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“Last Living Apache Scout”

by Big Mouth

Eve Ball lived on the edge of the Mescalero Apache Reservation during the 1940s and 1950s. Often, Apaches walking into the town of Ruidoso would stop at her house to rest and talk. Eve Ball soon realized that they were relatives of Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio and their warriors. They gave her their permission to write down their stories verbatim. Big Mouth was one of the sixty-seven people who talked to Eve Ball about how his people had survived the US Army's campaigns against them in the late nineteenth century.

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Apache Scouts in Silver City, NM, April 1883“Apache Scouts in Silver City, NM, April 1883,” Alfred S. Addis (Photographer)

I am Big Mouth, last living scout of the Apache wars. I served in the campaigns against Victorio and Geronimo. I do not know my exact age, but I was six or seven years old when my people, the Mescalero Apaches, were forced into captivity at Fort Sumner in 1863.

I was born on the Rio Bonito, a few miles above Fort Stanton in southeastern New Mexico. I live near Mescalero, on the reservation belonging to my people. The reservation is a very small part of the vast territory belonging by ancestral and immemorial right to my tribe. Our land lay between the Rio Pecos and the Rio Grande. It extended from the high mountains in northern New Mexico far below the Mexican border. And my people spent the winters in the warm country. In the spring they returned each year to the headwaters of the Bonito on the White Mountain. That was their favorite camping place and they considered it their homeland. When they returned to it they found supplies immediately available.

There were a few Mexican families in the valleys of the Bonito and Hondo, but we had little trouble with them. We traded skins and venison for guns and ammunition. When White Eyes began coming in, trouble ensued. We learned that they fought each other, just as Indian tribes did. They were greedy and cruel people; they had no respect for the rights of others. They hunted us through the forests—our own forests—like wild animals. And they spared nobody. We did not understand why they acted so savagely. We only knew that they did. Always we had respected the rights of the Lipan Apaches to the east and south of us, and of the Warm Springs and others west of the Rio Grande. But these strange people respected nothing and nobody.

Apache mothers quieted their children by telling them that the soldiers would find and kill them if they were noisy. Even babies dared not cry. And old men told stories about the camps at night—stories that I never forgot.

Indian Lands“Indian Lands,” Deborah Reade (Artist)

A great chief of one of the seven Apache peoples, Mangas Coloradas, had been promised safety in order to get him into the White Eyes’ fort. He had gone, hoping to make a treaty of peace. And he was treacherously and brutally murdered. One of our warriors had gone to Fort Stanton on a promise of security. The soldiers were butchering hogs and had a big kettle of boiling water. They threw him into it. A drunken soldier had taken an Apache baby by the heels and crashed its head against a wagon wheel. These things and many more we knew.

We had a few guns and at times a little ammunition, but our weapons were mostly the Stone Age arrows and spears. For a while my people held out, but many warriors were killed, and women and children needed protection. Our great chief Cadette called his headmen and warriors into council and he let them decide their course. Our people were hungry and almost naked. The soldiers had killed the deer about the fort—not for food, but just because they liked to kill. They had used neither meat nor hides. Meanwhile, we starved and froze.

We fought them as long as we could. Though my father was killed before I was born, my mother and I went with the warriors as did all the other members of the tribe.

I do not remember this, but I heard it many times about the campfires: The cavalry chased my people into Dog Canyon when there were only three braves with them. Two stayed behind to enable the women and children to climb the steep walls; one man fell, wounded, at the entrance to the canyon. The soldiers killed the rear guard and advanced upon the canyon.

The dying warrior had fired his last bullet but he was determined to save his people. He waved his red blanket in the faces of the horses and they would not advance. While the soldiers tried to ride over him, he held them at bay until every woman and child had reached safety.

“The Apache does not mind work, but he does not like slavery.”

When the band rejoined Cadette and his braves, they were in desperate condition. It was decided to send men to Fort Stanton to hold a council with “Keet” Carson, the Nantan there. He told them that he was a subchief under another Nantan, Colonel Carleton, who had commanded that every male Apache be killed on sight, regardless of age, upon attempts to surrender or any condition. But “Keet” Carson said that if the Mescaleros would go to the Bosque Redondo, near the new Fort Sumner on the Pecos, they would be spared and given food until they could raise crops. He promised safe conduct to the Bosque; and he promised blankets and food. “Keet” Carson said that we were to bring all that we had and come to the fort on a certain day. Cadette agreed to do this thing.

My mother had two horses, and upon one of these we packed our tepee and scanty supplies. I rode this horse and my mother rode the other. Very few of the Mescaleros had mounts, so they had to walk and carry their meager belongings. At times my mother and I let others ride and we walked.

We started north through Capitan Gap and then northeast toward the Pecos. It was a terrible journey, for the women were attacked by the soldiers and no officer did anything to prevent it. Mescalero women were chaste and very modest. The men could not look at each other; they could do nothing to protect the women and were ashamed. They wished that they had chosen death in the land given them by Ussen, but it was too late; they were now captives.

That place at Fort Sumner was what is now called a concentration camp. There was nothing there for us except misery and hunger. There were no pines, no streams except the Pecos, and no game. There was no water fit for drinking. We had been accustomed to the clear, cold water from the melting snow of the White Mountain (Sierra Blanca). We had to drink the muddy, ill-tasting water from the Pecos. It made us sick; it even made the horses sick. But can one live without water?

They put men and women to work digging ditches and digging up ground with shovels to plant corn. And once a week the soldiers gave us enough food to last perhaps two days. We were not farmers—we were fighters and hunters! Above all, we were free people; and now we were imprisoned within picket lines and made into slaves. The Apache does not mind work, but he does not like slavery. We were cold, hungry, and miserable. Above all, we were homesick for our country and our freedom.

We stayed there three years, I think. I know that we planted one crop that produced much food. But the next one failed, and we were desperate.