A few of years ago, I made my first trip to Aravaipa Canyon. It was everything a modern hiker could hope for– secluded, deep, quiet, and mysterious. I was so taken aback by the place that I have since taken not one, but two trips back. Protected by high walls on both sides, a perennial stream feeds ancient Sycamores at its core, forming a veritable Garden of Eden along the canyon floor. Despite the fact that Aravaipa is the only reliable water source for miles, as far as I can tell its walls have no petroglyphs, there are no ruins, and there is no evidence that native peoples ever settled in the place permanently. And so, every time I’ve returned to Aravaipa I’ve been stuck with the the same nagging questions: Who lived here? What kind of life did they have? And, where did they go?
Years later, I finally know the answers to these questions. For that I can thank Paul Andrew Hutton and his masterpiece of a book, The Apache Wars.
Readers here know that this is mostly a hiking blog. However, all hiking blogs are more specific than their source material. Hiking has to happen in places, and places have history. The three, the act of hiking, the place the hike happens, and the history of that place, are inextricable from one another. As much as this blog is about hiking in Arizona, it is also about Arizona itself, its history and its people.
And, in the mountains of Arizona, or Apacheria as the Spanish and Mexicans called it, these people are almost always Apache.
Mickey, as he preferred to be called, was kidnapped from his family’s ranch along Sonoita Creek in January 1861 by a group of Aravaipa Apaches. Until this time the Americans and Apaches had lived in relative peace with one another (the same could not be said for the Apaches and Mexicans). Unfortunately Mickey’s kidnapping was incorrectly blamed on the Chiricahua Apaches, leading to the disastrous Bascom Affair, and a ramping up of hostilities that would not end until Geronimo was trapped in a Florida POW camp some 25 years later.
25 years is a lot of time for one book to cover, and in the hands of a lesser author the story would quickly be swamped by the large cast of characters and enormous geographic space. To avoid this pitfall, Hutton structures the history around Mickey. A given chapter might introduce twenty new characters and five new locales, but, oh look, there’s Mickey and we know that guy. All roads lead to Mickey Free.
“Half-Irish, half-Mexican, and all son of a bitch.”- Al Sieber describing Mickey Free
The problem with such an approach is that it over-emphasizes the importance of Mickey, who, all things considered, is a tangential character. Whether or not Mickey’s kidnapping was truly responsible for the events that would follow, this is really the story of Cochise, Clum, Crook, Geronimo, Kid, Lozen, Magnas Coloradas, Miles, Nana, and Victorio. Yes, Mickey had a convenient ability to be in interesting places at interesting times, and yes, many in the Apache community never forgot that his kidnapping was at least partially responsible for kicking off this war of annihilation, but ultimately he is a literary device here, a pair of eyes for European-Americans to see the conflict through. What if I had been the one kidnapped, we are meant to think. It works, but it also distracts from the characters who are interesting in and of themselves.
“It is not too late so long as one Apache lives”- Nana
And what a cast of characters it is: Cochise, the regal warrior chief, Crook, the genius general with an uncanny ability to get captured, Geronimo, the hothead, Kid, the irresistibly likable youngster, Lozen, the mystic, Magnas Coloradas, the betrayed peace advocate, Miles, the backseat driver, Nana, the wise old chief, and Victorio, the impossibly brave warrior. With a group like this you will find someone to relate to, which makes the reliance on Mickey more frustrating. Personally, I couldn’t help but see more than a little bit of myself in John Clum.
However, if Hutton spends too much time on Mickey, his unique voice more than makes up for the transgression. He is lyrical without being poetic, cutting without being sarcastic, and pointed without being judgmental. All told, The Apache Wars is the perfect compliment to Hampton Sides Blood and Thunder, which covers roughly same time-period just north of Apacheria.
If I have to pick more nits, I can only think of two. First, the book could have been longer. This is a strange thing for a scientist to say, but interstitial digressions are consistently the best parts Hutton’s writing and this book could use more of them. Second, I wish Hutton had dealt with the Did this all really have to happen? question more explicitly, as Dan Carlin did in his great podcast on the topic. When the Americans first came to posses Apaheria the Apaches, largely, offered peace. Through some incredible blunders, like the aforementioned Bascom Affair, the Americans somehow managed to muck the whole thing up. This begs the central question of the period, was there another way? Given some reasonably good leadership (which the Apaches had), could the settled European-Americans and the roving Apaches have found a way to live in peace? Unfortunately, Hutton comes at this question directly rather than obliquely, telling the story as it is rather than wondering what might have been. These are the choices authors have to make when writing books on histories as expansive as this one, but this seems like an opportunity missed that could have been afforded if Hutton had an extra 100 pages to play with.
Fundamentally though, these are just nits to pick and the book does not suffer too greatly for any of them. Far from it. Like all masterpieces The Apache Wars is great due to, not in spite of, its faults. Hutton’s obvious admiration for Mickey combined with his devotion to telling the facts as they are, rather than how they could have been, work together to draw the reader in while simultaneously holding on to real historical credibility in a way few books can.
Who lived here? What kind of life did they have? And, where did they go?
Years later, I finally know the answers to these questions. Aravaipa Canyon was once home to a band of Apaches. They were lead by Eskiminzin, a strong but flexible leader who navigated the changes that befell his people with grace. They lived in wikiups along Aravaipa Creek, where they made a (mostly) peaceably living harvesting barely in exchange for protection from the army at nearby Camp Grant. They were brutally murdered, men, women, and children, by a rag tag group of American, Mexican, and Tohono O’odam civilians in what is rightly called a Massacre. Now we know why that place always smells of ghosts.
Read The Apache Wars. You will not regret it.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.