Buffalo Soldiers in the Guadalupe Mountains
By Lynn Chelewski
“The errand of Corporal Ross” by Bonnie Curnock
The southern tip of the Rocky Mountains juts up above the Salt Flats of West Texas in the manifestation of the Guadalupe Mountains. The Guadalupe Mountains in some sense erupted due to a seismic fault along the Permian Sea, and as a result is the largest exposed fossil reef in the world. Steeped in history so rich you can just feel it—especially hiking alone on one of those rare, more calm, sunny days with the vast blue sky overhead.
At two different times, and for a number of years I worked for the National Park Service at Guadlupe Mountains National Park. My first stint was from 1986 to 1990, then a brief absence from 1990 to the spring of 1991 at Fort Larned National Historic Site in Kansas. It was there I first learned about the Buffalo Soldiers who served on the western frontier after the Civil War at numerous posts in the west, including the Guadalupe Mountains.
I am a Marine Corps veteran, and I must admit, I felt a little silly that I didn’t know anything about that aspect of military history back in those days. A lot has been written about it since, even movies, but when I was a young man in the 70’s and 80’s not so much.
Long story short, it ignited a researching obsession which took off strong when I returned to the Guadalupe’s in ’91 to work there for another ten years. An initial primer was certainly Dr. William H. Leckie’s book, “The Buffalo Soldiers”. That was years ago, and since then, many documentaries and some movies have depicted many heroic exploits by the all -black units of infantry and cavalry that served in the settlement of the western United States.
It is ironic, because as a youngster who grew up on Hollywood westerns, I remember watching a great movie titled “Duel At Diablo” starring James Garner, Sidney Poitier and Dennis Weaver. In the movie, Poitier portrayed a former cavalry sergeant/entrepreneur who provided fresh broken mounts for the military. I must admit back then I wondered, “Did black men really serve in the military back then? It wasn’t a theme in most military movies….” Of course, now we know better, and I soon learned that Texas was rich in that aspect of history, and the Guadalupe Mountains specifically were rich in that aspect of history.
When I arrived at Guadalupe Mountains National Park back in the 1980’s it was certainly known to even novice history enthusiasts that the Butterfield Stage Line ran briefly through the mountains, that the Guadalupe’s were one of the last strongholds for the Apache tribes, and there was much ranching history as well. A war had been fought over salt in the nearby salt flats. Of less note though, was the military intervention, skirmishes, and scouting expeditions by all black units lead primarily by white officers out of such posts as Fort Davis to the south.
When Colonel Edward Hatch was stationed out of Fort Davis he sent 200 men from A, C, D, H, I, and K companies under the command of Francis Dodge of Company D into the Guadalupe’s on January 20, 1870. The troops rode through rain and sleet when they came upon a Mescalero rancheria in “the most inaccessible region of the Guadalupe Mountains.” As the troops approached, the Apache fled, taking refuge on a nearby peak. The troopers eventually made their pursuit to the peak, where they slept in exhaustion. The next morning it was discovered that there were 10 Apache dead counted, and Dodge rounded up 25 ponies, numerous robes, bows and arrows.
Later, in April under assignment to Major Morrow from Fort Quitman, a Corporal Ross of I Company made the first strike of the campaign. Scarcely a mile from Pine Springs, three Mescalero tried to intercept him on his mission. Ross immediately dropped his bridle, spurred his mount to a full run and charged his foes with his carbine blasting! He killed one foe, the other two retreated into the mountains. Ross proceeded to locate some supply wagons which were overdue and escorted them into camp. Although I have not found specific documentation, it is quite possible based on the description to have been in the vicinity of what has been referred to as “Tea Kettle Hill”, a prominent little peak just downhill and slightly south of El Capitan as viewed from the rest area on Highway 62/180 looking west. (Locals in the Pine Springs area told me in discussion at the old Pine Springs Café, (now gone, but once owned by Walter and Bertha Glover), that this was in reference to back years ago when the old cars coming up the pass would get hot, and the radiators would start steaming over like a tea kettle!) Years later, a highly decorated Army veteran, Bob Snead, from El Paso did an art depiction of this event which was later incorporated into the bronze monument at one of the entrance gates at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Bob did a one-man play, “Held In Trust” about Henry Flipper, the first black graduate of the West Point Military Academy.
Bonnie Curnock later did some nice illustrations depicting this errand of Corporal Ross. Her art was featured in our brochures for a Buffalo Soldier symposium I put together with a team in Carlsbad, New Mexico in 1998 called, “The African-American Military Experience” symposium.
In 1878, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, Commander of the 10th Cavalry out of Fort Davis, accompanied by his son Robert, camped at Pine Springs near the present-day visitor center. In fact, Robert was dubbed “Bighorn Bob of the Guadalupe’s” when he killed 3 bighorn sheep on Guadalupe Peak in as many shots. Of course, in those days, there was no special trail blazed to the peak, and traversing that country was much more arduous and dangerous. This was many decades before local ranch foreman, Noel Kincaid packed the monument up to the peak, and long before Mike and Anne Capron ran the Nickel Creek Café and Motel, 5 miles from Pine Springs.
Grierson’s troops continued their pursuits of the elusive Apache Chief Victorio, in the Guadalupe’s and regions south of the there.
Despite some pleasant asides, military patrols in and around the Guadalupe Mountains were long and arduous, food supplies limited in variety, sometimes quantity, and almost always palatability—and water scarce! In fact, many of the patrols into the Guadalupe’s by the Buffalo Soldiers were essentially mapping expeditions for viable water resources and significant geographic features. This would later prove to be a fatal tactic against the elusive Apache Chief, Victorio. Although Victoria was of the Warm Springs Apache, he led a band of primarily Mescalero Apache. He was a particularly tenacious foe and one of the last hold outs.
Victorio’s last skirmish with Grierson’s Buffalo Soldiers occurred in August 1880, 40 miles south of the Guadalupe’s at a place called Rattlesnake Springs near the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Diablo (Devil Mountains in Spanish) Mountains. This is not to be confused with the Rattlesnake Springs area of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.
Desperate for water, the Apache made two attacks on the cavalry who had calculated in advance their need to replenish water supplies there. Grierson had cleverly cut them off from this critical resource, outguessing them and beating Victorio’s band to the springs in a marathon 65-mile ride through harsh country within 21 hours, on horseback and with wagons! Victorio ultimately retreated into old Mexico, where his band was eventually killed in the Candelaria Mountains by Mexican troops. Their demise was in and of itself a sad passage in the history of people indigenous to this country.
Movies such as “The Rough Riders” and “The Buffalo Soldiers” recognize some of these exploits, although I found the film with Danny Glover to contain many historical inaccuracies, and the character portrayal of Victorio fell short of the mighty warrior that he actually was.
In the 1990’s Ken Pollard’s group with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Buffalo Soldiers groups re-enacted a camp in the Pine Springs area which received media coverage by the Carlsbad Current Argus, article by Valerie Cranston, and ultimately in a book titled,” Texas Past Enduring Legacy” written by Andrew Sampson with photos by Wyman Meinzer. Ken Pollard presented me with a special copy of this book at the close of the AAMES Symposium, which the living history actors had signed in the photo by Wyman Meinzer.
Eddie Hernandez who was an animal packer on the trail crew at Guadalupe Mountains and I are in couple of photos in this book covering the story of the Buffalo Soldiers.
It was sometime during this era when legendary Park Ranger, Roger Reisch was stationed in the Pine Springs housing area, he showed me a rifle pit somewhere in the foothills near Pine Springs that he believed had been built, utilized by the Buffalo Soldiers during this period. Certainly, they had camped in the Pine Springs area and other areas while out on patrols in those days.
I spent years researching at places such as Fort Davis, Chiricahua, Forts Leavenworth, Huachuca, Sill, Bayard, Seldon, Robinson, Concho and other areas gathering photos and information on this exciting slice of American history. The first Medal of Honor recipient was Emanuel Stance for his heroics in an engagement at Kickapoo Springs in Texas. Ironically, many years later, Stance was found murdered, presumably by his own troops on the road to Crawford, Nebraska years later when he was stationed at Fort Robinson. Commander Edward Hatch also died while serving at Fort Robinson after a wreck with horse and carriage. It is indeed fascinating to see where multi-cultural trails have passed in the various regions of this great nation.