A simple wrong-headed accusation led to years of strife and death.
About thirty-six miles west of the New Mexico-Arizona border on I-10, one comes to the town of Bowie and signs for Fort Bowie. Follow South Apache Pass Road to Fort Bowie.
Fort Bowie is not named for Jim Bowie of Alamo fame. But it was the site of an important chapter in the history of the West, and many famous Western characters passed through it.
As the road name implies, there is a pass, and in that pass is a spring. For generations, the only people using the spring were Apaches. But then those on their way from El Paso to Fort Yuma and California wanted to drink from that spring.
In 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company stagecoaches carrying U.S. mail from St. Louis and Memphis to Los Angeles and San Francisco used the pass. The company built a fort-like stage station at the spring. Tribal leader and warrior Cochise and his people supplied wood to the station. The stage ran for three years, suffered only one Apache attack, and was late only three times.
In January 1861, a band of Apaches raided John Ward’s ranch, drove off some livestock and kidnapped a boy. Ward wrongly accused Cochise.
Army Lt. Bascom lured Cochise into his camp and threatened to hold him hostage for the release of the boy and return of Ward’s stock. Offended and angry, Cochise escaped, and skirmishes between Cochise’s band and the army started, the beginning of ten years of hostilities.
In July 1862, a California volunteer Army unit on their way to confront Confederate forces in Arizona and New Mexico started through the pass where they were ambushed by Cochise’s forces.
Later that same month, more California forces constructed the first fort on a hill overlooking the present fort. They named it for their regimental commander, Col. George Washington Bowie.
In 1868, the primitive camp was replaced by a more substantial fort on a nearby plateau, a modern fort that was used until 1894.
Indian Agent Tom Jeffords helped negotiate a peace in which the Apache were given a 3000-square mile reservation which included their traditional homeland. Cochise died from natural causes in 1872.
But reservation life with restraints and terrible conditions did not suit Geronimo and other young Apaches who fled to the hills and began guerrilla warfare. Civil War veteran George Crook, who had come to Fort Bowie in 1871 to fight Cochise, returned 11 years later to fight Geronimo. Later, Crook became an advocate for granting First Americans (Indians) full civil rights and all the privileges of citizenship.
Nelson Miles replaced Crook, posted troops at every water hole and ultimately arranged Geronimo’s surrender in 1886. Miles went on to fight Crazy Horse’s Sioux, captured Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and forced Sitting Bull’s surrender. Finally, he suppressed the Ghost Dance uprising in 1890-91.
Leonard Wood, for whom Army Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri is named, was a contract surgeon for the Army during the Apache wars. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for carrying dispatches one hundred miles through hostile territory and for taking command of a detachment whose officers had been lost in hand-to-hand combat with the Apaches. He became a Army Captain in 1891, and his photo is at the Fort Bowie museum along with Jeffords’, Crook’s and Miles’. Wood ultimately became Army Chief of Staff.
When the fort was abandoned in 1894, it was a modern outpost with 38 buildings. It had kerosene street lamps, a tennis court, flushing toilets and an ice machine. It was the nerve-center of a 500-mile heliograph system in which messages were transmitted using mirrors and Morse code. In a remote area with scarce supplies however, the abandoned buildings were soon torn down for their materials.
Among the interesting photos of famous people and the fort during the Apache wars was one item that made the people who lived there human, Captain Robert’s false teeth which were carried off by a pack rat and found one hundred years later.
Click on photos to enlarge.