With little else to look forward to, rations day on the San Carlos Apache Reservation was an event. As evidenced by this photo, taken about 1895, men, women and children, on horseback, muleback, and accompanied by their dogs, converged on agency headquarters to receive their weekly allotment.
Rations varied markedly over the years, depending on the mood of the federal government and the honesty of the reservation agent. Under optimum conditions, the Apaches were given beef, flour, sugar, salt, coffee – and two bars of soap for each of the 100 Indians. At times, rations were suspended altogether and the Apaches were told to fend for themselves.
Established in 1872, and characterized by one historian as a “disastrous mistake,” the San Carlos Reservation was not among the government’s better ideas. At its height, 4,000 Apaches were crowded onto land originally designated for 800. No regard was given to cultural differences or traditional animosities among various bands, and reservation life was anything but harmonious. But incarceration, not harmony among “savages” was the government’s overriding concern.
Given the alternative of extermination, some Apaches voluntarily took up residence on San Carlos. Most, however, did not. Either way, the reservation was an enormous concentration camp fraught by hardship, overcrowding and, not infrequently, starvation. These conditions were exacerbated by constant reductions in land area, given government justification by the discovery of valuable mineral resources, and by the need for farmland, timber and water for the onslaught on white settlement.
Frequent outbreaks resulted in sporadic warfare between the Apaches and the Army. Contrary to popular myth, the capture of Geronimo in 1886 did not conclude hostilities between the Apaches and the Army, or between the Apaches and Anglo intruders. While the government characterized Geronimo’s capture as the end of the Apache wars, violence continued on a smaller scale well into the early decades of the 20th century.
A few years after this photograph was taken, rationing ended on the San Carlos Reservation. Army troops were removed and the Apaches were left largely to their own devices. Still, however, the government controlled the land, and the Indians had no economy of their own. In order to survive, Apaches were forced to work off the reservation as day laborers. Indian agents acted as labor contractors, placing groups of Apaches on road construction projects, in mining, and as farm workers. In nearly all instances, they were paid less than their white counterparts.
Today, the San Carlos Reservation is one of the poorest places in the United States. A casino was opened in 1994, and gaming is making a difference. Still, however, poverty runs high among the Apache people.
— W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy Fort Huachua Museum.