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How Apaches Became Formidable Warriors

The mountainous terrain of the Southwest provided ample protection for those who knew how to use it. Photo by Deni Seymour.

Thoughts of the wilder part of the West typically conjure Apaches as the most formidable warriors in the region. The nineteenth century Apache are attributed with a fighting style and tactics so effective that they resisted enemy aggression and remained free longer than any other American tribe. Yet, in some of the earliest regional historical documents, the Sobaipuri Oodham, not the Apache, are portrayed as the fiercest fighters in the southern portion of the American Southwest. The Yaqui and Seri to the south were quite formidable as well.

The Lessons of the Sobaipuri O’odham

The Sobaipuri O’odham are the ancestors of the Wa:k O’odham, the river-dwelling irrigation farming O’odham who still reside at San Xavier del Bac (Wa:k), south of Tucson. In fact, Sobaipuri lived on all the major rivers of southeastern Arizona, including the Santa Cruz from its headwaters to just north of Tucson, all along the San Pedro, the Babocomari River, Sonoita Creek, Aravaipa Creek, and even a portion of the Gila River.

Pima Warrior. Courtesy Photo

Indeed, their ancient name, s-o:bîma (s- awe be ma) or as we know it, Sobaipuri, derives from an O’odham word meaning “warlike,” “Apache-like,” or “being like Apaches, enemies,” that is, Fierce Fighters.”

It may also be translated as being many enemy” or “where there are many enemy,” perhaps referencing Sobaipuri settlements on the frontier with the enemy or their fierce fighting capabilities. This name s-o:bîma was not a self-reference, but rather is thought to have originated among the Tohono and Hia Ced O’odham, their desert dwelling cousins to the west in what are now the Gu Achi and Guvo districts of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Jesuit Padre Eusebio Kino and his military escorts adopted this reference to these southeastern Akimel (River) O’odham in the 1690s, writing their hearing of the word in their journals as “Sobaipuri,” perhaps also utilizing an older dialect.

The Sobaipuri’s reputation was widely known, even among Europeans. Jesuit priests recorded their hard-won reputation. For example, in 1716 Padre Luís Velarde stated that “The Pimas are valiant and daring, as is proven by the wars which the Sobaipuris and the rest of the Northern tribes have maintained against the Apaches.”

Sonoran Methods of Warfare

In 1764 Padre Juan Nentvig noted that “The most warlike of all the Pimas are commonly called Sobaipuris for having been born and raised on the border of the Apaches.”

The Sobaipuri and many other Sonoran tribes practiced a deeply entrenched, widespread style of warfare. In the mid 1700s Jesuit Padre Ignaz Pfefferkorn dedicated an entire chapter to describing the Sonoran Methods of Warfare.

His description included the use of mountain side breastworks (trincheras), ambushes, concealed combat rather than fighting in the open, fading into the rugged rocky terrain, scalping, use of face paint and war headdresses, moving about without cumbersome field equipment that would impede movement, the prewar conference with tobacco, notification of distant participants by use of a counting device—all those things attributed to and characteristic of the later Apache.

Apache Scouts being taught to shoot.Circa 1800s Photo from the Palace of the Office of Governors Archives.

A number of historical accounts reinforce the notion of the Sobaipuri as the region’s foremost fighters. None is more pertinent than an event that occurred in 1698, when 500 Apaches and their allies attacked an 80-person village on the San Pedro River. As a result of the battle, where neighboring O’odham warriors came to the aid of the small village, half the enemy died, while only five O’odham were killed.

Protection from the Pimas

After this, the Apaches and their allies surrendered at El Paso and Janos presidios. They did so with the plea that the Spanish would go to war against and protect them against the mean Pima (that is, the San Pedro branch of the Sobaipuri O’odham). You can read about this event and its causes and consequences in: A Fateful Day in 1698.

The Apaches that the American cavalry fought during the Apache Wars were a regional creation, embedded in a deeper history.

The most iconic Apache fighters—Mangus Coloradas, Victorio, Cochise, Juh—and their grandfathers perfected their tactics in conflicts with the Sobaipuri, Spaniards, and others before they engaged with the Mexicans and Americans. This centuries-long training made them fearsome foes for the American Cavalry, even when weapons and technology were upgraded by their enemies.

The defeat of the 3rd Calvary

Apaches in the south were the most seasoned, demonstrating specialized and proficient tactics, organization, and planning usually not attributed to the Apache by historians. Nowhere is this more apparent than the 1871 skirmish where Juh and his warriors tracked and then ambushed Lt. Howard B. Cushing and his detachment of Troop F of the 3rd US Cavalry.

The dominance of the Apache did not occur until the late 1700s as a result of a number of historical factors. By then many of the allied nations had melded into various bands of Apaches.

About the Author Deni J. Seymour: For 30 years, Deni Seymour, Ph.D has studied the ancestral Apaches, Sobaipuri O’odhams and lesser-known mobile groups. She will be a guest lecturer for Bullion Plaza’s Hardscrabble series on March 20th. Her lecture on the crushing blow to the U.S. Calvary at the hands of Nednhi Apache leader Juh describes how the most experienced Indian fighter of that time, was out-witted and out-maneuvered by the superior leadership and skills of Juh, and his warriors. 

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