24 March 2012

Hiking in the Footsteps of History

I write historical fiction, so it's pretty safe to assume that places with a storied past appeal to me. To follow the same path others trod hundreds, even thousands of years before me is fascinating--and humbling.

The trail starts here and wends amid the rocky peaks...
This past week, I had the honor of hiking through Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, east of Tombstone. This is where Cochise, the Chiricahua Apache chief, hid his entire tribe from the U.S. Army in the late 1860s and early 1870s. This is where fleet-footed warriors ran the trails, warning their people of the "blue coats" stumbling into the passes. Treachery and deceit ultimately ruined the lives of The People who were only trying to defend their homeland.

When Geronimo surrendered in September of 1886, his had been the final band of Native American resistance fighters in the entire nation. They were only a group of less than forty people: women, children, and warriors who had eluded the Army for years, even though other Apache tracked them as scouts. Geronimo's actual surrender happened a number of miles further east  (in New Mexico), but Cochise Stronghold had been the tribe's sanctuary for centuries: first from the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and finally the Americans.

Looking northwest from The Saddle
Look at those rock formations, created by earthquake, landslide, and wind. Imagine this is your home. You know every crevice that holds water, every rock to support your step. PiƱon nuts are abundant, manzanilla (chamomile) as well. Hawks soar overhead and deer peek out from behind sycamore trunks near a gently burbling spring hidden in a shady ravine.

Dr. Terra Pressler, my hiking buddy, was also respectful of the spirit and history of the Stronghold. She is a creative writing professor, an attorney and Ph.D., an author, and an excellent editor. We both walked softly, careful not to disturb much, and stopped often to admire the grandeur around us.

As we sat upon some rocks at The Saddle, halfway between the eastern edge of the Stronghold and the western slopes of the Dragoons (which is the side visible from Boot Hill cemetery in Tombstone), I was overcome with sadness for those who had once called this place home.

With Geronimo's surrender, all of the Chiricahua Apache were severely punished. Even the scouts who had helped the Army [which they did upon the promise that their families would receive food to keep from starving] were thrown into railroad cars with the renegades they had helped to capture and shipped off to Florida. Only a few women, young children, and old men were permitted to go to  the San Carlos Reservation in Eastern Arizona (where many died of starvation). Nearly 450 Apache went from their arid mountains to the humid swamps of Florida, then on to Alabama, where overcrowding, unfamiliar food, insects, disease, and sorrow decimated the population to fewer than 300 souls. Geronimo and those who survived were moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he died in 1909.

Apache children were taken from their families and shipped across the country to the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Their hair was cut short, their buckskins and dresses were burned, and everything of their Native culture--language, mannerisms, religious beliefs-- was beaten out of them at every opportunity. They became neither white nor Apache, had neither homes to return to nor places to go that would accept them, and many committed suicide through alcohol.

To this very day, the Chiricahua Apache have never been permitted to return--not even to inter the remains of Geronimo or those banished with him--to their ancestral home.

Dragon & Hawk  and its sequel Out of Forgotten Ashes, touch lightly on the fate of the Chiricahua Apache. Perhaps a future novel will finish the story of Reyna's friend, the medicine woman named Humming Bird, but at the moment, the true history is still pretty darn heartbreaking to mold into an entertaining read.

[Note: I am sorry to say that the idea of shipping the Chiricahua Apache off to Florida and the official sanctioning of an "Indian Industrial School" were both pet projects of Louis Cameron "L.C." Hughes of Tucson, editor of The Arizona Daily Star  and son of Welsh immigrants. His brother, Samuel, was a prominent Tucson pioneer--and also responsible for the deaths of many Apache women and children. Both of their biographies are in my nonfiction book, Cactus Cymry: Influential Welsh in the Southern Arizona Territory. ]


  1. Hi Jude: I enjoyed your blog about our country and history. I lived in that part of our wilderness until moving to the city (Tucson). And in your email, and mention of The Amerind Museum--I had to learn of the museum's existence from friends who traveled from Southampton, England, to visit us and the museum. Jim Woods

  2. Thanks Jim. Isn't that something? The best kept open secret the locals don't seem to notice. It's a beautiful place.

  3. Excellent post, Jude, and such a sad ending for a beautiful people.

  4. Thank you, Linda, and yes, it certainly is.