In the last years of the Apache wars, a warrior named Massai acquired something of a name for himself when he made a daring escape from the clutches of his white captors.
A Mimbres Apache born in Southern New Mexico, Massai and his people were forcibly removed to Arizona’s San Carlos Reservation in 1877. He was 30 at the time.
There, Massai took a wife and had children. He also joined the Apache police commanded by a white officer. They willingly scouted for the Army against their own people, who were still roaming and raiding.
In 1882, Massai’s unit was assigned briefly to New Mexico. When the duty there was completed, the scouts were sent back to Arizona by train.
On the way, word was received that the Chiricahua Apache leader Juh, from his stronghold in Mexico, had swept north to raid San Carlos. Needing recruits, he had abducted a band of peaceful Mimbres and forced them to retreat with him into Sonora.
When Massai heard that, he was frantic. His wife and children were among the captives.
Therefore, when no one was watching, he jumped from the train and started a long walk into Mexico to find them. Eventually, he did catch up with the Chiricahuas and joined his family.
With Juh’s people at that time was a young warrior-apprentice, known later by the name Jason Betzinez. He would live to the age of 101 and, in 1959, see his recollections published under the title I Fought With Geronimo.
In that book, Betzinez wrote of Massai as he first knew him there in Mexico. “He was one of those restive individuals who could not stay long in one place,” Betzinez said.
“Furthermore, he seemed to have a distaste for the rest of us, possibly because we were outlaws. So with his family he stole my horse and headed for San Carlos.”
Massai arrived back on the reservation and was readmitted to his company of scouts. He was still a member in 1886, when Geronimo and his band of renegades made their final surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles.
They were loaded on a rail car and shipped off to imprisonment in Florida. Shortly, orders came to San Carlos for all the loyal Apache scouts to be arrested and sent east to the very same lockup. Thus were they betrayed by the government they had long served.
The first shipment of prisoners with Geronimo had traveled on the Southern Pacific by way of lower New Mexico to El Paso and on through San Antonio, Texas.
Massai and the other scouts were escorted to Winslow, Ariz., where they were herded into a prison car on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. As they rolled eastward across New Mexico, passing Albuquerque, Lamy and Raton, the country changed dramatically.
Massai resolved to escape, but no opportunity appeared until after his car was transferred to another train in Kansas and had conveyed the Indians deep into Missouri.
Somewhere west of St. Louis, Massai managed to pry open a window and leap to freedom. The escape and what followed, according to Betzinez, was so remarkable “because it illustrates the superior endurance and resourcefulness of the Apache warrior.”
In the ensuing weeks, no one saw Massai, though he was passing through heavily settled country, mostly at night, and stealing food as he went.
With nothing to guide him but instinct, he crossed 1,200 miles, at last reaching his old homeland in the Black Range of Central New Mexico, from which his band had been expelled in 1877.
At first, Massai lived alone. Finally, seeking a companion, he rode down to the Mescalero Reservation and kidnapped an Apache girl for his wife. Over the years, they had several children.
Free Apaches like Massai, and there were some others in the Southwest, became known as Broncos, or “Untamed Ones.”
When Massai was shot and killed in an ambush in 1911, the press reported that he was the last Mimbres Apache Bronco. His wife found the body and recovered her husband’s belt buckle. Taking their children, she returned to Mescalero.
In the mid-20th century, Ruidoso historian Eve Ball interviewed Massai’s last living child, daughter Alberta Begay.
From her, Ball obtained for the first time many details of Massai’s life in the wilds during his last years. Bell published them in 1959. In gratitude, Alberta gave her the relic belt buckle.
Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.