A Mile and a Half to Fort Bowie
By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)
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The words ring of Old West history.
General George Crook
General Nelson Miles
Images of scowling faces. Grim faces. Rifles and cartridge belts.
Travelers along Interstate 10 through southeastern Arizona pass unknowingly within a few miles of where these places and these men etched their names into history with blood and hatred, treachery and revenge, duty and bravery.
The dry grasslands of southeastern Arizona are interrupted with innumerable volcanic ridges, driven upward by volcanic forces and worn down by wind and sand into a landscape stark, jagged, lifeless, intimidating as we hurry on to Las Cruces or Tombstone or wherever we're going.
Lying just south of the Interstate, the Chiracahua and Dos Cabezos Mountain Ranges look like any other desert mountain ridge, connected by a low range of hills. This is Apache Pass. In pioneer days, the only source of water was there at Apache Spring. The Chiracahua Mountains south of the pass are far from stark and lifeless; they were home to the Chiracahua Apache and the geological features there are awesome, known by the Apache as "land of standing up rocks." The presence of the spring, the pass, the Apaches, and the arriving Americans in this very small place created one of the most complex, violent and long-lasting stories in Western history.
I had passed by Apache Pass more than once traveling east and west on I-10. My research on the Bascom Affair, published previously in the Single Action Shooting Society Chronicle, had stirred an interest in Apache Pass and what happened there. It kept calling: "Come and see." So we did.
Blackjack Annie and I are both experienced hikers and the thought of the mile and a half hike through history was irresistible. We waited for the monsoons and heat of August and September to pass and in mid-October checked into the Arizona Sunset Inn in Willcox. A short drive eastward on I-10 brought us to the tiny hamlet of Bowie, known as "Bowie Station" during the days of Fort Bowie. It was the fort's connection to the railroad. Apache Pass Road starts there at an inconspicuous intersection. A ten-mile drive takes us to the base of the pass. Interestingly, the area was discovered to have soils and climate similar to wine-growing areas in France; the drive to the pass is heavily cultivated with vineyards and orchards and the area enjoys a thriving wine industry.
A wide place in the road at the top of the pass marks the parking area and the trail head to Fort Bowie, a mile and a half away. Shouldering day packs with lunch and water bottles, we started the walk through history under a gorgeous blue sky, thankfully shaded by puffy white clouds. vThe trail rises steadily across open meadows, grass burned brown in spite of recent monsoon rains, an occasional yucca plant reaching skyward, mesquite and scrub brush scattered about. The stone foundation of an ancient miner's cabin stands mutely beside the trail, tan knee-high grass inside. We continue on.
A bit after the half-mile marker we come to another stone foundation; this one is significant. It's the Butterfield Stage Station. In 1857, John Butterfield won the government bid to provide mail service to faraway California and his looping 2,700 mile stage road from St. Louis to San Francisco naturally routed over Apache Pass to access the water from Apache Springs. The surprisingly narrow Butterfield Stage Road passes nearby; the mail stage for the mountain route was far smaller and lighter than the famed Concord stage we all know. The stage station was, in its time, a social center of the area. The Chiracahua Apache, though bitter enemies of Mexico, were amicable and curious toward the Americans. Their tall, charismatic leader, Cochise, enjoyed visiting the station manager and teamsters, learned English, drank coffee and beer with the men, and even provided firewood in trade for food. Things went along fine until early 1860.
It all began when a band of White Mountain Apaches raided a ranch to the west owned by a John Ward, running off some stock and taking his step-son, Felix Martinez. Ward promptly contacted nearby Fort Buchanan and brand-new Second Lieutenant George Bascom was sent with an escort of 54 troopers with orders to contact Cochise and retrieve the boy.
Bascom was to prove arrogant, ignorant, impulsive, stupid, and ambitious. He arrived with his troopers at the Butterfield Station and set up an officer's tent and several Sibley tents at the base of a hill about two hundred yards from the station. Word was sent to Cochise, requesting a parley. Cochise agreed and appeared two days later at noon - lunch time - accompanied by his brother, Coyantura, and several close family members as a sign of his peaceful intentions. Cochise and Coyantura were invited into Bascom's tent; the others were ushered to the enlisted men's tents and furtively placed under armed guard.
As they dined, Bascom brought up the matter of the kidnapped Felix and demanded that Cochise produce him forthwith. Cochise knew nothing of the kidnapping; the Chiracahuas did not kidnap hostages, which Bascom should have known. The White Mountain Apaches did, however, and used them for both barter and assimilation. Cochise knew this and offered to locate the boy. Bascom would have none of it and promised to hang his hostages if Cochise did not produce Felix promptly. Highly insulted, Cochise and Coyantura both drew knives, spun away and cut openings in the tent walls. Cochise escaped in a hail of bullets and scrambled up the brushy hillside; his brother surrendered to a trooper's bayonet. To this day, the incident is known to the Apaches as "the day of the slit tent."
Bascom withdrew his little force into the tiny stage station, wisely fearing Apache retribution. On the second day, Cochise did indeed appear under a flag of truce with the leader of the White Mountain Apaches, who was apparently ready to bargain. Bascom met them outside the station with Ward and the station manager. Cochise began by accusing Bascom of treachery. It is unclear what broke up the parley, but gunfire erupted and a station hand named Wallace was captured as all broke for cover.
Nearby at almost the same time, Apache warriors captured a wagon supply train, killed the five Mexican teamsters and captured three white men. A Butterfield stage arrived at the station, pursued by Apache warriors, adding several more into the very cramped stage station. The next day Cochise appeared with a bound Wallace to bargain for Bascom's captives. Bascom foolishly refused. Arriving infantry and dragoon reinforcements from Forts Buchanan and Breckenridge brought a superior officer, First Lieutenant Moore, apparently no wiser that Bascom. A detail sent to retrieve water from the spring the next day discovered the mutilated bodies of Wallace and the three white teamsters. Moore promptly ordered a withdrawal to Fort Buchanan after summarily hanging Bascom's hostages over Bascom's objections, leaving them hanging from a tree for Cochise to find.
It was the Apache's "Pearl Harbor." And it filled them with a "terrible resolve" just as ours did 80 years later.
Leaving this tragic place, we continue on. Around a curve in the trail we are suddenly confronted by a darkly weathered five-foot high picket fence - Fort Bowie's cemetery. It's first three occupants were from the advance guard of the California Column eighteen months later as the Union troops followed Confederate troops retreating from Tucson during the Civil War. Many of the troopers interred here were removed to Arlington National Cemetery, so there are only civilian graves marked today, many marked "Killed by Apaches."
A few yards further we find the plastered-over foundations of a rectangular building running parallel to the trail. It was the Apache Agency Office where teamster Tom Jeffords served the Apaches as government agent. His unusual and lasting friendship with Cochise was the true story that inspired the "Broken Arrow" television series many of us recall from those years of great TV westerns. The Jeffords and Cochise friendship transcended cultures and strife and deserves research yet undone, perhaps lessons to be learned and examples to follow. For now, the remains of Jeffords' agency lie where the two friends would have met frequently, mutely refusing to give up its stories of the two men.
Next, a steel trail marker identifies the site of the Battle of Apache Pass, where the California Column stumbled into the outraged Apache as they struggled to reach Apache Spring. Cochise and his ally, Mangus Colorado of the Mimbres Apaches, knew they had only to wait for their enemy to come to them. Holding the upper ground and fighting on their home ground, the Apaches were a formidable force against the fatigued and unsuspecting Californians. It was here that the first three occupants of the post cemetery met their painful deaths. The Apaches retreated only when the Column's two mountain howitzers were brought up and entered the fight. Having never seen such a thing as a "fire wagon," the Apaches were forced to retreat, relinquishing the field and access to the spring.
We again pause to take it all in, wondering what it would have been like to fight against a warrior who could appear and disappear like an avenging ghost, bringing instant death without warning. Every account of the Apaches commented on their amazing ability to travel and survive over great distances in this country, mostly on foot, of their enormous rib cage and lung capacity, intimate knowledge of their world so foreign to white men.
Shortly up the trail, there it was! Apache Spring - the reason and the objective of all the events along this fascinating trail. Tucked away in a shaded, rock-lined grotto in a tree-filled arroyo, the spring burbles peacefully, gently as it has for centuries, unaware and unconcerned with the life and death struggles to possess it. A nearby marker tells the tale and advises to not take its water. We stand in silence for a while to consider it all - the spring, the sites, and the violence we have seen and imagined.
Another quarter mile upslope brings us to a plateau, surrounded by steep hills climbing upward to sharp ridges. A sign indicates to our right the site of the first Fort Bowie, established by the California Column and named for General George Washington Bowie. Little remains of the first fort; the site was unsuitable. The remains of the real Fort Bowie await us, the U. S. Flag still standing in the center of the parade ground. Further up the hill to the left is the Fort Bowie Ranger Station and we pass by the stone-walled powder magazine as we approach.
It's a lonely spot, Fort Bowie. You have to really want to get here. More than once I wished for a good trail horse. The Ranger Station looks over the ruins of the old fort and contains pictures of officers and men who were assigned here, members of the California Column who founded the first fort, authentic uniforms and arms and stories of the fort and the importance of its mission.
We've read stories of the Apache wars, Cochise, Generals Crook and Miles, Geronimo, Apache scouts, hill-top signal mirrors; it all happened here. This was the nerve center of the Apache campaign and at its height operated like a small town, sprawled over many acres. A high hill on the south side of the fort was the site of the Signal Corps signal mirrors with which they could communicate with Fort Huachucha some 80 miles away.
Only shapeless walls remain now, covered by protective plaster to protect the remains from the elements. The cavalry barracks walls still stand, as do the walls of the rambling post trader's store. Stone foundations still show the locations of the infantry barracks, quartermaster's office, officers' quarters.
At one corner of the parade ground we find the foundation of the unbelievably ostentatious commandant's mansion, built at a cost of some $4,000, a fortune at the time. Though the commandant was mortified by the extravagance of the place, he raised his little family here and gave away two daughters in marriage in the parlor.
One can only wonder at the effort it must have taken to transport the materials to build the mansion, but at its peak Fort Bowie had street lights, a plumbing system, flush toilets, a state-of-the-art military hospital, huge storerooms - even an ice house.
From this sprawling complex, infantry and cavalry moved out to find and battle the elusive Apache from 1862 to 1886, when Geronimo finally surrendered in Skeleton Canyon some distance to the east in New Mexico. Think of the men who lived and served here: Generals Miles and Crook, Lieutenants Gatewood and Cruse, Scouts Tom Horn and Al Siebert, hundreds of officers and enlisted men. There were Apache scouts and prisoners, including Geronimo and Nachiz. It all makes this remote piece of ground sacred in a way.
As a final note, young Felix Martinez, whose capture started it all, was adopted and assimilated into the White Mountain Apaches, raised as one of them, and subjected to the same training, trials, and abuses as any young Apache warrior. He grew to adulthood with a strong dislike of the Apaches and once free of them became a noted scout for the U. S. Army; he was known as Mickey Free. Chief of Scouts Al Sieber's opinion of him was "Fifty percent Apache, fifty percent Irish and a hundred percent son-of-a-bitch."
Fort Bowie remained until 1895, almost nine years after Geronimo's final surrender. Duty during those years must have seemed pointless, boring, and probably not unpleasant. There was little to do but go through the motions, standing inspection, spit and polish, parades, dances, parties, marches, pointless patrols. Finally the army realized that and decommissioned the old fort. It must have been a solemn ceremony when the flag was lowered for the last time, the last columns marched down the hill to Bowie Station and boarded the train to a new assignment. One wonders at what those who dismantled the commandant's mansion thought of the place out here in the wilderness. I personally thought it would have made a great bed and breakfast inn.
For now it's a strange feeling to stand on the land where they stood, imagine the comings and goings of men and horses, shouted commands echoing across the parade ground, somber faced Apache scouts and captives, loud laughter in the traders' store, the creak of saddle leather, music from a trooper's harmonica on the still night air - echoes from the Old West.
Bourke, John G.; An Apache Campaign in the Sierra Madre; Charles Scribner's Sons; New York; 1958
Cruse, Thomas; Apache Days and After
Fountain, Albert J.; The Battle of Apache Pass
McChristian, Douglas C.; Fort Bowie, Arizona Combat Post of the SouthwestCochise: Chiracahua Apache Chief; University of Oklahoma Press