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Walking the trails near Fort Bowie

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About the cover


D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008


Paths to War

Walking the trails near Fort Bowie, Ariz., where the
Apache Wars began.

Story and photos by Jerry Eagan

On Feb. 14, 1861, a report was prepared by 2d Lieutenant George N. Bascom, Company C, 7th Infantry, a young American officer ordered to an area in the Chiricahua Mountains locally called "Apache Pass." In his report, Bascom described in an understated way what would be called the "Bascom Affair" by Americans and "Cut-tent" by Apaches. The incident ignited a war that would not be resolved until 1872, with profound and far-reaching negative effects on just about every American, Mexican and Apache man, woman and child who lived in Arizona and New Mexico Territory.

Fort Bowie
Famous photo plaque of US Cavalry troop leaving Fort Bowie.

Bascom's mission was to retrieve a young boy named Felix Martinez Ward. Young Felix and some of his stepfather's cattle had been abducted by Apache, and the father, a hard-nosed Irishman, insisted the culprits were the Chiricahua Apache led by the warrior Cochise. When Bascom and his 50-odd men arrived at Apache Pass, where a "relay" station of the Butterfield Stage was located, he may have felt he was on one of the most important missions of his budding career. He doubtless knew how outclassed he was in the power struggle that quickly developed between him and one of the greatest war leaders the Chiricahua Apache ever had. Such was the nature of warfare at the time that an American officer recently graduated from West Point was undoubtedly seen as easily a match for such a "savage." If Bascom's superiors believed this to be true, they could not have been more wrong.

In their first meeting, Bascom invited Cochise and several warriors into his tent to have coffee and talk about the abducted boy. Wary, but willing to parlay, Cochise was told inside the tent that since he could not produce the boy, he and his warriors would be held as hostages until Felix Ward was returned. Cochise bolted from the tent by cutting its side wide open. He dashed up a hill, and in the process, never let his coffee cup drop, even though he was slightly wounded. Several of the other warriors, including relatives of Cochise, weren't so lucky. One was killed, several wounded, and among the survivors would be those Bascom would ultimately hang.

Bascom wrote of the incident and its aftermath: "Sir: I have to report that agreeable to instructions from Col. P. Morrison, to pursue the Indians and recover a boy made captive by them, I arrived here (Apache Pass) on the 3d inst (instant) and took six Indians as hostages until the boy should be delivered upon. Ca-chise (sic) the chief, denied having taken him but promised to get him if I would wait ten days, the day after he returned accompanied by Francisco Chief of the Coyoteros and a flag of truce, while I was holding the talk with them they cut off and made prisoners of two Overland mail men who left the station at that time.

"On the next day they succeeded in driving off a portion of my herd (27 mules). They have also burnt a Mexican train between here and Fort Buchanan, some of the bodies tied to the wheels and burnt, and horribly mutilated the rest.

"They all attacked one of the Overland Stages wounding the driver.

"The Coyoteros are driven from their country by the Navajos, the latter being driven down upon them by the troops; there are now in my immediate vicinity between five hundred and six hundred warriors and the command of Mangus (sic) Colorado although I can report with certainty but five Indian killed. I think I may say twenty killed or dangerously wounded, I have two of my men slightly wounded."

Over the course of history, countless military orders have sent thousands of brash, young soldiers off onto missions that have gone awry. The events that occurred during the first 15 days of February 1861, when 24-year-old 2d Lieutenant George N. Bascom was dispatched from Fort Buchanan, Ariz., to Apache Pass, led to a cycle of vengeance to which both sides contributed. While it is impossible to interview the long-dead participants, reading Bascom's reports on microfilm from the National Archives and Records Administration comes as close as one can get. Young Bascom has been gone 147 years — killed at the Battle of Valverde, near Fort Craig, in one of the Civil War's most western battles. But reviewing his accounts, with their grammar and spelling errors, tells me something about the man: He was plain spoken and perhaps unemotional about his place in history.

About a year ago, my friend Pete Crum and I visited Caon de los Embudos, in Chihuahua, Mexico, the site where, in March 1886, Geronimo and his band attempted to surrender to General George C. Crook. (See the May and August 2007 issues of Desert Exposure.) On our return trip, we decided to visit one of Pete's oldest friends, a man named Bill Hoy, who lives near Bowie (BOO-ee), Ariz. For 16 years, from 1971 to 1987, Bill served as the Unit Manager for the National Park Monument at Fort Bowie, where Pete's sister Sally also worked. Pete had struck up a friendship with Bill. I'd heard Bill Hoy stories for at least three years, and so, as we drove north from Douglas, Ariz., I suggested we stop and see him. Bill was supposed to be a friend of one of Pete's greatest heroes — the writer Edward Abbey — and also one of the authorities on Fort Bowie and Lt. Bascom's mission that went so bloodily awry.

Bill Hoy lives off I-10, in a simple, unadorned house surrounded by sand, yucca and bear grass. It wasn't the first place he lived upon his arrival at Bowie, but it's been the place he's lived the longest. He retired from the Park Service at the Fort Bowie National Monument in 1987, and, while he's been in Arizona for decades, it seems that now, as he approaches 80, the summer heat, insects and rattlers bother him more.

On one visit, I asked Bill why he didn't pick up and leave. "I've thought about it," he admitted, "but I don't like it." He paused. He stood in the shade of a bench located at the stabilized ruins of the Butterfield Stage station that had helped put Apache Pass on the map. "I think I'd prefer doing it the way Abbey said: 'Say your goodbyes, go for a walk, and never come back.'"

Abbey and Bill were long-time friends. They'd worked together at Organ Pipe National Monument, and had many talks about life and how it might end. Bill may be one of the very few people alive who knows where Abbey's buried. Before he died, Abbey had asked his friends, Bill among them, to spirit him away from hospitals and dying places, even his home, and bury him anonymously in the Sonoran Desert, somewhere near Ajo, Ariz.

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