Victorio (1820 – 81) was the last great Apache chief. A leader of the Chiricahua Apache from New Mexico, he led a breakout from the San Carlos Reservation in 1879. Victorio fought a guerrilla war against Mexico and the United States until his final defeat at Tres Castillos.
Victorio is his Spanish name. His other monikers included ‘Beduit’, ‘Checks His Horse’ and ‘Apache Wolf’.
As a young man, he trained for strength by running up hills with a mouthful of water to force him to breathe through his nose. Victorio fought alongside Apache chiefs Mangas Coloradas and Cochise and surrendered with the other Chiricahuas to reservation life in 1871. When bandits and other Apache attacked settlers, they blamed Victorio’s band, so in 1877, the US military forced them into a new home.
Their new home was San Carlos, a stretch of Arizona desert with little water or shade. Apache called it ‘Hell’s 40 Acres.’ Unsanitary, crowded conditions made tuberculosis rife. After three years, Victorio decided to leave.
He had two key allies:
- Old Nana (1810-1896, right) was a veteran of the Apache Wars and a skilled strategist with a reputation for cruelty. At 70 years, despite being half blind and rheumatic, he could still ride and fight.
- Lozen (1840 – 1889), Victorio’s younger sister, was a warrior and seer. She could allegedly foretell the future and track enemy movements from a distance.
“Lozen is my right hand … strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people.”
Victorio and Lozen persuaded 300 men and women to escape from San Carlos. The band stole horses from a nearby ranch and fled the US cavalry into the Sierra Diablo mountains.
The US refused his demands for a return to his traditional lands. In response Victorio raided both sides of the border, fighting over 200 skirmishes and raids. His warriors hid in the mountains, ambushed unsuspecting soldiers, and poisoned wells to evade pursuit. Victorio defeated a four companies at Los Animas and slaughtered 43 civilians at Los Alma.
In 1880, Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry and Texas Rangers pursued Victorio across the desert. They intercepted him at a wellspring and forced his band to cross the Rio Grande.
Victorio’s band arrived in Mexico tired and hungry. Lozen left to escort a pregnant mother back to a friendly reservation in Arizona.
The others made camp on a redoubt called ‘Tres Castillos’ – Three Castles. Old Nana took half of the band on a raiding party for ammunition and supplies. The next day Colonel Joaquin Terrazas and seasoned Indian fighter, Juan Mata Ortiz attacked. Their force of 250 included local millitia and scouts from the Tarahumara – a Native people with renowned endurance.
The Battle for Tres Castillos was one-sided. Victorio was shot early in the battle, and his fighters fought hand-to-hand against Mexican rifles. After one day of fighting, Victorio killed himself with a knife.
Colonel Terrazas killed the men and took the women and children captive, parading them to cheering crowds in Chihuahua city then selling them into slavery. A Tarahumara took Victorio’s scalp and later sold it for 2,000 pesos.
When he heard the news, Old Nana went on a revenge spree, killing soldiers and civilians. He captured Juan Mata Ortiz, burned him alive then fled into the Sierra Madre. Three years later, both Lozen and Old Nana would fight alongside Geronimo in the last Apache uprising.
Sources: James Kawaykla and Eve Ball – In the Days of Victorio (1970), Legends of America, Legends of the Old West Podcast, South Arizona Guide