Photo taken by Preston Sands. Used with permission.
Thank you to Hike Arizona for allowing us to use this image of the Butterfield Trail.
Last time I talked about the Spanish settlers’ early encounter with the Apaches and the history of the San Bernardino Ranch, which took us to the early 1900’s. However, to return to the proper place in our story, we will pick it up at the beginning of the 19th century.
The west was changing. I’m sure you all know about the famous Louisiana Purchase, whereby, in 1803, President Jefferson pulled off the land deal of the millennium by buying, from Napoleon of France, a huge tract of land stretching from New Orleans to Oregon, for a sum which works out to 3 cents per acre. What a deal!
Later, following the annexation of Texas in 1845, and the Mexican War, in 1848, the United States acquired most of the west, and, in our part of Arizona, the border between the US and Mexico followed the Gila River, some 100 miles or so north of us. This, of course, placed the Chiricahua Apaches, the tribe that dominated this land, in Mexico.
However, when the American engineers began to lay out a road to California, they encountered mountainous and difficult terrain, and they saw that the easier route by far lay to the south, in what was still Mexican territory. Therefore, by a purchase negotiated in 1853 by the then-ambassador to Mexico, James Gadsden, the US acquired 45,535 square miles of land for ten million dollars, or 34 cents per acre – as you can see, inflation was at work even then!
The Apaches were affected by this in that they now they lived in the United States, and could therefore raid into Mexico and then skip back across the border, where the Mexican troops couldn’t follow them. One can only think that initially, this was a pleasant development for them!
The road, or stagecoach trail, was laid out in 1859 by James Butterfield, for the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, going from Tipton MO to San Diego, thence to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Of necessity, it had to follow available water sources, and so it had to cross a pass in our valley dividing the Chiricahua Mountains to the south, and the Dos Cabezas Mountains to the north, a place aptly called Apache Pass.
Initially, the Apaches, under their chief, Cochise, were not too war-like. In the early days, most people traversing the trail to the west were interested in getting to the gold fields of California, and didn’t think of settling in the land that is now Arizona. Eventually, of course, Apache attacks did take place, and the story of one, in particular, has haunted me over the years.
Some miles to the east of the Chiricahua Mountains there is a little hill which can be seen from the peak of the Chiricahua Monument. The Butterfield Trail led around this hill. At some time during the Indian days, a wagon train was heading west to California. One of the families decided to leave the wagon train and take a short-cut – an amazing decision in the days of Cochise and Victorio! Predictably, they were attacked by the Apaches and all were killed, except two little girls who were sold into slavery in Mexico. One was never heard of again, but about ten years later the other one surfaced somewhere along the border, and was rescued by American troops. She told them of the ambush, and accompanied them to the site. There they found the wagons and the unburied skeletons of her family. Every time I look at that hill I think of those people and wonder – what would possess you to take a short-cut in Apache territory – what were they thinking!!
The Butterfield Trail was a costly venture, and it lasted only three years. The Civil War, which began in 1861, resulted in less traffic along the trail, and, after the war ended in 1864, disputes between the Butterfield Overland Mail Company and its financier, Wells Fargo, ended the mail service.
Today, the Trail is barely visible among the brush and tall grass of the desert. Fort Bowie, which had been constructed there in 1861 by the troops of the California Volunteers in order to protect the waters of Apache Spring, is visited only by the occasional hiker, and by our horseback riders, who share it with its ghosts every Thursday.