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The Apache chief proved his mettle in the Battle of Massacre Canyon.

Fought on September 18, 1879, at the outset of a campaign known as Victorio’s War was a daylong clash since referred to as the Battle of Massacre Canyon. To stand among soldiers’ uniform white marble headstones on the site of this little-known but deadly daylong fight is compelling. Heightening the intrigue of the site are its remoteness—22 miles from pavement in New Mexico’s rocky, rugged and beautiful Aldo Leopold Wilderness—and the evocative names of surrounding natural features, such Black Range, Animas Creek, Apache Peak and Victorio Park, erroneously labeled Victoria Park on some area maps. What happened on this spot 135 years ago—a chaotic ambush, acts of valor amid loud rifle fire and acrid blue gun smoke, horses in their death throes, men exhaling their last full measure—contrasts with the peace and quiet of the place today.

Like the pattern of veins on an alder leaf, the tiny streams of Holden Prong and Water Canyon drain the craggy cliffs and high mountain parks on the east side of the Black Range in Sierra County. The small silver rills pick up seeps from cienegas and converge to form the stem of Animas Creek. The Animas is a stretch of perennial water that tumbles eastward but never quite makes it to the Rio Grande before being soaked up by sun and sand.

The Spanish word ánimas seems particularly apt in this context, as it refers to human souls. What inspired an early explorer to give the creek this name is unknown, but it may refer to the stands of pallid Arizona sycamores that line the stream, tilting with time, their roots holding steadfastly to its banks. As these trees fatten with age, they turn a ghostly white. At the juncture of Animas Creek and what came to be known as Massacre Canyon lie the buried bodies of at least three 9th U.S. Cavalry troopers (buffalo soldiers) and two Navajo scouts who helped the Army pursue renegade Apaches during Victorio’s War. If any Warm Springs Apaches died in the fight, their fellow warriors no doubt removed them from the field.

In late August 1879 Chief Victorio and some 60 followers had broken out of the hated San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in southeastern Arizona Territory. On September 4 they swooped into a soldiers’ camp at Victorio’s former home, Ojo Caliente, near the present-day SocorroSierra county line in New Mexico. The Apaches killed five buffalo soldiers and three civilians in the fight, made off with dozens of Army horses and mules and headed south. A week later, on the 10th, Victorio and his men struck an isolated settlement on Jaralosa Creek near the small mining town of Hillsboro, where they murdered and mutilated a family of Hispanic ranchers.

That same day a posse of armed civilians from Hillsboro, led by town pioneers Joseph Yankie and Nicholas Galles, confronted Apaches sooner than expected at H.D. McEver’s ranch south of town. Victorio’s force had lain in wait in the surrounding hills. Yankie had a personal interest in the fight; newspaper accounts record that Apaches had abducted his child near Hillsboro several months earlier. In the subsequent 10-hour engagement anywhere from a half-dozen to 15 possemen lost their lives. Secretary of War Alexander Ramsey’s report to Congress recorded the names of the known dead: “Steve Hanlon, Thomas Hughes, Thornton, Preissier, Green and Dr. William, killed in action at McEver’s Ranch; Refugia Arvies and José Morena, killed at Arroyo Seco; I. Chaves, killed in action at McEver’s Ranch.” The number of Apaches killed, if any, is anyone’s guess. Today McEver’s is a placid place on a small plain bisected by State Route 27 and overlooked by hillside ranchettes.

On the run but still ready for a fight, Victorio’s Apaches headed northwest into the mazelike recesses of the Black Range, with four companies of the 9th Cavalry and their Navajo scouts in pursuit. On September 18, in the upper reaches of Animas Creek, the buffalo soldiers, scouts and remaining civilian possemen (including Joseph Yankie) rode into another ambush. It happened in a small, yet-to-be-named canyon adjoining Animas Canyon. In short order the cavalry was turned into infantry, as Victorio’s men rained down bullets and arrows from the surrounding heights, shooting the horses from under the black soldiers. The Apaches killed 53 horses and mules and pinned down the buffalo soldiers on the boulder-laden slopes of the narrow canyon mouth. Only under cover of darkness were the soldiers able to retreat.

Three soldiers, two scouts and one civilian died during the fighting. Apache losses are again unknown. Remarkably, one buffalo soldier and two white officers earned the Medal of Honor for heroic acts that day—Sergeant John Denny, who carried a wounded soldier to safety under a hail of rifle fire, and 2nd Lts. Robert Temple Emmet and Mathias Day, for similar heroics. But those acts of valor did nothing to snatch victory from Victorio. The Apache leader was audacity personified in his ardent desire to keep Ojo Caliente his home. He may have been a victim of a fickle federal government, but he was not a helpless one. Military tacticians and university historians worldwide continue to study his successful tactics. Despite being trailed through New Mexico Territory and Texas by the Army, the Apache paladin eluded capture. In the end hundreds of soldiers and civilians died. Victorio and most of his band did, too, but it didn’t happen until October 1880 in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and was pulled off by Mexican soldiers.


Craig Springer is co-author of the book Around Hillsboro, a history of the Sierra County town. Early settler Nicholas Galles built the author’s home [www].

Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.