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.
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.