first light, the mountains rimming the Chisos Basin high above the
surrounding desert materialize as giant silhouettes forming a massive,
ragged black outline against the faint bluish-gray of predawn.
And then the sun begins painting the mountains with varying shades
of orange and purple as a new day begins in the high country of
the Big Bend. To the left of the opening in the basin called the
Window is Pulliam Bluff, a wide thrust of giant, bare rock. Slanting
toward the V-shaped Window, the formation cuts a profile across
the sky that someone once fancied as the face of a reposing Alsate,
the last chief of the Chisos Apaches.
Mexican shepherds were the first to see Alsate in the rock, and
they came to believe with certainty that his ghost haunted the Chisos
Mountains. The folktale has endured, as much a fixture of the landscape
as the towering igneous rocks themselves.
In several ways, Alsate's story is a reverse of the classic tale
of Quanah Parker,
last chief of the Quahada Comanches. Quanah
was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, an Anglo girl captured by Comanches
in 1836 when she was nine. After becoming acculturated, she eventually
was married to war chief Peta Nocona and bore a son they named Quanah.
the case of Alsate, it was his father who as a boy had been captured
by Mescalero Apaches in Coahuila, Mexico. That stolen child, Manuel
Muzquiz, grew up in the tribe and eventually married an Apache woman.
Their son, born around 1820, came to be known as Alsate, although
the Mexican government referred to him as Pedro Musquiz.
Like Quanah Parker,
Alsate (that name is believed to be a corruption of Arzate, a relatively
common Mexican surname) became a noted war chief. Unlike the noted
Comanche headman, who eventually quit fighting, adapted to Anglo
ways and lived until old age, Alsate never stopped preying on residents
of either side of the Rio Grande. The story of Cynthia Ann Parker
and her son has been told many times, but Alsate is far less known.
He might have been lost to history entirely had it not been for
O.W. Williams, a pioneer Trans-Pecos surveyor with an interest in
history and writing. In "Alsate, the Last Great Chief of the Chisos
Apaches," an undated, privately published pamphlet, Williams told
what he had learned about the chief. His principal informant had
been an elderly Mexican who had known Alsate.
Carlysle Raht dug up a bit more information on the chief for his
1919 book, "Romance of the Davis Mountains," and an Alpine newspaper
editor later interviewed Alsate's grandson, but beyond those works,
anything else written on the chief was merely derivative. In the
mid-1990s, however, Dr. Frank Daughtery and Mexican historian Luis
Lopez Elizondo of Musquiz, Mexico, did an article on Alsate for
The Journal of Big Bend Studies that shed new light on Alsate. Even
so, plenty of shadow remains.
Alsate's first documented scrape with Anglos in the Big Bend came
in 1867, when he and his warriors surrounded an El
Paso-bound wagon train laden with salt that had stopped at a
spring near present Alpine.
San Antonio trader
John D. Burgess did some fast talking and Alsate ended up accepting
Burgess's offer of his coat as a gift. When Alsate showed up in
Ojinaga wearing a white man's coat, Mexican authorities arrested
him. The chief would have been executed had not Burgess explained
that he had given Alsate the garment.
The chief continued his depredations, earning the growing enmity
of the Mexican government. Eventually captured by the Mexican military
on orders from President Porfirio Diaz, Alsate and many of his band
ended up imprisoned in Mexico City.
On the night of Dec. 21, 1879, Alsate and his warriors escaped from
prison and vanished. They made their way back to their previous
range along the border, resuming their raiding and killing. A year
later, the Mexican army promised an amnesty it had no intention
of actually granting and invited Alsate and his followers to San
Carlos, Mexico for a boozy feast. When the hung-over Indians woke
up the next morning, they found themselves encircled by troops.
Some tried to fight and were killed; the rest, including Alsate
and two of his lieutenants, Colorado and Zorillo, were captured.
Alsate and the other Apaches were marched to Ojinaga, opposite Presidio
on the Rio Grande, and soon executed by firing squad. Another version
has it that Alsate ended up on the Mescalero reservation in New
Mexico, but that is unlikely.
Despite the efforts of Daughtery and Elizondo, no one has pinned
down the exact date of Alsate's execution or his place of burial.
Still, though long dead, his legend lives on in the Big Bend.
© Mike Cox
- December 9, 2015 Column
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