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HIKING APACHERIA

Studying the Ground

Searching for Soldier's Hill, site of a renowned Apache ambush in 1885.

Story and photos by Jerry Eagan

 

On the morning of Dec. 19, 1885, First Lieutenant Samuel Warren Fountain–who later, like his father, A. J. Fountain, would become a general–led C Troop of the 8th US Cavalry through country just south of Pleasanton, New Mexico. They were searching for a group of Apaches who'd raised hell throughout southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona since early November. Lt. Fountain and his men had bumped hard into a band of Apaches near present-day Clear Creek, on the Middle Fork of the Gila River, on Dec. 9 (see "Ulzana's Raid," June 2006). Now, 10 days later, they were about to run into another fight, at a place known locally as "Soldier's Hill."

The grave of Daniel Collins and George Gibson,
killed in the ambush at Soldier's Hill.

Soldier's Hill is one of the places where soldiers and Apache stood and fought, albeit for a short, violent outburst that cost five men their lives. When I first came to New Mexico, the story of Soldier's Hill was one of the first I heard about related to the area's rich Apache history. In the spring of 2003, I struck out for the ground just south of Pleasanton, on a section of land west of Hwy. 180 West and slightly north of the Aldo Leopold Vista. I wandered around in that broken country and searched for any residue of the short, violent outburst of killing that had taken place there in 1885.

On those first forays, I found odds and ends, but realized I needed to talk with someone locally who knew about the battle and to dovetail the maps I had with the historical records. I didn't get back to that country again, though, until January 2006. Since then, I've made a dozen trips to the general area. I've hiked both sides of the highway, starting at Big Dry Creek, from the Siggins Ranch, which lies at the Catron/Grant County line on Hwy. 180. I've hiked the hills both south and north of Little Dry Creek several times. I've wound my way up to Aldo Leopold on the "old" Hwy. 260 roadbed and down to the San Francisco River. And I've been to the Grant County Map room, as well as NMSU's Branson Archives and Map Room, looking over old maps of the region.

In the parlance of many cavalrymen and ranchers of the time, the country where this incident happened is "rough"; its tawny earth is cut every which way by hundreds of arroyos, steep hillsides and rocky stream beds. It's hard, up-and-down traveling, on men, mules or horses. In addition to the natural slashes cutting up the land, many traces of old roads or trails, some dating to the 1880s, crisscross the country. There are even the remains of an old stagecoach stop adjacent to Big Dry on private land.

One clue that helped me narrow the search one day was a flat rock the size of a softball that had been wedged into the branches of a robust mesquite bush. The thorns and branches had grown around the rock–a kind of "crown of thorns," as I thought of it, signifying the agony suffered that day in 1885. Apaches were known to use rocks lodged in the crook of trees as markers. It's possible that the rock was left there by an Apache who'd walked the ground many years later.

Combat history often requires studying the ground where a firefight occurred. When I look at land, I always see it in terms of ridge lines, defilade or enfilade features where the ground could be turned into, respectively, cover or a shooting gallery. Angles of road that would be made more difficult by grades, say, because one was moving into the glint of a morning sun often give insight into why an action went awry. Every battle is as much about "the ground" as the people.

Tromping around in that country, I often felt close to those cavalry troopers and to the Apache who fought them so hard. In Vietnam, after all, I was a rifleman, with the First Battalion, Seventh US Cavalry–the "Garry Owen" Regiment made famous by General George Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. (Believe it or not, my battalion commander actually flew his chopper over the jungle in the morning–like a scene from Apocalypse Now–playing recordings of "Reveille" or "Garry Owen." He was under the delusion it would inspire us to kill, but all it did was piss us off. Whether it was the idea of the commanding general or a headquarters weenie, the chopper flying overhead, playing gung-ho bugle calls, got shot at more than once–by us, not the Viet Cong.)

With so many roads cut through this plot of land, I can't say with certainty I've actually found the exact spot where the Soldier's Hill fight happened. A mile or two away from Highway 180, down in an arroyo, and you'll lose even the noise of the traffic going north or south. Look east and you'll see the gray ramparts of Windy Gap and a solid wall of mountains that rise up into the eastern flanks of the Mogollons.

The Soldier's Hill fire fight lasted 20 minutes, if that, but that was more than enough for the Apaches to snatch up weapons, ammo and some boots off the dead Americans, before they bolted west towards the San Francisco River. Their knowledge of this crazyquilt of Big and Little Dry Creeks, the San Francisco River country and points west, was as deep as that river's gorge. The Apache knew before they fired the first shot that this country would provide them with plenty of places to elude the cavalry after the fight was over.

 

Lt. Fountain led 28 troopers and 10 Navajo scouts, turning out onto the trail at 8 in the morning of Dec. 19, 1885. A Sergeant Van Marter and two men stayed behind at the Siggins Ranch camp to protect the supply wagon.

Troop C was in pursuit of the same Apache group they'd fought on the Middle Fork of the Gila 10 days before. Because he was ill with dysentery and because the Navajo scouts seemed unusually slow-moving, Fountain lagged behind the main body of troops. His instincts drove him to cajole the Navajo, then ride hard to catch up with his men. Some officers lead from the middle, some from the rear; others lead from the front. Fountain was the latter type.

His plans were to scout the area south of Siggins Ranch, down to Cactus Flats, which is the land on both sides of Hwy. 180W where it junctions with Hwy. 78, which runs to Clifton. He hoped to wind up at Mule Springs (not Creek).

Earlier, Fountain had met a courier from Silver City with a telegram from the district commander at Sante Fe, which directed him to proceed to Clifton to protect the mines there. The miners were racing to establish their claims before winter. Fountain considered the order, but was self-confident enough that instead he dispatched a message to the commander stating he hoped to pursue, find and destroy the Apaches he'd been trailing. He'd already managed to separate some Apache from their horses; some of the Apaches were apparently barefooted. That was good–maybe he'd finally catch and kill them all.

Fountain trotted his horse out to catch up with 2d Lieutenant DeRosey Cabell. While he was "not alarmed," as he later recorded in his official report, Fountain was nonetheless "anxious and moved rapidly." When he "joined the command," he slowed his horse to a walk. His men had gone no more than a mile and a half, midway up the high ground between Big Dry on the north and Little Dry on the south, when he neared them.

The road was "in a side cutting and too narrow for me to pass easily, when a single shot was fired. I looked along the column, thinking some person had fired at game–which was positively forbidden. I saw no evidence of such a shot. A volley followed quickly. There was some confusion but no panic among the men. Lt. Cabell and most of the men dismounted. . . . I dismounted and fastened my horse to a brush on the lower side of the road and the men in my vicinity did the same."

In many engagements, the reader isn't lucky enough to get a first-person point of view from the man at the head of the column. That position in Vietnam was called "point." I was on point the day I got shot. On that 1885 day, "Scout McKinney" was in the lead, and fortuitously for us, McKinney survived to pen his own account of the spark that ignited the fight, the rifle fire Fountain had heard from several hundreds yards back in the line:

"The troops were in close marching order, and the 'boys' were singing 'Good-by, My Lover, Good-by,' and my first intimation of the presence of Indians was when my horse threw up his head, and the bullet intended for me struck him between the eyes, killing him instantly; as he fell, he lay on my Winchester rifle, which was in a scabbard on his side. Firing general, and the Indian who shot my horse thought I was done for. I recovered my Winchester; the Indian who killed my horse was below. I aimed for his belt, the Indian threw up his hands, and sat down on a rock. I turned around and the Indian who shot [surgeon Captain John Thomas Claggett] Maddox fell and I took a shot at a third. By this time, the entire command was retreating. Fountain reformed his troops, charged, and regained the field in time to save the dead from mutilation, but not in time to prevent the dead and wounded from being robbed of everything of value they had on them. The casualties numbered six dead–one commissioned officer and five enlisted men [an error–no commissioned officer was killed]–and three enlisted men wounded. The Navajo scouts did not take any part in the fight, but they were in evidence when it was over."

 

Fountain reported that his men returned the fire of the hostiles who were visible on the ridge beyond the upper side of the road. He said their fire was not scattering and he moved forward with Lt. Cabell. In those moments, Privates Gibson and Wishard were killed "just as we crossed the road" and Corporal McFarland's horse was killed and he was wounded.

Fountain asked Sergeant Moore where the Navajos were. Some historians have interpreted the Navajos' absence, or slow start, as an indication they might have intuited the ambush was about to happen. The sergeant replied, "God only knows." Soon, though, Fountain saw that the Navajos had dismounted when under cover; they "moved up a ravine and joined me as I gained the ridge."

In the hot action of the moment, as Fountain led his own counterattack, he was convinced his presence and those of his men advancing up the hill was noted by the Apaches and had the positive effect "of forcing them off their ridge line positions. About the same time," Fountain noted, "Sergeant Van Marter, one private and Old Man Elliot [the foreman of the Siggins Ranch and "old" only when pitted against much younger soldiers] rushed in on the right." They had heard the firing, saddled and mounted their horses. Fountain had directed a messenger to alert them to the fight, and ordered them to come on up along a trail farther west of the hill, in hopes of intercepting the Apaches as they headed west, towards the San Francisco River. Anyone with any savvy knew once the Apaches got down into the San Francisco country, they'd be impossible to chase.

The sight of the "old man, bare-headed with white hair flying, was picturesque and inspiring," Fountain noted. "Mr. Elliot knew the ground and suggested the line of approach and led them in the most gallant manner. The firing was continued at close range, so close that I am sure I recognized one of the hostiles and spoke to him [nine months later] at San Antonio, Texas, when Geronimo and his band were turned over to me by Capt. Lawton." At that reunion, Fountain said to the man: "You and I exchanged shots in the fight at Dry Creek and missed each other." The Apache replied quickly, "No it was not I–I never missed my man."

In his account of the Soldier's Hill fight, Fountain went on, "The ridge was their chosen position and when driven from it they disappeared in the timber and rough land to the west."

The Apache left behind a bloody toll. Captain Maddox, the surgeon, had first been shot once in the chest, and came off his horse; hospital steward Babcock and a private named Beatty assisted Maddox to cover, but he was shot again through the head and killed. Lieutenant Cabell was slightly wounded, with part of a finger shot off. Corporal McFarland and Trumpeter Hirchfield also suffered wounds. Blacksmith Daniel Collins was mortally wounded. Privates Gibson, Hutton and McMillan had been killed instantly. Three horses and one mule were killed and one mule severely injured; one wounded horse was later shot.

Fountain sent Lt. Cabell, six troopers and the Navajo scouts on to the "White House" [the Lyons and Campbell Ranch] to alert the commander of Fort Bayard of the incident.

Fountain and the rest stayed behind with the dead and wounded. "As soon as I could I went to Collins," Fountain wrote. "He asked me to pray for him. I had my little prayer book with me and read to him the prayers for the dying. He realized his condition, was calm and followed the prayers with appreciation. He died soon after. I wrote the story of his death to his father. for I knew it would be a comfort to him."

 

Recently, my friend Pete Crum and I drove down Little Dry Creek, to where it joins Big Dry. Towering pink, orange and white cliffs bordered us on the south. As usual, we split up, each carrying a walkie-talkie to stay in touch. Pete went north, up a ridge line that came down from Sun Dial Mountain. I decided to go as far up Outlaw Mountain as I could in four hours. We agreed very quickly that, as late a start as we'd gotten and because of the cold, we needed to be back down in the stream bed by 4 p.m.

The weather was mild and sunny–up on the highway. But once in the canyon, it was clear the steep mountains would bring colder shadows on us far earlier than they would up near the highway.

Scrambling up those steep slopes, I got some wonderful views of the country. Any soldiers who'd been stupid enough to chase even walking Apaches down Big Dry, I realized, could have been slaughtered at any one of a hundred places. I found several marker rocks, a white sock, a few "beans and weenies" cans and an old shotgun shell someone had turned into a match holder. I sat and ate a late lunch in silence, then checked the sun's position and decided it would take me all of an hour to get down. In fact, it was 2 p.m., and I just barely made it down to the truck by 4.

As I threaded, skittered and slid my way down, it became instantly chilly. Some of the side cuts were simply too steep, but I didn't learn that until I'd tried one or two, high up. In the end, avoiding those side cuts actually drove me farther up the mountainside than I'd been when I ate lunch. I finally found a narrow ridge line that ran north, then down, on a track I thought would allow me to make a gentler descent. By the time I made it down, my shirts were soaked with sweat. I was damned glad I'd worn the long-sleeve wicking fabric under my shirt and jacket.

As we drove out of the canyon, we saw places where water on the extreme interior banks of the stream bed hadn't even thawed out all day. Back up on top, where the 1885 ambush occurred, the day was still mildly pleasant, and had a beautiful warm glow to it as the sun began to go down.

"There's no way the cavalry would have been goofy enough to go down Little Dry after the ambush," I said as we drove out and up towards Soldier's Hill.

Pete nodded. "No," he agreed. "According to Captain French, they took the bodies up to the WS Ranch cemetery."

 

Captain William French's "Recollections of a Western Ranchman" provides a more distanced view of the aftermath of the fight. On that cold, blustery Dec. 19, 1885, a messenger was sent north to report the disaster at French's WS Ranch, where Fountain and his men had stayed earlier. Captain French provided a vivid description of Fountain's account of how they had been waylaid. French said he and the others were left dumbfounded at the news of the ambush; it was as though a lightning bolt had struck the men they'd just met and jabbered with a few days earlier.

"The catastrophe had been so sudden and so tragic that words seemed totally inadequate," French went on. "All the way there we kept wondering how such a thing could have happened. . . . On arrival we met poor Fountain, who had received a severe shock. We shook hands in silence and accompanied by an orderly with a lantern moved over to the tent where the bodies had been laid. They had been covered with wagon sheets, but we just lifted the corner to look at them. Poor Maddox lay by himself at one side, his tall figure extending the full diameter of the tent. He had a jagged bullet wound at the corner of his mouth, as if the bullet had made an exit there."

Worried about animal scavengers, Fountain didn't want to leave the bodies on the ground of the fight, so the troopers and civilians used wagons procured from a nearby infantry camp. They spread blankets in the bottom of the two wagons: Three bodies of the enlisted men were in one wagon; Maddox, the officer, and Collins, who'd died of his wounds, were in a separate wagon. French's description of how the men gathered around the bodies of the soldiers killed that night reminded me exactly of how I'd seen soldiers I'd served with in Vietnam; they stood and just "looked at each other and said nothing."

French later said the carcasses of the horses were rolled over the edge of the road, where, being completely frozen, they dried and withered up. The bones of those horses were visible for years, French wrote: "They served as a landmark of sorts, to be pointed out to strangers when the story of the ambush was retold."

In French's narrative, however, there'd been no description of how Fountain had dealt with the dying Private Collins. Until I found the original report of the fight, I didn't know that Fountain had read passages from his Bible, as the man slipped away. The similarity to something that happened to me the day I was so badly wounded in Vietnam struck me so strongly that I cried. I cried again, later, when I visited the graves of the Soldier's Hill casualties, where they've lain ever since at the WS Cemetery.

In the fight at Soldier's Hill, Fountain credited his men with standing well "the shock of the attack without panic." He said they doubtless had in mind instructions given by Major Sumner in the early days of the campaign: "If you are attacked by the hostiles you must hold your ground–some are sure to be killed or wounded and if you vacate the ground, the hostiles will mutilate them."

Fountain recalled a Lord Robert's remarks that an officer who allowed his command to be ambushed, should be shot. "But I also had in mind General Crook's saying that troops in pursuit of the Apaches, should be strong enough to receive a shock and move on, otherwise the Apache would not be engaged."

Soldier's Hill is roughly one mile north of the Aldo Leopold Vista, on Hwy. 180 West, and a quarter-mile above Little Dry Creek. My best guess is the ambush site lies on the west side of the road, and can be seen by pulling off onto a dirt Forest Service road above Little Dry Creek.

Park your car no more than 100 feet off the road. Turn south and walk across that road; you'll see a small dirt track leading south, into bottom land. Look at the crisscrossed old roadbeds. I believe one group of soldiers turned west and rode up a long incline. At the top was the first group of Apache ambushers. If the other group of soldiers went east, they went up a steep, badly eroded track to the top of the long hill where the second group of Apaches were positioned. The Apaches opened fire from up on top.

The enlisted men killed at Soldier's Hill–Private Daniel Collins (blacksmith), Massachusetts; Private George Gibson, Pennsylvania; Private Harry E. McMillan, Michigan (enlisted under the name "Wishard"); Private Frank E. Hutton, Wagoner, Illinois–are still buried on the steep hillside of the WS Ranch Cemetery. Captain Maddox's body was moved by his family soon after interment. The cemetery lies at mile marker 44, whether headed south or north, but is 1.7 miles north of the Alma Grill, if traveling north, and is on the left (west) side of the road. Turn left and drive 100 yards to the cemetery marked with a plain wooden sign, "WS Cemetery." Please respect the private land and do not trespass. Those men have lain there, under all kinds of weather, day and night, for 121 years.

 

This is the seventh of Jerry Eagan's accounts of "Hiking Apacheria." He is a retired civil servant who writes, sells his photography at A Daily Practice yoga studio, 104 N. Texas St. in Silver City, and hikes twice a week into Apacheria.

The author wishes to thank: Violet Villegas of the Grant County Map Room; Dennis Daily, NMSU Branson Archives and Maps; Neta Pope and Andrea Jaquez; Terry Humble, sheriff of the Grant County Westerners; and Vic Topmiller of Sun Mountain Engineering.

 

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