As a military post on the edge of nowhere, life at Fort Verde was an exercise in hardship. Deprived of most creature comforts, it was also dangerous, tiresome and tedious.
But perhaps worst of all, it was lonely.
With the exception of the officers and the occasional non-commissioned officer who shared their misery with their brides, female companionship was rare if not devoid.
The very notion that love would pay a visit was not something the average soldier gave much consideration or dared place any hope in.
Nevertheless, Indian arrows weren’t the only ones unleashed on Fort Verde’s soldiers. Cupid got a few shots.
A peculiar nuptial
When Dr. Edward Palmer arrived at Camp Lincoln (Fort Verde’s predecessor) in 1866 he found no less than 16 women, variously described as laundresses, mistresses and prostitutes, shacked up with soldiers.
An Englishman by birth, Palmer was quite unaccustomed to the nontraditional relationships that often blossomed and wilted, like the desert flowers he spent his spare time collecting.
In his journal he described the women as “a mixed race of Spanish and Indians, that the Catholic Church has made into a peculiar kind of Christian…they were mostly prostitutes living with the soldiers and as soon as one means of support gave out, they took another.”
In that same journal Palmer provides us with an example of what happened when “one means of support gave out” -- a story, which in the end seems to have won over his otherwise cynical heart.
Following the death of a soldier, killed by an Indian arrow while fishing not far from camp, numerous suitors beset the soldier’s “widow.” Not knowing what to do, the woman sought the advice of the commanding officer, who readily suggested a particular young Mexican volunteer.
It wasn’t long before the young soldier and the bride-to-be returned to the commander this time asking for permission to go to Prescott and be married. Although less than enthused, Palmer agreed to take the couple to Fort Whipple.
“I was requested by the commanding officer to see them legally married; this was new business for me,” Palmer quipped.
At Whipple, a justice of the peace as well as an interpreter (neither bride nor groom was conversant in English) was secured.
With friends of the bride and groom, “several gentlemen from Prescott,” as well as officers from Fort Whipple present, a ceremony was held at the fort sutler’s house.
Following the vows, cigars were handed around (females included, Palmer notes) while the justice drew up a certificate.
The marriage certificate, notes Palmer was an exquisitely lettered document that included the justice of the peace’s seal as well as that of Territorial Gov. Richard McCormick.
“[It was] the best marriage certificate ever possessed by a citizen of Mexico and a prouder pair were hardly to be found,” noted Palmer.
Then he added, “I returned to Camp Lincoln feeling I had fulfilled my promise. The cost was my especial privilege; some $28 to make them happy was cheap.”
Shining knight to the rescue
Camp Verde was 2nd Lt. Calvin Duval Cowles’ first assignment following his graduation from West Point.
Arriving on Dec. 19, 1873, after most of the hostilities in the Verde had ended, he had a relatively uneventful tour.
That is until March 1874 when a late spring blizzard swept across Northern Arizona. Out of the high country’s waist deep snow a wagon driver arrived at Fort Verde with word of a family stranded on the Mogollon Rim.
Cowles was ordered to form a detachment and bring them to safety.
When he and his men arrived on the rim they found Charles Hitchcock, his wife and two daughters huddled in their wagons, buried axel deep in snow.
Cowles ordered the wagons abandoned. The soldiers then surrendered their woolen Army trousers to the women, and brought them back to Fort Verde on horseback. What the men wore on the return trip was never recorded.
By the time the ordeal ended, Hitchcock’s 19-year-old daughter Mary was smitten with the 24-year-old, blonde-haired officer with the soft North Carolina drawl.
Two months later, Mary Hitchcock became Mary Cowles in a ceremony at her father’s new home, near his gold mine and mill on Big Bug Creek, 20 miles outside of Prescott.
Mary Cowles accompanied her husband through numerous assignments. The couple had four children, and Calvin rose to the rank of colonel. Then in 1906, while he was serving in Cuba, Calvin got word that Mary was gravely ill. She died on Nov. 12, 1906.
Just over a year later, Cowles married Kate Hitchcock Holmes, Mary’s widowed sister and the other daughter of Charles Hitchcock he had helped save nearly 34 years earlier.
Love and death
According to his obituary, Lt. William Harvey Smith was declared the “handsomest man in America” by no less that Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer and poet, after Wilde met him on a visit to West Point in the early 1880s.
Graduating in 1883, Lt. Smith arrived at Fort Verde two years later, attached to Company I, 10th Cavalry, better known to history as the “Buffalo soldiers,” an African American unit led by white officers.
Lt. Smith would spend the better part of four years bouncing back and forth between his assigned duty station at Fort Verde and detached duty at Fort Apache, “in connection with Indian affairs.”
By all accounts he was a well-respected officer. So it’s no surprise that when Margaret McLellen, third wife of Fort Verde’s commanding officer, Maj. Curwen McLellan, was entertaining her visiting cousin that Smith was invited to meet the young woman.
It wasn’t long before the tall, slim, blue-eyed Mary Louise Darst captured the handsomest man in America’s heart.
It is not recorded, how their romance blossomed. Both are said to have shared a love of horses and open spaces.
From several photographs taken by post surgeon Dr. Edgar Mearns, we know Smith spent his free time in the company of “Louise,” she often seen sporting his forage cap and him, on at least on occasion, wearing a festive summer hat that may or may not have belonged to her.
The couple married in 1891. They honeymooned in Europe before returning west to Fort Grant. The couple had three daughters.
In March 1898, with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Lt. Smith’s orders to join the faculty at the Fort Leavenworth Infantry and Cavalry School were canceled.
On July 1, 1898, having led his African-American troops the crest of San Juan Hill. Lt. Smith took a single bullet to the head.
It was said his troops wept at the news of his death.
Louise did, too. She died in St. Louis in 1952, having never remarried.