I am standing on the highest point in the old wagon road that meandered through Apache Pass, a low divide separating the Dos Cabezas Mountains from the Chiricahua Mountains, 30 miles west of the New Mexico border. I’m in a meadow where once stood Fort Bowie. The sun is bright, but the heat of summer is gone. It’s pleasant here, but it wasn’t always so.
These mountains were part of the Chiricahua Apache homeland. They didn’t think of it as sacred, as the Sioux nation does of the Black Hills. But its meadows were a source of game, and there was a spring that ran year around. It’s understandable they would object to the incursion of Europeans.
It wasn’t until after the Spanish-American War their troubles began. Spanish and Mexicans never had much presence in these mountains, but the U.S. Army needed to supply troops fighting in California. Col. Phillip St. George Cooke was dispatched with the Mormon Battalion to build a wagon road. The road cut through Apache Pass. In the late 1850s, John Butterfield used the road as part of his overland mail route, constructing a stage station in the heart of the pass.
All the while, settlers were moving in, intent on ranching. Others came to mine gold and silver. With these, came merchants, tradesmen, saloon keepers, preachers, journalists, and lawyers — all the people who comprise towns, all infringing on the land of the Apache. The Anglo-American attitude was the land was empty, unoccupied, open for settlement. They had no understanding of the nomadic Apache’s way of life — or simply ignored it. Many had failed to achieve success back east and saw this as a second, and perhaps last, chance.
The Apaches resisted. In his book, The Apache Wars, Paul Andrew Hutton carefully outlines a conflict lasting from 1849 to 1896 — nearly 50 years. There’s a disturbing undercurrent through his narrative. He notes the Anglo-Americans provoked every attack by the Apache — breaking promises, treaties, man-to-man hand-shake agreements, fomenting hatred of Apaches by journalists and men driven by insatiable profit motive. Army officers made agreements in good faith. Politicians showed their true colors, sabotaging them.
The Battle of Apache Pass occurred in July 1862. It was a turning point. Mangas Coloradas, a highly revered chief, was seriously wounded. Hutton writes, because of Mangas’ injury, “Never again would Cochise be able to command hundreds of warriors against the White Eyes. The war would go on, but it would take a very different form.”In the end, the Apache simply could not compete. The Army could replace men with new recruits far faster than Apaches could birth and raise warriors. In 1886, the Chiricahua were packed into boxcars and hauled away to Florida. It would be twenty years before they were set free, and then they’d only be able to return to Indian Territory in Oklahoma to claim a 160-acre homestead. A few were allowed back in New Mexico, but they had to live among the Mescalero. The end of the great Apache nation had come.
Hutton’s book impressed me, and I wanted to see Apache Pass for myself. I wanted to get a sense of time and place where this history had unfolded. It’s close enough to make the trip in a day — Interstate 10 to Bowie and then 15 miles south to the trailhead.
To see Fort Bowie, built to protect stage coaches, wagons, and travelers transiting the pass, I head along the mile-and-a-half trail. It’s all uphill; not a severe climb, but a modest rise. By the time I reach the fort, I’ve climbed about 400 feet in elevation. Along the way, I step back in time.
There’s a foundation of an 1864 miner’s cabin built after members of the California Column discovered gold in the mountains. Farther on is the remains of the Butterfield stage station, constructed of stone in 1858. The stage stopped here for a change of mules and what passed for a meal — bread, coffee, meat, and beans for fifty cents. Next is the ruin of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency from which Thomas Jeffords tried to control some 900 Chiricahua in the area.
I walk through the post cemetery that sits below the fort. There are twenty-three marked graves here. The remains of officers and unidentified soldiers were exhumed and reinterred at the San Francisco National Cemetery. I find the marker for John Slater, killed by Apaches in 1867, and Orisoba Spence, a 28-year-old Pennsylvanian killed in action, which earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. And Little Robe, the remains of the son of Geronimo, who died of dysentery at age 2 in 1885.
Finally, I reach the fort, built after the Battle of Apache Pass. At least twice the size of Fort Selden, it sits on the high ground, giving the military a broad view of the pass. At the south end was the commanding officer’s quarters, a two-story frame house reminiscent of New England, along with officer’s quarters. To the west were the infantry barracks. The cavalry barracks were to the east. The quartermaster’s facilities were to the north, completing the square, in the center of which was the parade ground. Around the perimeter were corrals and stables, steam engine and ice machine, telegraph office, school, hospital, and the sutler’s store — thirty-eight structures in all. All that remains today are stone foundations and adobe walls reinforced with cement plaster.
It’s quiet on this Wednesday of my visit. I’m the only visitor, although some 15,000 people come to see the ruins each year. I hear only the rustle of leaves on the tree in whose shade I rest. I can sense why the Apache loved this land, why they fought so hard to keep it. There is a sense of wonder here, a presence you could call nature or, if religious, Usen (the Apache name for God). There’s serenity, caressed by a gentle breeze, an inner peace fostered by the feeling the land endures even as we pass through it.
The soldiers, the Apache, everyone who made history here are gone. Their time is over. Soon ours will be, too, but the land, in our timeframe, will always be here. The Apache knew that. It’s a lesson perhaps the rest of us should have learned.