Below Cooke's Peak
Exploring the history and prehistory of the rough country in the shadow of this southwest New Mexico landmark.
Jay W. Sharp
Sometimes, relatively obscure places have served as grand stages for human drama — spiritual outreach, cultural exchange, treasure seeking, travelers' passages, deadly conflict, courage defined, military assertion, and, too often, tragic endings.
Cooke’s Peak overlooking Cooke’s Range and the eastern end of Cooke’s Canyon. (All photos by Jay W. Sharp)
I recall, for instance, the massive ruins of the 12th century mosque of Mansoura, in the ancient city of Tlemcen, Algeria, where I visited many years ago. The mosque was once a major center for Islam in northwestern Africa. When I was there, an Algerian Muslim friend and I were the only people within the remaining walls, recalling the muezzins who, centuries ago, stood in the balcony at the top of a towering minaret, summoning the faithful to worship.
I remember Saint Nazaire, on France's Atlantic Coast, where I traveled back in the 1970s. It was the site of a large, heavily fortified and critically important facility for maintaining and repairing World War II German battleships. In 1942, it became the target of a daring and decisive amphibious assault — the "Greatest Raid of All" — when British commandos inflicted ruinous damage on the dry dock. Remnants of the Nazi post remain in place today, open for exploration. With a friend or two one heavily overcast day, I ventured across the empty parade grounds, through the massive and vacant concrete submarine pens, and into the grimly dark coastal artillery bunkers. Standing inside one of the bunkers, looking through an artillery-slot window, I could see a woman in a long black coat and a deep maroon scarf standing at the Atlantic shoreline, alone, staring contemplatively out across the foggy gray waters. Otherwise, my friends and I were the only visitors.
I often think of northwestern New Mexico's Pueblitos — many village sites and lookout structures, all abandoned and most now in ruins — that my wife and I visited several times back in the mid-1990s. They marked a temporary merging of Puebloan and Navajo cultures, which joined together for protection against Spanish conquest from the east and Ute raiding from the north during the 17th and 18th centuries. Sometimes, just my wife and I explored the Pueblito/Navajo ruins, where crumbling rock walls and humble hogans may lie side by side. Other times, we visited the ruins with friends. We never encountered another soul at any of the sites.
Similarly, now, I find that the hills, canyons and desert lands just south of Cooke's Peak, in southwestern New Mexico, have served as a rugged desert setting for the long human pageantry of the region, but the story occupies little space in the history books. The state does not list it, for instance, in its Recreation and Heritage Guide. The Bureau of Land Management, in its 1985 New Mexico Statewide Wilderness Study: Appendices Wilderness Analysis, did say, "The historical component of this WSA [Wilderness Study Area, which encompasses most of the Cooke's Range] is probably the most significant of all the WSAs in the Las Cruces District." I would suggest that the significance extends well beyond that.
Cooke's Peak, rising 8,400 feet above sea level and some 3,600 feet above the surrounding desert floor, dominates Cooke's Range, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The name "Cooke" recalls Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, commander of the Mormon Battalion, which crossed the range in 1846. Easily visible from as far away as the Organ Mountains, some miles east of the Rio Grande, Cooke's Peak served as a beacon for travelers crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. "In front we could see in the distance Cooke's Peak, rising from the plain in bold prominence from among the surrounding hills," wrote Waterman L. Ormsby in The Butterfield Overland Mail. Ormsby, a journalist, was the only through passenger on John Butterfield's inaugural westbound run, from St. Louis to San Francisco.
Cooke's Range, a heavily faulted, north-south, igneous and sedimentary formation roughly 17 miles in length, lies some 12 to 15 miles north of Deming. Cooke's Canyon, a rough three- to four-mile-long crevice that runs generally east to west, crosses the range south of the peak. It lies at the heart of the
area's history. Cooke's Spring, one of the few dependable sources of water in the area, is located near the eastern end of the canyon. Mixed desert shrubs and tobosa grass dominate the plant community in the lower slopes of the range, and piñon pine and juniper shrubs, the higher elevations. With its diverse natural habitats, the range hosts a considerable variety of wildlife.
Along the canyon trail and in the rugged lands below Cooke's Peak, deadly late 19th century conflicts between the Chiricahua Apaches and relentlessly expanding Anglo and Hispanic populations defined much of the history of America's desert Southwest. But earlier peoples, centuries to millennia ago, left evidence of their own chapters in the area.
For instance, at the western end of Cooke's Canyon, at a prehistoric living site near the juncture with Frying Pan Canyon, you will find images chiseled and scribed into rock surfaces –"petroglyphs" — that almost certainly speak to a center of ritual for hunting and gathering peoples some 2,000-3,000 years ago and for early agriculturists 600-2,000 years ago. Telltale images of spear points suggest the reverence that the early hunter held for his weapon. Imaginative images of figures with goggle eyes and others with elaborate headdresses and decorated faces recall the ceremony and dance the early agriculturist shaman performed to petition the spirit world for the success of crops and the welfare of his people.
Just across an adjacent desert basin — tarvation Draw — immediately south-southwest of Cooke's Range, at a prehistoric living site called Pony Hills, you will discover still more such petroglyphs. Images, for instance, of goggle-eyed figures, human footprints, a mountain sheep, a rattlesnake and abstracted figures point to a rich but enigmatic human story. A large human figure with a staff may represent a local interpretation of the famous Kokopelli, or hump-backed flute player, who played a central role in Puebloan mythology. Petroglyphs of a macaw (native, not to the Southwest, but to Central America and northern South America) and a stylized rabbit suggest cultural influences from the great Mesoamerican city states far to the south, in southern Mexico and Central America.
At some point, probably after the early agriculturists abandoned Cooke's Range six to seven centuries ago for some unknown reason, an Athapaskan-speaking people, the Chiricahua Apaches, moved in to occupy the region. Over the succeeding centuries, they laid claim to the area as part of their homeland. Restless hunters and raiders, the Apaches left evidence of their presence in the detritus of their rancherias, or ephemeral campsites, which lie scattered across the slopes and through the canyons south of Cooke's Peak. They would assert their right to the land when Anglo and Hispanic populations surged across the Southwest in the mid-19th century, drawn by the promise of conquest, opportunity, treasure and adventure.
The Rise of Conflict
Military forces, trappers, miners, drovers, emigrants, merchants and commercial transporters making their way across the Chihuahuan Desert often followed or crossed the trail that led through Cooke's Canyon. They capitalized on its value as one of the few locations with a spring that offered a reliable source of water for travelers and their livestock.
Fort Cummings standing ruins of adobe walls, with Cooke’s Peak visible through a doorway.
For example, it was in 1846, during the Mexican-American War, that Lieutenant Colonel Cooke led his Mormon Battalion — troopers with their families — through what would become known as Cooke's Range, across Cooke's Canyon and past Cooke's Spring in an epic march from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego, Calif. While the battalion helped secure the Southwest for the United States, it also capitalized on the march to garner US government support in moving Mormon families westward, away from the persecution they suffered in Iowa.
Trappers followed the canyon trail in a quest for valuable pelts of animals of the wilderness, serving markets back east and sometimes depleting local wildlife populations. Prospectors came in search of mineral resources — gold, silver, copper and other profitable ores — often scarring the hillsides with forest clearings, trenches, prospect pits, shafts and mine waste. Vaqueros and cowboys came to drive longhorn cattle westward, some as far as California, to capitalize on vast virgin rangelands. Entrepreneurs like the celebrated Roy Bean came to establish new enterprises and serve newly established communities. Soldiers came — and some left — to answer the call of the Civil War. Adventurers came for the sheer excitement of exploring a wild new land.
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