The fight over Don Juan

I didn’t have Albuquerque on my 2020 bingo card. But when the nationwide mania for iconoclasm metastasized to include other historical figures beyond Confederate generals, it was inevitable that an old battle would be rejoined over New Mexico’s most famous conquistador. Dead for close to four centuries, Don Juan de Oñate remains a polarizing figure, revered as a heroic founding father by a great many of the state’s near-majority Hispanic population and reviled as a cruel oppressor by a smaller but aggressive alliance of Native Americans and White Progressives. There have been recurring attempts to topple him from his pedestal, but all previous clashes ended in no more than harsh words. What’s changed has been the political establishment’s decision to side with the mob rather than the law. Given that abdication, violence was the inevitable result.

Fort Names

The current controversy over the names attached to various military posts (a week ago, how many Americans knew or cared who Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood or Henry Benning were?) got me thinking about the names of various 19th Century forts in the Southwest. Would their patrons pass muster in today’s retrospective reputational revaluation?

Most would seem non-controversial, like Major Benjamin Wingate, mortally wounded at the Battle of Valverde on the Rio Grande in 1862 in New Mexico’s only Civil War campaign. Brigadier General George Bayard (pictured) was another Civil War hero who died of wounds received back east at the Battle of Fredericksburg that same year.

Louis S. Craig (not to be confused with Louis A. Craig, a general in WW2) was a regular Army captain murdered by deserters in California in 1852.

Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory was named not for the hero of the Alamo but for G.W. Bowie, colonel of the 5th California Volunteers, who established the post in 1862 and immodestly named it after himself — a not uncommon practice among officers in the West until after the Civil War.

Henry Selden was a regular officer serving in New Mexico Territory who switched to the volunteers at the onset of the Civil War to become Colonel of the 1st New Mexico Volunteers. Fort Stanton was named not for the noted abolitionist of that same name but for Henry W. Stanton, a Captain of Dragoons killed fighting Mescaleros in New Mexico in 1855.

W. W. Bliss was a West Pointer and a gifted mathematician as well as being fluent in 13 languages and a student of ethnology. He not only served as Gen. Zachary Taylor’s chief of staff in the Mexican War but took the opportunity to woo Old Rough and Ready’s daughter.



Escape from Alcatraz

Off topic but well worth recalling when the going gets tough: June 11 marks the 58th anniversary of the only successful escape from Alcatraz federal prison. I say “successful” because whatever happened to them, Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers were never returned to federal custody, and as far as I know the feds are still looking for them. Whether the three men survived the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay remains an open question, forever muddied by the FBI’s prevarications in the initial investigation. In the years since, the story, like that of Butch and Sundance, has grown barnacles of speculation, rumor and tantalizing but unverifiable clues. Whatever their ultimate fate, the tale of their escape remains an epic of determination, clever improvisation and desperate courage.



Bad Day at Battle Ax

To add a further cautionary note to the previous post on desert travel, here’s another piece from Desert USA that demonstrates how quickly a casual day’s expedition into the back country can turn into a life-or-death adventure. The story is more striking because the author, Jim Hatt, was no inexperienced tourist but a seasoned desert rat who had spent years exploring the Superstitions.  In this case, familiarity bred not contempt for the terrain but feckless overconfidence, leading him to make several mistakes that combined with bad luck (not one but two flat tires!) to cost him a rough 24 hours.

Desert travel

Speaking of Death Valley, here’s some guidance on climate acclimation for those venturing out into the Southwestern deserts this time of year. With all national and state parks and various public recreation areas closed, I expect some folks will be pushed deeper into the back country in search of a little peace and quiet.  Air conditioning (Thanks, Willis Carrier) opened the Southwest to mass immigration but left us all confined in climate-controlled comfort, watching the world outside through double-paned glass. We forget that doesn’t have to be. Nana and his people lived in this country year-round.

Death Valley

I’ve found some temporary escape from house arrest by looking back over old notes on past travels. I posted notes on a trip to colorado 8-10 some time ago, and I want to add Death Valley to the archive as one of my favorite memories. I had been looking forward to a return trip this spring but the Park Service, like the BLM, decided visiting our “public lands” is hazardous to our health.

“I wish…

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

I’ve composed, rewritten, edited and finally discarded dozens of posts since I last updated this site. But when you have nothing worth sharing to say, fall back on the words of a better writer. Tolkien, like Churchill and Marcus Aurelius, conveys both cold comfort and much needed resolve in facing difficult and uncertain times.

Although I haven’t written anything worth sharing, my thoughts have frequently turned to Nana over the past month. In researching and writing the old man’s story I not infrequently found myself wondering how I myself would react faced by the same daunting circumstances. Not as well, I’m afraid.

Was Nana a Terrorist?

A dangerous question to raise in today’s climate. where even amateur historians are justifiably reluctant to offend ethnic sensibilities and professionals can risk their reputations and careers on one unguarded comment. But the recent debate over the passing of the late Quessam Soleimani at least briefly focused attention on the question of definition: what is terrorism and who can be justifiably viewed as a terrorist?

Retroactively applied to the Apache Wars, the question might be immediately dismissed on the perfectly rational grounds that we cannot judge another, past culture according to today’s ethical and moral standards. But many of today’s historians don’t hesitate to apply their own value judgments to the antebellum South, the “Lost Cause” and the entire history of the American people. If we’re to truly understand our shared history here in the American Southwest, we need to honestly confront the past.

I don’t believe I directly applied the label to Nana himself in my book, but I certainly described his Raid as classical terrorism: the application of violence against a civilian population to exert pressure on the society’s leadership.

Terrorism is inherently a political act, and “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  In that sense, Nana would certainly to prefer to be known as a terrorist rather than considered a common criminal, which is how he was viewed by most of his white contemporaries.

Mano a Coyote

Here’s a new hero in the ongoing struggle against man’s nearest competitor for North American “Apex Predator” title. A dad who takes on a coyote bare-handed to protect his son deserves something more than a Hallmark card on Father’s Day. The same coyote apparently attacked a woman and her two dogs earlier the same day, according to the news story. The dead coyote is being tested for rabies, which would be bad (and painful) news for the victims if the test proves positive but would be somewhat comforting in explaining the animal’s aggressive behavior. Note too that this all took place in a small town in New Hampshire just a few miles from the Atlantic coast — more evidence of the now continental reach of canis latrans.

Backcountry Rescue

Here’s a “Lost in the Woods” story with a happy ending. Colorado family returning from vacation in California detoured off I-15 into the Arizona Strip for quick visit to North Rim, bogged down in mud and snow 40 miles into the backcountry. Father and son hiked 20 miles back out to call for help and local Sheriff’s deputies, BLM and Park Rangers combined to locate and rescue the rest of the family. A couple of lessons here. First is “inquire locally.” Don’t venture into unfamiliar terrain without stopping by nearest convenience store, bar or preferably the local ranger station to ask for directions, road conditions and weather report. (On that last point, I would expect Coloradans to be familiar with the relationship between altitude and temperature. Might be sunny and warm in Southern California, but the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is up above 7,000-7,500 feet. As a rule of thumb you can expect temp to drop about 5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 foot gain in altitude.) Finally, as a hidebound old paper map & compass geezer, let me caution you youngsters about becoming over-reliant on your new-fangled electronics. This Colorado family was misled by their “smartphone” mapping, which led them onto an unpaved road impassable in wet weather. Then, when their SUV got stuck, they found themselves out of cellphone range.