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




Sycamores and towering volcanic cliffs just downstream from confluence of Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek

Sycamores and towering volcanic cliffs just downstream from confluence of Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek

It was around October 26, 1885, when the Chokonon Apache Chief Ulzana and about 20 warriors crossed the border into New Mexico from Mexico to begin a series of raids in New Mexico and Arizona. Their purpose was threefold: to find and rescue wives and children captured by White Mountain Apache Scouts for the U.S. Army earlier that summer, to wreak vengeance on the Scouts for capturing their families, and to take prisoners whom they would take back to Mexico. Thus began one of the more legendary episodes of the Southwest known Ulzana’s Raid, a two-month period of mayhem and killing as Ulzana and his warriors terrorized ranchers, settlers, and miners, while at the same time totally humiliating the U.S. Army as they swept back and forth between the two territories executing their plan, before returning to Mexico with their captives on December 31.1

At top of Soldier Hill, looking east to Mogollon Mountains. Ulzana's ambush possibly occurred about here.

At top of Soldier Hill, looking east to Mogollon Mountains. Ulzana’s ambush possibly occurred about here.

By early December, Ulzana and his men surfaced in the Mule Creek and the Mogollon Mountains area attacking ranches, stealing property and stock and killing several men. On December 9, they attacked the Lillie Ranch near the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Gila River, killing two men, but were surprised just after burning Lillie’s cabin by the arrival of Lt. Samuel W. Fountain, seven calvary troops and three local men. After a brief firefight, Ulzana and his men fled into the mountains, allowing Lt. Fountain the small satisfaction of recapturing all of the property and most of the stock that Ulzana had taken in the last few days. Yet this encounter was far from being over. It would only be a matter of days before Ulzana would extract his revenge.

Looking west down Little Dry Creek from top of Soldier Hill near ambush site

Looking west down Little Dry Creek from top of Soldier Hill near ambush site

Still smarting from his defeat at the Lillie ranch, Ulzana plotted his revenge carefully, choosing a site where the odds would be in his favor. On the morning of December 19, 1885, Ulzana and 9 warriors ambushed the 34-man strong C Troop of the 8th US Calvary under the command of Lt. Samuel W. Fountain while on patrol in the Mogollon Mountains. The ambush took place as the patrol neared the top of a small promontory, known forever after as Soldier Hill. The site is located on the north side of Little Dry Creek, just off US Highway 180, about a mile north the Catron County/Grant County line, and about seven miles south of Pleasanton, New Mexico.

This time it was Lt. Fountain and his men that were taken completely by surprise. Lt. Fountain’s patrol suffered a loss of five men killed and three more wounded when caught in a vicious crossfire as they retreated downhill from the ambush site. Quickly the calvary regrouped and a counter attack ensued as Lt. Fountain and his men charged back up the hill. But then, just as suddenly as it had started, it was over. As the soldiers advanced, Ulzana and his band abandoned the high ground and slipped away to the west, heading down Little Dry Creek canyon into the San Francisco River country, an Apache safe-haven landscape of rugged mountains cut by numerous deep canyons. Ulzana had chosen the ambush site with just this escape route in mind, a route that he knew the Calvary would not be able to follow. In his report Lt. Fountain described this land succinctly: “rough country where horses can not go”.

Today, all of this rugged country into which Ulzana vanished, from Soldier Hill west along Little Dry Creek Canyon to its convergence with Big Dry Creek Canyon and then on the San Francisco River, lies within the Gila National Forest and is open to the public. It is a highly diverse and fascinating landscape. No matter what your interest, be it frontier history, nature photography, geology and rockhounding, unusual riverine forest and high desert plants, birding, wildlife, or simply exploring wild, pristine and uncommon natural places, a hike down Little Dry Creek promises a unique and fascinating experience.


Spectacular cliff of weathered red rhyolite welded tuff overlying dark purplish-gray andesite flow. Note cream-colored rhyolite boulder next to boulder of dark gray andesite flow in foreground.

Spectacular cliff of weathered red rhyolite welded tuff overlying dark purplish-gray andesite flow. Note cream-colored rhyolite boulder next to boulder of dark gray andesite flow in foreground.

The geology of the Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek canyons in the vicinity of the San Francisco River consists of a highly-diverse and colorful assemblage of Middle Tertiary volcanic rocks, most of which were ejected from nearby volcanoes some 26 million years ago during the Late Oligocene Epoch. The range in composition and rock type in this thick sequence of layered volcanics is truly amazing, covering the spectrum from iron- and magnesium-rich basalt flows; to massive, fine-grained to porphyritic andesite flows, which sometimes contain large phenocrysts of andesine or labradorite plagioclase feldspar or flows containing abundant gas bubbles, commonly filled with quartz, calcite and other crystals; to many varieties of silica-rich rhyolite pyroclastic deposits ranging from fine-grained ash fall welded tuffs and pumice to coarse, blocky breccias with a fine ash matrix.

Basalt flow 1 mile up Eliot Canyon from Little Dry Creek.

Basalt flow 1 mile up Eliot Canyon from Little Dry Creek.

Andesite flow with numerous large quartz-filled gas bubbles (geodes).

Andesite flow with numerous large quartz-filled gas bubbles (geodes).

Rhyolite flow with abundant small quartz-filled gas bubbles.

Rhyolite flow with abundant small quartz-filled gas bubbles.

The variation in these rocks along the course of these canyons is amazing, exceptional enough to excite even the most jaded professional geologist or vulcanologist. What it translates to for the layperson (anyone who simply enjoys finding nice rocks) or the more dedicated rockhound looking for good specimens such as geodes or semi-precious material to cut and polish, is a several-mile-long rock and mineral collecting paradise, through canyons that are lined with more unusual and special rocks than your hiking companion can (or is willing to) carry!

Colorful cliffs of pyroclastic white to reddish rhyolite semi-welded ash fall tuffs overlying andesite flow rocks.

Colorful cliffs of pyroclastic white to reddish rhyolite semi-welded ash fall tuffs overlying andesite flow rocks.

Following the major volcanic eruptions and deposition of the dominant andesite flows in the area 26 million years ago, a period of quiescence took place. Then, between 18 and 20 million years ago, volcanic activity resumed. Once more the fires down below were stoked sufficiently to open numerous small vents at the surface of the earth, followed by the ejection and deposition of more localized formations of silica-rich rhyolite flows and pyroclastic material, plus flows of natural glass in the form of perlite and obsidian. Nodules of this naturally formed glass, technically known as marekanites, or more commonly as Apache Tears, can be found within the loose sediment in transport down the canyons.

Pyroclastic rhyolite ash flow breccia with angular fragments of rhyolite torn from sides of volcano during eruption.

Pyroclastic rhyolite ash flow breccia with angular fragments of rhyolite torn from sides of volcano during eruption.

Gas bubble geode filled with quartz crystals.

Gas bubble geode filled with quartz crystals.

Jasper and quartz breccia from creek bed.

Jasper and quartz breccia from creek bed.

Following the deposition of the older volcanic units, tectonic uplift and movement took place throughout the Little Dry Creek, Big Dry Creek, and San Francisco River region, resulting in extensive fracturing and faulting of the landscape. Most of the faults are high-angle (nearly perpendicular) faults trending NE to NNE and NW to WNW. Faults create linear zones of structural weakness within the rocks they penetrate. As a result, the course and direction of the canyons and side canyons that are found in the area often follow or are influenced by this faulting as a result of millions of years of erosion and downcutting by the numerous creeks and streams flowing across area from the Mogollon Mountains to the east. Many of these major faults, as well as smaller scale faulting, can be observed in the cliffs as one hikes these canyons.

Banded agate, possibly contains layers of "fire" with drusy quartz on top.

Banded agate, possibly contains layers of “fire” with drusy quartz on top.

Jasper breccia with quartz matrix from creek bed.

Jasper breccia with quartz matrix from creek bed.

Selenite crystals from fracture zone in andesite flow.

Selenite crystals from fracture zone in andesite flow.

Perlite cobble from creek bed.

Perlite cobble from creek bed.

Marekanites or Apache Tears from creek bed.

Marekanites or Apache Tears from creek bed.


Afternoon shadows come early in the deep canyon of Lower Dry Creek

Afternoon shadows come early in the deep canyon of Lower Dry Creek

As one hikes deeper into the Little Dry Creek, Big Dry Creek, and side canyons such as Eliot Canyon, the sheer walls of the surrounding volcanic cliffs and mountains rise higher and higher, gradually soaring to heights of 1000 feet or more above the canyon floor. The entombed silence within these canyon depths becomes increasingly pervasive as the canyon wall press ever closer, initially unnoticed until suddenly thrust into palpable awareness by the piercing cry of a soaring raptor from somewhere high above. Steadily, all of one’s senses heighten as the world away fades from mental focus and the immediacy of the Now of Nature entrains one’s mind and soul. But above all, it is the ancient, white-barked sycamores lining and guarding the corridors of these winding canyons that command and mesmerize one’s total awareness, these persevering, mute, ghostly-white witnesses to the centuries-old, eternal pageant of Nature’s periodic rampaging floods and the occasional Human intrusion that have past them by … Oh, what stories they could tell!

Gnarled sycamores lining Little Dry Creek

Gnarled sycamores lining Little Dry Creek

The Arizona Sycamore, (Platanus wrightii) is named for the American botanist Charles Wright (1811-1885) who collected the first specimens in 1851 while participating in the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey. Platanus wrightii is native only to Southwestern New Mexico, Arizona, and Northwestern Mexico. Here it is only found along rivers, streams, and intermittent creeks and streams in rocky canyons, where, even if the canyon is dry at the surface most of the time, a good supply of water is always available in the subsurface alluvial sediments below the valley floor. The Arizona Sycamore is one of the largest deciduous in the Southwest, growing to heights of 80 feet or more. It easily identified by its white-barked upper branches and pastel greenish to reddish gray or tan mottled trunks which flake off in patches revealing a bone-white inner bark. In late October to early November the tree is absolutely spectacular when its large, palmate leaves turn a deep orange to brick red. Later in the season, the beauty of these noble giants increases further when the red leaves remaining on the arching, upper white branches atop the bone-white gnarled and twisted trunks are now silhouetted against the clear, cobalt blue skies of Winter. For the photographer or artist it can be a source of unending inspiration.

Sycamore in late Winter light in Lower Elliot Canyon.

Sycamore in late Winter light in Lower Elliot Canyon.

The old saying ”when the going gets tough, the tough get going” could well have been coined by some ardent admirer of Platanus wrightii. For when the canyons get really rocky, and are often subjected to extreme flooding, capable of transporting boulders up to 6 feet or more in diameter, it is here that the the Arizona Sycamore seems to thrive at its magnificent best. Indeed, these sycamores prosper in an environment where other common New Mexico riverine species such as cottonwoods and willows would not even think of putting down roots. And, such is the case in Little Dry and Big Dry Canyons where phalanxes of these ancient, white-barked giants stoically line both sides of the canyons in ongoing benign defiance of their hostile environment. Even more impressive is that some of these warrior sycamores make their stand right out in the middle of the canyon, the bark of their battered and scarred upstream trunks now slowly growing around some huge, oversized boulder that mistakenly thought it could take this tall piece of cellulose out all on its own! Looking at one of these warrior sycamores one can almost hear it calling out to the oncoming boulder during the onslaught of the peaking flood: All right, Pilgrim, come on, give it your best shot!

Debris and boulders from earlier flood showing minimum water depth of 8 to 10 feet.

Debris and boulders from earlier flood showing minimum water depth of 8 to 10 feet.

After becoming somewhat familiar with this “rough country where horses can not go”, one eventually begins to contemplate just what route Ulzana took when retiring from the ambush on Soldier Hill. An indication of this route can be inferred from two facts that were reported at the time: first is that Ulzana and his men retreated to the west, down Little Dry Creek, and second, that four days later, on Christmas Eve, he and his warriors raided the mining community in the vicinity of Carlisle, NM, killing 3 men, wounding 2 or 3 others, and stealing 40 head of horses at Steeple Rock. With these horses the raiders could once more “move like the wind”, crossing the Gila River into Arizona on Christmas Day, and then traveling swiftly south for the next six days, committing much murder and mayhem as they went, before crossing the border into Mexico on December 31.1

Ancient sycamore in the process of digesting welded tuff boulder that attacked it ...

Ancient sycamore in the process of digesting welded tuff boulder that attacked it …

With these facts in mind, and studying the land between Soldier Hill and Carlisle, some 30 miles to the south, it seems quite likely that after leaving Soldier Hill Ulzana would have only gone about 2 miles downstream on Little Dry Creek to the west, before turning south into Eliot Canyon. From here they would have had safe passage up rugged Mineral Spring Canyon, following it south upstream to Burnt Stump Creek Canyon, which leads south and upstream to the Mule Mountains. From the Mule Mountains they then could have followed Pine Cienega Creek along well-documented old Indian trails that lead southwest to what is now Brushy Mountain Road and then south along Apache Creek to the Carlisle mining community.

There are many of those ancient white-barked sycamore giants at the junction of Little Dry Creek and Elliot Canyon. For sure they witnessed Ulzana and his men pass by on that December morning of 1885 and know which canyon he chose. So far they haven’t shared this knowledge, but perhaps, just maybe, if one was to spend a little more time with them some afternoon when the red leaves are falling and white branches are soaring into a cobalt blue sky, well, maybe they just might …

As always, we are happy to provide guests staying at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses with detailed directions and maps for this hike, as well as for all the hikes detailed in the Casitas de Gila Nature Blog and on our website. All one needs to do is ask!



While this hike is an excellent easy to moderate hike across level terrain in unique and spectacular country, visitors are strongly advised to inquire as to local existing conditions regardless of the time of the year, before taking this hike. The reason for this caution is that while Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek are, as their name implies, dry most of the year, there are certain times when both are subject to sudden flash floods of depths of 8 to 10 feet or more, especially during the Summer Monsoon season between late June and early September. While this is not a problem for the first one-half mile or so because of the broad floodplain and accessible adjoining hillsides, beyond this point the canyons are frequently narrow, with sheer vertical rocky cliffs on both sides, and where water will run deep the width of the canyon. While in most places one could access higher ground out of the reach of the flood waters, one could be stranded for a few hours … or possibly a day or more until the water recedes! Both of these creeks have their headwaters in the high Mogollon Mountains a few miles to the east, and because of the steep gradient of the creek bed, the rate of flow can exceed speeds of 20 miles an hour. Also, during the Spring months of February through May, melting snowpack in the Mogollons can often result in weeks of prolonged high runoff when the trail would not be passable in many places.



1. Edwin R. Sweeney, 2012, From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874-1886, University of Oklahoma Press.


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



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