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Former Sheriff Bill Cavaliere is solving the mysteries of Apacheria

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Western Heritage

Cold Case

Former Hidalgo County Sheriff Bill Cavaliere has turned from law enforcement to solving the mysteries of Apacheria's past.

by Dawn M. Aerts



Ranchers like Bill Cavaliere are at home in this part of the desert Southwest. As an avid historian, he has been drawn to the heart of the Apache homelands, to fuzzy photographs taken 100 years ago, and to the frayed antiquities left scattered in Apacheria.

Sheriff Cavaliere
Cavaliere with research materials, including the most famous photo of Geronimo. (Photo by Dawn M. Aerts)

Since his retirement from law enforcement in 2012, he's stepped up efforts to uncover and understand the Apache past in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. He's ridden with a descendant of the Apache warrior Perico, and his San Simon Valley ranch has become a gathering place for Apacheria researchers.

He says the San Simon Valley has always drawn folks to what he describes as the great moments of Native American history: from the story of raucous cowboys and the plight of ragged Apaches, to handwritten notes made by US Cavalry officers in conversations with warriors like Geronimo.

"I think part of the draw for me has always been about the people," says Cavaliere of his ranch situated on the eastern edge of the Chiricahua Mountains. "We've been in this area many years, so it's about the lifelong friends that we consider family and the stories of the people who came before us."

As with turning most pages of history, he says the truth demands both time and patience.

"Researchers have uncovered hundreds of letters, memoirs and journals about Apacheria…. They detail Native American life, from the Yaqui and Chiricahua-Apache, to the Mescalero tribes." As Cavaliere describes it, the 1850s through the 1880s was a lively time when the likes of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache flashed across these lands — refusing to go.

"You might say I've always been drawn to the American West," he says. "History has taken me here."

As a longtime board member of the Cochise County Historical Society in southeastern Arizona, he periodically submits entries and journals that focus on the details of that time. He recently submitted a lengthy research piece outlining the recorded and unrecorded burial sites that he hopes will bring closure on specific names, dates and locations here. Over the past 15 years, Cavaliere has also focused on bringing local history into the classroom.


Cavaliere, who was born and reared in New Jersey, found himself an agreeable transplant to the New Mexico landscape in 1978. In his early years, he worked in a variety of jobs in Rodeo, and later, with his wife, Jill, raised their family in Playas. In 1998, after completing a police academy in Santa Fe, he was elected Hidalgo County sheriff. In the meantime, he learned the how-to's of cattle ranching with his father-in-law, Jim Strickland, now deceased.

"You could say I've learned a lot of things along the way," says Cavaliere of life near the US-Mexico border. "That's everything from working with the US Forest Service, to bartending at the tavern down the road. I've worked for local ranchers, like Ed Roos at the Price Canyon Ranch and others, which I think gave me a good view on what local history is all about."

In the late 1990s, Cavaliere decided to share his findings on Native Americans by leading a small handful of people on tours to Geronimo's 1886 surrender site, into Skeleton Canyon. He says of the surrounding region, "Now this is where the last native tribes of the Southwest lived freely — this is where they raised their children, fought their battles, and sheltered their people for as long as possible from the US Cavalry (and Mexican raids) that persisted into the 1880s."


In 2004, Cavaliere began to invite and host guests at his ranch — experts in the field, local historians, archeologists, and descendants of the Apache tribes. "We've had people visit here from all over the world — Scotland, Sweden, Germany and Mexico." He says they come to see the land where the last of the Native American people lived in freedom, and where the Chiricahua people under the leadership of Geronimo finally surrendered to the US government's will.

His guest book is full of signed notes by celebrated authors and notable politicians: people like Dan Aranda, a writer with Wild West Magazine, and Ed Sweeney, the preeminent researcher on the life of Cochise and his people. You'll see the names of prominent archeologists like Dr. Deni Seymour, along with the great-grandson of the Apache warrior Perico. In May 2013, Cavalier rode with Pascal Enjady, Perico's great-grandson, and an Apache friend to revisit the Apache homeland trails.

Cavaliere says the Chiricahua Apache still consider this land their home.

"There are people who have lived here for years, but don't know the legacy," he adds. Few have ever heard of the Kas-ki-yeh Massacre by Mexican troops, who killed Apache women and children in the summer of 1858. Only a few more know the details about the last surrender that took place Sept. 4, 1886, in Skeleton Canyon — or the "Two-Year Promise" (of limited captivity) that Apache descendants call the "broken promise."

He explains that at least two US generals — Nelson A. Miles and George Crook — were acclaimed for the unrelenting raids in Apacheria that eventually imprisoned warriors, along with the old, sick and wounded, mothers and children. That history recounts that the Apaches finally hunted down were numbered at about 35 men, 8 boys and 100 women and children. They were taken to Florida, and later Ft. Sill, Okla., where the people remained captive for 20 years.

But it was in Apacheria that Geronimo and others evaded capture for years. As Cavaliere points out, that provoked the attention of the US Cavalry, Mexican troops and settlers who squeezed them into the Black Mountain Range and farther south to the Sierra Madre of Mexico. To this day, he is fascinated by the many hold-outs, maneuvers and uncanny escapes made by the Apache.


Over the years, Cavaliere has invested hours of detailed research, traveled to actual sites in Mexico, such as Cañon de los Embudos, and listened to numerous experts speak on this history. Some of that effort, he says, was to learn about the obscure accounts of Naiche, the son of Cochise — who, he says, was in the "revered" hereditary line of the Chiricahua Apache and who played a significant role in the saga.

"People will find hundreds of books on Geronimo. He was known as the bold one — the dynamic leader, and a flamboyant spokesman at high-stakes talks with US generals. He is the one that the movies portrayed as legendary, and there are plenty of accounts," says Cavaliere with a smile. "But I think the history goes further — and that may be more about Naiche."

Though much of Cavaliere's free time is about natural history and hunting, he's also developed a penchant for research and analysis. "As a bartender I used to hear a lot of stories from old-timers and patrol agents here. There were the unresolved issues, conversations about border-type issues, and these old stories would surface." That led him to examine the old photographs that were snapped, and to study the portraits and the back drops.

"There was one day, in 1979, when I went along to help a rancher with his cattle down in Skeleton Canyon. And he showed me the final surrender site — which was really just a pile of rocks left stacked up by the US Cavalry," says Cavaliere. "I guess you could say, I had no idea of what really took place in that canyon up till then."

While Cavaliere continues to study old photographs taken by C.S. Fly and others, he's also visited obscure historic sites in Mexico and along the Southwest border. He says some of the early images remain puzzling for those attempting to figure out the historic pictures. He says his background as a deputy sheriff has led him to look at situations from many vantage points, and to consider all the evidence.

"In law enforcement, I think you connect with people on a personal level, so I naturally wanted to learn more about the area, the memories people had, and to look for the remnants left behind." He hopes to attract more history buffs to the San Simon Valley, where he admits that the Apache story may never be fully understood.

"We need to preserve the great moments, to study them, to keep them alive," says Cavaliere of his fondness for old snapshots and the artifacts he's collected. "There are more chapters to be written on Apacheria — it's still an unfolding saga of the Southwest."



Dawn M. Aerts is a former Minnesota newspaper journalist who lives in Rodeo.

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