Long before Dragoon Springs was a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route, it was the territory of the Chiricahua Apache. So much history happened here. What we think we know is probably only a fraction of what happened in these mountains.
This stagecoach stop started with a 2,700 mile mail route from Missouri to California. The route was created on an already established emigrant trail into California. There are exactly two Butterfield Overland stagecoach stops in Arizona. The other is located at Apache Pass in what is now Fort Bowie National Historic Site. Both stagecoach stops are scarred by the terrible treatment of the Apaches. The occupying soldiers were brutal. The longer I live in Arizona, the more I learn about just how badly the original inhabitants or the area were treated. It’s hard to write with dry eyes after reading about the murders, discrimination, forced relocations and other atrocities that taint the beautiful land that is southern Arizona. As a teacher and historian, it is my duty to write objectively, but that is not always possible.
Timeline of Dragoon Springs & the Surrounding Area
200 BCE – 1400 CE: Mogollon habitation
Beginning around 1400: Apache habitation
1858: Butterfield Overland Mail Route established and passes through Apache Pass
1858: Dragoon Springs & Apache Pass Stagecoach Stops Established
1861: Bascom Affair
May 1862: First & Second Battle of Dragoon Springs
July 15-16 1862: Battle of Apache Pass near what would become Fort Bowie
July 28, 1862: First construction of Fort Bowie
1868: Second, more permanent construction of Fort Bowie
Sept. 1871: Chief Cochise surrenders
1874: 4,000 Apache are forcibly removed to San Carlos, AZ reservation, Chief Cochise dies
1876: Chiricahua Apache reservation abolished
1886: Geronimo captured and forcibly removed to Florida, end of the Apache wars
1909: Geronimo dies
Take I-10 south from Tucson. Take exit 318 to Dragoon. Go past Amerind Foundation museum into the town of Dragoon. As soon as you cross the railroad tracks, turn right on N. Old Ranch Road. Go about 2.5 miles down a dirt road and turn left at the sign to Dragoon springs. On Old Ranch road you will pass two cattle guards with fences. The gates may or may not be closed. If the gates are closed close hem back. If they are open, leave them open. At the end of the dirt road you will see another sign for the historic site, that is where you want to park. If you have a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle you can probably drive another mile to the springs. I don’t recommend it and it’s a fun one-mile hike to the springs. Note: Old Ranch Road gets very rocky at places. Take it slow.
Dragoon Springs was built right in the heart of Apache territory, and near a hard-to-find source of water in the desert. There was a lot of conflict at and around this station. That’s part of the reason why it only lasted a few years. There are six graves that we know of visible at Dragoon Springs (the stagecoach stop, not the actual springs another mile up the hill). Two are from Butterfield-Overland stage stop employees. The other four graves are from the only Confederate soldiers to die in battle in Arizona. Actually there are only three graves left, one was vandalized and the body removed in 1967.
Joe and I had a lively discussion on whether or not this vandalism was a descendant of the soldier relocating the body without permission from the Forest Service. One website attributes this vandalism to treasure hunters. If that’s true why weren’t the other graves vandalized? Also, who in their right mind would think these soldiers would have “treasure” in such a wind barren and desolate outpost? I’m not defending the vandalism nor the grave desecration, only speculating things are not always what they seem. In places like this, the history is sparse.
Apache Raids and Battles
First Battle of Dragoon Springs: May 5, 1862. Over 100 Chiricahua Apache ambushed Confederates escorting Union prisoners to Texas. Three soldiers and a teenaged stock-herder were killed. The Apaches, led by none other than Cochise himself, also captured cattle and horses.
Second Battle of Dragoon Springs: May 9th 1862. Captain Sherrod Hunter ordered his men to conduct a counter-raid on the Apache. Four Apache were killed and the Confederate forces recaptured some of their horses and cattle. And so it goes during the Apache wars, which was a series of raids, counter-raids, larger skirmishes, and brief periods of peace.
On May 20, 1862, Confederate forces left Arizona and the Union re-occupied Tucson.
After exploring what remains of the historic site and cemetery, it’s just over a mile up to the actual springs. There is a sign full of shotgun holes indicating that something is to the left. I guessed correctly and followed this sign at the only fork in the road up to the springs. You will not see another sign, but it is very obvious when you arrive at the springs. There is a man-made wall surrounding the springs ninety-degrees from the side of the hill. This wall looks similar to the one constructed around the springs at Fort Bowie. A little exploration will reveal a few pieces of rusted pipe, a fenced-in basin a little way up the hill, and a concrete water-catchment device that looks like it may have been constructed by the WPA in 1937.
There’s a lot of history in Southern Arizona. I keep thinking we’re going to move somewhere else to explore something new, but southern Arizona keeps showing us something else. One of the best things about living out here during the pandemic is the ability to travel to these places and often not see another person. I have mixed feelings blogging about it at all. It’s a privilege to get to travel to places like this that are uncrowded, often times complete empty, and completely trash-free.
Instagram can ruin a place, as it has done to Sedona. When I first visited Sedona ten years ago, I thought it was one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever seen. Now, a decade later, thanks to oversharing on social media, the city is too crowded to enjoy. There’s trash everywhere, even the backcountry trails have become overrun, and the number of cheap trinket shops has exploded. I’ve made a conscious choice not to contribute to this problem.
So, rather than not share these adventures at all, I will still blog about them, but not share them on social media. Sure this will cause a decline in viewership, but what do “likes” and “shares” really mean other than some superficial sign of approval? If you follow my blog, you’ve probably noticed that I no longer have Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram accounts. This is so I can spend more time doing what I love, which is travelling, reading, and learning, and less time scrolling. Until next time.
Butterfield-Overland Mail Route