Notes From The Frontier
Great Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas
Geronimo’s Mentor, Cochise’s Father-in-Law
Of all the ferocious Indian tribes that struck terror in the hearts of whites, the Apache were among the most fierce. And, among Apache leaders, one was especially feared, but most Americans today have never heard of him. Those great Apache leaders who came after him and whom he mentored became famous and revered: Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio, Lozen. They owed much to one great Apache chief named Mangas Coloradas. His Apache name was unpronounceable to whites, but his Mexican foes named him “Mangas Coloradas,” meaning “Red Sleeves,” for the blood of the many Mexicans he killed. Today historians regard him as one of the most important Native American leaders in the 1800s, partly because of his remarkable fighting achievements not only against Mexico, but against the American Army, but also for his brilliant guerilla strategies and astute leadership in uniting many disparate bands to fight for their lands and heritage.
Mangas Coloradas may today live in the shadows of the legacies of Cochise and Geronimo, but in his day, they followed in his shadow. In great part because of his legacy as a great and honorable warrior chief and then, his horrific death, Geronimo and Chochise and other Apache leaders vowed revenge. And they kept their word.
Mangas Coloradas cast a long shadow in part because he was a giant of a man, literally: 6’6” tall with a very powerful frame. A young white prospector met the chieftain just days before his death at age 70 and wrote of his imposing stature: “Mangas was a very large athletic man….His shoulders were broad and his chest full and muscular. He stood erect and his step was proud. Altogether he presented quite a model of manhood.”
He was born in 1793 to the Mimbreno Apache tribe in what is today southwestern New Mexico. He would become the mentor of the young Geronimo and the father-in-law of Apaches chieftains, Cochise and Victorio. In the 1820s and 1830s, the major enemy of the Apache were the Mexicans, who had just won their independence from Spain and were now encroaching upon Apache lands. In 1845, when the U.S. went to war with Mexico, the Apache Nation and Mangas brokered a treaty with the U.S.
But the treaty was short-lived as white settlers, gold prospectors and the U.S. military were poorly informed and trigger-happy regarding about who their Native allies were and confused friendly tribes with warring ones.
The 1851 opening of the Santa Rita copper mine led to open warfare with many Apache chiefs. Mangas Coloradas joined forces with the Apache Warm Springs chief, Cuchillo Negro, called by the Americans “Black Knife,” who was believed to be Mangas’s brother-in-law. In 1857, Cuchillo Negro was killed by U.S. troops. Then, in 1861, 30 miners launched an ambush on a peaceful Apache encampment of Bedonkohes, killed many Indians and took many women and children prisoner. After that, Mangas Coloradas began raids against U.S. citizens with a vengeance.
In 1861, Mangas’s daughter, Dos-Teh-Seh, married the Chiricahua Apache chief, Cochise. In February 1861, US Army Lieutenant George N. Bascom investigated the kidnapping of a ranchers son, supposedly by Apaches, and wrongfully arrested an innocent Cochise and his family for the crime, apparently without orders or proof. Cochise managed to fight himself free with a knife, but his family and several warriors remained in custody. Cochise’s brother and five other warriors were hung by Bascom and his superior.
Mangas Coloradas and Cochise formed a formidable alliance with other noted Apache chiefs, including Delgadito, Nana, Victorio, Juh, and Geronimo. The alliance succeeded in greatly reducing the settlement of white settlers to the territory and many successful battles against the U.S. military.
In the annals of so many dishonorable dealings of whites and the military with Native Americans, the 1863 capture of Mangas Coloradas under the white flag of treaty counsel and his subsequent torture and murder under the orders of Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West is among the most heinous. In the summer of 1862, Mangas Coloradas was healing from a bullet wound to his chest. He had lost many warriors and was now almost seventy years old.
In January 1863, he made the hard decision to meet with military leaders at Fort McLane, near Silver City, New Mexico. He had been promised provisions for his people and a peaceful transition by the government. Mangas arrived at the fort carrying a white flag of truce to meet with Brigadier General West. West ordered his troops to arrest Mangas and gave them an execution order:
“Men, that old murderer has got away from every soldier command and has left a trail of blood for 500 miles on the old stage line. I want him dead tomorrow morning. Do you understand? I want him dead.”
Mangas was bound, tortured, and burned with baronets heated in a campfire. When the chief defiantly chided the soldiers as children, they shot him point blank. West wrote an official report that the chief had tried to escape and was shot.
The U.S. military had always been fascinated by Mangas Coloradas, his dignity and austere composure, his brilliant combat strategies, and, especially, his magnificent physique. The regimental surgeon at Fort McLane said that he wanted the chief’s head “for scientific purposes.” He boiled the head in a large kettle to extract the skull and sold it to Dr. Orson S. Fowler, a noted phrenologist of the time who believed the shape of a skull indicated character.
Fowler wrote in his 1873 book, Human Science of Phrenology admiringly of Chief Mangas Coloradas, and noted that his skull indicated great ambition and dignity. The scientist placed the skull on display in his Fowler's Phrenological Cabinet in New York, until it disappeared and was never found. (To this day, theories have existed that the skull was sent to the Smithsonian Museum, but the Smithsonian claims they never received the skull.)
The betrayal of honorable treaty protocol, the illegal confinement, torture, and murder of Chief Mangas Coloradas enraged all the Apache. But the defilement of his body was especially grevious, since the Apache believed that a person traveled in the afterlife in the body he or she was left with at death.
The horrific circumstances of the death of Mangas Coloradas ignited new and even more vicious reprisals of the Apache on the military and white settlers. Cochise, the son-in-law of Coloradas, launched a nine-year campaign of attacks and battles in Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora.
Some historians and Apache scholars maintain that the defilement of Mangas Coloradas marked one of the main causes in a heightened savagery on the part of the Apache toward whites. Whites came to especially fear the Apache because of their extraordinary brutality toward their enemies.
Although there are some indoors exhibits at various Native American and Western Museums that mention Mangas Coloradas today, there are, stunningly, no monuments built in his honor. It was not until only very recently, on November 6, 2018, that a road-side historic marker (see montage above) was installed near the site where the Chief was murdered, once Fort McLane near Silver City, New Mexico. A retired history professor and Silver City native, Doug Dinwiddie, worked to get the marker installed. After the installation, a group of about 80 Apache descendants traveled to the site to dedicate and bless it with the burning of incense, drumming ceremonies, speeches by Apache elders honoring the Chief and a blessing of the site by an Apache shaman.
Perhaps the most spectacular honor commemorating Mangas Coloradas today is the living culture and traditions the Apache still practice to honor their ancestors and to call on them for strength. Among one of the most spectacular of all Native American dances is the Apache Crown Dance (called “Ga’an”). In this dance, there are five dancers. Four are mountain spirits or spiritual ancestors that represent the cardinal directions, the land, and lightning, clouds, rain, and snow. They bring natural blessings to the people (Inde”). The four dancers are painted black and white, then decorating with lightning and animal motifs. The 5th dancer represents First Man (l’toi) honoring the ancestors. He is gray and is a messenger between the Apache and the Spirit People. Traditionally, the dance lasts four days as a healing ceremony to evoke blessings, ask strength of ancestors, and ward off evil. It is a living, breathing tribute to those who came before. And that is probably how the great Mangas Coloradas would have wished it.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
• The Tragic Mystery of Geronimo's Skull
• Cochise, Great Apache Warrior & Chief
“Great Apache War Chief Mangas Coloradas” was first published on Facebook and Notesfromthe Frontier.com on April 17, 2021.
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