|An unidentified Apache woman, late 19th century|
In the mid-1860's, Sonoran merceneries 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 rest were sold into slavery and put to work 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 and, remembering the route they took in, fled east to the Gulf. Once their disappearance was discovered, the hacienda owners dispatched vaqueros to track them down, but the group of women evaded them. When they reached the gulf, they travelled north along its shore. After the food they brought with them ran out, they subsisted by eating leaves and bugs.
The group of women travelled 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 until Dilchthe made friends with an old Mexican woman who lived nearby. The woman told the party of a shallow spot in the river far to the north, where the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, near present-day Yuma, at the southern tip of the California-Arizona border. Dilchthe led the group up there 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. They were halfway home.
They 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, the women were ambushed by a party of Yuma warriors, who were no friends of the Apache; Dilchthe and one other Apache woman escaped by hiding in some brush, but the Yuma captured one other woman, and killed the rest. Dilchthe and her companion were the last two remaining, and they continued their walk, past what is now Phoenix and Tucson.
Finally, they could not go any further. Suffering from exhaustion, hunger, and thirst, they were reaching the limits of their endurance; for their last hundred miles they had only been able to move at a slow walk. Finally, one misty morning, they collapsed on the side of a mountain near what is now the city of Safford. When the sky cleared, Dilchthe could see a heart-shaped mountain in the distance. Being an Apache, she knew the mountains of the desert southwest very well, and she recognized that one at once. 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 investigated, and 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 both 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. Dilchthe was received back into her tribe as a returning hero.
Links and Sources:
Aldama, Arturo J., Elisa Facio, Daryl Maeda, and Reiland Rabaka, Enduring Legacies: Ethnic Histories and Cultures of Colorado, O'Reilly Media Inc., 2011.
Kan, Sergei, Pauline Turner Strong, and Raymond Fogelson, New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations, University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
Wright, Mike, What They Didn't Teach You About the Wild West, Presidio Books, 2000.