Fort Bowie is an oasis of early American history.
|By Jack Loudermilk
Walking down a winding trail, you leave the ruins of Fort Bowie and head for the protection of your car parked more than a mile away across the small valley. A large thunderhead follows close behind, swallowing mountaintops, tossing jagged spears of electricity and spitting rain at your heels.
Winds push at your back bidding that you hurry, but you remain cautious along the path of sand, rock and cacti. Even if the trail had been clear earlier, this is still a desert with all of its usual surprises.
Watchful of what may be lying ahead, you are suddenly surrounded by ghostly images and sounds from the past. The thunder is that of cannons being fired by "Blue Bellies" as they drive Apache Indians from their lofty perches.
A raven's cry becomes a signal for the warriors to withdraw. They will seek refuge deeper in the Chiricahua Mountains and prepare for another attack.
The sun that had threatened to be so ruthless less than an hour earlier is now shrouded by the thunderhead drifting up from Mexico. You welcome the coolness and wonder how people tolerated this Arizona desert before the days of refrigerated air.
Then you remember the spring you passed on your way up the valley: Apache Spring, barely a trickle now but once an important water source for travelers heading west. But it was also important, if not more so, to the Chiricahua Apaches whose ancestors had claimed the valley centuries before white men gave it the name of Apache Pass.
The white man's journey through southern Arizona demanded that routes take him along a path where water could be found. At first, the Apaches accepted their new guest. Years later, this would change due to a soldier's insult and the white man would have to risk his life for a drink from the spring.
For many years the Chiricahua Apaches tolerated the presence of the paleface and frequently brought him firewood in exchange for gifts. It is not to be believed, however, that there was no friction between the two races. It seems that white men had trouble with the Apaches' belief that stealing was an honorable profession.
It was also the white man's belief that anyone who would steal would also tell lies. This belief, possibly more than anything else, started a sequence of events that led to war between white men and the Chiricahuas because they did, in fact, hold high the virtue of always speaking the truth. It was as honorable as stealing and as important as killing his enemy in battle.
Lt. George N. Bascom, with a company of 53 infantrymen, rode into Apache Pass in February 1861, and made camp in Siphon Canyon less than a mile below where Fort Bowie now rests. A day or two later, Cochise and a few members of his tribe (at least one woman and some children included) entered the camp to talk with the Blue Bellies.
According to some historical records, Cochise was lured into Bascom's tent where he was promptly arrested for stealing cattle and kidnapping the 12-year-old son of rancher John Ward. Cochise denied the charges -- for which he was later found innocent -- but was told that he and his tribesmen would be held hostage until the boy was returned.
Insulted and angered, Cochise sprang to the side of the tent, slashed it with his knife, and vanished over the hills under a hail of bullets. Soldiers quickly detained his tribesmen and held them as hostages.
For the next few days, blood of Apaches and white soldiers ran through the valley. Hostages were taken and killed by both sides.
Terror filled the land for more than 11 years, causing the white man to search for routes further north. He was no longer welcome in this southeastern corner of Arizona.
On July 15, 1862, 17 months after the fighting began; a 126-man detachment of the 5th California Volunteer Infantry entered Apache Pass en route to the Rio Grande where they would join in the Civil War effort. They were looking for water. Instead, they found themeslves in an ambush.
Capt. Thomas H. Roberts and his volunteers fought two days before finally pushing their way to the water at Apache Springs.
In his report of the battle, Roberts advised General Henry Carleton that "...a force sufficient to hold the water and pass should be stationed there, otherwise every command will have to fight for water."
Carleton agreed and, on July 27, arrived in Apache Pass with the bulk of the Californians. His adjutant wrote out the order establishing Fort Bowie, named in honor of Col. George Washington Bowie, commander of the 5th Infantry, California Volunteers.
The order specified that 100 men of the 5th Infantry would remain to build the fort and that it would be commanded by Maj. T.A. Coult. On the following day, July 28, 1862, Fort Bowie was officially established.
The first Fort Bowie was constructed in less than three weeks and looked more like a small campsite surrounded by short walls. It's only enclosed structure was a stone guardhouse equipped with firing ports. As crude as the fort may have been, it served its purpose. The Chiricahua Apaches would never again control the land and water of their ancestors.
During the six years of the fort's brief history, volunteers lived miserably while pursuing the Apaches.
Peace did finally come but, on June 8, 1874, Cochise died of natural causes. His son, Natchez, tried to hold the tribe together and follow his father's wishes but too many Apaches no longer felt an obligation to keep the treaties.
Geronimo soon emerged as the new leader and led his small band against overwhelming odds for 10 years before being defeated. In September, 1886, Geronimo was exiled to Florida and the Indian Wars were virtually over. On October 17, 1894, Fort Bowie, too, was finished and officially abandoned.
The desert has been allowed to reclaim much of the land and the Apaches now live further north. Small communities of whites and Mexican-Americans are all that remain.
Today, only stone foundations and a few walls remain to represent Fort Bowie's physical past.
Memories, however, are kept alive with historical photos and accounts etched in markers along trails in the area. A park ranger, usually on site year-round, will also tell Fort Bowie's story and offer other assistance if needed.
During the post's infancy, military frontiersmen relied on the Butterfield Overland Trail road with its wagon-rutted, narrow passages as the only accessible route into the area. Today, visitors find the going a little easier.
If you're arriving from west or east, simply exit Interstate 10 at Wilcox (south side of the highway). Stay on the main road into town, then head south on Highway 186. Wilcox is small, making it unlikely that you'll get lost.
The turnoff to Fort Bowie is approximately 23 miles south of Wilcox. You'll know you're getting close once you pass through the small community of Dos Cabezas. From there, watch for the sign that will direct you east down a 10-mile stretch of dirt road to Fort Bowie's trail head parking lot.
If you're coming from the east, there is a shorter route. Twenty-five miles into Arizona from the New Mexico state line, exit at Bowie and follow the signs south. Be advised that it's a dirt road all the way from I-10 and Bowie has little to offer in the way of services.
Whether your plans allow for an extensive visit or restrict you to one short stop, Fort Bowie is an oasis of early American history in Arizona's harsh desert.