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A Peloncillos Encounter
One more story from "Hiking Apacheria"

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Back in the late Forties, a trip to Palomas meant "restocking"

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Hiking Apacheria

A Peloncillos Encounter

One more story from "Hiking Apacheria."

by Jerry Eagan



Searching for a new story about "Hiking Apacheria," I told friends this story that happened in the Peloncillos, in October 2011. Believe it or not, it doesn't matter, but my friend Paul DuSablon and I know the truth.

It's an established fact that on April 23, 1882, the US Cavalry clashed with hostile Indians at Horseshoe Canyon in New Mexico, a battle I've written about in these pages. Hoyt Vandenberg Jr., a retired US Air Force major general, has also written about this clash.

apacheria 1
A panoramic view of the south face of “Peloncillo Massif.” Many explorations of this side of the massif yielded interesting finds, none metal-detected. (Photos by Jerry Eagan)

Vandenberg mentions finding lots of loose rounds left from the battle. I never use a metal detector, as I think it violates the spirit of whoever might lead me to a site. I never found a single shell casing in my half-dozen or more trips directly into Horseshoe Canyon.

What I had found, though, were many seeps and drips that had obviously been a source of water at certain times of the year in this locale. I'd already covered a tiny fraction of the southern flank of the Peloncillo Massif by then, and discovered what appeared to be breastworks and fighting sites, as well as petroglyphs and possible graves, near Doubtful Canyon.

It was on one of those forays to that area that my hiking partner, Dennis Jennings, and I encountered a scoundrel of an artifact hunter who bragged about running metal detectors the entire length of the Butterfield Trail, scarfing up hundreds of metal artifacts. He even bragged he'd found a Confederate belt buckle on BLM land, and also foolishly acknowledged digging up a Mimbres-era pot that he later sold on the black market for $78,000.

I find these type of "historians" scurrilous. Because I was so annoyed with him, I failed to give him credit for giving me the actual direction to the battle site, on the north side of the mountain range. Even so, my gain was probably a dozen more hikes on the southern and eastern sides of the range, finding many interesting things he never spoke of.

On these hikes, I took many photos of the breastworks and water holes Apaches or even earlier native Americans ground into the rock slopes. These holes, often termed "mortar in bedrock holes," have actually been found by me to have at least three uses:

  • Holes for grinding grain;
  • Holes to catch surprising amounts of water when found in large formations;
  • Caches for a variety of objects, especially when lined by bear grasses, sealed with mud, then covered by flat slab rocks.

The Apaches used these holes in all three capacities. At these various sites in the Peloncillos, there are at least two major formations of these holes within earshot of the battle site. Collectively, they probably collect a hundred or more liters of water. Combined with the seeps and drips, and literal flowing waters during the rainy season or snow melt, the Apaches could have been assured of all that water — while their pursuers probably found such holes emptied by Apaches and their horses.


My friend Paul and I had explored different approaches to the battle site, as is common for me. I tend to walk into an area until I get sick of it. The total number of hikes on both north and south flanks of the "Peloncillo Massif," as I call it, probably totaled 20. That involved a good 90-minute drive from Silver City to the site, each way. So these were long day hikes, often in brutal heat. I was also lucky enough to hike the south side of the Massif with snow on the ground. This was unusual, in my experience, but it does snow right there along the Arizona-New Mexico Border.

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Apache breastworks near the Horseshoe Canyon battle site.

I often set out for places where I think I might find rock art (pictographs). These sites are white-faced rock in many cases, and experimentation has proven me right more than a few times. But this October trip was initially NOT one of those forays. Rather, Paul had seen some overhangs that he thought might hold rock art or breastworks.

We operated with two walkie-talkies, with ranges of less than four miles if there are no obstructions. Paul wears two hearing aids, and after awhile, he said the wind was so strong it made them worthless. He took them out and placed them in his pockets, as is his practice. Unfortunately, that made it hard to communicate with him via walkie-talkie. Remember that: Paul wears two hearing aids, one in each ear.

As we split up (probably half a mile or more apart), we explored. I found an overhang with some interesting debris in it, but it was pretty dark and had bats. I don't mind the bats, but was concerned about mountain lions; an old cowboy, who'd worked for years on the ranch the site abuts, had said there were active lions in these hills. During our hikes, we found more than one kill of such animals (antelope, deer, javelinas), with the most spectacular being the skull and vertebrae of a bighorn ram.

Having already covered a mile or more, each, in separate advances, we began to converge toward a site we confirmed we could both see after I'd finally gotten in touch with him. Like me, Paul was also a Vietnam veteran, a tanker, who'd served with a brigade of the 5th Infantry Division farther north of where I served, in the Central Highlands. He's an experienced hunter, but we both approach our hiking as if we were infantrymen.

I noticed, along a cliff face, a line of thick trees and brush that alerted me to the possibility that water had come down a notch on the cliff face over the years and watered so much foliage. I've always figured these cliff faces might have been more exposed during Apache times, and might serve as a surface for rock art or caches.

Cutting my way through lots of brush (I carried both a small collapsible pruning saw and a pair of pruning shears), I beat my way into the tangle and saw, 15 feet above me, a dark charcoal-stained hole in the rock. It was a bit of a sharp climb and I had to climb carefully, as while I'd alerted Paul to stand by, I hadn't actually made any discoveries. It would also be a nasty fall, so I took off my day pack, but still carried a camera in a camo vest with multiple pockets. In the vest were also: flashlight; waterproof matches; a space blanket for warmth; Band-Aids; some energy powders and snacks; water bottles; a poncho; extra wool hat; bandana; compass; and BLM maps of the general area.




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