Trails, Raiding Trails and Lieutenant George Bascom

We spread a map flat on a table top and

Butterfield Trail near Apache Pass

look at the world as though it were uniform. Mountains, canyons, rivers, swamps and hills disappear becoming all the same. And yet we know it’s not so. We know the only places we can go with our car are those marked on the map as roads. Perhaps we can get into a few places beyond the roads if we have four-wheel-drive but not many. We can simply follow the dirt roads and those marked  as 4-wheel-drive by dashed lines.

Dry section on the San Pedro south of Redington Pass

Our ancestors saw the world a bit differently. Where I can plan to be 900 or 1,000 miles away between dawn and dusk, our ancestors seldom went more than 10. The great FX Aubry, Skimmer of the Plains, once covered 900 miles in five and half days on horseback with staged, fattened horses and he killed a a few of them. His feat made newspaper headlines. A cowboy on a fast, well-fed and rested horse might cover 60 miles in a day, while cavalry, carrying feed, might cover 40. The Butterfield Overland Mail crossed from St. Louis through Texas to Arizona in 23 days using relay teams of mules and horses. Travelers plodding alongside oxen pulling covered wagons covered 10 or 12 miles in a day and drovers pushing cattle up the trail did about the same, while a man on foot might cover 20.

At the end of the day, the herd, wagon train or horseman needed to find grass and water. While wagon and horse could travel ‘cross-country’ and up hillsides and passes we can barely imagine challenging with an ATV, they were limited by the location of water holes. Their trails strung the springs together like beads. What looks to us like easy travel on a map, might well have been avoided because it was dry.

The world is not flat. It is not all one thing. Our purpose and our mode of transportation limits us to various avenues. Guard the intersections of the roadways at a few key points and you cut off vehicular travel. Guard key springs and you cut off men on horses or on foot. One hundred and fifty years ago you didn’t have to guard the entire country against Indian attack, you only needed to guard key choke points and cut off vital resources. The great Indian fighters knew this and knew they didn’t have to look everywhere, they only had to hunt in those places where the Indians had to go.

Fort Buchanan was located near the headwaters of three rivers

In 1856, Captain Richard S. Ewell chose the location for Fort Buchanan well. He had grass and water for his horses and the fort was located near the headwaters of Cienaga Creek, the Babocomari River and Sonoita Creek. These led north, east and southwest. Apaches raiding Sonoita Creek, Sonora and the Santa Cruz Valley would pass close by and the dragoons would have the opportunity to apprehend them. This cut down on raiding. When, in October 1860, the dragoons were moved to Fort Breckenridge 80 miles to the north, raiding increased and at the same time the raiding trail changed. It had run north along Cienega Creek and over Redington Pass to the San Pedro River. It was a trail that provided water, grass and concealment. But that trail now led to the dragoons waiting at Breckinridge.

In January 1861, Pinal Apaches raided

Babocomari River

along Sonoita Creek stealing a herd of 30 cattle and a 10-year-old boy from Johnny Ward’s ranch. Lieutenant George Bascom, 7th Infantry, commander of one of the two infantry companies now occupying Fort Buchanan, was sent out in search of them. He failed to locate the trail. We might speculate that he searched along Cienega Creek where such raiders would normally have gone. Returning to the fort, he met Lieutenant Lord, 1st Dragoons, there as a member of a court-martial board, who volunteered his services. They went out again and located a trail that led east along the Babocomari River to the San Pedro and returned to Fort Buchanan for Bascom’s company and orders.

Bascom and Lord would have known the pattern of Indian raids. Pinal and Coyotero Apaches went north on Cienaga Creek returning home to their mountains. Chiricahua Apache went east along the Babocomari to the San Pedro where they picked up an ancient trail to Whitewater Draw, Turkey Creek and Apache Pass, all places where a slow-moving cattle herd would find water at day’s-march intervals. This was the trail that Coronado used. Raiders were unlikely to go east, then north returning to the Gila and Pinal Mountains. It would take them out of the way, through poor cover and lead to places where the San Pedro flowed underground and water was scarce for long miles. Days later, Bascom and his command would encounter more Coyotero Apaches returning home by way of Apache Pass.

Lieutenant Bascom’s Company C, 7th Infantry, at Apache Pass

When Lieutenants Lord and Bascom concluded that raiders trailing east must be going to Apache Pass and must therefore be Chiricahuas, who lived there, it was not a hasty decision but one born of experience and knowledge of the terrain. They missed a point. They did not realize how effectively Fort Breckinridge blocked the old trail north. If Cochise was wrongly accused to stealing Ward’s boy, the accusation was born of a good-faith reading of the circumstantial evidence and not of a rush to judgement.

Did the Pinal Apaches, who took Felix Ward, later known as Mickey Free, head north from the Babocomari or east to Apache Pass? North along the San Pedro they would have passed near areas patrolled by the dragoons and frequented by Anglo travelers. The would have been in the open much of the time, making a detour that cost them many miles and took them along a dry section of the river. East to Apache Pass was an even longer trail with better water away from whites and the army. Surgeon Irwin coming to Bascom’s rescue encountered Coyoteros driving cattle near the pass. Francisco, chief of Coyotero Apaches, shows up to assist Cochise almost immediately when he should have been distant by many days’ travel. It appears the Coyotero had begun using this route.

About dhocking

Doug Hocking is an independent scholar who has completed advanced studies in American history, ethnology and historical archaeology. He grew up on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and attended school among the Indios and paisanos of the Rio Arriba (Northern New Mexico). He retired from the military as an armored cavalry (scout) officer. His novels immerse the reader in the times, terrain and cultures of 19th century New Mexico. Doug lives near Tombstone with his wife, dogs and a feral cat. He writes both fiction and history and is currently working on a biography of Tom Jeffords and has two historical novels in print: Massacre at Point of Rocks and Mystery of Chaco Canyon. His articles have appeared in True West, Wild West, Buckskin Bulletin and Roundup.
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