Tuesday, September 27, 2022

West of Dragoon


Westbound Amtrak Number 1 to Los Angeles glides downgrade beneath Adams Peak.  The train has crested the summit at Dragoon and will soon reach the bottom of the hill at Benson.

Anything one writes about Arizona will not do it justice.  Big, broad, bucolic, bountiful, breathtaking -- each word comes close, but not close enough.  Any state containing the Grand Canyon is beyond compare, but the Grand Canyon is only the beginning of this state, not the end.  Deserts, mountains, canyons, ancient cliff dwellings -- Arizona has it all.  Everything.

Let's start with mountains.  Your author cannot accurately determine the number of different ranges in this state.  Some lists include 193.  Others as many as 222.  One thing is certain.  It is difficult if not impossible to find a location in Arizona where you cannot see a mountain.  Even the Colorado Plateau in the northeast, a geographic formation generally bereft of mountains, is dominated by San Francisco Peak, a gigantic, still active, stratovolcano over 12,000 feet.

Climate?  If you don't like winter, you can live in the Sonoran Desert.  If you don't like summer, you can live in the San Francisco Volcano Field.  You can commute between both, as many do, and never be cold or hot.  You can pitch your tent beside a majestic Saguaro, or you can ski across the deep snow near Flagstaff.  Take your pick.  

At dusk, eastbound stacks climb the grade toward Dragoon.

Arizona flowered with the invention of air conditioning.  Your author knows this firsthand, this miracle wrought by air conditioning, because he grew up in Oklahoma before the advent of that magic elixir.  In the dead of summer -- and "dead" is the appropriate word -- nothing happened in the afternoon.  Nothing.  Schools were closed.  Court was not in session.  Dogs did not bark.  Baptists left the church.  Everything was motionless, like a dragonfly suspended in amber, until the sun went down and the first hint of cooler air arrived.

As a child, I lay in my bed, positioned directly in front of the open window, luxuriating in the breeze pulled into my parents' small house by the attic fan in the hallway ceiling.  That breeze was a gift from God.  The temperature was 85, but after an afternoon of 105, it felt like heaven.

Air conditioning changed everything.  Air conditioning allowed schools to teach in July.  Air conditioning allowed court to remain in session in August.  It allowed dogs to bark and Baptists to pray.  Air conditioning allowed Phoenix, Arizona's population to grow from 65,414 in 1940 to 1,640,641 in 2021.

Eastbound UP stacks have left Benson, Arizona, and are climbing out of the valley of the San Pedro River toward the summit at Dragoon.  Adams Peak is in the background.

Westbound Amtrak Number 1 rounds the big curve toward Benson, Arizona, with the Dragoon Mountains in the backgrouind.

Today we are interested in the southeastern corner of Arizona, Cochise County, named after the famous Apache Chief, a Western Robert E. Lee, fighting a hopeless war against a massively superior foe, yet prevailing in skirmish after skirmish, as though a higher power were guiding his strategy.  Before the building of the railroad, before the appearance of the stage coach, this land (along with southwestern New Mexico) was the northern range of the Apache, who also moved at will like a desert breeze through northern Sonora and Chihuahua. 


Before the Civil War,  and before Cochise began his own personal war with the white invaders, Congress authorized surveys to determine the best railroad route to the Pacific Ocean.  A portion of the survey along the 32nd parallel -- from Yuma, Arizona, across the recently acquired territory of the Gadsden purchase in Arizona and New Mexico to the Rio Grande -- was led by Lieutenant John G. Parke, whose report described the territory discussed here, specifically the climb from Benson to the summit at Dragoon:

"February 27 [1854] -- From the river bottom to the base of this ridge extends a foot-slope, appearing as if once smooth and of uniform ascent, but now cut up into a perfect labyrinth of washes and gullies, ramifying and branching into a multitude of arms as we ascend.  Returning to camp, I determined to take the gap through which we passed last night.  Packing up, we followed the river until striking the wagon trails, then turned eastward up a large sand ravine, and camped at sundown without water, but a sufficiency of grass.

"February 28 -- Left the ravine near the mountains, the road leading over a smooth, rolling, prairie-like surface through the pass, the summit of which we reached at 11 o'clock.  Before us lay an extended plain, in the middle of which is the Salt lake, Playa de los Pimas [today called Wilcox Playa] and beyond this the Chiricahui [sic] ridge, with its lofty Dos Cabezas; to the north the massive Mount Graham, with an apparently continuous ridge extending northwestward till lost below the horizon."  

 The Union Pacific line from Los Angeles to New Orleans (the old Southern Pacific Sunset Route) runs through this territory and crosses the summit described by Lieutenant Parke.  From Benson on the west, the tracks climb out of the valley of the San Pedro River, crossing the "perfect labyrinth of washes and gullies" to the summit at Dragoon.  At 4,632 feet, this tiny settlement is the second highest point on the Sunset Route, the highest being Paisano Pass in southwest Texas at 5,074 feet.

Dragoon is located in the seat of a saddle between the Little Dragoon Mountains and the Dragoon Mountains.  Interstate 10 passes through Texas Canyon about three miles to the east.  The name originates from the 3rd U.S. Cavalry Dragoons, who battled Cochise during the Apache Wars.

The village is tiny -- a church, post office, a few ramshackle houses scattered among prolific mesquite.  The eastern grade is short, only a few miles, and trains rarely struggle.  The western grade, on the other hand, twists and turns for miles before finally obtaining the wide grass lands between the opposing mountain ridges. 

When you stand along the county road in Dragoon, you do not feel at the top of a mountain grade.  Instead, surrounded by peaks of various shapes and sizes, you seem to be in a valley.  Yet trains roar for miles.  Lying in bed, you hear the low-pitched rumble, like a movement deep underground, reverberant, not at all incongruous in the loneliness of the Sonoran Desert.  You have the sense that consequential events occurred here, that this place is worth examining if one wants to understand the Southwest. 

This map shows the area covered in this article -- Benson to Dragoon.

In 1862, the Confederacy claimed Arizona as a territory.  That same year, a group of Confederate soldiers, transporting Union prisoners to Texas, was ambushed near Dragoon by Chiricahua Apache warriors (led by Chochise) who killed three soldiers and captured most of the livestock and horses -- the First Battle of Dragoon Springs.  The Southerners retaliated in the Second Battle of Dragoon Springs and took back the animals.

The Butterfield Overland Mail climbed the pass at Dragoon and was constantly harassed by the Apache.  South of the summit is Cochise Stronghold, the canyon where the Chief and his band took refuge when pursued.  This deep defile in dark granite is entered by a narrow mouth that the Apache successfully defended against every attack.  General O.O. Howard traveled there for the conference that produced the famous treaty of 1872, beginning the end of the Apache Wars in Arizona.  Cochise is buried near the canyon's mouth, but no white man has ever known the exact location.

Eastbound stacks climbing toward the Dragoon summit.  The Little Dragoon Mountains rise in the background.

Westbound stacks in full dynamics beneath the Little Dragoon Mountains.

One-armed General Oliver Otis Howard was called the "Christian General" during the Civil War, though the sobriquet was often employed sarcastically.  He was wounded in the right arm at the Battle of Seven Pines and subsequently underwent amputation.  A rare man of principal, he meant exactly what he said and could be trusted without reserve.  Every ounce of his faith and integrity was both needed and tested during negotiations with Cochise, who had been betrayed by American troops during previous peace negotiations, and whose distrust and hatred of white men in and out of uniform was deep, abiding and justified.  Taken prisoner under what he had been told was a flag of truce, Cochise had barely escaped with his life and for the next 12 years had fought a constant and incredibly successful battle against the Americans, given his relative lack of resources and the size of the opposing forces.  But by 1872, Cochise was growing old and infirm; he realized that he was fighting a war of attrition that he could not possibly win.

President Grant also realized that continual war with the Apache in Arizona and New Mexico was not in the country's best interest and so drafted General Howard to travel to the Southwest with full authority to settle the dispute by whatever terms Howard felt appropriate.  Traveling with his assistant, Lieutenant Joseph Alton Sladen, who kept a diary of the trip, Howard spent almost two months searching for the illusive Cochise.  Howard and Sladen journeyed from Fort Apache, Arizona, to Fort Tularosa, New Mexico, riding through deserts and the brutal heat of August, crossing rugged mountain summits requiring them to dismount and lead their horses by hand, before finally finding someone who could help them locate the Chief of the Chokonen band of Chiricahua Apaches.  

Mid-trains grinding upgrade toward the summit at Dragoon.

Rolling downgrade beside mature agave plants, which are fermented to make mescal.

That man was Thomas Jonathan Jeffords,  thin and tall with deeply set eyes and a general expression of distrust, as though he had seen enough in life to realize that anyone is capable of anything, given the proper circumstances.  During the Civil War, Jeffords was a dispatch rider for Union General Edward R.S. Canby.  Later, he worked as a stage coach driver and prospector.  In 1869, he began trading with the Apache and met Cochise in 1870 when the Chief brought his people to New Mexico.  It was said that Jeffords was the only white man Cochise trusted.

Howard wanted Jeffords to find Cochise and bring him to New Mexico for peace talks.  Jeffords was likely laughing, or at least chuckling, when he replied that Cochise would never travel to New Mexico to meet the General.  Instead, Jeffords proposed to lead Howard to Cochise's stronghold in Arizona.  But the trip, Jeffords insisted, must be made without soldiers.  Cochise would never meet again with soldiers, not after the attempt on his life.  General Howard agreed.  

General Oliver Otis Howard

To facilitate the meeting with Cochise, Jeffords recruited two Chiricahua men -- Chie and Ponce -- both nephews of Cochise, one by blood, the other by marriage.  They were also brothers-in-law.  Chie had been raised by Cochise after federal soldiers had executed the boy's father.  He knew southeastern Arizona like the back of his hand.  Ponce, who had married Chie's sister, knew southwestern New Mexico equally well.  

General Howard's instructions from President Grant, through Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, were:

"The Department invests you with full powers and a general discretion, to be exercised, as your good judgement may dictate in carrying into effect its views in relation to these Indians. . . . The great object of the government is:  First:  to preserve peace between the U.S. and those as well as all other tribes of Indians.  Second:  to induce them to abandon their present habits of life and go upon permanent reservations."

This points to the fulcrum of the dispute between the U.S. Government and Native Americans generally -- the concept of private property, a bedrock of English Common Law imported to the New World and rooted in the psyche of European immigrants as firmly as an ancient redwood.  Virtually all of American law and commerce is based on this concept.  When we think of private property, we think of real estate, a piece of ground, a lake front, a house, a condominium, something that we call "mine."  But the concept extends further.  Trademarks, patents and copyrights are all forms of intellectual private property.  A popular song, a popular movie, a novel -- all belong to some one or some entity, or both.  Commerce depends on private ownership.

Thomas Jonathan Jeffords

But this is not the only way to organize a society.  Communal ownership is the idea that a piece of ground, a song, an institution, is not owned by an individual but rather by the community.  Indeed, communal ownership is common today in the United States -- national parks, public highways, public libraries, state universities, community swimming pools.  After so many years, works of music and literature migrate to the public domain and are available for use by anyone at anytime.

For Native Americans, and specifically the Apache, the concept of private property did not exist.  Everything was communal.  Cochise may have inhabited his stronghold for a generation, but he did not own it.  His family did not own it.  The land was available for all, and all were free to move about as they saw fit.  Thus, the Apache freely roamed through Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora and Chihuahua.

As European descendants moved in, however, conflict was inevitable, because these new immigrants wanted to own land, to fence it, to protect it against trespassers.  Under such conditions, how could the Apache move freely?  That is why the President of the United States wanted General Howard to convince Cochise and his band to move to a reservation, a specific piece of private property, and stop roaming.

These westbound stacks have crested the Dragoon summit and are beginning the descent to the valley of the San Pedro River.


More downgrade stacks.  The trees in the background are the small settlement of Dragoon.

We know the intimate details of General Howard's meeting with Cochise because of the journal kept by his aid, Lieutenant Sladen, a veteran of the Civil War who received the Medal of Honor for heroism at the Battle of Resaca, Georgia.  He was of average height for the time, about five feet six inches, had joined General Howard's staff during the War and had remained with the general after Appomattox when Howard was placed in charge of the Freedman's Bureau.  During this time, Sladen attended medical school and received an M.D. from Bellevue Medical College in New York City. 

Sladen's journal, though written in 1872, was not published until 1997 by the University of Oklahoma Press, edited by Edwin R. Sweeney.  The volume is still in print and well worth reading by anyone interested in the history of the American Southwest.
Slayden in 1872.

Sladen's journal, written in strikingly vivid and beautiful prose, narrates the long (six weeks) and dangerous trip from Fort Tularosa, New Mexico, to Cochise's stronghold and describes in detail the two weeks the Lieutenant spent with Cochise and his band in the Dragoon Mountains.  Although Cochise was by then in his twilight, Sladen portrays him as able, wise and revered by those around him.  

The most remarkable thing about the journal, for this author, at least, is the character arc undergone by Sladen himself, who went from, at the beginning of the journey, viewing the Apache as untrustworthy and murderous savages, to at the end realizing that they were people with the same hopes and fears as his own family, people whose lives had been shattered, never to be repaired.

Cochise's younger men had all grown up during the constant fighting with the Americans, and most had grown weary of it and wished now to remain at home with their families.  This made the negotiations much easier.  Although all the Apache distrusted whites, particularly soldiers, the honest and unassuming character of both Howard and Sladen also facilitated negotiation, for as Cochise himself stated, the two had risked death in riding to the stronghold, an honorable act, and Cochise prized honor.

The power of this westbound manifest has just crested the summit at Dragoon.  The signals and road crossing are literally at the very top of the grade.

Eastbound autos approach the summit.

Eastbound grain passes westbound stacks.


Sladen never intended his journal for publication, which makes the quality of the prose even more remarkable.  What we find is the language of someone talking to himself, attempting to make no impression on the greater world, like a man's smiling in the mirror at his receding hairline.  Here is Sladen's description of the view from Chochise's stronghold:

"From this elevated point the Sulphur Springs Plains on the East, and the San Pedro Valley on the West, were both plainly visible, and from where they were lost in the peaks and ranges in the far North, to the mountain chains of old Mexico on the South, all lay in gorgeous panorama before us."

Cochise and General Howard first met October 1, 1872.  After a short discussion, Cochise asked the General to travel to Fort Bowie to issue orders that American soldiers would not fire upon Apache warriors riding to counsel at the stronghold.  The General agreed, leaving Jeffords and Sladen in camp with Cochise.  The order was given, the General returned and the last of the warriors arrived October 10 to discuss peace.

Sladen's first inkling of the humanity and prowess of the Apache came while General Howard was away.  Evening was drawing down, and Sladen proposed to light his pipe.

"I had left my flint and steel at the Camp below, and as I saw no fire, I indicated to the Indians that I had no means of lighting my pipe.  One of them got a little piece of dry wood, and placing one end of a blunt arrow in a little depression in it, took his bow and making a twist once around the arrow with his bow string, worked it back and forth rapidly for a few seconds, causing the friction to ignite the soft wood, and then dropping the few live coals into my pipe, the fire was obtained, and the others obtained their lights from my pipe.  The whole operation did not take as long as it does to tell it, and I wondered at the resources of these people who could command all the necessities of nature in a region so poorly supplied that a white man would have perished from want."

Rolling downgrade toward Benson, a ballast train is framed beneath the Dragon Mountains, the location of the Cochise Stronghold.

Westbound stacks beneath the Little Dragoon Mountains.

More westbound stacks.

Sladen discussed his first experience with  tiswin, a fermented drink "sweet and pleasant to the taste."  The Apache soaked corn kernels until they sprouted, then removed them from the water and ground them into mash, which was then boiled for several hours and strained. The mash was then sweetened with saguaro syrup and fermented in an earthenware brewing jar.  Accordingly to Sladen, the drink was low in alcoholic content, so before drinking, the Apache would "go without food for a day and then drink the liquor in large quantities."

One evening, the young men and women began to dance to the tom-tom, the only musical instrument Sladen saw.  Holding hands, they danced in a circle, some moving to the center, then back again, then others, and so repeating endlessly, all accompanied by singing the same songs over and over.  The dancing continued throughout the evening.  When one would stop to rest, another would take his or her place.  Jeffords and Sladen joined, and "the peals of laughter . . . were loud and hearty." 

Some of the old women produced jars of tiswin; everyone drank repeatedly.  The singing grew louder, the dancing more animated.  Sladen moved away from the celebration, lay down beside a tree and fell asleep, only to be awakened by two old women who insisted that he return to the dance.

Sometime after midnight, the young men and women looked into the sky, "pointed to the Pleiades and scampered away to their sleeping places."  The old men and women continued the celebration, and Slayden again fell asleep to the sound of laughter.   

Eastbbound stacks are climbing into the same darkness in which Sladen fell asleep.

Same train.

Sladen was again awakened by someone tugging at his blanket.  He slowly opened his eyes and saw the Chief's son, Na-Chise, trying to crawl beneath the blanket to escape the rapidly cooling night.

"Mucho frio, Captain," he said.  "Mucho frio."

Sladen spread the blanket wide, the boy crept beneath and they both fell asleep.

"This boy, Na-Chise, became a favorite of mine during the two weeks we remained with this people,  and he evidently conceived a fondness for me, for he became my ever present companion, never leaving me for scarcely a moment alone, and following me about where I went.  Every article of dress I wore, and the content of my saddle-bags, all were of the greatest interest to him, and he examined them over and over again.  He would feel of my hands, handle my hair and beard, and paw me all over.  At first it was very annoying, but I soon found that it was only curiosity, and that not the slightest article was taken away, and so I grew accustomed to it."

When all of Cochise's warriors had arrived, peace negotiations commenced, and it quickly became apparent that everyone wanted the fighting to cease.  Cochise was old and tired and did not want to spend his final years in dubious battle.  General Howard was also feeling the effects of advancing years.  As men age, combat loses its honor and glory and begins to look as pointless as bailing water from a sinking boat with a tea cup.  As surely as the boat will sink, the old men will perish.  So why keep bailing?  Why not sit in peace, perhaps drink some tiswin, smoke a pipe?

It was agreed that the Chokonen band of the Chiricahua Apache would be granted territory in eastern Arizona, to be known as the Chiricahua Reservation, that Jeffords would be appointed agent to the federal government, and that the boundaries would be large enough to allow hunting.

And that was the end of it.  Just like that, the war with Cochise and the Chokonen band was over.  (Fighting with the other Apache bands did not end until 1886,14 years later, with the surrender of Geronimo.  Nonetheless, attacks in the region discussed in this article abated, making possible railroad construction to the Dragoon summit.)  

Eastbound toward the summit, beneath the Little Dragoon Mountains.

Another eastbound.

Kansas City Southern leads the way to Benson.

Approaching the summit.

The Southern Pacific created the town of Benson, Arizona, the terminus of its eastward expansion in 1880.  The city grew rapidly.  In six months there were several stores and small shops, the two-story Benson Hotel, and the usual compliment of saloons and bordellos.  Three stage lines operated to the new mining communities of Tombstone and Bisbee.  

Surveying proceeded apace out of town, following the 19th century practice of the path of least resistance along available water courses.  The San Pedro River was bridged and stakes were driven east across its wide valley, but the surveyors soon were forced to leave the river behind and begin a treacherous climb through deep clay and sand hills, with some cuts over 50 feet deep, the grade over one percent in places,   The locating engineer plotted a series of curves bending the track north, then south, then north again, then south, then east, finally turning northeast into a wide valley, away from the hills and between mountains, climbing a moderate though still taxing grade along Dragoon Wash to the summit.  

Construction crews followed with horse-drawn Fresno scrapers, leveling the ground for ties and rails.  The laborers were mostly abused and unappreciated Chinese, and it took over a thousand to construct what today would be accomplished with three or four giant yellow earth movers and one or two road graders.

The tracks have turned south and entered the hills.  In the foreground is a remnant of the original grade, realigned several years ago to remove sharp curves.

Westbound through the hills, approaching the San Pedro Valley.

In the deep cuts.

Eastbound Amtrak Number 2 has left the sand and  clay hills and is climbing between mountain ridges toward Dragoon.

There are no direct roads from Benson to Dragoon -- nothing save the railroad.  The mountains, valleys, canyons and streams are all quiet, bearing no evidence of 19th century struggle and strife.  The Cochise Stronghold is a public park where families travel for picnics.  The silence is broken by the occasional Union Pacific freight, one or two per hour, but they pass and the silence returns.  Amtrak's Sunset Limited is more like a ghost than a train, so quickly does it flit into and out of existence.  In the heart of the desert, in this place, the struggle and turmoil of so long ago are lost, prose written in a language no one now alive can decipher.

But when the sun sets, the silence grows even more profound, if that is possible, and you stand alone in the desert, and if you listen closely, eyes closed, more closely than you have ever listened in your life, you may hear what sounds like the laughter of a small boy running his hands through the beard of Lieutenant Joseph Alton Sladen, and then you realize that in the end, after the struggle and fighting and grief have stopped, in the end, only the desert prevails.

To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.

To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.

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