The Battle of Cookes Spring: A Skirmish in the Indian Wars
The Battle of Cookes Spring, a skirmish between Apache raiders and the United States Army cavalry, occurred in 1857 in the Black Range of New Mexico. The battle exemplifies the tensions and conflicts between Native American tribes and American settlers during the Indian Wars.
The incident began on March 8, 1857, when eight Chiricahua Apaches stole horses from an American deputy surveyor named Mr. Garretson. After reporting the theft to Fort Fillmore, First Lieutenant Alfred Gibbs led a detachment of sixteen cavalrymen and two armed civilians in pursuit of the Apache raiders. Their trail led them across the Rio Grande, about ten miles north of Doña Ana, and then continued northwest. After hours of relentless pursuit, the American forces caught up with the Apaches at noon on the following day, near the northernmost slopes of the Mimbres Mountains.
Upon sighting the Apaches, the Americans dismounted and initiated the battle with a volley of musket fire. They then remounted and charged at the Apaches, who fled towards higher ground. The Apache chief, identified as either Itan or Monteras, was wounded but continued to lead his warriors and orchestrate counter-charges against the pursuing American forces.
As the fighting continued, the Apache chief attempted to attack Corporal Collins, who was on foot after his horse had been shot. However, Lieutenant Gibbs intercepted the chief, shooting him for the fifth time. In retaliation, the chief managed to thrust a lance into Gibbs’ side, but he was ultimately killed after receiving ten gunshot wounds. Despite his injury, Gibbs survived the encounter and went on to become a Union Army brigadier general during the American Civil War.
The American forces continued to chase the remaining Apaches, eventually killing five more at the foothills of the mountains. One Apache warrior managed to escape, although he was severely wounded and believed to have died shortly after the battle. First Lieutenant Gibbs was the only American casualty of the skirmish.
Following the battle, the stolen horses were recovered by Garretson, one of the armed civilians involved in the pursuit. The Americans also managed to capture several mules during the engagement. The Battle of Cookes Spring serves as a reminder of the violent clashes and animosity that characterized the relationship between Native American tribes and American settlers during the Indian Wars.
Account of the battle taken from
- Sweeney, R. Edwin (1998). Mangas Coloradas, chief of the Chiricahua Apaches. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3063-6. pp 350
The Indians had stolen the horses of a Mr. Garretson (pictured here), deputy surveyor of the territory. On March 8, 1957, First Lieutenant Alfred Gibbs of the Mounted Rifles, with sixteen men and two civilian guides (Garretson and a man named Dickens), followed the trail that crossed the Rio Grande about ten miles north of Dona Ana. By noon the next day they discovered the spot where the Indians had rested; there were seven in all, four mounted and three on foot. Though Gibbs feared that the Indians had escaped his grasp, since they were close to the Mimbres Mountains, he tenaciously continued his pursuit. About 1:30 that afternoon Gibbs’s soldiers spotted the Indians. A script writer could not have written a better story. The leaders of the two sides, the Apache chief and Lieutenant Gibbs, personally led their men into battle. The spirited engagement was climaxed by a duel between the two stalwart and courageous men. Both were doing their duty as they had been trained: one an Apache chief trying to bring home stock to feed his hungry people and the other a military officer seeking to recover stock stolen by Indians. In the words of Lieutenant Gibbs, this is what happened:
Ascending a little rise, we saw an Indian about fifty yards off coming to meet us, and at the same moment we saw the mules at the bottom of a little arroyo and six Indians looking at us and then beginning to run. The men were immediately dismounted and we commenced on them with rifles. As fast as the rifles were discharged, the men loaded and mounted, and followed at a gallop the Indians, who ran like wild turkeys. It was evident that the game was up. Three were badly wounded though running still, and there was a mile before they could get to the mountains. The men were urged to be steady and to keep their revolvers till the last. As we rode on, the chief who was badly wounded, kept encouraging his men, whenever he did this they turned and charged us furiously. As I passed near him, he was making at one of the men on foot, whose horse had been shot, and I stopped and shot him a fifth shot with my revolver. He turned on me, and as my horse reared, he passed his lance into me although parried with my pistol. One of the men then brought him down. Riding forward then about a quarter of a mile, beyond, I came upon the rest of my party close up with the Indians, and the shot telling continually. Here, becoming very faint from loss of blood, I dismounted to prevent from falling off, and giving my horse to Corporal Collins, whose horse had been shot from under him, directed him to keep up with the party, until he killed all the Indians, or until the pursuit was hopeless, and then to rally and return to where his horse fell where he would find me. I found the chief dead with ten balls in him, and the five men left behind with the animals reported they had one horse, five mules, bows and arrows, knives, blankets, etc. of the Indians. In about a half an hour Corporal Collins returned with his party, and reported six Indians dead, and the other one severely wounded (and likely dead).
Lieutenant Alfred Gibbs