Historic Hillsboro

Passing through Hillsboro this fall, I was pleasantly surprised to find the museum open — the first time in several years I have had that pleasure.  The volunteer docents are well-informed and eager to share; you certainly won’t get away without hearing the story of the legendary Sadie Orchard. I picked up a map of the Hillsboro and Las Animas mining district and a free “Walking Tour” guide. For anyone interested in NM history, a couple of hours exploring the old town is time well spent.


Bad Land

I love bookstores. Alibris and Amazon are convenient for getting your hands on any obscure title you want and even pointing you toward others you might be interested in, but the online experience can’t match the pleasure I experience in wandering through the shelves and discovering a gem no search engine algorithm would have earmarked for my attention.

My latest such acquisition is Bad Land: An American Romance, a combination multi-year roadtrip and history that perfectly captures an obscure piece of Americana – the “dryland farming” fad that briefly populated large stretches of the arid Western states with small family farms in the first decades of the 20th Century and ultimately ended in the Dust Bowl diaspora of the 1930s.

Author Jonathan Raban had the great good fortune to come across, first, a 700-page history of the period in eastern Montana – one of those micro-histories compiled by local historical societies, privately published 50 years ago and soon forgotten. Next Raban unearthed an unpublished memoir written by the son of one of the homesteading families in that area, another mother lode of local lore and anecdotes. Then he went on to spend years intensively researching the period. Most important, he spent a great deal of time on the ground in eastern Montana getting to know the land and the people. His resulting account is both engaging and informative, sympathetic but not sentimental and insightful without being at all condescending – a remarkable achievement for an ex-pat Englishman living in Seattle.

Although Bad Land is set in eastern Montana, the story could be told of any rural county between the 100th meridian and the Rockies, including eastern New Mexico. I wrote a column last year on those abandoned farmsteads and the stubborn few who endured the bad years and remain there today.

The Monsoon and the Raid

I became so engrossed in the maps cited in my last post and in recapping this year’s rainy season that I never quite got around to the point I wanted to make: the key role the 1881 monsoon played in Nana’s Raid.

Having spent more than 70 years living outdoors in the Southwest he needed no calendar to track the seasons. The monsoon traditionally runs from around the Fourth of July to the end of September, and the old fox planned his foray to take advantage of those rains. Filling springs and waterholes otherwise dry during much of the year offered the raiders a much wider selection of watering places for themselves and their stock. The Army had the advantage in manpower but a shortage of horses; by using his infantry to guard water sources, Col. Hatch might hope to thwart the raiders’ progress or even trap them as Col. Grierson had trapped Victorio at Rattlesnake Springs in Texas the previous year. Multiplying the number of water sources scattered across the territory greatly reduced the effectiveness of that tactic.

While the summer storms made the roads and trails more difficult to travel in localized and unpredictable ways, this affected their adversaries far more than the Apaches, who were justly famous for their ability to travel fast over the worst terrain. The Army’s wagons and heavy cavalry horses were more restricted in the routes they could travel, and so more likely to get mired in the muddier low country.

The newly-constructed railroads were particularly vulnerable to the rains as well, although Nana probably did not realize that at the time. The crude trestles bridging the numerous arroyos cutting across the right of way were washed out by local flash floods and as a result Hatch was unable to bring two companies of the 9th down from Colorado to join in the chase.


Monsoon Maps

We wrapped up this year’s monsoon with one last round of rain last week, too late to save my corn crop but boosting season totals. Arizona State University maintains a marvelous set of maps tracing the progress of the rainy season in both New Mexico and Arizona. Based on those graphics it appears the eastern half of New Mexico benefited most from this year’s monsoon and almost all of New Mexico did better than most of Arizona. The whole Southwest had at least average precip, however, which is excellent news after too many years of drought. It would be nice to see a wetter cycle set in again for a few years.

The rain was heavy and early in southeastern Arizona and along the Mogollon Plateau. Tucson had its wettest July on record with nearly seven inches that month, most of it in a few very sudden and intense storms. Seventeen hikers were stranded by a flash flood at Tanque Verde Falls on July 23 and nine or ten were killed when a flash flood swept through a canyon northeast of Phoenix after a storm dumped 1.5 inches on the mountains above in an hour.

Buffalo Hunters

We took a summer trip east, roughly paralleling the old Santa Fe Trail to Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri and returning via a long detour south through the Ozarks and then back through Oklahoma and the Panhandle. A lot to digest in all those miles, and I’ve been chewing on it while catching up on chores and tending my garden.

I brought Mari Sandoz’ The Buffalo Hunters along for the road and have been reading it since we got back home. I read her biography of Crazy Horse years ago but have never gotten around to her other books. Her prose is so rich in vivid detail that some of it invites skepticism, since she doesn’t footnote. But her extensive bibliography testifies to her thorough research. Most important, she was blessed by the advantage of living with and knowing many of the people of the generation she was writing about.

Despite her generally charitable treatment of most of those involved (including some decidedly unsympathetic characters) , the story of the hide hunters is not a happy one, and I kind of dread reading the final chapters. The numbers Sandoz cites of buffalo killed by single hunters, and the quantities of hides and bones shipped over the new railroads are both astonishing and depressing.

Tragic and wasteful as it was, it’s important to remember that today the same land feeds hundreds of millions if not billions of people.

I made my own buffalo hunt a few years ago. I never saw more than two buffalo and those at a good distance, but I had a good time nonetheless. I never got around to polishing the narrative, but I’ve posted my notes on that trip in Sources.

Frontier Army Museum

Still an active Army post but unlike any other I’ve seen,  Fort Leavenworth is worth a visit (although in our post-9/11 world it’s kind of a hassle to win admittance). The old officers’ quarters on the bluffs above the Missouri date from the 1880s and ’90s, and the Frontier Army Museum has a great collection tracing Army history in the West from the fort’s establishment in the 1820s to Pershing’s expedition into Mexico in 1916.

Fort Leavenworth

The Buffalo Soldiers Monument at Fort Leavenworth is dominated by an equestrian statue dramatically posed over an artificial waterfall. Busts of various distinguished individuals and archetypes (who knew there was a black parachute regiment?) scattered around the small park below. Col. Grierson of the 10th has a place in the pantheon, but there’s no sign of the 9th’s Hatch or any of the other white officers and I noticed George Burnett’s name was omitted from the list of the MoH winners. I was surprised there’s no mention of either the 24th or 25th Infantry, who might have been mere “walks-a-heap” but were Buffalo Soldiers nonetheless and served with the black cavalry in the same wars.

‘A good story, well told.’

“I like a good story, well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” – Mark Twain

For me, Lt. George Burnett’s account of the Cuchillo Negro fight is one such tale. It’s the best first person account by a participant on either side of the raid that I’ve found, although I’m pretty sure others exist somewhere. Placida’s corrida is moving and poetic and I believe you hear her authentic voice through the lyrics, but the events retold are filtered through the composer’s dramatic sense and so are less likely to be factually reliable. (Which is why few if any historical movies are true to the known facts.)

Although written 15 years after the event in support of his old first sergeant’s bid for a Medal of Honor, Burnett’s letter is a trained soldier’s straightforward account of what was almost certainly the worst day of his military career (until his horse fell on him 10 years later). He’s careful not to directly indict his commander, but the bare facts are sufficiently damning.

According to Lt. Burnett, Lt. Valois failed to come up in support as previously agreed, was separately engaged by the hostiles and might well have been overwhelmed had not Burnett come to his rescue. As it was Valois was driven from the field. What’s far worse, in his retreat he abandoned three wounded men as well as a number of his horses.

If that was the case it’s hard to understand why Col. Hatch didn’t bring him up on charges. There may have been mitigating circumstances, so I’d like to see Valois’ report before I made up my mind as to either his tactical skill in the field or his personal courage. But if Burnett’s version of the day’s events is at all accurate – and it’s confirmed by the subsequent MoH citations – it’s unlikely the men of the 9th ever trusted Valois again. Abandoning your wounded to the enemy was the one unforgivable sin on either side of the Apache Wars.

Old Man Clanton

Paging through a back issue of True West (June 2016) I came across an interesting coincidence I missed on my first pass through the magazine last year. On August 13, 1881, while Nana was halfway through his famous raid through New Mexico, Newman Haynes Clanton and six companions were ambushed far to the south,  close to where the New Mexico and Arizona borders meet the Mexican line.

“Old Man” Clanton was the 65-year-old patriarch of the “Cowboy” gang who would make themselves famous two months later by shooting it out with the Earps and Doc Holliday at Tombstone’s OK Corral.  In the summer of ’81 they were already notorious on both sides of the border as rustlers and murderous bandits.  Clanton and his companions  were driving a herd of cattle west out of the Animas Valley when they were jumped by Mexican rurales in Guadalupe Canyon on the southern end of the Peloncillos.  The old man and four others were killed and two escaped in the dawn attack; there were apparently no Mexican casualties .

Nana and his raiders were far to the north that day, still riding away from their own successful ambush of Captain Parker and his men in Carrizo Canyon on the 12th. But the trail Clanton was on along the border was well-known and frequently used by the Indian raiders. It’s tempting to imagine what might have happened if Old Man Clanton had encountered Nana instead of the Mexicans. They were both very tough old men, equally experienced in the dark arts of border warfare, and they would have made formidable opponents. Perhaps instead of fighting each other they might have united against the hated Mexicans.

Speculation aside, the coincidence of dates is a reminder that not all the violence in Apacheria was committed by the Apaches, and it’s likely more was laid to their account than they were due.

Last Column

Finally completed my last column for NM News Service. I had fun doing it, but turning out 600 words every 2 weeks proved to be a surprising drain on  my time and energies. Now I hope to be able to devote more of my efforts to updating and revising this website.

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