casitas de gila guesthouses bed and breakfast new mexico 575-535-4455

Southwestern Guesthouses on 265 Acres
near Silver City, New Mexico
overlooking Bear Creek and the Gila Wilderness

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog



NOTE: This is Part 2 of a blog covering the history of the Chiricahua Apache from the initial Spanish incursion and later Anglo-American settlement in their ancestral homeland up to the final surrender of the Chiricahua in 1886. (Read Part 1)


Southwest New Mexico landscape

Looking down into Hidden Valley
(all photos will open larger when clicked)

Yaqui and Saino, our two Mexican horses, were breathing heavily when we finally reached the top of the ridge to the north of us. We were about a mile or so from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, in the mountains on the other side of Bear Creek, enjoying a short getaway-ride before our guests would begin arriving. It was time for lunch and we were responding to the little inner voice that said “Why not go up to the top of that ridge where we’ll have a nice view”. Reaching the ridge top, the view was indeed superb, but the early March wind on this bright late winter day was strong and very much on the cool side as it raced over the ridge out of the north. No, it was far too strong for a comfortable lunch, regardless of the magnificent view of the towering Mogollon Mountains in the distance. Considering alternatives, we noticed that in front of us the ridge dropped abruptly away into a small bowl-shaped valley floored with interesting outcrops of white-colored, rhyolite ash-flow welded tuffs. The valley was about one hundred feet deep, rimmed and protected on all sides by a circle of sheltering ridges and a steep mountain slope to the east. We agreed it would be a great place for lunch as we made our way to the bottom.

Reaching the bottom of the valley, it was if we had entered another world … a small, magical place of bare volcanic rock outcrops dotted with sparse grass, mesquite, prickly pear cactus, small juniper and scrub oak, all bathed in brilliant, warming sunlight and awash in incredible silence. Here, in this little valley, it was impossible to escape a feeling of being totally separated and hidden from the world beyond. Basking in the bright warm sun, we enjoyed our lunch. We had some time before we needed to get back to work at the Casitas, so we began our ritual search for interesting rocks, particularly the unique white and pink chalcedony that abounds in the the volcanic terrain surrounding the Casitas.

Slowly we worked our way up the slope to our west. Reaching the top of the ridge, the vast panorama greeting the eye was breathtaking. In the foreground stretched the sinuous trail of Bear Creek as it made its way to its terminus in the Gila River Valley. Beyond lay the triangle-shaped coalescing alluvial fans of Sacaton Mesa at the foot of the soaring heights of the majestic Mogollons, with the peaks of the Blue Range Wilderness forming the distant skyline some 50 miles northwest.

southwest new mexico landscape

Looking west from ridge above Hidden Valley with Bear Creek in foreground and Gila River in distance

The wind had died and once more silence prevailed. It was then that we noticed a curious depression in the top of the ridge. It was a shallow circular hole a couple of feet deep and maybe eight feet across. Loose boulders of angular welded tuff and dirt had been piled around it. It was obviously very old, and definitely man-made. But who would have dug this? And why? Looking around close by, and still pondering these questions, we came upon several, offset, short discontinuous walls of piled rocks, running north-south along the top of the ridge that dropped off steeply to the west.

Whether crouched behind the rock structures or hunkered down in the circular depression and looking westward, it was obvious that the structures provided a mostly continuous and unobstructed birdseye view along the entire Bear Creek drainage several miles downstream to its junction with the Gila River. It was unmistakable that whoever had made these structures was waiting and looking for someone coming east up Bear Creek. And it was clear by the effort that went into making these structures that they didn’t want to be seen.

But who? Why? When? It would be 10 years before we stumbled onto possible answers to these questions.

apache rifle pit

Circular, rock-lined pit overlooking Bear Creek to the west in the distance

apache fortifications

Stacked rock walls overlooking Bear Creek to the west in the distance


The following paragraph is repeated from Part 1 (February 2013) as it sets the stage for the final 25 years of the “Chiricahua Problem” in the American Southwest. As in Part 1, the source for most of the historical facts and details that follow derive from three volumes on the Chiricahua by historian and writer Edwin R. Sweeney, whose writing presents a comprehensive, chronological and balanced history of this critical period of cultural change and transformation in the American Southwest.

apaches near wikiups

Group of apaches in front of their wikiups near Camp Apache, Arizona, 1873

During the Mexican-American war the Chiricahua allowed the U.S. Army safe passage through what was to become Southwest New Mexico to fight the Mexicans, ascribing to the old adage – ”the enemy of my enemy is my friend” … With the close of the war and the acquisition of the Mexican Cession in 1848, a peace treaty was signed between the U. S. and the Chiricahua, but shortly broke down as inevitable conflicts broke out between the Chiricahua and some of the thousands of prospectors, miners and settlers flooding into the country. In 1851, the great Chihene Chiricahua Chief Mangas Coloradas was allegedly attacked by a group of miners near Piños Altos, tied to a tree and severely flogged. Numerous subsequent violations of the treaty followed, resulting in various Chiricahua reprisals. One particularly egregious event occurred in December 1860, when thirty miners conducted a surprise attack on a group of Chihene Chiricahua east of Piños Altos, killing four and capturing 13 others. Then, on January 27, 1861, the infamous Bascom Affair occurred in which the great Chokonan Chief Cochise and members of his family were captured at Apache Pass in the Chiricahua Mountains under duplicitous circumstances by Lt. George Bascom and a large force of of U.S. Infantry. Cochise escaped, but in subsequent days Cochise’s brother and two nephews were hanged by Bascom’s forces. It was this event that precipitated the following 12 years of Cochise’s War. It was shortly after the Bascom Affair that Mangas Coloradas declared war on the Whites himself, joining forces with his son-in-law Cochise.

c1871 soldiers quarters

Soldiers’ quarters at Camp Apache, Arizona Territory, 1871


With the joining of forces of the Chokonen and Chihene bands under Cochise and Mangus Coloradas, an unprecedented 12-year period of chaos and violence ensued within the New Mexico and Arizona Territories. The threat of surprise Chiricahua attack was a constant reality for any settler or miner choosing to live there or even attempting to pass through this part of the Southwest. Mining camps such as Piños Altos, small settlements and ranches, and transportation routes were targeted repeatedly. Some important events of this period include:

On January 18, 1863, Mangas Coloradas, then 70 years old and having at last decided to pursue peace, was tortured and murdered at Fort McClane by members of the U.S. California Volunteer Infantry under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West.

In 1866, Fort Bayard was established about 7.5 miles east of Silver City to protect the mines and settlements in the area, a function which it served with great honor until the surrender of the famed Chiricahua leader Geronimo in 1886, ending the Chiricahua Wars.

Fort Bayard, New Mexico

Sally Port, circa 1870. Post headquarters and one of the first buildings constructed. Stood at southwest corner of parade ground. Calvary barracks at back left.

Fort Bayard c1885, New Mexico

Fort Bayard, circa 1885, with typical parade ground in center. New officers quarters on right, troop barracks on left, Sally Port in center back.

On October 11, 1872, Cochise, then 67 years old, agreed to a peace treaty with General Oliver O. Howard and Indian Agent Thomas Jeffords which included the establishment of the Chiricahua Reservation adjoining Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory. Cochise remained at peace in his beloved Chiricahua Mountains on the reservation for the rest of his life, dying of natural causes in 1874.

By the end of 1872, all Chiricahua were living on two reservations: the Chiricahua Reservation and the Tularosa Reservation in the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico. While the Chiricahua maintained peace in Arizona and New Mexico, they continued to make periodic raids into Mexico, returning to the safe haven of their reservation in Arizona.

apache scouts in New Mexico

Apache scouts drilling with rifles, Fort Wingate, New Mexico


With the death of Cochise in 1874, the Chiricahua no longer had a overall leader that commanded the respect and allegiance of the four major bands and smaller groups within them. From this time forward, the leadership of the various Chiricahua bands was decentralized, with a number of chiefs emerging to lead various bands and family groups.

In 1874 the Tularosa Reservation was closed and the resident Chihene Chiricahua were transferred to the Ojo Caliente Reservation.

apache history

Apache prisoners at Fort Bowie, Arizona, 1884

In 1876, the Chircahua Reservation at Ft. Bowie in Southeast Arizona Territory closed. As had happened with the Gila Reservation at St. Lucia Springs in New Mexico Territory 11 years earlier (see Part 1, February 2013), once again Anglo mining and agricultural interests trumped Chiricahua desire to remain in their homeland. Reportedly, less than half of the Chiricahuas moved to the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, were they were forced to live with other Apache bands, friend and foe alike, on the Gila River in north-central Arizona Territory. The other half dispersed into New Mexico and Mexico, some going to the Ojo Caliente Reservation in New Mexico, others preferring a last attempt to live free following their traditional lifestyle. Life was to become extremely difficult for those Chiricahua sent to the San Carlos Reservation, where many were soon to die of infectious diseases such as malaria, then rampant in the Gila River lowlands. For those choosing to live free, a life of 10 years of conflict and life on the run had begun.

Because of increasing discontent with reservation conditions and government policy, plus innate cultural inability to adapt to the forced agriculturally-based lifestyle, it wasn’t long before various factions soon began departing the reservation to live free and resume their raids throughout Arizona and New Mexico Territories and Mexico. Military operations to capture, subdue, or eliminate the rampaging renegades once again became a way of life on the frontier until Geronimo’s final surrender and capture in 1886. During this time numerous new leaders of the Chiricahua emerged, some preferring the path of peace, others the path of war. Naiche (son of Cochise), Mangas (son of Mangas Coloradas), Victorio, Chihuahua, Ulzana, and Geronimo are some of the more influential Chiricahua leaders to shape the course of events during this time.

On September 4,1886, Geronimo surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles of the U.S. Army at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona. Except for a few holdouts, the Anglo-American “Chiricahua problem” had come to an end. But for the Chiricahua, their problem of 27 years of incarceration as Prisoners of War in Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma was just beginning.

Apache chief Geronimo (right) and his warriors in 1886, from left: Yanozha (Geronimo's brother-in-law), Chappo (Geronimo's son of 2nd wife), and Fun (Yanozha's half brother)

Apache chief Geronimo (right) and his warriors in 1886, from left: Yanozha (Geronimo’s brother-in-law), Chappo (Geronimo’s son of 2nd wife), and Fun (Yanozha’s half brother)

Apaches at rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway

Band of Apache prisoners at rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway, near Nueces River, Texas, Sept. 10, 1886. Among those on their way to exile in Florida are Natchez (Naiche, son of Cochise), center front, and to the right, Geronimo and his son in matching shirts.


Circular pit with stacked rock walls in background.

Circular pit with stacked rock walls in background.

It was late in the year of 2012 that the Casitas obtained their own copy of Edwin Sweeney’s excellent book: From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886. The book had come out earlier that year and one of our guests had recommended it to us. Sweeney is a meticulous historian and writer, searching deeply for the facts and the “true story”. There are many, many books that have been written on the Apaches, which range from extreme fiction to highly-researched fact. Sweeney’s three books on the Apaches (Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, and Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief are the other two) fall into the latter category. They are definitely not what might be called “light reading”. However, for the person who wants to know what really happened during this fascinating period of Southwest history, and who appreciates a comprehensive narrative presented from a neutral perspective, these books are the definitive choice.

So, it came to pass one cold winter night, when my reading of Sweeney’s tome had progressed to the concluding chapters, that the reportage of a series of events occurring in early 1885 caught my eye, and with it the triggering of a series of “hmms” and “ahas”, as our 2010 discoveries in Hidden Valley fell into place.


Sometime during the evening of May 17, 1885, 134 Chiricahua, including 34 men (including 4 reservation scouts), 8 teenage boys, and 92 women and children fled the reservation a few miles east of Ft. Apache in north-central Arizona. Leading the exodus were the Apache Chiefs Geronimo, Mangas, Naiche, Chihuahua, and Nana. Instigated largely by Geronimo and Mangas, the uprising resulted of the Chiricahua leaders’ fear and anxiety over having broken reservation rules and regulations and the punishment that they would likely face. Initially, the group fled east towards the Black Range in New Mexico, with Mangas in command. Pursued by the U.S. Troops and Apache Scouts, the fleeing Chiricahuas soon reached the Mogollon Mountains where they split into two groups.

With Federal Troups and Apache Scouts close on their trail for most of their journey, Geronimo and Mangas and their followers crossed the Black Range, then went south past Fort Cummings. From there they headed southwest to Tres Hermanas Peaks south of Deming, where on May 29, they crossed safely into Mexicio near Palomas Lake.

Geronimo (left) and Naiche (right) on horseback. Geronimo's son standing beside him.

Geronimo (left) and Naiche (right) on horseback. Geronimo’s son standing beside him.

Meanwhile, the other group led by Chihuahua and Naiche, having been successful in eluding the military, stayed in the northern Mogollons until about May 24, at which time they, too, began their flight towards Mexico. On May 26, Chiricahua raiding parties were reported attacking ranches along Mogollon Creek at the head of Sacaton Mesa about 15 miles northwest of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. A day later, on May 27, Chief Chihuahua led most of the party, including the women and children, to the Gila River near Cliff, just 5 miles west of the Casitas. Once across the river, they then headed for the safe corridor of rugged Bear Creek Canyon which empties into the Gila River Valley at that point from the east. After a hurried crossing of 6 miles of open and dangerously-exposed country, they knew the canyon walls would soon begin to close in. Within an hour’s travel they could relax somewhat as they entered the dense forest of cottonwood and sycamore beneath the conglomerate cliffs and towering volcanic promontory of Turtle Rock across from the Casitas. Once past Turtle Rock, and another 9 more miles up Bear Creek, they soon arrived at Juniper Springs, about 10 miles northwest of Silver City. Here they would wait for the return of Chiefs Naiche and Ulzana and a small raiding party who, once across the Gila, had headed south to try and secure horses to speed up the pace of the group’s travel. Evidence for this is verified by accounts given by ranchers living in the Mangas Valley at the time who reported seeing a group of 8 Apaches around 8 AM on May 27th. By mid-afternoon Naiche and the raiding party had joined up with the others at Juniper Springs.

So, there it was … a documented explanation for the rock walls and rifle pit on the ridge above Hidden Valley! Probably constructed between May 26 and May 27, 1885, these structures were most likely a rear guard observation post to watch for pursuing military, and if necessary, provide diversionary protection to give additional escape time for the main group as they fled up Bear Creek Canyon. Indeed, it was the perfect place. From this hilltop position, the rear guard had a clear, unobstructed view of the first 6 miles of the Bear Creek drainage leading from the Gila River to where the canyon walls began to close in. Just a few warriors behind these low rock walls and rifle pit could hold off a large detail of pursuing military for hours, before retreating and diverting their pursuers into the extremely rugged YL Canyon country that the Chiricahua knew all too well, which lay immediately to the east behind Hidden Valley.


Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are ideally situated as a base of exploration for visiting several locations where key events or confrontations occurred between the Chiricahua and the newly arrived prospectors, miners, and settlers. All of the sites listed below can be visited on a day-trip basis. Casitas de Gila will gladly provide maps, directions, and details for those guests who wish to pursue first-hand these and other localities and the stories that surround them. Most of these sites are in exceptionally beautiful terrain on public lands, ideal for hiking, a nice afternoon picnic, or just a quiet interlude in pristine Nature.


Cooney's Tomb, New Mexico

Cooney’s Tomb, Mineral Creek Road near FT 701 trailhead

Site of the Alma Massacre by Chihene Chief Victorio and his warriors on April 28, 1880. Mineral Creek is a great place to spend a full-day hiking and reliving the pioneer and mining history of this area in a spectacular, rugged, pristine mountainous environment. The day’s outing begins with a six-mile drive up Mineral Creek Road from Alma and a stop beside the road to visit Cooney’s Tomb and the small pioneer cemetery behind it. Here, Sgt. James Cooney and other miners were interred following the Alma Massacre. After leaving Cooney’s Tomb, the road continues another half-mile to dead-end at the Forest 701 Trailhead. This easy to moderately difficult trail follows the course of Mineral Creek through a narrow slot canyon bordered on each side by towering shear cliffs of brightly colored volcanic rocks. Within the first two miles of the trail one will see the remnants of the old mining camp of Cooney which was active from 1875 until about 1900, when most of the mining activity shifted a couple of miles south where larger and richer veins of ore were found, giving birth to the historic boom town of Mogollon. Cooney’s mine itself, where the initial battle of Victorio’s Raid took place, lies about two miles up the creek. To sit quietly amongst the ruins at the old Cooney Mine and reflect on the events that took place here one fateful afternoon some 128 years ago, just as the miners were quitting for the day, is an experience never to be forgotten, as the late afternoon sun begins to shadow the rocky cliffs above, and the soft murmuring of the creek and the wind in pines are the only sounds to be heard.


Soldier Hill, New Mexico

Possible site of massacre at top of Soldier Hill, looking east down road towards the Mogollon Mountains

Site of the ambush of Lt. Samuel W. Fountain, 1 officer, a surgeon, 19 cavalry men, 10 Navajo scouts, and 2 civilian scouts by Chokonon Chief Ulzana and 9 warriors on December 19, 1885. Soldier Hill is located within the Gila National Forest, a half mile west of US 180, 4.5 miles north of the US 180–NM 78 junction, and about a mile north of the Aldo Leopold Gila Wilderness Overlook. This site is easily visited and offers the opportunity of a short hike, following the trace of the old road that Fountain and his men rode into the unsuspected ambush early on the morning of December 19, 1885. The top of Soldier Hill is a great place for a picnic lunch, offering a magnificent panorama of the Mogollon Mountains to the east and views down Little Dry Creek and the mountains to the west. An interesting hike is available from Soldier Hill by following the course of Little Dry Creek towards its confluence with Big Dry Creek and eventually the San Francisco River, passing through deeply-incised canyons with spectacular volcanic rock formations and lined with magnificent old-growth sycamore.

Important Notice: Because of the potential danger of flash floods in the canyons, this hike should only be attempted during dry seasons, and even then, only after inquiring locally as to conditions prevailing at the time of visit.


Old Apache Trail New Mexico

Looking east down Geronimo Draw towards Arizona on the Old Apache Trail

A major trail in the Burro Mountains used by the Chiricahua Apache when traveling from the desert lowlands of Southeastern Arizona to the high country of the Mogollon Mountains. Portions of this trail followed closely along what is now Brushy Mountain Road, a 16-mile county-maintained road leading south from the community of Mule Creek into the Gila National Forest. This road provides a very scenic motor tour which begins in the rolling hills of grass-covered ranch lands of Mule Creek Country, dotted with juniper, oak and pinon, before passing into more heavily forested reaches of the northern Burro Mountains, where one has access to unlimited rough country hiking in the Gila National Forest.


High mountain heartland and safe haven of the Bedonkehe and Chihene Chiricahua. Here one can visit Geronimo’s birthplace at the headwaters of the Gila River, and seek out the location of numerous skirmishes, battles, and military expeditions. The Chiricahua knew the Mogollons and Gila Wilderness intimately, traversing the deep canyons of the Gila River and its tributaries and sky-high ridge-top trails for generations. To the Chiricahua, this lofty mountain wilderness was cherished as a dependable source of food, water, medicine, and a spiritual sanctuary. Many of the trails that one hikes today in the Gila follow these old Indian trails, and one can be sure that all of the various hot springs that are sought out and enjoyed by visitors today were a well-known and favorite stopover for the Chiricahua whenever they were passing through.


Casitas de Gila view

View from top of Paradise Overlook Trail at Casitas de Gila, overlooking northern half of proposed Gila Preserve Chiricahua Apache Reservation

Set aside by Congress in 1860, the Gila Preserve Reservation was to encompass a 15-mile square area or 144,000 acres, with its SE corner near Mangas Springs, about 15 miles northwest of Silver City. Because of the commencement of the American Civil War in 1861, the reservation never materialized, and the land was returned to public land status following the termination of the War. All of the land along U.S.180 between today’s communities of Mangas and Buckhorn, plus the entire Gila River Valley between the Burro Mountains on the west and the foothills of the Piños Altos and Mogollon Mountains to the east, including the present-day communities of Cliff and Gila, would have been part of this reservation. Guests at Casitas de Gila can obtain a birdseye view of a major portion of the land that this reservation would have encompassed by climbing to the top of the Casitas’ Paradise Overlook Trail.


Ft. Bayard, New Mexico

Sculpture of Corporal Clinton Greaves

Frontier U.S. Army post established in 1866 to protect the early miners and pioneer settlers in what is now Grant and Catron Counties, as well as transportation routes through Southern New Mexico. Historic Fort Bayard is located near the village of Santa Clara about 7 miles east of Silver City, and a mile north of US 180. In 1869 the post was expanded to include 15 square miles of land to be known as the Fort Bayard Military Reservation. During the Apache Wars, members of the racially segregated units of the U.S. Army, known as the “Buffalo Soldiers” by the Apaches who fought them, served with distinction at Fort Bayard for many years. After the capture of Geronimo in 1886, the Fort was selected to become an Army tuberculosis hospital and research center, and later served in numerous capacities. Today Fort Bayard is a great place to spend part of a day, touring the National Cemetery, the old parade ground, and numerous old buildings. The Fort Bayard Preservation Historical Society is very active in preserving this historic installation and provides tours several times each month.

Corporal Clinton Greaves (photo right), Company C, 9th U.S. Cavalry, the “Buffalo Soldiers”, was awarded the Congressional medal of honor for his heroism in saving 6 soldiers and 3 Navajo Scouts from attack by 40 to 50 Chiricahua in the Florida Mountains near Deming on June 26, 1877.

Ft. Bayard New Mexico

Officers Row, today. New quarters built circa 1910.


narrow gauge railroad new mexico

A narrow gauge railroad to the mines at Piños Altos, in the Gila National Forest, circa early 1900s.

Historic mining camp dating from 1860 when placer gold was discovered in Bear Creek. Substantial deposits of hard-rock gold and silver were also mined in Piños Altos until after the turn of the century. The town was the scene of several raids and battles between the Chiricahua and the miners, with the greatest battle occurring on September 27, 1861 when a large force of Chiricahua under the combined leadership of Chiefs Mangas Coloradas and Cochise attacked the town, with heavy losses on both sides. Today many of the old buildings remain, including an old log cabin dating from c1860s that has been in the Schafer family for over 130 years, and which now houses the unique Piños Altos Historical Museum filled with memorabilia from the early days of the town.


The Apaches had mined veins of pure copper at what was to become the town of Santa Rita del Cobre, near the present day town of Bayard, and some 15 miles east of Silver City, for an unknown number of years before the Spanish began mining there in 1800. Chiricahua raids upon the mines started soon after and continued sporadically, off and on, nearly until Geronimo’s surrender in 1886. Eventually the little town of Santa Rita disappeared, literally into thin air, as the huge open-pit mining operation, which still continues today under the ownership of Freeport-MacMoran Copper and Gold, consumed the land on which the town was built. Still increasing in size, this immense pit can be easily viewed today from a dedicated roadside overlook on NM 152, about 12 miles east of Silver City. The Santa Rita del Cobre Mine of the 1800s would have been at ground level somewhere around the middle of the vast open pit in the photo below. Each of the benches on the far side of the pit are 50 feet deep. The depth of the pit is now in excess of a quarter of a mile.

Santa Rita, New Mexico

Santa Rita in 1919, with mine in background

Chino Mine in 2000

Chino Mine in 2000



    1. Edwin R. Sweeney, 1995, Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief, University of Oklahoma Press
    2. Edwin R. Sweeney, 2011, Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, University of Oklahoma Press
    3. Edwin R. Sweeney, 2012, From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886, University of Oklahoma Press
    4. Eve Ball, 1988, Indeh: An Apache Odyssey, with New Maps, University of Oklahoma Press
    5. David Roberts, 1994, Once They Moved Like the Wind, Touchstone
    6. Geronimo and S.M. Barrett, 1906, 2005, Geronimo: My Life (Native American), Dover Publications. Geronimo’s autobiography as told in his own words to author S.M. Barrett while he was a Prisoner of War at Fort Sill, Oklahoma
    7. Robert M. Utley, 2012, Geronimo, Yale University Press


Ulzana’s Raid, 1972, MCA/Universal Pictures, starring Burt Lancaster. This is an interesting film, with considerable accurate detail, and a fictionalized plot involving the Chokonen Chief Ulzana and a small number of warriors who flee the San Carlos Reservation and go on the war path. Filmed on location in Arizona.

Desert Exposure article about “Ulzana’s Raid”
Some interesting commentary on “Ulzana’s Raid”
Watch “Ulzana’s Raid” on YouTube!


Posted in Apaches, hiking, history | Tagged , , | 1 Comment




Apache rancheria with two men holding rifles

The cultural history of the Spanish and the later Anglo-American incursion and settlement of Southern New Mexico, Southern Arizona and the Northern Mexican States of Chihuahua and Sonora between the late 1600s and 1886 is inseparably linked and intertwined with that of the indigenous Native American Apache. At its core, this history has a common theme, one repeated countless times since the first European contact with New World in 1492. The theme, of course, is the familiar pattern of discovery, expansion, and exploitation, followed by conflict, defeat, and, ultimately, the domination, assimilation, or elimination of one culture by another.

However, unlike in much of the United States, where ever-expanding development and population has largely obliterated the scene of these events, the cultural history of Southwest New Mexico is still readily visible and waiting to be experienced first-hand by any visitors who find it of interest. The reason for this is two-fold: one, over half of the vast desert and mountainous landscape of Southwest New Mexico remains in Federal and State ownership, open to the public and essentially untouched by development; and two, most remaining private land of this area exists as undeveloped ranch land, little changed since territorial days. Consequently, for the person who enjoys being an up-close-and-personal witness to history, in the same environment of where, when, and how this epic cultural clash occurred, the trails and tales of the Southwestern New Mexico frontier are there for the reliving.

Situated on the edge of the Gila Wilderness, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is located essentially in the heart of the homeland of the Chiricahua Apache. No matter where you hike or which natural attractions you visit while staying at the Casitas, you will come across sites where Chiricahua and Anglo-American or Mexican cultures collided during the 1800s.

Countless books and numerous films and documentaries have recorded this pageant of Southwest history, ranging from the mostly-fictional to the carefully-researched, factual accounts. A few of the more factual references are listed at the end of this blog, plus a favorite movie, which will provide the would-be traveller and explorer of Southwest New Mexico with an exciting preview of what can be experienced here. Of particular importance, and highly recommended, are the three volumes on the Chiricahua by historian and writer Edwin R. Sweeney, whose meticulous research and writing has provided much of the detailed information in this blog.


"Painting American Progress" by John Gast

“Painting American Progress” by John Gast (circa 1872). This painting illustrates the belief held in the 19th Century that American settlers were destined to expand across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (click all photos for larger image)

With the signing of the Treaty of Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, ending the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, the United States was ceded vast areas of Mexico through the Mexican Cession, consisting of all of the present-day states of California, Nevada, most of Arizona, half of New Mexico, and portions of Colorado and Wyoming. Five years later, on December 30, 1853, the Gadsden Purchase was signed, in which the United States purchased from Mexico the remaining portions of what are now Arizona and New Mexico along their southern borders with Mexico. The American Southwest was now complete, and with it, or so its proponents thought, the widely-held belief in the Manifest Destiny of America’s westward expansion could now progress unthwarted and unrestrained. Unfortunately, there was still one remaining “problem”; a problem which would thwart, restrain, and shape the unfolding destiny of the American Southwest for the next 30 years … This problem was the Chiricahua Apache.

map of Mexican Cession

Map showing the Mexican Cession of 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853

The question of just when the Native American culture known as the Apache migrated into the American Southwest from their northern origins is still open. Some scholars say the late 1500s; others say they were already living in New Mexico and Arizona in the 1400s. A chronicler with the Coronado Expedition of 1540-42 called what was to become Southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico the “desplobado”, or uninhabited land, reporting only long abandoned stone and adobe pueblo sites of habitation, which today we know were occupied by the Ancient Pueblo culture and vacated about a 100 years before Coronado passed through. Whether or not the Apache were present in the area at the time of Coronado is also an open question. However, there is no disagreement that it was the Apaches who were the dominant and controlling human presence within the vast, largely unpopulated desert and mountainous landscape of Southwestern New Mexico, Southeastern Arizona, and the northern half of the Mexican States of Sonora and Chihuahua by the 1700s and early 1800s. This was the homeland of the semi-nomadic Chiricahua Apache, a land often referred to as Apacheria.

territories of the four Chiricahua bands in

Generalized Territories of the Four Chiricahua Bands

The Chiricahua Apache consisted of four main bands: the Bedonkohe, the Chihene, the Chokonen, and the Nednhi. These bands were loosely affiliated, intermarried, and lived for the most part in separate but adjoining areas of what is now Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. This vast area can be roughly divided into four geographic quadrants delineated by the modern day features of an east-west line along Interstate I-10 in Arizona and New Mexico, and a north-south line consisting of U.S. Highway 180 in New Mexico and its extension south of the U.S. Border along the Sonora and Chihuahua state line in Mexico. Using these geographic landmarks, the Bedonkohe would be found living in the northwest quadrant (north of I-10 and west of US 180), the Chihene would be in the northeast quadrant (north of I-10 and east of US 180), the Chokonen would be in the southwest quadrant (south of I-10 and west of US 180 and the Sonora-Chihuahua state line), and the Nednhi would be in the southeast quadrant (south of I-10 and east of US 180 and the Sonora-Chihuahua state line).


territorial map of Mexico in 1824

Territorial Map of Mexico in 1824

Beginning in the 1600s and continuing until the mid-1800s, the Chiricahua were at war with the expanding Spanish presence in what was first a part of northern New Spain and later Mexico, after Mexican independence in 1821. This period was an on-going, tumultuous, and chaotic time in this vast desert and mountain landscape, encompassing what is now Sonora and Chihuahua States and the northern province of New Spain and Mexico, known at the time as Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico, which eventually became New Mexico and Arizona in the United States.

"Renegade Apaches" by Henry Farny

“Renegade Apaches” by Henry Farny, oil on canvas, 1892, Cincinnati Art Museum

To the Apache mind, this land was theirs by heritage, given to them by their Creator, Ussen. While initially the Spanish incursion was tolerated, it was only a matter of time before conflicts arose because of the proliferation and expansion of Spanish agricultural and mining settlements and the Chiricahua began their enduring campaign to drive the settlers out. Year after year, decade upon decade, Chiricahua raids upon the expanding towns, villages, ranches, mines, and commerce to take cattle, horses, property, and human life were merciless and unrelenting. In return, these raids would, of course, instigate coordinated military reprisals by Mexican authorities against the Chiricahua. Attack, revenge, and counter attack were a perpetual way of life. Periodically, however, the conflicts would cease temporarily in local areas when treaties would be made between the Mexican government or local authorities and the Chiricahua. Typically, these treaties would involve an arrangement in which the Chiricahua would agree to live in peace near the settlements in return for rations of food and clothing. Virtually all of these peace treaties were of short duration, ending abruptly with some facet of the treaty being broken and both parties returning to the next cycle of attacks and retaliation. And so it went for over 200 years!


Santa Rita, NM

Santa Rita, New Mexico, in 1919 with mine in the background

Up until the early 1800s most of the conflict was confined to the provinces of Sonora and Chihuahua, with the Chiricahua often retiring to safe havens in New Mexico and Arizona Territories between depredations south of the Border. Perhaps one of the more significant developments during this time concerned the Chiricahua’s relationship with owners of the Santa Rita del Cobre Mine (Saint Rita of the Copper), at what is now the Chino Mine (Chinaman Mine) at Bayard, New Mexico, located 15 miles east of Silver City, and operated today by Freeport-MacMoRan Copper and Gold Company.

Chino Mine in 2000

The Chino Mine in 2000. The town of Santa Rita of the 1800s would have been at ground level somewhere around the middle of this vast open pit. Each of the benches on the far side of the pit are 50 feet. The depth of the pit is now in excess of a quarter mile.

The history of the Santa Rita del Cobre mine is long and fascinating. The story begins in the year 1800, when an Apache Indian showed Spanish officer Lt. Colonel Jose Manuel Carrasco the site where the Apaches had been mining pure veins of native copper for many years. Lacking knowledge in mining, Carrasco sold the mine, which he had named Santa Rita del Cobre, to Francisco Manuel de Elguead in1804, who mined the deposit with convict labor. Many thousands of tons of pure copper were extracted from these early workings. The ore was then transported by mule train to Chihuahua, where it was made into coinage. During the 1820s and 1830s the mine was managed by Americans Sylvester Pattie, James Kirker, and Robert McKnight. While Elguead had many problems early on with Chiricahua raids and had to build a fort or presidio to protect his men, these problems disappeared when the Americans came into management. According to a number of reports from the times, it seems that Kirker came up with the idea of selling the Chiricahua rifles, ammunition, and whiskey in return for livestock taken during their raids in Sonora and Chihuahua! Kirker’s support for the Chiricahua campaign seems to have gone significantly further in that contemporary reports indicate his able-bodied presence and participation in some of the Chiricahua raids in Mexico.


photo of James Kirker

James Kirker, Irish American, “pirate, soldier, mercenary, merchant, scalp hunter, and Opportunist Extraordinaire of the Old West.” (Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly, 1847 Missouri History Museum Archives)

In most cases the Mexican military forces proved ineffectual in dealing with the lightening-swift depredations of the Chiricahua, with the result that local militias were set up within towns and communities, encouraged and aided by the legislature of Sonora, which in 1835 established a bounty for each Apache scalp turned in. For the Mexican government these were desperate times; if the Chiricahua could not be turned to peace by force, then complete extermination would be pursued. By December 1839, raids in Chihuahua had become so bad that a private army of mercenaries was set up, to be funded by a tax on local businesses. The mission of this army was brief and stark: hunt down and kill or capture all Apaches possible. Contracted by the Chihuahuan government, who in 1837 had also enacted a law offering a bounty on Apache scalps, this army consisted mainly of American traders and trappers, Mexicans, escaped black slaves, and a number of Delaware and Shawnee Indians, and was led by none other than the same previously-mentioned, Irish-American mine manager, entrepreneur, and opportunist extraordinaire: James Kirker.

Kirker’s operations against the Apache were initially not that effective, and if anything, served to increase the number of Apache raids. At one point his contract was retracted, but renewed in 1846. It was on July 7th of that year that the Massacre at Galeana, Chihuahua, took place. Under the protection of a treaty, a large group of peaceful Apache men, women and children, mostly Chokonens and Nednhis, were invited to a feast. Reportedly, great quantities of mescal (a potent alcoholic drink made from the agave plant) and whiskey were provided to the Chiricahua guests. According to Chiricahua accounts, by the morning of the next day most of their people were in a drunken stupor, at which time Kirker’s men, aided by local Mexicans, slaughtered 130 of them, taking their scalps for bounty, which were reportedly then put on display in Chihuahua City. This horrific event would live in the Apache mind forever, and served to inflame Apache distrust, hostility, and hatred for all Mexicans in general, and soon Anglo-Americans as well, resulting in wars of vengeance for years to come, not only in Mexico but throughout the vast New Mexico Territory as well.


With the end of the Mexican-American War and the enactment of the Mexican Cession and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, the floodgates were now opened for expanded Anglo-American presence and settlement in the New Mexico and Arizona territories. Major deposits of gold and silver were soon found in what is now Southwest New Mexico. These would eventually develop into several prosperous mining districts located in Grant and Catron Counties in Southwestern New Mexico. With the discovery and development of these mineral deposits, the safe-haven of the Heartland of Apacheria was to be forever changed as wave after wave of prospectors, ranchers, and settlers poured into the area.

Gold Prospector c1850

Gold prospector pouring water through his rocker box Piños Altos, New Mexico

In May 1860, a significant gold deposit was discovered in what was to become Grant County at the headwaters of Bear Creek in southwestern New Mexico Territory, some 20 miles upstream from Casitas de Gila. This deposit was discovered by three prospectors: Henry Burch, Jacob Snively, and James W. Hicks. They made the discovery while panning their first shovelful of dirt from a tributary of the Gila River which Snively named Bear Creek. Word of the discovery spread quickly and prospectors flocked to the area. By September of that year in a letter to the Mesilla Times published on October 25, Snively reported that between 500 and 1000 men were prospecting and engaged in mining in the surrounding area, both in placer and hard rock deposits. By the 1880s and 1890s, the Piños Altos Mining district had become a bustling boom town.

In 1870, a large deposit of silver was discovered near the old Spanish settlement of San Vincente de Cienega (Saint Vincent of the Marsh), about 7 miles southwest of Pinos Altos, and 25 miles south of Casitas de Gila. This silver discovery led to the founding of Silver City in the same year. Over time, Silver City became the commercial hub for all mining activity throughout the area.

By the late 1860s, 70s, and 80s, gold, silver, copper, and other minerals were being mined extensively throughout the north-south chain of the Burro Mountains, which lie about 10 miles west of Casitas de Gila.

Cooney Mine, New Mexico

Old steam boiler at Cooney’s Mine on Mineral Creek

With the discovery of gold and silver on Mineral Creek, in what is now Catron County, by Sergeant James C. Cooney in 1870, the gold rush was also on in the Mogollon Mountains, about 35 miles north of the Casitas. By the 1880s some 300-400 souls were mining the rich veins surrounding Cooney Camp. In time it was found that the veins extended to the south into the next drainage of Silver Creek, where eventually the mining town of Mogollon was established in 1889. The veins were larger and richer here, to the extent that by the early 1900s Mogollon boasted a population of 6,000 to 8,000 people seeking their fortune from the mines.

Mogollon, New Mexico, 1940

Main Street of Mogollon, New Mexico, May 1940


During the Mexican-American war the Chiricahua allowed the U.S. Army safe passage through what was to become Southwest New Mexico to fight the Mexicans, ascribing to the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. With the close of the war and the acquisition of the Mexican Cession in 1848, a peace treaty was signed between the U.S. and the Chiricahua, but shortly broke down as inevitable conflicts broke out between the Chiricahua and some of the thousands of prospectors, miners, and settlers. In 1851 the great Chihene Chiricahua Chief Mangas Coloradas was allegedly attacked by a group of miners near Pinos Altos, tied to a tree and severely flogged. Numerous subsequent violations of the treaty resulted in the inevitable Chiricahua reprisals. One particularly egregious event occurred in December 1860, when 30 miners conducted a surprise attack on a group of Chihene Chiricahua east of Pinos Altos, killing 4 and capturing 13 others. Then, on January 27, 1861, the infamous Bascom Affair occurred in which the great Chokonan Chief Cochise and members of his family were captured at Apache Pass in the Chiricahua Mountains under duplicitous circumstances by Lt. George Bascom and a large force of of U.S. Infantry. Cochise escaped, but in subsequent days Cochise’s brother and two nephews were hanged by Bascom’s forces. It was this event that precipitated the following 12 years of Cochise’s War. It was also shortly after the Bascom Affair that Mangas Coloradas declared war on the Americans himself, joining forces with his son-in-law Cochise.


map of proposed Gila Preserve Reservation

Map of Proposed Gila Preserve Reservation

In 1849, 31-year-old Dr. Michael Steck went to New Mexico as a contract surgeon with the U.S. Army. In 1854 he was appointed Indian Agent for the Southern Apaches, as they were called at the time, who would now be considered primarily Chiricahua. Steck set up his agency near Ft. Thorn, a settlement and army outpost on the Rio Grande, near the present-day town of Hatch, NM. Unlike many of the Indian Agents appointed in these early days of the Southwest, Steck was an honest, hard-working official sincerely dedicated to his two-fold mission of looking after the well-being of the Apache and maintaining the peace between the Apache and the increasing influx of miners and settlers to the area. Responding to the mood and policy of the U.S. Government at the time, in 1859 Steck suggested the establishment of a reservation to which the Gila Apaches, including the Mogollon and Mimbres bands of the tribe (today considered the Bedonkohe and Chihene bands) would be moved. The reservation would comprise 225 square miles, or 144,000 acres of land, 20 miles or so northwest of Silver City. The proposed reservation would commence at the Southeast Corner at Santa Lucia Springs, and run North 15 miles; then West 15 miles; then South 15 miles; then East 15 miles to the place of beginning. Santa Lucia Springs is now known as Mangas Springs or Mangus, in a fertile valley located along U.S. Highway 180 just 8-1/2 miles south of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.

photo of Mangas c1884

Mangas, 1884, son of the great Chiricahua Bekonkohe Chief Mangas Coloradas. There are no known photos of Mangas Coloradas.

During the days of Mangas Coloradas, a Bedonkohe Apache by birth but also a highly-influential leader to the Chihenne in his lifetime, Santa Lucia Springs is reported to have been a favorite place for large tribal gatherings of both Bedonkohe and Chihene. It is one of the few places in the area where copious amounts of water spring from the ground over a large area within a large, extremely fertile valley. These springs are dependable on a year-round basis, even during periods of extended drought.

Steck’s proposal for the reservation was approved by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Indian Affairs on May 14, 1860, thereby creating the Gila Preserve Indian Reservation. With this approval, the land proposed by Steck was removed from public domain status by the General Land Office, which meant that the land would not be available for settlement under the Homestead Act or other subsequent use.

But it was not to be.

Mangas Springs Valley

Looking North at Mangas Springs Valley from possible SE corner marker of Gila Preserve Reservation

Mangas Springs Valley

Abundant water springs from the Earth at Mangas Springs, even during drought years

Before plans for the Gila Reserve could be implemented in 1861, the War Between the States broke out, and by the time it was over, plans for the reservation were abandoned and the land returned to public domain status. The reason, of course, was one that would be given frequently throughout the settlement of the West. Quite simply, by the end of the Civil War, the Mangas valley with its perennial source of water was considered much too valuable as agricultural land for an Indian reservation, plus the surrounding mountains had already proven great potential for gold, silver, copper, and other minerals.


Pinos Altos Range in the Gila Wilderness

Looking north from Hooker Loop, at the turn-off to Casitas de Gla Guesthouses. All the land in this photo was part of the NE corner of the proposed Gila Preserve Reservation. This land would later become part of the vast Hooker Ranch.

All of the land on which Casitas de Gila is situated, as well as all of the land that can be seen from the Casitas, was at one time part of a huge ranch put together over several generations by the pioneer Hooker Family. The first Hooker family in the area arrived in Silver City on New Year’s Day 1877 and later settled on the Gila River at the mouth of Bear Creek.

While we were constructing the Casitas in 1999, we were told several interesting stories about the history of the Hooker ranch and the Gila area by members of local families who had lived here all of their lives. One of the stories concerned a reservation for the Apaches that was to have encompassed all of Gila Valley, the communities of Gila, Cliff, and Buckhorn, as well as a large part of the old Hooker Ranch up on Bear Creek, but had never materialized. At the time we found the story interesting, but thought little more about it until a couple of years ago when we found a reference to the proposed Gila Preserve Reservation in “Cochise, Chiricahua Apache Chief” by Edwin R. Sweeney. We began researching the Gila Preserve, and eventually through the personal research of Ronald Henderson, a local historian and writer, were able to locate what is thought to be the point of beginning for the proposed reservation. After plotting out the reservation it became clear that all of the land on which Casitas de Gila is located would have indeed been within the northeast corner of the Gila Preserve Reservation boundary.

Turtle Rock

Apache Corral, now known as Turtle Rock, from in front of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses

There is little doubt that the entire Bear Creek drainage was a favorite place for both the nomadic Chiricahua Apache, as well as for the earlier Mogollon Culture who farmed and built pit houses and sometimes cliff houses along its length. For the Bedonkohe Apache, it was a much used and loved part of their homeland territory and one that could be counted on for providing dependable water, abundant game, useful plants, a sheltered east-west corridor for rapid travel, and when necessary, a safe haven. Another of the stories locals told us concerns the jagged cliff-rimmed volcanic rock promontory that rises abruptly from the east side of Bear Creek and dominates the foreground as one looks north along the Creek from the front of the Casitas towards the mountainous ramparts of the Gila Wilderness mountains five miles distant. This spectacular erosional rocky remnant is now commonly known as “Turtle Rock”. However, some of the older ranchers recall when it was referred to as “Apache Corral”, a name surviving from earliest pioneer times when the high promontory provided an easily defended, natural fortress where older members, women and children of the tribe could be safely left when the able-bodied were conducting raids or war on their enemies.

Sitting here at the Casitas we sometimes contemplate how had it not been for the critical timing of the Civil War, all of the unfolding pageant of subsequent history within the greater Gila Valley area, from the days of the pioneers to modern times, including Casitas de Gila and all the guests that visit here, might never have never transpired, as this land would have remained forever the Gila Preserve Reservation for the Chiricahua Apache.

To Be Continued next month . . .


    1. Edwin R. Sweeney, 1995, Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief, University of Oklahoma Press
    2. Edwin R. Sweeney, 2011, Mangas Coloradas: Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, University of Oklahoma Press
    3. Edwin R. Sweeney, 2012, From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886, University of Oklahoma Press
    4. Eve Ball, 1988, Indeh: An Apache Odyssey, with New Maps, University of Oklahoma Press
    5. David Roberts, 1994, Once They Moved Like the Wind, Touchstone
    6. Geronimo and S.M. Barrett, 1906, 2005, Geronimo: My Life (Native American), Dover Publications. Geronimo’s autobiography as told in his own words to author S.M. Barrett while he was a Prisoner of War at Fort Sill, Oklahoma
    7. Robert M. Utley, 2012, Geronimo, Yale University Press

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Gems & Fossils

Recently we made our 12th annual pilgrimage to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, an event that never ceases to amaze us! (And exhaust us!) Our primary reason for attending is so that Becky can purchase the semi-precious stones and beads she needs to create her unique jewelry, which is available for purchase in the Art Gallery at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses and also online at (See our blog entry of February 2011 for background information on the show and on Southwest Turquoise.)

In the two days we spend in Tucson, we can only manage to work our way through three tents of precious and semi-precious stones and beads and merchandise, all of it offered to the wholesale trade. But we also manage, after a quick breakfast the second morning, to check out a few fossils in the tents along I-10 before the main shows open at 10 AM.

A click on the photo will give you a larger version, so you can really see the gems!

semi-precious gemstones and beads

Trays and trays and walls full of every kind of precious and semi-precious stone imaginable!

tucson gem and mineral show

Every color under the sun …

semi-precious gemstones

Trays and trays of loose gemstones!

handcrafted artisan jewelry

All those loose stones and Becky’s creativity equals great handcrafted jewelry!

Michael, being a geologist, loves rocks, and loves to look at the incredible collection of fossils for sale at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Like the gems, rocks and minerals portion of the Tucson Show, various venues have extensive presentations of fossils, ranging from microscopic insects in amber from the Baltic Sea area to large crocodile skulls from Morocco. In recent years, fossils from Morocco have become very abundant at the Tucson Show. Most common are marine invertebrate fossils, such as trilobites, ammonites, and crinoids, which can be anywhere from 500 million years (Cambrian Period) to 65 million years (Cretaceous Period) old, depending on the species and rock strata in which they occur. For the collector of fossils, whether professional or amateur, the volume, number and varieties of species available for purchase is simply amazing. But, as is also the case when purchasing gems and jewelry at the show, one needs to be cautious when purchasing fossils, as one will soon find that certain specimens may not be entirely authentic, having been “modified”, “restored”, or “reconstituted” in some way. If total authenticity is a key issue when purchasing a fossil specimen, it is always advisable to check with experts where possible, ask direct questions regarding provenance and how the specimen was prepared, and, certainly in the case of expensive specimens, deal only with reputable dealers who will give a binding certificate of authenticity. There are various websites that provide good information as to features one can look for when trying to decide if a specimen is authentic or “modified“.



Moroccan trilobites are from Cambrian, Ordovician, and Devonian rocks, from 500 to 360 million years old. In recent years, with the introduction of high tech preparation tools, exotic 3-D specimens of Moroccan trilobites have become common on the open market.

Fossil crocodile skull

Fossil Crocodile Skull — Late Cretaceous Period, 65-70 million years old

ammonite sinks

Ammonite sinks from Devonian Limestone

A very common product of the Moroccan fossil industry are various objects, including these sinks, made from a Devonian limestone containing abundant ammonite fossils. Have a look at this link showing Moroccan workers polishing ammonites and cutting the limestone.


This is a slab showing a death-assemblage of Crinoids from Southern Morocco that died on the bed of an ancient sea floor. They are from the Upper Silurian Period and are 420 million years old.

chinese food

Lunch … look at all those veggies!


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Coronado Expedition of 1540-1542



Coronado Sets Out to the North
by Frederic Remington, 1861-1909

The year was 1539 and the young Spanish Conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado had just been installed as the new Governor of the Kingdom of Nueva Galicia, a province of New Spain located in northwest Mexico and comprising the present-day Mexican states of Jalisco, Sinaloa, and Nayarit. It was in September of that year when the Franciscan priest Friar Marcos de Nisa returned from an expedition into what is now northern New Mexico, confirming to Coronado the existence of a land of great wealth far to the north, the rumored Seven Cities of Gold, in a region known as Cibola. The rumor of golden cities was easily believed since only 20 years had passed since Hernan Cortes’s victorious conquest of the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and less than 10 years since Francisco Pizarro had conquered the rich Inca Empire in Peru, both of which had provided the Spanish Conquistadors with vast treasures of gold, silver, and precious stones.

Coronado Expedition Map

Map of the Coronado Expedition 1540-1542

Mule Creek, New Mexico, Country

Eastern grasslands of Mule Creek Country along Brushy Mountain Road, looking NE to Mogollon Mountains

In late February 1540, under commission from the first Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, Coronado set forth from Compostela, Nayarit, as the leader of a major expedition to find and conquer the wealthy cities of Cibola. Documents written at the time report a very large expedition, which by one account consisted of some 250 horsemen, 70 Spanish foot soldiers, 300 native Mexican allies; plus over a 1,000 Indian servants, 4 Franciscan monks, (including Friar Marcos de Nisa as guide), and several slaves. In addition to the human contingent, it is thought that thousands of domestic animals were taken for transportation and food, including many hundreds of extra horses, pack mules, oxen, cows, sheep, and swine. The Expedition was divided into two groups: an advance party, under the leadership of General Coronado, of some 200 able-bodied men and servants who were able to move quickly and scout out the trail ahead, and the much-larger following party that traveled more slowly herding the support animals. By the time the advance party crossed the border into Arizona, the following support group was about three months behind the advance party.

Mule Creek Country

Looking SE from Brushy Mountain Road showing transition from Eastern Grasslands to Western Mountains of Mule Creek Country

The Coronado Expedition was to last three long years. Upon reaching and conquering by force the pueblo of Hawikuh in the Zuni Indian territory of Cibola (which Friar Marcos had seen only from a distance on his previous expedition), it was soon realized that Friar Marco’s exciting stories concerning the great wealth and treasures of the golden cities of Cibola were completely false. Indeed, as expedition foray after foray into the surrounding region returned empty-handed, it was obvious that the stories were no more than the wishful fabrications of the Friar’s imagination, based on nothing more than sunlight reflecting off the distant adobe pueblo walls of the Zuni Indians. Accordingly, Friar Marcos was sent home in disgrace.

Mogollon Rim

Looking S from Brushy Mountain Road toward rugged mountains along the Mogollon Rim

Not willing to give up, Coronado continued to explore areas to the west and east of Cibola over the next two years. The expedition made many new discoveries, including the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon to the west, and eventually journeyed east through vast areas of what is now northern New Mexico, northern Texas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and south and central Kansas, in search of the rumored wealthy civilization of Quivira, that Indians assured him existed in that area (see map above—click on map for larger image). But it was not to be. There were no gold or other riches to be had in Quivira either.

Exhausted and dispirited, Coronado returned to Mexico in 1542. He remained governor of New Galicia for two more years, before the costs of the failed expedition forced him into bankruptcy since he had invested most of his and his wife’s wealth in the financing of the expedition. To complete his loss of prestige and honor he was ultimately accused of war crimes against the Pueblo people. He died in Mexico City of an infectious disease on July 21, 1554.


Mule Creek Country, New Mexico

Looking N along Apache Creek towards Agate Spring

Until recently, traditional scholarly thought, such as that of Herbert E. Bolton, has been that Coronado, after crossing the border into Arizona and resting for several days at an abandoned pueblo site called Chichilticale in Coronado’s journals, was led north by native guides along a trail (see map above) just west of the Arizona–New Mexican border for a couple of hundred miles before turning east into New Mexico to arrive at the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, in the land of Cibola. In recent years, however, extensive field research in southeastern Arizona and western New Mexico by two independent investigators (S.M. Wells and N. Brasher) has presented substantial evidence in support of an alternative to the Arizona route that suggests that the most likely route north was in New Mexico, a few miles east of the Arizona State Line.

Mule Creek Country, New Mexico

Looking NE across Apache Creek Cienega toward Brushy Mountain

Based on a 10-year period of personal investigation studying ancient pueblo indian sites, Wells has mapped a number of ancient Indian trails in Southwest New Mexico which he believes served as important travel and trading routes between Northern and Southern population centers within the State. In time, Wells came to conclude that Coronado, using native Indian guides, most likely followed some of these same trails in his expedition north from Mexico to the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, particularly along the segments of what he considered a primary north-south Indian trail used from prehistoric times. This was a trail that came up from the south in Mexico to follow a route north through New Mexico, passing near today’s town of Deming, following the Arroyo San Vincente and Mangas Creek drainages south of Silver City, crossing the Gila River in the Gila and Cliff areas, and then continuing on north through today’s communities of Glenwood and Reserve. Much of this ancient trail followed the same route that one now travels today along US Highway 180 between Gila and Reserve, NM.

Mule Creek Country, New Mexico

Looking N up Blue Creek at confluence with Gila River coming in from right

Wells’s map proposes that this primary Indian trail extending to the north had a significant junction point a few miles west of today’s junction of US Highway 180 and NM State Road 78, near the present day community of Mule Creek. Here the primary route was joined by another trail that came up from the southwest through what is now the community of Mule Creek. Wells’s investigations suggested that the trail coming up from the southwest closely followed a route now traversed by Brushy Mountain Road in Grant County, through the Apache Creek and Pine Cienega Creek drainages, before turning east to pass through Mule Creek and joining the primary north-south trail route now followed by US 180. About 14 miles south of Mule Creek, Wells proposes that this ancient Indian trail now followed by Brushy Mountain Road divided at a place now called Agate Spring. Here, one trail headed southeast to join the Gila River a few miles west of Red Rock, NM, near where Blue Creek joins the Gila from the north, and the other headed southwest to descend the Mogollon Rim escarpment from the Mule Creek Plateau near the Apache Box to cross the Gila River near Duncan, Arizona. (A great aerial view of the Mogollon Rim and Apache Box can be seen by entering Apache Box, NM, in Google Maps and toggling satellite view.)

Alligator Juniper

8-ft diameter, 800-1,000-year-old Alligator Juniper (juniperus deppeana) near Apache Creek Cienega along Brushy Mountain Road. Did Coronado pass beneath this tree?

Brasher has been conducting independent, ongoing research of Coronado’s route north from Mexico to Hawikuh in the Zuni Country since 2004. His research began with the objective of determining the exact location of the ancient abandoned pueblo site of Chichilticale, where, as described in a journal written by an expedition member, Coronado reportedly camped for a few days soon after leaving Mexico. Based on the details recorded in the journal regarding the Chichilticale campsite, Brasher considered its location an essential starting point in determining the continuing route north through Arizona and beyond. After several seasons of field work, Brasher and his team where successful in finding evidence which strongly suggests the location of Chichilticale as being the archaeological site now known as the Kuykendall Ruin, which is located on the southwest flank of the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeast Arizona. Here, Brasher’s team recovered numerous artifacts which further research indicated were most probably from the time of Coronado’s expedition. A detailed account of this initial research on Chichilticale, including many photos, can be found on Brasher’s extensive website.

Once the site of Chichilticale was conclusively determined, Brasher’s team focused their field research northward. Their efforts soon provided evidence that suggested Coronado, after leaving Chichilticale, had passed over the Chiricahua Mountains through Apache Pass, and had then crossed into New Mexico at Doubtful Canyon, a few miles north of where I-10 crosses into New Mexico from Arizona. From there, Brasher proposes that Coronado’s route headed north to cross the Gila River at, or just east of, where the major tributary of Blue Creek joins the Gila from the north. Interestingly, this crossing point correlates closely with the ancient Indian trail mapped by Wells, extending southeast from Agate Spring to the Gila River. From the Gila River northward, field research coupled with consideration of topographic and logistic restraints that would have faced Coronado’s large expedition, plus the finding of additional artifacts, have led Brasher and his team to outline a proposed route all the way north to Kawikuh. From Mule Creek north, both Wells’s and Brasher’s proposed routes are in agreement that Coronado’s route closely followed the present day route of US 180 between Mule Creek and Reserve.



desert terrain southwest New Mexico

Volcanic desert terrain near the confluence of Blue Creek with the Gila River, covered in Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata), and Prickley Pear Cactus (opuntia engelmannii)

The Mule Creek Country of Southwest New Mexico offers all seekers of pristine Nature and Southwest history an exceptionally diverse and unique landscape to explore, hike, ponder, and enjoy. For purposes of discussion in this blog, the term “Mule Creek Country” describes a vast area in excess of 300 square miles, bounded on the west by the New Mexico–Arizona border, on the north by the San Francisco River, on the east by US 180, and a southern boundary line running from the community of Cliff on US 180 due west to the state line near the Apache Box Wilderness Study Area.

Topographically, the area is a rugged, highly-dissected, uplifted plateau of volcanic origin, having an average elevation of around 6,000 feet and mountain peaks up to 7,600 feet. Highest elevations of the plateau are in the western portions adjacent to the New Mexico-Arizona border, where the 1,500 to 2,000 foot escarpment of the Mogollon Rim rises abruptly from the Basin and Range desert lowlands of Arizona. From the crest of the Mogollon Rim the mountainous uplands extend eastward about eight miles through ponderosa, pinon, and alligator juniper forested terrain, before gradually dropping in elevation to the more open, gently rolling, juniper and pinon dotted grasslands that characterize the landscape in the vicinity of the community of Mule Creek and eastward to US 180. Except for a few private ranch land inholdings in valleys along major creek drainages that date from pioneer days, most of the mountainous western portion of the Mule Creek Plateau is part of the Gila National Forest. Most of the lower elevation grasslands in the eastern portion are large, privately-held ranch lands, which arguably is some the finest land for grazing in Southwest New Mexico.

Mule Creek Country

Green grass flourishes after the Summer Monsoon Rains in the Eastern Grasslands of Mule Creek Country

The work of both Wells and Brasher suggests that after entering New Mexico, Coronado’s route north passed through Mule Creek Country. Wells’s research has suggested two ancient Indian trails that Coronado’s route may have taken north after crossing the Gila River. The first is a short but initially very steep trail that climbs up and over the Mogollon Rim to the Mule Creek Plateau in the vicinity of Apache Box, as shown on the Hobart Survey map of 1891, labeled the “Old Apache Trail”. The second is a longer trail several miles to the east that gradually ascends the Mule Creek Plateau by following the Blue Creek drainage northward from the Gila River. As described above, Wells suggests that these two trails merged at Agate Spring within the Apache Creek drainage and then continued northward along what is now Brushy Mountain Road. After leaving Agate Spring the trail would have followed Apache Creek upstream, soon passing by what in those days was probably a small pond or cienega (cienega is a Spanish word meaning “marshy place”) in the Apache Creek valley and then over a low topographic saddle to descend the Pine Cienega Creek drainage, passing by another marshy area at what is now Pine Cienega before turning east to follow Pine Cienega Creek downstream through what is now the community of Mule Creek. At this point the trail would have turned eastward to join with the ancient north-south trail now followed by US 180.

Brasher’s research proposes that Coronado’s route through Mule Creek Country crossed the Gila River just east of where Blue Creek joins it from the north and then followed the Blue Creek drainage north into the rolling, grass-covered eastern portion of Mule Creek County before turning east to join up with the US 180 route north.


Mule Creek Country, New Mexico

Looking SW down Geronimo Draw towards Apache Box in the distance

So if Coronado did pass through Mule Creek Country, which trail would he have taken: The Brushy Mountain High Country Trail or the Blue Creek Drainage Low Country Trail? At this point in time there is no definitive answer. Certainly much additional field research is needed. If and when it is done, the effort might result in conclusive evidence as to whether one of these two ancient Indian trails was indeed the route followed by Coronado over this segment of his journey.

While the two routes are separated by less than 10 miles in an east-west direction, for the first 12 to 15 miles each of them are very different in terms of types of terrain and vegetation. The Brushy Mountain High Country Trail would have offered a forested trail at an average elevation of 6,200 to 6,300 feet. At the time of the Expedition it would have offered a trail passing beneath towering, mature ponderosa pine, giant, centuries old alligator juniper, pinon pine, and gray oak, following Apache and Pine Cienega Creeks with shallow ponds or marshy areas along their courses. Large game animals and birds would have been abundant along this route, including elk, mule deer, and wild turkey.

desert plants

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and Barrel Cactus (ferocactus wisilizeni) attest to the dry desert terrain near the confluence of Blue Creek with the Gila River

The Blue Creek Low Country Trail, by contrast, would have presented a considerably longer trail through a much drier, mostly barren, creosote bush and mesquite and cactus studded rocky plateau and dry wash dissected country at an average elevation of 4,500-5,000 feet for the first 15 miles or so. Game animals and birds would probably have been very scarce over this stretch of trail. Continuing north, however, the trail would have gradually ascended into higher elevations of around 6,000 feet where more abundant grasslands and water sources typical of the eastern half of Mule Creek Country are found.


grinding holes

Ancient mortar grinding holes for grain, seed and nut in volcanic rhyolite bedrock outcrop. Did Coronado’s servants make use of these early kitchen aids while passing through on their way north?

To this writer it seems plausible that the Indian guides on the expedition would have been aware of both trails and what could be expected along each of these routes. Assuming that both routes were physically and logistically feasible for the expedition, it also seems likely that the weather and climatic conditions prevailing at the time of the expedition could have well been the deciding factor as to which route was taken.

Based on the accounts written by members of Coronado’s expedition, Brasher has put together calendars of both the Advance Party of the expedition’s journey north, which have Coronado passing through Mule Creek Country between July 4 and July 6, 1540, and the larger Following Party coming along some three months behind. In Southwestern New Mexico the Summer Monsoon Season rains historically start around the first week in July and last into the middle of September, following the two or three hottest and driest months of the year of April, May and June. Overall amount of rainfall received during the Summer Monsoons can vary considerably over the region, as well as on a local basis, depending on global weather and regional weather patterns, plus the local elevation (higher elevation receive greater rainfall). It is often the case in this area, particularly in La Nina years, that Spring rains are weak to nonexistent, and that the Monsoonal rains can be late arriving. As a result grasslands can be brown and dormant into August. Consequently, the status of the Spring rains and subsequent Monsoonal weather patterns in 1540 may have played a determining factor in choosing between the two trails.


Ancient signs of passage along the Brushy Mtn Rd trail. Worked obsidian and rhyolite lithic fragments. Remember always: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints …

There is no question that a trail ascending the Mogollon Rim by way of Apache Creek through the Apache Box would be extremely challenging if not impossible for the expedition because of the extreme topography of sheer, vertical canyon walls and cliffs, plus the chaos of fallen boulders choking the canyon. However, building upon Wells’s research, this writer’s analysis of satellite photography of the area shows that a little over a mile south of the Apache Box, at what is probably the location of Hobart’s Old Apache Trail, there is a smooth, constantly-sloping, and only slightly vegetated, broad-crested ridge running from the bottom to the top of the Mogollon Rim that displays no cliffs, rocky precipices or other insurmountable obstacles. Rising from the headwaters of Bitter Creek, which drains southwest to the Gila River about 14 miles away, this broad, ramp-like ridge rises about 900 feet vertically to a crest elevation of about 6,300 feet over a horizontal distance of just a little over one-half mile, at a remarkably constant slope of about 18-1/2°. While steep, it is not too steep and could be easily ascended by horse and humans in an hour or less. Having reached the summit of the Mogollon Rim on Hobart’s Old Apache Trail, it is then only about a three-mile trek across a slightly dissected upland grassland and juniper terrain to the Agate Spring trail junction in the Apache Creek drainage.


Radar Station on Brushy Mtn Rd

Junction of Brushy Mountain Road and Radar Station Road; radar station on top of Brushy Mountain in distance

While there is presently no definitive research proving that Coronado’s route passed through Mule Creek Country following the Apache Creek/Pine Cienega drainages and present-day Brushy Mountain Road route, there is considerable evidence to suggest that this was an important, much used ancient trail that had been travelled by Native Americans for centuries. Numerous Indian sites are found throughout Mule Creek Country and along Brushy Mountain Road. Archaeology Southwest, a private nonprofit organization involved in preservation archaeology, has had an active program in the Mule Creek area for several years. A major research interest of the organization has centered on early cultural migration, change, and exchange routes throughout the Southern Southwest during the period between 1200 and 1540 A.D. An interesting part of this research has centered on the role that Mule Creek obsidian, as discussed in the August 2012 Casitas de Gila Nature Blog, has played as a major source material for projectile points and other stone tools for the Pit House and Pueblo Cultures throughout Southern Arizona and New Mexico. Mule Creek obsidian is a naturally occurring volcanic glass that occurs as abundant small nodules within the northwest quadrant of Mule Creek Country. Comparative spectrographic analyses of the trace element chemistry of obsidian stone tools found at archaeological sites as far west as Phoenix, some 200 miles away, have identified Mule Creek as the source area. Considering this, the question then emerges by what route did the Mule Creek obsidian make its way west to far off Southern Arizona or Southern New Mexico? Regardless of the ultimate final destination, in either case it is highly probable that the trail began with a journey south along the Brushy Mountain Road road route through Pine Cienega and Apache Creek to where the trail junctions at Agate Spring.

Pine Cienega Creek Valley

Pine Cienega Creek Valley heading east to Mule Creek with Mogollon Mountains in distance; taken from top of Brushy Mountain

hiking near Blue Creek

Two hikers near the confluence of Blue Creek and the Gila River, very much convinced that Coronado did not use this trail …

Historians and anthropologists both share disagreement as to when the nomadic Apache Indians first came into Southern New Mexico and Arizona. Some researchers place their arrival in the late 1500s, while others have them present there in the 1400s. Were they present when Coronado passed through? Possibly, but again, there are no definitive answers here either, for, as the Mexican and American Soldiers of the late 1800s came to know all to well, if the Apache didn’t want to be seen or found, they weren’t. In any case, it is highly probable that the Brushy Mountain Road route was well known and used by Native American people right up until the end of the Apache Wars and Geronimo’s surrender in 1886. It seems highly likely that the nomadic Apaches had used it extensively for at least 200 or 300 years, if not longer. That the Apaches used the Brushy Mounain Road route in more recent times is fairly certain as the war records and geographic place names still attest: Hobart’s 1891 map showing the Old Apache Trail, the Apache Box canyon, Apache Creek, and the side canyon off Apache Creek known as Geronimo Draw.

Without question, the route now followed by Brushy Mountain Road through Mule Creek Country is truly a Passage Through Antiquity, and for the visitor to the area it is a journey easily undertaken. Brushy Mountain Road begins at its signposted junction with NM State Road 78 in the center of “downtown” Mule Creek at the US Post Office at an elevation of 5,240 feet. For the next 15.5 miles the road runs through the heart of Mule Creek Country, mostly through the Gila National Forest, before ending at a locked gate where the road enters private land. The road is a well-kept, county-maintained gravel road that offers excellent hiking access into vast areas of rugged mountainous terrain within the very heart of the Mule Creek Plateau Country. The road is readily traveled by all types of vehicles, requiring neither high clearance nor four-wheel drive. About 12 miles south of Mule Creek, the Radar Station Road, a well-maintained road for all types of vehicles, goes off from Brushy Mountain Road to the north at a topographic saddle separating the northward flowing Pine Cienega Creek drainage from the southward flowing Apache Creek drainage. Radar Station Road offers an interesting drive up to the top of Brushy mountain at 7,600 feet, where spectacular views of Mule Creek Country and the far distant beyond greet the eye and camera in all directions.

Here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, we are quite familiar with several of the many special places to see, hike, photograph, and explore along this fascinating route through Mule Creek Country, having enjoyed many visits to the area ourselves. For Casita guests wishing to take a self-guided motor tour or off-road hike in this unique area, we have a written guide and maps that we can provide.

Ancient sycamore and cottonwoods

Ancient sycamores and cottonwoods abound along the flood plain where Coronado may have crossed the Gila River to begin his northward trek up the Blue Creek drainage


Posted in Apaches, Burro Mountains, Coronado, hiking, history | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Becky & Michael O'Connor, Owners
50 Casita Flats Rd • PO Box 325 • Gila, New Mexico 88038



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