Western Trips

Western Trips

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fort Apache

Fort Apache is located in eastern Arizona about 120 miles east of Phoenix. Many people may remember the highly popular 1948 film by the same name directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne. Fort Apache was one of the classic old west movies John Wayne starred in.

A Visit to Fort Apache

Fort Apache 1873

Today the site of Fort Apache is an Arizona State Historic Park located off Arizona State Hwy 73. It's a fun and educational stop during your Arizona vacation road trip and one of Arizona's finest historic landmarks. Today, the 288 acre site is comprised of 27 buildings dating between 1870 and 1930. Buildings include a guardhouse, officer quarters, stables and dormitories.

Also included is the White Mountain Apache Cultural Center and Museum. The museum features an exhibit about the legacy of Fort Apache and an exhibit "Footprints of the Apache". Many very interesting photos and artifacts make this a must see during your Arizona vacation. It's one of the most historic of Arizona State Parks and it's an ideal family road trip destination.

Early Days of Fort Apache Arizona

The story of Fort Apache begins in July, 1869, when Brevet Colonel John Green of the U.S. 1st Cavalry led an expedition of more than 120 troops into the White Mountains from Camp Goodwin and Camp Grant to the south. The mission was to kill or capture any Apache people they encountered. Green's expedition headed north up the San Carlos River, across the Black River, and to the White River in the vicinity of the future Fort Apache. The Apache Indians have lived in this region for centuries.

Green's scouts discovered over 100 acres of cornfields along the White River. Escapa - an Apache chief who was also called Miguel visited the  Army camp, and invited Colonel Green to visit his village. Green dispatched Captain John Barry, telling him "if possible to exterminate the whole village." When Barry arrived at Miguel's village  he found white flags "flying from every hut and from every prominent point," and "the men, women and children came out to meet them and went to work at once to cut corn for their horses, and showed such a spirit of delight at meeting them that the officers [said] if they had fired upon them they would have been guilty of cold-blooded murder."
Apaches 1873

Green returned a second time to the White Mountains in November 1869 and met with the Apache leaders Escapa (Miguel), Eskininla (Diablo), Pedro, and Eskiltesela. At that second encounter the Apache chiefs agreed to the creation of a military post and reservation. They directed Green to the area of the East and North Forks of the White River.

The Battle of Fort Apache occurred on September 1, 1881. It was an engagement between the cavalry of Fort Apache and dozens of mounted White Mountain Apache's. The attack on Fort Apache, commanded was a  reprisal for the Battle at Cibicue Creek in which a notorious medicine man had been killed along with a cavalry officer.

The Ft Apache battle lasted all day but the Apaches more or less stayed outside of the range of the cavalry riflemen. Reinforcements arrived a few days later but by that time the Apaches had scattered into hiding. Only three American soldiers were wounded and White Mountain Apache casualties were unknown. While the battle itself was not large in scope, it's repercussions were.

Aftermath of the Battle

After the battle other groups of Apaches left their newly formed reservations. They either escaped to northern Mexico or joined Geronimo and other Apache leaders in their war against the whites, both military and civilian. Geronimo remains a Native American legend much the same way as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The two separate engagements at Cibecue Creek the year before and Fort Apache started another Apache War in Arizona Territory which would finally end with the surrender of Geronimo at Skeleton Canyon five years later in 1886. All in all, the Apache War lasted some 25 years.

The Larger Decades Long War

Officially, the first U.S. military engagements against the Apaches occurred as early as 1851. It officially ended with Geronimo's surrender in 1886. In the Arizona Territory itself the war is believed to have started with a bloody cavalry attack on an Apache camp during the Civil War.

During this decades long war there were several battles often attributed to entirely different reasons. Apache depredations against white settlers ignited most of the skirmishes. Indians would raid ranches killing it's residents and stealing it's cattle. There was also a stagecoach massacre near Wickenburg Arizona in 1871. Killed in this stagecoach attack was Frederick W. Loring a young promising writer from Boston. Prior to the stagecoach attack there was a degree of sympathy toward the Apaches from many easterners but this attack and Loring's death changed some minds.

There were even battles between various Apache tribes. In some instances a tribe would help the cavalry during it's campaign against it's perceived enemy. The overriding cause however for this and for all Indian Wars during the 1800's was the emigration of white settlers and the military into centuries old Indian lands. This war like all Indian Wars was a clash of cultures. The clashes even go back to the earliest days of Texas settlement in the mid 1800's involving the legendary Comanche leader Quanah Parker.

Fort Apache in Later Years


Geronimo, far right,and warriors
The post which had a few prior names was designated as Fort Apache in 1879. It remained in use for decades and was finally abandoned in 1922 after it's use declined.

After an act of Congress in January 1923 the site became the home of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Theodore Roosevelt Indian Boarding School. It was overseen by the Interior Department. The school's initial purpose was to serve Navajo children but by the 1930s the majority of students were Apache. In 1960 the Arizona State Department of Education opened a public school in nearby Whitewater and most of the students transferred there. The school continued to function as a multi-tribe institution. The Theodore Roosevelt School still operates today on the very spot as a middle school. It has operated since 1980 under the administration of a school board selected by the White Mountain Apache Tribal Council.

If you're deciding what to see in Arizona you may very well want to consider a visit to Fort Apache as part of your Arizona vacation trip planner. There's lots of Arizona history to see and it makes a great family vacation side trip.

Also, a very good companion trip to Fort Apache when in Arizona is the historic Hubbell Trading Post on the Navajo reservation in the northeast part of the state. The trading post continues in operation and features many fine authentic Navajo products.


(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from the public domain)

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