Jicarilla Warriors put U.S. Dragoons to Flight!!!

On Thursday, March 30, 1854, in the mountains of  New Mexico, the U.S. Army experienced its worst defeat at the hands of Native American warriors up to that time, west of the Mississippi. It would be another twelve years before larger losses occurred at the 1866 Fetterman defeat near Fort Phil Kearny, and another twenty-two before the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The New Mexico clash wasn’t what the top brass had ordered. The dragoons from Cantonment Burgwin near Taos had been sent out under Lt. John W. Davidson to monitor the Jicarillas camped west of the traditional Spanish village of Cienequilla (today’s Pilar, New Mexico), not attack them.

There was a history of conflict between the Spanish settlers in the fertile little valley along the Rio Grande and the Jicarilla Apaches. The Jicarilla had been farming and hunting in the area well before 1795, when the Spanish governor granted land there to his settlers. The Apaches protested his decision and, in 1822, petitioned for their own grant of land in the area, but the settlers in Cienequilla and in Taos vigorously opposed the idea and the request was denied.

So the Jicarillas were left to farm and hunt where ever they could find space. By 1854, this was becoming more difficult, as American settlers moved into New Mexico and further reduced the supply of arable as well as hunting land.

Early that year, complaints against the Jicarillas had increased in the area east of the Rio Grande. The Territory’s top military officials were skeptical about the validity of many of these complaints, but in February credible reports began coming in that the Jicarillas were stealing livestock north of Fort Union. A few weeks later, a group of 45 Jicarilla lodges were reported to be camped near Mora, west of the Fort.

When soldiers led by West Point graduate Davidson went to investigate, they discovered that the Apaches had moved away from Mora and were headed west through the mountains. Davidson noted the “miserable quality of their arms and their mean shrinking deportment” and returned to Cantonment Burgwin, where he and his men were stationed, convinced the Apaches weren’t a threat.

John_W_Davidson
John W. Davidson

Eight days later, he and his U.S. Second dragoons were ordered to the Cieneguilla area to observe the movements of the same band, but not to attack.

On March 30, two hours east of the Rio Grande, the dragoons found the Jicarilla camp. The order not to attack was apparently not obeyed. Someone fired a gun and by nightfall, at least a third of Davidson’s men were dead, with another third wounded, and 45 horses lost.

It must have been a shock to realize that the Jicarillas’ weapons weren’t quite as miserable, and their warriors nearly as shrinking, as Davidson had thought.

Source: David M. Johnson, Chris Adams, Larry Ludwig, and Charles C. Hawk, “Taos, the Jicarilla Apache, and the battle of Cienequilla,” Taos: A Topical History, Corina A. Santistevan and Julia Moore, Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, 2013; David Grant Noble, Pueblos, Villages, Forts And Trails A Guide To New Mexico’s Past, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1994; Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History Of The New Mexico Volunteers And Militia, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2015.

 

Spoiled Meat Nearly Starts Indian War

In mid November, 1875, the Utes and Apaches gathered at New Mexico’s Cimarron Indian agency for their treaty-mandated weekly distribution of food, and their patience ran out.

Both tribes had been complaining for several years that the flour doled out to them was hardly fit for anything and that the distributed meat was from worn-out Santa Fe Trail oxen too tough to eat. But the meat they were offered in mid November 1875 was worse than anything they’d seen yet. It was rotten.

This was the last straw. The Apaches, at least, had had enough, and shots rang out. The agency employees retreated into the agency office, in what is now Cimarron’s Old Mill Museum.

With Indians firing into the mill, and agency staff firing outside, several people, including Indian agent Alexander G. Irvine, were injured.

Nov 23 llustration.Aztec mill.j.s. pierce collection
Aztec Grist Mill, Cimarron, New Mexico. J.S. Pierce Collection

Eventually, the Apaches withdrew. In spite of his wounds, Irvine headed to the telegraph office and wired Fort Union for reinforcements, which arrived the next day. The troop officer went to the Apache camp and talked them into a meeting in Cimarron. But the gathering wasn’t a productive one. Irvine was interested only in who’d fired a gun, not the quality of the food he’d been distributing. He issued an ultimatum: If the Apaches didn’t hand over Juan Barilla, Juan Julian, and a man named Chico, he’d stop distributions entirely.

The Apaches refused this proposal and headed back to camp. But somewhere along the way, Juan Barilla was unlucky enough to get himself arrested and thrown into the Cimarron jail. On Tuesday, November 23, he attempted to break out and was killed in the ensuing scuffle.

The Apaches were furious. They wanted someone to pay for what they viewed as Barilla’s murder.

Irvine just wanted out. He resigned his position and suggested that the Army take over. The authorities at Fort Union not only agreed to this proposition but wired General Nelson A. Miles in Kansas for help.

As a well-known Indian fighter, General Miles could have been expected to move immediately into action against the Apaches in the Cimarron area. Instead, he took the time to do a little investigating and concluded that the government had failed miserably in its responsibilities toward the Native Americans assigned to the Agency. He put a military man in charge at the Mill, established new procedures, and left town satisfied that he’d averted serious hostilities.

Whether Juan Barilla’s friends and families were satisfied is another question entirely. But at least they had better food distributed to them after his death.

Source:  Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont, a history of New Mexic’s Cimarron Country, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1972.