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.

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 Juju

Little early for Halloween chills, but there’s a great piece in DesertUSA on “Desert Shamans and Sorcerers.” Reading about the evil Tahquitz makes me want to visit his canyon sometime, or maybe just watch for him strolling the streets of Palm Springs. The Cahuilla roamed the desert west of the Colorado River, but their beliefs differ only in detail with the Navajo and Apache as well as the more settled Pueblo and Hispanic people farther east. All believe in witchcraft in one form or another.

 

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?

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.

 

Iwo

Ira Hayes was a Pima who had hardly ever been off the reservation in Arizona before he enlisted in the Marines. He never learned how to cope with his wartime memories or his fame as one of the iconic flag raisers. He drank himself to death at age 32.