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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Deadly trail tamed by fort's installation

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
Among the many early trails leading West, over which a tide of travelers once surged, the four-mile stretch of Massacre Canyon located north-east of present-day Deming, N.M., was perhaps the bloodiest and most dangerous.

The reason being, it was also the home of the stealthiest, most fierce Indian tribes on the Western frontier.

The Chiricahua Apaches had ruled this small corner of the West for 300 years and knew every crook and cranny of it tortuous desert terrain. They used every observation point to plan, chose from a varied group of ambush sites, plus assembled information from spies located at the stopping places along the way. With this information, they attacked, killed, looted, kidnapped and burned at will and without mercy.

Why did travelers continue to travel this dangerous path? Because the canyon contained Cook's Spring, the only reliable and plentiful source of water for countless miles in any direction.

The trail was sometimes called the Argonaut, the Overland and the Butterfield and could not be navigated without depending on Cooke's Spring located in the depths of Massacre Canyon.

From 1856 to 1862, historians estimate 425 travelers lost their lives to Apaches while trying to navigate the trail. From 1862 to 1867 another 400 travelers were killed in some fashion or another. This infamous pathway was littered from start to finish with bleaching human and animal bones along with rock-littered graves. Almost every yard of trail featured burned-out hulks of wagons and buggies.

Finally, on October 2, 1863, Fort Cummings was established nearby, named after Major Joseph Cummings who had been killed earlier by Navajo Indians. The original stockade-type fort, enclosed with 12-foot-high adobe walls, housed 100 officers and troops.

It was later expanded as more troops were needed to service the oncoming travelers.

The fort was a constant thorn in the side of the Indians who harassed the site nightly. Once they sawed through the adobe walls with a rawhide rope, taking all the horses and mules. Another time they took 300 sheep, leaving the fort without meat for weeks.

In 1870 General George Crook became the commanding officer of the area and began using Indian scouts, improved military tactics and communication in the war. He finally subdued the Apache tribes, placing them on reservations. Fort Cummings was abandoned in August 1873.

The story rebounds again in 1879 when a large group of Apaches left the reservation, led by famed Chief Victorio, and sought revenge.

Fort Cummings was opened again with 250 troops and officers stationed there. In spite of modern technology like the railroad, telegraph and heliograph communications the war raged until Sept. 6, 1886, when Geronimo finally surrendered in Skeleton Canyon.

While researching the number of fatalities occurring in Massacre Canyon, then adding in the number of military dead and wounded during the wars, it is hard to contemplate the amount of fear, grief and tragedy that occurred in only four short miles of bleak, desert trail.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" July 29, 2008 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.
 
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