Historical fireplace reflects work of Buffalo Soldiers

In the dining room of Faraway Ranch, located at Chiricahua National Monument south of Willcox, stands a grand fireplace made of rocks with engraved names and numbers, once part of a unique monument built by soldiers, presumably to honor James Abram Garfield, 20th president of the United States. Garfield was shot by an assassin in 1881, only weeks after being sworn in. Photo courtesy of National Parks Service

In the long dining room of Faraway Ranch, located at Chiricahua National Monument south of Willcox, stands a grand fireplace made of rocks with engraved names and numbers.

At first glance, one might think the rocks were once grave markers because the biggest of these, centered above the mantle, reads “IN MEMORY OF JAS. A. GARFIELD,” but these are not tombstones.

These rhyolite blocks were once part of a unique monument built by soldiers, presumably to honor James Abram Garfield, 20th president of the United States. Garfield was shot by an assassin in 1881, only weeks after being sworn in.

The former Garfield Monument was constructed by at least two, possibly three, troops of the 10th Cavalry, comprised of African-Americans known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” These troops were camped at Bonita Canyon from September 1885 until September 1886. As an officer during the Civil War, Garfield commanded black troops, and as president, he was sympathetic to the plight of African Americans.

The camp at Bonita Canyon was established as part of the U.S. military’s “Geronimo Campaign,” which concluded in September 1886 when Geronimo’s band of Chiricahua Apaches surrendered, thus closing a long, bloody chapter of history in Arizona.

While stationed at Bonita Canyon, Troops E, H, and I guarded a waterhole, well known to the Apaches, and perhaps the monotony of such duty inspired these soldiers to build the Garfield Monument. Or maybe the Buffalo Soldiers just wanted to leave something they created to show they had been there.

Though the monument itself no longer exists, a written description of the structure does. Lillian Erickson Riggs, who grew up at Faraway, played around the monument as a child, and in 1966, she described it.

“It was a three-tier structure . . . The base was 12 or 15 feet square. This part was 3 feet high or about that. On top of this was a flat space of 18 inches or so – a clear space – then another tier of stone about 4 or five 5 high.”

Lillian also described what became of the monument.

“The monument, with all the tiers intact and every stone in place, stood about 500 yards from my home, and as schoolchildren, we played a lot around it. For that reason, I have a very clear memory of what it was like before it began to deteriorate. In the early 1900s, my father (Neil Erickson) tried to interest the government in its restoration but to no avail. He also contacted some of the members of the Garfield family in Ohio for the same purpose, but they, too, were not interested.”

“By 1920, the monument was deteriorating to such an extent that something had to be done. People were taking out the stones and carrying them away for doorstops, and some were broken. My husband (Edward Riggs) and I were living then at Faraway. We asked Dad’s permission to take the stones and incorporate them into a fireplace in our elongated dining room. Dad reluctantly gave his permission. He still wanted it restored in its original form . . .”

From Lillian’s recollections we know what happened to 61 of these engraved blocks, but there were more. Where did they end up? For the most part, this remains a mystery, but more than likely, at least most of them did not travel too far.

Kate Neilsen, a Chiricahua National Monument park ranger, said she believes that about 30 of these engraved rocks may still be in the area, at old ranches, in yards of old homesteads and possibly even placed in hearths. There’s a good chance that people who have these blocks on their property may not be aware of their historical significance.

Neilsen would like the public to know about the history of these blocks. “To the best of our knowledge, the Garfield Monument was one of only two monuments in the United States built by the Buffalo Soldiers with their own hands.”

She encourages people who think they might have one to take a picture of it and send it to her. Should anyone want to return a block, Neilsen says the park would welcome its return, but if that is not the case, she would greatly appreciate a picture of it, with the engraving clearly shown. Pictures, or any information about possible Garfield Monument rocks, can be mailed to Chiricahua National Monument, 12856 E. Rhyolite Creek Rd, Willcox, AZ 85643.

Guided tours of the Faraway Ranch are conducted daily at 2 and 3 p.m. There is no extra fee for the tour. For more information about Faraway Ranch or the Garfield Monument, call Kate Neilsen at 520- 824-3560, ext. 303.

Editor’s note: Historical information was compiled from “The Camp at Bonita Canyon” by Martyn D. Tagg. Author Karen Gonzales is a park guide at Fort Bowie National Historic Site.

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