Cooke’s Canyon Ambush

Cookes-Canyon-gunfightAugust 27, 1861

The Ake-Wadsworth wagon train, en route from Tucson, Arizona, to Texas, leaves the abandoned Mimbres River Stage Station at first light, heading east toward Cooke’s Canyon in southwestern New Mexico.

German butcher Eugene Zimmer warned the party, the night before, that a large group of Apaches were in the canyon and had killed his men and stolen all of his cattle. But Grundy Ake and William Wadsworth, the leaders of the train, are suspicious of the German’s motives and suspect him of trying to lure them into a trap elsewhere. They ignore him and push on.

In addition to a herd of 800 cattle and as many goats and sheep, the train includes  two buggies, one single wagon and six ox-drawn double wagons, along with 24 men, 16 women and seven children.

Into the narrow canyon, the cowboys herd the cattle and sheep ahead of the train. Wadsworth and Ake flank the lumbering lead wagon, with most of the women and children in the final wagon at the back of the train.

Riding point, cowboy Tommy Farrell suddenly halts and shouts back a warning. Two naked corpses lie by the side of the road. The German had told the truth.

The canyon walls erupt in gunfire, and arrows fill the sky. A cowboy riding next to Farrell, hit on the first volley, is pitched from his horse.

Wadsworth is hit too. As he turns his horse back toward the wagons, he is hit again and falls out of his saddle.

Two  men run forward into the teeth of the arrows and carry Wadsworth to the last wagon, which is carrying the women and children.

Jack Pennington, attempts to circle the wagons, but the canyon is too narrow; he settles for a rough triangle. The wagon train returns fire with Hampton Brown picking off several Apaches. Nathaniel Sharp takes an arrow in his neck, just below the ear. He breaks off the shaft and keeps firing.

Jeff Ake’s pet bulldog, Jack, runs headlong toward the Apaches and leaps into the fray, seizing a warrior by the throat and pulling him down. Another Apache sends an arrow through the bulldog’s body. Jack and the Apache die together.

In the back of the train, a driver turns the wagon with all of the children and women, along with a dying Wadsworth, toward the Mimbres River. Because of Pennington and his men laying down a deadly fire, the Apaches do not pursue the wagon.

As the forward deployed Americans retreat down the canyon, the Apaches come forward to loot the lead wagon, giving the besieged men time enough to turn around Ake’s buggy and two wagons. They leave four  dead in the canyon, including Farrell.

As the men scramble to safety, Farrell shouts for them not to leave him. Many do not want to return, but Pennington threatens to shoot any man who leaves without their comrade. They save Farrell, and the fight is over.

Aftermath: Odds & Ends

After he left the Ake-Wadsworth wagon train, German butcher Eugene Zimmer headed for Piños Alto and ran into Capt. Thomas Mastin of the Arizona Guards, a 35-man detachment. With Mastin were two young lieutenants, Thomas Helm and Jack Swilling (see photo of Swilling on the opposite page). The unit had been attached to the Confederate Army. Mastin and his rebel soldiers galloped to the rescue of the wagon train.

*****

Mastin’s men came upon the struggling wagon train just west of the entrance to Cooke’s Canyon. They safely escorted the wounded to the Mimbres River. The captain then led his men south around Cooke’s Canyon toward the Florida Mountains, where he guessed that the Apaches would drive the stolen cattle herd. Sure enough, the Apaches came along, pushing the cattle ahead of them. The rebels ambushed the ambushers, killing eight and recovering the herd. The men found the sheep in a side canyon, guarded by the faithful sheep dog.

*****

When Lt. James Tevis and his company of the Confederate States of America reached the station, they escorted the wagon train back to the Rio Grande, reaching Las Cruces, New Mexico, without incident.

*****

Recommended: The Lords of Apacheria, by Paul Andrew Hutton, published by Crown with an expected release in 2015



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