Another Death at White Sands

Sounds like a great title for a novel, but true enough. These tragedies seem to happen every couple years. I wrote about some of the history of the Arena Blanca here. And my book follows the bloody trail Nana’s raiders left through the sands back in 1881. I would expect that, as at Grand Canyon, fatalities at White Sands will become more common with increased visitation. Since Tracking Nana is a combination pop history and travel/hiking guide intended to encourage people to get out and explore New Mexico by retracing the old man’s footsteps, I feel obligated to remind folks of the risks inherent in venturing out into the deserts and mountains of the Southwest.


‘Forgotten Winchester’

The invaluable History Blog has a couple of add’l facts on what has been dubbed “The Forgotten Winchester” — although as I said in my earlier post it seems to me unlikely the old gun was forgotten or even simply misplaced. The Stars & Stripes story referred to a bullet found in the stock of the rifle, but I assumed that must have been an error in terminology, since the Winchester’s tubular magazine runs underneath the barrel, not up through the stock (as some earlier repeaters did). Turns out I should have trusted the reporter’s accuracy. An x-ray did in fact discover an unfired cartridge in the stock, in a compartment designed to hold not bullets but a cleaning rod and accessories. Why the owner would have pushed a bullet up there is another minor mystery to add to the other questions about the gun’s history.

Second interesting fact: “The Juniper tree that was its home for so long alas is no longer with us. Just two years after the rifle was found, a wildfire burned the hillside above Strawberry Creek where the Forgotten Winchester had resided. Its comfy leaning tree was devastated in the conflagration. All that is left of it is a black stick. Had Eva Jensen’s keen powers of observation not spotted the rifle — which had weathered to such a consistently grey color that it looked practically indistinguishable from the tree — it would have burned to nothingness and nobody alive would have known it ever existed.”

“Mexicans” or Hispanics?

In trailing Nana and his warriors back and forth across the border, I’ve struggled with accurately reflecting 19th Century terminology while accommodating 21st Century sensibilities. For example, contemporary sources and earlier historians generally referred to Hispanic New Mexicans as “Mexicans.” In fact these people were American citizens and had been since the territory was acquired by the U.S. with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Since many New Mexicans today resent being referred to as Mexicans, proudly tracing their lineage not to Mexico but to the Spanish colonists of the Second Entrada, I’ve generally tried to refer to those of Nana’s time as “Hispanics.”

The Abandoned Rifle

New developments in a story that stretches not just five years but more than a century into the past. In November 2014, Park Service archeologist Eva Jensen was doing a field survey in Great Basin National Park. I’ve accompanied archeologists on these walkabouts and I was amazed at all the things they could see at a glance – sherds scattered in what they call an “Oops! site,” the charcoal bed of an ancient hearth or the remnants of a rock shelter — that I would have missed completely. Soldiers accompanying Apache scouts had the same reaction to their guides’ uncanny ability not just to see the terrain but to experience it with all their senses.

Others have certainly hiked the ridge Jensen was scouting – there’s no place in the West a man has yet to set foot on, so far as I can tell. But she was the first in decades to spot a rifle leaning up against a juniper trunk. The cracked and weathered stock and rusted barrel blended perfectly with the tree, rendering the old gun all but invisible.

It’s an 1873 model Winchester, manufactured in 1882. Buyer and any subsequent owners are unknown, as is how it came to be where it was discovered or even how long it rested there before Eva Jensen’s sharp eye spotted it.

The ’73 Winchester was the AR15 of its day, “The Gun That Won the West.” Its rapid rate of fire and accuracy (at least at short ranges) made it the favorite weapon on both sides in the Apache Wars. It may have been a lever-action Winchester that cost Domingo Gallegos not just his wife and baby girl but his life. I believe Nana and his warriors rode down to Rancho Cebolla that day not because their Navajo guides had boasted of Domingo’s marksmanship but because they told Nana of his gun.

News stories don’t specify the caliber of the Great Basin find but it was probably chambered for the powerful .44-40 cartridge. That was scarce in Mexico, and the need to resupply was an important factor driving the Apaches to raid north across the border.

According to the news reports there was one bullet left in the Great Basin gun. The empty magazine might explain how the rifle came to be left behind. It was not dropped or lost on the trail but left neatly propped up against a tree trunk.

You don’t forget a ten-pound, yard-long weight. You’ll notice it’s missing before you’ve gone a hundred yards. I believe even a man suffering from dehydration, hunger, hypothermia or heat-stroke would keep such a valuable possession with him until the last extremity. Not to mention its value as a defensive weapon even with just one bullet, a good Winchester was worth around $40 or $50 used, which was a lot of money in those days.

I presume the Park Service archeologists made a very careful survey of the surrounding area, looking for harness or bridle hardware, spent cartridges, buttons and buckles, or any human remains. If so, nothing was found.

Imagine a man propping his rifle against a tree and walking off, never to return. Why?

Poor Naomi

I can’t say I’m a fan, having never read her work, but judging just from the titles I’m pretty confident I’m not among her target audience.

But any aspiring author has to cringe in sympathy at her humiliation as her latest book was debunked in a live radio interview.  On BBC radio, which would have been at least tolerable before Titter and Farcebook acquired the ability to broadcast her embarrassment worldwide in near real time. As one commenter said, it’s like that dream you used to have about showing up at high school naked. It’s every historian’s nightmare.

What makes it worse is I can see how it happened and I can see it happening to me. It’s all too easy to seize on and embellish those pieces of history that fit our narrative and ignore or underplay those that fail to fit into the puzzle we’re putting together. So Naomi found what she wanted to find, stuffed it into her game bag and hurried on in search of more birds.

What makes it worse is that she’s not some self-publishing, tinfoil-hatted crank but a best selling author publishing through a major, respected imprint. Granted, this book was first published in England by some minor-league feminist house, but H-M has a well-known brand to protect, especially in the lucrative textbook market. One would hope they staffed editors, copy editors, fact checkers tasked with catching this sort of error.


Hatch’s Report

In re-checking my footnotes I came across one reference that had apparently vaporized, and I reluctantly removed the cited quote from the final draft of Tracking Nana. I say reluctantly because in at least one respect, Colonel Hatch’s report   to Gen. Pope supports my supposition that Lt. Guilfoyle was drawn off the trail of the main body of raiders somewhere along Alamocita Creek and wasted a couple of days tracking the decoys off to the west before they dispersed. I’ve tracked down the two relevant pages from the Secretary’s Annual Report for 1881 and posted them under resources.