Story and photos by Jerry Eagan
By now, I know the way. For the 10th time, I'm headed to Cooke's Canyon and Fort Cummings. South on Hwy. 180, then onto Hwy. 26, the "Hatch Highway." At mile marker 14, by the railroad water tank, turn left onto "Cooke's Canyon Road NE." Go 1.1 miles on a gravel road, cross a cattle guard, jog left, onto another dirt "road." Stay on the most distinct Jeep trail and drive several more miles, cross another cattle guard, and look for a plaque on the left side of the "road" and an old cemetery on the right.
From there, the fragile remains of Fort Cummings are 500 yards to the north, amid a sea of chaparral. The adobe walls are nearly gone now. There are paths created by the Luna County DAR and lined with rocks, several other plaques or markers, a metal box with a sign-in sheet and various odds and ends collected by visitors.
It's bleak country. Cooke's Peak, to the north, looms like a giant capped vedette watching everything. The Apache called it "Standing Mountain" or "White Ringed Mountain," and it figured in their flood myth. At 8,408 feet, it's among the tallest peaks in southern New Mexico.
The first soldiers came to Fort Cummings in 1863; the last soldiers departed for good by May 1885. As I wander about the fort's ruins, distant buildings of the Hyatt Ranch are visible from time to time, a mile east. Photos taken by a historian in the 1930s make me wince, as I compare how much of the old fort was left then, as opposed to now. Were attempts were made to preserve those adobe walls? If so, like the fort at Ojo Caliente, they weren't vigorous enough.
Walk Cooke's Canyon and you'll wonder how anyone came West, whether by wagons, horse, mule or foot. The roadbed passage through the canyon is at times rough and rugged, or sandy, but every inch is bordered by forlorn terrain. The route was a conduit for travelers, anchored on both ends by vital spring waters. It was the water that brought western "civilized" men and women to this place, first found in 1780 by Spanish Governor Juan Bautiste de Anza.
In Spanish and Mexican times the canyon was also a stopover along the road from Chihuahua to the Santa Rita Mines. Pictures taken in the post-Civil War 1800s show trees and an area devoid of the nasty mesquite and cat claw now there. Sometime during the Depression, someone in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) made a mistake and blew up the springs on the west side of the canyon. Near them are some extraordinary petroglyphs, probably Mogollon in nature, with designs not often seen.
Americans, under the command of Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, who was in charge of the "Mormon Battalion," claimed and named Cooke's Springs in 1846. After the Mexican-American war, a flood of American emigrants headed West. One historian estimates 400 were killed along those four miles of hell on earth, many of the victims headed for greener pastures (not necessarily in this country), copper, gold or silver mines or towards some other new life inspired by a million dreams. In my hikes in the canyon I've found at least 18 graves.
It didn't matter to any of them that the Apaches had already claimed all the land. But then I doubt the Apaches cared what the mild-mannered Mimbres thought about losing a water source they'd used for a thousand years. Before them, archaic humans, fewer in number, walked to those waters, too. Those archaic people had no names; we'll never know what Mimbres Mogollon sounded like. Were it not for the Jesuits and others, N'de—Apache—might not have ever been written either. Archaeologists and anthropologists eventually pegged Apache as an Athapascan language and grouped it with the Haida, Tlingit and Navajo.
Of all those, however, it was the Apache who resisted. That resistance is what led to so many men, women and children dying in Cooke's Canyon and to the founding of Fort Cummings, to protect them. It was in the American era that Desert Dwellers finally met prolonged, unrelenting conquest at the hands of American Desert Conquerors. Not as easily deterred as the Spanish or Mexicans, American expansionists ground the Apache under like dust. Men like William Tecumseh Sherman were prepared to exterminate them if they didn't surrender, or corral them if they did.
The final holdouts—Geronimo, Naiche, Ulzana and the rest of that small band of Chiricahuas, Chihihenne and Chokonen Apaches—were shipped off to Florida in September 1886. One report said the numerous dogs that had accompanied them into Mexico on their last "breakout" ran and barked beside the train taking the Apaches from Hollbrook, Ariz., to Florida, into exile. Were the dogs all shot, in one final attempt to exterminate the Apache from Arizona? Let's not sugarcoat this: The people of Arizona and New Mexico had had quite enough of the Apaches by then. But with the end of the Apache Wars, there was no need for Fort Cummings.
Because Fort Cummings was near silver, gold and lead mines scattered throughout the Cooke's Range, however, miners stripped what they could from the old fort. Those mines, north of Cooke's Canyon, and their scabrous remains are there, too, if you head north along Cooke's Canyon Road. Much of the land along the road is in private hands, though, and "NO TRESPASSING" signs warn the current crop of the curious to stay out. Luckily, the fort itself and the canyon are on BLM or state land.
For three years, 1858-61, the Butterfield Overland Stage Route wound through here on its journey from Tipton, Mo., to San Francisco (see the November 2005 Desert Exposure). John Butterfield, Sr., made a commendable effort to run a "class service." More than a few stages were attacked going through Cooke's Canyon, but the Freeman-Thomas Massacre was one of the nastiest such incidents. It occurred in 1861, when the Giddings company had taken over the line; seven men died fighting as many as 100 Apache warriors over three days.
Interestingly enough, Butterfield's son, John, Jr., wrote the mournful tune "Taps," that's been played a million times by now. I think someone should play "Taps" over Cooke's Canyon's bloody ground.
"Taps" never fails to bring a tear to my eye. As a soldier, I've known some folks who went off to fight for America and never returned. War after war after war.
If there are "clean hands" in the history of Cooke's Canyon, they may have belonged to the archaic people who first came here, but I suspect even some of them may have died if they ever fought for those water holes.
Indigenous people, most often nomadic or semi-nomadic, roamed our planet from the beginning, in a cycle of abundance. Not extravagance, but abundance. A lady I know who owns an organic goat dairy near Pietown told me that nomads (including goat herders) followed the cycles of animals and plants as their sources of nourishment. They would have known whatever water sources were available within walking distance and, once horses became available, within riding distance. They moved with the cycles, as insects and animals do now.
Although ranchers own some of this land now, I am thankful the government owns more, so that those of us who like to wander on foot can feel, however briefly, like nomads. I love the wandering and exploring. It's a spiritual experience for me and I've realized I have a deep kinesthetic side of myself: I feel "their" presence right up through my feet.
One winter Saturday, returning from a seven-mile walk with friends, the setting sun shines briefly on the foothills to Cooke's Peak, and then even more briefly on the remnants of the fort itself. That scene, accompanied by a slight wind that whistles in my ears and a chill that comes on like a cold coat, makes me wonder: Who were those men who came to Fort Cummings after the Civil War?
In large part, they were African-Americans. In October 1867, Company "A" of the 25th US Infantry arrived to replace troopers of the California Volunteers. There were three regiments of "colored" infantry and two of cavalry. The two most famous of the latter were the 9th and 10th US Cavalry regiments—nicknamed "the Buffalo Soldiers." There's plenty of speculation on who gave them that name, or what it referred to. Some said the name was in tribute to the rugged manner in which they fought the Native Americans. Others claim the name came from the tightly knit hair African-Americans had, compared to the black, straight hair of the Apache or the various colors of hair other westerners had. On one of my jaunts through the canyon, I found "graffiti" etched in stone, and wondered if it hadn't been carved by some of those Buffalo Soldiers.
Primarily African-American infantry units spent the Apache War era garrisoned at Fort Cummings, although later "Buffalo Soldier" cavalry units also camped there. While more than a few deserted and one committed suicide, most stayed and did their duty. There was a mutiny in 1867 over an African-American woman's presence. The soldiers had a lonely life. Walk near the fort or in that canyon, and you'll see a stark land many would label monotonous. The stars at night are stupendous, but I suspect many troopers were very tired men at the end of the day. They were likely exhausted from hard, back-breaking work, patrols and guard duty. The cemetery wall, which folks say was once five feet high, was built by men being punished for disciplinary problems.
Against the hours, pay, nasty food and water, dysentery, smallpox, scurvy and sore butts from time spent in the saddle over thousands of miles chasing Apache, the nightly star show over Fort Cummings might not have been such a great "perk." But that view may be jaundiced from our judgment of the equation. Remember, most of those African-American soldiers had been enslaved before their Army service. Many had probably been treated worse than animals by their slave owners. In that light, $13 a month might have seemed like pretty steady and even good pay.
But, as former slaves, as humans who'd been exploited themselves, did they ever anguish over what they were asked to do to the Apache? Did they wince as they killed Apache warriors, or rounded up harried Apache women and children and herded them to reservations at San Carlos or Ojo Caliente? Did they care as they threw Apache bodies into crevices, or buried them en masse under a bit of dirt and rock, knowing full well the coyotes would unearth them within a day?
As former slaves, they had, after all, known the depths to which humans could descend in their treatment of other humans of a different race or color. Some undoubtedly enjoyed passing down some pain: the old kick-the-dog syndrome. Let's not pretend every African-American who came west, who fought and killed Indians, never descended into darkness. Among soldiers there are always some who like the killing and power.
But if they were like every other American who has ever fought wars for land, water, gold or copper, there were also those who were ashamed of what they'd seen or done—perhaps even more so because of what people had done to them. I'd bet some of them tried, in their own ways, to ameliorate the suffering of the Apache as they were herded together onto those reservations, chased, killed, maimed.
Many of the Chihinne, Chokonen and Chiricahua Apache were sent to a reservation at San Carlos, Ariz., when the Army, settlers and miners got tired of messing with them. General George Crook promised the Apache a chance to grow things at San Carlos. They dug irrigation ditches, hopeful that Gila River water would irrigate their crops. Crook hoped they'd become agriculturalists. But the Apaches weren't geared, at least in their view, for the life of farmers, and water problems helped doom Crook's experiment of changing the Apaches.
Settled on what some called "Hell's Forty Acres," the San Carlos Reservation was an abominable place to live. To the north, the Fort Apache Reservation for the "White Mountain Apaches" had better land and air, but the White Mountain Apaches were not nominally the best of friends with the Chiricahua and others.
Eventually, conflict arose over the cultural differences between Apache men and white men, most notably over the fact that the Apaches had been nomads for hundreds of years and were used to roaming the vast eastern Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas, northern Chihuahuan region with ease. No "private property" lines deterred them. As those differences led to "this is mine, no it's not, yes it is," confrontations were settled by violence.
As I've walked over the grounds near Fort Cummings and in Cooke's Canyon, I've come to realize that whether we're Apache, white, black, modern or pioneer, those of us who've fought for someone else's reasons have always been joined as human detritus from war: old forts, old colonies, and millions of old human beings ground under the wheels of conquest.
Some of us who've been to war and killed for our country have come home with deep guilt and shame. It's inevitable, no matter how "gung ho" one is going into war. I was certainly "gung ho" for my war. I volunteered for the infantry—for DMZ duty in South Korea, for Vietnam, for my unit as a combat soldier: Charley Company, 1/7 Cav, 1st Air Cav Division—the unit that fought in November 1965 at the Ia Drang Valley battle Mel Gibson memorialized in "We Were Soldiers." I wasn't in that firefight, but a few of the men who had been were still left when I got to Vietnam in 1966.
I was ridiculed for being "gung ho." Many thought I was insane to leave Korea, after having already served 10 months there, and come to Vietnam to start an entirely new one-year tour, with all the attendant near-death experiences of infantrymen. In the three months I was there, I averaged one incident roughly every 10 days where I could have been killed or seriously wounded. I knew full well what it felt like—like those soldiers Dr. Bell mentioned in 1867 who dreaded going much more than a mile from the fort.
The first time I led a patrol, I was "in charge" of five other men, all of whom had been in Vietnam longer than I. Three of them, led by a man I'll call "Edwards," simply told me they wouldn't go. It was clear I' d have to fight those three, one at a time, and win, and maybe even then, they'd refuse to go. Only when another unit's patrol of six men was "hit," and we could hear their cries and pleas for help over the radio, was I able to enlist the aid of one of those experienced "troopers" to support me and do what we'd been ordered to do.
One man died that night; five others were wounded. It took me 20 years to ease my guilt and shame over an incident I saw as cowardice versus heroism. It took many sessions with therapists, to see I hadn't had the power to change much of anything that night, in spite of my best intentions. The one man who finally supported me—who silenced "Edwards" by shaming him because they'd both been in Vietnam the same amount of time—a man named Evaristo "Bob" Villano, was killed April 8, 1967, in an ambush. Two days later I turned 20. By then, I was back in the States, in an Army hospital.
To Edwards, I was just a dumb hick from Indiana, while he was one of those cool surfers from California. He despised me just for being a volunteer, as well as because I was, in his eyes, something less than he, because he was a draftee and had come from California. That "one up/one down" banter, I'm sure, happened among those soldiers of Company "A" of the 25th "Colored" Infantry, too. Some were from plantations of the deep South; others, according to the muster records, were free men; others still came from Virginia or Maryland. Even back then, though, in that game of one-upsmanship, someone always had to come out on top.
Edwards even called me a "p—-y"—that negative term used for a woman's vagina— the day I got shot. My right arm was nearly shot off, and blood had soaked the ground all the way down from my elbow to my boots, but with two pops of morphine, I'd stopped making noises at the pain.
"P—-y!" he'd spat at me as he went by. The platoon was moving forward, up the trail, where less than 10 minutes earlier, I'd been walking stealthily, "on point," and into an ambush. He and the others pushed forward, hoping to kill some VC, but nothing else happened that day. I got shot. That was it. Just one casualty on one of a thousand patrols.
Twenty years later, after I'd located some men of my old unit, Edwards wrote me. He wanted to "make an amend." We'd both had enough alcohol and drugs by then. I knew what "an amend" was, since I'd been "in recovery" since 1982. He said he didn't realize how badly I'd been shot that day, and was sorry he'd called me those names. Would I forgive him?
I told him I would, but yes, he'd treated me like dogshit on his shoe in those days. And why? Class? Birthplace? My attitudes? The state where I was born? As we exchanged letters, I learned he'd tried recovery but it hadn't worked. Like thousands of men who'd served in combat, like many of those "Colored Infantry" stationed at Fort Cummings, Edwards had extended his tour. He was actually on his second tour when he'd jumped from a helicopter and broken his back. From then on, he'd suffered permanent, acute pain, and become a heroin addict. Recovery, he wrote, simply hadn't been enough to sustain him.
One day in 1998, I received a letter from Edwards' wife, telling me he'd committed suicide. The pain had been too much. He'd left two young men as sons, and a wife worn thin from living with a junkie. "He learned to paint, and we have some wonderful paintings of his," she added.
One day, I found a broken arrowhead in Cooke's Canyon. It was certainly Apache, but not a full arrowhead. It had broken at an angle. Had it been broken while being made? That seemed likely. Or it might have been broken in a ricochet when it hit something, or someone. But there it was, among beautiful colored pebbles, pink and white and clearly chipped into an instrument of war. Read through some of the surgeon's reports of the era and you'll learn just how deadly arrowheads could be, driven completely through a thigh or chest, then lodged into bone or thick flesh, impossible to retrieve. The victim would die a painful death.
On another visit, when I found that "graffiti" carved into rocks at the narrowest defile in Cooke's Canyon, I wondered about the carvers. I could make out a letter "A"—which I've wondered might have been meant to show "Company A" of the 25th Infantry—a distinct "L.J." and a not so distinct "T E D" or "T D D." The writing has been there awhile; lichen has grown over and into the scratch marks made in the stone, not just beside them.
One artifact from an Apache who'd passed through there. . . another set etched in the rock of a canyon that was one of the nastiest four-mile stretches in the Southwest. There were, at one time, so many bones lying about the area that visitors who were headed West asked the cavalry to gather them up. It was, one allegedly said, "unnerving" to see so many had died along the way. Indeed. Conquest is brutal.
It's also true that old men, even middle-aged men (almost always men) who've never fought a war, are often the ones who decide that yet another war is necessary. Conquest has a thousand reasons. But some of the conquerors, who do the killing, always are left to wonder: What was that about?
Some of us have gone through "that dread gorge" and
now look back and ask: Wasn't there some other way?