighters, who ranked the renegade as the most brilliant guerrilla leader in the Southwest.  Not even Geronimo was his equal at the frontier game of hit-and-hide.

For eight long years, Victorio tried to play by the white man’s rules while he waited  for a promised enclave in New Mexico.  But in 1877 the army announced he and his followers would be relocated instead to the infamous San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.

In early 1879, Victorio vanished with 30 followers.  Other Apaches itching for action flocked to his side, and by year’s end 150 warriors were at his beck and call.

 Chiricahua Apache Chief, Victorio,

Chiricahua Apache Chief Victorio

High in the Candelarias, a range of jagged peaks in northern Mexico, Victorio set up camp.  With a panoramic view of the countryside for miles in all directions, no one could approach the roost undetected.

When the Apaches swiped their ponies in the dead of night, 15 villagers tracked the thieves to the cloud-covered stronghold.  The unprepared peasants were ambushed in a narrow pass and swiftly slaughtered.  The tragedy was repeated, when 30 worried campesinos went looking for their missing kin and fell into the same fatal trap.

So anxious were the Mexicans to avenge the massacre that even their animosity toward the hated gringos was temporarily put on hold.  Lt. George Baylor received an urgent invitation to cross the Rio Grande with his Rangers and take part in the punitive campaign against the Apaches.

The unlikely allies found the butchered victims and carefully lowered their remains into a deep ravine.  Victorio’s trail was discovered, but he had a head start and easily eluded the frustrated pursuers.

After a winter hiatus, the Apaches invaded the Trans-Pecos region unleashing wholesale horror on the Texas side of the river.  Baylor and his men again spent dusty days in the saddle but never caught so much as a glimpse of the raiders.

The Rangers did find irrefutable proof of the fact that their prey was no ignorant savage.  As Baylor reported, Victorio “had torn down the military telegraph, dragged off the poles and knocked off the insulators.”  The Apache clearly understood the importance of disrupting his adversaries’ modern means of communication.

Victorio returned to his Mexican sanctuary leaving the Texans with nothing to show for their trouble.  But old enemies once again united to rid themselves of a common enemy.

From the forts of New Mexico came 550 horse soldiers, 100 infantry and 200 Apache scouts to augment the 300 Mexican troops under the command of Gen. Joaquin Terrasas.  The Rangers brought along 100 enthusiastic civilian volunteers, and the October addition of the West Texas cavalry with another 65 scouts completed the cast.

As the huge force moved in for the kill, the Mexican officer told the Americans to take a hike.  Gen. Terrasas did not want to share the glory, and the presence of so many ostensibly friendly Apaches made him nervous.

Victorio held the high ground, as usual, and was well aware of Terrasas’ approach hours in advance.  Escape would have been child’s play, but he inexplicably chose to face a vastly superior foe.  Even more puzzling was the decision of the aging chief to send away 50 of his best braves.

Terrasas attacked on Oct. 14, 1880, and the first to fall was Victorio.  Astride a milk white stallion, he paraded recklessly in full view of the Mexican marksmen.  Two shots echoed off the mountainside, and the legendary Apache toppled lifeless to the ground.

Over the years, Victorio had fought 200 separate engagements and always lived to fight another day by getting out when the getting was good.  Either the Mexicans got lucky or Old Vic, as the Texans called him, picked the time and place to die.

In the brief and bloody battle, 78 Apaches perished while Mexican casualties were amazingly light.  Seventy women and children were dragged away into captivity.  Bondage destroyed their wild spirit, and all died within a matter of months.

Most of the surviving raiders went on a rampage through the Sierra Madres slaying over 200 Mexicans before hooking up with Geronimo.  A dozen others strayed into Texas, where they made life miserable for scattered settlers living at the foot of the Eagle Mountains.

Due east of El Paso in January 1881, the Rangers tangled with Indians for the last time.  In a one-sided skirmish atop Diablo Mountain, the state lawmen put an end to the Apache menace once and for all.

Visit Bartee’s new web site every day to find out what happened
in Texas history on that date.  And while you’re there, do a little shopping at the General Store.

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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