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Seeking Fort Thorn
Hiking Apacheria with help from Apache grandmas

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The Chihuahuan Desert, up close and personal


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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   June 2009



Seeking Fort Thorn

How the grandmothers led us to a long-forgotten fort and Indian agency.

Story and photos by Jerry Eagan

Last August, on a return trip from Albuquerque, my wife and I stopped at the marvelous El Camino Real Museum near Socorro. A friend, archaeologist Kara Naber, worked there, and recommended a visit. "It's a great museum, and has so much information on the Camino Real," she'd said, knowing my interest in Apacheria. I'd considered myself a novice on the Spanish exploration part of New Mexico's history, but know that some postulate the Spanish and Apache histories have been interwoven from as early as the late 1600s.

fort thorn
An old print showing Fort Thorn, near Lake Valley, NM.

Upon our arrival, Kara greeted us warmly, then lamented I'd not been there earlier. Several Apaches had just asked her questions about Ojo Caliente, the location of the Warm Springs Apache Reservation, south of Socorro and near Fort Craig, north of Truth or Consequences. As it turned out, the Apaches hadn't left the building, and I was introduced to Eddy Montoya; his friend and medicine man, Victor; Eddy and Victor's wives, JoAn and Linda; and Eddy's son, Buddy.

After introductions, Eddy asked if I'd ever heard of a Jaralosa or Lake Valley Apache reservation, near the latter location east of Silver City. He also asked where "Fort Harmony," might have been located. I told him I thought the name was a designation someone at the New Mexico Tourism Bureau or US Forest Service had given to Fort Ojo Caliente. Eddy muttered something about the relationship between the Chihenne and Americans hardly being "harmonious."

Local historian Dale Geise's book, Forts of New Mexico, provides a succinct reference about Fort Ojo Caliente, when military troops were stationed there between 1862 and 1879. S.C. Agnew's Garrisons of the Regular US Army — New Mexico 1849-1899 states that several companies of the 4th and 9th Cavalry were stationed there in May 1879 and March 1882, along with detachments of the 23d Infantry Regiment, up until March 1882, during the final "Victorio Campaign."

fort thorn
More attuned to animals now, the author
spots a young mountain lion.

I told Eddy that as far as I knew, the designation "Fort Harmony" was never used in contemporary times. Eddy seemed more riled, though, when I told him I'd never heard of a reservation at Lake Valley, or along Jaralosa Creek. Eddy talked about his great-great-great grandmother, Narcissa Tellez Arellin, whose husband was a man named Julian Arellin. Eddy said a number of Chihenne N'de (Eastern Chiricahua) Apaches from the Canada Alamosa area simply had blended in with Hispanic families as a means of maintaining a low profile so they could remain near their homelands. Narcissa and Julian were from Lake Valley.

I'd always wondered what had happened to the Coppermine, Mimbreno and Chihenne Apaches who had aligned with Mangas Coloradas, Mahko (father of Geronimo), or other groups. They had occupied the Mimbres, Pinos Altos, Cooke's Range and lower Mogollons after Mangas' death, the Civil War, and the end of that war, but prior to their concentration at Arizona reservations, such as the Chiricahua Agency, and later, San Carlos.

Eddy didn't disguise his annoyance with me during the first 10 minutes of our conversation. As our voices rose louder in what I considered "passion," I felt we were nearing some kind of "argument." Eddy's relatives and friends were backing away from us, as if they expected an impending explosion. But privately, as always when I meet an Apache, I thought: I wonder if he'd want to hike with me?

Acting on that thought, I gently put my hand on Eddy's shoulder and said: "I think we're arguing, but I don't want to argue with you! You asked me if I had ever heard of these places. I told you 'no,' but that doesn't mean they didn't exist. Maybe they did, but had different names — names the Apache gave them. I've just never heard of a Lake Valley Indian Reservation. Maybe it was a 'sub-agency' of the Ojo Caliente?"

That broke the tension. Eddy seemed to get that I wasn't disrespecting his relatives' oral history. I counted myself privileged to talk with an Apache elder, and I asked if he'd like to hike with me. I'd asked other Apaches to hike with me, but none ever had. In fact, very few people have ever hiked consistently with me, because normally I don't hike existing trails. Fear of heights, rattlesnakes, some moments of uncertainty on route finding, and carrying heavy loads of water in the heat, or extra gear to protect against hypothermia in cold weather, have deterred most folks. These aspects of "hiking Apacheria" don't turn them on.

As Eddy told me more about "his people," he switched back and forth between his Hispanic family and those who were Apache. To survive, Eddy's Apache relatives had submerged themselves in the mostly Hispanic culture. He was familiar with the Black Range and the Lake Valley area as his relatives had been.

At one point, he mentioned a rancheria near the "headwaters" of a particular stream in the Black Range. Not more than two weeks earlier, I'd read about that exact spot in an old Army report. The Army's movement then had been called a "scout"; in my Vietnam combat days, we called it a "patrol." In each case, the Army required notes and compass settings. When Eddy's Apache relatives had lived in the Black Range, a "scout leader" made a daily map of miles marched. As Eddy told his story about this place, I felt the fillings in my molars vibrate with the synchronicity of our meeting, unexpectedly, in this place and time.

The place I'd read about and that Eddy mentioned had been the site of a firefight, when Army troops surprised Apaches camped there. The "scout" reported that the surprised Apache had "scattered, like quail at the sound of gunfire," when attacked. Knowing what little I did about Apache history and culture, it seemed possible those were Eddy's Apache ancestors. It appeared that, in a completely serendipitous way, my deep research of actions 142 years earlier had been corroborated by the oral history a 70-year-old Apache man had just revealed.

By the end of our hour-long talk, with bystanders patiently listening, grateful we hadn't reached for weapons, Eddy and I agreed to hike together. Time, schedules, wind, weather, illness and trips prevented us from doing so until February.

Our first hike was a marvelous experience. It was the first time in seven years I'd hiked with an Apache. It was deeply satisfying to see that he at 70 and I, at a mere 61, had paces that matched naturally. Above all else, hiking Apacheria requires patience and a rigorous willingness to eschew "hiking for exercise," per se. It's not how many miles I cover, but rather what I experience with my efforts.

On our first two hikes, I introduced Eddy to a rancher I knew and to favorite hikes in the Mimbres and Floridas, both of which I love. Victorio and the Chihenne used the Floridas as a stop on their annual migration to Mexico when the weather got colder. We visited several pictograph sites and a place I'd thought might have been a hunting camp, and a possible series of fighting positions near that camp.

Before and after our hike, Eddy blessed me with hodentin, sacred pollen from tulle bushes. He did the same at those places, blessing the pictographs. I've said that some of those appeared to be Apache, but that was only a guess. They could have been Mogollon or one of the intermediate groups between the Mogollon and Apache, such as the Cholomes, Janos, Jocome, Mansos and Sumas.

Each time we hiked and came across art, I became aware that Eddy saw more animal figures in the art than I did. The animal world seemed far more tangible and near to him than it had ever been to me. But, within a month of our first hike, I began to spot more of the actual animal world: I saw a beautiful adolescent mountain lion and a herd of 27 ibex, in the Floridas; three separate herds of antelope; and large birds of prey, perhaps golden eagles, as winter gave way to spring.

As we got to know one another better, I mentioned the names of several ranchers who had purchased land holdings at Canada Alamosa within the last decade. I'd already met these folks, through my fellow Apache aficionado/writer friend, Sherry Robinson. In 2006, Sherry and I had ventured out with one of those ranchers to visit several spectacular Apache sites at Canada Alamosa. She and I had also visited a fighting position I'd found near the old post at Canada Alamosa in 2002. Sadly, I'd lost touch with these folks. Now I pursued them, and after five months of searching, we'd hooked up in January. We set a date to visit their spread, and I contacted Eddy to tell him he was most definitely invited. It turned out that Eddy had one clear connection, through both his Hispanic and Apache ancestors, with that ranch. I could only observing with deepening spirituality as the cosmic tumblers of the universe clicked again and again.

At dinner one evening, visiting these folks, I spoke of the "reservation" along "the Jaralosa" and near Lake Valley. In a matter-of-fact manner, one of the archeologists, with much knowledge of the Apache, said, "Well, of course, there was an Apache agency near Lake Valley. It was at Fort Thorn!"

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