On a cool, pre-spring day in 1877, Captain Samuel Marmaduke Whitside's cavalry column cantered up the sweeping expanses of grassy slopes that separated the Whetsone from Huachucas Mountains.
Running water from a cold mountain stream, canyon walls that offered natural protection, an abundance of grassland, game animals, timber and other natural resources left Whitside with little doubt this would be an ideal place to erect a camp. In his logbook, Whitside would scribble the entry that would begin a new era in military stewardship of the surrounding area by inscribing: "Camp Huachuca, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona Territory, Capt. S.M. Whitside, Commanding Officer."
As more missions were assigned to Whitside's units patrolling Southern Arizona, it became apparent erecting a more permanent settlement would better facilitate this task. The boundaries of Fort Huachuca were established to ensure the Soldiers could meet their mission requirements for years to come and to prevent encroachment by miners and ranchers that became a problem as the West filled in the latter part of the 19th century.
Soldiers who followed Whitside to the Arizona territory were impressed by the beauty of the landscape, the diversity of life in the surrounding mountains and deserts, and the rainbow of colors the twisted geologic formations offered. These adventurers, explorers and leaders were a complicated mix of humanity that were products of their times. Many were also trained naturalists.
In the 19th century, the U.S. Military Academy's dual mission was to produce leaders and to train engineers. West Point was one of the few institutions that offered a curriculum in this field. Newly commissioned graduates would enter the frontier and apply their training in drawing and detailed observation, exchange samples of plants and animals with like-minded individuals and correspond with Eastern universities.
One of these was Maj. Charles Bendire, who became one of the nation's most notable natural historians.
On patrol in the Arizona Territory one day, Bendire noticed a zone-tailed hawk's nest high in a tree. Ordering his troops to set up camp while he investigated, Bendire galloped off, securing the reins of his horse to the trunk and slowly scaled up to the nest, keeping one eye on the tree branches and the other eye looking out for hostiles.
Peering into the nest, Bendire reached in and took one of the eggs. Caught up in the moment and forgetting his surroundings, Bendire turned the zone-tailed egg over and over in his hand. Admiring its color and shape, Bendire was thrilled to add this specimen to his growing collection.
Just then, a concealed band of Apaches fired off a shot. It whizzed over Bendire's head, slicing a twig in an upper branch. Not willing to give the party a second shot, Bendire shoved the egg in his mouth for safekeeping and shinnied down the tree.
Vaulting onto his horse and digging his spurs into its sides, Bendire galloped headlong back to camp with the ambushing party in hot pursuit. Leaping from his mount into the smoke-filled skirmish line, Bendire drew his revolver and joined the fight. After a short, pitched battle, the surprised patrol watched their attackers withdraw.
Bendire's problems were not over. He was gagging from smoke and the still intact egg lodged in his mouth, and he couldn't spit out the egg without breaking it. Try as he might, his swollen jaws could not open wide enough. Mumbling expletives at his first sergeant, Bendire ordered his men to have his mouth pried open to extract the egg.
Although they broke one of Bendire's teeth in the process, he considered it a bargain for a perfect, uncracked zone-tailed hawk egg.
Bendire was one of many Soldiers who provided the scientific community back East with samples and detailed observations of flora and fauna of the West. He became a curator at the Smithsonian Institution after concluding his career with the Army. The egg is still there.
Modern day Soldiers assigned to the fort still marvel at the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains, rocky canyons and lush grasslands, as Whitside's 19th century patrol marveled upon discovery of the Huachuca Canyon. Today, Soldiers in southern Arizona carry on Whitside's and Bendire's legacy by serving as stewards of Fort Huachuca's abundant natural resources.
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