Trail Dust: Was Apache chief Victorio killed in Florida Mountains?

Florida Mountains near Deming, one of the most scenic ranges in New Mexico, may have been the final resting place for Apache war chief Victorio. Photo courtesy Ron Wolfe

The Florida Mountains, 15 miles south of Deming, qualify as one of the most scenic ranges in New Mexico. The name was given by the Spaniards because of the rich flora found in some of the small inner valleys.

Minerals occur here in abundance, such as lead, zinc and silver. That’s what drew American prospectors to these out-of-the-way heights well over a century ago.

In 1880, a group of miners assembled near Silver City and made plans to visit the Floridas in search of ore. They believed hostile Apaches under war chief Victorio had retreated into Mexico.

Besides, each man was armed with a Sharp’s rifle. Called a buffalo gun, it was a long-range weapon of large caliber.

The prospectors rode south and camped in the Floridas at a point called Capitol Dome. Unknown to them, a strong force of Apaches with Victorio, chased north by Mexican troops, was camped a short distance away at Bear Spring.

The white men awoke at dawn, cooking breakfast. Canteens were empty and the leader, Jason Baxter, ordered everyone to saddle up and make the short ride to Bear Spring for water.

A thick fog smothered the mountains, and the spring lay in a closed bowl. Thus Baxter’s party walked right in on the Indians, who were preparing their own breakfast.

Each side was as startled as the other. “Indians!” shouted Baxter. “Run, boys, run!”

And they ran — toward a rocky ridge above the spring that offered a strong defensive position. In the flight, one prospector was shot dead and two others wounded.

While the Apaches had the advantage of numbers, they soon pulled back a respectful distance. Their enemy’s barking Sharp’s rifles had a fearful bite.

Still, the situation looked dark for the mining men. A couple of daring warriors had crawled in on the flanks trying for side shots.

One of the Indians reached a ledge, and he leaned over quickly and fired. He wounded a prospector in the foot, but instantly a deadly Sharp’s caught him with a bullet and he tumbled into space.

All the while, Victorio had remained in full view just under a mile away, sitting on a fine white horse. From that vantage point, he directed the fight.

Baxter studied his position for some time, then enlisted the aid of his best sharpshooter, Bill Coleman. He suggested they raise the sights on their rifles, aim at Victorio’s horse, and fire at the same instant.

The two rifles cracked as one. The white horse reared and fell dead.

That phenomenal bit of shooting spread terror in the Apache ranks, and they quickly withdrew, leaving their attackers in possession of Bear Spring. Some of the men, climbing a hill, saw the Indians in full retreat, carrying a wounded man on horseback.

The prospectors buried their fallen companion. Then they hurried to Fort Cummings, 35 miles northeast, where a report was made to the army.

Soldiers went out, and some of the renegades were captured. They were sent to the San Carlos Reservation in eastern Arizona. But Victorio seemed to have escaped.

Later that year, Mexican troops fought a major battle with Victorio’s main band at Tres Castillos, south of El Paso. Numerous accounts claim that the chief was killed in this engagement.

Just how he died has long been a subject of dispute. Here are some of the versions: Victorio was shot by the soldiers. He took his own life rather than be captured. He was, in fact, taken prisoner and boiled in a pot of oil.

However, there is still another explanation of Victorio’s end, given by an Apache woman at San Carlos. She declared that he had been gravely wounded in the fight with the Florida prospectors and died during the retreat.

Another man took the chieftainship and even some of Victorio’s war trophies. It was he killed at Treas Castillos, whom the Mexicans mistakenly identified as Victorio.

And there is a footnote to this tale. Jason Baxter in later years bragged that he was one of those who had shot Victorio’s white horse, and maybe even the chief himself, in the Florida fight.

When Geronimo afterward bolted from the San Carlos and went on his last warpath, he and his warriors searched out Baxter and made him one of their first victims.

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.

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