While Hollywood was making its first westerns, the Apaches who never surrendered continued to live free south of the border.

It was like a scene from the 1860s, or from a Hollywood western. An Apache raiding party rode through the desolate plains and jagged mountain ranges of southwestern New Mexico. The hooves of their horses and mules were covered in buckskin, to make it hard to track their direction of travel. At best guess, there were about a dozen warriors, a woman with a travois hitched to a mule, and perhaps another woman. In the Animas Mountains, they came across a cowboy and prospector named Frank Fisher, killed him, stole his mule and gun, and dumped his body at Smuggler’s Trail Pass.

A few hours later, a ranch hand found the body and spread the alarm: The Apaches were on the loose. Local cowboys and ranchers grabbed their guns and mounted up into two posses. The sheriff of Hidalgo County, Texas, led another posse of 24 men. It was all strangely familiar, and yet difficult to believe, because this was 1924. Geronimo had surrendered for the last time in 1886, nearly 40 years before. As far as the rest of the country knew, that had marked the end of the Apache threat and Indian warfare in North America.

The raiders spent the night in the foothills of the Big Hatchet Mountains. The following morning, they ran off the best cow ponies and a herd of cattle from the ranch of Ross Sloan in Cochise County, Arizona. They stole horses and mules from several other ranches in the area, and they robbed and vandalized a house, slashing open mattresses and pillows and scattering the feathers.

The Hidalgo County posse managed to trail the raiders to their camp under Big Hatchet Peak. They surrounded the camp and charged in whooping with their guns drawn. But the Apaches had seen them coming and fled, leaving meat roasting over the fire and some 20 stolen horses and mules shod in rawhide. The posse followed their tracks south, and, short on supplies, abandoned pursuit at the Mexican border.

Two Arizona cowboys, the Hunt brothers, saw the raiders in Sonora a few days later. The Apache war chief, they said, was a big white man with a long beard and a mane of blond hair, riding in front and wearing a deerskin breech clout. Many people on the border speculated that he was Charlie McComas. In 1883, when McComas was 6 years old, Chiricahua Apaches led by Chato had killed his parents and snatched him up as a captive.

Chato’s band then disappeared up into the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Mother Mountain Range of Northwest Mexico. Forty years later, as urban America danced the Charleston, these remnant Apache raiders did exactly the same thing.

Even today, the Sierra Madre Occidental is like a Wild West on America’s back doorstep. Beginning just across the border from Arizona and New Mexico, these steep, rugged, canyon-slashed mountains are a lawless stronghold for drug growers and traffickers. They used to be a favorite refuge for the Chiricahua Apaches. Cochise, Victorio, Mangas Coloradas, and Geronimo all knew the mountains inside out.

In September 1886, when Geronimo’s band came down from the Sierra Madre and surrendered for the last time at Skeleton Canyon, at least six of his warriors stayed up in the mountains and never surrendered. Small bands of the Ndéndaa’i, the southernmost grouping of Chiricahuas, had likewise avoided the U.S. Army dragnets by staying in Mexico. In the late 1880s and 1890s, they were joined by others who slipped away from the reservations and a notorious Apache outlaw known as the Apache Kid. These “bronco” Apaches, as the Mexicans called them, lived in hidden camps in the most inaccessible areas of the mountains and continued to raid, murder, and kidnap on both sides of the border.

In 1895, the Apache Kid and four Chiricahuas rode to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona and kidnapped an 18-year-old Apache girl named Dja’okin. Then they murdered a Tonto Apache man, seized his wife, and captured another woman after a scuffle with her father. Fearing a hot pursuit, they let two of their captives go and returned to the Sierra Madre with Dja’okin. She was never heard from again. Partly because of incidents like this one, Apache children on the reservations grew up in fear of the last free Chiricahuas. When they were behaving badly and nothing else worked, their grandparents would sometimes threaten to call in the “wild ones” from Mexico.

At the turn of the 20th century, there were probably 100 Apaches scattered through the northern Sierra Madre. They were a constant menace to the local Mexican ranchers and cowboys, and to the Mormon farmers who settled in the mountains after polygamy was outlawed in the United States in 1890. In September 1892, a Danish-born Mormon named Hans Thompson left his family in Cave Valley, in the northeast Sierra Madre, to visit another wife in a valley 30 miles away. Two Apache warriors appeared without warning at the Cave Valley homestead. They shot and killed 17-year-old Hiram Thompson. Then they shot and wounded his 14-year-old brother Elmer, who played dead and later described what happened.

His mother came rushing out of the house. “Take anything you want,” she said. “Please don’t shed any blood.”
“We like to shed blood,” one of the Apaches said in English, and shot her in the stomach. Then a group of Apache women surrounded her and beat her to death with rocks. The men ransacked the house, slashed up the feather beds, donned the sacred Mormon garments, stole the horses, and rode away.

The Apaches, like many American Indian tribes, had no real concept of ethnic purity, and for centuries they had bolstered their numbers by taking captive women and children from other tribes and from Mexican and Anglo communities. In the Sierra Madre, they continued to take captives well into the 1920s. Mexican ranchers were capturing Apache children at the same time and raising them as house servants. Atrocities were committed on both sides of this bitter conflict.

In the 1930s, a tough Sonoran rancher named Francisco Fimbres led a series of extermination campaigns against the Apaches. They had murdered his wife in front of him and stole and later killed one of his small children. Fimbres and his men hunted for Apache camps, and almost invariably they contained only women and children. Nelda Villa, a local historian in the Sierra Madre and a renowned expert on the remnant Apaches, believes that most of the men had already been killed by Mexicans while raiding. Fimbres and his men killed all the Apache women they could find and adopted the children.

In 1937, a Norwegian anthropologist-adventurer called Helge Ingstad went up into the Sierra Madre to find the “lost Apaches,” as he called them. With him were two Apache guides from the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico; one had fought with Geronimo. It was an odd, quixotic expedition. His guides were more interested in finding a lost treasure they had heard about. At one point, they mutinied. Then they disappeared for a while. Ingstad found no lost Apaches, but his guides might have done so and kept it from him.

He wrote a book about his quest called The Apache Indians: In Search of the Missing Tribe, and it includes some fascinating interviews with Apaches who had been captured as children by Mexican ranchers. He tracked down one 12-year-old girl in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Her Apache name was Bui, or Owl Eyes, but she was now Carmela Harris.

When she was 3 or 4 years old, already orphaned, Mexican cowboys found the all-female Apache camp she was living in with her grandmother, a strict, fierce woman who had just sewn her a pretty buckskin dress. The vaqueros killed her grandmother and took her to an American woman called Dixie Harris who was living in Nacori Chico, Sonora. She happily adopted the little Apache girl and later moved to Los Angeles. Carmela told Ingstad that she much preferred high school in California to the wilds of the Sierra Madre, where her band lived in fear and moved often to avoid detection.

“I was often afraid, and I do not want to return. Nana was so strict, and we were not allowed to do anything. Once there was another small child who cried a lot. Nana strangled her until she died ... . We dared not make any noise. But once in a while, I remember that a woman sang me to sleep.”

Carmela Harris graduated high school in Tujunga, California, and became a nurse. She never married and continued to live with Dixie Harris. In 1972, they left California and emigrated to a farmhouse in the Italian hill town of Perugia. Carmela loved Italy, and it was the happiest time of her life. But she died suddenly in her mid-40s, after fainting while standing up and smashing her head on the ground. She was buried in Perugia, and many years later, in the attic of the Tujunga house, the Harris family found the little buckskin dress that her grandmother had sewn for her.

From the April 2016 issue.