In historian Paul Andrew Hutton’s latest book, this mostly forgotten drama of the American Southwest gets a comprehensive new examination.

When Paul Andrew Hutton’s magnum opus about the prolonged war between the Apaches and the United States was released in May to critical acclaim, his reputation as a well-known and esteemed historian of the American West preceded him. The editor of The Custer Reader and author of Phil Sheridan and His Army, Hutton has also written, narrated, or appeared as an expert in more than 250 television productions for networks including PBS, NBC, and the History Channel. He is a professor at the University of New Mexico and has served as executive director of the Western History Association and president of Western Writers of America.

When all his scholarship and storytelling were brought to bear on battles that raged throughout the Southwest between Apache bands and the U.S. Army for almost three decades, the Chicago Tribune called the result an “amazing narrative” and “a major work of history on a much neglected subject.”

Hutton’s The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History brings to life the historical figures on both sides. And it follows Mickey Free, who fell somewhere in between after being kidnapped as a child and adopted into the tribe, and whose capture sparked a bloody chain reaction that led to all-out war.

C&I caught up with Hutton to talk about the new book.

Cowboys & Indians: What prompted you to take a look at this challenging episode in American history?
Paul Andrew Hutton: In a way, I have been preparing to write this book my whole life. In 1962 my mother checked a slight volume out of the Kokomo, Indiana, public library for me. It was Oliver La Farge’s Cochise of Arizona, and I was enthralled. Years later, when I was in Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, I read my very first “adult” novel — Elliott Arnold’s Blood Brother — which had obviously been the inspiration for the La Farge children’s book. The Arnold novel was the source for the fabulous 1950 film Broken Arrow starring James Stewart [Tom Jeffords] and Jeff Chandler [Cochise], which I eventually viewed [as] the late-night movie back in the day when we only had three network channels. I loved that book, and of course the movie is a classic western. That Delmer Daves film, with its heroic depiction of Cochise and the Apaches, helped to change forever the way Hollywood portrayed Indians. When I was given the opportunity to write this book, I jumped at it. It seemed as if all my previous work — on Sheridan and [Gen. George Armstrong] Custer and the Plains Wars — was but preparation for this project. This was also a different approach to history with a clear emphasis on storytelling, structure, and character, which my previous work in film and television, as well as writing innumerable popular history magazine articles, had prepared me for. I’m very pleased with the end result.

C&I: Your book shows western expansion in an entirely new light. What is it about this period and these personalities that is so compelling and so misunderstood?
Hutton: Recent scholarship on Western history, as well as the current presidential race and the news programs, has placed a new emphasis on what was once called the Borderlands. The Mexican border country, with its lively mix of races and cultures, is a central theme of my book. There was no border to the Apaches, for this was their entire homeland: most of New Mexico and Arizona as well as northern Mexico. It was the European invader, obsessed with “lines on paper,” with maps and boundaries, which divided the land and determined to restrict the Apaches. The Mexican War and the American conquest of the Southwest from Mexico changed everything for the Apaches. I attempt to present the Apache point of view of the land — of this borderland frontier — as a counter to the way the Americans and the Mexicans viewed the land. It is somewhat ironic that today we still remain fixated on this border — on these lines on paper — that so disrupted the Apache world.

Photography: C.S. Fly/Library of Congress
Photography: C.S. Fly/Library of Congress

C&I: Are there particular personalities that really stand out? Geronimo, Mangas Coloradas, Mickey Free, Emmet Crawford? Or is this dictated by the various phases in Southwestern history?
Hutton: I was blessed with an incredible cast of characters — colorful, romantic, tragic, brutal, and heroic — that Hollywood could never make up. The story dictated who would emerge as a central personality at any given time, but Mickey Free remains the central through-character in the book. His 1861 kidnapping set in motion a quarter-century of warfare, and he then moved uneasily between both sides in the long conflict. Geronimo, who feared Mickey Free more than any other man, [was] a magnificent fighter and today remains probably the best-known Indian in American history. He moves through my book like a dark and deadly shadow. Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, and Victorio were all great patriot chiefs who did the best they could for their people in an increasingly desperate situation, but it was Geronimo who eventually emerged as the great symbol of Apache resistance. Of the soldiers, Gen. George Crook probably comes off the best, despite his deep flaws, but some of his subordinates like [Capt.] Emmet Crawford, [Capt. John Gregory] Bourke, [1st Lt. Howard Bass] Cushing, [1st Lt. Charles Bare] Gatewood, and [Lt. Britton] Davis are quite impressive. The soldiers certainly tower above the Washington politicos and the Indian Bureau hacks, with the exception of John Clum, who ruled over the Apache reservations. It was the Army who had to clean up the mess and deal with consequences of the actions of the politicians. The callous duplicity and calculated deceit of the federal government in this story is simply staggering.

C&I: It seems that the Apache were initially quite friendly to American interests, reserving their enmity for the Navajo and Mexican settlers and authority. What tipped the scale to drive the Apache firmly into the opposition camp?
Hutton: The Apaches initially got along with the Americans. Trappers like Kit Carson had worked the headwaters of the Gila River for furs and had provided the Apaches with guns and powder and other trade goods to secure safe passage. When Carson returned as a scout for Gen. Stephen Kearny’s army on its way to conquer California, Mangas Coloradas and other Apache chiefs welcomed them and promised to help in the war against their common Mexican enemy. It was only after the war, when American officials attempted to stop the Apache raids into Mexico, that tensions grew. Mangas and Cochise were anxious to keep peace with the Americans — or “White Eyes,” as they called them — but were determined to keep up the war against the hated Mexicans. This was the crucial issue, along with American greed for Apache land and gold, which drove the two sides to war. Years after his surrender, when asked if he had any regrets, Geronimo calmly replied, “I’m sorry I did not kill more Mexicans.”

C&I: What surprised you in your research into the Apache Wars?
Hutton: The unrelenting depravity and deceit on the part of the federal government truly amazed me. I’m fairly jaded and cynical about our government, but when the president of the United States, the despicable Grover Cleveland, invited a delegation of Apache leaders to the White House (including Chatto, who had been one of the most important Army scouts in the Geronimo campaign), and then after meeting with them ordered their arrest and imprisonment in Florida, it even boggled my mind. The icing on the cake was that Cleveland gave Chatto a “peace medal” before sending him off to imprisonment. Chatto’s crime was that he was a Chiricahua Apache.

The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History (Crown Books, 2016) by Paul Andrew Hutton is available in hardcover online and at bookstores.

From the August/September 2016 issue.