By Nancy Kirkpatrick Wright

This summer Fort Apache, located on the White Mountain Indian Reservation, two hundred miles or so east of Prescott, made headlines in newspapers across the country. Real news. Journalists interviewed experts in Washington D.C. and some reporters even traveled the rough and winding roads to the reservation to interview Apache tribal officials.

The first news story was from the judiciary: The United States Supreme Court ruled that the White Mountain Apache tribe has the right to sue the U.S. government for failing to properly maintain historic old Fort Apache. 

According to a Baltimore Sun article (reprinted in the Arizona Republic, 6/1/03), the White Mountain Apache tribe had claimed that because the Interior Department has held the Fort in trust since 1960, the Interior Department has a "fiduciary duty to maintain, protect, repair and preserve" this part of their reservation, which had been designated a historic district in 1976. Moreover, other tribes have signed treaties ceding land to the federal government in exchange for a promise that their land be maintained and protected. This could open a big can of worms. Let us leave it unopened and consider the second breaking story: 

A month or so later, lightening-caused fires broke out near Kinishba, on the Fort Apache Reservation. Kinishba is the prehistoric ruin which was partially restored in the 1930's and 40's by Dr. Byron Cummings, dean of Southwestern archaeologists, and his students from the University of Arizona. Apache men who helped with the excavation and restoration named the large cluster of ruins "Kinishba," meaning "brown house." It too, has suffered years and years of neglect and could certainly be helped with an infusion of federal funds. 

The most recent news from the Fort Apache Reservation was sad and disturbing: two members of the White Mountain Apache tribe have lost their lives fighting forest fires there this summer. Arizonans throughout the state grieve with their families and Apache people. 

These stories bring to mind Fort Apache's past history. The post was established in Arizona Territory in 1871 as headquarters for the newly formed Apache reservation. The U. S. Cavalry, garrisoned there, was charged with keeping the peace, rounding up hostile Indians, and bringing in the renegade, Geronimo, and his band. This made big news back in the States, and almost from the beginning, stories of cowboys and Indians and the winning of the west fascinated Easterners and even Europeans. As is usual with battles and wars, fact and fiction intermingled. Exciting stories were told, beginning with the early pulp shoot-em-ups. Later western movies and eventually radio and television picked up the theme. The Western genre was probably best typified by John Ford's "Fort Apache." In this 1948 film, John Wayne was a colonel with a strong sense of responsibility for the unnecessary deaths of his men. The movie portrayed Fort Apache much as it was in its heyday. A model of military spit and polish, it bustled with the comings and goings of cavalry troops, Apache Scouts, and their families. 

Martha Summerhayes wrote about actually living at Fort Apache in 1874 in 'Vanished Arizona', her book of her memories as a military wife on the frontier. She described the officers' quarters as log cabins-- "picturesque and attractive . . . with a thick layer of straw spread over the floor before the carpet was tacked down". She was distressed to discover that a wagon containing her barrel of china had rolled down the mountainside along the way from Prescott to Fort Apache. With no store nearby, she was at a loss until another army wife offered her some plates and cups. Although she used the term, "savage Apache," as she watched a tribal dance, she later wrote, "I noticed again Chief Diablo's great good looks." 

A big fuss was made over the birth of the Summerhayes' son, the first child born to an officer at Fort Apache. When the baby was seven days old a group of Apache women paid a formal visit, bringing blankets and a cradleboard, "such as they carry their own babies... embroidered in blue beads; it was their best work." As she admired the cradleboard and made signs to thank the women, they took her baby, fitted a small pillow in the cradle-board and laced the new baby into it. Then the Apache women "laughed in their gentle manner, and finally soothed the baby to sleep." Her husband's only comment was, "Well, I'll be d__d!" 

Martha Summerhayes tells of meeting Colonel Corydon Cooley, the colorful veteran who had settled on the reservation after retiring from the army. She was intrigued by the army scuttlebutt, that he lived with two Apache women. When she asked her husband which one was Cooley's wife, he said, "I don't know. Both of 'em, I guess". Refined Victorian lady that she was, Martha tried to rationalize the situation, writing, "Now this was too awful, but I knew he did not intend for me to ask any more questions . . . I had to sort over my ideas and deep-routed prejudices a good many times". 

A few years later, Buffalo Soldiers of the famed Tenth Cavalry, made up of African American soldiers recruited after the Civil War, were stationed at Fort Apache. These men, many of them former slaves, helped capture Geronimo in 1886 and later had the thankless job of rounding up groups of Apaches and putting them on trains for Oklahoma. The Buffalo Soldiers earned much recognition for bravery, but this assignment in the wild and remote mountains of Arizona was mostly hard work with little glory. Did any of these men write an account of his time with the military in Arizona? What a story that would be! 

When Sharlot Hall, on one of her tours as Arizona Territorial Historian in 1910, was at Fort Apache, the parade grounds where soldiers had marched in tight formation in the 1880's were still well kept. However, the post was abandoned as a military reservation in 1922, and was transferred to the Department of the Interior. Theodore Roosevelt Boarding School was established under the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1923 and during the next six decades hundreds of Apache children and children from other tribes, as well, lived in dormitories and attended school there. 

Although the Tribal Cultural Center has begun collecting Apache and Cavalry memorabilia again, there is still much work to be done. Buildings must be restored, artifacts conserved, and oral histories gathered before they are all lost. The extraordinary story of Fort Apache's illustrious past needs to be preserved and told. And heard. 

Yes, Fort Apache is lonely. Ghosts of military days, of the Buffalo Soldiers, of Apache scouts, and of the boarding school children breeze around the tumbling old buildings and roam the vacant dormitories and schoolhouse. Apache people know that chinde, ghosts, probably still wander among the tombstones in the little military cemetery on the hill. A clutter of weeds may hide them but they are there. 

Perhaps old Fort Apache will be maintained as a national treasure--and Kinishba, too. Precious artifacts will be protected and displayed and docents from the Apache tribe will tell stories and show visitors around. Old Glory may once again fly over a well-kept grassy parade ground. 

(Nancy Kirkpatrick Wright, retired librarian from Yavapai College, is active in Prescott Art Docents and Sharlot Hall Museum. She enjoys investigating the historic confluences of the arts and sciences.) 

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (mil123pa)
Reuse only by permission.

In far eastern Arizona lies Fort Apache, shown here before 1900. It has popped up in the news recently for preservation and fires. The fort's history is deep and the need to preserve it is imperative before the ghosts of Buffalo Soldiers, Apache Scouts and years of boarding school children have no place to be.