Chapter 2: Across the Rio Bravo

“For the Chiricahua, as for all Apaches, revenge was not primarily a matter of personal spite. It was a means of redressing an imbalance in the state of things.”

Sometime toward the end of June, 1881, deep in the Sierra Madre, the Chihenne held a war dance. One by one, the men rose to join the circle stamping around the fire, firing their guns in the air, boasting of the deeds they would perform, and calling out by name the warriors who had not yet joined the dancers. As with most Indian tribes, an Apache’s true name held powerful medicine; called by that name he was honor-bound to respond.

Mangas Colorado’s son Mangas, Bacutla, Jatu, Sάnchez,  Suldeen and Kaytennae were among those who  joined the dance. Lozen’s name is not mentioned, likely because she was then on the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico or still making her way back from there. It’s hard to believe she would not have been remembered and noted if she was among the raiders, and equally hard to believe she would not have been in the forefront of a war party setting out to avenge her brother’s death.

Nana’s reconnaissance in January had showed him that the border west of El Paso was too closely patrolled to be crossed without immediate pursuit. Instead, he would move east from the Sierra Madre before striking north across the unpopulated Diablo Plateau of West Texas and on up the spine of the Guadalupe and Sacramento Mountains to the Mescalero Reservation in south-central New Mexico, where he was confident of resupply and recruits. From there he would ride west across the Jornada del Muerto and the Rio Grande into his home country in the San Mateos and the Black Range. Whatever else motivated him on this raid, the old man wanted to to go home to Ojo Caliente.

And all along the way he would leave a trail of blood. In coming months, some Hispanics and at least one Anglo who had proven themselves true friends of the Apache were spared. But many more – including the inoffensive, unarmed shepherds Victorio himself had left in peace to tend their flocks – were slaughtered without mercy.

It began June 28, 1881, when Nana and a handful of followers (no more than 15 men and boys) rode down out of the Sierra Madre to attack the Upton surveying party 40 miles south of El Paso, in Chihuahua, Mexico. The Apaches killed four of the surveyors and a teamster. Later the same day and 20 miles closer to El Paso, the war party jumped a stagecoach on the road to Chihuahua City, killing the driver and capturing one unfortunate passenger alive. I’ve found nothing further in the chronicles regarding the fate of that captive. The next day the Indians “shot up a freight train” on the same road, killing three and wounding several others.

The Indians then cautiously scouted the river crossings below El Paso, probing for a hole in the cavalry screen along the border. Two railroad workers were reported killed about July 8 at a waterhole between Fort Quitman and Eagle Springs, Texas, probably by Nana and his men. On July 13, the raiders crossed into Texas someplace southeast of Fort Quitman, probably close to what was then called Ojo Caliente (Indian Hot Springs today).
In 1881, West Texas was a lawless and dangerous country. Mexican bandits, American outlaws, bands of hostile Indians and renegades of all description crossed the Rio Grande in both directions, murdering unwary travelers and reiving what little portable wealth (mainly horses and cattle) the desolate and unpopulated border country offered.

Defense of the line from El Paso southeast to the Big Bend was entrusted to Col. Benjamin Grierson and his 10th Cavalry, riding out of Fort Davis, Texas. A Civil War hero (John Ford’s epic “The Horse Soldiers” was very loosely based on his exploits) Grierson was an energetic cavalryman who led from the saddle. Through years of arduous patrolling he and his men had made themselves familiar with every river crossing and waterhole in their area of operations.

It was this knowledge of the terrain that enabled Grierson to thwart Victorio’s attempts to cross the border the previous year, ambushing that canny warrior at Rattlesnake Springs and forcing him back across the river, thus setting the stage for his final defeat by the Mexicans at Tres Castillos.

Perhaps because he was unencumbered by the women and children that Victorio had carried with him, Nana’s smaller force was more elusive. He forded the Rio Grande, climbed up Quitman Pass and traversed the desolate Diablo Plateau without being discovered. As a result, no warning was sent to Col. Edward Hatch, commanding the 9th Cavalry in New Mexico, to alert him that trouble was headed his way.

In the summer of 1881, Colonel (sometimes referred to as “General” by his contemporaries, a courtesy reference to his Civil War rank) Edward Hatch was the much-harassed and frequently frustrated commander of the 9th Cavalry Regiment and the military district of New Mexico. By an ironic coincidence, on the same day Nana and his raiders crossed the Rio Grande into Texas, Sheriff Pat Garrett put a bullet into Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner, finally removing what had been a burr under the colonel’s saddle for more than three years. Now Hatch was faced with an even more implacable and dangerous opponent.

In the summer of ’81, the colonel’s attention was focused not on the border but on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in south-central New Mexico. Harassed by white stock thieves and “mercilessly and systematically” cheated by the civilian contractors supplying their rations, the Mescalero had long been discontented. They had supplied Victorio with recruits in 1879-‘80, and in the spring of 1880 Hatch and Grierson collaborated in an ill-conceived attempt to disarm and dismount the entire band. That clumsy operation resulted in 30-50 braves fleeing the reservation.

To flush these incorrigibles out of the mountains, Hatch sent to Fort Cummings for a company of Apache Scouts. Nearly 10 years previously, Gen. George Crook had demonstrated to the satisfaction of all but the most hidebound Army officers that only an Apache could catch an Apache. Although Hispanic, Navajo, Papago and Pueblo scouts had all been used in the past, Crook was astute enough to recognize that even though they shared the same language and culture, there was little feeling of tribal solidarity among the different Apache bands, especially between the western White Mountain and the Chiricahua and Mescalero to the east.

Scouts signed on for six months and received pay and rations equivalent to Army ranks (with tobacco often substituted for the salt pork the Apache detested). Each scout was issued the Army’s standard “Trapdoor” Springfield– either the 9 ½ lb. infantry rifle or the shorter and lighter but less accurate cavalry carbine – together with a cartridge belt and Army blouse.

For an Apache male, whose whole identity was wrapped up in his role as a warrior, the gun was a powerful incentive to enlistment, together with the opportunity to once again roam free in the mountains. The extra food, which their families shared in, was another important spur to men sitting in impotent idleness on the reservation, sullenly watching their wives and children slowly starve on the Indian Bureau’s inadequate rations.

Beyond these factors, I believe more than a few scouts joined because they had concluded that the white men were simply too numerous and well-armed to resist, and that the hostiles stood in the way of reaching any final resolution of the conflict that would allow the Apache to survive as a people. Random murders and robberies terrorized and infuriated the settlers but did nothing to alter the strategic balance and only served to further inflame public sentiment on the frontier, where white people tended to blame the reservation Indians indiscriminately for outrages committed by los bravos.

To cite just one of many examples, in the midst of Nana’s raid on August 6, 1881, Albuquerque Daily Journal editor Thomas Hughes thundered: “It is a shame and disgrace that the Mescalaro (sic) and San Carlos Indian reservations are allowed to exist. They should be wiped out, and the cowardly wretches who claim protection at these agencies should be killed off.”

The message Crook hammered home again and again in his talks with the leading men on the reservation was that the white people caught and punished their own “bad men.” Crook warned the chiefs that they must do the same or all would suffer for the crimes of the few. As with the conflicting allegiances in the southern border states during the Civil War, it was a difficult and painful choice to make. Although generally both brave and trustworthy, the scouts’ loyalty could on occasion be pressed too far.

In March 1880, the Army recruited 32 scouts from San Carlos for service in the Victorio campaign. Designated Co. B Indian Scouts, the men were re-enlisted for a second six months in September, 1880, and yet again for a third tour in March 1881. The unit was mainly composed of Chokonen Apaches, close cousins of the Chihenne, apparently on the theory that they would be best able to find Victorio in the mountains of New Mexico.

Chihuahua, “the boldest and most respected Chiricahua chief of this time” was named company sergeant, and his brother Ulzana (aka Josannie and other variations) was among those in the ranks. Chihuahua’s son Eugene would later say that “at that time being a scout was not a disgrace, for they had not been used against their own people. When they were, those who stayed with the Army were considered traitors. But even when Chihuahua was enlisted it was a doubtful step.”

Both Chihuahua and Ulzana would later switch sides, and it’s likely they were already feeling some doubts about their allegiance when pursuing Nana in the summer of 1881.

Although Chihuahua spoke and understood some English as well as Spanish, Frank Bennett, a former chief of Indian police at San Carlos, was hired as “chief of scouts” to serve as liaison, interpreter and advisor between the Indians and the Army officer commanding the unit.

Frank P. Bennett was about 30 years old and had first started scouting for the Army against the Cheyenne in Kansas and Colorado more than 10 years previously. He had since chased Apaches in the Victorio War. (There was a Captain Frank T. Bennett in the 9th Cavalry, which has led to some confusion in later chronicles, since a chief of scouts was sometimes called “Captain,” as a courtesy title like the old-fashioned Southern “Colonel.”) But final authority and responsibility for the company rested with 9th Cavalry Second Lt. John F. Guilfoyle, 27, an 1877 graduate of West Point.

The company was initially based at Fort Cummings in southwestern New Mexico and tasked with covering the Mexican border. But in May, with Victorio dead and the border quiet since Nana’s earlier foray in January, Col. Hatch ordered Guilfoyle and his men east into the Sacramentos.  After their mass exodus from the hated Fort Sumner gulag, the Mescalero had been rounded up and settled on a new reservation in their traditional homeland. But the chain of mountains running south from Sierra Blanca made a tempting natural corridor that the wilder spirits were in the habit of traveling down to West Texas and across the Rio Grande into Mexico. They were joined and encouraged in this raiding by Lipan Apaches, now displaced from their home ranges and all but homeless, and by renegade Comanches escaped from their reservation in Indian Territory.

As a result, there was mutual recrimination among the Indian Bureau, the military commanders in Texas and New Mexico and the Mexican authorities. In 1880, the Army tried to solve the problem with a clumsily-executed attempt at disarming the Mescaleros and seizing their horses. In the resulting fray a number of Apaches escaped into the mountains, still armed and mounted and now ferociously angry at what they viewed as the white man’s perfidy.

According to Lekson, Guilfoyle and his scouts were sent to the Mescalero Reservation in response to reports of Apaches “creating a disturbance in old Mexico and then crossing the Rio Grande below Fort Quitman.” But Sweeney writes that Guilfoyle was in the Sacramentos searching not for raiders from below the border but for the renegade Mescaleros, led by a war chief named Manzanita, who had escaped the reservation roundup the previous year.  According to Wellman, “the troops had only the vaguest information” regarding Nana’s movements.

That could explain why Guilfoyle felt comfortable sending his pack mules in charge of Chief Packer Felix Burgess and a single companion down from the mountains to pick up fresh vegetables either at the village of Tularosa or at the Mescalero Reservation, where soldiers from Fort Stanton were cultivating a garden.

This is another point in the narrative where accounts differ. Sweeney doesn’t mention Burgess, but describes the party as “a small pack train – two men with four mules” belonging to Guilfoyle’s detachment of Indian Scouts. Leckie calls it “the train carrying supplies from Fort Stanton to Company L.” And Billington describes it as a train of supply wagons “loaded with provisions from Fort Stanton” for Co. L. Billington identifies the two men with the train as “black troopers” riding mules, while Leckie identifies only one of them as a trooper. There are problems with those accounts – Company L was not Guilfoyle’s company, and “L” was at Fort Stanton, not to the south; it’s highly unlikely Guilfoyle would have had wagons in the mountains, he had no buffalo soldiers accompanying him at this point, and “Chief Packer” is not a military rank but a civilian job title. (Although soldiers could handle mules when necessary, the Army usually hired civilian contractors expert in managing the animals.)

All the different accounts agree that on July 17 Nana ambushed the little convoy near the mouth of Alamo Canyon (on the outskirts of present-day Alamogordo), wounding one man, killing at least one mule, and capturing three mules. Based on the contradictory details available, it’s hard to understand how Nana let the two packers escape with their lives.

Billington asserts Nana had already been reinforced by “twenty-five Mescaleros,” which with his original followers would have given him a 20-1 advantage. But even if Nana still had only his original 15 warriors, it’s doubtful that two men – one of them wounded – could have bucked those odds for long. According to the Albuquerque Journal: “A portion of a band of Apaches, supposed to number some seventy in all, attacked the two men from ambush, and began shooting at them from a distance of not more than forty feet, but strange to say, only one gave the trainmaster a flesh wound in the thigh, and killed a horse or two. Both of the men lost no time in slipping from their horses on the safest side and returning the fire, by which one of the Indians was killed and a slight panic created.”

Whatever the circumstances, leaving survivors was a significant tactical mistake on Nana’s part. He must have realized that the presence of an Army pack train meant that soldiers were somewhere in the neighborhood, and the cavalry would soon be hot on his trail.

The take from this little hijacking was certainly a disappointment. The mules were valuable both as transport and food (Apache epicures are said to have preferred mule meat to either beef or horse). But from an Army supply train the Indians could reasonably have hoped to capture sugar, coffee, tobacco, perhaps even a clandestine bottle of whisky, and – best of all – ammunition. If all they found on Burgess’s mules was a load of garden truck, they must have been bitterly disappointed.

According to Lekson’s account, Burgess, who was shot in the hip, “struggled back to the (Mescalero) agency, while the other packer, a man named Smith, went on to Guilfoyle’s camp to report.” Rather than immediately taking up the chase, Guilfoyle first picked up 20 troopers from Co. L, 9th Cavalry, to augment his force. A detachment of soldiers was stationed at the Mescalero agency, but they would not have been rationed and equipped for an extended field expedition, and as a “D” Co. officer Guilfoyle had no authority to order “L” Co. men to ride out with him. Such orders had to come through the proper chain of command. A telegraph line was strung between the agency and the fort in 1881, but it’s likely Guilfoyle left his Apache scouts at the agency and rode on another 10 miles to Fort Stanton to report to the commanding officer in person and request assistance.

In the circumstances, it’s a little surprising that Guilfoyle was prepared to give Nana a day’s head start while he obtained reinforcements. Even if Billington is correct that Nana had already been joined by two dozen Mescalero braves at this point, Guilfoyle was still outnumbered by no more than 4 to 3, and Army officers typically acted aggressively in the face of much higher odds than that.

With four years’ service on the frontier, Guilfoyle was certainly an experienced, courageous and active officer – only the most able men were selected for the demanding job of leading the Apache scouts. Perhaps the young lieutenant was already keenly aware that instead of hunting Mescaleros with Chiricahua scouts, he was now chasing Chiricahuas with Chiricahuas – men who almost certainly knew each other personally, were related by blood or marriage, and had very likely been fighting side by side against the white man until very recently. In that case, Guilfoyle might well have felt the need for a score of tough, reliable buffalo soldiers at his back when he caught up with the hostiles.

Unlike the white regiments, where frequent desertions and low re-enlistment rates often resulted in a high proportion of green recruits, the 9th Cavalry troopers were typically long-service veterans. Proud regulars with years of experience on the Southwest frontier, they were formidable soldiers. In the coming weeks four 9th Cavalry enlisted men and one of their white officers would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor in the pursuit of Nana’s raiders.

In the event, the day’s delay in seeking reinforcements made little difference. Now with a force of 32 Apache scouts, 20 soldiers and 8 civilian packers, Guilfoyle turned back south to take up the chase. Given the distances and times, I believe that instead of heading back into the Sacramentos he rode west down Tularosa Creek (today’s US70) and then south on the flats bordering the mountains (US54/70), a distance of about 40 miles, and a hard day’s ride for the heavy cavalry mounts.

Whatever his route, on July 19 Guilfoyle’s scouts cut the raiders’ trail at the mouth of Dog Canyon, about 8 miles south of Alamo Canyon. The trail led west from there toward the Arena Blanca (White Sands), and it was very fresh. From the tracks, Sgt. Chihuahua could have told the lieutenant he was no more than an hour or two behind the hostiles.

Why was Nana still in the area two days after the Alamo Canyon ambush, knowing that the cavalry would soon be after him? According to Sweeney, the raiders had stopped long enough to butcher and eat one of the captured Army mules, but that couldn’t have delayed them by a full day.

Nana and his men could cover ground when they wanted to. From where the raiders crossed the Rio Grande in Texas on July 13 to Alamo Canyon in New Mexico, where they surprised Burgess and his pack train on July 17, is about 120 miles as the crow flies. On horseback, following northeast along the foothills of the Sierra Diablo and then northwest along the Guadalupes and Sacramentos, the riding distance is closer to 180 or 200 miles. That would be 40 or 50 miles a day.

At anything like that pace, Nana should have been long gone two days after the Alamo Canyon fight, but he wasn’t. Either he had a pre-arranged rendezvous planned with the Mescalero dissidents hiding in the Sacramentos, or like Guilfoyle he rode north to the reservation after the ambush. Nana had lived there for nearly two years in 1878-’79, and a number of Mescalero warriors had ridden with him and Victorio until the Tres Castillos massacre in 1880. Some of Nana’s fellow Chihene still lived with the Mescalero, and he was counting on them and discontented Mescalero to join his raiding party.
It’s possible that Sgt. Chihuahua and his scouts were at the agency at the same time Nana and his raiders were somewhere nearby. Whether they ran into each other personally or simply heard rumors, the scouts would know by then who they were chasing.

Nana may have been lingering at the spring in Dog Canyon waiting for the Mescalero contingent to arrive when a sharp-eyed sentry spotted the dust cloud of the approaching cavalry column in the distance. Either way, his enemies were close on his heels when he led out west toward the White Sands 20 miles away.

Kaytennae (also Kaetenae, Kaedine and other variations) was Nana’s trusted segundo, as Nana had been Victorio’s lieutenant. His name meant something like “fights without arrows,” a tribute to his verbal skills in what today would be called “trash-talk” – the exchange of insults, threats and vituperation between opponents that traditionally preceded a fight.

Kaywaykla, his foster son, recounted one incident in which Kaytennae was lying in wait on a ledge above a desert waterhole when a group of Apache scouts approached. (Usually traveling on foot, the scouts could easily outdistance the cavalry they were guiding and so were typically ranging far ahead of the troops.) Enraged at the sight of men he knew, Kaytennnae jumped to his feet and yelled down at the scouts, abusing them as cowards and daring them to come up into the rocks. “Come up here we’ll give you metal, more then you want. I have sharp metal for your treacherous hearts! Brave warriors who fight their people deserve reward. We’ll give it!”

In the late afternoon heat of July 19, 1881, Kaytennae held the rear guard as Nana’s raiders crossed the alkali flats and struck the wagon road from Mesilla to Tularosa where it skirted the White Sands. It was there that Chihuahua and his scouts, ranging far ahead of the cavalry, caught up with him.

According to Wellman’s account, “Guilfoyle’s Indian scouts came suddenly upon 13 Apaches at a small ranch house near the Arena Blanca. They had just finished butchering two Mexican men and a woman. So obsessed were they with the work of slaughter that they might have been taken easily. But the scouts were over-eager. Their first shots were from such long range that they were ineffective. Worse, the raiders had ample warning and skipped up among the high hills where it was impossible for Guilfoyle’s men to overtake them.”

Lekson sets this bloody scene not at a ranch house but beside an overturned wagon, and identifies the dead men as José Provencia of Mesilla and his stepson Victoriano Albillar of Tularosa., who left his widow with a 9-year-old daughter and a three-week-old baby. The female victim was a 16-year-old girl who had been traveling with her husband, who was missing and presumably carried off by the raiders. The three bodies the raiders left behind were “horribly mutilated.”

We need to pause here, standing figuratively over the corpse of a murdered teen-age girl, to mourn her senseless death and meditate for a moment on the cruelty of the Apache wars. This will not be the last dead body we will be forced to confront as we trail Nana across New Mexico. Some of them will be soldiers and others civilian volunteers, men who died with weapons in their hands, having accepted the risks inherent in mortal combat against a dangerous foe. But many more will be ordinary people unlucky enough to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, random bystanders killed in the 19th Century equivalent of a drive-by shooting.  And whenever they could, the raiders left the corpses shockingly mutilated and displayed for their pursuers to find.

While it’s certainly unfair to judge 19th Century Indian warfare by our own standards today, it’s significant that these crimes violated the Apaches’ own mores at the time. Traditionally, Apache warriors would seize women and children as the legitimate spoils of war, but they would not kill them,  or harm an unarmed man as long as he offered no resistance. The Apache today protest they never took scalps until they learned the art from Mexican and American scalphunters, and only began mutilating enemy corpses in revenge for the murder and subsequent decapitation of their great chief Mangas Coloradas.

The nihilistic ferocity of Nana’s raiders expressed their rage and frustration. They were not just grieving the death of their families and friends, but men dispossessed of their homeland, facing their extinction as a people. But when all is said and done, it’s impossible not to recoil in horror from men who would butcher a defenseless 16-year-old girl, whatever their grievances. And a crime like that invites a terrible retribution, the nemesis of the Greeks.

There’s an old Mexican dicho: “Before you ride out to seek revenge, dig two graves.”



The Warpath

Alamo Canyon

The Raid



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