Fort Cummings and Cooke’s ‘Massacre’ Canyon

The Fort Cummings Cemetery near the Butterfield Stage Station. John Butterfield’s son David composed “Taps,” the music played at military burials, in 1862 while recuperating in Virginia from Civil War battle wounds.

Cooke’s Peak is one of the most recognizable mountains in southwestern New Mexico. It looms above the rest of the Cooke’s Range like a pointy cap. Situated in the flat country northeast of Deming, it can be seen for 50 miles. But its real importance was that it marked the only dependable water source between Mesilla and the Mimbres River, a distance of some 80 miles.

Just south of the peak is Cooke’s Spring. This desert water hole served every sort of traveler, including passengers on the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach line, which had a station near the spring. Guarding this oasis, about half a mile away, was Fort Cummings. The fort was surrounded by a gleaming, whitewashed 10-foot adobe wall. But the approach to the spring was through Cooke’s Canyon, whose terrain lent itself to Apache ambushes.

Starting about 1861 and continuing for 20 years, Apaches killed so many freighters and stagecoach passengers that it was renamed Massacre Canyon. Between 100 and 300 people were killed trying to get through Cooke’s Pass at the head of the canyon.

Even soldiers weren’t safe. In 1867 an eastbound Englishman had been hearing stories since he left Arizona. He wrote, “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 could go through the gorge alive.”

Stage passengers complained to the fort that the skeletons baking in the sun along the trail were terribly disturbing. A detail was sent out to gather them up and bury them in the fort’s cemetery.

Nowadays, Fort Cummings and the Butterfield Station have few walls standing. Cooke’s Spring is enclosed by a wonderful stone pump house. The cemetery still has some markers, but probably most of the military remains were reburied at Fort Leonard Wood.

The site is reached from the Hatch cutoff (Highway 26) northeast of Deming. Cooke’s Canyon Road is an undeveloped road several miles long with slow going much of the time. Pack food and water, and bring a map. Victorio and Cochise rode these hills. Nothing’s changed but the calendar.  

Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at

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