Nearly forgotten Big Bend legend: Apache Chief Alsate

Map of the states of Kansas and Texas and Indian Territory with Parts of the Territories of Colorado and New Mexico (1873) (Courtesy of the National Archives)

With 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 9. After becoming acculturated, she eventually was married to war chief Peta Nocona and bore a son they named Quanah.

In 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.

Quanah Parker is pictured.

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.

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