James Kirker, the King of New Mexico

There are several conflicting accounts of James Kirker's exploits as a scalp hunter in the regions surrounding Chihuahua ranging from the truly spectacular to the merely disturbing. Regardless "the King of New Mexico," the name inscribed on the only portrait of him, was a U.S. immigrant from Ireland who moved from Missouri to New Mexico and was eventually employed to end the Apache raids in Mexico and the southwest territories. Rather than attempt to disentangle the varying stories, I will offer several accounts, since both the hard facts and the myths offer insight into the scalp industry.


As detailed in William Cochran McGraw's Savage Scene, Kirker came into his vocation as a scalp hunter in a rather paradoxical manner. Kirker began a career as an illegal fur trapper near Sante Fe, and while there he and the other trappers used the Santa Rita mines as their base of operations. The mines served as an ideal hiding place for the pelts as well as extra revenue from working in the copper mines. Disappointed by trapping, Kirker, around 1832, began escorting ore trains from the mines to Chihuahua City- a trail that led through the Apache territories. Rather than trying to fight them off, Kirker established an alliance with one of their leaders Juan Jos� Compa- by brokering Apache goods (stolen in Mexico) in Texas and Louisiana- and had been named a war chief by the Apaches. By this time Kirker had established his home in Janos in northern Chihuahua and had obtained a trapping permit from the Mexican government. Soon he was forced to flee to Colorado, because of government intrigue he had been declared an outlaw- Kirker's relationship with the Mexican authorities would continue to fluctuate over the years, but the murder of the Apache Juan Jos� prompted a new intensity in Indian raids within Chihuahua, and so Kirker was called upon to assist in pacifying the Apaches.

Apache Hunting

Kirker gathered up a force of about twenty-five men and swarmed an Apache village in southern New Mexico killing fifty-five braves (about 20% of the village). Despite his "success" Apache raids continued and Mexicans were being murdered in the streets of Chihuahua City. The Governor authorized a society that would fund a private army to stop the menace, an army led by James Kirker. By mid-1839, the society raised over $100,000 for the operation which hired Kirker to train a local militia as well as lead a band of Indian fighters (paid a dollar a day plus any property recovered). In Sept. Kirker and his band fought their first battle in the Taos Valley, baiting the Apache raiders. Kirker and his men cut off the escaping Apaches and chased them into the town of Rancho de Taos. This battle resulted in forty scalps- one of which was taken from a live Apache foe according to a story in the New Orleans Picayune.

The Apaches agreed to a peace conference with the Chihuahuan officials- with many stipulations, of primary one "that Don Santiago Kirker. . . not return to New Mexico." The peace treaty never came about since soon after Kirker's contact was canceled, the Apaches continued their raiding. A British mining company in southwest Chihuahua hired Kirker to guard their mines from Indian attacks. The Chihuahuan government soon requested Kirker's services again; Gov. Monterde offered $100 for the scalps of warriors, $50 for women, and $25 for children. The Apaches had attacked the wagon train of a wealthy merchant killing all but one of the crew and stealing eighty mules worth of goods. Kirker and his band found the natives' drunken camp, infiltrated it, and slit the throats of the entire group and scalped them, forty-three braves. Nearby was a village of nearly a thousand Apache which they decided to raid too (Kirker had about 150 men). Although the chief Cochise and much of the village escaped, Kirker amassed a number of scalps and lost many more since many of the Apaches had drowned in a nearby lake trying to escape. During the battle, Kirker's Mexican guide was killed; he too was scalped. The expedition yielded 182 scalps plus eighteen "walking scalps," prisoners; when the governor initially refused to pay for those, Kirker's second in command the Shawnee Skybuck offered to remove the trophies right there. They were paid for the eighteen scalps without having to render that service. Trouble arose; the governor only had $2000 in the treasury and was allowing the stock to be returned to its original owners, but Kirker signed on again after the governor raised the price to $200 a scalp (presumably with no more money in the treasury). In Galeana, they massacred 160 Apaches, but when the government still could not pay and the U.S. declared war on Mexico, Kirker and his band sold military information to the U.S. forces, and he was declared an outlaw in Mexico with a $10,000 reward offered for him.

In 1847, after traveling East briefly, Kirker returned to New Mexico where the U.S. army employed him in fighting Apaches along the Colorado-New Mexico border. He helped the 150 soldiers defeat a native army of nearly 400 warriors; although he received no credit in the army reports the Sante Fe newspaper reported that he was well paid for his assistance. After this Kirker guided a pioneer train for a while and ended up in California where he died at the end of 1852.