El Loco Gringo Viejo

I recently wrote a column on one of my youthful heroes, astronaut Jack Schmitt, and on June 20 we marked the birthday of another boyhood idol who I’ve never written about. But I have my old-age role models as well. Nana is one and another is 19th Century newsman, author and world-class cynic Ambrose Bierce, who would be 175 today if still alive. I say “if” because aside from the standard actuarial tables there’s no reason to suppose he’s deceased. Bierce disappeared into the maelstrom of revolutionary Mexico in 1913 and hasn’t been seen since.

He was 71 years old, severely asthmatic and suffering the usual aches, pains and losses of advancing age, depressed by the deaths of his two sons and his estranged wife. After a tour of the Civil War battlefields he had fought over as as a young man, he crossed the border at Juarez and apparently accompanied Villa’s forces  as they drove south to Ciudad Chihuahua. In his last communication  from that city in December, he closed the letter with, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”

Despite his prickly personality and sarcastic, biting wit, Bierce was not without influential friends and admirers, including long-time boss William Randolph Hearst. Inquiries were made at the time, but the chaotic conditions in northern Mexico made it impossible to conduct anything like a thorough investigation.

Numerous intriguing theories persist to this day. He may be buried in a mass grave at Ojinaga, one of the bloodiest battles of the revolution, or Villa may have had him shot in a moment of anger, or he may have ended as god of a tribe in the jungles of Central America. A bronze plaque in the campo santo of a remote village in the Sierra Madre Oriental in Coahuila is said to mark the grave of an old gringo killed by drunken federales. But nobody knows.

In one of his last letters he wrote:

Good bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease and falling down the stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia!

Apache Trails Report

I’ve added the presentation I offered at last month’s Arizona-New Mexico History Convention and the accompanying paper on Apache Trails Across the Border to the Resources Section.


Disturnell’s Map

I spent St. Patrick’s Day at the Albuquerque Anitiquarian Books & Maps Fair (highly recommended; I believe it’s the third weekend of every March). Some beautiful maps I would love to own if I had the $ and the space to display them. But I contented myself with just one: a nice copy of Disturnell’s Treaty Map. From Dumont Maps & Books in Santa Fe, it comes with an informative 20-page pamphlet on its provenance.

Disturnell’s 1847 map of Mexico was used in drawing the new international boundary agreed to by the parties to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and it’s hard to think of another map in American history that caused so much confusion and controversy, leaving a legacy of misunderstanding and ill will that lingers today.

Looking at it, it’s hard to believe this was the most reliable representation the Americans had of the vast territory they had just seized from their southern neighbor. (The Mexicans may have had a better map of their northern domains but chose to base the Treaty negotiations on the Disturnell version because its inaccuracies furthered their own goals.) The controversy over where the real border line lay on the ground continued for five years and was only finally settled by the Gadsden Purchase in 1853.

People new to the history of the Southwest are sometimes surprised to discover that the scar tissue left by that contentious settlement still itches. In a recent emotional (and virulently anti-Trump) NYT op-ed, historian Enrique Krauze argues that the Mexican government has a solid case for nullifying Guadalupe Hidalgo before the International Court of Justice.

Kiser’s Turmoil on the Rio Grande explores the issues as part of the history of the Mesilla Valley in southern New Mexico, and I’ve just picked up Griswold de Castillo’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to dig deeper into the subject.

Update on the Border

I’ve been traveling both sides of the border in preparation for my April 22 presentation at the AZ-NM History Convention in Flagstaff. Also gathering information on current conditions along the U.S.-Mexico line and sharing what I’ve learned with papers subscribing to NM News Svc.

‘Chasing Shadows’

I’m re-reading Hatfield’s Chasing Shadows, an excellent, in-depth history of a century of border disorder as viewed from the Mexican side. It’s a thoroughly researched (and extensively footnoted) work of scholarship with a unique perspective so far as I know. All our popular histories necessarily address the long and bloody conflict in the Southwest from the American point of view. Hatfield draws heavily on primary Mexican sources and to provide new insights into incidents like Captain Crawford’s death, for example. Plus the book places the Apache Wars in the context of all the Indian depredation, banditry, foreign invasion and rebellion occurring along the whole length of the border, beginning before the Mexican-American War and continuing into the 20th Century.   Exploring the significance of the Yaqui and Mayo rebellions  in shaping Mexican efforts to suppress the Apache menace really helps in understanding the whole period.

New Mexico 1864

I’ve posted an improved version of a  NM 1864 map drawn by an officer in Carleton’s California Volunteers. Captain Allen Anderson, the cartographer, used more than a dozen earlier maps to draw his detailed map of the Southwest. An 1859 West Point grad and nephew of Col. Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter fame,  Allen L. Anderson  “was Captain in the 5th United States Regular Infantry before being commissioned Colonel and commander of the 8th California Volunteer Infantry regiment. He accompanied the California Column to New Mexico Territory and served there 1861-’62. He was brevetted Brigadier General, US Volunteers on March 13, 1865 for “faithful and meritorious services.” He resigned his Army commission in 1867 and became a civil engineer. He died in 1910, age 73.


‘Otra de Lado’ in Flagstaff April 22

I’ll be presenting my Apache Trails paper to the Arizona-New Mexico History Convention in Flagstaff on Saturday, April 22. One performance only,  bright and early at 8:30. Don’t miss out. I’m tempted to call this my “farewell tour,” but that always sounded like bad luck to me.

My Head’s in Mississippi

My latest column at Carlsbad Current-Argus.

Trump & NM

My column in Farmington Daily Times and Carlsbad Current-Argus.


Winter Adventures

I’m just back from a roadtrip to visit relatives back East. I’m still digesting my own experiences, which may turn into a column or two or perhaps further posts here. But no story of mine could possibly top the adventures of these Pennsylvania tourists at the Grand Canyon.   I try not to second-guess with these stories, but I came away with two lessons on this one. First, stay with the vehicle, and second, never split up. Also, build a fire — if nothing else will burn, siphon gas out of the tank, soak the spare tire and set it alight (important safety tip: remove tire from vehicle first).   May not do much to keep you warm but the column of black smoke can serve as a distress signal.

I would hope that even the most feckless back-country traveler would carry matches or a lighter, although this search and rescue guy apparently didn’t have one when he and his young family got stuck in the woods in November. Other than that omission, the lack of a cell phone and leaving his wife and kids in the vehicle while he tried to walk out, he did OK. At least they had Halloween candy for emergency supplies. Personally, I recommend an emergency kit like this, plus ax & shovel, water, blankets or sleeping bag, and e-rats for any back country travel, even on paved roads and regardless of the season..

I’m kind of surprised the PA family was on the North Rim. I know the Lodge up there is closed, and I thought even the paved road to the Rim was closed in winter. Story doesn’t say what they were driving, but I wouldn’t venture into that country without a sturdy 4WD pickup towing a snowmobile this time of year.

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