Apache Before 1861

Hand-tinted photograph of wikiup, with people standing nearby, or inside.
The Chiricahua Apache were nomadic people (until recently) who lived in quickly constructed wikiups. Wikiups provided shelter from all the elements.

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Origin Beliefs

The chief deity of the Chiricahua Apache was Ussen, whose will governed all. Ussen existed before the creation of the universe. He created the first Mother with no parents who sang four times, a sacred number to the Chiricahua Apache. Her singing began the creation of the universe. Ussen also created the first Boy and Sun God who shook hands. The sweat from this handshake created the Earth. The Earth was small at first, so they kicked it around and it gained mass like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger. Ussen also created Tarantula, who increased the Earth’s size even more by pulling on it with four cords of web which he spun. Ussen then created the first people and fire and then he left. Ussen continues to watch events unfold from afar and still intercedes from time to time.

Geographical Origins

The Chiricahua Apache are an Athabaskan people. This means they speak a language that originated in northwestern North America. It is generally believed they were pushed south from this area by warring tribes. They entered into what would become the southwestern United States somewhere between 1400 and 1500, based on recent archaeological evidence. The Chiricahua were a group of different Apache bands that settled in what is now southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northern Mexico in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. The Chiricahua were named after the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona. The Apaches did not refer to themselves as "Apache" which was a word that translated to enemy in Zuni and was later adopted by the Spanish. Apaches instead referred to themselves with variants of "nde," simply meaning "the people."
North America Map that shows where Athabaskan languages are spoken (Alaska, part of Western Canada, part of northern California, and in the Southwest)
Based on Athabaskan language distribution, many researchers believe the Apache came from the northwestern part of North America.

NPS/Southeast Arizona Group Resource Management



The Chiricahua Apache were a nomadic people. They lived off the land and moved with the seasons, usually spending winter on the warmer plains of the Southwest and summer in the cooler mountains. They were hunter gatherers who lived in huts called wickiups, constructed from grass, hides, and other materials.

It was a sacred vocation for a Chiricahua Apache to become a warrior. Both men and women could become warriors. Training began at a young age. Many toys were mock weapons, such as a bow and arrow. They trained to reach peak physical condition. The coming of age trial for a warrior was to run for two days straight with no food and no sleep. If they were low on water while doing something strenuous such as climbing a mountain, they would put a pebble in their mouth and breathe only through their nose. They were also trained to be able to lie completely still and disappear into their surroundings. They would toughen their bodies by diving into frozen rivers.

The Chiricahua hated the idea of imprisonment or dying helplessly (being hanged, for example). They were at peace with dying in combat or from natural causes. Once introduced to horses by the Spanish, the Apache became some of the best horsemen in North America. They had already been masters of the bow and arrow. The best bowmen could shoot seven arrows in the air before the first hit the ground. Upon discovering rifles, they became just as proficient with them.

The Chiricahua Apache had long practiced raiding--the capturing of other’s property, often done in surprise attacks. The Chiricahua raided other tribes and later the Spanish, the Mexicans, and American settlers. The taken property could include livestock, food, ammunition, and weapons. Sometimes these raids involved kidnapping or killing. The Chiricahua did not see a problem with this practice, as they relished combat and had been raiding for centuries. They also did not share the same principles of ownership and theft as other cultures.

Conflict with Spain and Mexico

Conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado was one of the first Europeans to explore the Southwest in the 1500s searching for cities of gold. He did not run into the Chiricahua Apache, but some claim to have seen him and hidden for “an entire man’s lifetime.”

By the 1700s, the Apache were raiding into Mexico, which was under Spanish occupation at the time. The Spanish recognized this as a problem by the 1730s and began establishing forts and stationing more troops. The most intense part of this conflict occurred in the 1770s. Later, the Spanish began to hand out rations which resulted in relative peace.

In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain. Peace began to deteriorate with the Apache as Mexican soldiers withdrew from forts and rations were no longer handed out. The Chiricahua began raiding in Mexico again. In 1835, the Mexican government announced a bounty on Apache scalps.

The United States Gains the Southwest

The Mexican American War began in 1846 and ended with a U.S. victory in 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and later the Gadsden Purchase, officially made the Southwest a part of the United States as it is today. These events brought U.S. settlement to the Southwest along with U.S. military.

Just before the Apache Wars in 1861, the Chiricahua Apache population was estimated to be around 1,200.

Map of land Mexico ceded to the United States of America during the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, as well as the Gadsden Purchase.
The United States was victorious in the Mexican-American War and gained what would become the American Southwest.

NPS/ J. Garcia, Southeast Arizona Group Resource Management

Last updated: August 10, 2023

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