A fascinating bit of complicated, tragic, triumphant history, lies at the end of an hour-long drive from Payson, which ambles up scenic Highway 260 to the White Mountain Apache Reservation through some of the most scenic parts of the state.
There, the White Mountain Apache Tribe maintains a cultural center and the abandoned cavalry post once used to wage war on them, which is open to visitors during the weekdays through December.
As a result, Fort Apache, that ethically complex, historically rich, symbolically ambiguous icon of the American West has been saved from ruin and preserved as a touchstone for a vivid period in Western history.
And that wouldn’t have happened, if the tribe hadn’t proved willing to preserve even the remains of the military institutions that did so much damage to their lifeways.
Perched on a basaltic mesa overlooking the White River in the heart of the White Mountain Apache Reservation, the decaying fort represented a mingling of pain and triumph. From this fort made mythic by countless movie Westerns, the American military campaigned against a proud people. And once the military abandoned the fort in 1922, it served as a boarding school intended originally to “civilize” the Apaches by stripping away their culture.
Another tribe might have called in the bulldozers and hosted a bonfire.
But after more than 50 years of neglect, the White Mountain Apache Tribe decided to make Fort Apache into a unique place to both explain their history to outsiders and serve the ongoing needs of their community. Through this, they demonstrated a history of pragmatic persistence that has allowed them to bend like willows in a flood and then spring back upright.
Now, after more than $4 million in reconstruction, renovation and planning, Fort Apache has become a centerpiece for the celebration of Apache culture and a gathering place for the Apache community. The tribe added the Apache Cultural Center and Museum, with both permanent and rotating exhibits of things like Apache basketry. These beautiful, functional pieces are woven from mulberry, squawberry and willow branches with designs created by twisting the weaving material to show either the light inner surface or the dark outer surface. In addition, trained Apache guides can take visitors on a tour of the 27 historic buildings on the 288-acre historic site. That includes the 1870s log cabin that housed Gen. George Crook and famed Army surgeon Walter Reed, who went on to pioneer a cure for malaria.
Workers have also restored both sandstone and wood-frame buildings all around the edge of the spacious parade ground, built at various times from the 1880s through the 1920s. Exhibits also detail the role of the fort and of the White Mountain Apache scouts, who played a crucial role in the decades of warfare in the region.
In addition, visitors can learn something of the bungled attempt to arrest an Apache religious leader that triggered a pitched battle on Cibicue Creek, a brief attack on the fort, and Geronimo’s outbreak.
Guides also take visitors on a guided tour of the fort. The guides charge $15 per person and you must call a week in advance to make a reservation.
The guide service based at the fort can also take visitors to scenic, culturally rich areas of the reservation that have long been closed to outsiders, including the nearby partially restored, 800-year-old Kinishba ruins and the scenic Grasshopper Ruins near Cibicue, left by people who lived in the area before the arrival of the Apache. The Apache guides offer an array of insights in the cultural history of the area
“There’s no other place like Fort Apache anywhere,” observed archaeologist John Welch.
“There’s no place where an American Indian tribe has adopted a frontier military outpost that was established to control them and has on its own initiative decided to re-embrace that place and use it to promote their interest; to make it again an Apache place, with a new layer of history.”
A visit to the fort can serve as a jumping off point for other adventures on the 1.6-million acre reservation which includes rolling expanses of lower-elevation pinon-juniper forests and expansive ponderosa pine forests plus the 11,459-foot Mount Baldy and portions of the deep gorge of the Salt River. The tribe now numbers about 8,000, up from 2,000 when the reservation was first established.
The tribe operates a ski resort and the Hon Dah Casino outside of Show Low. The casino includes a 128-room hotel, a 19,000-square-foot conference center, and a golf course, camping ground and RV park. The Sunrise Ski Resort includes 65 runs, 13 miles of cross country ski trails, and a 106-room hotel. Located 24 miles from McNary on the eastern edge of the reservation, the resort offers a year-round resort hotel, a well-stocked fishing and boating lake, and miles of hiking and riding trails.
The tribe has also managed its wildlife population carefully, and now sells hunting permits to outsiders eager for a chance to hunt the world-renowned elk and other wildlife. Apache guides are also available for hunters.
High country lakes like Hawley, Horseshoe, Sunrise and McNary provide plentiful fishing and recreational opportunities — although a hard winter can transform most of the fishing holes into places to practice the fine art of ice fishing.
The reservation is also crisscrossed by rivers and streams, many of which offer plentiful fishing opportunities. The most popular include the two forks of the White River, Big and Little Diamond, Big and Little Bonito, Paradise, Trout, Snake, Becker, Cibecue and Black rivers. Dress warm and bring insulated waders in the winter.
Through the guide program, the tribe now hopes to open more areas of the reservation to interested tourists — without infringing unduly on the lives of tribe members or turning the durable and complex Apache ceremonies and culture into a tourist sideshow.
It makes perfect sense that the pragmatic White Mountain Apaches should seek a way to turn a painful history to their advantage.
In contrast to the violent resistance of Chiricahua Apache war leaders like Cochise and Geronimo, White Mountain Apache leaders in the late 1800s responded to Anglos with shrewd caution and restraint.
The fort’s history begins in July of 1869 when Maj. John Green arrived on a mission to find a site for a fort and to set fire to the corn fields of the White Mountain Apaches, on the assumption they had been providing food to other, hostile bands. To Green’s surprise, the White Mountain, Carrizo and Cibicue bands greeted him warmly, insisting they wanted to be friends.
The Apache leaders even recommended the ultimate site of the fort to Green, an ancient place used by ancestors of today’s Hopi and Zuni people for 1,000 years before the Apaches arrived and called it “Place Where the White Reeds Grow.”
Green described it in glowing terms. “It seems this one corner of Arizona were almost a garden spot, the beauty of its scenery, the fertility of its soil and facilities for irrigation are not surpassed ... This post would be of greatest advantage for the following reasons: It would compel the White Mountain Indians to live on their reservation or be driven from their beautiful country which they almost worship. It would stop their traffic in corn with the hostile tribes ... It would make a good scouting post, being adjacent to hostile bands on either side.”
Green had glimpsed the Apaches’ intensely felt connection to certain places that was religious in its intensity. Cultural anthropologist Keith Basso, who has worked among the White Mountain Apaches for decades, described some of the reasons for that attachment in his seminal Wisdom Sits in Places. The Apache have vividly descriptive names for hundreds of hills, meadows and outcroppings, each linked to a story about the ancestors who first conferred that name. These stories each illustrate key elements of Apache philosophy and morality. The landscape itself, therefore, helps preserve and strengthen morality, knowledge, spirit and culture. That’s why the White Mountain leaders resolved to do whatever they had to do to hold on to their sacred places.
Impressed by the restraint and warmth of the White Mountain Apaches, Green stopped burning their cornfields and recommended establishment of the fort. By the time construction began on the fort in May of 1870, the soldiers often found themselves protecting the White Mountain Apache from attacks by the in rushing settlers and other Apache bands. Subsequently, many White Mountain men fought as scouts and guides alongside the soldiers. They proved crucial in the Army’s campaign against other Apache bands, many of whom were traditional enemies of the White Mountain bands.
The soldiers probably spent more time building and maintaining the fort than they did on their long, arduous and often futile patrols. The post established its own sawmill and built a row of log cabins for officers, but conditions remained primitive and demanding. Even after Crook established a wagon route along the Mogollon Rim connecting it to Camp Verde, Fort Apache remained a remote and primitive outpost.
Apache leaders struggled to maintain peace. The settlers and soldiers often made little distinction between the mostly peaceful White Mountain bands and the Chiricahua and Tonto Apache bands that often moved through the area — raiding as they went. Frequently, the settled White Mountain bands bore the brunt of the anger of the whites — but their chiefs struggled to prevent the White Mountain warriors from retaliating. Nonetheless, the federal government in 1875 forced most of the White Mountain bands to leave their beloved homeland and move to San Carlos. That decision prompted some fighting with bands which refused to move and created internal divisions when the Army decided to let one band continue living near the fort.
Noch-ay-del-klinne, a medicine man and leader of one of the Cibicue bands, started an Apache form of the Ghost Dance in an effort to heal those divisions. A former scout himself, Noch-ay-del-klinne urged his followers to stop fighting and await the resurrection of dead chiefs and warriors whose return would herald the departure of the whites. Fearing Noch-ay-del-klinne would unite the various bands, the Army arrested him at Cibicue Creek in August of 1881. Shooting broke out, the scouts mutinied, and the soldiers killed Noch-ay-del-klinne, his wife and son. The enraged warriors attacked the soldiers, who escaped back to the fort. The warriors briefly besieged the fort, which marked the only attack on a fort by Indians in the Southwest.
The incident triggered several months of fighting by several White Mountain bands, the destruction of the remnant of Noch-ay-del-klinne’s band at the battle at Big Dry Wash, and the eventual execution of three of the scouts for mutiny. The conflict prompted Geronimo and several Chiricahua bands that had been living on the reservation to take once more to the warpath. The White Mountain Apache leaders managed to restore peace and White Mountain scouts played a crucial role in fighting Geronimo’s Chiricahuas and restoring peace to the bloodstained Southwest.
The military value of the post declined quickly after the end of the struggle with the Apaches in the late 1880s and was shut down as a military base by 1922. It operated as a bordering school starting in 1923 — initially to “civilize” Indian children removed unwillingly from their homes. However, the tribe in recent decades assumed control of the school. Students learn to speak Apache and can also learn songs and ceremonials. The school also sponsors lectures, demonstrations and open-air performances for the community.
“There’s a lot of pain embedded in the place,” said Welch thoughtfully. “But even before the fort, it was the Place Where White Rushes Grow. Deep emotional connections link people to these places, it’s how the world is organized. So this is about bringing this place back into the community — and at the same time using it as a bridge to other communities.”
Fort Apache Historic Park is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday during the winter. It is closed on all major holidays. For information, call (928) 338-4625.