Learning to Think Like a Mountain
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Meals on Wheels
Downtown Las Cruces food vendors are on a roll

Million Dollar Ghost Town
Old Tyrone was the ultimate "company town."

Hollywood on the Gila
Two beginners, both in their 70s, film a Western

Round Two
The Civil War gave Fort Thorn a second chance

Wild Blue Yonder
Yes, Great Blue Herons —here!


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About the cover

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


Round Two

The Civil War gave a second chance to New Mexico's Fort Thorn.

Story and photos by Jerry Eagan

Editor's note: This month's installment of "Hiking Apacheria" continues the history of Fort Thorn, once located near Lake Valley, NM, southeast of Silver City and northeast of Deming. For the first part, see our June issue.

Less than three years into its life, of all the forts established by the pre-Civil War Regular Army, Fort Thorn had developed a reputation as "the sickliest post in the Territory" of New Mexico. That was despite the fact that Fort Thorn was one of only a few forts built in the pre-Civil War days with actual walls of adobe.

Fort Thorn
The site of Dr. Michael Steck's Southern Apache Agency, near Fort Thorn, with the Caballos Mountains in the distance.

The fort had been established by two companies of soldiers who'd abandoned the second Fort Webster. On Dec. 24, 1853, they arrived at a small hamlet near the Rio Grande named Santa Barbara. A mostly Hispanic hamlet less than 50 years old, Santa Barbara that been acquired by the United States during the Mexican War. Shortly after their arrival, these garrison troops began construction of what would become Fort Thorn.

Bragging about how he had purchased materials at a cheaper rate than normal, the fort's first commander, Col. Joseph Eaton, set his men to work constructing the place. While all West Point officers had been trained in fundamental engineering principles, the garrison may not have been trained in carpentry. By the time Fort Thorn was in turn abandoned, in 1859, the structure was falling down on itself.

Col. Eaton had received permission to order a survey in 1854. It took two full calendar years for the survey to be conducted, but in 1857, Surveyor J.W. Garrettson established the official location of the fort in conjunction with previously established ranges and townships.

All of this activity, as well as engagements with Apaches many miles from the fort, was accomplished when the soldiers were sick with flu, fever, dysentery, coughs, colds and malaria. Paul M. Kramer laid out a thorough modern study (date unclear) showing that malaria was a serious problem for the soldiers at Fort Thorn. Ironically, Kramer posits that malaria became a problem several years into the life of Fort Thorn because mosquitoes had been infected by biting American soldiers who'd been infected with malaria during the Mexican War. Those malarial mosquitoes, in turn, transmitted malaria to those who had never been ill before.

Records show that during the first two years at Fort Thorn, malaria was not much of a problem, but other illnesses were. Coughs, colds, saddle sores, dysentery and fevers not associated with malaria were prevalent. There was a doctor at Fort Thorn, but when malaria became rampant, he asked for a transfer elsewhere and made his famous report, which labeled Fort Thorn as such a sickly place.

It was also a dangerous place. The Mimbres and Chihenne N'de (Red Paint) Apaches, also called "Warm Springs Apaches," were all around, to the west, while the Mescalero Apaches were to the east. Between these two large groups of Apaches, the Rio Grande was an unofficial line of demarcation for territorial purposes. But when it came to horses, mules, cattle, oxen and sheep, there were no lines ever strong enough to stop all Apaches from stealing.

Mexicans who lived in Mesilla, less than 50 miles away, rode north to Fort Thorn to complain to the military and to Dr. Michael Steck, whose Southern Apache Agency had been established just north of the fort, that the Apaches had once again stolen their mules and horses. They wanted their stock back, and they wanted justice. Shortly thereafter, Steck reported that he and a company of soldiers under the command of Lt. Col. Daniel Chandler went as far west as Mangas Coloradas' territory, at Agua de Santa Lucia (Mangas Springs), to determine if the stolen sheep, horses and cattle were there.

Steck conducted an inquiry, and personally examined horses and other livestock at the Apache rancherias of Mangas and other leaders. He concluded none of the stolen stock was there. (This does not mean, of course, that the stock hadn't already been slaughtered, or were hidden elsewhere.) Steck reported his findings to Col. Chandler.

Chandler, biased from the beginning, may have nonetheless concluded that, one way or another, he'd let the Apaches know there were consequences to thievery. Steck was a shrewd but fair man; without rock-solid proof, he would protect the Apaches rather than punish them. But Steck reported that on the return trip to Fort Thorn that as Col. Chandler "passed a rancheria somewhere between the Santa Rita mines and a mile from the Mimbres River," Chandler "gave the signal for his men to open fire on the Apaches." An outraged Steck reported that the Apaches had come out peacefully, unarmed, at the Mimbres rancheria, to "see the command of [Col.] Chandler's soldiers pass by." Chandler's men "opened fire without knowing or stopping to inquire who it was he was firing upon. The firing lasted at least 20 minutes. . . with the loss of one woman killed, another wounded, three children wounded and at this date, one child still missing."

Like the man in the circus tent, perpetually cleaning up poop behind a cumbersome, rambunctious elephant, Dr. Steck made direct amends to the Apache for this unwarranted attack. It was one of many apologies he had already made or was destined to make on behalf of his countrymen.

The reasons for these cycles of violence and retaliation had undoubtedly been long lost on everyone by 1858, when the "Mesilla Rangers" attacked the Apache Agency near Fort Thorn. Steck used this incident to justify moving the Southern Apache Agency to Agua de Santa Lucia, nearly on top of Mangas Coloradas' homeland. Steck hoped that place would be far enough away from miners, ranchers, soldiers and vigilantes — hopes that would be dashed. When gold and silver were discovered in Pinos Altos in 1860, neither Americans nor Mexicans gave a damn about Dr. Steck's plans, and less of a damn about the Apaches.

The last soldiers stationed at falling-down Fort Thorn were gone by January 1859. More than likely, the last four men were thrilled to say goodbye to the decrepit fort and leave for Fort Fillmore, to the south, and the bright lights, drinking establishments and dance halls of Mesilla, or for Fort Craig, to the north, south of Socorro. The process of withdrawal had been gradual, with garrison troops taking down doors and window glass, and anything else of value, and moving those materials and themselves, to one of these other posts.

Fort Fillmore, west of Mesilla and close to the Rio Grande, would be the first major loss for the Union in New Mexico Territory in the Civil War. As the war unfurled, Unionists fled Franklin, Texas, (El Paso) and Mesilla, as Confederate sentiment claimed Texas and overwhelmed many New Mexicans. Many of the Regular Army's finest officers and non-commissioned officers departed to join the Confederacy, which absorbed many of the best leaders of the US Army — whose leadership nearly won the South the war.

Union men were also evident, and they, too, scrambled to get to the nearest Unionist town, for safety and to enlist for war. Readers might recall that the seven men of the Freeman-Thomas party who left on the last Butterfield Stage coach headed west from Mesilla, on July 20, 1861 (August 2008 issue), were Unionists. By then, Mesilla was a hotbed of Southern sympathizers. Serious efforts were underway to search and find "Yankee spies" in Mesilla. Though the Freeman-Thomas party escaped the Confederates, on July 21 they were ambushed in Cooke's Canyon, 30 miles southwest of Fort Thorn's ruins. The doomed men fought for two and a half days against a massed gang of Cochise's and Mangas Coloradas' Apaches.

By then, few of the Apaches gave a damn about Union or Confederate. Some hoped to fight for the Union, but until such arrangements were made (they never were), the Apache killed everyone who crossed into their lands.

Later in 1861, Lt. Col. John Baylor, Mounted Rifles, Confederate States of America, was named as the head of forces in the Southwest. Arrogant and heady with power, he sent several messages down the chain of his command, wherein he declared himself the Governor of the Territory of Arizona (which, by Confederate terms, included New Mexico), denoting he'd chosen Mesilla as his "seat of government."

In one infamous dispatch to Captain Thomas Helms, Baylor wrote: "I learn from Lieut. J.J. Jackson that the Indians have been in to your post [captured Fort Fillmore], for the purpose of making a treaty. The Congress of the Confederate States has passed a law declaring extermination of all hostile Indians. You will therefore use all means to persuade the Apaches or any other tribe to come in for the purpose of making peace, and when you get them together, kill all the grown Indians and take the children prisoners and sell them [into slavery] to defray the expenses of killing the Indians. Buy whiskey and such other goods as may be necessary for the Indians. . . . Leave nothing undone to insure success, and have sufficient numbers of men around to allow no Indian to escape. . . . I . . . look to you for success against these cursed pests who have already murdered over 100 men in this Territory."

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