Where once a busy Army fort stood, bustling with activity and noise, only a few adobe walls remain. Except for the wind blowing through Apache Pass and the flapping of the American flag flying over the fort ruins, Fort Bowie today stands mostly silent.
Once the nerve center of the United States military campaign against the Chiricahua Apache people, Fort Bowie played a pivotal role in our nation’s history during a time when European Americans were exploring and moving west, traveling across homelands of American Indians, and in many places, displacing the native people as they went.
Conflicting views and attitudes created hostilities between people looking for new homes and those trying to hang on to land they had always known. The battles of the American Indian wars were many and they began for different reasons, but none were more basic than the type of battle that led to the establishment of Fort Bowie one hundred and fifty years ago.
Too many of us take our water supply for granted these days, but in 1862 if you were marching across the desert southwest your very life depended on knowing where the water holes were, and having access to them.
It was that very scenario that set into motion the reason Fort Bowie came into existence, when Union troops, traveling east to address a Confederate threat, in the early days of our country’s Civil War, marched right into a Chiricahua Apache ambush at Apache Pass in what is now known as southeast Arizona.
Apache Spring, which still flows, was, and is, just a small trickle of water, but this precious water source was what the soldiers and officers of General James H. Carleton’s “California Column” were in desperate need of for themselves and their livestock on July 15, 1862.
They had just marched 40 miles across the searing Sulphur Springs valley in temperatures soaring over 100 degrees and were within a half-mile from the spring when attacked by Apache warriors under the leadership of Chiricahua Apache Chief Cochise.
After the two-day battle of Apache Pass, Captain Thomas L. Roberts of the First California Infantry reported to General Carleton “I deem it highly important that a force sufficient to hold the water and pass should be stationed there, otherwise every command will have to fight for the water, and, not knowing the ground, are almost certain to lose some lives.”
On July 28, 1862, the first Fort Bowie was officially established on a small hillside overlooking Apache Spring. A second, more extensive fort was built five years later just east of the first fort.
Cochise made peace with the new Americans in 1872 and for four years there was a Chiricahua Apache reservation covering most of what we know now as Cochise County. Much to the dismay of the Chiricahuas, the government closed that reservation in 1876, two years after Cochise’s death, and moved most of his people to the San Carlos Apache reservation.
Not all of the Chiricahuas adapted well to reservation life and some of them rebelled, including the well-known Apache medicine man and leader, Geronimo, who, with those Apaches that followed him, kept the military busy off and on for another decade, while he and his people were on the run between Mexico and the United States.
Fort Bowie was most active the years of 1885-1886, during what the military called the “Geronimo Campaign,” a time when officers, soldiers, Apache warriors and Indian scouts alike, made their marks in history here.
After Geronimo surrendered for the last time in 1886, soldiers and officers at Fort Bowie found they had little to do. By 1894 it became apparent to the government that Fort Bowie had outlived its usefulness and was abandoned.
A few local settlers, early ranchers and miners moved into some of the finer buildings for a while. The buildings began to disappear as people helped themselves to the lumber, metal, whatever they could find that could be utilized. Once the adobe walls were exposed to the elements, the physical aspect of Fort Bowie began to vanish, much of it blowing away with the winds that relentlessly blow through Apache Pass.
Though most of the buildings that once stood at Fort Bowie are long gone, the history that unfolded there still lives, interpreted by the National Park Service. The ruins of Fort Bowie are protected today to commemorate a part of the tumultuous history of a nation in transition, experiencing growing pains that would benefit one culture at the expense of another. This is where the Indian wars ended in the Southwest.
For the Chiricahua Apache people, this meant a loss of their traditional homelands, an end to their nomadic lifestyle, and for most of them an end of their freedom. The entire band was exiled from Arizona and became prisoners of war for 27 years. For the new Americans this meant a beginning to new freedoms and lifestyles they had yet to explore.
Fort Bowie today is a place to reflect and ponder those that came before us. It is also a place to remember that each one of our lives has been shaped by what happened in the past and that what we accomplish today with our present lives will shape the future for those yet to come.