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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008


O Pioneers!

Grant County pioneer James K. Metcalfe and his family homesteaded in the heart of what had been Apache country — the birthplace of Mangas Coloradas.

by Jerry Eagan

According to historian Edwin Sweeney, the great Chiricahua Apache chief Mangas Coloradas was born near a place the Spanish called Agua de Santa Lucia. Today, we call the spot Mangas Springs, and maps show it near Hwy. 180 West midway between Silver City and Cliff. As much as Mangas Springs is imbued with Apache history (see "Tugging on Red Sleeve," August 2008), it also has a parallel story to tell of its incarnation as Mangas Creek Ranch, owned by the Metcalfes and Fosters.

Hiking Apacheria
Grant County pioneer James K. Metcalfe and his family.
(Photo courtesy Larry Foster)

In handwritten notes, Mollie Metcalfe recalls her family's arrival as among the first pioneers in the area: "On January 1, 1871, my father, James K. Metcalfe, and his nephew, Charles M. Shackleford, arrived by stage at Silver City, the town consisting of three log huts. I do not know when the Mangas Springs was taken as a ranch but probably in the fall of '72 or the spring of '73. Alex Holloway took up land below us in the creek, Jack Donaldson above. Halloween, 1873, my grandfather, James L. Shackleford, his wife [and] his youngest daughter Annie arrived, and my mother with her three children."

James Metcalfe's first home on Mangas Creek Ranch was a single-room, rock-floored, dirt-roofed rock cabin. His daughter wrote: "Another room was built on the east side of the same materials, and a jacal-built corral on the north side for the horses. At night we could hear them chewing and stomping." She learned to sleep with various pots and pans near her bed, in an upstairs bedroom, to catch the persistent drips from a leaky roof.

As for the horses, "A heavy chain was always padlocked across the door to keep the Indians from stealing them." The family later learned that this precaution was unnecessary, "as the Indians had some superstition concerning the Mangas [Springs], and never molested us."

For several years James Metcalfe sold meat: "Wild meat, ducks and pheasant were plentiful," his daughter noted. But there was no milk, butter or flour, and sugar and coffee were expensive. The Metcalfes ate dried corn, which was used in a "most delightful chili hash," and "had common squash the first winter, raised by irrigation ditch still running through the center of the ranch on what we called 'Montezuma's Dam,' built by and used by the Indians."

We like to think we're the mobile generation, but the men and women of the latter half of the 19th century did plenty of traveling, too. James K. Metcalfe's coming by wagon to Silver City in 1871 would have been sufficient bona fides to claim pioneer status, but that trip wasn't even the first he and his brother, Robert, had made west. Along with his father and brothers, in two separate groups, James Metcalfe had made an even more arduous and impressive journey — to the California gold fields in 1850.

In accounts later published in Silver City newspapers, James Metcalfe (aka "Uncle Jim/Jimmy"), described taking a wagon train from Weston, Mo., with 70 others ("mostly Southerners"). They trekked to "Denver City," then Santa Fe, and on to Socorro. By that point, only about 35 were still walking south and west. Metcalfe said "friendly Indians" guided them southwest from Socorro, through what we'd call the Black Range and on "to the Meinbres [sic] River." (These "friendly Indians" may have been the Coppermine or Gila Apaches of Mangas Coloradas.) The party continued past the Santa Rita del Cobre mines, following an old Indian trail: "From there we passed on down the Whitewater [Creek] to Hudson's Springs, where we camped for two weeks." The water at what's now Faywood Hot Springs was then so warm that rabbits could be prepared, then thrown "into the water and in about an hour it would be well cooked. The 'boys' never built a fire and coffee and tea were always hot enough to satisfy."

The group's Indian guides refused to show them the trail farther southwest to Ojo de Vaca ("Cow Spring"), and because the country had been cut up with myriad wild cattle trails the gold-seekers missed the turn. Metcalfe and the others traveled two days and nights without water and suffered an "extreme torture of thirst." By the time they'd arrived at Santa Dominga ranch, near present-day Cloverdale, on the Mexican border, "two men and 37 head of horses had perished." They didn't reach water again until Santa Cruz, near Tucson. From there the group marched to Yuma, then San Diego, where they boarded a steamship, The Panama, bound for San Francisco. The steamers sailing from San Diego charged $350 for a ticket.

The California gold fields could not, however, compete with "Dixie" once the Civil War broke out. Like all his relatives, Metcalfe returned home — to Texas, in his case, Mississippi for other kin — to serve the Confederacy. He had developed lung problems, and so never served in a military capacity, but instead ran a cotton mill in Texas during the war.

The Civil War also prevented the land that the Metcalfes would later settle from being dedicated instead to a reservation for the Gila or Coppermine Apaches. from coming into being. Prior to the war, Mangas Coloradas had one staunch American friend named Dr. Michael Steck. A Pennsylvania physician and humanist, Steck spent much of the last five years of the 1850s working as Indian Agent for the Southern Apaches, ultimately serving for a time as the New Mexico Superintendent of Indian Affairs. While Steck felt all Apaches should be "concentrated" on one or more reservations, he maintained good relations with not only Mangas, but even the Chiricahuas later led by Cochise. In 1860, Steck ordered a survey to map a reservation for the Southern Apaches.

Mangas Creek Ranch was, in its earliest configuration, watered by four sources. To the south was Mangas Creek, running north and then west to the Gila, through a magnificent gorge. To the east — today, mostly obscured by brush on the east side of Hwy. 180 — is Agua de Santa Lucia. This small spring feeds, in turn, the cienega on the west side of the highway, near the sign that reads "Mangus." Also, entering from the east, are the waters of Blacksmith and Sheep Corral Canyons. Combined with the numerous mountains surrounding the entire area, it's no wonder Mangas Coloradas felt secure in this area. If the Apache chief — assassinated in 1863 — been alive in 1871, the Metcalfes might not have survived their settlement plans.

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