The first time we visited Fort Apache on the White Mountain Indian Reservation, we took each other's picture standing in front of a log cabin that announced itself as "General Crook's Headquarters."
Every time I go to Fort Apache, I feel excitement because, as the tribe's lawyer recently said, "This is probably one of the most famous forts in the whole world, the setting of TV programs, John Wayne movies and a lot of significant history."
A March 2003 headline in The Arizona Republic proclaimed, "High Court lets Apaches sue U.S. to fix fort." It seems the Supreme Court has ruled the tribe can sue the federal government to fix the deteriorating buildings at the fort.
In 1960 the government transferred the 400-acre fort to the tribe, with the exception that the Interior Department would continue to control the land and the school buildings. The Interior Department had offered to give these properties to the tribe, but the tribal council agreed to take control only if the government would rehabilitate the buildings first.
During the series of lawsuits that followed, it was established that the government's continued control of Fort Apache created a fiduciary duty to the tribe. It is this responsibility that has been affirmed by the Supreme Court and could mean from $8 million to $14 million in repairs to the Fort Apache buildings and its boarding school.
It was in the heat of the Apache War that Fort Apache was created. To surround the area known as Apacheria with a military presence, Camp Verde was established on the west and Camp McDowell on the south. A temporary post, Camp Goodwin, huddled near the Gila River on the east, but the site was marshy and infected with malaria.
The year 1869 saw a vigorous offense by many Apache bands, operating out of the mountain ranges between the Gila and Little Colorado Rivers. They pillaged and raided the settlers all over southern Arizona.
In July of that year Brevet Brigadier General Thomas Devin, who headquartered at Camp McDowell, was ordered to "take all available forces under his command and at once put into execution a vigorous campaign against all Apaches ranging over the country lying north of the Gila," reported A. F. Banta, an Army scout on this campaign, writing later in his reminiscences.
"After many days of hard marching, clambering and climbing over almost inaccessible mountains, the command finally encamped on the evening of July 27, 1869, near the junction of two mountain streams, now known as the East and West forks of the White River." There they found several bands of Apaches who were friendly and ready to help.
President U.S. Grant called for a new military post to be established there, saying, "It will be a base of operations striking at the very center of the trouble. It will allow the military to swiftly dispatch troops and to quell any uprisings. Indians not desiring to live in peace will be dealt with sternly. Our show of strength will show that we mean business."
The president asked Major John Green, from Camp Goodwin, to establish the post "located strategically where it will be free from attack. I am sure the settlers in the Southwest will no longer have to fear for their lives."
On Jan. 31, 1870 the War Department declared there would be a large "homeland" reservation on the surrounding lands.
On May 16, 1870, Major Green laid out the post just a quarter mile from the spot where General Devin had camped. It was named Camp Ord in honor of General O.C. Ord who was then commander of the military district. The companies lived in tents while log quarters and other service buildings were being planned, and the camp went through a quick succession of name changes. The name of Camp Ord was almost immediately replaced by the name Camp Mogollon because of its location. One month later it was named Camp Thomas in honor of Major General George Thomas. That name was later attached to a permanent post on the eastern border of the San Carlos Reservation.
After the Chiricahua Chief Cochise visited the camp, to make a peace treaty with General Stoneman, the camp was named Camp Apache as a token of friendship. It was not changed to Fort Apache until April 5, 1879.
In 1871, Capt. John G. Bourke arrived at Camp Apache with General George Crook to begin their famous campaign against the Indians of Apacheria. They enlisted 44 friendly Apaches to be army scouts, and immediately began to plan a better supply route between Camp Apache and Camp Verde. At that point, the only route was a long way to the north and then west along the pioneer trail we know today as Interstate 40. The new military road snaked along the Mogollon Rim, known as Crook's Trail. This not only provided easier access for supplies, but quick passage for cavalry units seeking to cut off Apaches escaping to the north.
By 1873, almost 2,000 Apaches were encamped around the fort, being fed rations with an idea that they should learn to be farmers.
By 1877, settlers were encroaching on the Apache reservation to farm and mine its resources. The government whittled away at the original boundaries and opened up the San Carlos Indian Agency to the south along the Gila River. Into this desert landscape the Army forced White Mountain Apaches to join Tonto, Pinal, Aravaipa, Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches. Their dialects and traditions were different, and conflict between the tribes was inevitable.
By 1881, anger toward the whites reached a climax and a medicine man was holding ghost dances at Cibecue, in which he proclaimed the resurrection of murdered chiefs and the overthrow of the white invaders. The medicine man was killed by an army detachment and several violent outbreaks followed during the next two years.
Chiricahua Apaches fled south and Western Apaches raided throughout the Rim country, Pleasant Valley and Tonto Basin. Some of the rebels held a siege on Camp Apache itself.
Fort Apache continued to be a vital base of military operations until the white settlers were thoroughly rooted in Apacheria, and in 1922, Congress disbanded the military presence there.
The next year the Theodore Roosevelt Indian Boarding School was established in many of the old buildings. Children ages 3 to 8 were taught vocational skills. Most of them were Navajo, taken from their homes involuntarily.
Today the old buildings are part of a self-guided tour for visitors.
And the cabin known as General Crook's headquarters still stands. In fact, it was probably one of the first buildings at the fort, occupied by the post commander until the summer of 1874. General Crook may have slept there on his visits to the fort. After the commanding officer's frame house was built, the cabin became a residence for lower-ranking officers and later teachers for the school.
Just before the tribe took over in 1969, it was home for the tribe's trapper, and housed the tribe's culture center. That museum and library was moved to the last remaining company barracks in 1976, and soon thereafter burned down, destroying the tribe's precious collections.
Each building has a history of its own, and you will enjoy your visit.