Exploration Mysteries: The Chiricahua Apaches of the Sierra Madre

In the 19th century, the Sierra Madre Occidental was a prime hiding spot for all manner of outlaws and misfits. The “mother mountain range” in Mexico is 1,500km of canyons, valleys, high plateaus and folded mountains. This vast and confusing network of hiding places allowed various groups to evade law enforcement and conduct guerilla warfare. The fierce Chiricahua Apache, especially, used these lands against Mexican and American forces.

Alone among all the warring native peoples, the Apaches generated almost supernatural awe and terror. At the same time, their activities are the most poorly documented — full of opinion, myth, and hearsay.

Despite their fabled resourcefulness, the Chiricahua of the Sierra Madre suddenly vanished from the history books. Rumors spread of their demise. But what really happened to them?

The legendary Geronimo (1829-1909) was a Chiricahua Apache. Not all his fellow Apaches fell in with him, and those who did not, hid out in the Sierra Madre. Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock


Tensions and war

Tensions between the Chiricahua and Americans began around 1848, after the Mexican-American War. Foreigners poured into Chiricahua territory. The U.S. Army fought the Chiricahua, and many hostile incidents occurred on both sides.

It was a genuine clash of cultures for which history offers no answer. The Apaches were warriors and raiders. To the ranchers, farmers, miners, and settlers of northern Mexico, this meant murder and theft.

Eventually, the Chiricahua adopted a lifestyle of restriction and confinement on reservations. But treaties and truces could not keep the resentment toward the Americans at bay. Conflicts culminated in a guerilla war.

The Chiricahua hid in the Chiricahua Mountains, the Dragoon Mountains, the White Mountains in Arizona, and eventually the Sierra Madre. In 1886, the leader and medicine man Geronimo, along with Chiricahua Chief Naiche and 30 others, surrendered to American forces. They were sent to prison in Florida and incarcerated for years.

After authorities released them, they settled in Oklahoma and New Mexico. The descendants of Geronimo and his band of renegades live there to this day. However, the tale of the Sierra Madre’s Chiricahua Apaches did not end there.

The fugitive band

It was rumored that more than 100 people remained hidden in the northern Sierra Madre after the surrender. This may have included bands of Nednhi Apaches and those native to these mountains. Writer Douglas Meed states that this remnant group chose this fugitive life rather than that on a reservation. They raided ranches, stole cattle and livestock, kidnapped and killed civilians, then vanished back into their mountain fastnesses.

The elusive group’s activities became the stuff of legend. They kept residents of the Southwest constantly on edge. Cowboys attempted to track them but they always came up short. Scholars believe that the Chiricahua covered their horses’ hooves to conceal their tracks. They likely moved daily and in small groups to avoid detection. 

Copper Canyon in Mexico. Photo: Isabellaphotography/Shutterstock


Stories of kidnappings and murders circulated even more in the late 19th century. In one famous incident, two Chiricahuas broke into a house, killed a woman and man, and wounded a second man. On another occasion, the wife and son of Mexican rancher Francisco Fimbres were murdered in Sonora in the 1920s. Fimbres led a revenge campaign, killing Chiricahua men and women alike. Oral history suggests that he spared children.

Kidnappings on both sides

Kidnappings were also normal. According to general Apache culture, kidnappings were important for the continuation of the tribe. A rumor persisted about a white child named Charlie McComas, who was supposedly kidnapped in the 1880s. This legend was never verified, but it sparked debate when a white chief made appearances in multiple eyewitness testimonies. Stories like these continued well into the 1930s.

Kidnappings and adoptions of supposed Apache children by cowboys were also not uncommon. We can assume that many other Chiricahua integrated eventually into Mexican and American populations. In 1896, a couple adopted an Apache girl after a raid on her camp in South Arizona. They named her May (nicknamed Patchy by the townsfolk). She died at the age of five after being severely burned in a fire.

As late as 1933, Mexican cowboys stumbled upon a pre-adolescent girl, half-naked and roaming the wild alone. They took her to the nearest police station. Officials placed her in a cell and put her on display, as they suspected that she was a Sierra Madre Chiricahua Apache. Since she didn’t speak, they couldn’t verify this. Sadly, she died of starvation in her cell. They called her “La Nina Bronca”, or the Wild Girl.

Most famous was the tale of an Apache girl, Carmela Harris. She lived in the western Sierra Madre with her grandmother in a mainly female Apache camp, when Mexican ranchers kidnapped her in 1932.

Although she was just four years old, she described the restricted, suffocating lifestyle of the Apache camp, where they prohibited roaming and noise. The Mexican ranchers massacred the camp. Little Carmela (previously called Owl Eyes) started a new life in Los Angeles with an American woman named Dixie Harris. Carmela lived the rest of her days with her mother, never marrying. She died suddenly in her 40s. 

Sierra Madre Mountain Range. Photo: Miguel Lorenzo Uy/Shutterstock


Their legend persists

A few ethnographers and anthropologists searched for the remaining Chiricahua before the Second World War. Grenville Goodwin, his son Neil Goodwin, and Helge Ingstad led the search. Ingstad later became famous for co-discovering the only Norse settlement in the New World.

All three spent time among Apache groups. Grenville Goodwin found a possible abandoned Chiricahua Apache camp in the Sierra Madre. Neil Goodwin continued in his father’s footsteps, finding two more possible abandoned camps. Ingstad launched an unsuccessful expedition with two unreliable Apache guides, who were suspected of contacting Chiricahua in the area beforehand.

All three expeditions were inconclusive. Although the romantics among us would love to imagine that some members of that uncompromising band are still hiding out, ghost-like, in the Sierra Nevada, evidence suggests that the remaining Chiricahua of that region mixed with Mexicans or died out.

However, this does not mean that Chiricahua people as a whole have vanished — just the legendary Sierra Madre band. Today, other Chiricahua live on reservations in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and southern Arizona.