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The History of the Aravaipa Apache

Colonial Period

(The following text draws in large part on Karl Jacoby’s Shadows at Dawn, as well as Ian Record’s Big Sycamore Stands Alone. As this is a work in progress, comments and feedback are especially welcome.)


Conflict with the Spanish

When the missionary Father Kino journeyed in 1692 up the San Pedro River (of which Aravaipa Creek is a tributary), violent competition over land and resources existed between the Apache and the Piman descendants of Hohokam civilization – the Sobaipuris and the Tohono O’odham.1

The Sobaipuri’s later move south may have been spurred on by their conversion to Catholicism or by war with the Apache. Nevertheless, by 1775 the Spaniards refer to this same region as Apachéria, in acknowledgement of the Apache’s dominant presence.

Despite Spanish pressure, most Apache refused to convert to Catholicism or re-settle near the missions. Their independence and the discovery of rich mineral veins on their lands made war with the encroaching Spanish empire inevitable.

Opposing cultural ideas about private ownership also led to conflict. Apache survival depended on taking advantage of whatever opportunities the desert offered – including in lean times by raiding cattle and other stores from the ranches and mines sitting on their traditional lands.

When the Spanish troops retaliated with extreme violence – killing even women and children – the Apache code called for retribution. Violence now reached unprecedented levels, as those Apache who lost family were less inclined to show compassion when they attacked in return.

The colonial period was marked by increasing warfare between the Spanish garrison troops of Tucson and the Apache to the north. Although both sides suffered terrible loss of life, the Apache succeeded in keeping their lands largely free of colonial domination.

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Arizona under the United States

Following the Gadsden purchase in 1853, the Apache continued to raid settlements south of the new border, often to trade goods with enthusiastic eastern settlers. In this way, the Apache for a time formed a niche economy between two major empires.

The Apache traded more than raided goods however. In the 19th century, the Aravaipa Apache provided essential foods to nearby Euro-American settlers, including corn, melon and other produce they had grown along the verdant, year-round Aravaipa creek.

What many settlers did not understand was that peace treaties with the Apache obliged the members of the negotiating band only, not the nation as a whole – which did not have a centralized system of governance.

This meant that American settlers would blame the entire Apache people whenever individual violent acts occurred. By contrast, when settlers stole or murdered, the individual perpetrators – and not the pioneer community or United States entire – was held accountable.

In time, almost any attack on a homestead or wagon train was blamed on the Apache. In fact, an entire economy grew up around fighting the Apache and many Tucson merchants benefited from its continuation.

Much like the Spanish before them, American pioneers began to see the Apache presence in northern Arizona as the major impediment to economic growth. Furthermore, the call for war against the Apache justified increased Federal aid to the Arizona Territory.

By 1871, the newspapers and civic leaders of Tucson were advocating the outright extermination of the Apache. In the press, much was made of the murder of a homesteading couple. However, recent scholarship shows that the details of this event were intentionally misrepresented – largely to stoke public rage and support for a “final solution”.

All this then set the stage for the subsequent massacre of Apache civilians at Aravaipa, who had sought the protection of Camp Grant against the escalating violence.

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> Next Section: The Massacre

FOOTNOTES ... to come




1771 Spanish colonial map showing Apache settlement. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.



Women and children outside their wickiups, San Carlos, Arizona. Photo taken by A.F. Randall ca. 1888. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.



An Apache mother and child taken at the turn of the last century. Photo by Edward Curtis. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.



A group gathered outside of their cloth and brush-covered wickiup, ca. 1885. Photo taken by A.F. Randall. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.



While innocently engaged in trading ... a cannon concealed behind the goods was fired upon my people, and quite a number were killed. Since that, Chihuahua has offered a reward for our scalps, $150 each ... How can we make peace with such people?

Mangas Coloradas, Chiricahua Apache leader, ca. 1850. Quoted in Shadows at Dawn, p. 163.



he people were poor. They set fire to the material at the base of the sotol stalks and when the fire was burned down hunted in the ashes for the singed mice that were left. They picked them up and ate them. They lived on these. They were poor ...

Then they found out there were white men living somewhere. They also discovered that white people had something to live on.

From 1930s oral history collected by Grenville Goodwin. Quoted from Shadows at Dawn, p.163.