No place in Arizona conjures up more visions of the Wild West than Fort Apache! Now is a great time to make a visit to Fort Apache in Whiteriver, Arizona and walk over the very grounds where Generals Crook and Miles and Apache leaders Geronimo and Nache all lived and toiled.
When most Americans think of Fort Apache, the picture of a lonely, western outpost enclosed by a large, wooden stockade of ponderosa pine trees usually comes to mind. This was the Fort Apache that came to life in John Ford’s 1948 Hollywood movie, Fort Apache, staring John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple. This movie won many awards but the view it gave movie goers of Fort Apache was nothing like the real Fort Apache of 1870 – 1922.
There was never a wooden stockade where soldiers stood watch overlooking the countryside as big gates swung open and closed to allow cavalry to enter and exit at the real Fort Apache. In fact, no territorial Arizona military fort was ever enclosed by a wooden stockade. Those scenes are just Hollywood taking liberty with our history. But what was real about Fort Apache and its role in bringing lasting peace to the Arizona Territory during the Apache Wars is surely worth remembering and visiting.
In 1870 the United States government established a reservation for the White Mountain Apache people. Colonel John Green had suggested an army post be established in this White Mountain area where “the climate is delicious, and said by the Indians to be perfectly healthy, free from all malaria, excellently well wooded and watered. It seems as thought this one corner of Arizona was almost a garden spot, the beauty of its scenery, the fertility of its soil and facilities for irrigation are not surpassed by any place that ever came under my observation.”
On May 16, 1870 soldiers began construction of what they called Camp Ord. By the end of 1870 it was known as Camp Mogollon, then Camp Thomas. It was not until 1879 that it was named Fort Apache.
Fort Apache would now play the key role in both the cooperation and conflict between the U.S. government and the various bands of Western Apache. White Mountain Apache scouts worked closely with U.S. soldiers to bring peace to the Tonto Basin by 1873 and to establish a treaty with Chief Victoria in 1879. The respected Apache scout, Alchesay, would help General Nelson Miles to negotiate the surrender of Geronimo on September 4, 1886, ending forever the Apache Wars.
Historic Arizonans such as Martha Summerhayes, Sharlot Hall, Chief Diablo and companies of Buffalo Soldiers all spent time living at the real Fort Apache. All played key roles in the story that is Arizona.
Fort Apache would see its last combat role in 1916-17 during the Mexican border campaign that involved legendary Generals John Pershing and Pancho Villa. When this historic fort closed in 1922, it became the site of an Indian boarding school.
Today a visit to Fort Apache also takes one to the Nohwike’ Bagowa (House of Our Footprints) Apache Cultural Center & Museum. Twenty-seven historic buildings on a 288 acre site are still found there for the visitor to explore. Listed on the National Register Historic Places, this cultural center has interpretive signs that explain the history and use of the many buildings and allows the visitor to walk and learn at a leisurely pace.
A 1.4 mile loop trail will take the visitor past the historic Apache Scout camp and through the East Fork Canyon. Fort Apache Cemetery is also located within 1/2 miles of the cultural center museum. The modern museum shares the story of the White Mountain Apache people and their long history of living in this beautiful part of Arizona.
|Signs at the entrance of Fort Apache|
|Looking toward the girls' dormitory across parade field|
|Commander's house at Fort Apache|
|Officers Row at Fort Apache|
|General Crook's cabin|
|Modern post office at Fort Apache|
|Old Glory still flies above Fort Apache|
|Theodore Roosevelt School|
|From parade ground looking at girls' dormitory|
|Longer view across parade ground|