Buffalo Soldiers and Mescalero Apaches in the Guadalupes
By Lynn Chelewski
(Reprinted from the Capitan Reef, Winter, 1995-96 - Volume 3, No. 4. - Lynn Chelewski was a Park Ranger with the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Salt Flat, Texas at the time of this report.)
When Colonel Edward Hatch was headquartered out of Fort Davis, he sent two hundred men from A, C, D, H, I and K companies under the command of Captain Francis Dodge of company D into the Guadalupes on January 20, 1870. These Black troops, known as Buffalo Soldiers, were riding 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 there were ten Apache dead counted and Dodge rounded up 25 ponies, numerous robes, bows and arrows.
Later, in April, under an 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 Mescaleros 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 warrior, and sent the remaining two scurrying for safety. Ross then located some wagons which were overdue, and brought them into camp.
Most of the Buffalo Soldiers were former slaves and Civil War veterans, trying to better themselves and become accepted into American society. These were tragic days when there was an ironic clash of cultures. Anglo Americans had recruited the help of recently freed Black slaves in a war against the Native Americans. The Apache faced conflict not only with these two entities, but Mexican troops as well, once they crossed the Rio Grande River. Success was ultimately assured when Apache Scouts were hired by the Army. It is sadly worth mentioning that after the Geronimo Campaign in Arizona, these same scouts were decommissioned and imprisoned by the Army.
Despite some pleasant asides, Military patrols in and around the Guadalupe Mountains were long and arduous, food limited in variety, sometimes quantity, and almost always palatability--and water scarce! In fact, many patrols by the Buffalo Soldiers were essentially mapping expeditions for viable water sources and to record significant geographic features. This would later prove to be a fatal tactic against the elusive Apache Chief, Victorio.
Victorio's last skirmish with Grierson's Buffalo Soldiers occurred in August, 1880, 40 miles south of the Guadalupes in the Sierra Diablo Mountains, (Devil Mountains in Spanish), at a place called Rattlesnake Springs.
Desperate for water, the Apache made two attacks on the cavalry before being repelled. Grierson had cleverly cut them off from this critical resource; outguessing and beating Victorio's band to the springs in a marathon 65 mile ride through harsh country within 21 hours, on horseback and wagons! Victorio retreated into Mexico, where his band was killed by Mexican troops. Their demise was in and of itself a sad passage in the history of people indigenous to this country.
Little has been specifically written about the skirmishes between the Apache and the Buffalo Soldiers in the Guadalupe Mountains, but their spirits ride on the wind, patiently awaiting the long overdue recognition that they deserve in the annals of American history.