The Most Feared Passage
Now merely a rough but scenic drive, Cooke's Canyon was
an often deadly journey during the Apache conflicts.
by Jay W. Sharp
As W. Thornton Parker, MD, wrote in his Annals of Old Fort Cummings, New Mexico, 1867-8, Cooke's Canyon, which slices across southwestern New Mexico's Cooke's Range, was a "journey of death." It ran generally east to west, "six miles or more in length, and with a gloomy gorge of four miles to add to its terrors.… In this Canyon many an emigrant train, and travelers, and hunters, as well as soldiers of the regular army, have gone to their deaths at the hands of the cruel Apaches."
In fact, the Chiricahua Apaches, under the leadership of legendary chiefs Mangas Coloradas and his son-in-law Cochise, made Cooke's Canyon probably the most fearsome single passage on any of the trails across the desert Southwest. They invested it with a danger that likely exceeded that of Doubtful Canyon, beside the Arizona/New Mexico border; Apache Pass, in southeastern Arizona; or the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro's Jornada del Muerto, in south-central New Mexico. Over the years, the Apaches left dozens to hundreds of dead and wounded lying along the Cooke's Canyon trailway or battlefields, while sometimes themselves suffering numerous dead and wounded.
The Apaches struck in Cooke's Canyon, as well as in other locations, of course, with the intention of preserving their wilderness home from intruders. Those invaders had come to conquer Apache lands, build unwelcome settlements, trap out the fur-bearing animals, decimate mineral-laden hillsides and streambeds, graze out the grasslands, and exterminate or drive out the Indian peoples.
In the early 1860s, the Apaches must have believed that the timing was ideal to thwart this invasion. They watched as their foes, preoccupied with the Civil War, withdrew fighting men from the West and dispatched them to eastern battlefields. The Apaches knew their enemy had grown weaker. They could see that civilian populations had become more vulnerable. They believed that the time had come.
Intimately familiar with their land, the Apaches knew that Cooke's Canyon offered perfect opportunities to waylay an adversary. Although a rugged passage, it had long drawn travelers because, at its eastern end, it had Cooke's Spring — the only water on the 70-to-80-mile stretch across the desert between the Rio Grande to the east and the Mimbres River to the west. Prehistoric peoples had passed and camped by the spring over centuries, leaving ceramic and other artifacts behind. In historic times, civilian expeditions and military units followed the trail past the spring. Two stage lines — the Butterfield and the San Antonio-San Diego mail and passenger services — maintained a way station near the spring.
Cooke's Canyon also offered the Apaches perfect ambush sites, with hills and cliffs overlooking the trail and boulders and brush providing concealment and protection. Even after the US Army built and manned Fort Cummings near Cooke's Spring in 1863, with the intention of protecting those who ventured through the canyon, the Apaches continued their relentless campaign.
Probably many of the Apache attacks in Cooke's Canyon went unnoted except for the bodies that travelers sometimes encountered and covered with stones along the trail. Some conflicts, however, became storied battles and do appear in the written record.
Freeman Thomas Mail Party, July 1861
Of all the battles in Cooke's Canyon, none is more famous than the Apache ambush of conductor Freeman Thomas' westbound San Antonio & San Diego Mail Line coach in July 1861, about two years before the Army established Fort Cummings. Although many details of the battle have been lost to history, Mangas and Cochise — watchful for travelers through the canyon — had evidently merged their forces, probably some 100 to 200 warriors at the time. They set a trap at a point overlooking the trail about a mile beyond Cooke's Spring, according to Berndt Kühn in The Journal of Arizona History.
Western entrance to the canyon. (Photo by George Hackler)
Freeman Thomas, with mail and passengers, set his coach on the westward journey from Mesilla to the Pacific Coast on the morning of July 20. Always aware of a potential Apache threat, he had equipped his coach with a good supply of arms, probably including the highly effective breech-loading Sharps rifles, and ammunition.
His party was made up of an experienced and diverse group of men of the western frontier. Thomas himself, a 29-year-old native of Ohio, had seen the results of Apache fury first hand, on the trail. His driver, Joseph Roescher, a 26-year-old from Germany, left few clues to his past, but he apparently had worked on the stage line for some period. Thomas' passengers — including 19-year-old Emmett Mills, Robert S. Avaline, Matthew Champion, John Wilson and John Portell — came to the frontier from various locations to the east. They had worked as stagecoach hands, miners, ranchers and gamblers. Some had been involved in shootouts. Some had seen the aftermath of Apache attacks. They all knew the risk they faced, and they brought their own side arms and rifles.
Leaving from Mesilla, Thomas took his coach northward along the west side of the Rio Grande along the Mesilla Valley to the Picacho station, where he turned westward, past Picacho Peak, then across some 50 miles of desert to Cooke's Spring and the eastern entrance to the canyon. There, at the spring, the party apparently rested through the night, letting the draft animals recuperate from the long and arduous haul across the desert. Come early morning, Thomas and his party renewed their journey, beginning the passage through Cooke's Canyon. "The stage was set," wrote Kühn, "for one of the most desperate fights ever recorded in the annals of frontier warfare."
Probably, just as the coach entered the eastern end of the gorge, the Apaches opened fire, pouring a hailstorm of musket balls and arrows down onto the coach and the travelers, wounding one. Thomas swiftly put his coach in flight, westward, over the trail, with the Apaches in pursuit. Apparently fearing that more Apaches lay in wait ahead, ready to cut off any hope of escape, Thomas decided to turn off the trail, heading southward toward higher ground to take up a defensive position.
Under heavy fire from the Apaches, Thomas and his men, now desperate, unhitched the draft animals and drove them down the hill, hoping that the Apaches might abandon the fight and pursue the team, according to Edwin R. Sweeney in Mangas Coloradas, Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches. That clearly failed. Swiftly, Thomas and his men stripped the coach, taking the Sharps rifles, ammunition, water and provisions. They threw up stone barricades, preparing for a siege — seven men, one wounded, against many dozens.
Rock mound grave site, with a wooden cross, which was probably added in more recent times. The site is near the west end of Cooke’s Canyon. (Photo by George Hackler)
The Apaches continued their withering attack, but at a price. By one account, wrote Sweeney, they lost 25 warriors and suffered many wounded — an example of the effectiveness of the Sharps rifle in the hands of brave and experienced frontiersmen. Cochise himself and his eldest son Taza may have been among the injured. Even with their overwhelming numerical advantage, the Apaches — themselves daring fighters by any measure — evidently could not finish off Thomas and his men until sometime the following day, July 22, or maybe even July 23. In revenge for their losses, the Apaches stripped and mutilated the bodies, which were not found until two freighters passed the site several days after the fight.
The ferocity of the battle, the freighters said, could be measured by the numerous shell casings littering the ground and the bullet marks covering rocks and trees around the stone barricades. According to Kühn, Cochise — who knew something about courage in battle — said that if he had 25 fighters like Thomas and his men, he would "undertake to whip the whole United States."
Not long after the Freeman Thomas massacre, and near the same location, eight or nine Mexican herdsman, driving 40 head of cattle to the mining town of Pinos Altos, paused to have lunch. The Apaches surrounded and massacred them all, according to Sweeney. They were found in a pile, "horribly mutilated."
Ake Party, Summer 1861
In the summer of 1861, Mangas and Cochise discovered that an irresistible target was approaching Cooke's Canyon from the west. Known as the Ake Party (after member Felix Grundy Ake), it included, according to Sweeney, several ranchers and their families fleeing the Apache threat in southern Arizona and several people heading east from Tucson. The Ake caravan consisted of seven wagons and two buggies, several men on horses, and — most tempting to the Apaches — well over a thousand head of livestock.
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