ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Paul Hutton believes in seeing the places he writes about even if the things he is writing about happened at those places more than 150 years ago.
Take, for example, Arizona’s Apache Pass, about 20 miles southeast of Willcox. It was there, in the winter of 1861, that a parley gone bad between U.S. soldiers and the Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise touched off the 25 years of bloody conflict that Hutton recounts in his latest book, “The Apache Wars.”
“I went to Apache Pass with (Western artist) Thom Ross, and it’s good I did,” said Hutton, a University of New Mexico history professor. “I had the geography wrong. No way they could walk south and have that parley. Obviously they went west.”
Before he was done, Hutton had visited sites of the Apache wars throughout Arizona and New Mexico.
“It was important to me to describe the landscape because landscape is vital in Apache warfare,” he said.
Perhaps no other person on this planet knows more about the American West than Hutton. He has had 10 books published and has written documentaries and articles about the Old West.
It’s almost impossible to tune in to a TV show about the history of the West without seeing his talking head. He has been on CBS, PBS, NBC, the BBC, Fox, Discovery, the History Channel, the National Geographic Channel and the American Heroes Channel. He figures he has appeared on 20 TV shows just this past year.
But “The Apache Wars” (Crown, $30), which arrived in bookstores this week, is his most ambitious undertaking to date.
Subtitled “The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History,” the book, 500-plus pages and four years in the making, is filled with more colorful characters and perilous adventures than a John Wayne film festival.
Hutton, 66, tells the story through the enigmatic character of Mickey Free. Free was a one-eyed, red-haired, 11-year-old boy of mixed heritage named Felix Ward when Apaches abducted him from his family ranch near Tombstone, Ariz., in 1861.
He was known as Coyote by his captors, who raised him to be an Apache warrior, and he was called Mickey Free by the whites, whom he served as a scout in the fighting against the Apaches.
His kidnapping set in motion the events that exploded into the Apache wars, and Free was an integral part of those hostilities from his abduction through the surrender of the fierce Apache warrior Geronimo and his band at Arizona’s Skeleton Canyon in 1886.
“Mickey Free was such a fascinating character, the perfect borderland hero, multiracial, an outcast,” Hutton said. “Everyone needed him, but no one trusted him.”
But it’s difficult for even someone as distinctive as Free to stand out in a book loaded with larger-than-life personalities such as legendary frontiersman Kit Carson, U.S. Gen. George Crook, chief-of-scouts Al Sieber, Indian agent Tom Jeffords and Apache leaders Cochise, Geronimo, Mangas Coloradas, Victorio and Nana.
Hutton said he wanted the book’s tone to be even-handed. He did not intend to make heroes or villains out of personalities on either side of the conflict.
He said, however, that all of the Apache warriors were ruthless fighters capable of dealing out swift death or slow, cruel torture.
“I didn’t want to sugarcoat that, and I didn’t want to exploit it,” he said. “This is hard-core warrior stuff. To me, the Apaches are the Vikings of America and there is no reason to make apologies for who they were. These were not a sedentary people. They were raiders.”
But as Hutton did his research he discovered that when it came to uncivilized behavior, the Apaches could not come close to their white enemies.
“By the end, I was completely in the Apache camp,” he said. “I was stunned by the betrayal, the lies and the depth of evil (U.S.) government functionaries were willing to take part in.”