Arizona: Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Historic Apache Pass
Historic Apache Pass

Courtesy of Mark A. Wilson through Creative Commons

In the region between Dos Cabezas and the Chiricahua Mountains, the historic Apache Pass was for two decades the focal point of the bitter struggle that eventually ended in Geronimo’s defeat. Originally named by the Spanish as the Pass of Chance, the Apache Pass was a pass of death due to the violent warfare that occurred in the region for the duration of the Apache Wars. To protect soldiers and settlers traveling through the pass and to better execute the military operations against the Apache warriors, the US Army established a fort that would become the guardian of Apache Pass. Today, Fort Bowie National Historic Site commemorates the bravery and endurance of the US soldiers in their struggle to control the region and of the Apache warriors who fought to preserve their existence.

Two major events led to the development of Fort Bowie and the struggle at Apache Pass between the American Indians and white settlers: the Bascom Affair of 1861 and the Battle of Apache Pass in 1862. The Bascom Affair began when a band of American Indians raided the ranch of John Ward and kidnapped the son of a Mexican woman who lived at the farm. Ward informed military officials at Fort Buchanan of the attack and demanded that they recover his losses, wrongly accusing Chief Cochise and a band of Chiricahua Indians of taking Ward’s stepson and stealing his stock. 

The army responded to the complaint by sending Lt. George Bascom and his troops to Apache Pass, where they lured Cochise and threatened to hold him captive until the Chiricahua returned the boy and the stolen property. Insulted by the accusations, Cochise sliced through Bascom’s tent wall and managed to escape to the mountains with a minor bullet wound on his leg.  Cochise and his Chiricahua warriors would later return to Apache Pass, where a two-week battle broke out that marked the beginning of open warfare between the United States Army and the Chiricahua warriors, which would stain Apache Pass with blood for more than 20 years.

Around the same time, the Civil War broke out, further complicating military operations at Apache Pass. While Union soldiers battled the Confederate army, US troops had to continue fighting Cochise and the Chiricahua as they traveled near or through the Apache Pass. The sporadic fighting with the Apache kept troops from reaching battle sites, which became the case in the Battle of Apache Pass, when Chief Cochise and 150 Chiricahua warriors attacked Brigade General James Carleton and his men while they were enroute to confront Confederate troops in Arizona and New Mexico.

When the two-day struggle between Carleton’s California Column and the Chiricahua ended on July 16, 1862, General James Carleton recognized the importance of establishing a fort that would secure Apache Pass and protect soldiers, settlers, and mail coaches as they traveled through the region. On July 28, soldiers from the fifth California Volunteer Infantry began constructing the fort and named it after their commanding officer, Col. George Washington Bowie.  In the beginning, the troops established a temporary camp consisting of 13 tents protected by stone breastworks, which they eventually replaced in the fall with huts made of crude stone and adobe.

These primitive structures stood until 1868, when the army built a larger and more stable Fort Bowie about 300 yards from the original campsite. When the troops completely abandoned the fort in 1894, this new military post consisted of more than 50 adobe and stone structures, including the barracks, officer’s quarters, a few corrals and storehouses, a trading post and hospital. Of the many structures, the only ones present at the site today are those built of stone. These include the ruins of the Butterfield Stage Station, an unknown building, and the post cemetery. Other ruins remain, but most of the adobe structures that existed until Geronimo’s defeat have melted over time.

Between its establishment in 1862, and the end of the Indian Wars in 1886, Fort Bowie was the center of US military operations against Cochise’s Chiricahua warriors and later Geronimo’s band of Apache warriors. Although a period of peace ensued after the government gave Cochise and his people a 3,000 square mile reservation in 1872, conflict eventually resumed as the younger Apaches became dissatisfied with reservation life. Once Cochise died of natural causes in 1874, the discontented Apaches began to escape from the reservation, which further increased the tensions and distrust between the government, settlers, and American Indians.

By 1876, after the government abolished the Chiricahua reservation, Geronimo and his warriors who had fled to Sierra Madre in northern Mexico began to terrorize the border region. For ten years, troops stationed at Fort Bowie would pursue and capture these renegades, then send them to the San Carlos reservation.  After their capture, most of the Chiricahua warriors managed to escape the reservation. The last outbreak occurred in May 1885, after Geronimo led 134 Chiricahuas back into Mexico. After a yearlong pursuit by the army, Geronimo and his warriors surrendered to Fort Bowie's troops, who in September 1886 exiled Geronimo and the Chiricahua warriors to Florida.

After Geronimo’s defeat ended the Apache Wars, the government began to withdraw its troops and officially closed Fort Bowie on October 17, 1894. Over time, erosion took its toll on the fort, but visitors today may tour the ruins and learn about the history of Fort Bowie and the Apache Pass at the Visitor Center.  

Fort Bowie National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System and a National Historic Landmark, is located at 3203 South Old Fort Bowie in Bowie, AZ. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. Fort Bowie and the Ruins Trail are open daily from sunrise to sunset.  The visitor center hours vary throughout the year, so call 520-847-2500 for current information. There is no admission fee. For more information visit the Fort Bowie National Historic Site website or call 520-847-2500.

Fort Bowie is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary.  Many components of the Fort Bowie National Historic Site have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including the Corrals, the Guardhouse, the Hospital, the Schoolhouse , the Infantry Barracks, the Commanding Officer’s Quarters, the Cavalry Barracks, and the Fort Bowie Ruins.

Last updated: December 9, 2018