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“Mangas Coloradas”

by M. H. Salmon

This is the story of one man’s 200-mile wilderness journey down the Gila River through New Mexico and Arizona. The author travels partly on foot but mostly by canoe. Author M. H. Salmon calls the Gila “the last mainstem, free-flowing river in New Mexico.” Below, he reflects on Mangas Coloradas (“Red Sleeves” or “Colored Sleeves”), the great Apache leader who met up with General Kearney’s army at this bend of the Gila in 1846.

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In 1846 General Kearney's Army of the West traveled the length of the Gila River on the way to the conquest of California, part of the American government's self-made Mexican War. Lt. William Emory was the scribe and natural historian of the party. Kit Carson was the scout. Where Mangas Creek (called Santa Lucia Creek then) meets the Gila, the Army of the West met up with a friendly band of Apaches. Their leader, of whom, sadly, no photograph exists, is described in various historical accounts as standing “six-four” or “six-six” or “head and shoulders above every white man present.” He is also said to have had graying, black hair hanging straight to the waist, a stalwart, athletic physique, and a looming countenance you never forgot. Mangas Coloradas possessed other larger than life characteristics, including that of statesmanship. Apache style statesmanship to be sure.

On one of his numerous raids into Mexico he carried off a Mexican girl he rather fancied more than the rest. Nothing unusual about that; the Apache relied upon Mexican women and children, and the resultant mixed offspring, to replenish the tribe as much as they relied upon Mexican livestock to keep everyone fed. Traditionally, a newly arrived Mexican wife was subservient to whatever Apache wives a chief already had; but Mangas Coloradas established his own traditions. His Mexican wife became his favorite and when the brothers of his Apache wives objected, strongly, he killed each one in a duel, using knives. Subsequently, his Mexican wife bore him three daughters; as soon as possible he married each one off, to one Navajo chief and two Apache chiefs respectively, one of whom was Cochise. Mangas thus consolidated both his own power and Apache power generally in New Mexico and Arizona. For some twenty-five years in this part of the world he was the man.

The tall chief sought accommodation, initially, with the American military. To the Apache, at this time, the Mexicans were both the enemy and the provider; the Anglos could be tolerated so long as they did not interfere with Apache raiding south of the border. There is evidence that he saw the Americans as inadvertent allies during the Mexican/American War and offered to help the American cause. After defeating Mexico, however, in a war that displayed American opportunism at its worst, the US sought accommodation with the vanquished party, agreeing, among other things, to help stop Apache raiding. The Americans thus ran afoul of the Apache way of life.