When it comes to past leaders of the Apache people, just about everyone has heard of Geronimo and many know of Cochise.
But perhaps only those devoted to the history of the Southwest are aware of the story of Mangas Coloradas, among the most significant of all the Apache headmen in the 19th century.
“Certainly during the historic period, from Mexican independence (from Spain) in 1821 on (until his death), he is the greatest,” said Paul Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico. “He is the only Apache leader who managed to unite all the bands.”
Hutton, author of the 2016 book “The Apache Wars,” gives a lecture titled “The Head of Mangas Coloradas” at noon Wednesday, Sept. 4, in the auditorium of the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. The talk, part of the Friends of History Lecture Series, is free.
Hutton’s talk focuses on the final episode in Mangas Coloradas’ life. While attempting to parley for peace in 1863, Mangas Coloradas, then in his early 70s, was taken prisoner by U.S. soldiers and killed by his guards at Fort McLane in what is now Grant County, New Mexico. And then, for scientific study, the military cut the old chief’s head off and boiled it down to the skull.
“It is really a downer story,” Hutton said. “I won’t be opening with any jokes. But the story of Mangas Coloradas trying to make peace and then being betrayed and murdered is so dramatic.”
Mangas Coloradas was born about 1790 at the headwaters of the Gila River, near what is now Silver City. According to Hutton’s book, he was the son of a respected Apache warrior, and his mother may have been a Spanish captive. He grew up in New Mexico’s Mogollon Mountains, attaining a height of well over 6 feet, exceptionally tall not only for an Apache but for Mexicans and Americans of the time.
In 1837, in the Animas Mountains of southwest New Mexico, mercenaries, hired by the governor of Sonora, Mexico, to kill Apaches, massacred an Apache camp. The going rate for bounties on Apache scalps was $100 for adult males, $50 for adult females and $25 for children.
Mangas Coloradas escaped the butchery to lead revenge raids against the Mexican people, killing scores of them. Hutton writes in “The Apache Wars” that Mangas Coloradas (Red Sleeves in Spanish) may have been given that name because of the blood he spilled avenging the Animas Mountains massacre.
“It is pretty rough stuff,” Hutton said of the fighting between the Apaches and their Mexican and American enemies.
And it got rougher after Mangas Coloradas’ murder and mutilation. The Apaches were more upset by the defilement of Mangas Coloradas’ body than they were by his killing, because they believed he would have to go through the afterlife without his head.
“Apaches had a fear of the dead,” Hutton said. “They would not touch a dead body. If they took you alive, they would play with you awhile, put you on an ant hill, lather you down with something sweet and put a stick in your mouth. But they would not mess with dead bodies. That changed after Mangas Coloradas was killed. They were so angry they started cutting up dead bodies.”
Hutton is a former executive director of the Western History Association and a past president and former executive director of the Western Writers of America. He is at work on a book, tentatively titled “The Undiscovered Country,” that will tell the history of the American frontier movement through seven lives, ranging from Daniel Boone to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Considering the high regard in which Hutton holds Mangas Coloradas, it’s no surprise that the Apache chief is among the seven pivotal figures covered in the work in progress.
Mangas Coloradas was, Hutton writes in “The Apache Wars,” the “undisputed lord of Apacheria.”