Francisco Fimbres was happy. Ahead of him rode his beautiful, fair-haired wife carrying his two-year-old son Heraldo with her in her saddle. Following some 100 yards behind, Fimbres cradled the couple’s young daughter atop his own horse. The family was riding home after a visit with friends and the weather and the Sonoran countryside couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was sunny, but the wind coming down from the snow-capped Sierra Madres kept the family cool as it blew through the surrounding waste-high grass. It wouldn’t be hard to image that given the pleasantness of the situation, the usually stoic Fimbres allowed a smile to cross his dour face.[i]
A gunshot destroyed the idyllic scene and Fimbres watched as his wife slumped and fell from her saddle, somehow managing to shield her son before hitting the ground with a thud. Before Fimbres could come to his wife’s aid, Apache Indians poured from a hiding spot and began to attack the downed woman with knives. One Apache grabbed Fimbres’s young boy from his mother’s lifeless arms, mounted a horse, and rode away.[ii]
Seeing the scene unfold in front of him, Fimbres made a decision that he’d regret for the rest of his life. He turned his horse and fled. Although he was armed, there was no way that he’d be able to fight off what may have been dozens of Apaches by himself. If he tried, he’d be throwing away not only his own life, but that of the daughter he carried with him. Taking one last look at the Apaches massacring his wife and kidnapping his son, Fimbres wheeled about and galloped towards the nearest ranch.[iii]
After hiding his daughter and recruiting help, Fimbres returned to the scene of the Apache attack. What he found would horrify him and change the course of his life forever. His wife had been chopped to pieces. An unborn child ripped from her womb. The Apaches and Fimbres’s son were long gone, the Indians having likely taken the boy to incorporate into their tribe. The sight of his wife’s mutilated body and the thought that the people who had killed her would be raising his son changed the normally peaceful Fimbres. From that day forward, he vowed to find his son and exact vengeance on the Indians who’d killed his wife. He wanted to hunt the Apaches to extinction.[iv]
In some ways, Fimbres’s story resembles many others. Indians kidnapped thousands of woman and children throughout the history of northern Mexico and the American Southwest. In some instances, these kidnappings led surviving friends and family members to seek out their kin and exact retribution on the Indians who caused their loved ones harm.
The raid on Fort Parker and the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker is perhaps the most famous of these incidents. In 1836, Comanche Indians raided the Parker family’s Texas home and raped, killed, and mutilated five persons they found inside. They absconded with five women and children, including nine-year-old Cynthia Ann and seventeen-year-old Rachel Plummer. From 1836 to 1845, James Parker, Rachel’s father and Cynthia Ann’s uncle, rode across the plains of Texas, seeking to rescue his kin and punish the Comanches who’d killed his five family members. Almost losing his life of multiple occasions, James reclaimed his daughter, but never found Cynthia Ann (she would remain a member of the Comanches for most of her life, and would give birth to future Comanche Chief Quanah Parker). James Parker’s tireless quest would go on to inspire what many consider the best western film of all time, John Wayne’s The Searchers.
In many ways, Fimbres’s journey to find his son resembles The Searchers, but one thing sets it apart: Apaches attacked the Fimbres family on October 26, 1926, over 90 years after Cynthia Ann’s kidnapping and 40 years after the last major Indian attack in the United States. Whereas every other Indian tribe on the North American continent had died, moved on to a reservation, or amalgamated into European culture, the Apaches who had attacked Fimbres had held out in the mountains of Mexico well into the 20th century and continued to live as they had for the last 300 years. A world with trans-Atlantic flight, rockets, and Hitler, was home to unconquered Apaches.
The Apaches were a semi-nomadic tribe who in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries used European-introduced horses to conquer vast swaths of territory in what is today Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. Although the Apaches settled down for short periods and grew some of their own food, they spent much of their lives raiding neighboring tribes and European settlements for goods and livestock. Although the Apaches usually mutilated and killed adult males they encountered in these raids, they took women and children back to their camps to adopt into their tribes.
These practices earned the Apaches numerous enemies. The Comanche Indians hated the Apaches. So did the Spanish, who, after failing to subdue the Apaches in the 17th and 18th centuries, began a war of extermination on the Indian tribe. When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, it continued its mother country’s attempts at genocide by paying scalp hunters for Apache scalps. The Apaches survived these efforts, and it was not until the United States Army moved on to the Southern Plains in the late 19th century with automatic-firearms that most Apaches finally gave up raiding and retired to government-run reservations.[v]
One Apache Chief, Geronimo, held out in spite of the U.S. Army’s efforts. Leading a band of 38 men, women, and children, Geronimo raided in the United States throughout the 1880s, and evaded retaliation by crossing into Mexico to hide in the nearly impenetrable Sierra Madre Mountains. It took the American and Mexican armies working together, with each devoting thousands of soldiers, to track down and finally arrest Geronimo in 1886.
For a long time, most outside Sonora thought that Geronimo’s capture marked an end to the Indians Wars; that the only surviving Apaches lived on reservations. As Francisco Fimbres would come to find out, this wasn’t true. From 1880 to 1930, a tiny band of Apaches—some fifty or so—hid out in the Sierra Madres in Sonora, living in constant fear of being discovered. Apache mothers taught their children to walk softly and speak rarely. Lookouts held watch all hours of the day to warn of approaching trespassers.
Most of these surviving Apaches were women and children, as Apache males frequently died in the few instances they dared to raid outside of their mountain home. This made male children a commodity among Apaches, which, in turn, meant that given the opportunity, Apaches would kidnap Mexican boys to adopt into their tribe. Boys like Francisco Fimbres’s two-year-old son, Heraldo.
Before the day he lost his son and wife in 1926, Francisco Fimbres had lived a fortunate life. He was born into a wealthy ranching family with considerable influence on both the Mexican and American side of the border. In part, this owed to Fimbres’s father, a tough man who’d earned respect fighting Indians in his younger days. Although Fimbres never fought Indians in his youth, he’d likely been exposed to violence growing up. His town Nacori Chico was distant from government authority, meaning that bandits were a constant nuisance. And Fimbres, like most in Mexico, likely lost family members in the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution—a civil war that claimed the lives of almost one million people.
In spite of the chaos, it seems that the Fimbres family profited and grew their ranching empire, and when Fimbres’s father passed, he left his ranches and livestock to his son. Fimbres fortune increased when he married into his wife’s well-to-do family. By all accounts, the couple was in love, and they soon consummated their relationship by having two children. They were expecting a third when the Apaches attacked on October 26, 1926.
Most sources relay the version of events mentioned previously. Fimbres and his family were on their way home when a group of Apaches emerged from a hiding spot, shot Fimbres’s wife, and grabbed his son. Unwilling to endanger his daughter in what would likely be a suicidal rescue effort, Fimbres fled, hid his daughter, and returned to the scene with friends. At that point, Fimbres found that the Apaches had mutilated his wife and taken his son.
While this version of events is the most commonly cited, other sources vary on details—the Fimbreses were camping, the Apaches attacked them at their home, etc…. In some versions of the story, Fimbres looks heroic. He tried to shoot the Apaches, but his gun jammed and the Apaches attacked him, stabbed him, and tried to drag him from his horse. Bleeding and unarmed, Fimbres protected his daughter and barely managed to escape. Other accounts paint Fimbres in a less flattering light: there were only a few Apaches, they were all female, and none had firearms. Instead of shooting Fimbres’s wife, these Apache women emerged from hiding, pulled her from her horse, and sliced her to pieces while Fimbres watched in horror. In this version of the story, Fimbres had a loaded six-shooter, but chose to flee the scene anyway.
It’s unclear which of the many accounts is most accurate, but one thing is certain: Fimbres’s life changed that day. Upon returning to the scene and finding his son missing and his wife torn to shreds by Apache knives, Fimbres decided to “rescue his son and avenge his wife or die trying.” From then on, he would always wear a black armband and black hat and he became obsessed with vengeance. He wanted to kill every Apache that remained in the Sierra Madres and he would set out into the mountains on ten different occasions to do so.[vi]
Fimbres made his first trek into the Sierra Madres in the winter of 1926. In preparation, he traveled to Douglas, Arizona where he consulted with a woman named Lupe who made her home on one of Fimbres’s ranches. As a child, Lupe had lived with the Sierra Madre Apaches, so she knew the group better than any other. When Fimbres asked if his son were still alive, Lupe replied in the affirmative, but she warned that locating him would be difficult. The Apaches knew how to cover their tracks and were always quiet, moving like ghosts from one camp to another. Lupe recalled the horror she felt as a child when an older Apache woman strangled one of her friends to death for being too loud. When Fimbres asked if Lupe would join him in the Sierra Madres, the woman shuddered. She feared that if caught, the Apaches would regard her as a traitor and torture her. Fimbres would have to find someone else. Before he could depart, Lupe begged Fimbres to hold off his search, at least for a while. She warned the vengeance-obsessed father that if he went after his boy right away, the Apaches would throw the child off a cliff to stop his pursuit. If instead, Fimbres waited a few months or years, the Apaches would develop an affinity for the boy and would be less likely to harm him.[vii]
Unable to fathom the idea of allowing the Apaches to pollute his son’s mind any longer, Fimbres ignored Lupe’s advice, gathered friends and family as volunteers, and set out for the heart of the Sierra Madres in November 1926. Although there is no record of this first expedition, it must have been perilous owning to the harsh nature of the environment. One resident noted that “there is probably no other place as rugged and naturally secluded on the entire North American continent than where these Apaches live and from where they have challenged the world this last half century.” Dense deciduous forests, craggy rocks, sheer cliffs, and caves cover the Sierra Madres, making the region “so rugged that a wildcat can hardly get around there.” Because Fimbres set out in November, he’d also have to deal with the region’s notoriously heavy snowfalls.[viii]
Fimbres and his cohorts traipsed the Sierra Madres for weeks without seeing another human, their only companions bears, cougars, and other Sierra Madre wildlife. Massive pines and sheer cliffs dominated their view. Occasionally, the party would have come across abandoned stone castles and fortresses, remnants of long gone Indian civilizations that had been driven from the Sierra Madres by drought, disease, and Apaches. By the 1920s, the stone buildings’ only inhabitants were ghosts.
After weeks with no sign of the Apaches or his son, Fimbres returned to civilization, resupplied, and resumed his search in a different area of the Sierra Madres. A second trip yielded no sign of his son. Nor a third. With each trip, his entourage grew smaller, but Fimbres kept up the search, venturing into the Sierra Madres on some ten different occasions from 1927 to 1928. Each time he emerged from the wilderness no closer to finding the Apaches or his son.
In 1928, just as it must have seemed like he’d spend the rest of his life in fruitless pursuit, fortune struck. While resupplying in a small Sonoran town, Fimbres ran into Gilberto Valenzuela, a former Secretary of the Interior who was currently running for President of Mexico. Valenzuela listened to Fimbres’s story and decided to help, putting him in contact with local officials. They informed the press about the missing boy and helped Fimbres recruit eleven experienced trackers for his next expedition. These men included Moroni Finn, an oversized Mormon miner whose family had moved to the Sierra Madres to escape U.S. anti-polygamy laws; Cayetano Huesca, a professional trapper; and Ramon Quejada, a well-traveled and well-liked man who’d spent his life on the U.S.-Mexico border.[ix]
The twelve men set off into the Sierra Madre wilderness in the winter of 1928. They traveled on foot to avoid alerting the Apaches with the sound of approaching hoofs. The men also camouflaged themselves in straw hats and rarely lit a fire to avoid detection, a measure that proved difficult because the winter of 1928-1929 was especially harsh. At one point, perhaps owing to the difficulty of travel and lack of heat, Ramon Quejada fell ill and almost succumbed to fever. Thankfully, the expedition ran across a Chinese vegetable farmer willing to return the sick man to civilization. Fortune favored the remaining men early in 1929 when they came across a series of still smoldering Apache campfires. Unfortunately, with supplies running low, it was necessary for the men to return to civilization, but at least they now had a rough guess at where the Apaches’ lived.[x]
The next fall, Fimbres, Maroni Finn, and the volunteers set out again and this time, they located the Indians’ winter camp. Fimbres snuck so close to it, in fact, that he swore he could see his son among the Apaches. Unfortunately, the camp was atop a steep cliff and surrounded by “a natural fortress.” If the men tried to attack, they’d suffer heavy casualties. So Fimbres made a decision. He’d return to civilization, recruit a well-armed army, and overrun the Apaches.
Fimbres and the remaining members of the expedition descended the Sierra Madres and informed newspapers that they were looking for volunteers. The date of the departure would be May 7, 1930. Fimbres then requested permission from the Mexican government to bring members of the Sonoran militia on the expedition, as well as volunteers from the United States. Now that Fimbres knew where the Apaches were, he wanted to make sure that none escaped. He’d take as many well-armed men as he could.[xi]
The plan fell apart. Although the Mexican and American governments offered tacit approval at first, they soon rescinded it. In the United States, so many volunteers lined up, that recruiters started charging for the expedition. Soon rescuing Fimbres’s son became an afterthought, with one organizer bluntly asking, “Why not join us and get the best vacation you ever had, a delightful experience, a fine comradeship, and see some of the most wonderful country God ever made?” Noticing that its citizens were selling tickets to what amounted to a human hunt, the State Department forbid anyone to cross into Mexico to assist Fimbres. The Mexican government, for its part, initially offered soldiers, but it grew weary of the plan when it was revealed that many U.S. volunteers were mineral speculators looking to scout the Sierra Madres for mines. The idea of a private U.S. army on Mexican soil wasn’t pleasant either. So the Mexican government forbid Americans from joining Fimbres. It also rescinded its offer of militiamen. Fimbres could still kill Apaches without punishment and the government would provide firearms, but he’d have to find his own men. Instead of an army the rancher recruited his uncle Cayetano Fimbres, some members of his previous expeditions, and a few Americans who violated their country’s orders and crossed the border. It would be Fimbres and twelve men. Twelve well armed men.[xii]
Interestingly, just as Fimbres prepared to depart, newspapers reported an interesting twist to the story of his child’s kidnapping: the Apaches may have specifically targeted Fimbres. When Fimbres was a child, his father was among a group of ranchers who’d set off in pursuit of a group of Sierra Madre Apaches that had stolen some cattle. Although most of the thieves escaped, Fimbres’s father managed to capture their lookout, a twelve-year-old girl. The elder Fimbres took the child back to his ranch, prevented her from returning to the Apaches, and raised her into adulthood as a Mexican. The child grew up to be Lupe, the woman who’d helped Fimbres before his first expedition. Lupe believed that her Apache mother had ordered the 1926 attack and kidnapping as revenge for Fimbres’s father taking her as a child. Her mother had been the one to kill Fimbres’s wife. In essence, the Apaches had attacked Fimbres as revenge for his father’s actions.[xiii]
If Fimbres recognized the irony of the situation, he didn’t show it. In April 1930, he and his twelve recruits headed into the Sierra Madres. Though they’d prepared to stay in the field for months and had armed themselves to take on the Apache camp, their journey would be short. Not long after heading into the mountains, word reached the group that Apaches had attacked a nearby pack train. Abandoning any pretext of stealth, the men rode at full gallop toward the sight of the attack, where they noticed smoke rising from a distant campfire. It was the Apaches.
Fimbres and his entourage crested a ridge and spotted two Apache women and the known Apache leader, Apache Juan. The men managed to avoid detection until one of the Apache women noticed their arrival and shouted “Nayaké!” the Apache word for Mexican. Before she could utter another word, one of Fimbres’s crew fired a bullet through her arm, nearly separating it from her body. A second bullet ended the woman’s life. The remaining Apache female reached her rifle and leveled it at the oncoming men, but when she pulled the trigger, the gun jammed. She frantically tried to clear the barrel with her knife, but before she could do so, Fimbres’s men shot her dead.
Apache Juan managed to escape the initial barrage long enough to seek shelter behind a rock, and for two hours he exchanged gunfire with Fimbres and his crew. The Apache finally met his end when Cayetano Fimbres flanked him and shot him. Cayetano put a bullet in the Indian at point blank range to ensure that he was dead.
Fimbres and his group searched the surrounding countryside for Heraldo and the remaining Apaches, but found nothing. They then returned to the scene of the gunfight and scalped the two Apache women. Fimbres strung their flea-infested hair on his belt. He also decapitated Apache Juan, and took his head as a souvenir. The group left what remained of the three bodies to rot in the sun. Fimbres had not yet found his son, but he’d finally drawn blood.
The men returned to civilization with the tokens of their victory. Fimbres placed the decapitated head of Apache Juan atop a stake in Nacori Chico and posed for a photo in the town square. The photo shows Fimbres holding the scalps, his crew standing menacingly in the background. A child, around the same age that Heraldo would be at the time, stands to left of Fimbres, looking excitedly into the camera, delighted to be included in the photo.
Newspapers in the United States and Mexico reprinted the photograph and reported on Fimbres’s successful hunt. For his part, Fimbres showed the Apache scalps to anyone who would look. One man who saw one of the gruesome trophies as a child and later recalled only that the memento “was full of fleas.” When someone asked if he had achieved his goal by killing the three Apaches, Fimbres shook his head and said that he still had work to do. He had to rescue his son.
He wouldn’t. Shortly after Fimbres returned to civilization, the remaining Sierra Madre Apaches discovered the bodies of Apache Juan and the two women. Heraldo was with them. What happened next was brutal. Seeking either to stop his father’s relentless pursuit or to avenge their dead kin, the Apaches strung the almost-seven-year-old Heraldo up to a tree and began stoning him. The boy, having lived with the Apaches for three years at this point, likely begged his new family to stop, but they didn’t listen. They kept throwing stones. At some point, it seems the Apaches cut the still-living child down from his perch and began carving him with a knife, nearly beheading him. With the child still breathing, the Apaches then threw him into an empty grave and covered it with stones, leaving the boy’s legs sticking out for the world to see. The Apaches then gave Apache Juan and their two women a proper burial and departed the scene.
A few days later, two Mexican travelers were overcome with the scent of rotting flesh and when they went to investigate, they found Heraldo’s grave. They dug the boy up and found him covered head to toe in traditional Apache clothing. Soon thereafter the men located Fimbres and relayed what they’d found.
Fimbres was devastated. Some sources say that he realized he’d made a mistake and questioned his decision to attack the Apaches without first making sure they had Heraldo. That maybe he should have waited longer for the Apaches to grow more attached to Heraldo, as Lupe had warned. Some say that Fimbres grew depressed, reclusive. Others say that his son’s death drove him further toward the path of vengeance. That he lost all sense of his humanity. That more than ever he wanted to eradicate the Apaches from the earth.
Fimbres may have achieved this goal. Following the news of Heraldo’s death, hysteria gripped Mexico and the United States. Newspapers exaggerated the threat the Apache posed by inflating their numbers from, at most, a few dozen to hundreds. Instead of stealthy thieves, the Apaches became heartless savages. Not only that, but newspapers falsely reported that Geronimo’s grandson, Geronimo III had taken over the Sierra Madre band and was preparing for all out war on Mexico.[xiv]
There would be a war, but most of the casualties would be Apaches. Instead of turning the other way when Apaches stole their cattle, as they’d done before, Mexican men fought back, and from 1930 to 1935, what could be described as the last Indian war took place in Sonora. In 1932, a rancher chased a group of Apaches who’d stolen some of his horses for twenty-five days. When he finally caught up to them, he put a bullet through a mother carrying her child, killed a second female, and forced a third to drop her child in order to escape. The rancher also shot an Apache male at the scene. Although he managed to escape, the rancher believed he later died of his wounds. Another group of ranchers came upon the woman who’d abandoned her child, killed her, and hung her from a tree. The two Apache children survived the encounter, but when a Mexican family tried to raise them as their own, their stomachs couldn’t adapt to the change in diet, so they whittled away and eventually died of starvation.[xv]
It seems that the remaining Apaches sought vengeance. Instead of retreating deeper into the Sierra Madres, in 1933, the few Apache warriors raided Fimbres’s hometown and killed and scalped three ranch hands. In response, John Chavez, whom American newspapers called a “Mexican Paul Revere,” laid a trap for the Apaches and killed five of their number. In a separate occasion, Fimbres’s old Mormon acquaintance, Moroni Finn, killed another five Apaches. One person captured an Apache child. Another shot a fleeing woman. The killings added up, and by 1935, the Apache attacks stopped. The Sierra Madres grew quiet. The last Indian war was over, with the same result as those that had come before. The Indians lost.[xvi]
In 1937, an anthropologist named Helge Ingstad recruited Apaches from the Fort Apache Indian reservation in Arizona and asked them to accompany him into the Sierra Madres. He wanted to find what remained of their Sierra Madre kin. For three months, Ingstad and the Apaches scoured the countryside, finding long abandoned campsites, but no Apaches. Occasionally, the reservation Indians would yell out to let their brethren know that they were friends and only wanted to talk. The only response was echoes. More than once, Ingstad swore that he saw Indians watching him from behind trees, but each investigation revealed that no one had been there. Only the ghosts of the Sierra Madre Apaches remained.
[i] Helge Ingstad, The Apache Indians: In Search of the Missing Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 126. This is just one version of Fimbres’s story. Newspapers and oral histories recount numerous others. See also Grenville Goodwin, The Apache Diaries: A Father-Son Journey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).
[ii] Ingstad, The Apache Indians, 126.
[iii] Ingstad, The Apache Indians, 126.
[iv] Ingstad, The Apache Indians, 126.
[v] See Mark Santiago, The Jar of Severed Hands: Spanish Deportation of Apache Prisoners of War, 1770-1810 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011) for more of the brutal treatment of the Apaches by the Spanish. This is one work among many on the subject.
[vi] “Francisco Fimbres Se Ha Vengado,” Hispano-America, February 21, 1931.
[vii] Ingstad, The Apache Indians, 126-127.
[viii] Ingstad, The Apache Indians, 85, 127.
[ix] Ingstad, The Apache Indians, 127.
[x] Ingstad, The Apache Indians, 127; “Fears Felt for Party Seeking Indian Raiders,” Tampa Morning Tribune January 14, 1929.
[xi] “Attack on Indians Planned in Arizona,” Riverside Daily Press, November 27, 1929.
[xii] “Attack on Indians Planned in Arizona,” Riverside Daily Press, November 27, 1929. “Into the Wilds to Rescue a Baby,” San Diego Union, April 27, 1930; “Officials Scent Publicity Stunt in ‘Expedition,’” The Rockford Register-Gazette, April 25, 1930; “Here’s A Chance to be Indian Fighter,” The Alto Herald, April 10, 1930. Some sources put the volunteer army as high as 1,000 men. “Father Returns with 3 Scalps,” Riverside Daily, February 2, 1931.
[xiii] “Into the Wilds to Rescue a Baby,” San Diego Union, April 27, 1930.
[xiv] “Apache Warcry Rings Again,” Springfield Union, October 21, 1934.
[xv] Goodwin, Apache Diaries, 110-111.
[xvi] “Indians Scalp 3,” The San Diego Union, April 23, 1933.; “Ranchers Slay 5 Apache Braves in Sonora Fight,” The San Diego Union, March 7, 1930; “Apache Warcry Rings Again,” Springfield Union, October 21, 1934.