Ft. Cummings and Cooke's Spring

This page is based heavily on Cooke’s Peak - Pasaron Por Aqui - A Focus on United States History in Southwestern New Mexico, by Donald Howard Couchman, 1990 - Cultural Resources Bulletin No. 7 of the United States Bureau of Land Management (26.1 MB).  Available at the above link as a .pdf file and here as an online readable book.   References to page (below) refer to that document.  Elsewhere it is referenced as Couchman - p. “x”.  This book is extensively researched and well written.  The footnotes in the book are the definitive historical bibliography of this area.

Basic Geography of the Area

Current access to the site is via a dirt track and a high clearance vehicle is necessary if you value your oil pan.  “Desert pinstrips” will be added to your vehicle on this road. Desert pinstripes are the long scratches on the side of a vehicle created by brush along the road.  See our Ft. Cummings Road video, below, for route information.  This video (and the one to Cooks Townsite - see near the end of this page) are from our video portfolio of The Roads of the Black Range.  SEE ALSO - THE SOUTHERN ROADS AUTO TOUR PAGE.

Southern Roads Map

The image to the right shows the approximate locations of the three other road videos we host in this area.  The roads into Cooke’s Peak and Frying Pan Canyon are very difficult and a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle with accomplished driver is very desirable.  Concern for the oil pan is a constant on the Cooke’s Peak access road and I have gone 3-wheeling on the Frying Pan Canyon access (3-wheeling is where there are three wheels on the ground and one in the air - bad for vehicle frames and windows).  That said, they are far from impossible and provide great access to adventure and areas which are not often visited.  With an appropriate vehicle other roads in the area may be accessible.

On the image to the right, NM-26 is the highway shown at the bottom right.  

The summit of Cooke’s Peak has an elevation of 8,404 feet; it is an imposing feature both in shape and mass.  The Apache called it “Standing Mountain”, the Spanish called it Picacho de los Mimbres and Cerro de los Remedios - the latter from a map of 1758 (p. 19).  The Americans named it after Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke who commanded the volunteers of the Mormon Battalion when they passed through this area.  Cooke’s Peak is the highest point along the ridge, at center right, in the photograph below.  The Ft. Cummings site is on the plains at the base of the mountain.

Cooke's Range, Sierra County, New Mexico

Near its base is Cooke’s Spring, which was the only dependable water in the area, and it was the spring that brought people (Mimbres, Apaches, Mexicans, Anglos, et al.) to the area.  (Today the water is not potable - when it is present.) 

The History of the Area Prior to Ft. Cummings

Across the ridge from Ft. Cummings there are several petroglyph sites near springs and (what were) agricultural fields.  Most of the Mogollon (Mimbres) sites are found on the west side of the ridge, north through the Mimbres Valley.  Those sites are dealt with on the Fluorite Ridge page because it is Green Leaf Road which provides the easiest access to the area.  The Mimbres village that had existed near Cooke’s Spring was called San Miguel by the Spanish.  By the time the Europeans entered the area most (all?) of the inhabitants were Apache.

The Black Range and its environs are rich in minerals.  Native Americans had worked the mine now known as Santa Rita since about CE 900.  Artifacts of copper from this mine were found at Etowah, Georgia, which was a Native American city from about 880 to 1550 (p. 21.)  Mineral reserves of this type brought Spaniards and Anglos to the area. 

A component of the de Anza expedition, led by Martinez, camped at “Cooke’s Spring" on November 18, 1780.  He called the spring San Miguel.  A few days later (November 28) de Anza stopped at the spring.  He called the spring Picacho (p. 20). 


The Santa Rita mine was opened by the Spaniards in 1804, it was abandoned because of conflict with the Apaches, and in 1825, James and Sylvester Pattie, James Kirker, and Nathaniel Pryor reopened the mine (p. 23).  It was abandoned in 1838 because of increasing warfare between the Europeans and the Apaches (p. 24).  Later reopened again, it remains operational today (photograph to the right).


In 1832 a company led by David Jackson (traveling to California from Santa Fe) most likely stopped at the springs.  In the 1830’s the springs were a stop on the Gila River Trail, which was a major route from Santa Fe to San Diego and Los Angeles (p. 23).

On November 16, 1846, Lieutenant Colonel (US Army) Philip St. George Cooke and the Mormon Battalion camped at the springs and the name “Cooke’s Spring” was given (p. 39).  The next day they crossed the ridge to the west of the spring and camped at Frying Pan Springs (p. 41) after “having marched only three miles".  The image of Cooke, to the right was made prior to the Civil War.

On April 30, 1851, Bartlett (the US Boundary Commissioner for the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) stopped at the springs, describing them as “a pool, some 50 feet across, surrounded by rushes.  The water is a little brackish, but the grass in the vicinity is excellent.” (p. 56)

The Gadsden Purchase (last payment made in February 1856) added the land to the United States.  From that date, the route that constituted the Gila River Trail and Wagon Road was in the United States (p. 61).

As one of the nine reliable water sources between the Rio Grande and the Pima settlements, Cooke’s Spring was regularly visited by the military, gold seekers, cowboys taking cattle to California, sheepherders taking sheep to California, general emigrants, and Apaches.   The Gila Trail was the route westward chosen by most Southerners (p. 70).

The hardships faced by travelers along this route were myriad.  When the Cornelius Cox party arrived at the Rio Grande above Dona Ana on July 23, 1849, they found the river to be 150 yards across.  By August 4 they had reached Cooke’s Spring and complained that the water was bad (p. 74).  After being bitten by a wolf, one of the party contracted rabies and died two days later.

On May 9, 1857, James Leach was given the job of constructing a wagon road from Franklin (El Paso) to Yuma.  The route selected for the section near Cooke’s Spring is shown below (p. 91).  As part of the road construction, Leach’s workforce constructed two overflow tanks that provided 27,000 gallons of water in addition to the spring water (p. 92).

Leach's Wagon Road 3

In 1857, Cooke’s Spring was a stop on the San Antonio to San Diego Mail Company route (p. 95).  The line starting carrying passengers in 1858 (p. 96).  The fare from San Antonio to El Paso was $100, to San Diego $200.  The trip generally took a month (p. 97).

After various machinations, the Butterfield Stage Company took over the mail service, starting service in September 1858.  Part of the contract with the US allowed the mail carrier to also transport passengers and freight.  A swing station was established at Cooke’s Spring (about one-half mile southeast of the Spring).  Swing stations were used to change teams and did not provide food or lodging for passengers.  Initially the station was a tent, but that was eventually replaced with an adobe structure (p. 102).

During the early days of the stage coach service there was little interference from the various Indian tribes.  That is not to say, however, that vicious fights did not occur between the Anglos (soldiers and civilians) on one hand and the Apaches on the other during this period (p. 113).  The Apache attitude towards the coaches changed dramatically on February 4, 1861, when Lt. Nicholas Bascom kidnapped the family of Cochise while they were at a stage station in Arizona.  Things escalated on both sides from that event (p. 128).  Bascom died at the Battle of Valverde, six miles from Fort Craig, on February 21, 1862.

When Texas seceded from the union, the Butterfield Route was terminated.  But this being the west, Giddings, who had a contract for the route before Butterfield, was awarded a new contract for the route.  The Freeman Thomas - Apache Indian fight (July 1861) and decisions in Washington, D.C. effectively ended Giddings efforts (p. 133-134).

By June of 1861, conditions in the area can only be called chaos.  Soldiers of the United States and soldiers from the slave-holding states moved about trying to consolidate forces, the citizenry was agitated and in turmoil - most had southern sympathies - and the Apaches were making warfare on the Anglos instead of the Mexicans (p. 139).  The Texas invasion of New Mexico was stopped at the Battle of Glorieta on March 28, 1862.

Fort Cummings

With the Texan slave-holders defeated, Union forces turned to the Indians.  Among the efforts they undertook was the establishment of a series of new forts.  Fort Cummings, at Cooke’s Spring, was established on October 2, 1863, as part of this effort (p. 168).  The fort wast staffed with Union troops from California when first established.  

The war in the Southwest was with the Apache, not the Southern States.  The list of skirmishes and battles is extensive.  On May 29, 1864, for instance, Captain George Burkett and 33 of his men surprised Apaches at a rancheria in the Gila.  Among the items seized was a ton of mescal.  Like their brethren in Sonora, the Apaches in the American Southwest harvested and roasted mescal.  But, apparently, they did not take the additional step of fermenting the mescal and making an alcoholic beverage.  In the north, the roasted mescal was a food staple.  The Apaches at the rancheria were also growing corn and wheat.  (The bias of victors is evident in such encounters, if the roles had been reversed and the Apaches had swept down on an Anglo or Hispanic village it would be remembered as a “massacre”.)

At the new Fort Cummings, a garden was quickly established near the marsh which formed from Cooke’s Spring.  The troops were eager to supplement their army fare.  

In some locales, forts are a number of buildings with a guarded perimeter.  In other places, forts are enclosed within stockades.  Fort Cummings was of the latter design, with ten foot high adobe walls that had no windows facing out.  The fort’s design is shown below (p. 172).  The Guard House and Prison (1 & 2) were constructed of stone.

Ft cummings design 2

In the spring of 1865, Nana asked the Indian Agent (Michael Steck) for peace negotiations, but the Fort Cummings Commander, Carleton, refused to allow Steck to go, stating that it was a military matter.  An Army officer went instead and the “negotiations” were not fruitful.  (See our Tales of Lake Valley page for more about Nana.)

Fort Cummings was generally staffed with 78 soldiers.  (Usually only 40 - 45 were available for duty at any particular time.)  In September of 1865, Company C of the First Cavalry California Volunteers and 10 other troops added 100 soldiers to the rolls.  In addition, from 30 to 50 civilians were generally working at the post at any given time (p. 173).  Most of the soldiers’ efforts were focused in providing escort services east, west, and to Pinos Altos.  Confrontations between the Anglos and the Apaches continued.  On January 17, 1866, four soldiers at a temporary camp established to gather wood for the fort were killed by Apaches and one was wounded.  Their gravestone is the most formal market at the Ft. Cummings cemetery.  The camp was only four and a half miles from Ft. Cummings.

Fort Cummings Cemetery, Sierra County, New Mexico, USA


To assist in the Apache Wars, the army established Ft. Bayard, near Pinos Altos, on August 21, 1866.  Army express riders, carrying mail along the old mail routes, continued to be targets of opportunity for the Apaches (p. 174).  On August 25, 1866 two soldiers traveling from Camp Mimbres to Ft. Cummings were attacked by Apaches and one (Private Charles Williams).  His grave site is on the plains west of Cooke’s Peak (photo left).  On September 10, 1866, the stock herd at Ft. Cummings was stampeded by Apaches.

In 1866 Congress allowed the post commissary to sell to soldiers at cost.  Canned vegetables, butter, potatoes, oysters, and pickles could be purchased for the occasional extravagance - if you can imagine it, it could be canned.  The “restored” commissary shown here is at Ft. Davis, Texas.  On December 10, 1866, a post office was established at the fort (p. 175).

The Army failed to report the fact that two Apache boys managed to enter Ft. Cummings at this time and steal a shotgun and pistol.  Apparently they took a rope with a large stone attached to the end, threw the rope over the adobe wall, and sawed through the adobe with the rope weighted by the stone on the other side.  After cutting into the adobe for a couple of feet, they pulled the rope taut and climbed over the wall (p. 178).  Incidents of this type are mentioned in Parker’s work (see immediately below) on pp. 21-22 and 29-30.

You may wish to read “Annals of Old Fort Cummings” by William Thornton Parker, M.D. which was published in 1916.  Some authorities argue that Parker may have “overstated” at times.  The drawing below is his recollection of what the fort was like at the time of his service.  

shapeimage 1

In 1867, the Kerns and Mitchell Company took over the abandoned Butterfield et al. stage route.  The soldiers at Ft. Cummings were called on to provide escort services for the stages.  The troops were also tasked with cleaning up Cooke’s Canyon.  Seems all of the human skeletons along the route disturbed the stage coach passengers.  The human remains were transferred to the to the Ft. Cummings cemetery and placed in “unknown” graves (photograph below).  (p.178).

From BLM signage at the site:

Cemetery Ridge was the site initially selected by a board of officers for the location of Fort Cummings.  The hill next to the stage station, however, did not offer sufficient level space for the proposed fort which would also have been vulnerable to enemy fire from an adjacent hill.

The Fort Cummings’ cemetery is enclosed by the remnants of a thick stone wall, constructed in a square approximately 150 feet on each side.  The cemetery was established, soon after the military occupied Fort Cummings, when stage passengers complained of numerous human skeletons being visible from the road.  Soldiers were detailed to collect the remains which were probably then buried in a common grave.  The surrounding wall was erected in 1867 by the Black soldiers of the 38th Infantry.  The wall project may have been a punishment detail as a result of an alleged mutiny by several of the enlisted men.

David and Maria Schrode stopped at Cooke’s Spring on September 26, 1870, on their way from Texas to California, with their eight children and nearly 1,500 cattle.  Maria, who had turned 44 on June 20, recorded in her diary: ‘Arrived at Fort Cummings, and visited the graveyard.  It is walled in with rough stones about 5 feet high, white washed, with a folding gate.  Some of the graves are walled in with rock.  I noticed 6 of them had been killed by the Apache Indians.  There was only about 20 graves in all.’

In 1892, or perhaps a little later, the remains were allegedly transferred to the National Cemetery at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for reburial.  Indications were that 74 bodies, including 25 unknown , were exhumed.  Other official records indicate that there should have been a total of 80 burials with 36 whose identity had not been determined.  Fort Leavenworth records, however, show no reinterments from Fort Cummings.

The only headstone in the cemetery, placed at a later date, records the deaths of four privates from Company G of the 1st Veteran (reenlisted) Infantry of the California Volunteers…(they)…were killed by Apaches on January 17, 1866, while on a wood cutting detail a few miles from the fort.

The Fort Cummings military cemetery lies adjacent to the old Butterfield Stage Station...

Fort Cummings Cemetery, Sierra County, New Mexico, USA

ft cummings 1867

Names are sometimes difficult to fix to geographic features.  In October 1867, a survey crew for the Kansas Pacific Railway Company named Cooke’s Canyon “Palmer’s Pass” (p. 178).  A photographer attached to the crew, Dr. William Abraham Bell, took the photograph to the right, of the fort from the general area of the cemetery.

BLM signage at the site states (in part): 

…In Bell’s report of his adventures he noted: “While the surveyors were running their line through Palmer’s Pass (their name for a gap near Mule Spring), I went with some wagons for supplies to Fort Cummings, and visited Cooke’s Canyon, which pass the fort projects.  Hundreds of miles before I reached it, I listened with anxiety to the stories told me by the frontier men about the dreadful massacres perpetrated by the Indians in that dread gorge.  It was said that even the soldiers dared not stir a mile from the post, and that it was ‘just a toss up’ whether any traveler got through alive...

The signage goes on to say:

Examination of the photograph indicates that the front face of the fort was white-washed and disproves the statement that there were neither any windows in the exterior wall nor any opening other than the sally port and the rear gate.

In front of the fort can be seen the sutler’s (Army provisioner’s) building either under construction or being expanded.  Portions of the sutler’s structure remain as the stark adobe walls seen today near the fort’s entrance.

At the time this photograph was taken, Company A of the 38th Infantry, a Black regiment, had just relieved Companies D and I of the 25th Infantry (also a Black unit) and a detachment of Company M of the 3rd Cavalry.  These 38th Infantry soldiers, or soldiers from Company M of the same Regiment, would man the fort for the next two years.

Some of the “large” names of New Mexico were associated with the fort at this time, albeit indirectly.  Charges of mutiny were brought against several soldiers in December of 1867.  Those who were defended by Thomas Benton Catron were found not guilty (p. 180). Catron was the prosecuting attorney in the Fountain Murder Trial.

During 1868-69, the commanding officer at Ft. Cummings reported insufficient staff to perform the escort duties.  Additional staff was not provided (p. 183).  All was not well within the ranks, and problems with civilians at the fort developed (or continued).  In 1871, a Second Lieutenant Ryan requested that his commanding officer be released from arrest.  It seems he (Ryan) was the only officer left at the fort, and the paperwork was becoming overwhelming (p. 186).  Problems at Ft. Cummings were not unique.  In 1871 there were just short of 9,000 desertions in the army (about 1/3 of the total manpower) (p. 187).  Soldiers were ill provisioned, bored, and paid poorly.  Pay of $16 a month had been reduced to $13 in 1870 [p. 187].  For comparison a decade later, miners could make $4 a day if they were Anglo.

Fort Cummings was abandoned on December 1, 1873 (p. 188).  On the whole, Anglo and Apache conflict had diminished greatly by this time.  Freight, mail, and humans continued to use Cooke’s Canyon heavily.  But by 1876, hold-ups had become a problem, with masked men absconding with several thousands of dollars worth of metal and cash.  Cooke’s Canyon was the perfect place for a holdup.  “Dutch Joe”, “Billie the Kid”, and “Brazelon” were identified as some of the culprits (p. 197).

In the spring of 1877, the telegraph line had reached Ft. Cummings, and an operator at Sam Lyons’ staffed it.  At this time the Apaches started a period of horse rustling, apparently trading horses in Mexico and making peace with the Mexicans.  Since a strategy the Apaches followed was making peace with either the Mexicans or the Anglos and fighting the other, a certain amount of concern developed - especially in Silver City (p. 198).  The Warm Springs Apaches had been sent to the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, an especially harsh place for them, and a place where they would not stay.  Leaving the reservation, they returned to Ojo Caliente (see video) in Alamosa Canyon (see video), near present day Monticello.  (The public road through Alamosa Canyon has apparently been taken by a rancher who owns property in the area.)

Late 1877 and early 1878 saw a period of relative quiet, and in July 1878 military forces in the region were reduced.  But peace was always short lived in this region (p. 199).

Increased conflict between Victorio, Nana, and Loco and their followers, on one hand, and the Anglos (both military and civilian) on the other led to the reopening of Ft. Cummings as a military post in the summer of 1880 (p. 199).  The significant military force at Ft. Cummings kept things quiet (more or less) in the immediate area of Cooke’s Spring.  Not far away , however, chaos reigned (p 201).

President Hayes stayed a night at Ft. Cummings on October 25, 1880, while en route to California.  

The two photographs below say a lot about what is important in southwestern New Mexico.  The Spring House was built by the AT&SF Railroad in 1881.  Water from the spring house was piped to the Florida Station of the railroad (gravity flow).

Spring House 1882 2

Cooke’s Spring, Spring House, ca. 1882

Cooke's Spring, Spring House, Sierra County, New Mexico, USA - January 16, 2014
The room was reconstructed in 1987.

At first the renewed Ft. Cummings was a tent fort, but efforts were soon underway to construct adobe structures for at least the officers (p. 210).  Even so, this is how the fort looked in 1882 (tents, lots of tents):

Ft. Cummings 1882 2

Fort Cummings

In June of 1884, the number of soldiers at the fort had dropped to 125, in July it was reduced to 59, and on August 14, 1884, the fort was ordered to be abandoned once again and the flag pole was removed on February 19, 1885 (p. 210).

The “Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and Arizona Gazetteer and Business Directory 1884-1885” (Page 318) described Ft. Cummings as:

During the 1870’s and 1880’s, a fair amount of prospecting was occurring in the vicinity of Cooke’s Peak.  Significant amounts of both silver and lead were found in the area, but the Apaches did not like miners (p. 211).

1886 Ft cummings

In 1886 the fort looked basically the same.

The Southern Pacific Railroad line had reached Deming, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe arrived there shortly thereafter.  The railroads enabled the shipping of heavy ore to El Paso.  In 1882, a wagon road was constructed up Hadley Draw on Cooke’s peak to the mining town of Cooks.  Soldiers from Ft. Cummings stood guard while the road was constructed.  Ore mined on the mountain was 30 percent lead and contained 80 ounces of silver a ton.  Three towns sprang up on the mountain: Cooks on the east slope, Jose on the west slope, and Hadley part way up the mountain at the Hadley mine.  By the spring of 1890, the mines at Cooke’s peak were some of the most productive lead mines in the west (p. 212).  Cooks and Hadley were both significant enough to have a post office.  The post office at Cooks is shown in the photograph immediately below and on the map from 1891.

Cooks PO and Business District 2

Cooks Post Office and Business District

Cooks map 1891 3

Map of Cooks from 1891

Cooks 2


Cooks Peak Township - March 3, 2016

The road into Cooks is rough, it is doubtful that a standard clearance vehicle can make the trip.  Additional photographs from the Cooks Townsite have been added to the Towns of the Black Range Photo Gallery.  The road video below shows the route:

Lead mining during this era meant lead poisoning.  James McKenna was “leaded” when he worked at Cooks, leading many to question the accuracy of some of his accounts in the book "Black Range Tales" (p. 215).

In 1886, the United States was having trouble with Geronimo and his followers.  As part of the effort to contain Geronimo, a series of heliographs was established throughout the southwest (p. 218).  The heliograph network is shown below.  One of the stations was located on Cooke’s Peak.  It was supported, part of the time, by two cavalry companies at Ft. Cummings (the fort that would just not go away).  Heliograph stations were also established at Lake Valley and Hillsboro.  By the end of the year, Geronimo was imprisoned in the eastern US, and the stations were decommissioned.  An order to decommission and actual decommissioning were not always the same thing in the west, and it is possible that the heliograph at Cooke’s Peak operated until July 1887, when the last troops were withdrawn (again) and the post office at Ft. Cummings was closed.

heliograph network

As for the “again” part.  The army decided to reestablish the heliograph network, and the station at Ft. Cummings was operational on May 20, 1890.  In June 1890 the post office at Ft. Cummings was reopened.  (Heliograph sites at Lake Valley and Hillsboro were also reestablished at this time.)  On October 6, 1891, the Fort was closed again and the land turned over to the Department of Interior (p. 219).  By 1904, the fort looked like this:

ft cummings in 1904

The railroads (The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe) diminished the importance of Cooke’s Spring and  the route through Cooke’s Canyon immensely.

Mining peaked in 1897.  In that same year James Hyatt and his wife moved to the Cooke’s Peak area. (By the 1950’s, the Hyatts’ holdings completely encircled the Peak [p. 227].)  The mines had their ups and downs, but there was enough stability that the Cooks school saw two generations of some families (p. 235).  Cattle ranching around the base of the mountain and goat ranching on the mountain added to the economic stability of the area.    By 1911 mining activity had more or less ceased (p. 237).  The last person left Cooks in 1959 (p. 229).

During the First World War, Camp Cody, a large training facility, was established at Deming.  During training the troops sometimes camped at Cooke’s Spring.  The US government had to step in and resolve a conflict between three parties (the railroad and two ranchers) over the use of the water, so that the troops could use some of it (p. 237).  During the Second World War, the area around Ft. Cummings was used as part of a bombing range for trainees at Deming Army Air Base.

Between 1951 and 1953, mining was again tried on Cooke’s Peak but ceased rather quickly.

The history of Cooke’s Peak, Spring, and Canyon is indicative of the history of the west.  The importance of the area can perhaps be seen in the many names that were used for the road through Cooke’s Canyon: Butterfield Trail, California Cattle Trail, Cooke’s Wagon Road, Destiny Road, El Dorado Trail, El Paso - Fort Yuma Road, Fort Yuma and Rio Grande Road, Franklin - Fort Yuma Road, Gila Trail, Great Southern Mail Road, Great Pacific Trail, Leach’s Government Wagon Road, Main Emigrant Road to California, Mesilla - Tucson Road, Mormon Battalion Trail, Mormon Road, Overland Mail Company Route, Overland Trail, Ox-Bow Route, Rainbow Trail, San Antonio - San Diego Mail Route, Silver City and Arizona Road, Southern Indian Trail, Southern Emigrant Road, Southern Road to California, Southwestern Trail, and Southern Wagon Road (p. 259).

© Robert Barnes 2018-2023