Apache Spring

Fort Bowie, AZ

In a ravine which leads to a canyon which, in turn, descends to a pass between southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas Mountains, a small spring issues from the earth. Called Apache Spring, it delivers its stream – cool, clear, sparkling like a cascade of diamonds – into a sequestered rocky basin shaded by a few oak trees. Among exposed roots of the oaks, moss as green as emeralds clings to stone surfaces at the basin’s rim. The water flows from the basin and trickles down the ravine toward the canyon, to a place where it will play out and submerge back into the earth.

In the pass, called Apache Pass, about a mile above the level of the sea, nature has stirred a cocktail of ecological systems, a blend of two deserts and two life zones. Here, the high, hot Chihuahuan Desert to the east, in southern New Mexico, merges with the lower and even hotter Sonoran Desert to the west, in southern Arizona; and both deserts, marked by agave, yucca, sotol and cholla, merge with the higher woodland, distinguished by mountain mahogany, oak, juniper and pinyon pine.

Ruins of adobe wall at Fort Bowie

Along the stream – the only source of water for all seasons near the pass and its adjoining mountain slopes – mountain lions, bobcats, gray foxes, coyotes, coati and mule deer quench their thirsts in the cover of the night. The red-capped acorn woodpecker rattles the morning stillness. The dusky-eyed Mexican jay whenks querulously at other birds. Plumed Gambel’s quail scurry through late spring undergrowth, plumed puffs of down – their chicks – in close pursuit. Hummingbirds, glittering like rubies in dappled sunlight, pause at the spring during their annual journeys north and south. Turkey vultures wheel through the summer skies above the spring.

The Mogollon peoples discovered the secluded spring more than a millennium ago. In small nearby encampments, they constructed lodges, probably semi-subterranean pit houses. They manufactured plain brown pottery, raised corn and gathered wild plants. They used bows and arrows.

The Chiricahua Apaches, drifting southwest from the southern Great Plains, found the spring in the sixteenth century, and they made it the center of their new homeland, which became known as Apachería, the desert basin and range country of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and north central Mexico. In small encampments, the Chiricahuas constructed ephemeral brush or grass lodges called wickiups. They wove grass baskets. Sometimes, they raised a little corn. They gathered wild plants. They used bows and arrows and, later, rifles and pistols. They gloried in warfare and the raid.

The white man, drawn westward by the gold fields of California, charted a trail which took him past Apache Spring, rare source of dependable water in the desert, in the mid-nineteenth century. The "fine spring…afforded the most eligible camping ground we had yet met with," said John Russell Bartlett, surveyor of the international boundary between the United States and Mexico. U. S. military forces soon began marching over the trail. John Birch’s San Antonio to San Diego mail route ran past Apache Spring. John Butterfield’s Overland Mail stagecoach service ran past Apache Spring, and he even built a way station with a mule and horse corral near the vital water supply.

Cochise, the celebrated chief of the Chiricahuas, watched with an anxious eye as the scene unfolded: a growing procession of uninvited whites who passed through his range and helped themselves to his Apache Spring water. Collision between a warring and raiding people defending their homeland and an intruding people hungering for new territory became as inevitable as lightning during a thunderstorm.

It erupted in early February of 1861, just a little over a mile north of Apache Spring. Lieutenant George Bascom, youthful and inexperienced leader of a company of fifty four troopers, insulted Cochise by wrongly accusing him of kidnapping a child and stealing horses and mules. Bascom compounded the problem by taking several Chiricahua – including Cochise, his brother and two nephews – hostage, holding them against the return of the child. Cochise alone managed to escape, and he and his warriors tried to force the return of the hostages by killing a Butterfield Apache Spring way station attendant, taking another attendant and several other whites hostage, attacking a freight wagon train and massacring the drivers, attacking a Butterfield stagecoach, stealing twenty-nine army mules, and, finally, murdering and mutilating the white hostages. Less than half a mile below Apache Spring, Bascom hung the Chiricahua hostages, including Cochise’s relatives. He left them swinging from their ropes in a grim proclamation of war. He had touched off a conflict which would endure for more than a decade.

Cochise, enraged, slammed shut any white access to Apache Spring. He shut down civilian white travel over the Apacheria Pass. He rampaged through the white settlements near his range, plundering and killing. He watched the white soldiers leave for the east. The Chiricahuas must have frightened them away, he thought. Actually, the white soldiers had left to fight in another conflict, the Civil War.

In July of 1862, the Chiricahuas ambushed a Union force at Apache Spring. The soldiers, marching east from California to fight a Confederate invasion of New Mexico, trained small but deadly mountain howitzers on the Indians, driving them from the spring. "...they seemed very loath to let me have water," said the commanding officer Captain Thomas H. Roberts.

John C. Cremony, who commanded the howitzers, said, "I afterwards learned from a prominent Apache who was present in the engagement, that sixty-three warriors were killed outright by the [howitzer] shells, while only three perished from musketry fire." He added—"We would have done well enough if you had not fired wagons at us.’" They called the fight the Battle of Apache Pass.

Within days, Brigadier General James Henry Carlton ordered the California troops to build a post at Apache Spring and assert military control over the water supply and the mountain pass. Two and one-half weeks later, the troops, under the command of Major T. A. Coult, had thrown up a makeshift fortress enclosed by a four-hundred-and-twelve-foot-long wall of stacked stone. They called it Fort Bowie. As the months passed, they built more structures, of adobe bricks, stone, logs and earth, but the soldiers came to hate Fort Bowie, a place of isolation, poor shelter, fierce summer heat, chronic sickness and relentless danger. The quarters, said an officer in a letter to Carlton, "...are mere hovels, mostly excavations in the side hill, damp, illy ventilated, and covered with decomposed granite...through which the rain passes very much as it would through a sieve." The soldiers hated it, but they controlled Apache Spring and Apache Pass.

In 1864, the garrison began construction of a new Fort Bowie, located a few hundred yards east of Apache Spring and the first Fort Bowie, in a saddle in the mountains. Five long years passed before the garrison finally moved to the new post, a complex of adobe, stone and wood frame buildings, corrals and stables. It took water, not from the spring, but from a well with a steam-driven pump.



Fort Bowie lay, said Charles Lummis in 1886, "on a rather sharply sloping bench of the mountain-side, from which, down through a gap in the hills, one looks across the weird plain to the purple ranges fifty-three miles away... Around the generous plaza stand big, substantial adobes, and at the farthest corner from the entrance, a French-roofed frame building of some pretensions, the residence of... [the] commander of the post."


Click on map to enlarge

Fort Bowie, at Apache Spring, the heart of Apachería, became the anchor for the U. S. Army’s campaigns against the Chiricahua. Commanding officer Captain Reuben F. Bernard’s forces, for example, struck Apache villages, killing eighteen warriors in an attack in late 1869, thirteen more in an attack in early 1870, and nine more in an attack in early 1871. Meanwhile, Chiricahua war parties raided settlements and travelers, killed mail carriers and ambushed patrols, drawing the wrath and the pursuit, usually fruitless, of the military.

Finally, in late 1872, the idealistic Brigadier General O. O. Howard, trusted frontiersman Tom Jeffords and Cochise negotiated an agreement of peace, which called for a Chiricahua reservation surrounding Fort Bowie and Apache Spring. "Hereafter," said Cochise, "the white man and the Indian are to drink of the same water, eat of the same bread, and be at peace." Jeffords assumed the post of Chiricahua Indian agent, and after unsuccessful tries at other locations, he finally established his agency at Apache Spring.

Washington bureaucrats, whisky traders and Cochise’s death undermined the peace agreement and Jeffords’ work. In 1876, Washington, determined to consolidate all the western Apache bands, ordered the Chiricahuas to relinquish their cherished mountain homeland and move to southeastern Arizona’s central Apache reservation, San Carlos.

Turmoil erupted once again, occasionally spelled by periods of uneasy peace. The Chiricahuas bolted the San Carlos reservation, took to Mexico’s Sierra Madre and raided and plundered on both sides of the border. The U. S. and Mexican military and professional scalp hunters pursued and occasionally even caught Chiricahua bands, inflicting a heavy toll in captives and blood.

General George Crook, Captain Emmet Crawford, lieutenants Charles Gatewood and Britton Davis and scouts Al Sieber and Archie MacIntosh wrote their names beside Chiricahua chiefs Juh, Loco, Chihuahua, Natchez, Chato, Nana and the fabled Geronimo in the legend of the West—the U. S. Army against what Lummis called, "The deadliest Fighting Handful in the calendar of Man."

Between campaigns, Fort Bowie, desolate, lonely, struggled to bring some sense of civilization to the wilderness. Officers and their wives walked beside Apache Spring and danced at occasional post balls. The post band played concerts. The fort celebrated holidays. Troopers drank Anheuser-Busch beer. Visiting ministers preached sermons about "Christ Stilling the Tempest" and "As Moses lifted up the Serpent." In 1873, the Fort Bowie baseball team, the Sumner Base Ball Club, defeated the Fort Grant team, the Neversink Base Ball Club, by a score of thirty nine to twenty four, possibly an indication that the military fared better on offense than defense.

Perhaps some walked wistfully through the post graveyard, which was filled, said John G. Bourke, "with such inscriptions as ‘Killed by the Apaches,’ ‘Met his death at the hands of the Apaches,’ ‘Died of wounds inflicted by Apache Indians,’ and at times ‘Tortured and killed by Apaches.’ One visit to that cemetery was warranted to furnish the most callous with nightmares for a month."

Another gravestone would bear the inscription: "In Memory of Little Robe, Son of Geronimo, Apache Chief, Died September 10, 1885, Age Two Years."

The day most memorable in the history of Fort Bowie also signaled its end. In early September, 1886, Brigadier Nelson Miles’ forces delivered Geronimo and thirty-four warriors, women and children, the last remnant of a defeated people, to the fort. Soldiers loaded the Apaches onto wagons, and shipped them thirteen miles north, to a railroad terminal. A train would deliver the Chiricahuas to exile in Florida. As Geronimo and his people departed, the post band played Auld Lang Syne. The Indian wars were over.

In the ravine which leads to the canyon which, in turn, descends to the pass between southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas Mountains, Apache Spring still issues from the earth. Its water was purchased in blood and treasure. "It has quenched many a historic thirst," according to a nearby National Park Service sign. "Yet today, we cannot guarantee the spring’s purity. Please drink only water provided at the ranger station (1/4 mile)."

To visit the historic area of Apache Spring, Apache Pass, Fort Bowie, the Butterfield Stagecoach way station and Jeffords’ agency, you will have to walk about a mile and a half over a good dirt foot trail, preferably in the fall or spring. To reach the trailhead, drive southeast from Wilcox on Arizona Highway 186 for twenty two miles to the graded dirt Apache Pass Road. Turn northeast and follow the road for about five miles to the trailhead. As an alternative, drive due south from Bowie (on Interstate Highway 10) on the Apache Pass Road for twelve miles to the trailhead. If it has rained, Apache Pass Road can turn slick and flood.

Wear good shoes for the walking path up to the historic area. I had a friend who stumbled on the trail and fell into prickly pear cactus. It took her husband two days to pick the spines from her backside. Wear a decent hat and take water.

For more information and handicapped access inquiries, contact:
Fort Bowie National Historic Site
Superintendent Chiricahua National Monument
Dos Cabezas Route Box 6500
Wilcox, Arizona 85643
Ph 1-520-847-2500

For a good overview of the area, read Robert M. Utley’s fine little book A Clash of Cultures (the source for much of the information in this article) and the National Park Service’s Fort Bowie, National Historic Site.

If you want to really pursue the history of the area and the times, there are numerous books about the Apache wars, some of them frontier classics. I would suggest Ed Sweeny’s Cochise, Dan Thrapp’s The Conquest of Apacheria, John C. Cremony’s Life Among the Apaches, John G. Bourke’s On the Border with Crook, and General George Crook’s General George Crook, His Autobiography.

By Jay W. Sharp

Where to stay: Willcox, Az

Cochise & Geronimo
Fort Bowie National Historic Site
General George Crook
Touring Apache Country


Related DesertUSA Pages


Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms


Enter Email:

Shop desert store

Copyright © 1996- DesertUSA.com and Digital West Media, Inc. - -