Fort Bowie National Historic Site

A Visit To Fort Bowie National Historic Site

In my mailbox last week, there was a thick envelope from Fort Bowie National Historic Site. My medal for hiking 3 miles in the Park had arrived! The medal was featured on websites for several of the National Parks in Southern Arizona, and probably figured highly in my decision to visit the park. The only way to get to Fort Bowie is to walk three miles round-trip, so it was like getting a medal just for coming to the park!

Fort Bowie National Historic Site is a beautiful place with an ugly past. The US military and Chiricuhua Apache bitterly fought here for twenty years. The US sought to open the area to settlement. The Chiricahua sought to exist.

My wife and I drove to Fort Bowie early in the morning to avoid the heat. We stopped at Dwayne’s Fresh Jerky off the highway and bought a lot of Salmon Jerky to sustain us on the hike. Harris Hawks and a donkey hung out on one side of the road to the park. A massive almond tree monoculture was planted on the other side of the dirt road. It was still pretty early, and already the heat was shimmering off the hills.

The Hike

I thought this hike would be a quick hike in and a quick hike out, but the landscape fascinated me. It was so very different than the desert of Saguaro and Organ Pipe. I recognized the mesquite and cholla, but I was blown away by the blooming prickly pear, the agave and yucca, and the the ocotillo. Every few feet, I stopped to take another picture or point out another flower to my wife. As the trail crossed washes, the large trees (walnut?) provided shade and a chance to relax and eat our salmon jerky. The plant diversity was surprising, and my wife was very patient as I stopped every few feet to take another picture.

My wife relaxes while I look at another cool plant at Fort Bowie National Historic Site
My wife relaxes while I look at another cool plant.

After hiking a little while, we came across a small cemetery. Nearly all the graves in the cemetery were for an Apache or someone killed by an Apache, each of them a victim of the Indian Wars. One grave was for one of Geronimo’s children. The Turkey Vultures flying overhead gave the cemetery a lonely, desolate feel.

Once we were almost to the fort, we came across the Apache Spring. It was so green and cool along the spring. The air buzzed with insects and birds despite it being mid-day. The spring probably produced a lot of human activity before the Apache Wars erupted, and the permanent source of water must have been the valuable resource that sparked the inevitable conflict.

Geronimo and his warriors.jpg
By C. S. (Camillus Sidney) Fly (1849-1901) (Photographer) – NYPL Digital Gallery; Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection, Public Domain.

In January 1861, a young boy was kidnapped in a raid. Lt. George Nicholas Bascom, unable to find the boy, wrongly concluded that Cochise and the Chiricuhua Apache were responsible for kidnapping him. Cochise was convinced to meet with Bascom, and brought his wife and two children, his brother and his sons to the meeting. Bascom refused to believe that Cochise did not kidnap the child, and attempted to hold Chocise and his family hostage until the boy’s return. Cochise escaped and tried to force the release of his family by attacking a wagon train, and taking hostages. The Army refused to negotiate and hanged Chocise’s brother and nephews. The incident sparked a bloody twenty-five year battle for control of the area.

The Fort

We continued our hike to the runs of the fort. Compared with the hike in, there wasn’t a lot to see. The stone walls still stand, and you get a small sense of what the area looked like when it was a functioning military post. There is a small visitor center with some displays of the artifacts found in the ruins. I was surprised how many people were there, since we had only seen a few people on our hike. We found out that the Park Service will drive in visitors who are unable to make the hike.

Towering over the fort is a Geronimo’s sacred mountain, a peak he climbed and had a vision. One of the displays in the fort, shows a picture of Geronimo after his surrender standing under guard on the parade grounds at the base of his sacred mountain. You can set up your line of vision so that you can get the same vantage point as the photographer. It was such a sad sight, envisioning the defeat he must have felt and the pain of seeing his way of life gone. Geronimo and the rest of the Apache were sent to reservations in Florida and Alabama, never to see their beloved land again.

Prickly Pear Flowers at Fort Bowie National Historic Site
Prickly Pear Flowers
It is a beautiful land. The Agave, yucca and ocotillo bore gorgeous blossoms. The prickly pear was blooming. Turkey Vultures caught thermals and we could hear the croaking calls of distant ravens.

Our hike back took us up high on the hilltops where the views were spectacular. It was from these ridge tops that Chocise and his father-in-law, Mangas Coloradas, led an ambush against the US Army. They were winning until the Army used their howitzers. There were several vantage points with interpretive plaques along the way – most telling the story from the White perspective, featuring the bravery of the soldiers fighting against native aggression. I overheard a visitor calling out a Ranger on this perspective. His response what that the Apache were being aggressive – they were raiding and attacking. Of course, this leaves out the whole question of who started it, and the bigger, more important question of what do we do about it now.

Geronimo (Goyaałé), a Chiricahua Apache; full-length, kneeling with rifle, 1887

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