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Fort Bowie, Cut The Tent

Our last ride of 2020 was to the incredible ruins of Fort Bowie, located in Southeastern Arizona. There is so much history here, even if you are not a history buff! It is nearly impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of exploring an area that Apaches, soldiers, and settlers once roamed. Additionally, horses played a major role in that era.

History, not horses

We were camping and renting space at Lazy Horse Ranch in Pearce, Arizona, when we traveled to Fort Bowie. We have since bought a place in Cochise, and we moved in a couple of weeks ago. (More about our new place in a future blog!) Both places are about the same distance from Fort Bowie, about an hour.

Our ride was leisurely and not long… about 3 hours. This ride is more about going slow, reading signs, and exploring on foot than it is about being on the horses. We went about 6 miles and experienced 820 feet of elevation gain. The weather was chilly and windy. No matter what the temp is where you are starting from, plan on dressing warmly. Our guide, Jim, a fellow camper, said he had never been to Fort Bowie that the wind didn’t blow. Jim shared some history about the fort with us, including stories about how cold the soldiers were the first winter they staffed the fort. Eventually, much nicer accommodations were constructed for the soldiers!

Did I mention that there is a ton of history here? Let’s start with the Bascom Affair, or as the Apaches called it, “Cut The Tent.” It was the winter of 1861, and the general location was near Apache Pass. This historic route passes through the Dos Cabezas Mountains and Chiricahua Mountains at an elevation of 5,110 feet. Cochise and his band were fond of camping near Apache Spring, which was a water source (barely trickling when we were there) in the Pass.

A missing boy

In January of that year, a band of Apache raiders kidnapped a 12-year-old boy. As it turns out, they were not in any way affiliated with Cochise and his group. However, the army sent a brash young lieutenant to find the boy. His name was Bascom.

“Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course, a gentleman; but he was, unfortunately, a fool…”

Citation: Charles D. Poston, explorer, prospector, politician and author, known as “The Father of Arizona” because of his lobbying efforts to create the Arizona Territory

Bascom was a young 26 years old. Cochise, on the other hand, was a wiser man in his 50’s. The Apache people treated Cochise with great respect. He despised liars, and always kept his word. He was a man of great honor.

Bascom and Cochise came face-to-face at the Butterfield Overland stage station. Most of Cochise’s raiding and warfare was occurring against Mexicans, as it had for many, many years. Cochise was not a threat to the settlers at that time. Remember, it was not his group that had kidnapped the child. One author described the settlers as “cautiously friendly” with Cochise. Bascom took advantage of that budding relationship. He asked a stagecoach employee to send a message to Cochise, summoning him to the station.

Cochise betrayed

Although it took more than one message, Cochise eventually came to the station to meet with Bascom. Cochise was accompanied by some of his family. He came in peace. Sadly, rather than respect the wise chief and ask for help in finding the boy, Bascom resorted to threats. Cochise soon realized that Bascom planned to hold the chief and his family hostage until the boy was found. Apparently, it didn’t matter that Cochise repeatedly stated he had no knowledge about the child. Additionally, Cochise offered multiple times to help find Felix. Bascom didn’t care… he was eager to approach the dilemma with force.

Cut the tent

Bascom’s efforts to contain Cochise failed. Swiftly, Cochise drew his knife and cut a hole in the back of the tent. He was up the hill before the officers knew what had happened! Unfortunately, his relatives were left behind.

Although Cochise repeatedly tried to negotiate the release of his relatives, Bascom would not comply. Eventually, tensions elevated to the extent that all-out war ensued. Because this incident occurred right before the beginning of the Civil War, there were few soldiers available to protect the settlers. Many Anglo men, women, and children fell victim to Apache anger. The Bascom Affair marked the beginning of 11 years of warfare between Cochise, the army, and the settlers.

Fort Bowie established

The army established Fort Bowie in 1852, about a year after the Bascom Affair. Union soldiers used Apache pass on their way to southern states. Cochise wreaked havoc on those soldiers, and a 2-day fight ensued over access to Apache Spring. Fort Bowie was built to protect those soldiers.

Whatever happened to Felix? By all accounts, he adjusted well to Apache life. Eventually, he left the Apaches and became a scout for the soldiers. He assumed the name of Mickey Free. Interestingly enough, he ended up marrying several Apache women and living among the Apaches again. He never reunited with his birth family.

I highly recommend you read this amazing article about the Bascom Affair. (Click on “more” to get the article in Word Doc form.) The author raises an interesting question:

“When different groups of people fail to understand each other, ignorance and intolerance of cultural differences often leads to war. How many times in the past have a few individuals made choices which affect an entire population?”

Citation: Karen Weston Gonzalez

Here is the National Park Service website about Fort Bowie.

There is SO much more to share about this fascinating place. Check back next week for another history lesson!

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