In the mid-1860's, Sonoran mercenaries raided a small Apache town near the US-Mexican border, near what are now the cities of Esqueda, Mexico and neighboring Douglas, Arizona. After slaughtering the captured males, they force-marched many of the surviving women southwest to the Gulf of California. Many of the women died en route, and the raiders sold the rest into slavery where they worked in the fields of a local hacienda.
Several of the Apache women, including a middle-aged grandmother from the Eastern Chiracahua nation named Dilchthe, hatched a plan to escape and return to their tribe. They surreptitiously gathered some supplies, and successfully broke away from the patron, fleeing east along the route they remembered towards the Gulf. Once their overseers discovered their disappearance, the hacienda owners dispatched vaqueros, or horse-mounted cattle herders, to track them down. The group of women evaded the pursuit; reaching the gulf, they headed north along its shore. After the food they brought with them ran out, they subsisted by eating leaves and bugs.
The group of women traveled for nearly 300 miles up the coast, until they reached the mouth of the Colorado River. None of the women could swim, so they had no direct way of crossing the great river. Dilchthe made friends with an old Mexican woman who lived nearby, who told the party of a shallow spot at the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers far to the north, near present-day Yuma, Arizona. Dilchthe led the group to the shallow spot and herself waded out into the Colorado River. Discovering it was safe to walk across, she motioned the others to join her, and they continued east.
The band of women followed the Gila River toward Apache land. Despite the scorching heat in the Yuma Valley, Dilchthe prevented them from moving to the cooler, higher land because of enemy tribes. After three days of following the Gila, a party of Yuma warriors, enemies of the Apache, ambushed the women; Dilchthe and one other Apache woman escaped by hiding in some brush, but the Yuma captured one other woman, and killed the rest. Their party now reduced to only two, Dilchthe and her companion continued their walk, past what is now Phoenix and Tucson.
Exhaustion, hunger, and thirst took their toll, but the women persevered. For a hundred miles, they could manage only a slow walk, and finally, they reached the limits of their endurance and collapsed on the side of a mountain near what is now the city of Safford. Looking through bleary eyes into the distance, Dilchthe could barely make out a heart-shaped mountain. Being an Apache, she knew the mountains of the desert southwest very well, and she recognized the one she saw at once; it was near her home. She built a smoky fire as a signal beacon, and she and her companion laid down on the earth, too tired to move.
In a moment of sheer coincidence, the Apache that found the two women lying on the rocky soil was Dilchthe's own son-in-law. In those days, it was customary for a man and his mother-in-law to avoid physical contact, but they ignored that custom and embraced heartily. After walking for more than a thousand miles through harsh desert terrain, with no map or weapons and almost no food, these two women made it back from a life of slavery to their home tribe. Her home tribe welcomed Dilchthe home as a returning hero.
Links and Sources:
Enduring Legacies: Ethnic Histories and Cultures of Colorado by Arturo L. Aldama, Elisa Facio, Daryl Maeda, and Reiland Rabaka, O'Reilly Media Inc., 2011.
New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations by Sergei Kan, Pauline Turner Strong, and Raymond Fogelsang, University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
What They Didn't Teach You About the Wild West by Mike Wright, Presidio Books, 2000
"The Apache Woman" © 2105 by James Husband.