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New Mexico Standoff: Regulars vs. Militia

By Sherry Robinson
6/15/2017 • Wild West Magazine

In 1885, during the hunt for Geronimo, Captain Boyd of the 8th U.S. Cavalry and Colonel Blake of the 1st Regiment of the New Mexico Militia confronted each other.

In July 1885 seven half-starved Apache women emerged from the hills and sought refuge in Cañada Alamosa, a New Mexico Territory village that had always been friendly to them. They had been on the run since Geronimo broke from the hated San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona Territory six weeks earlier. Their July 3 surrender to 8th U.S. Cavalry Captain Orsemus Bronson Boyd led to a standoff—not between troops and Geronimo’s men but between the New Mexico Militia and U.S. Army Regulars.

Colonel Fletcher Americus Blake, commanding the 1st Regiment of the New Mexico Militia, learned about the prisoners a few days later and rode to the village, where Boyd and his troops from Fort Stanton had them under guard. Blake concealed his men nearby and visited Boyd. The colonel demanded “those squaws,” to wring from them information on the whereabouts of the renegade warriors. Boyd refused. The women were wards of the federal government and prisoners of war, he stated. The territory had no jurisdiction.

“Supposing I come with the writ, backed by all my men?” Blake asked. “Would you give them up then?”

“No, you have not men enough,” said Boyd. “Neither could you get enough to take them from me.” Boyd was bluffing—he had just 15 men with him. He did allow Blake to ask one woman the whereabouts of Geronimo. “I want no intimidation,” he insisted.

Boyd doubled the guard at the adobe house sheltering the women. “I will not allow these squaws to go as long as there is a man of us left,” he stated. Blake’s men made threats that night but left the next morning without the captives.

A couple of weeks later Captain Edmond G. Fechét asked Boyd if he had met Blake. “Oh, Fechét, I have got a hell of a report to make against that man,” Boyd replied. “I wish I was well enough to make it out now. They ought to know it at Santa Fe as soon as possible.”

Fechét wrote up Boyd’s comments and reported to their superiors. Blake had a different story about his “confrontation” with Boyd but found himself arguing with a dead man.

Some two months earlier, on May 17, 1885, Geronimo had slipped away from San Carlos, a reservation established in 1871 for the Chiricahua Apaches. With Geronimo were Chiefs Naiche, Chihuahua, Mangas and old Nana, along with 34 men, eight large boys and 92 women and children. They headed east for New Mexico Territory’s Black Range, onetime home of the great Apache Chief Victorio. But what had been a refuge was now dotted with ranches and pocked with mines. Apache raiders descended on the settlers to take livestock, weapons and ammunition—and lives. Word flew back to territorial authorities, and newspapers spread the warning. On May 22 The Silver City Enterprise blared, INDIAN DEPREDATIONS: FIFTY BLOODTHIRSTY RED DEVILS, WITH THEIR SQUAWS AND PAPOOSES, ON THE WARPATH. Both volunteers and Army Regulars were in pursuit, the paper reported.

Colonel Luther Prentice Bradley, commander of the Army’s District of New Mexico, ordered four companies of the 6th U.S. Cavalry from Fort Bayard, just outside Silver City. On May 22 Apaches ambushed Captain Allen Smith’s command at Devils Canyon, about 20 miles northeast of Alma (see map, P. 63).

The Apaches initially camped in the Mogollon Mountains. Chihuahua and Naiche operated separately from Mangas and Geronimo. Over the next few weeks these bands would seek hidden canyons and remote parks, always moving, often parting and reuniting later. Small parties splintered off to steal horses and loot cabins or divert troops. Pursuers exhausted themselves and their horses but found only deserted camps. (For details on the Apaches’ movements, see Edwin R. Sweeney’s book From Cochise to Geronimo: The Chiricahua Apaches, 1874–1886.)

Mangas and about 40 followers (including a dozen men) went into camp near Kingston, while Geronimo continued east toward the Black Range with six men and two women and crossed the Continental Divide. Near the mining camp of Grafton they ambushed and killed three white men, taking their weapons and stock. Geronimo proceeded with his wife, She-gha, another woman and two men along an Indian trail between Chloride and Fairview (present-day Winston) and crossed the Rio Grande.

The two women continued alone to recruit Mescalero Apaches at their reservation in south central New Mexico Territory. If the Mescaleros would meet Geronimo in the San Andres Mountains, the women promised, they could join in raids east of the Rio Grande. Mescaleros had ridden with Victorio, but they had no desire for further hardship or deaths. Mescalero police arrested the women when they arrived on May 26.

Outside Kingston, Major James Biddle picked up the trail of Mangas, who had abandoned camp and later met up with Geronimo about 10 miles northeast of Fort Cummings. A detachment from Biddle’s command cut the trail of 54 Apaches, including 19 men, but there would be no confrontation. On May 29 Geronimo and Mangas crossed into Mexico. On June 8 Chihuahua did the same, and the next day Naiche followed.

In late May, New Mexico Territorial Governor Lionel Allen Sheldon scrawled hasty notes ordering Blake, Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain and other militia officers to quickly turn out their troops. Volunteers usually get little mention in the stories of manly action during the Apache wars, while Regulars get ink, medals and biographies, and yet the ranchmen, supplying their own horses and rifles, were often the first line of defense.

Territorial officials had fielded two militia companies during the 1880 Victorio outbreak, but Apaches weren’t the only danger. The boomtowns of south central New Mexico Territory remained unruly. After Victorio’s death in 1880, settlers and prospectors had streamed in, along with rustlers and the usual purveyors of vice. Rustler John Kinney’s energetic gang alone had in two years run off some 10,000 head from as far north as Socorro to the Mexican border. Sheldon empowered local militia units to pursue outlaws and promised to clean up the region “if it [took] every man and dollar in New Mexico.” In 1883 the Mesilla militia under Colonel Fountain captured Kinney.

As Sheldon contemplated disbanding the militia at Socorro in early 1884, he received a petition signed by every prominent citizen, including Blake, asking that it be retained to guard the jail and its notorious guest, murderer Joel Fowler. Sheldon apparently didn’t act on the petition, as vigilantes plucked Fowler from the lockup in late January and promptly lynched him.

By then Blake, a land broker in Socorro, was commander of the 1st Regiment of New Mexico Militia and apparently well respected by his men and peers. Fellow militia officer Fountain— a prominent territorial attorney who would disappear in 1896, courtesy of his political enemies—referred to Blake as “my old friend” and wrote to New Mexico’s Adjutant General Edward L. Bartlett: “Colonel Blake is a good, energetic officer, and can, I think, organize a regiment that would be of value in case of emergency. Such a regiment is badly needed.”

Dr. Jesse Thompson, who recruited 40 men in the mineral mecca of Lake Valley, also wrote in praise of Blake: “I am willing to be placed under Colonel Blake’s orders, as nearly all my men are (cattlemen).…Though it is hard work, I would be glad to take to the field under an experienced officer to fight Apaches.”

To Blake, Adjutant General Bartlett wrote, “Be as prudent as possible, but use every effort to protect people.” Blake suspended business and rode from settlement to settlement to organize units. Fountain advised him to enlist “men who were their own masters,” namely farmers and stockmen. Miners and prospectors were good material, Fountain said, but too transient; farmers and stockmen knew the country. Fountain also visited the Mescalero Reservation, where Chief San Juan said his people would fight Geronimo.

Blake sometimes sent companies in search of hostiles. One company led by Captain Charles T. Russell, Socorro’s sheriff, left town on May 28 and rode 200 miles southwest through the mountains. Evidence of Apaches was scant until they reached the Mogollons, where they found a large, recently abandoned camp. But Russell’s command was out of supplies and turned back.

“The country was fearfully rugged, and men and horses were exhausted,” Blake said, adding that the Indians broke into small parties, making it almost impossible to find them in the steep, wooded mountain recesses. “No men or officers ever worked harder than did this company. Some of the men marched over 500 miles during the time we were out.”

Captain James Blain and his Chloride militia company also found signs of Indians, mostly afoot, but then lost the trail. The elusive Apaches prompted Blake to consider reorganizing his regiment and, as he put it, “adopting a more practical plan of protecting the people and killing off these Red Devils whenever they start on a raid.”

On May 30, 1885, Apaches attacked a ranch between Lake Valley and Hillsboro and took horses. Fountain and his militia, reported The Silver City Enterprise, aided by some Silver City citizens, “will move upon them tomorrow, and hot work is expected.”

In mid-June Blake was ordered to muster out his men, but the Apaches continued raiding, and the colonel soon planned to ride out again. The governor had a change of heart, and at month’s end he ordered Blake to enlist companies and distribute them as he saw fit.

The arrest of Geronimo’s wife, She-gha, and the other Apache woman at Mescalero on May 26 set Fort Stanton in motion. The following day, Major James J. Van Horn left with two troops of 6th U.S. Cavalry and Mescalero scouts under Chief San Juan. They searched the San Andres and Oscura ranges and watched river fords but found nothing.

In late June Major John A. Wilcox sent 8th Cavalry troops from Fort Stanton and scouts from Mescalero to four mountain camps near Hillsboro, Grafton, Alma and Malone. Captain Orsemus Boyd and his men occupied Grafton, a silver mining town in the foothills of the Black Range. In late May raiding Apaches, probably Geronimo’s group, had killed a ranch foreman and the teenage sons of two local families. In the wake of those killings Grafton’s nervous population had melted to three women and 15 men, and they had guarded the town around the clock.

The only water for Boyd’s men was two miles away in a 45-foot well, and it was rank. Soon all the officers and most of the enlisted men had diarrhea or dysentery. The Apache scouts, whose people moved often for sanitary reasons, must have wondered why the soldiers did not go elsewhere. The answer was buried in Boyd’s personal history.

During the Civil War Boyd had distinguished himself in action with the 89th New York Volunteer Infantry, rising from color bearer at 16 to second lieutenant at 18, commanding a company in which his older brother and father served. After his appointment to West Point, the battle-hardened Boyd refused to submit to freshmen cadet hazing, which made him a target for worse treatment.

In 1865 he was falsely accused of stealing money, and although a court of inquiry found him not guilty, his fellow cadets ostracized him. Boyd steadfastly remained at the academy two more years until he graduated. When the accusation followed him into his regiment, his response was to be a model soldier. In 1872 a former fellow cadet— the very one who had conducted the investigation of Boyd—admitted having planted the evidence. “It engendered in him a great unwillingness to demand even his just dues,” wrote his wife, Frances Mullen Boyd, in her 1894 memoir Calvary Life in Tent and Field. “He submitted without a murmur.”

To escape the East, Boyd chose the 8th Cavalry and served in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico territories and Texas. At Fort Stanton in 1871 Boyd had the post carpenter build a boat so that he and another officer could explore Fort Stanton Cave and its underground river. The boat turned over but remained in the cave for decades. (In 2009 Bureau of Land Management archeologists identified its wooden remains.) Boyd “greatly disliked” the Grafton camp, his wife wrote. The country was rough, and the drinking water had sickened him.

In early July, informed of the seven Apache women in Cañada Alamosa (present-day Monticello), Boyd led a detachment there and took them into custody, while a scouting party went in search of a party of 18 Apaches reported to be in Alamosa Canyon. A concerned citizen in the village begged Boyd to rest a few days, as he was obviously very sick, but Boyd was anxious to return to camp with the women.

Arriving within days, Colonel Blake told Boyd, according to a fellow officer’s later report, he “wanted those squaws.” Boyd refused and doubled the guard in case Blake tried to seize the women. Blake and his militia, though, left without them. On July 11 Boyd returned to the Grafton camp with the seven women, sending them on by wagon to Fort Apache in Arizona Territory.

An army surgeon visited the camp on July 22 and ordered Boyd hospitalized, but he died the next day. He was 41. His wife later wrote that bad water and other privations during his Civil War service had weakened him. “That Indian campaign resulted in some terrible deaths,” wrote Frances Boyd, “but none was more shocking than this sad ending to a long and most faithful career.”

The army surgeon told Major Wilcox that the crowded camp violated sanitary and hygienic standards, the water was poor, and it was difficult to obtain fresh meat and vegetables. Wilcox quickly had the camp moved, a step he might have taken earlier had Boyd complained.

Captain Fechét wrote up his late friend’s comments about Colonel Blake and on August 16 sent the report to district commander Colonel Bradley, who demanded the governor instruct his militias they had no authority over Regular troops. The letter filtered down to Blake, who penned an indignant response: “The statement as to my demand from Captain Boyd for those squaws is wholly false.” He denied that Boyd had made any such statement or that he had threatened to use force.

Blake’s version of the story varies considerably from Boyd’s. According to the colonel, he and his men had been scouting for hostiles near Cañada Alamosa when the two officers exchanged courteous notes pledging cooperation. After sending most of his volunteers to scout the San Mateo Mountains, Blake took a small detail with him to visit Boyd. He arrived about 11 p.m., and Boyd rose from bed and spoke to Blake at length.

“There was some feeling among the men with me that the squaws ought to be turned over to the civil authorities, especially on the part of one man whose son had been killed by the Indians,” Blake wrote. He shared that sentiment with Boyd, but the captain insisted he couldn’t relinquish his wards without orders. Blake said that’s what he told his men. “This settled talk in that direction.”

Boyd did grant Blake’s request to have an interpreter question the women. The captain, according to Blake, also confessed that “the people placed no confidence in the U.S. troops,” and the settlers might be more satisfied after Blake spoke to the women and scouted the country. The statement has a ring of truth. Las Cruces’ Rio Grande Republican summed up the prevailing opinion: “The entire uselessness of the United States troops in fighting Indians has been well demonstrated lately.…The troops are being charged with cowardice. But we have hopes that our militia boys will do some good work.”

Blake said he left Boyd on cordial terms, only later learning that the militiaman mourning his murdered son had made threats against the women while the volunteers were in Cañada Alamosa, even though Blake had forbidden such loud talk. Army officials berated the militia.

Three days later Blake was still fuming. “It is evident the whole matter has grown out of a petty supercilious dislike of the militia by the Regular Army officers, and they are sensing or trying to sense an opportunity under cover of a dead man to bring the militia into discredit.” District commander Bradley had put his foot in his mouth, Blake added, “and I intend to help him keep it there until it chokes him, if he doesn’t drop that dirty pack of lies pretty expeditiously.”

Blake’s superiors had other concerns. The new governor, Edmund Ross, didn’t share his predecessor’s zeal for cleaning up the territory at any cost and ordered militia commanders to quickly muster out volunteers to avoid further expense. Ross, convinced no hostile Apaches remained in New Mexico, took issue with Blake’s expenses. Blake reported: “Many citizens have sent their families away, and all are on the defense.…We shall try and make it interesting for the Red Devils in case they remain in the vicinity much longer.”

Blake then revealed motivations that cast a different light on his actions. Many settlers, he explained, were “in a very excited frame of mind.” They didn’t trust the Apache scouts and thought little better of Army troops. There was “a quiet but determined move” to raise a force to attack reservation Indians

“The air was full of rumors of Indians in all directions, which was keeping up the excitement,” he said, and cattlemen and miners were impulsive. Blake concluded that the only way to keep his hotheaded volunteers in line was to channel the fear and anger by ordering out Captain Blain’s company from Chloride “and show the people that the governor and territorial authorities were able and willing to do all that was necessary to protect the lives and property of the people in a legitimate way.”

Blake wasn’t blowing smoke. New Mexicans had previously threatened to organize and wipe out reservation Apaches, and peaceful Mescaleros were even then suffering attacks. Settlers were so irate that they threatened to shoot on sight the Apache scouts. Major Wilcox complained that he couldn’t send his scouts anywhere without an escort. “I regret to have to make this statement, coming from a people in whose interest these scouts were sent here,” he wrote. On August 17 he sent his scouts back to Mescalero.

Blake’s strategy worked, improving morale and silencing talk about attacking the reservation, which, he wrote, “has been worth much more to the territory than all of the money it cost.”

Governor Ross directed Blake to reorganize the militia and gave him command of the four southwestern counties to establish a militia line between New Mexico and Arizona and along the Mexican border. “It is a weary, thankless job, so far as I am concerned,” the colonel wrote, “and I shall cheerfully retire from the work if the governor so desires.” By early August he had a cavalry regiment of 12 companies.

When the renegades returned, the militia was ready, and so was the Army. By that time all was forgiven.

On September 11, 1885, Geronimo and a small band of Apaches shot a man cut- ting poles, killed another in ambush, murdered a teen herding cattle and kidnapped his 11-year-old brother. Cavalry started from Fort Bayard and militia from Hillsboro. The Apaches moved rapidly from the Mimbres River toward the Gila wilderness, looting a cabin and exchanging shots with militiamen in close pursuit. The soldiers’ horses were worn out, but so were the Apaches’ mounts. Captain Jesse Thompson’s volunteers also rode west from Lake Valley, covering some 200 miles in just two days. But once again the Apaches managed to slip the noose and find places to hide.

Regulars and volunteers crisscrossed the region through October to no avail. Blake, meanwhile, working with Captain Henry W. Sprole of the 8th Cavalry, proposed a plan to distribute soldiers “to act most effectively against hostile bands of Indians and allow militia to aid them with the least expense to the territory.” The Army accepted.

In early November, Chihuahua and his group surprised a wood camp near Lake Valley, killing a man and looting the camp. The Indians continued north to the Mimbres Mountains and over the next several days openly stole stock, showing little concern of pursuit by military or militia. Blake and three militia units responded.

On November 7 Chihuahua’s brother Ulzana, in his infamous raid, attacked two ranches farther south. Blake, Sprole and a militia unit investigated. At a ranch 22 miles from Deming they found the bodies of Andrew Yeater and his wife and heard the harrowing story of the Yeaters’ neighbor John Shy, who fought his way out of a burning house and saved his family. Ulzana, like his brother, roamed and raided in the Black Range and the Mimbres before recrossing the border in late December. Nine months later the Apache wars ended with Geronimo’s surrender.

Colonel F.A. Blake remained in Socorro for a time, where he bought and sold land, dabbled in mining, ran a newspaper and involved himself in civic activities. The late Captain O.B. Boyd also gained a higher profile, thanks to his widow, Frances, who, like Elizabeth Custer, was determined that her husband not be forgotten. Mrs. Boyd, too, memorialized her husband in a memoir, and she pressed to have his body buried in the San Antonio National Cemetery, despite resistance from the secretary of war, who quibbled over cost.

In 1967, a century after O.B. Boyd’s graduation from the U.S. Military Academy, his grandson Francis Orsemus Boyd, of Boonton, N.J., served as adjutant of the centennial event at West Point that brought more than 150 descendants from 26 states to honor the class of 1867.

 

Sherry Robinson of Albuquerque, N.M., writes often about Apache Indians,including the story of the Apache couple Massai and Zanagoliche in the December 2012 Wild West “Indian Life” department. She is the author of Apache Voices: Their Stories of Survival as Told to Eve Ball (2003) and I Fought a Good Fight: A History of the Lipan Apaches (2013). For this article Robinson relied primarily on period military and militia correspondence.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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