The Apache Wars
At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1846, the United States took over a vast tract of land. Among the many native peoples living in this huge territory were the nomadic Apaches. The Apache had never submitted to the Mexican government, and they now opposed Americans who came into their lands searching for gold and silver or seeking to settle.
San Carlos Reservation
Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the U.S. government applied its military might to the subjugation of the native peoples of the West. Tribes were forced to give up most of their hereditary lands in return for reservations. After 1875, the reservation policy became very restrictive. Reservations were steadily made smaller, as settlers illegally moved into the areas and then sought protection from the Army. The Chiricahua Apaches were confined to 7200 square miles in the White Mountains of Arizona. By the 1880s, this area had been reduced to about 2600 square miles. Several bands of Chiricahuas were hostile to one another. As tensions mounted on the reservation, some bands escaped to wage war on the settlers taking their lands. Among the fiercest of these was the band led by Geronimo.
Geronimo's band raided across much of what is now New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico, evading large forces of Mexican and U.S. troops. In desperation, the U.S. Army hired Apache scouts to help the Army track hostile bands. Geronimo's group was finally cornered in Skeleton Canyon, where a surrender was negotiated. The surrender of Geronimo in 1886 marked the end of the Apache Wars. For the next 27 years the Chiricahua and Warm Spring Apaches were held prisoners of war. Over 400 were exiled from their homelands in Arizona and detained first in Florida, then in Alabama, and finally at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Pensacola's First Tourist Attraction
All of the Apaches were intended to be held at Fort Marion, but several prominent Pensacola citizens had petitioned the government to have Geronimo sent to Fort Pickens. The reasons cited in the petition were: Fort Pickens' superior location, being on an island; its being twice as large as Fort Marion, which was already overcrowded; and the presence of Army troops at Fort Barrancas who could guard them. However, an editorial in the local newspaper, The Pensacolian praised Congressman P.H.M. Davidson for the success of the petition saying, "He can point with pride as having been instrumental in giving Pensacola an attraction which will bring here a great many visitors. We hope to see the Indians soon."
Early on the morning of October 25, 1886 a train pulled into Pensacola. Onboard were 15 Apache warriors, their women and children, and 30 men of the 16th U.S. Infantry. The 15 men, with guards, were put on a steamer for the short trip across the bay to Fort Pickens. The women and children were sent on to Fort Marion at St. Augustine, where over 400 other Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches were imprisoned. On November 16, two more Apaches arrived, bringing the total to 17 prisoners.
Fort Pickens as a Prison
Fort Pickens had been unoccupied since 1867, and was in disrepair. In addition, the Fort Barrancas garrison was in Georgia. Due to the threat of deadly yellow fever in warm months, troops were regularly sent to inland camps until cooler weather returned to the Gulf Coast. Batteries B and H, 2nd Artillery returned to Fort Barrancas on October 24. Two rooms in the south wall of Fort Pickens were "divided and made secure for [the prisoners'] safekeeping." The prisoners were issued regular Army rations, plus three mess pans, four frying pans, and eighteen tin cups. Each man got one blanket, two pair of drawers, two knit undershirts, two pair of cotton socks, and one pair of field shoes. The Apaches were worked seven-hour days clearing overgrown weeds. George Wratten served as interpreter between the Apaches and their guards. He reported the Apaches "want to do what is required of them to the complete satisfaction of everyone."
1887: Tourists Come, and Families are Reunited
By January 1887 Colonel Loomis Langdon reported the Apaches' quarters "as comfortable" as when he had been here in 1861. He increased the rations, had a doctor visit twice weekly, and suggested the wives and children be returned from Fort Marion. In February the first tourists were allowed to visit. A pass was obtained at Fort Barrancas from Col. Langdon before taking a boat to the island. On one day 459 visitors came, and most days saw at least 20 visitors. On April 27 the wives and children arrived. Among them were three wives of Geronimo: Ze-yeh, Ih-tedda, and She-gha. She-gha died at a hospital in Pensacola, and is buried at Barrancas National Cemetery. The families were housed in officers' quarters in the south wall, while those prisoners without families lived in quarters in the north wall.
Although the prisoners' health was generally good, with only one death (unlike at Fort Marion), the fear of yellow fever led the Army to move the Apaches from Fort Pickens. Those at Fort Marion had been relocated to Mount Vernon Barracks, north of Mobile. On May 12, 1888 the Fort Pickens prisoners were sent there as well. The tribe was moved to Fort Sill, OK in 1894. Geronimo died there in 1909. The Chiricahuas were freed in 1913.
Did You Know?
The 2nd Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards trained on Ship Island and became the first black unit on April 9, 1863 on the Gulf Frontier. They met Confederate forces in battle during a raid on Pascagoula, MS.