The Elusive Historical Figure
Writing a historical novel can sometimes be an excuse to spend more time exploring a minor historical figure and moment who’s been evading you. I’ve written six westerns and spent a fair bit of effort trying to understand the Apache Wars which ravaged the Desert Southwest during the later nineteenth century. Great Indian war chiefs emerged from those bloody conflicts and are still remembered today – Cochise, Geronimo, and more. I’ve centered entire books on my heroes and heroines’ relationships with those big names.
But my research kept highlighting one man: Victorio, the greatest Apache war chief of all – possibly the greatest Indian war chief. I needed to write about him. So when Portia, the heroine of my upcoming historical THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS, needed to be young and silly but gallant, too, in the face of danger – I grabbed an episode from Victorio’s career.
Victorio was the chieftain of the Ojo Caliente (Warm Springs) Apache, who fought beside Mangas Coloradas and Cochise. Betrayed onto a reservation, he escaped with his people after being sent to another one which held more malaria-carrying mosquitoes than arable land. For years, he raided Arizona and New Mexico from bases within Mexico. Geronimo was one of his cohorts.
The Texas Rangers mobilized to close off the border into Texas. Two regiments of cavalry – the legendary Buffalo soldiers, Negro soldiers from the 9th and 10th cavalry – rode their horses and mules into the ground chasing him through some of the roughest, most desolate terrain in the West. Their commander gave full credit to Apache scouts from tribes farther west in Arizona. The Mexican Army’s finest Indian fighter stayed in the field for months, harassing Victorio.
Victorio was ultimately driven out of the United States by stationing troops at every water hole. Even then, he fought a series of pitched battles, most of which he nearly won, before fleeing across the border to Mexico for the last time. He died there in a battle with Mexican troops, probably at his own hand.
It took the combined efforts of the Mexican army, the Texas Rangers, and 2,000 U.S. soldiers to defeat Victorio and his warriors, who never numbered two hundred men and usually far less.
The opening of THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS is set during one of Victorio’s raids into the United States, when the inhabitants were rightly terrified of traveling anywhere along his likely path.
Have you ever had a historical character pique your curiosity but been unable to fit him into a book? What did you do about him or her?